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I die of love for you, but keep this secret

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Their dreams show the two women among snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests, so they head north, trading work for bed and board along the way. Some of the folk they encounter seem to find a Christian and a Muslim traveling together strange, some to take hope and joy from the sight of them, and many not to care as long as they turn their hands and swords to good purpose and keep to themselves the rest of the time.

In one tiny village, Nicolo gets roped into helping a shepherd boy search for a lost sheep in the hills nearby, while Yusuf stays behind helping the boy's widowed mother with various things around the house that have fallen into disrepair. He's sitting in the doorway, repairing the torn bottom of a woven basket and trying once again to find the right poetic metaphor for the color of Nicolo's eyes--brighter than any jewels Yusuf has ever seen, clearer than any water--when the subject of his reverie returns with the lost sheep slung triumphantly over his broad shoulders, both man and beast absolutely covered in mud.

"I'm glad I amuse you," Nicolo says when Yusuf laughs at the sight of him. He lowers the sheep gently to the ground and pats her shaggy fur, murmuring something in his native tongue before the boy takes charge of her.

"Forgive me." Yusuf stands and tugs loose the sash from around his waist, dipping it in a bucket of cool, clean water that sits on the edge of the well. "Here."

Nicolo's eyes widen slightly; the sash is of fine embroidered cloth, a little ragged from their journey but still beautiful. "Thank you, Yusuf, but I don’t want to dirty it.”

“Take it,” Yusuf insists, holding out the damp cloth. “Clearly, you need it more than I.”

Nicolo nods. “Thank you,” he repeats more softly, fingers meeting Yusuf’s as he accepts the gift.

They stand like that far longer than necessary, fingers just touching as they gaze into each other’s eyes, and then startle guiltily apart when the widow calls them inside to eat.

Nicolo attempts to return the sash after washing it, and Yusuf refuses, calling it a gift. It’s not until the next time they find themselves in a fight that Yusuf notices Nicolo has wound the sash into a band around his upper arm, bright against the dull no-longer-white of his tunic as he wields his sword. Even in the midst of battle, it sends a thrill down Yusuf’s spine to realize that, and the next time they make camp he draws a hasty, furtive sketch of it, which he tears from his book to fold up and keep close to his heart.

***

A few weeks later, another village; Nicolo has not forgotten that last time he ended up chasing a sheep through mud while Yusuf sat in the shade weaving baskets, which is how Yusuf now finds himself repairing a fence under the afternoon sun while Nicolo works in the house. Their hostess is a tiny old woman, nearly blind and devoid of children or other kin, and thus ecstatic to have two strong men with clear sight and steady hands at her beck and call for the day.

It gets hot enough that Yusuf strips off his tunic, leaving him in trousers and a thin cotton undershirt. When Nicolo brings him a drink of water, Yusuf pauses in his work to stretch his arms over his head, then wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.

He sees Nicolo slow in his approach, and the hand carrying the cup dips enough for water to slosh out before he rights it and looks away from Yusuf’s form, color staining his cheeks.

“Thank you,” Yusuf says as he takes the cup, and Nicolo nods.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” he says. “I should go back and make sure nothing burns...unless you need help finishing here?”

“There’s not much left to do,” Yusuf says, then adds, “But a single smile from you, should you deign to give it, would make the rest of my task fly by even were there ten times more work to be done.”

He catches him off-guard, and so he doesn’t get the little close-mouthed smile Nico shows to the world most often, but rather the broad, open one that lights up his whole face. When Yusuf presses a hand to his heart at the sight of it, it’s only a bit of an affectation.

“Truly, I am a lucky man,” he says.

Nicolo is crimson by this point, but still smiling as he shakes his head. “You, good sir, are a shameless flatterer.”

“I prefer the term ‘romantic’,” Yusuf says. “And the only shame would be if you were to think my words are not sincere.”

Nico’s smile drops as his lips part, eyes holding Yusuf’s. This is hardly the first time Yusuf has paid him a compliment or teased a smile out of him, but this is skirting the edge of something else, and they both feel it.

Nicolo takes a step toward him—then turns his head and sniffs the air. “Do you smell burning?”

Yusuf is tempted to seize Nicolo in his arms and tell him to let the old woman burn her whole damn kitchen down, but Nicolo’s already muttering “Oh, blessed Virgin,” and hurrying back toward the house.

The meal survives only slightly scorched, and Yusuf praises it as he would one perfectly cooked, both because he was raised to be a gracious guest and because it makes Nicolo smile again, though smaller this time. They wash up afterward, standing side-by-side, the old woman retiring for the evening after pointing out where they can sleep and letting them know there’s a wooden tub if they wish to bathe.

Nicolo takes the last bowl from Yusuf and wipes it carefully with a cloth, then wets his lips and speaks. “What you said earlier…”

“Yes?” Yusuf prompts gently, glancing sidelong at him.

Nicolo keeps his eyes lowered to his work, voice soft as he says, “I have never doubted your sincerity, my dear friend. Not in anything else, and not in this.”

Yusuf watches him for a moment, then lifts a hand and touches his shoulder very gently. “Nicolo, will you look at me?”

Nicolo does not, swallowing hard as he sets the bowl down. “I’ll heat some water. You bathe first, you worked harder today.”

He starts to move away, but Yusuf catches his hand, giving one brief squeeze before he lets go. “All right. Thank you.”

***

In the next place they stop, streets empty and doors shut as they approach. It’s not hard to figure out that the cause is Nicolo’s fair skin and the long, straight crusader sword at his belt. He retreats to the outskirts of the village while Yusuf goes in search of someone who’ll talk to him, then returns to Nicolo with a dark expression.

“Seven men,” he reports. “All Christian by the look of them, but they bear no identifying clothing or banners.”

“Deserters,” Nicolo confirms with a nod. There are plenty of those, men disillusioned with this war they were told was God’s will—including Nicolo himself, technically, but unlike him, many have turned desperate and cruel.

“The villagers think their camp is somewhere in those hills, to the east,” Yusuf says, pointing. “They’ve raided this or other places nearby three times in the past month.”

Some of the villagers offer to accompany them in searching for the raiders’ camp, but none of them are trained fighters and all of them are clearly scared. There’s a reason they’ve chosen to keep to their homes and try to fight these men off when they come, rather than go on the hunt and risk never coming back.

Besides, what little help they might offer isn’t worth the risk of them seeing Yusuf or Nicolo die and then rise again. The only people they want witnessing that are those who won’t be walking away from the fight.

Afterward, they go back just long enough to tell the villagers those men won’t be troubling them again, just long enough to see the looks of mingled awe and terror at the two of them, covered in other men’s blood without so much as a scratch visible on either of them.

They don’t ask if they might stay the night here.

Instead, they follow the nearest river until the village is out of sight, then find a place along its banks, sheltered by trees.

Shyness has no place here, but they each keep their eyes averted as they strip and wade into the river. Once the water covers them both to the waist, Yusuf looks at Nico, lets his eyes trace the places where he saw him take mortal wounds now long gone.

He wonders if it will ever get easier to watch Nicolo die.

“There’s blood in your hair,” Nicolo says, and Yusuf realizes that he’s been looking, too.

He starts to duck his head to wash it, but Nicolo forestalls him with a hand. “If I may—?” he asks, stepping closer, and Yusuf swallows hard as he takes his meaning.

He puts his back to Nicolo and sinks deeper, until he’s on his knees and the water is lapping at his shoulders. A moment later he feels Nicolo’s presence close behind him, and then water pours over Yusuf’s head from his cupped hands.

“You fought well today,” Nicolo says as he works.

Yusuf’s eyes close as Nicolo’s fingers sink into his hair, working through the dense curls with care. “As did you.”

Nicolo urges him to bend back until his hair‘s submerged, one hand cradling Yusuf’s head as the other works the last of the blood out. When he guides him back up, his hands stay, resting on Yusuf’s shoulders.

“It always takes my breath away to see you in battle,” he whispers, thumbs stroking back and forth just slightly on Yusuf’s wet skin. “So fierce, so brave, my Yusuf.”

Yusuf draws in a shaky breath, and reaches up to clasp one of Nicolo’s hands. Nicolo lets him, and Yusuf brings it to his lips and presses a kiss to the center of his palm. Nicolo gasps at that, and moves his hand a bit to cradle the side of Yusuf’s face.

“Habibi,” Yusuf whispers against his fingers. Nicolo’s grasp of Arabic is improving daily, but Yusuf hasn’t taught him that word yet. From the way Nico breathes out a sigh and presses his cheek, Yusuf thinks perhaps he knows it already.

Still, they look away from each other’s forms as they leave the river and dress in the one clean set of clothes they each carry, dumping the bloody ones in a pile to be dealt with later. They make a fire and Yusuf sits close to it, holding out his hands.

“Are you cold?” Nicolo asks.

“A bit,” Yusuf replies, and a moment later warmth settles over his shoulders. The cloak is wrinkled and a little musty, having lived at the bottom of Nicolo’s pack for months, but it seems they’ve finally traveled far north enough to need it.

He looks up with a smile, holding one end of the cloak out. “Nicolo, I can only accept this if you share it with me.”

Nico takes the invitation to sit beside him, settling under the curve of his arm. With his other hand, Yusuf reaches to lift Nicolo’s from where it rests on the ground between them.

“If I may?” he asks, echoing Nicolo’s request from earlier, and at a quiet “Yes,” he twines their fingers together, holding tight.

After a moment, Nicolo’s head comes to rest lightly on his shoulder, and Yusuf turns his head to bury his nose in Nicolo’s hair, breathing in the clean river-water scent of him.

“Do you think we’ll dream of our friends tonight?” Yusuf asks softly. “Maybe get some clue of which way to go beside ‘north’?”

“If the time is right, we will,” Nicolo replies. “However long the journey takes us, we’ll find them.”

Yusuf closes his eyes and holds Nicolo gently against his side, content, for now, with that.

***

Far to the north, bundled close together against the cold, two women wake at the same moment, glance at each other, and smile.

“They held hands,” Andromache says, her delight at this turn of events clear.

“They did,” Quynh replies. Andromache’s arm is around her, and she reaches one hand up to lace their fingers together as well. “Finally. I was beginning to think we’d have to draw them a picture.”