On the battle ground
between hearts and glances,
I am slain
without sin or guilt.
- Ibn al-Fāriḍ (1181-1235), Arab mystic born in Cairo, noted for his love poems addressing a masculine subject
Over the course of his millennium or so of existence, Joe had claimed an innumerable list of locations as his birthplace – on various identification documents, to strangers in taverns and on piers and in the waiting areas of airports, even to Nile when he felt like messing around with her.
His ‘real’ birthplace was a very old city in a very new country – new from his perspective, anyway – and he had always known it as Ṭarābulus, although Nile would probably call it Tripoli. In fact, she had called it Tripoli, once, when she offhandedly mentioned a brief visit to a US Air Force base there, unaware that the foundations of the building where Joe had spent his childhood were baked somewhere in the bones of the city grid. Yusuf from Ṭarābulus, Joe from Tripoli. There’d been no Air Force base there a thousand years ago, and no US either. Who was to say if it was his city any longer?
It was all well and good anyway, because from a more poetic or spiritual viewpoint, his birthplace was somewhere else. Andy might’ve rolled her eyes at him for insinuating that people can have different kinds of birthplaces, but then again, Andy probably didn’t even know her own ‘real’ birthplace. Didn’t know it in the sense that she likely couldn’t place the geographical coordinates, and also didn’t know it in the sense that its memory no longer lingered in her atmosphere, a scent indescribable no longer for its essential distinction but now for having been utterly forgotten. Whether she liked it or not, she had other kinds of birthplaces, too – places where other versions of herself had been born, where new, glimmering threads had been woven into the tapestry. It hardly mattered where exactly she’d shuffled onto this mortal coil, because more things than she’d dreamt of had occurred elsewhere in heaven and earth.
One of Joe’s birthplaces was al-Qāhirah. Cairo, he’d clarify for Nile’s benefit. Being from a wealthy family with other, older, more important sons, at his coming-of-age he was able to board a relatively lavish lateen-sailed ship and travel to the eastern end of the Fatimid caliphate to study at al-Azhar, a brand-new – well, brand-new back then, anyway – mosque and university.
His time there changed his young life. He read (and transcribed, in what his teachers described as an ‘overly floral’ hand) texts from across the Arab world and even some from the Greco-Roman and Christian world, just for flavor – although, sadly, they never seemed to have much of it. But the more significant change was social. In his childhood he’d encountered dozens of individuals from every edge of the Mediterranean and beyond, namely merchant friends and partners and fake-smile nemeses of his father’s, but none of them were ever his own age and none of them ever laughed and drank tea with him, until now.
The university, and the city in general, drew every sort of person imaginable. Arabs from the homeland of the Prophet, Berbers from the far west, Quranic scholars from Mali, calligraphic artists from Persia, Sufis from Anatolia, Andalusian dancers and Afghan painters and other merchants’ sons from Zanzibar and India and even further east. Cairo was a cosmopolitan haven where he tasted foods from three different continents, heard dialects of his own language that were unrecognizable to his ear, encountered peers with philosophies that pushed the boundaries of his mind. Yusuf al-Kaysani, human being, was born in Tripoli, but Yusuf al-Kaysani, lover of beautiful words and lover of humanity, was born in Cairo.
There were even women studying at al-Azhar. He didn’t share any lessons with the female students because they took separate classes, but they were easy enough to encounter and befriend. He’d imagined that encountering and befriending them would make him more inclined to want to go to bed with them, but alas. Deep down, he’d known what he wanted since he was a seven-year-old boy and he’d seen a particular stonecutter come to finish detail work on the outer façade of his family house. He’d never forget the dark curls of hair below his collarbone or the way his lips pursed in concentration.
In the eleventh-century urban Maghreb society in which Joe grew up, a preference for male lovers was hardly-unheard-of and, for the most part, relatively acceptable. The idea that it defined his identity didn’t arrive in the world at large until centuries later – a gradual but surprising development, not without its baggage. There was, of course, patriarchal stigma around taking on the submissive role in a relationship, physically and socially, but in a very general sense, pinning a man’s wrists above his head was considered no less manly than pinning a woman’s wrists above her head, so long as you were the one doing the pinning. (Then again, few people knew exactly who was pinning whom behind closed doors, anyhow.) And fortunately for a precocious university student in medieval Cairo, the libraries of Arabic literature were a treasure trove of homoerotic poetry if one was clever enough to look for it.
The ghazal was a sort of love poem unique to the Islamic world, and medieval Muslim writers were prolific in the medium. The poems could be celebratory or sorrowful or, more often than not, bittersweet, but they were always about romance, and they were sometimes about romance between a man and another man. Joe read Abū Tammām, the short-lived ninth-century eulogist for an Abbasid caliph, whose concise and elegant homoerotic works were ranked among high literature. He read al-Khubzaruzzī, the rice-bread baker from Basra whose romantic ghazals became so popular that young men would deliberately pass his shop in hopes of inspiring a poem, and he read Ibn al-Muʿtazz, the Abbasid prince who composed insightful similes about the men and women who enchanted him. He transcribed some of his favorites, too; an embellished piece he was particularly proud of read as follows:
“What a rose on the cheek of this gazelle! What a bending, what straightness in his stature!
What pearls does he reveal when he smiles! What magic, what coquetry lies in his glances!
These make the tears flow from my eyelids, those make the nights pass all too slowly for me!”
When Joe first read that poem, he felt his heart grow sore and thankful like a muscle he’d too long neglected to stretch. He calligraphed it on a small, easily portable piece of parchment, using muddy-vibrant red ochre to evoke the nameless lover’s rosy blush. He even spent an embarrassing sum of money on gold leaf to paint the magic of those secret glances. To him, it felt like he was looking through a divine window at a place he hadn’t been to yet but in which he would someday belong. Another birthplace. He ached for it even without knowing it. (Without knowing him.)
Joe’s favorite poet was Abū Nuwās, a bold and brash Baghdadi littératteur who was famous for his erotic odes to male and female lovers and his quasi-erotic odes to the pleasures of drinking wine (religious prohibition notwithstanding, it seemed). Granted, a major reason that Joe liked him had to do with the rather rude nature of more than a few of his works, such as the one he recited to Nicky when he wanted to shock him into laughter (after a millennium the shock had long since faded, but the laughter never did): Sing me a song, sweet Sulayman – here, he always substituted “Nicolò” – and quench me with sweet wine. / When the bottle comes around, pass it with your hands into mine. / Look! Morning's in the sky, already its flaxen loincloth shines. / With cups of comfort wash the call to prayer from my mind. / Give me some wine to drink in public, then fuck me from behind.
“You are an indefatigable menace,” Nicky would say through a playfully scandalized chuckle, or something equivalent in an old Genoese dialect they only used under cover of duvet or over lazy, languid breakfasts and bergamot tea.
There was another Abū Nuwās number about the wonders of glimpsing other men’s privates in the bathhouse that he occasionally regaled Nicky with, too, because it still made him blush and swat Joe’s shoulder after all these dozens of years and Joe couldn’t get enough of it after all these dozens of years. But Abū Nuwās hadn’t only created cheeky rhymes to fluster gentle-hearted lovers. There was a particular poem of his that Joe had memorized years before he met Nicky, in anticipation of – he hoped, dreamed – someday meeting a man who would incite the same emotion that the author felt. He transcribed this one, too, simply and elegantly, on cheap parchment that he could fold up and carry in his pocket.
“I die of love for him, perfect in every way,
Lost in the strains of wafting music.
My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body
And I do not wonder at his beauty.
His waist is a sapling, his face a moon,
And loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek
I die of love for you, but keep this secret:
The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.
How much time did your creation take, O angel?
So what! All I want is to sing your praises.”
It was strange now to think about how long those years had felt. How he’d been overcome with a secret yearning for something he did not yet have the words to describe. How he’d gaze at the fiery purple-pink sunset skies and the turquoise expanse of desert mornings up above and ponder how ardently he ached for someone to share them with.
The thing about being a thousand years old was that years didn’t feel very long anymore; they were an over-produced commodity. The years of studying at al-Azhar wouldn’t feel like much at all to him now, but back then, they’d lasted centuries, and perhaps it was because all the time he spent without Nicky felt interminable, even before he’d known who it was he was missing. He’d carried with him – in the gaps between his ribs, the cobwebbed corners of his cranium, the empty chambers of his heart – a vague and inexplicable sense that he was waiting for something to begin, though he knew not what.
He was having a lot of fun in the meantime, though, wandering through cobbled streets and color-washed spice markets, learning languages and forgetting biases, drinking wine and carnally knowing beautiful men in the grand tradition of Abū Nuwās himself. He developed a taste for fine food, elegant turns of phrase, and soulful eyes, all of which would thankfully be plentiful in the coming nine centuries.
All of this, of course, gave the impression that he was more of a lover than a fighter, and although he liked to think of himself that way, he was a warrior at heart. He’d learned to use a scimitar at a young age from his father’s Mamluk bodyguard and he’d practiced dueling and hand-to-hand combat with his brothers throughout his youth until he mastered the craft. Sparring with the other male students at al-Azhar on a regular basis helped his body feel healthy and strong and gave him the skills and power to defend innocent jewelry-sellers from harassment in alleyways. (And on occasion, sparring practice in the company of handsome classmates was an excellent lead-in to other less combative physical activities.)
Talented warrior and passionate lover of culture that he was, it was not a difficult choice to travel northeast to the Levant in the late 1090’s when word spread of a looming threat of Christian barbarians. People were in trouble, it seemed, and he had the power to defend them. It would be hard, certainly – he had no illusions about that. But he was ready for an adventure, and for a new phase. He had come out of his time in Cairo as a new man, and new men needed new journeys and new wind on their faces.
He had absolutely no notion how much of a sea change this particular journey would end up inciting, how everything would be irreversibly different from here on out. He didn’t know it at the time, or even for many years after that, but it would be the beginning he’d been yearning for. The beginning that never stopped beginning again and again every morning, leaving him feeling as new as he’d felt all those years ago even a millennium later. The Levant was another birthplace, sure, but his body was reborn in every bed he woke up in with Nicky, his heart forged anew by every kiss.
(“You incurable romantic,” Nicky would scoff, and then kiss him again.)
Nicky hadn’t known how to read when Joe met him. He learned from Joe in the years following their fateful meeting – some Arabic, and some of his native Genoese, which Joe had picked up as a child by listening to his father negotiating with trade partners. Nowadays, it seemed, almost everybody in the world knew how to read at least a little bit. Or maybe that wasn’t exactly true, but it certainly felt like a wildly high proportion of people compared to Joe and Nicky’s youth. One didn’t have to attend a famous university in the capitol city of the empire to find books – they were available for a reasonable price at the corner drugstore. Granted, it wasn’t exactly easy to find the classical Arabic poetry that Joe remembered from his days at al-Azhar, but the American poetry collections and especially the popular romance novels that Nicky enjoyed abounded.
Sometimes Nicky said that he owed Joe a great debt for sharing the gift of literacy with him. But Joe didn’t think of it that way, because he imagined Nicky would have learned somehow or another regardless, and at any rate Nicky had taught him plenty of things in return. He had taught him how to love deeply in a way he had never loved deeply before, for example.
“How are you always saying dramatic-ass shit like that?” Nile asked incredulously. She was sitting at the dining room table of Nicky and Joe’s apartment in Cádiz, dusty sunbeams illuminating the contours of her braids, leaning back in her chair in a way that would probably be worrisome if she didn’t have supernatural healing abilities. “Do you just come up with it on the spot?”
“He is still trying to seduce me even though I am well and thoroughly seduced,” Nicky said mildly, entering the room with a tray of pastelitos they’d bought that morning from the town market.
“I consider your seduction to be a lifetime vocation.” Joe smiled as Nicky offered him a bite of turrón. He wasn’t looking at Andy, but he could practically hear her rolling her eyes.
“If you were wondering, they’ve been like this for as long as I’ve known them, which means I’ve been subjected to at least eight-hundred years of Joe’s gooey one-liners,” she told Nile, delicately selecting an equally gooey miniature flan from the tray.
“I mean, it’s kind of impressive that you can keep coming up with new pickup lines for this much time,” Nile admitted, a smiling playing at the corners of her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sure there have been repeats,” Andy said, resting her boots on the table supports.
“I don’t mind hearing my favorite ones again,” said Nicky, catching a wink from Joe.
“With you,” Joe intoned in a dramatic voice, “every day is brand-new, and the words spoken therein are thus inherently unlike any ever spoken before. You are my homeland; I come from you every morning and return to you every night, and my life is perpetually beginning in every bed we share.”
“Oh, here we go,” Andy sighed heavily as Nile and Nicky laughed and Nicky leaned against Joe, sliding an arm around his shoulders. Joe rested his head into the side of Nicky’s torso, breathing in the modern scent of laundry detergent and polyester fabric and the thousand-year-old familiar scent of Nicky underneath.
Joe couldn’t remember anymore how many times he had killed Nicky, or how many times Nicky had killed him, or even if the two numbers were the same. It was sort of funny to think about in retrospect, but also sort of painful in another way.
It had certainly been physically painful at the time. Initially, he hadn’t understood what was going on – he’d thought that maybe his body was more resilient than he’d ever anticipated, and also perhaps he wasn’t as efficient at offing murderous Christian raiders as he’d imagined. He became drawn into a battle with a particular soldier – a nobody, really. A good soldier, it seemed, but not a general or a leader of any kind, just a man, some peasant who had joined the ranks en route to Judaea, face mostly obscured by a helmet of mid-range quality that still revealed a pair of striking blue-green eyes.
In the beginning, they’d killed each other in passing and then noticed each other later on the battlefield, surprised to see the other still alive, and then as the situation grew stranger they entangled more and more closely, unable to rest until they’d succeeded in ending the other’s life. How many times had it taken to realize it would never happen? Joe wasn’t sure anymore.
Eventually it did become apparent to him, some way or another, that he really was dying and resurrecting. He thought maybe it was some sort of miracle, God granting him extra vitality in order to defeat this sole marauder. He’d never been the most devout man; he’d studied the Quran and the life of the Prophet in the local madrasa as a child like everyone else, he knew the five pillars of Islam, he prayed intermittently when he was in the mood (or when his mother expected him to) and he mostly kept halal, other than the odd indulgence in vintage wine. He’d spent the majority of his life thus far in a culture steeped in its religion, and he had never actively sought it out because it was already the water he swam in. But maybe this was his moment of faith. Maybe God had chosen him for… something, though it was unclear to him what or why.
The inexplicable part was that the same thing seemed to be happening to the other soldier. Those blue-green eyes kept opening again and again, impossibly.
After a while it felt pointless to keep trying to kill each other. Joe dropped his scimitar down on the sand, collapsing to his knees, weak with exhaustion. “You can murder me again, but I think we both know it won’t work,” he said in Frankish – he wasn’t sure where this crusader was from.
The soldier stared at him, baffled. Was he from one of the northern Germanic kingdoms? Joe didn’t know those dialects because his father didn’t directly trade with people from there. He’d picked up a couple of words during his time in Cairo, but nowhere near enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with this man, which would certainly be a problem going forward. “…Aachen?” Joe tried the name of the only central European city he could think of offhand. If anything, the soldier looked even more uncomprehending than before.
“…Roma?” he tried, heart sinking. Wait, there – a flicker of recognition. He was getting closer. “Venezia?”
“Are you asking where I am from?” the soldier asked. In Genoese. Perfect.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Joe sighed in relief, laughing in the way you did when absolutely nothing was funny.
The soldier startled in shock. “How do you speak my language?” His face was terrified – a rather handsome face, Joe thought, bizarrely.
Joe shrugged. “My father is a merchant. We have a lot of contact with your people.” He smiled sneakily. “Perhaps we are the source of some of the gold in your cathedrals.”
The soldier snorted, though not in an unpleasant way, which was another relief. “We only have one cathedral.”
“Only one?” Joe teased. “That’s not very impressive for a renowned port city.”
“Every city has only one. Or none,” the soldier clarified in a tone that indicated he was already tired of this topic of conversation. He sat down heavily across from Joe, setting his bloodstained sword – stained with Joe’s blood – on the ground by his side. “What is happening to us? Why do we keep coming back to life?”
“Perhaps we are chosen by God,” Joe mused.
“But for what? And why both of us? We worship different gods.”
Joe shrugged. “Not according to the Quran.”
The soldier frowned, puzzled. He didn’t appear to know the word Quran. These crusaders were not the worldliest types, it seemed. Joe stifled a chuckle. Why did he keep laughing? The situation was anything but humorous. Perhaps making light of things was the only way to retain his sanity.
“Whatever the reason,” Joe continued, removing his helmet and shaking out his sweaty curls, “we are clearly bound together by fate. Perhaps we are representative of the peace and amity that can exist between apparent rivals.” He ran his hands through his hair, relishing the freedom of the dry evening air. (He noticed blue-green eyes tracking the movement – interesting.)
The soldier was silent for a long moment. Joe didn’t mind. He was exhausted anyway.
Finally he said, “The others have killed innocents. The – the other crusaders.”
Joe waited for elaboration before realizing that was a complete thought. “Yes – were you not aware?” he asked, somewhat incredulously.
The soldier shook his head in impatience. “No, I meant – the whole journey here. They attacked Jewish communities, women and children, stealing supplies. And here – they make no distinction between civilian and soldier. I had thought this battle was God’s plan, but now I am not so sure. All I’ve seen is human… cruelty.” He shuddered, slowly removing his own helmet. “I feel that only the Devil is at work in their hearts. There are no angels here.”
Despite that, Joe found himself thinking, this soldier looked rather angelic in the slanted golden light of the setting sun, especially with his hair loose and falling into his eyes. It was a silly thought to have, but then again, this man’s destiny was quite evidently intertwined with his own. Something supernatural was at work here, perhaps even something holy.
“You yourself have attacked an innocent,” Joe teased, pointing at his own chest.
The soldier opened his mouth in surprise and huffed a hesitant laugh. “Why do I find it hard to believe you are anything close to innocent?”
At that, Joe couldn’t contain a laugh of his own. “Perhaps you know me well after all this.”
The soldier’s cheek stretched in a tired smile and he leaned against the craggy rock behind him – they were near the seashore, after fighting on the beach for what must have been hours, and the waves crashed distantly somewhere in the background, and gulls wheeled overhead in the steadily darkening sky. “My name is Nicolò,” he said. Quietly.
“Nicolò,” Joe repeated, matching the soldier’s accent, tasting it in his mouth. He nodded. “Yusuf al-Kaysani.”
“Yusuf,” Nicolò – Nicky – said. His accent couldn’t quite shape the syllables correctly, but Joe found himself liking how it sounded anyway. “I suppose the two of us are connected by some unknown purpose, then.”
“That seems to be the case.” Unwittingly, he found himself shaking with laughter again.
Nicky stared at him. “What is funny?”
Joe threw his hands up. “This! You! Everything! Our lives are never going to be the same again, even remotely! Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Nicky leaned his head back against the rock. Joe stared at his profile, the silhouette of his Roman nose outlined in evening light. “Maybe we are destined for greatness.”
“Maybe we are destined to be fools. Maybe this is all a cosmic prank.”
Nicky smiled softly, closing his eyes. As fierce as he’d been in battle, he seemed gentle now, in his face and in his manner. Joe felt disarmed by it. “Maybe you are right,” he said, eyes still closed. “But even if that is true, I suppose we must make the most of the gift that we have received, whether or not it was meant to be a gift.”
Joe bit his lip, considering that. Unlikely as it was, he rather liked this person, he thought. Which was a good thing, if they were going to be stuck together for the foreseeable future.
“I am thinking of the first time we met,” Joe murmured, absentmindedly running his hands through Nicky’s hair, still damp and soft from the shower. The sounds of youths drunkenly teasing each other in Gaditano Spanish echoed from the narrow, cobbled streets three storeys below, and the salty sea breeze filtered in gently through the window with the night air. Andy and Nile were camped out in the living area; early tomorrow morning, they were heading off to… somewhere. To go train. Somewhere far away. Joe couldn’t remember where.
This apartment was relatively new, but Joe and Nicky had kept a home in Cádiz intermittently over the last few hundred years. It was an old city, a beautiful city, dignified in its own way and yet unassuming, and it made Nicky think of the Italian Riviera and Joe think of the age when this land was al-Andalus. They had many homes in various places around the world, some of them older than others and some more beloved than others, but they liked this meeting point of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean; its rustic, consonant-dropping accent, its palm trees, its rocky shores, its cheap sangria and fried mollusks and the ruins of the Roman amphitheater that was, refreshingly, older than Nicky and Joe.
Here, it was the custom to enjoy wine and appetizers late into the night and then fall asleep when the moon was out, window open to let the stars in. They needed that, after the fairly hellish events of the previous week.
Nicky lifted his head to rest his chin on Joe’s solar plexus, a teasing smile on his lips. “There are thousands of better moments to remember.”
Joe laughed, smoothing a hand along the length of Nicky’s spine. “It may not have been the most romantic, but it was very important.”
“Parts of it were romantic, I think. You looked very beautiful in the light, I remember. That was romantic, for me.”
“Were you already in love with me even then?” Joe enclosed Nicky in his arms as Nicky clambered forward to rest their heads together on the pillow.
“Maybe I was, and didn’t know it.”
“I think I was in love with you before I knew you.”
Nicky laughed into the corner of Joe’s jaw, breath tickling his neck. After all these years, he’d memorized the shape of Nicky’s nose, the sensation of his stubble at every stage of unshavenness, absolutely every imaginable corner and contour of his body, and the more he knew it the more he loved it, like an old favorite song that developed new layers of meaning every time you listened. “Always the poet.”
“I really do think so, though,” Joe chuckled. “I die of love for you,” he said, switching to old Arabic, quoting Abū Nuwās. “And then I return to life so I can kiss you one more time,” he continued. His own words.
He’d said this combination of phrases thousands of times to Nicky, probably hundreds of thousands of times, but Nicky never tired of hearing it, and Joe never tired of saying it. Perhaps part of the pleasure was the flashes of memory it produced – all the beds they’d lain in, whispering these words, cots in military tents, outdoor encampments, balconies under starlight, quiet streets in Europe, windswept hillsides in South America, under dozens upon dozens of full moons and the same golden sun that warmed their faces in the same beautiful way year after year. Nicky kissed him, deeply, in the same beautiful way.
Joe really did believe he’d been in love with Nicky before he’d known him. The years after their meeting were not a phenomenon of developing emotion, but a phenomenon of intellectual discovery.
He found himself unable to keep his eyes away from Nicky, even very early on, even before he understood why. The tiny, telling movements in his face as he spoke or as he listened to others speak. The way his hair fell a certain way, and fell different certain ways as it grew longer or after he cut it shorter. The lithe shape of his body as he fought, as he stretched, as he reclined in sleep.
“Have you ever lain with a man?” Joe asked him offhandedly, one blazing-hot afternoon as they trekked through the hills of northern Greece, already embarrassed by the inquiry but powerless to stop himself from voicing it.
Nicky peered at him over his shoulder, fists tightening over the straps of his pack. His brow was furrowed in some complex combination of emotional responses. (Hundreds of years later it would be effortless for Joe to pick them apart and decode them, but at this point they were still learning each other.) “What?”
Joe squinted at the horizon, kicking loose pebbles away from the trail with one boot. “Nothing.”
“No, you asked – did you ask if I am a sodomite?” Nicky asked, vaguely horrified.
Joe considered backing out of this topic, but then he figured he was in it now, so he might as well see things through to whatever the conclusion would be. “If you want to use that terminology, then yes, I suppose.”
Nicky turned his back to Joe and kept walking, face out of sight. “I used to be a priest, you know. Before I joined the crusaders’ army.”
“…So you have lain with no one.”
“Lust is a sin,” Nicky said, cryptically. It did not escape Joe’s notice that he had not actually answered the question.
“Do you really believe that a caring God would condemn the joy of amorous intimacy between lovers?”
“The apostle Paul has written that carnal union shall only be for procreation.”
Joe made a face. He didn’t know who Paul was – his knowledge of Christian theology was fairly limited – but he didn’t sound like much fun. “Perhaps this Paul has never experienced a proper carnal union, then.”
Nicky let out a snort before he had the chance to school himself. “You are very – that was quite inappropriate,” he said quickly, glancing at Joe to display his stony expression (but Joe could see his lips twitching). “Do you have no shame?”
Joe smiled slightly. His mother had asked him the same thing numerous times, years ago. “I do not know if it is wrong or right to enjoy the pleasures of the body – I am not well-versed in theological law. I am not a deeply pious man –”
“I can tell,” Nicky interjected, and Joe hushed him.
“I am not a deeply pious man, but I can feel the presence of God when I am overcome with powerful feeling. I believe joy is a gift from the divine. And it is hard for me to imagine that it is wrong to lie with men when the touch of men gives me ecstasy as though I am in heaven on earth.”
Rocks clattered as Nicky tripped and nearly landed on the ground, narrowly catching his balance on the branch of a nearby oak – uncharacteristic clumsiness for a man Joe knew to be a limber warrior.
“Are you all right, Nicolò?” Joe asked, hurrying forward to help.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Nicky stood, dusting himself off and avoiding Joe’s gaze.
“And no,” Nicky continued, after more minutes of hiking, silent but for birdsong and the hum of insects. “I have never lain with a man. Or with anyone. I was a priest.”
“And you never once… knew yourself? Intimately?” Joe asked slyly.
Nicky huffed a laugh. “You are very bold, do you know that?”
“That’s not an answer,” Joe teased.
“What makes you so curious?” Nicky countered, an intriguingly playful note in his tone.
“Well, we are bound together for the rest of eternity, as it would seem,” Joe reasoned. “I’m just trying to get to know you.”
“And so you ask about whether I have lain with men?”
“Perhaps the right question to ask is, would you prefer to lay with a man?”
Nicky sighed. “I’ve just explained to you that Paul –”
“I did not ask about Paul. Or about God – your Christian conception of God. I asked about you.”
Nicky stopped walking and stared pensively out at the hills, fading to blue in the distance, dotted with craggy outcroppings and scrubby trees. Then he turned to Joe, fixing him with an odd look. “I chose to be a priest because I felt it was my calling, but also because… I did not want to marry.”
Joe nodded slowly. He had the strange sense that his question was being answered. “Well,” he said carefully, making up his mind to test the waters. “If you ever feel inclined to change your stance on ‘sodomy’ as you call it –”
“Let us speak of other things,” Nicky said quickly, stepping back onto the path. But they didn’t speak of anything.
Joe’s mind spun.
“Do you remember when you asked to make love to me while we were hiking through Greece? Back in those early days? When we were wandering knights, alone, and we were still ‘only friends’?” Nicky said, voice thick as he smoothed his razor over the shaving cream on his jaw, peering into the bathroom mirror.
Joe snorted, pulling a sweater over his head. “I think you’re remembering things differently. I barely remember that time at all; I’m surprised you do.”
“No, this definitely happened. I know for sure because I was thinking about it for a long time afterwards.”
“Oh, were you?” Joe slunk into the bathroom, planting a kiss on Nicky’s bare shoulder. “Well, I’m sorry to tell you it was only a daydream you had.”
Nicky reached a hand over to pinch Joe’s hip. “You really did ask. Or you implied it, anyway.”
Joe chuckled into the crook of Nicky’s neck. There was probably shaving cream in his hair, but he didn’t mind. “I think you’re imagining an implication that wasn’t really there. But I’m flattered you were so eager to fall into bed with me that you saw opportunities wherever you looked.”
“I certainly was. But don’t pretend you weren’t just as eager. I’m sure you were asking without meaning to.”
Joe laughed, looping his arms around Nicky’s waist. “At that time, I was probably asking in code with everything I said. You drove me mad, in those years before I had you.”
“You drive me mad even now,” Nicky said, twisting in his grasp to cup Joe’s cheek with one hand. “Do you remember that week we spent at that villa in Shanghai?”
“Oh, I’m remembering it now,” Joe said fondly, leaning in.
Nicky was kind.
This was one of the things Joe loved most about him – as much he could easily define which parts of him he loved even more than the others – and it was the thing that had surprised him the most as he initially got to know him.
He’d generally expected all of the crusaders to be unrelenting brutes, and as far as unrelenting brutes went, Nicky didn’t seem half bad. There could definitely be worse people to spend eternity wandering the world with. At least he was pretty to look at, and he laughed at Joe’s jokes, and he seemed at least open to the concept of dismantling his internal dogma.
But over time Joe couldn’t help but notice how motivated Nicky was to take on quests to help the disenfranchised – even the ones Joe wanted to turn down because he felt they’d be more trouble than they were worth. Nicky wanted to bring money and food to encampments in the woods and rescue towns from marauders and fight on the “good side” in skirmishes even if it was the losing side. At first Joe thought it was some sort of penance for his guilt over the crusade, but eventually he realized that Nicky just saw the good in everyone and thought it was worth something. He trusted even the awfulest of people to do the right thing when given the choice, the resources, and the proper information about the situation. Joe supposed he must’ve made a good priest; he was good at reasoning things out with people in a way that was frank but gentle, and encouraging them towards a humanitarian direction. He was merciful when he didn’t need to be; he gave to those who didn’t deserve his gifts.
“We shouldn’t have trusted her,” Joe said wearily, pondering their ransacked camp – their short-term traveling companion, another wanderer they’d met on the road, had run off with most of their supplies overnight. What he meant to say was: you shouldn’t have trusted her. But he didn’t say that because he didn’t want to argue with Nicky. Not that he’d ever had ever had a serious argument with Nicky about anything, really. Nicky was not the argumentative type. Even when Joe was in a vitriolic mood, he remained calm, melancholy or stoically unimpressed at worst.
And he also didn’t want to argue with Nicky because… he was realizing that he loved Nicky’s open heart. Nicky was good, and it wasn’t his fault that not everyone else was. Why should an angel be blamed for the flaws of mortals?
Nicky squatted on the muddy earth, absently poking a branch among the dew-damp remains of last night’s campfire. “I suppose I ought to be a better judge of character.”
Joe sat down heavily on a mossy log nearby. “Perhaps. But I admire your compassion.”
Nicky smiled at the crumbling charcoal, hand stilling. “We have much to learn from each other, it seems.”
They did. And they would learn from each other, over the next millennium, until they were both good judges of character – most of the time, anyway. Joe never stopped loving Nicky’s kindness, though. His gentle-hearted, sword-wielding angel.
“So there’s something I’ve always wondered,” Nile said, voice tinny over speaker phone.
“Ask away,” Joe said, flapping a hand expansively even though Nile wasn’t here to see it. Nicky hummed affirmatively, pouring more tea in Joe’s cup.
“Okay, so, I mean… how did you guys end up getting together? Like, how do you go from literally killing each other to, like… being sickeningly in love?”
“Oh, please don’t get them started,” Andy called distantly from somewhere in the background on Nile’s end.
“It’s a lovely story, actually,” Joe said pleasantly, rubbing Nicky’s wrist bone with one hand. The morning sun through the kitchen windowpanes lit his irises like seaglass. “We went to the bathhouse at the same time and simply could not resist the enchantment of each other’s bodies.”
Nile was silent for a long moment. Nicky muffled a giggle.
“That’s what happened?” Nile said, sounding skeptical. “Are you fucking with me?”
“Don’t listen to Joe and his lewd jokes,” Nicky assured her, leaning towards the phone. “What really happened was that William Shakespeare became enamored of me and wrote me sonnets, and Joe was so jealous that he declared his love to win me away.”
“…Really? Wait a second, that timeline doesn’t match up…”
“What actually happened,” Joe interjected, giving Nicky’s hand a playful squeeze, “is that after a particularly long battle we were forced to spend the night out in the elements, sheltering in a cave. However, we didn’t have any blankets, and so in order to stay warm we were forced to –”
“They always do this, every single time,” Andy’s voice interrupted, tone exasperated but fond. “You’re never going to get the real story out of them. I’m honestly not sure I have.”
“Don’t be silly, Andy,” said Nicky. “It’s like we’ve told you, so many times. We were walking in a garden in Istanbul, and then Joe said that I was more beautiful than all the flowers, and I said he was more beautiful than all the –”
“You’ve never once told me that story before,” Andy said flatly. “And also, even Joe wouldn’t say something that sappy. He’s more sophisticated than that.”
Nicky winked at Joe. “Who are you to say?”
The speaker crackled as Andy sighed heavily and Nile audibly snickered. Joe turned to smile at Nicky, and saw that Nicky was already smiling at him.
The truth was that it happened very slowly, over the course of years.
They were partners on the battlefield, they shared rooms in inns, they traveled together, ate together, talked to each other about nearly everything. It was inevitable that they became very close, and it was also inevitable that Joe, incurable romantic that he was, became gradually convinced that they were destined to be together by the stars or God or some other force that guided the threads of fate connecting certain human beings. It wasn’t that he invented this belief – it was that it became apparent to him as if from within receding water, the clarity growing until it was impossible not to see. He wondered if Nicky saw it. He wondered how Nicky could ever not see it.
They knew each other’s pasts. They relied on each other with unwavering faith. They were each other’s back protection, shoulder to lean on, listening ear, helping hand. The only thing missing was that they didn’t kiss, or do anything else of that nature, and they didn’t talk about love. Or rather, they talked around it, sometimes, because after years of knowing each other you eventually passed through every conceivable conversation topic like shuffling through old wares at a flea market, but they never expressed how they felt about each other, or even mused about the idea of feeling anything amorous about each other at all. It was maddening. Joe wanted to say it. He felt like he already was saying it, in every word, with every glance. He would ask if Nicky wanted more bread but he was really asking, “Do you love me?” And he would tell Nicky about his childhood but every phrase was actually “Because I love you.” “Can you hear me?” he asked as he offered to clean Nicky’s sword for him. “Are you listening?”
One night Nicky was helping Joe out of his armor, carefully washing blood off his forehead with a cool cloth, so tender that Joe ached.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Joe murmured.
“I want to help you. You’re more tired than I am,” Nicky replied, as if there were nothing more obvious. He gingerly brushed a loose curl away from Joe’s forehead – it was not strictly necessary for him to do so. Joe didn’t mind having hair in his face. But he didn’t want Nicky to remove his hand – the touch felt sacred. He was afraid to even exhale.
But Nicky did remove his hand, and then he pulled something out of his pocket – a small, folded and yellowed piece of parchment. “I found this in your cloak. There’s a little blood on it – just the corner. Is it a letter?”
Joe shook his head and held out his hand to take it. The candlelight in the inn room flickered, casting Nicky’s face in an amber chiaroscuro.
The parchment was brittle. Gingerly, Joe unfolded it, and then he barked out a surprised laugh. Here it was. A relic from another time. Another version of him.
Nicky leaned in to see what was on the page and Joe briefly closed his eyes, focusing on his scent and the way the side of his face felt warmer with another body near. Nicky shook his head. “What does it say?”
It was Arabic calligraphy, a simple but elegant hand. Joe’s simple but elegant hand. And it was a very familiar love poem by Abū Nuwās.
“I die of love for him,” Joe began to recite, translating into Genoese as smoothly as he could on the fly. “Perfect in every way, lost in the strains of wafting music. My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body and I do not wonder at his beauty. His waist is a sapling, his face a moon, and loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek…”
Nicky’s expression was complicated. “Did you write this? For someone?”
Joe chuckled, a little breathlessly. “It is for someone, yes. But I did not write it. Would you like me to continue?”
Nicky nodded and slowly sat next to Joe on the wooden bench, damp cloth folded in his lap. Their faces were close.
“I die of love for you,” Joe said, gazing at Nicky’s eyelashes, glimmering golden in the low light, “but keep this secret: the tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.”
Nicky’s eyes fell shut. Joe’s thigh burned where it touched his.
“How much time did your creation take, O angel?” he murmured. “So what! All I want is to sing your praises.”
Nicky’s eyes fluttered open as Joe fell into silence. How had they become so close? Their noses were nearly touching. “Do you know,” Joe said softly, “I am very tired of not kissing you.”
“Is that part of the poem?” Nicky asked.
Joe began to shake his head, but Nicky was already kissing him anyway, and it was just as beautiful as he’d always imagined it would be, and more.
“You were right,” Nicky murmured into the corner of his jaw, breath tickling his throat.
“Mmm?” Joe was steadily floating back down to earth.
“You were right about what you said, ages ago. I feel God when I touch you. I am sure that this is holy.”
“Then perhaps tonight we will go to heaven,” Joe said, and Nicky laughed and kissed him again, deeper this time and Joe knew for certain that he had never been happier than when he felt Nicky smiling against his mouth.
“What do you want to do today, habibi?” Joe said, settling onto the sofa and draping his legs over Nicky’s lap.
Nicky looked at him in that way he did. He’d always looked at him like that, and Joe had only begun to notice it when he’d begun to notice that nobody else in the world looked at him in the same way. He imagined his own face was a mirror to it. “Anything you like. Maybe we can take a bath.”
Joe hummed appreciatively at the thought. “I would like nothing more than to see you naked. I would have you in the nude all the time, ideally.”
Nicky laughed, lightly rubbing the bone of Joe’s ankle. “Not so practical for fighting, I would imagine.”
“It’s how the ancient Greeks did it.”
“You would know, wouldn’t you?” Nicky lifted the back of Joe’s hand to kiss it. “This was a very old joke of theirs – Joe was technically Nicky’s senior by a handful of years that had hardly ever mattered and now really, really didn’t matter, but Nicky sometimes pretended that Joe was ancient.
“Well, how about to start with,” Joe began, “Sing me a song, sweet Nicolò, and quench me with sweet wine –”
Nicky laughed and collapsed sideways onto Joe’s chest, already knowing exactly where this was going, and Joe broke off into laughter too. “This is what you get for loving a poet,” he said, toying with a lock of Nicky’s hair.
Nicky looked up at him, face warm with an adoring smile. “Yes, this is what I get for loving a poet.”