You are a child. An infant. And your mocking is thus infantile.
Jerusalem, July 15, 1099
Nicolo de Genoa had had enough.
It wasn’t even that the infidel screaming across the way from him refused to stay dead no matter how many times Nicolo had killed him. It wasn’t even that the warrior had killed Nicolo as many times in return. Nicolo was slowly coming to terms with that oddity over the past eight days, or perhaps the truth was that he was falling back on old practices that it was God’s will, and who are we as mortals to question that? Although the concept of mortality was starting to skitter away from reality, like his enemy had done when they both woke collapsed on one another, yet again, a few moments earlier.
This time, Nicolo decided, it was technically the fall that had killed them, not the other’s blade...or hands... or on one particularly gruesome occasion, a large rock Nicolo had used to smash in the man’s skull. This time, they had tumbled off the city wall, shared a moment of realization of what was to come as they fell, eyes locked on one another’s faces, and hit the ground below with a force that was astonishingly painless. The pain came when Nicolo regained consciousness and felt his body mending, his brains reforming in his skull, his broken limbs realigning and healing, his breath filling lungs that were newly reformed. His opponent had recovered quicker, no doubt he had the benefit of using Nicolo as a cushion when they landed, and was crawling behind the remnants of a siege engine the Holy Army had been using earlier in the day. The army had entered the city, and it was just a matter of time before they were victorious. Nicolo could hear the faint sound of fighting continuing on the other side of the wall, could smell the smoke of the city burning, the slightly sweeter smell of human flesh doing the same, but the sounds of victory were muffled, distant...
And being drowned out by the seemingly unending taunting from the other man.
Nicolo understood very little Arabic, spoke even less...a few key phrases to ask where to find water, the names of a few foods, and how to tell someone to lay down arms in the name of almighty God. This man was using none of those at the moment, although Nicolo did hear Allah mentioned several times, and possible reference to his mother and a goat. Nicolo could guess at the meaning of the associated words he didn’t know; the sentiment was clear enough.
With a sigh, Nicholo leaned his head back against a rock that had once been part of the wall that had been laid waste by the previously mentioned siege engine. He was tired, extremely so, and hungry. Oddly, the healing of his wounds did nothing against exhaustion or the growling of his stomach. Those human needs never went away, it seemed, much like the blood that coated him, some fresh, some caked dry and dark into his clothes, his beard, his hair. He had lost count of all the deaths he had experienced over the days since the siege had begun, had no idea which stains were from his life blood and which his enemy’s.
Across the way, the man had moved on from his mother to his father, although the goat seemed to still be actively involved in the scenario. Nicolo wondered, not for the first time, why he had left the priesthood for this. Of course, the reason was that he was never cut out for a priestly life. The meditation, the silent prayers and hours of devotions, they bored him beyond reason. Although, as the third son of minor duke, what choice did he have? Then the Holy See’s call for the crusades had come and Nicolo saw his chance. His father was old enough that Nicolo doubted he’d see him again on this mortal Earth given the length of the trip from Genoa and back. His eldest brother would be needed to tend their lands, and his second brother had been killed in the Mahdia campaign almost ten years before the most recent Papal call to arms. It was not hard to justify leaving the priesthood, the life he had known for almost twenty years, behind and take up arms to defend the Holy Lands in God’s name, in his family’s name.
But now, he would gladly spend his days reciting the beatitudes for the rest of his life if it meant he didn’t have to listen to the litany of insults he could barely understand being screamed at him from afar. By all the saints, could the man not be silent for just one minute? Whatever demon possessed him, the one that gave him the ability to restore his body the way that God had blessed Nicolo, must have two tongues, because, surely, one of them by now would have fallen out from sheer overuse.
“Enough!” Nicolo yelled back. “Can you not be silent for one moment?”
The man did go silent then, for a count of perhaps five, before he started again, this time the tone was almost amused, as if Nicolo had told a joke. But then the taunting returned, louder than before.
That’s when Nicolo de Genoa decided he could not take this any longer. He stood and began walking purposefully toward the other man, who had come out from behind his own cover, weapon at the ready to face off once again.
Nicolo, however, tossed his sword aside. “I can take no more of this.”
The man’s own sword waivered, the curved blade lowering slightly in surprise, as Nicolo continued to shorten the distance between them. “The talking is never ending, the sound of your voice is what tortures the souls in purgatory, the words are an eternal nightmare that would have the angels themselves fleeing back to the sanctity of heaven.”
By now he was within striking distance, he could see the man’s face, the mass of curls of his hair and beard, dark to Nicolo's light, but just as blood smeared as his own, and his eyes, wary but as exhausted as Nicolo felt. Still, he held his sword steadily before him even as Nicolo spread his arms.
“Kill me, I beseech you. Kill me and put me out of the misery of having to hear you so that I can have a few moments peace and quiet without the sound of your voice ringing in my ears.”
The man frowned, but Nicolo stepped in closer, placing the tip of the blade against his chest. “Go ahead, I give you permission. It is what you want, yes? It is what you talk about doing. Talk, talk, talk, talk, then do it. Do it!”
The expression on the man’s face fluttered between confusion, fury, and possibly regret, but he drove his sword home into Nicolo’s body.
With a gasp, Nicolo felt the now familiar sensation of the blade cutting through him. It hurt, horrifically so, but the look on his enemy’s face was almost as pained that he had done the deed. Well, he couldn’t have that, now could he?
Nicolo’s lips curled in a bloody grin as his own short blade slid between the man's ribs to pierce his heart. The dark eyes so close to his own widened in surprise, then just as quickly crinkling in mirth. They collapsed as one, into a now familiar blinding light, into darkness, into death, with the sound of their combined choked laughter sounding in Nicolo’s ears.
It may not have been the silence he was hoping for, but it was a vast improvement over the insults.
That man is not my “boyfriend”
Valley of Kidron, July 20, 1099
Yusuf ibn al-Kaysani came across the camp of the Christian in the darkness just before dawn, but the moonlight provided more than enough light to see the sleeping form near the embers of his fire. He’d been searching for him for almost two days, dreaming of him for two days more than that, and he couldn’t explain the relief he felt to see him in the flesh once again.
The last time they died, it was to the sound of laughter. The last time they were reborn together, by Allah’s great and illustrious power, it was to a truce. Yusuf had rolled to his side with a groan, air filling his lungs once more causing him to cough much the way the other man did beside him. His hand gripped his blade tightly, preparing for another round of this endless battle he’d been tasked with fighting. His adversary, however, had raised a hand where he still lay in the dirt. “Peace,” he’d said in his native tongue, “no more.” Then he’d changed to Arabic, “Salaam...salaam.” He’d dropped his hand heavily onto his still bloody chest and exhaled heavily. “Salaam.”
Yusuf regarded him for a moment, watched the way he lay on the ground with eyes closed, chest rising and falling as he worked to steady his breathing, before he rolled his head and looked hopefully toward Yusuf again.
Yusuf ached all over, his body yearned for sleep and a warm meal and then the chance to repeat the process. A much more mundane series of tasks to repeat than the one he had been experiencing lately. The man on the ground beside him looked as if he felt the same. With a nod, Yusuf agreed, “Salaam.”
Then the two of them had pushed to their feet and silently made their way toward their respective army’s camps. Glancing back once, Yusuf watched the man’s retreating hunched form straighten as he stretched newly healed muscles. Yusuf rolled the kinks from his neck, never expected to see the man again, and told himself it was good riddance. Hoping Allah would not be disappointed that he was never able to kill the demon, Yusuf took solace that at least he had bested him to the point his enemy gave up fighting.
His army had lost the war, and the Christian pilgrims were sacking the city; Yusuf found he really had nowhere to go. Home, he decided, he would return home, and see if he could resume working his uncles trade routes once again. He was older, but he was also a better fighter now than he had ever been, as such he would be even more valuable to the family business.
Before the end of the day, Yusuf had joined a small band of soldiers and refugees who had escaped the city. Some traveled toward family in other cities, others to his destination, the port at Daron. Jaffa was closer, but was held by the barbarian forces, so the longer trip it would have to be. From there he could catch a ship back to Tunis and make his way home.
That first night, they set up camp several miles east of the city. It was the furthest most in their band could travel due to age or injuries. Yusuf helped those he could, prayed for those who he knew would succumb to their injuries in the night. A woman, not much more than a girl, gave him a piece of bread and a bowl of rice and spiced vegetables. He ate it so quickly he barely tasted it, thanking her between bites. When she had offered to tend his wounds, he assured her he was not injured. She looked at him in disbelief, seeing the blood and obvious sword cuts through his clothing. When he pulled open his robes and lifted his shirt to show her his body was whole, her hand went to her mouth to cover a surprised gasp, before quickly excusing herself.
Yusuf watched her go, finished his food, then found a place to curl on the ground and sleep, which he did between one breath and the next. Only his dreams were filled with two fierce-eyed women fighting together somewhere in a dense green forest, and him , the Christian.
Yusuf woke with a jolt and a feeling almost like being brought back from death. His heart was racing and he willed himself to calm. The women...he had no idea who they were, had never seen them before they first appeared in his dreams the first time he had died. Then they were just impressions, glimpses of long dark hair, an ax swinging in the shadows, but tonight the dream had been so real, like he was fighting beside them in that unknown forest.
The Christian, on the other hand, should not have been a surprise. He believed the man would fill his nightmares for years to come. Only, he had not feared him in this dream, he feared for him.
The knight had been amongst his troops, should have been safely surrounded by friends, except they looked at him differently when they passed, snuck glances that were laced with fear, fear that would turn to something much worse in the days to come. When Yusuf sat up and looked around the camp, he saw the girl who had fed him dinner talking to another man, saw the same wary look on his face as he’d seen on the faces of the Christian soldiers. He lay back down, his had wrapped around the hilt of his sword, and slept lightly, if at all.
The next day, he rode on his own a little off from the rest of the group, watching for more worried looks, but saw none. He convinced himself he must have imagined what he saw when he woke the night before. The morning had been cool, but the sun was warm, and the soothing sounds made by the tattered band with which he traveled lulled him. The rhythmic clunk of wooden carts and the creak of leather saddles combined with the lack of sleep soon had him dozing as he rode. He saw the Christian again, being pushed through a crowd to the tent of a superior, a man of his religion also there, while another soldier pulled at his clothes, exposing fair skin unmarked by battle, not even a bruise. The other soldier pulled a dagger, cut a line across the unmarred chest, watched as the blood dripped down a lean frame even as the cut vanished from his body. The Christian he had fought didn't hesitate to pull his sword--.
Yusuf roused with the word, “No!” on his lips. Quickly, he pulled his own dagger, cut across his palm. He had never thought to test it. In battle he’d had no time, after he’d never considered he would continue to heal. It had been a gift granted by Allah, he’d decided, as he fought the righteous battle. Only now, when he was retreating away from the war, why was his hand healing as quickly as the cut on the Christian’s chest? He could feel the panic grow, the same he had seen in the eyes of his enemy in the dream.
Only the man was no longer his enemy, no longer felt like an enemy, because they were bound by this blessing, this curse, this unnamable force that no one else but the two of them could understand. How could they? To live and die and live again, how could anyone understand that? He had done it so many times over the past days he lost count, and even he could not understand why or how it had happened.
Yusuf stopped his mount and turned to look back over his shoulder at Jerusalem still smoldering in the distance behind him, feeling an urge to return, to return to him .
“Is everything well, brother?” Another rider had pulled up beside him, then spotting the blood dripping from his hand, “Have you hurt yourself? Reopened a wound?”
“No, all is well,” Yusuf assured, wrapping the edge of his robe around his hand, not to stave the flow of blood, but to hide that there was nothing there to bind, feeling nothing was well, at all.
The man reached out and squeezed Yusuf’s shoulder. “We will regain the city,” he assured. “With Allah’s blessings, and the Prophet’s guidance, we will take back what is rightfully His.”
Yusuf nodded, although his thoughts were not on the city itself but on its occupants, one occupant in particular, an occupant who filled his dreams that night as he saw him fleeing the city under cover of darkness. Yusuf did much the same when he woke, packed the few belongings he still owned, mounted his horse, and led it by starlight into the night before he mounted it to avoid waking the others. For the next two nights he followed the clues he saw in his dreams to find the other man’s camp.
Honestly, Yusuf thought he could have walked blindfolded through the desert and he still would have stumbled on the sleeping man, so great the pull was to find him. Now that he had, he wasn’t sure what to do. Sliding his dagger from his sheath, he moved silently in a crouch toward the sleeping form, only to have the Christian’s dagger at his own throat as soon as he reached him.
“Wait!” Yusuf said in Italian before assuring, “I mean you no harm.”
One pale eyebrow rose in disbelief, and the dagger pressed harder against his skin.
“This time,” Yusuf conceded as he dropped his own blade to prove the point. “I have grown weary of killing you, of being killed. My hope is that you feel the same.”
Eyes the color of the sea flicked from Yusuf’s face to the dagger in the sand and back again before narrowing. “You speak Italian.”
“Some,” Yusuf told him, knowing what he said previously was stilted and broken and the accent not quite right. “I traveled there with my uncle, a merchant.”
The Christian’s eyes lit up as he sat back and started speaking quickly, excitedly.
Yusuf could only make out every other word, but thought he was asking what had happened to them and why and why was he here now and something about sleeping. “Whoa, whoa, slowly, slowly. It has been many years since my travels there.”
“Sorry,” the man said, “I just have many questions.”
“As do I,” Yusuf agreed. “Although I have no answers, I’m afraid.”
“Do you have a name at least?”
With a hand to heart, Yusuf introduced himself. “Yusuf ibn Ibrihim ibn Mahhamed ibn al-Kaysani called al-Tayyib.”
“No wonder you never stop talking,” the man scoffed. “It takes half the day just to speak your name.”
Yusuf felt his fingers twitch toward his dagger once more. The Christian was arrogant, no question there, and deserved to be killed for his insolence alone. But in all the world, he was the only other person Yusuf knew who had experienced what he had. Yes, he deserved to die but would not, perhaps could not. So as much as Yusuf wanted to kill the man, even a fool must eventually realize the futility of such a task. Besides, what was to be gained from continuing the endless killing of one another? Were they meant to do that for the rest of their days? It seemed a monumental waste of both their time.
Leaving his dagger where it lay, Yusuf tilted his head and appeased with a simple, “Yusuf.”
“Yusuf.” The other man tried the name on his tongue before returning the favor. “I am Nicolo de Genoa.”
“Nicolo,” Yusuf exhaled the name, feeling an odd sensation now that this man, who a few short days ago, had bashed out his brains with a rock, was now hesitantly smiling at him. Apparently, he had come to the same conclusions Yusuf had about their bound fate, and Yusuf knew that they were bound, felt it deep in his soul. “It is a pleasure to meet you instead of killing you. Shall we break bread together?”
It was an offer of friendship he’d learned from an early age. A stranger became a friend when you ate with them, shared a meal, welcomed them into your home. Not to mention it was bad form to kill a man who had offered hospitality. Yusuf wasn’t sure the barbarians from the west followed the same social etiquettes, but it was worth a try.
Nicolo nodded eagerly, and Yusuf wondered when he had last eaten. Pulling a piece of flatbread from his pack, he tore it and offered half to Nicolo. “It is not much, but it is offered in friendship.”
Snatching it greedily, Nicolo stopped himself from taking a bite before bowing his head in thanks, “ As-salaamu Aliakum .”
It sounded almost like Nicolo were asking for forgiveness to Yusuf’s ears.
“ Va-alaikum As-salaam .” Yusuf placed a hand over his heart and smiled in gratitude, an offer of his own apology in return.
They ate the bread in silence, which didn’t last long considering how quickly Nicolo devoured his. Yusuf offered him his water skin and Nicolo drank deeply.
Handing it back, he shook his head. “I do not understand what has happened with me...you... us .”
“Nor do I,” Yusuf admitted.
“I dreamt of you.” When Yusuf didn’t understand the word, Nicolo mimicked sleeping and tapped his head. “I saw you. In my sleep.”
“The same,” Yusuf admitted.
Nicolo seemed almost relieved that he was not the only one experiencing the dreams. “You were riding a horse; Jerusalem was burning behind you.”
“I saw them cut you,” Yusuf drew a line with his finger across his own chest to mark the location.
Nicolo shuddered, whether at the memory of what had happened or the fact that Yusuf had seen it, Yusuf could not be sure. “Where were you going? On the horse?”
“Home,” Yusuf confessed. “To be a merchant again.”
Nicolo only nodded as he put another piece of wood on the fire and coaxed the embers to flames.
Yusuf finally asked, “Will you go home, as well?”
Nicolo rubbed meaningfully at his chest. “I do not think that is for the best.”
Of course, other knights would be returning home, and they would carry the story of Nicolo de Genoa and his black sorcery back to his homeland. It could be dangerous, not just for him but his family.
Yusuf started to ask the question he’d been wondering ever since he saw Nicolo making his escape in the dream, but paused before speaking, not sure if the other man would be offended. The last thing he wanted was to upset the truce they had at the moment.
Nicolo must have seen the hesitation on his face. “You, Yusuf of a thousand names and twice as many more words, are reluctant to speak?”
Yusuf chose to ignore the barb and asked, “Did they kill you? When they saw how you could heal?”
Now that he knew they would heal from any cut, he had been wondering if they would also revive if killed by another, or if one died and the other didn't, would the dead remain dead. How closely were they connected in this?
“No.” Nicolo shook his head, dropped his eyes to the blade beside him on the ground.
“But you killed some of them.” It was meant to be a question, but the answer was obvious.
“Another reason not to return home.”
Yusuf could feel the waves of regret coming off the other man, it rolled like heat across the sand. “Perhaps you could apply your trade in another land?”
“That is unlikely.” Nicolo gave an amused huff. “Before the war, I was a priest.”
Yusuf frowned; surely, he had misunderstood what the man had said.
Nicolo, however, removed all doubt when he made the sign of his religion’s cross in the air and started rattling off words in Latin.
“A priest?” Yusuf burst out laughing, laughed even harder when Nicolo rolled his eyes at the other man’s humor. “ You were a priest ?”
“Why do you laugh?” Nicolo demanded.
“I do not laugh at you,” Yusuf said as he pulled in a breath. “I laugh at myself.”
Nicolo’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I do not see how that can possibly be the truth.”
“Because, Nicolo de Genoa, I was promised a multitude of virgins if I died in Allah’s service, and instead, I end up with one...and he’s a Christian.”
The words were broken, but Nicolo caught their meaning and bristled. “I am not a virgin.”
“But you are a priest. You are....” he struggled for the word for celibate, finally settling on, “no sex.”
“I wasn’t born a priest,” Nicolo argued. “Besides, I never said I was a good priest.” His own lips curled in humor.
Yusuf just laughed harder.
They talked until the sun was fully risen, and Yusuf fully understood why this man, so unlike a priest, had become one. Nicolo was the third son of man with a grand title but very little land, and as the youngest, Nicolo had almost no chance of inheritance. As Nicolo explained, his eldest brother was meant to run the house, his second brother a knight for the king, and he was, therefore, meant for the church.
“ Uno por la casa, uno por la corona, e uno por il crocifisso, ” Nicolo explained, miming the first two with his hands, and showing the simple wooden cross he wore around his neck for the third.
Yusuf understood what it meant to be a younger son, although it had served him better than Nicolo. His family were merchants, his mother’s older brother the most successful, but also the one cursed with five daughters and no sons. A curse worse than death, the way his uncle told it. Yusuf, however, had been cursed with death enough times by the man across the fire from him that Yusuf would gladly welcome a brood of girls as the alternative. Still, Yusuf, who had been practically given to his uncle to raise as his own, was grateful to the man and the life he’d been given.
“I have seen much of the known world.” Yusuf didn’t even try to hide the boast. “It is very large,” he said knowingly.
“Have you seen enough to know where we can find food around here?” Nicolo asked.
Patting the other man’s knee, Yusuf stood. “Come. There is a village nearby with a market.”
They packed their gear on their horses and mounted, setting off at an easy trot that Yusuf led until they came to the small town Yusuf remembered passing through when he first arrived in Jerusalem.
The mighty city of Jerusalem had been under attack from smaller bands of Christian pilgrims over the past several years. But the villages like this one had remained relatively unscathed by those battles. No one, however, had been prepared for the size of the army that had appeared days ago, nor the decimation that would follow. Signs of that destruction were visible all around. The village itself wasn’t damaged, but the people filling it were, obviously refugees fleeing the battles that had raged miles away. It was not hard to see the trauma they had witnessed reflected in their eyes, eyes that looked nervously up at Nicolo as he rode through town.
He had thankfully removed his armor, but it was obvious by his complexion and light, straight hair that he was from the west. Yusuf silently cursed himself for not thinking this through further. But if they could stay alive for a short time more, he thought he could help the situation going forward.
“Stay with the horses,” he ordered, then disappeared into the market before Nicolo could protest. A few moments later, he returned wearing a new robe and handing another over to Nicolo. “Put it on, hood up, stay quiet, and let me be the one to speak.”
“Let you do all the talking?” Nicolo held up the robe and scowled. “You say that as if I could stop you if I tried.”
Yusuf narrowed his eyes. “I do this for your protection, priest. If anyone is to kill you so that you stay dead, it shall be me. Yours is my death to have. No one else’s. Mine.”
“As yours is mine,” Nicolo affirmed with his own scowl.
Yusuf hadn’t expected that, but it made sense, more than that, it felt…right.
“So, I would appreciate it if you didn’t tempt others to try it,” Yusuf continued, “as I would have to kill them to protect the reward that is mine.”
Both of them had more than earned the honor of finally killing our being killed by the other.
Hesitating, Nicolo finally slipped into the robe and pulled up the hood. “Lead the way, merchant.”
Afterward, as they loaded supplies into their bags, Nicolo shook his head. “You paid twice what you should have for the bread. For a merchant, I would have expected you to drive a better price.”
Yusuf swung up into his saddle and pursed his lips in consideration. “I never said I was a good merchant.”
Seating himself astride his own horse, Nicolo blinked at the confession.
Yusuf gave him a wink as he turned his steed toward the road. Behind him, he heard Nicolo’s laughter as he caught up to ride alongside him.
That man is more to me than you can dream in your simmering, pathetic life.
al-Najaf al-Ashraf, August 21, 1100
Nicolo didn’t fall asleep so much as plunge headlong into it, not unlike the day over a year ago when he and Yusuf had carried one another off the wall of Jerusalem and careened headlong into yet another common death. Since that time, he and Yusuf had rarely left one another’s side, having simply started riding together and never stopped. Neither had actually said anything about it, neither had set a path or destination, and the only discussion they had had about the whole situation was how they planned to make money to feed and clothe themselves for the coming days. It was if the same fate that had previously bound them to a shared death had decided they should now share a life together.
“The ways of God are unknowable,” one of the priests at the monastery used to say, the one who would look down his nose whenever Nicolo asked a question that began with “why...” as so many of his did.
Nicolo, who had always been curious, found that response infuriating. There had to be a reason why, a logic behind the happenings of the world. Perhaps that’s why he had joined the crusade in the first place. It was all very simple; there was an action to take and a reason to undertake it. The Muslims had control of the Holy Land, where our Lord and Savior had lived, walked, taught, and died for all mankind; therefore, as a good Christian, he must do everything in his power to take it from the evil nonbelievers and restore it to the glory of Christian rule. Only, the more time he spent with Yusuf, the more he learned of how Jerusalem was open to all who considered it holy...Christians, Jews, Muslims...as long as those who did not follow Islam paid the proper taxes. The more time he spent among those he’d been taught were his enemy, the more time he spent with Yusuf, the more he questioned those reasons for the war in the first place.
“God enjoys his children,” one of the other priests would say. “They make him laugh.”
Nicolo wasn’t sure if the idea of God laughing was blasphemous or not, but the priest who said it was very old, and often confused the confessional for the horse stall he had cleaned as a boy. Nicolo had hoped that alone would go a long way in gaining him forgiveness if he was a blaspheme, because he was a very gentle, if often befuddled, old man. Besides, Nicolo was beginning to think the elderly priest had been right.
How else could he explain how much he had truly enjoyed the past year and his time with Yusuf? Not that they didn’t still disagree-- their arguments were legendary in the towns they had frequented-- but so was their comradery, and their protectiveness of one another.
Yusuf had a sharp tongue and a sharper wit. He was quick to laugh but even quicker with his blade if need be, often displaying both traits simultaneously. Nicolo had nearly been run through by a drunkard’s blade while laughing at the insults Yusuf spat at the men as he and Nicolo fought them back to back. When Yusuf had seen the blood stain on Nicolo’s shirt from the glancing wound that was already healing, all humor had left him, his eyes had turned as dark as the moonless night, and he’d nearly cut the man in half. Then, in typical Yusuf fashion, he’d peeked over his shoulder and winked at Nicolo.
It was just one more reason why Nicolo had resigned himself months before to following the arrogant infidel to the ends of the earth and back.
Some days it felt as if they’d made the trip many times already, although the trek was primarily between various Muslim cities to the west and al-Najaf al-Ashraf to the east, guarding the caravans of wealthy travelers making the pilgrimage to the tomb of the son-in-law of Yusuf’s prophet. Once they had accompanied a caravan further east to Baghdad. Nicolo had never seen its like anywhere, not even Palermo compared to the size and grandeur of Baghdad. Yusuf could have spent years taking in the art alone. Nicolo was amazed by the medicine and science being taught in the schools, more than he ever knew existed. So torn was he by the pull of knowledge, and the sin it represented in its knowing, that he felt he should go to confession as soon as he could find a Christian church, of which there were several in the city. What’s more, it had him questioning why it was so bad to know these things if they could help others?
Nicolo had left Genoa almost four years before with a fire in his heart to fight a sacred and Holy war, and now years later, he found himself with a growing respect for science and a Muslim as his constant companion.
God truly did enjoy laughing at his children.
They had finished their last trip that very day. Three months of hard travel from Masyaf with the household of a man who had become wealthy providing goats to the Muslim garrison and the Holy Army alike. Masyaf was still under Muslim rule, but after a hard-fought battle that cost many lives on both sides, a truce had been negotiated, with the city paying tribute to the Crusaders. With both Christians and Muslims welcome in the area, it was one of the few places in recent years that neither Yusuf or Nicolo looked out of place.
Nicolo’s Arabic was coming along nicely; Yusuf took great pleasure in teaching him how to curse fluently. As to the rest of his growing vocabulary, he could communicate easily enough with most of the people under their protection. That was typically limited to servants, as the wealthier members of the party tended to shun a fair-skinned Christian no matter that he dressed almost exclusively in the local garb these days, retaining only his mail coif and hauberk. In more friendly areas, he packed away the heavier weight of the mail and wore only the thick quilted gambeson under his robes.
Nicolo had taken the last watch the night before, then rode all day, stopping only long enough for the Muslims to undertake their Maghrib prayers, then pressing on until the sun was well beyond the horizon to reach the city, rather than camp another night in the open. He had watched Yusuf collect their final payment at the city gates as he sat his horse, feeling as if the dust from the road had seeped into his bones along with his exhaustion. They would camp outside the city, as many would, to avoid paying the taxes upon entry, and tomorrow decide where to travel next. Probably back to Masyaf if they could contract with another caravan heading west.
Although the lands to the east were calling him, always seemed to be these days. They called him to the green forests with flowing streams he’d never seen in person but were almost as familiar as the desert roads he traveled, to the snow tipped mountains towering over grasslands that went on forever in all directions. They called him to the women he and Yusuf saw in their dreams.
Yusuf made drawings of them in his leather-bound book that was filled with blank sheets of paper of a quality that Nicolo had never seen its equal. The monastery where Nicolo had lived still used vellum or parchment more than the rough sheets of paper being produced in Iberia. Yusuf’s pages were smooth as silk and white as ocean spray. He sketched on them with grape vines he’d bound together with wire and turned to charcoal in a cooling baker’s oven. Yusuf could spend hours sketching a single scene in that book, and Nicolo could happily spend hours watching him do it. The book had been a gift from his uncle, who had bought it off a merchant who had traveled farther to the east than anyone ever had. It was Yusuf’s most prized possession. Nicolo often wondered if the women were in the same place where Yusuf’s book was made, because they were to the East.
He knew it as fact; he had no idea how.
Yusuf finished the transaction, waggling the bag of coins with a grin up at Nicolo, before sliding them into his robe. With a pat to Nicolo’s leg, he urged, “Come, my soul, let’s get some food in you, and then to your bed. You look as if you are about to drop from your saddle.”
Some of the hardest phrases Nicolo had learned in Arabic were the terms of friendship and endearment, not so much the pronunciation, but when it was proper to use them. No matter how many times Yusuf had used the term ya roohi, my soul, with Nicolo, it felt special, intimate, even though Yusuf swore it was common among close friends. Nicolo had heard Yusuf use it jokingly with others on more than one occasion. However, when Nicolo had attempted to use ya abli, my heart, with one of the traders they often saw on the road, the man had looked like he might draw his sword. Yusuf had intervened, explaining Nicolo was still learning the intricacies of the language. Afterward, he suggested that, for the time being, Nicolo save those terms exclusively for Yusuf.
“Food would be good,” Nicolo agreed, “sleep will be better.”
They rode along the familiar path that led to a well, having traveled it often on the many trips they had made to the city. Several tents were already set near the well itself, but Yusuf guided them to a small stand of trees a short way off. The trees were too closely set to allow room for a tent, and since they tended to sleep out in the open on the ground, the trees provided all the cover they needed, as well as a bit of privacy.
Nicolo offered to water the horses and fill their skins at the well, and took advantage of the water to wash the dust from his face, hands, and hair while the horses drank their fill. On the side opposite the trees was a small, but bustling, tent city that established nightly. It was made up of the larger traveling parties that did not wish to enter the city. Most were pilgrims who had either spent the day at the tomb or planned to enter the next day. The sounds of laughter and gossip intermingled with the squeals of children playing, so that the area near the well always had a festive spirit. The smell of roast meat from the camps had his stomach grumbling, so he filled a bucket for their cooking and another so Yusuf could rinse away the residue of the road in preparation for his evening prayers, as well. With his hands full, he gave a short whistle for the horses, who followed him back to their own camp. By the time he returned, Yusuf had a small cook fire burning and was pulling supplies from their packs to prepare their meal.
Nicolo tended the horses then sat on his makeshift bed he’d laid out, watching Yusuf working by the fire, listening to him sing to himself under his breath to music drifting on the breeze from the tents, not realizing he had dozed where he sat until Yusuf touched his shoulder with a bowl in hand.
“Eat first, then sleep,” he chastised.
Nicolo did as he was told, then happily collapsed into oblivion to the sound of Yusuf’s murmured prayers.
Yusuf’s anguished voice had him reaching for his sword, only he couldn’t move. He tried to take a breath, but none would come. He fought down the growing panic, realized he could see a shadow lit by the firelight, one he knew well, leaping with a growl over Nicolo’s frozen body, his sword in hand. He heard a grunt as another man hit the ground, no doubt carried there by the force of Yusuf’s fury.
Nicolo’s mind scrambled to figure out what had happened, why he couldn’t move, then he became aware of a familiar sensation...his body healing itself. Only, this time, it couldn’t seem to complete the task. There was something...stuck? In his neck? He tried to take a breath again, but nothing.
Behind him he heard a scream cut short by the sound of a blade slicing through flesh. Not Yusuf’s, because Yusuf was too busy cursing the man he’d just killed then taunting another.
Nicolo, still unable to breathe, saw spots exploding before his eyes, saw the firelight fading, saw a blinding light, saw nothing but blackness as he died, until the fire blazed brightly once again in his sight as he was reborn. He fought to move, to breathe, but once again he could not, could only feel his body struggling to recover, to repair, and failing still. It dawned on him that we would probably soon die again, unable to do anything except lie paralyzed while it happened. He had died many times fighting Yusuf, but this was worse, much worse, and much more terrifying.
He heard another gurgling scream, a sound he’d heard before, a sound he had caused in other men, in Yusuf It was the sound of a throat being slit, followed immediately by Yusuf calling to him again.
“Nicolo, wake up. Wake up, my soul,” Yusuf pleaded desperately in Arabic before switching to Italian, as if the reason Nicolo wasn’t responding was because he simply didn’t understand the request. “Nicolo, you must wake. Wake up.”
Yusuf’s face was wavering as spots began bursting once more in Nicolo’s frozen site. He willed his lungs to fill, his body to heal, so he could stop the fear he heard in Yusuf’s voice. Yusuf, who had charged into a band of brigands on the road without a second thought for his own safety, and whose voice now quivered like a frightened child.
The world was narrowing again, all Nicolo could see was Yusuf’s eyes locked on his turning hard as his voice and his temper flared. “Nicolo, wake up now! Are you going to let a petty thief looking for a bag of coins take your life? Be the cause of your death? A death that, by rights, is mine? Mine! You have always come back before. We always came back together.... we?... We ! We came back together !”
The thought, Oh, surely you are not going to do what I think you are going to do , barely had a chance to flicker through Nicolo’s mind, before Yusuf yanked hard, pulling free the dagger that had been pinning Yusuf to the ground. The act finally allowed his severed spine to stitch back together and heal, and sensation to return to his unresponsive extremities.
Nicolo sat upright as soon as his lungs expanded, sucking in a harsh breath as his eyes automatically sought out Yusuf’s, seeing a look of surprise flash in those dark eyes, even as Yusuf finished sliding the dagger across his throat. Nicolo ignored the spray of Yusuf’s life blood that hit him as he lunged forward to catch Yusuf as he toppled forward. He put his growing knowledge of Arabic curse words to use, creating new combinations of insults as he held Yusuf’s convulsing body. Nicolo knew it was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like hours, ages, a God-forsaken eternity, before Yusuf pushed back breathing heavily, a little wild-eyed.
Nicolo realized he was doing the same. “Yusuf...”
“You wouldn’t wake,” Yusuf said in confusion, relief, and something Nicolo couldn’t quite name.
“The dagger...my spine...I couldn’t...” Nicolo trailed off as his eyes traced over to the weapon on the ground, the one Yusuf had used to take his own life. He looked back up at Yusuf. “You--”
Suicide was a mortal sin, one for which there was no chance of forgiveness. You were cast out of the Church, couldn’t even be buried in a church burial ground.
Yusuf stood abruptly, stopping Nicolo’s observation with a gruff, “I do not wish to speak of it.”
“We are not speaking of this,” Yusuf said with finality as he walked off into the dark beyond their fire.
Nicolo stopped himself from starting an argument over the situation, knowing there was no way Yusuf could go without speaking about any topic. Instead, he stood, moved to the nearest body, and began to search it. It was crude, but the thief would not need any valuables he might have, whereas it could mean the difference between a full belly or empty one for him and Yusuf. Besides, if the dead man and his partner had had their way, Nicolo and Yusuf would be dead, and the thieves would be dining with their coin.
When Yusuf joined him a few minutes later, Nicolo tossed up a silver ring. Yusuf studied it while Nicolo opened the small purse he’d taken from the thief’s belt to find a few gold pieces.
“We may be able to get a decent price for it back in Masyaf,” Yusuf noted in a dull tone, hefting the ring to judge its weight. “The silver is thin, but the craftsmanship is good.”
Nicolo nodded his agreement and returned to his search. “He looks familiar. Maybe a local who has seen us on our prior trips? Saw us get paid?”
“You would not wake,” Yusuf said quietly.
Nicolo hid his smirk that it had taken less than five minutes for Yusuf to start speaking on the topic he refused to speak about... as Nicolo knew he would.
“But I did wake,” Nicolo reminded him, standing and spreading his arms to demonstrate the fact. “See?”
“I feared you were dead.” Yusuf continued to study the ring in his hand.
“I was dead only the once.” Nicolo conceded, trying to minimize the whole ordeal for Yusuf’s sake. “But then I came back and was almost dead again. And when you removed the dagger, I didn’t die again.”
“You died?” Yusuf’s eyes widened in shock; his voice was laced with a touch of growing anger. “And came back? Before I...”
“Yes,” Nicolo confirmed. “Before you killed yourself. Yusuf, that is...a sin. The worst sin. There is no forgiveness.”
“You worry for my immortal soul?” Yusuf snorted in disbelief. “I am already cursed with a single virgin.” He waved a hand to encompass Nicolo. “How much worse can hell be? Oh, I know, you could be dead, and not wake up.”
“I did wake.” It bore repeating, because Yusuf didn’t seem to be hearing it.
“This man, he killed you.” Yusuf stepped closer to loom over the dead thief on the ground.
“But only the once,” Nicolo stressed, “because you removed the dagger. Which was good, because it was not a pleasant experience being trapped like that. If you hadn’t been here, there’s no telling how many times I would have--”
Yusuf was no longer paying attention to what Nicolo was saying, instead he was kicking the dead body on the ground, loudly cursing the corpse, his family, and the camel with which Yusuf firmly believed he’d had carnal relations.
Grabbing his arm to pull him away from the body, Nicolo tried to quiet him. “Yusuf, there are families in the camp.”
Stopping his cursing, Yusuf kicked the body one last time with a growl before pointing an accusatory finger at it. “He killed you!”
“I’m aware.” Nicolo’s attempt at a calm demeanor seemed to be having little effect.
Yusuf kicked the body again. “This son of a diseased whore!”
“Yusuf, please...” Nicolo implored, once more tugging at Yusuf’s sleeve.
Yusuf kept kicking. “This fucker of lice-infested swine.”
“.... the women and children, they can hear...”
“This sodomite of three-legged goats.”
“Three-legged...?” That seemed rather specific.
“This bastard offspring of a leper who fellatiated blind camels...”
“Well, that seems a bit excessive.” Not to mention, where was this man supposedly finding all these pathetic animals?
Yusuf spit on the body in disgust. “He killed you, and I feared that if I did not die, too, you would stay dead.”
“Yusuf, my heart,” Nicolo exhaled heavily, feeling his own fury rising that Yusuf had been brought to the point that he would take his own life to save Nicolo’s. He suddenly felt like kicking the body, too.
“As much as I hated you killing me,” Yusuf confessed, “and I truly hated it, you being dead without me was worse.”
“You are just angry you weren’t the one who did it.” Nicolo knew it was feeble joke, but it was worth a try.
The smile Yusuf gave him was weak and a bit sad, but he shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“My death belongs to you, and yours to me . Me and me alone,” Nicolo stressed. “Not even you are allowed to deny me my right. That is our agreement, and I intend to honor it. I expect you to do the same.”
Yusuf placed his hand flat over Nicolo’s heart. “Your death is mine.”
Yusuf had said that many times over the months they’d traveled together; this time, however, it sounded less like Yusuf’s right and more like his fate.
Nicolo could feel the heat of Yusuf’s hand on his skin, even through his shirt. He couldn’t stop himself from leaning into that warmth a little more.
That man is the stars in my sky, and the sun that lights my day.
Al-Basra, January 5, 1101
“Yusuf, what is the meaning of this word?” Nicolo scooted a little closer to show Yusuf the page in his book. They were lounging beneath the shade of a willow tree by the river, Yusuf cross-legged with his sketchbook, Nicolo propped on one elbow as he read.
Nicolo had tackled the daunting task of learning to read Arabic now that he was speaking it fluently. Not that he couldn’t make out most of the common words in the cities and market places they had traveled, but the idea of being surrounded by so many books, and not being able to read them, had apparently been too much for the man.
Yusuf breathed a silent sigh of relief that Nicolo was reading from ‘A Thousand Entertaining Tales’ today, and not one of the medical or astronomical tomes that he had borrowed from the young physician who traveled on their boat trip down the Euphrates from Baghdad to Al-Basra. The book had cost Yusuf more than he cared to admit, but the look on Nicolo’s face when he gave it to him was worth twice the price.
“Ah,” Yusuf said with a smile when he saw the word, understanding why his companion wouldn’t know the meaning. “ Ifrit . It’s a magical creature, often treacherous and deadly, like a demon, who torments the spirits of the dead. When we first met, I thought you might be one pulled from hell to torment me.”
Although said in jest, it wasn’t far from the truth. Looking back now, he couldn’t imagine thinking such a thought about the man rolling his eyes at Yusuf’s teasing grin.
Nicolo turned his attention back to his reading with a mumbled, and yet sarcastic, “Thank you, my heart.”
Yusuf grinned wider and took up his charcoal again, sketching one of the smokey-grey water birds bobbing among the reeds in the estuary.
They had arrived in Al-Basra three days before, after several months of running excursions between Baghdad and Najaf. Nicolo loved Baghdad, could have probably spent the rest of his life happily speaking to the men who studied medicine and philosophy there...that was once they were willing to speak with a Christian. Nicolo was persistent, if nothing else. The dreams of the women, however, were even more persistent. They seemed to grow more frequent whenever they did stop moving, so they had decided a month ago to travel to the port at Al-Basra to catch a merchant ship traveling further east.
If anything, Al-Basra was as magnificent as Baghdad, with a library housing over ten thousand books. Yusuf was convinced that, if allowed, Nicolo would sleep there instead of here in the small camp they’d established in the estuary of the Euphrates to await the sailing of the ship they’d contracted in four days' time. Until then, they had the luxury of doing nothing more than roaming the city, stocking a few supplies, and lounging like they currently were in their camp.
Beside him, Nicolo rolled to his back, setting the book aside and closing his eyes, soaking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. He exhaled in contentment. He was shirtless, like Yusuf, following their earlier swim, but both were long dry.
Yusuf could hear off-key singing accompanied by laughter from a small, round quffa floating in the middle of the river. The basket-like boat had just enough room for the two fishermen casting their nets and their catch of fish flashing silver in the sunlight as they were dumped into their vessel. Yusuf had decided that when the fishermen returned to shore, he’d buy a few for their dinner.
Nicolo snored lightly in sleep, and Yusuf turned his attention from the bird tucking its head beneath a wing as it carefully pulled up one long spindly leg to balance tranquilly in the shallow water to admire an even more tranquil image of his friend dozing beside him.
Flipping to one of several pages he had reserved for Nicolo, Yusuf started to sketch again, concentrating on the lean muscles running from Nicolo’s shoulder to elbow that bent to rest his hands on his taut stomach. Nicolo had put on weight since they’d been traveling together, but it was needed; although strong, the man had been skin and bones when they first met. Considering what Nicolo had told him about the toll the trip took on the soldiers with hunger and illness, losing almost half their number before they ever arrived, Nicolo had been fortunate to survive the trip. Yusuf couldn’t imagine the size of the army and the destruction they would have wrecked if they had not lost so many on the way.
Maybe Nicolo had survived due to the ability to heal, maybe it was fate they were to meet and kill one another, maybe it was pure luck. Whatever the reason, Yusuf was grateful it had happened, grateful for every day he had with this man. He was also grateful that Nicolo looked healthy and strong and lean and…
Yusuf pushed down those thoughts. Nicolo had never expressed an interest in anything beyond friendship. Their bond was strong, exceptionally so, and in many ways transcended the love of friends, or brothers, and Yusuf would gladly spend the next fifty years, if they were blessed to live a long full life, with that alone. Still, there was no denying Nicolo was a beautiful man, even with the unruly mess his hair and beard had become over the last year or so. Normally he wore it twisted up on his head, hidden beneath his turban, but now it was splayed out wildly as it dried in the sun. At least he had finally put aside his fear of bathing that so many of the western barbarians still held, often bragging...bragging!... that they bathed only four days a year. Praise be to Allah that Nicolo had come to actually look forward to the bathhouses when time and coin allowed it in the cities they had frequented, it definitely improved the smell, and decreased the complaints from their customers.
Nicolo, however, had yet to pass through the doorway of a barbershop since he’d known the man. Yusuf always tried to make a visit every few trips to Najaf for his hair, trimming his beard with a pair of brass scissors when on the road to keep it neat. Yusuf, however, never pushed the issue with Nicolo, partially because he felt it would be bad manners, and partially because a part of him liked the wildness of Nicolo’s looks. Not to mention, they made him appear even more fierce as he fought off a band of raiders. The fact that he was always the first to lead a charge just added to the appearance that a crazy man was on the attack. Yusuf had watched more than one potential band of adversaries turn tail and run instead of face Nicolo.
Yusuf smudged the charcoal to produce the curve of Nicolo’s bicep, not doing it the justice deserved. He wished he were one of the Greek artists from ages past, who had made the statues he’d seen when traveling to the islands with his uncle. They were so beautiful and life-like, Nicolo most definitely would not have approved. Yusuf’s drawings of him, the one time Nicolo had looked at them, had made him obviously uncomfortable.
“They are so...real,” Nicolo had said with an uneasy frown. “Like I am some idol to be worshipped.”
At the time, Yusuf thought, Oh, Nicolo, my dear one, if only you’d let me, I would worship your body all day and into the night.
“They are beautiful, Yusuf, but only God is to be worshipped.”
They had argued about art many times before. As a priest, Nicolo had been taught that art was functional, educational, and to take any other pleasure from it was to shun God’s power and wisdom and love.
Yusuf didn’t understand how anything that captures the beauty of Allah’s creations could be a sin to look upon, and Nicolo was one of the most beautiful creations Yusuf had ever seen, inside and out. Instead of saying that out loud, however, Yusuf had reminded Nicolo of his time spent with the doctors in Baghdad and how they were studying the human body.
“You spent hours talking to a doctor who is flaying the skin from a cadaver to study how the muscles connect to bone. My drawings show the same details, only with the skin on.”
Nicolo didn’t seem convinced. “So, you are studying me for science?”
“Obviously,” Yusuf lied. “And since you won’t stay dead, I can’t donate your body to the university to be studied further. Therefore, this is my only option.”
With a snort, Nicolo shook his head. “You are a horrible liar, my heart.”
“The Prophet himself has said that the ink of the scholar is more valuable than the blood of the martyr. I am only following in his teachings.” Yusuf stood taller. “Who are you to question my motivations?”
“Nothing more than a former priest and barbarian, as you have told me many, many times.” With a bow, Nicolo had handed back Yusuf’s sketch book.
Yusuf had never shared them with Nicolo again, but he never stopped sketching him, either.
The hand Yusuf was sketching twitched once, then again, and his brow furrowed. Nicolo was dreaming, and before Yusuf could place a hand on his shoulder to calm him, he jerked awake, looking around in confusion as to where he was, before his eyes landed on Yusuf.
“Easy,” Yusuf soothed, “all is well.”
“I saw them,” Nicolo told him, sitting up and motioning towards Yusuf’s sketch book. “Are you ready?”
Yusuf didn’t have time to turn to the pages he’d dedicated to the women they saw in their dreams to document the clues to their whereabouts before Nicolo moved to sit beside him.
“There was a temple behind them, red roof and--,” Nicolo paused as he saw the drawings Yusuf had done of him. Taking the book, he turned the page to see another set of sketches, including the set Yusuf had done the day before of Nicolo, waist deep in the river, his long, wet hair hanging between his shoulder blades. “Is this what I look like?”
Beautiful, Yusuf thought, you look beautiful . Instead, he shook his head, “I’m not a very good artist.”
Nicolo gave him a sideways glance. “You are the best artist I’ve ever seen.” Turning another page, he saw a sketch of his bearded face in sleep. “At the monastery, I wore my hair cropped short, no beard. I barely recognize myself in these.”
“I’m sure you made a very handsome priest,” Yusuf teased. “As all men who have sworn off sex strive to do.”
“It seems a lifetime ago,” Nicolo mused.
“It was. As was my life as a merchant. We have had many lives and many deaths since then,” Yusuf shrugged before asking. “If we had not met in battle, not killed one another, what would you have done? After the war?”
“I am not sure I would have survived the war,” Nicolo admitted. “Any other who did what we did would not have.”
“You know what I mean,” Yusuf coaxed.
“As soldiers, we were promised a share of the riches claimed by the church from the city,” Nicolo told him. “I suppose I would have returned home, bought land, perhaps married and had many children.” Nicolo bumped Yusuf’s shoulder with a grin. “And maybe, one day in the market, I would have met a trader from the Maghrib, one who talked incessantly.”
“Interesting. Perhaps, on one of my travels to Genoa, I would have met a land owner with short cropped hair and no beard, with a brood of children following in his wake,” Yusuf offered, his heart aching at the thought of Nicolo married and living a life far from him.
“And maybe I would have had a feeling, like I’d missed out on a life of adventure with the man, and I would have been unable to do nothing about it.” Nicolo’s smile was a little sad, but then he leaned in closer and whispered, “But then again, maybe I would have figured out something.”
Yusuf laughed. “If anyone could, it would be you, my soul.”
It was true, Nicolo was always a man of action, often running into the fray with what Yusuf thought was no forethought. However, Yusuf had learned that just because Nicolo didn’t discuss his plan didn’t mean he didn’t have one.
Closing the sketchbook, Nicolo handed it back and stood abruptly. “If we are to get food for dinner, we must head to the market now.”
Yusuf pointed toward the fisherman. “I had thought we could buy some fish.”
“We need bread, and some of the hot sauce you like so much, some cheese. Maybe some figs,” Nicolo told him as he pulled on his shirt. “Plus, I have some other tasks to attend to while you fetch those.”
“Other tasks? Should I attend with you, to help with translations?” Yusuf was almost as fluent in Persian as he was Arabic thanks to his travels with his uncle. Nicolo could stumble through a few phrases but often turned to Yusuf for assistance.
“I’ll manage,” he assured, offering a hand down to Yusuf to help him to his feet.
Gathering their things, they strolled back into town. Nicolo took the time to tell Yusuf about his dream with the women in a building with a yellow roof and red pillars and dragon-like creatures carved of stone. Once in the heart of the city, they split up, Yusuf to the market and Nicolo on his unknown task. Yusuf assumed it was the library once again, considering the way he’d headed, quickly lost in the crowd.
Finishing with his errands in the market, Yusuf still had time to spare before he was to meet Nicolo again, so he went in search of the ship’s captain to confirm the date of their sailing. They were sailing on the winter monsoons for Muziris, probably the last of the season to ensure they made it before the winds died then switched directions entirely. Once there, they would have to decide if they wished to head out over land or wait almost eight months for the winds to resume their flow from the south to carry them further east.
Hearing Nicolo call his name from within the market, he turned, running headlong into an older woman, and knocking her goods free from her arms. Yusuf apologized profusely, setting the soft leather pack with his own purchases aside as he helped her gather the dates that had scattered on the ground. He was vaguely aware that others had stopped to help, as well. A young girl and her mother placed the purple carrots in the basket, a man handed Yusuf an onion that had landed at his feet.
“Thank you, friend,” Yusuf offered, barely looking up to acknowledge the man before scooping another onion from the ground.
“Yusuf,” the man said again in humor, and Yusuf would know that voice anywhere.
He stood, looking at a man with hair cut just below his jaw, which was free of any sign of a beard.
“Nicolo.” He blinked in surprise, found his mouth had suddenly gone dry. “You look...”
The old lady took the onion from his hand, thankfully distracting him from staring gape mouthed at his companion as he apologized once again and watched her leave.
Turning back to Nicolo he smiled. “I see you found the barber shop.” Doing his best not to openly stare and failing miserably, he covered by noting, “They did well with the shave; I don’t see any nicks on your skin.” He forced himself not to reach out and touch it like he longed to do. “Of course, they would have healed if they had, I suppose.”
“No, he did his job well,” Nicolo assured him, before asking self-consciously. “Does it...does it look...good?”
Yusuf couldn’t help but laugh at the thought Nicolo had no idea how amazing he looked. “My soul, that is like asking if the stars look good shining brilliantly in the night sky.”
Nicolo grinned bashfully, lowering his eyes as his skin turned pink in, of all things, a blush. If he’d ever done that before, Yusuf had never seen it hidden beneath the full beard and long hair that were now gone. Then Nicolo lifted his eyes to Yusuf’s and smiled warmly, and Yusuf thought his heart might burst.
It was like looking into the rising sun at dawn.
That man is the moon when I am lost in darkness and warmth when I shiver in cold.
Muziris, February 20, 1101
In many ways, Muziris was like most other port cities Nicolo had visited. The docks were set up like most, with incoming ships anchored in the harbor waiting their turn at being offloaded of their haul. There was a port authority collecting taxes, and captains arguing about the fee. The languages were foreign, some extremely so, some becoming more familiar, but everyone on the docks understood the language of commerce and gold broke down all barriers.
In other ways, however, Muziris was like no place Nicolo had ever seen. As worldly as Yusuf was with his travels, even he seemed in awe of the port in which they’d landed. Half the ships were of a type Nicolo had never seen, but Asim, one of the younger sailors from the ship they'd traveled on for the month and half trip from Al-Basra, had eagerly identified them when they sailed into the harbor.
Flat bottomed junks from Guangzhou, their four, oddly rigid, rectangular sails braced with bamboo batten across their entire span, sat anchored next to other dromons like their own ship, with large, deeply curved hulls and a single, massive, billowing sail that had stretched taught in the strong monsoonal winds that had carried them here. Then there were a multitude of the smaller triangle-sailed jalbuts, and the larger, double-masted batils favored by the local sailors. Nicolo even saw a nava , the square-hulled ship with its three triangular sails similar to the one Nicolo and the Holy Army had used as transport from Genoa. There were some Nicolo had seen in Genoa often enough, craft of a form similar to the nava from Tunis, Lisbon, and Galacia There were others of a type even Asim could not name, with outriggers and square sails that supposedly came from the other side of the world.
That had only been in the harbor; the wonders only increased in the city itself. While there were plenty of Muslims, and Arabic was spoken widely, the city was primarily Hindu, and although the script was more similar to Arabic than Latin, neither Yusuf nor Nicolo could read it. The clothing was predominantly silk in vivid colors, thinner and less bulky than the robes that had provided protection from the desert sun and wind. The air was humid, thick with moisture that seemed to hang low and heavy over the lush, green mountains in the distance. Nicolo could not remember the last time he’d seen so much green, so familiar the vast expanses of golden sand and brown, rocky ground had become of the past few years.
The food was different, as well. The curries tasted less of the earthy cloves and cumin he’d grown used to over the past year and a half, and more strongly of ginger and citrus. Even the bread, still flat and unleavened, was chewier than that common in Baghdad or Al-Basra, and the rice of a longer, slender form. Although, it was three days before they were even allowed to leave the ship and head into the city.
Apparently, one of the ships from Lisbon came into port with half their crew dead from a plague. Nicolo had seen sickness wipe out a quarter of their forces in a matter of days and knew how deadly it could be. The local authorities had no desire to see the same happen in their city, so that all ships were segregated until it was determined none were carrying the sickness.
Asim, who saw bad omens in every passing cloud, scoffed at the idea. “There is no way they can keep the sickness from the city. I guarantee one of those sick sailors fucked a whore. After that, there will be no stopping the spread.”
Considering the small craft brimming with prostitutes that filled the empty spaces between the anchored ships in the harbor, Nicolo didn’t doubt the prediction.
Asim had already warned them on the voyage that they had arrived at the wrong time. With the winds waning, the city would be full of pirates and brigands who were trapped until they could either return west in a few months, or continue east in another eight. If they had left Al-Brasa only a month earlier, they could have caught a ship bound for Guangzhou with little worry for the wind. As it was, Asim had assured them they were taking their lives into their own hands by staying in the city. That was, if they could find a place to stay.
Even their plans for staying in the forest outside the city were met with a tsk and shake of the head. “Where do you think these thieves and murderers set up camp for the season?”
It was a good point, but without sufficient coin to find other lodgings for that long, they really had little choice.
Nicolo, however, was currently wishing they’d somehow found another option.
Yusuf, sword still in his hand, looked down on the body at his feet. He held up a warning hand to stop Nicolo. “Come no closer.”
Even from the distance he maintained, Nicolo could see the welts on the man’s body. “He spit on you,” Nicolo reminded needlessly, seeing as Yusuf had wiped it from his face before running the man through with his sword.
At first, they’d thought the man was robbing them, but his erratic behavior had Nicolo thinking he must be insane, a concept he’d only learned about from Ibn Sina, a physician they’d met in Hamadan. His work was one of the first books Nicolo had ever read in Arabic. Back in Genoa, the sick man would have been exorcised of his demons or bled until they left his body. That may have only occurred when the patient died of blood loss, but either way, the Holy Church felt the matter was settled. The more time Nicolo spent with the Muslim academics, the more he understood why Yusuf had once called him a barbarian. Even the concept of separating the sick from the healthy to stop a disease from spreading was unique to the east.
The way Yusuf tried to calmly talk to the man, asking politely that he let them pass, he must have thought the same about the man’s mental state. Then the man had cursed at him, spit in his face, and raised his sword in attack.
It was then that Nicolo noticed the pox, but his warning had come too late, and Yusuf had run him through. Nicolo wondered if the man was delirious from his fever; Nicolo had seen similar in more than one fellow crusader who had fallen ill.
“I suppose we found another customer of the whore,” Yusuf noted. He grinned at Nicolo but his eyes held the look of a condemned man. “I’ll burn the body.”
“I’ll help,” Nicolo offered.
“No!” Yusuf snapped. “You will come no closer to him or to me.”
“Yusuf, if you get sick, you will heal,” Nicolo reasoned. “We both will.”
“How do you know? How do you know whatever it is that heals wounds from a blade will also heal disease?” Yusuf shook his head. “I pray that you are right, my soul, but I will not risk you if that is not the case.”
Nicolo was worried about the same, but not for himself. The thought of being in this foreign land, with its odd beliefs, and temples displaying strange, multiarmed gods and images of people doing things Nicolo had been taught would send him straight to Hell, not to mention the odd, leafy vegetation so thick it seemed to form a green wall... the thought of being here on his own, without Yusuf, was disconcerting enough. The thought of being in a world without Yusuf, was absolutely terrifying. Nicolo might survive, but what was the point?
“You do not get to choose your death, that is my right,” Yusuf reminded him. “You will abide by my wishes and keep your distance.”
Nicolo didn’t argue. How could he after he’d made the same argument months before? He simply nodded and abided by Yusuf’s wishes...for about a day and a half.
Yusuf’s fever started a few hours later, as he had suspected it would. Nicolo had seen similar plagues wipe out an entire garrison in a matter of days. The welts started appearing soon after that. Nicolo did as he was asked and stayed on the far side of their camp, spending most of the day with his nose in his book, while his eyes constantly sought out Yusuf for signs of either improvement or decline. To Nicolo’s dismay, it was the latter, so that by dinner time, Yusuf refused Nicolo’s offer of food. He didn’t even rise from his bedding for his evening prayers.
Nicolo, however, prayed for the both of them. Prayed to God, who Yusuf called Allah, to give Yusuf strength to recover, to give Nicolo strength to abide by Yusuf’s wishes, knowing they were useless as soon as the whispered words left his lips. Yusuf was dying; Nicolo knew it in his heart. Every fiber of his being was telling his that was the case.
Ever since he’d laid eyes on Yusuf, he’d felt drawn to the man. Even in the heat of battle, something had pulled Nicolo toward him out of the hundreds of others on the field. Whatever had bound them in death, in rebirth, it also bound them in life as tightly as if they were tied together by leather straps. Those first fateful days of war, it had been blind fury that drew him to Yusuf. Now, it was another, just as powerful emotion that pulled Nicolo to Yusuf, an emotion as far from hate as he was from Genoa.
Nicolo could feel the heat of the fever before he even touched Yusuf, and Yusuf’s breath came in labored rasps. He stirred, opening eyes that shone fever-bright in the firelight, his dark curls clung to sweat-soaked skin. “Nicolo...you...you should not...” Even that much conversation seemed to exhaust him and he shivered despite the warmth of the night.
“There is no use arguing about it now,” Nicolo chastised. “The deed is done.” Gently easing his arm beneath his friend to prop him up, he uncorked Yusuf’s waterskin. “You must drink something.”
Yusuf managed to swallow a few sips, then collapsed weakly against Nicolo. “I’m...terrible person,” he mumbled into Nicolo’s shoulder. “Prayed to Allah...see you again...and now...”
Nicolo wrapped his other arm around Yusuf to hold him closer when he shivered again. “I would be nowhere else, my heart.”
“I am dying,” Yusuf sounded near tears. “Now you will, too.”
“You will awaken,” Nicolo promised, prayed to God that it was truth he spoke. “And then you can care for me the way I care for you.”
“If I don’t wake?”
Nicolo sighed heavily, leaned his cheek against the top of Yusuf’s head. “Your death is mine.”
It was ridiculous to think he’d rather not live at all if the only other option was to live in a world without Yusuf. The man was Muslim, an infidel, his sworn enemy; he should be seeking his death, not wishing to share it. Yet, it had become abundantly clear to Nicolo that they were two halves of the same person, one soul divided equally between them, and he firmly believed, one could not exist without the other. He had no idea if they had been this way since birth, seeking each other the way they now sought the women, or had it happened the moment they first killed one another. All he did know was that he loved this man in a way that defied all reason or logic or sanity. Nicolo spoke three languages, and none of them had words to describe what he felt toward the man he held in his arms.
Easing down, Nicolo maneuvered Yusuf so that he lay with his head pillowed on Nicolo’s chest. Nicolo tightened his arms around him. “Rest now. I’ll be here when you wake.”
Nicolo held him like that the rest of the night, soothing him when he dreamed in his fevered sleep, ignoring the onset of his own symptoms. The sky was just starting to lighten with dawn when Yusuf’s labored breathing stopped all together. Nicolo pressed his hand against Yusuf’s chest to feel his heart beat once...
Time seemed to stop with Yusuf’s heart. The world narrowed to the spot where Nicolo’s hand rested against skin that was still unnaturally warm even in death. Beat, he willed it. Beat, I beg you, beat .
“ Yusuf, please, you must-- ”
Yusuf gasped in his arms, and his heart suddenly raced beneath Nicolo’s fingers.
Nicolo’s hand fisted of its own volition into the shirt Yusuf wore, even as Yusuf sat and looked around to orient himself.
“Look!” Yusuf smiled brightly and held out his arms to show Nicolo, who pushed himself up weakly, as well. “You were right! We can recover from a pox!”
Nicolo couldn’t seem to let go of Yusuf, felt a shudder pass through his entire body to hear Yusuf sounding his old self already.
“Did you care for me all night?” Yusuf asked in amazement. “Nicolo?”
Looking at his hand still clinging tightly to the newly recovered man, Nicolo noticed the lesions already appearing. Apparently, the shivering was from fever, and was quickly followed by more.
“Don’t worry,” Nicolo assured, “you will have your chance to return the favor.” Then he collapsed into Yusuf when the world seemed to tilt unexpectedly.
“You have brought this on yourself.” Yusuf chastised as he was lowering Nicolo onto the bedding. “I warned you to stay away, but of course, Nicolo de Genoa always knows best.” His touch to Nicolo’s brow was much gentler than his words. “You feel as if you are on fire,” Yusuf accused with a disappointed shake of his head, as if Nicolo had planned it that way just to vex him.
Looking up to see worried brown eyes watching him closely, Nicolo sighed in his own frustration. “Yusuf, my heart, I am dying; please allow me to do so in peace without your constant nagging.”
Yusuf looked genuinely torn between continuing his rant and abiding by Nicolo’s dying wishes. It would have been humorous if Nicolo didn’t feel so miserable. Finally, Yusuf simply pulled the covers up around Nicolo’s neck. “I’ll brew you some tea.” Although, he sounded incredibly inconvenienced about having to do so.
Still, when he returned with a cup smelling strongly of mint, he coaxed, gently, “Come, my soul, drink.”
The rest of the night, his ministrations were just as caring. Nicolo was aware of most, the way Yusuf used wet cloths to cool Nicolo’s fevered brow, the way he kept offering tea and a thin broth to eat until Nicolo refused to take anymore, the way he added his own blanket to Nicolo’s when the sun set and the chills had Nicolo’s teeth chattering. Eventually, he even crawled under the covers with Nicolo to add his own body heat to warm the sick man.
Nicolo dozed, dreamed as the fever took a firmer hold on him, until he couldn’t tell reality from memory or imagination.
He dreamt of his mother, who never said goodbye when he left for the monastery at the age of twelve to finish his education on the path to becoming a priest. Nicolo had wanted nothing more than to stay with his brothers and continue his arms training, but that was not the plan, and he was expected to follow the plan his family had laid out for him, that God had laid out for him. He had barely thought, much less dreamt, of his mother these many years, who, when he ran away home less than a year later, had refused to see him, and had one of the servants haul him back to the monastery.
The servant, an irritable older man who ran a cart between the fields and the house, had only shook his head at the heartbroken boy sitting next to him. “Your mother promised you to God the day you were born. You can’t expect her to love something that wasn’t hers to begin with.”
Nicolo assumed that was the old man’s attempt at comfort. As pathetic as it was, it was a kindness his mother never provided.
“Easy, easy,” Yusuf’s voice soothed from somewhere in the distance.
Yusuf, although he never spoke of returning to his family beyond that first night when they had met without killing one another, had occasionally come across a trader he had known before the wars. He would always ask after other traders they had known, slipping in his uncle and other family almost as an afterthought. Nicolo, however, could see on his face how eagerly he sought the knowledge, how he missed them.
Nicolo often wondered if the real reason Yusuf had never returned home was because of the call of the women in their dreams; if it had only been Nicolo, would he have stayed.
“Nicolo, I am here,” Yusuf promised, brushing hair from his forehead with fingers callused by the regular handling of the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword.
Yusuf was an artist with his sword, with his charcoal, his words. He captured the beauty of the world, made the world more beautiful.
Forcing his eyes open, Nicolo confessed, “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever known, my love.”
The worry on Yusuf’s face turned to confusion. “I don’t...I can’t understand...” He switched from Arabic to Italian. “Are you speaking Italian? Because I don’t know the words.”
Nicolo was speaking the only words he could remember, the ones of his childhood that were common to his region, the ones he had last spoken to his mother. His mother had sent him away.
“Yusuf, please don’t leave me,” he implored. “Don’t send me away.”
“I swear, all will be well, my soul.”
Nicolo’s vision swam, and the image of Yusuf was washed away like the waves washing over sand. “Stay.” If Yusuf would oblige that one, single request, he believed Yusuf was right and all would be well. “Stay.”
The word must have been close enough to Italian that Yusuf understood it, or maybe it was the way Nicolo rolled to his side and pulled Yusuf’s arm around him so that Yusuf became a warming presence along his entire back. Whatever the reason, Yusuf tightened his hold when Nicolo shivered again, and promised, “I’m here. Rest easy; I have you.”
Nicolo exhaled at the feel of Yusuf’s warm breath on his neck. “I could die happy just like this.” He huffed a laugh at the thought he was in the process doing just that.
Yusuf raised his head and Nicolo wanted to weep at the loss of the sensation of soft curls against his skin. “You are amused?”
“No, no, no, lie down,” Nicolo complained. “Just hold me like this, every night, just like this. Please, lie down.”
Eventually, Yusuf did as he was asked. Nicolo wasn’t sure if Yusuf understood him or not, but he really didn’t care. He felt horrible, his body ached, his mind wouldn’t focus, his lungs struggled to pull in breath, but Yusuf made it a little better, so very much a little bit better.
He took Yusuf’s hand and placed it flat over his heart. “It will be hard when it stops,” he warned, speaking from experience. “It will hurt in your own heart, but mine will start again. For you. It will start again for you.”
“Shhh,” Yusuf soothed behind his ear. “You can tell me when you wake in the morning.”
Nicolo didn’t last until morning. He wasn’t sure when he had actually died, he didn’t experience the same bright light and unfathomable darkness as when he’d died in the past. Maybe he was unconscious when it happened. All he knew was that one minute he was being held safely in Yusuf’s arms, the next he was suddenly aware of the night sky above him, and then Yusuf’s hand on his back, helping him sit as he gulped air.
“You’re healed,” Yusuf said, the relief obvious in his voice. “All is well; you’re healed.”
Nicolo suspected he was saying it more for his own benefit than Nicolo’s.
“Told you that’s what would happen.” Nicolo grinned, which made Yusuf smile, as he’d hoped it would.
Yusuf laughed. “There will be no living with you now.”
Even through his happiness, Yusuf looked exhausted, as exhausted as Nicolo felt. Sure, they were both healed, but they’d also both been up for two straight nights, either ill or caring for the other. Nicolo fell backwards, even as he laughed in return. Patting the space beside him, he coaxed Yusuf to join him to stare up at the stars filling the night sky.
“We still have a few hours before dawn,” Nicolo noted, studying the position of the stars. “We should take advantage and sleep.”
Yusuf didn’t agree or disagree, but he didn’t argue the point either. He also didn’t move away. He was no longer holding Nicolo, but he still felt nice pressed against Nicolo’s side.
Finally, he said, “You were speaking to me last night, in your fever; I couldn’t understand the language.”
“Did I?” Nicolo frowned. It was honestly a blur, odd memories that he wasn’t sure if they were dreams or reality.
“You said the word, gugent many times.”
Nicolo was thankful for the darkness so Yusuf couldn’t see his mortification at apparently confessing his love for Yusuf while delirious in fever.
“Ah, it is Romanshe, the language of my childhood. I haven’t spoken it in many years. The fever... it must have brought out memories.”
Yusuf seemed content with the answer because he fell silent for a long moment, but then he asked, “So, what does gugent mean?”
Reaching out, Nicolo patted sloppily at Yusuf’s chest. “I’ll show you in the morning. It is too much to explain now.”
It was too complex for a short conversation, and yet so very simple. Maybe, Nicolo decided, the time had come for a longer discussion on the subject.
I love that man beyond measure and reason. His kiss still thrills me, even after a millennium since I first tasted him.
Muziris, February 23, 1101
Yusuf had decided he really didn’t care for this strange land where they were currently trapped.
Perhaps trapped was too strong a word, seeing as they could head out across the vast expanse of land to the east to reach their destination... a destination neither of them knew at the moment, only that they needed to keep moving east. Still, it would take them longer to reach anywhere near as far as Yusuf felt they needed to travel over land than it would if they waited many months from now for a ship to take them. However, considering they’d both died of a pestilence within a week of arriving in Muziris, it wasn’t his favorite place they’d traveled to date.
He’d seen Nicolo die before, he’d caused Nicolo to die before, but to watch him waste away in a fevered delirium, even though he knew he’d awake again, had been worse than all the other deaths combined. It was worse even than his own death by the same sickness. Not to mention, he expected to rot in the worst corners of hell for enjoying holding Nicolo in his arms like he had up until the point the man drew his final breaths.
Nicolo, however, seemed fine this morning, almost happy as they walked back toward the city from their camp in the forest above it. They had discussed getting horses again, but it seemed a waste at this point as long as they planned to wait for another ship. Although it would be safer to be mounted against any adversaries that might come at them, their coin would be put to better use on other things at the moment.
Nicolo was the one who wanted to journey into town, suggesting a visit to the baths, which Yusuf would welcome gladly after sweating through his clothing with his fever. Nicolo even mentioned a visit to the barber. He was no longer smooth faced, although he kept his beard close cropped so that it looked more like a shadow against his light skin. So, Yusuf was surprised when Nicolo gave a hitch of his head and started down a path that led to a temple they had seen along the road.
“Where are we going?” Yusuf asked in confusion.
“Come, I wish to show you something,” was all Nicolo had said, a hint of a mischievous grin curling his lips.
The temple was old, partially overgrown with greenery, but still used by some of the locals who lived in the area. There was an altar inside, a stone relief of one of the many Hindu deities adorned the back wall with a stone slab at the god’s feet overflowing with offerings of exotic fruit and bright flowers at its feet. Yusuf found it hard to tell male from female when it came to their gods, but that might have been the point.
Regardless of the gender, the locals had no problem with depicting the act of sex on the temple walls, nor did those portrayed in the reliefs seem to have any concern for which gender they coupled with. Many included multiples of both genders seemingly enjoying themselves.
Nicolo had wandered over to a far corner and was staring up at one of the pairings on the wall. “I find this one rather intriguing.”
Yusuf found the idea of Nicolo, finding anything in here intriguing, very intriguing in and of itself. His church taught that any sex not related to producing a child was a sin, and honestly, the prophet’s teachings were much the same. Still, Nicolo had turned out to be a bit of a scholar, so maybe his interest was purely intellectual.
Yusuf followed Nicolo’s line of sight to see which one he was studying, then took a few steps closer and squinted to make sure he was seeing it correctly. It was of two men, both nude, and one was reaching out to touch the erect manhood of the other. Yusuf felt himself flush at the same moment his own body had a similar reaction as the aroused man in the image.
“That is... I mean, he is...they are obviously...” Yusuf looked over at Nicolo, who was watching him intently.
The thing about Nicolo was that he rarely said much in words, but his expressions, as subtle as they were, spoke volumes. A slight cock to his head, a curl of his lips, a half rise of his eyebrows, told Yusuf more than any flowery speech or prolonged rant ever could. He’d seen thousands of those expressions play across that gorgeous face and understood everyone.
Or so he thought.
What he saw now was humor, but also nervous worry, there was also a touch of hopeful pleading, a spark of desire, and affection...no, it was more than affection, so much more. He’d seen that look in Nicolo’s eyes so many times over the past year, how had he not seen what it actually meant? It took his breath away, as well as his word.
“Nicolo.” He practically exhaled the name. “I didn’t... I mean, I had hoped... You are...”
Nicolo was a man of action. He almost never discussed what he wanted to do; he just did it. Looking back, Nicolo had been showing Yusuf how he felt all this time. Every time he’d offered Yusuf his water skin before taking a drink himself, every time he volunteered to care for the horses so Yusuf could pray, that look he saw so clearly now had been in Nicolo’s eyes. It was right there in the way he was always worrying for Yusuf’s immortal soul or condemning himself to death to comfort Yusuf during his. The man had learned Arabic, worked to master Yusuf’s dialect, even though they could have easily communicated in Italian. All this time, Yusuf was waiting for Nicolo to say something when he’d practically been screaming it at Yusuf in his own way.
Nicolo grinned wider, but the worry was still there in the narrowing of his eyes. “I am witness to a miracle. Yusuf of a thousand names and even more words can’t seem to find any now.”
“Nicolo,” he said again, because what else could he say? Words were useless against that name, this man, who embodied everything that was lyrical and eloquent in the world.
Apparently, it was enough, because Nicolo did what he did best; he took action.
Closing the distance between them in two quick steps, Nicolo cupped Yusuf’s jaw, leaned in without hesitation, and kissed him.
Yusuf staggered back from the force of it, but eagerly kissed him back. He gripped tight into Nicolo’s hips to keep his balance, which had the added benefit of Nicolo making a sound like a man taking the first bite of his favorite meal after a long day’s ride without food.
Yusuf made a more disappointed sound when Nicolo broke the kiss, but he stayed in so close his words vibrated on Yusuf’s lips. “ Gugent, ” Nicolo murmured, the rough pads of his thumbs burned like the desert sand along Yusuf’s cheeks.
“What?” Yusuf asked in breathless confusion, frustration, wanting Nicolo’s mouth back on his.
“You asked what it meant,” Nicolo explained, running his nose along Yusuf’s. “It means love.”
Yusuf smiled. “ Gugent ,” he repeated in awe, even as he sought out Nicolo’s lips once again. “ Ya Hyati, ” he said in Arabic even as he kissed him again, “ Mio amato ” in Italian, “ doostetaan daaram,” in Persian. “I wish I spoke a thousand languages so I could say it to you in every one.”
“Yusuf, my love,” Nicolo murmured, placing a soft kiss on each of Yusuf’s eyelids in a way that literally made Yusuf feel like his legs might give out. “For once, stop talking, and concentrate on kissing me.”
Doing as he was told, Yusuf slid one hand to Nicolo’s lower back to pull him in even closer, parting his lips as an invitation that Nicolo was more than eager to accept. Nicolo’s fingers twisted in Yusuf’s curls as he deepened the kiss, and Yusuf moaned at the feel of Nicolo’s tongue sliding against his own.
Never taking his lips from Nicolo’s, Yusuf blindly stepped backwards, pulling Nicolo along with him, until he felt the stone wall at his back and the hard length of Nicolo pressing against his own swollen cock. He tipped his hips forward and felt Nicolo’s breath stutter in his chest. Then Nicolo was grinding back against Yusuf in a way that had Yusuf moving his hand down and inside the back of Nicolo’s pants to grip one bare ass cheek to hold him in tight.
Nicolo groaned and sucked in a ragged breath. “Oh, all that is holy....Yusuf...” He had his eyes closed and seemed to be concentrating on not losing his mind all together.
Yusuf knew the feeling. He used his other hand to cradle Nicolo’s cheek. “My soul? You want this, yes?” he asked hopefully, desperately.
Nicolo nodded wordless, pressed his forehead to Yusuf’s, and thrust against him.
Yusuf lifted his hips to meet him, felt strong muscles undulate beneath his hand as Nicolo thrusted once more. Tilting his head, he found Nicolo’s lips again and kissed him in a growing heat to match the one in his groin.
Nicolo returned the kiss with the same passion, as he tangled their fingers and pressed them against the wall above Yusuf’s head.
Yusuf could feel the scratches forming where his back and hand scraped against the stone as their rutting quickened, felt them healing just as quickly as they formed, felt Nicolo panting against his mouth with each thrust, felt his orgasm building by the second.
“Nicolo... my love...my soul...my...oh, fuck!” Yusuf exclaimed when Nicolo bucked in his arms and cried out in his release; it was enough to push Yusuf over the edge with his own guttural moan.
They stayed that way, Yusuf pinned to the wall, Nicolo held close against him, riding out the waves of sensation, catching their collective breath, nuzzling blindly at each other’s cheeks and jaws, until Nicolo was kissing him again. This time the kisses were less in need and felt more like giving thanks, at least that’s what Yusuf hoped Nicolo felt from the way he was kissing him back in return.
Eventually, Nicolo pulled back to give Yusuf a smile of pure adoration. “Do you think it was offensive to do that in a temple?” He didn’t seem too concerned given the way he traced Yusuf’s lower lip with his thumb.
Yusuf glanced around at the sexual images carved around the room. “Are you kidding? I think we may have just unintentionally converted.”
Nicolo joined in Yusuf’s laughter, his entire face brightening in a way that made Yusuf’s chest tighten. He reached up to scratch gently at Nicolo’s scruffy beard. “How, by Allah’s grace, did I ever get lucky enough to find you?”
Nicolo closed his eyes and savored Yusuf’s touch, not unlike a cat when petted at that favored spot behind his ears. Then he turned into Yusuf’s hand and kissed his palm and his wrist before tracing his fingers lightly over the inside of Yusuf’s arm, as if he were trying to map every inch of it with his fingertips.
Yusuf pulled him in for a warm, slow kiss that was already stirring his loins to life again. “I would have you in a real bed tonight, where we can take our time, with no clothes, no stone walls, no heathen idols watching.” Grinning he hitched his chin to indicate one on the opposite side of the room. “Although, I’m willing to take a few suggestions from them if you are.”
“Did you bring your sketchbook to take notes?” Nicolo teased with a nip at his lower lip.
“I think I will be able to recall on my own,” Yusuf assured. “Perhaps be inspired by your body next to mine.”
Tracing his nose up Yusuf’s neck, Nicolo kissed behind his ear. “I think the baths and a room for one night would be worth the price.”
They ended up paying three nights for a room with a soft bed that they were in more than they were out. Yusuf took the time to discover every secret wish Nicolo had, fulfill every desire Nicolo never knew he wanted, and find every spot on Nicolo’s body that made him arch off the mattress and call out Yusuf's name. He took great pleasure in letting Nicolo do the same to him.
If Nicolo had still been a virgin when they first met, Yusuf made damn sure he wasn’t by the time they left.
His body, to this day, awakens a passion you will never know.
Tian Shan Mountains, May 16, 1173
“We need to talk about the way you boys fight.”
Andromache the Scythian was by far the most unusual person Nicolo had ever met. Although Quynh was a close second. After dreaming of them for over seventy years, they had finally found each other a few months prior.
Why had it taken seventy years? Well, both parties had had a few distractions along the way. Andromache and Quynh had spent most of the time protecting villagers from warlords, and Nicolo and Yusuf had spent a few decades trying to perfect the act of sex.
Honestly, they hadn’t set out to do that, but within ten years of being together, they thought maybe they were aging slower than others. At twenty years, they decided they were aging much slower than others. At thirty years, they started to suspect they weren’t aging at all, so what was the hurry? At that point, they had a bit of a crisis as a couple, as they came to the conclusion that they may not just be spending fifty years together, but all eternity. While the sex was great, was it great enough to last to the end of time? So, they spent a decade and a half studying under a guru in the mountains of Tibet learning meditation as a means to personal growth, as well as how to maintain an orgasm for longer than some of the formal masses Nicolo had attended while still a priest.
Andromache didn’t judge them for the way they’d spent their time, although she made it very clear their purpose wasn’t to spend the next millennia screwing each other’s brains out; it was to help those in need...and in between saving lives they were free to screw each other’s brains out. Still, in all her five thousand years on earth, she admitted she had never met two of their kind that had been reborn together. She assumed that a couple bound together like they were, looking at spending the next several thousands of years together, might have a different set of issues than those who had been alone for long stretches. Besides, the first couple hundred years were always the toughest for the transition, but once they got the hang of it, they’d be fine.
Andromache had never met anyone older than herself, and had actually only met two others: Quynh whom she’d known for almost two thousand years, and Lykon, who had traveled with them for over a thousand years before, for no reason Andromache or Quynh could explain, he died. He simply stopped healing one day.
Yusuf’s hand had gripped Nicolo’s when he heard that news, and they held each other a little closer that night. The thought that one of them might simply stop living one day was terrifying, but in a way, Nicolo found it to be a relief. It added a bit of normalcy to all of this. They would have longer than most together, already had, but eventually it would end, they would end, so they had to make the most of the time they did have. Nicolo planned to treasure every moment he had with the man sleeping beside him, even if it was for a millennium.
If that news wasn’t enough to worry about, they were now getting a lecture on their fighting.
“What’s wrong with our fighting?” Yusuf asked.
Nicolo was sure he wasn’t the only one to hear the defensiveness in Yusuf’s voice.
“You fight like Hercules fucked,” she told them. “No form, little skill, but in the end, it gets the job done.”
Yusuf’s frown matched Nicolo’s. Although, no one fought like Andromache. No one. Not even Quynh who was a holy terror in a fight in her own right.
“But,” Andromache continued, “you fuck like Hercules fought.”
Nicolo still found it a bit disturbing that the two women had been watching them for a couple days before finally making themselves known to the men.... watching them day and night, watching everything they did.
He and Yusuf had been lying entangled in a sweaty heap when Andromache had suddenly appeared over them, kicking away their swords before they could reach them.
“You have stamina, I’ll give you that,” she said in perfectly inflected Arabic, before switching to Italian to add, “The tantric stuff takes forever, though.”
Behind her, Quynh added, “We were starting to get bored.”
Andromache shrugged with a sly grin. “Well, she was anyway.”
Pushing that mortifying introduction aside, Nicolo asked in confusion, “So, you want us to fight like Hercules fought?”
“Actually, I want you to fight like Achilles and Patroclus fought, but baby steps.” She considered for a moment before adding, “You would probably do well to fuck like them, too.”
“They were much faster,” Quynh added.
“Did you even ever see them?” Yusuf asked, obviously doing the same math Nicolo had.
Andromache’s lips twitched in humor, and the women shared a knowing glance. “No, she didn’t, but she’s right. They were like a couple of rabid monkeys when they had sex, but they fought like one entity split it two, two bodies with one mind, one heart, just like the two of you could with a little work.”
That’s how Nicolo ended up blindfolded in a field with Andromache spinning him in a tight circle. “When I stop you, I want you to point to Yusuf.”
“While blindfolded?” Nicolo asked in disbelief.
“Are you trying to tell me you don’t know his scent? The sound of his footsteps? The pattern of his breathing? His heartbeat?” She stopped him, hands on his shoulders to steady him. “You’ve spent almost every moment of your life with this man for over seventy years. You can do this.”
Nicolo considered what she said, thought about how he could touch Yusuf in sleep and the man would move instinctively to wrap Nicolo in his arms, how he could read Yusuf’s mood by the slightest curve of his lips, how he knew Yusuf’s patience had a limit and the man was going to reach it any second now.
“Are we going to do this or not?” Yusuf yelled impatiently from across the glen.
Nicolo automatically pointed in the direction of his voice and shot a smug grin at Andromache. “You’re right, I do know how to find him.”
“Athena’s tits!” Andromache swore before yelling, “Quynh!
Nicolo’s humor vanished, however, when he heard a blade drawn, quickly followed by the sound of Yusuf groan of pain.
“Yusuf!” Nicolo screamed, reaching to pull off his blindfold and feeling Andromache’s blade slide into his belly.
“This is not a joke,” Andromache whispered fiercely at his ear. “You will take this seriously, both of you will, and if you don’t, you will be punished the only way I know how. You screw up, Yusuf dies. He screws up, you will die. Am I clear?”
Nicolo could only nod wordlessly through the searing pain in his abdomen.
“Good,” Andromache said, twisting her blade in a way to ensure a quick death.
As the blinding light engulfed him, he couldn’t help but wonder what had they gotten themselves into with these women.
When he woke gasping, he instantly pulled off the blindfold he still wore and looked across the field in search of Yusuf, exhaling in relief to see him standing, already starting across the grass to Nicolo.
Quynh stepped in front of him with her blade still red with Yusuf’s blood. Nicolo, however, knew that look on Yusuf’s face, knew it well, and he was going to make certain Nicolo was okay no matter what. If that meant Quynh struck him down every other step, well, he’d be one step closer when he came back to life.
“Stay,” Nicolo called out to him, motioning him back with a wave of his hand. “All is well. Stay.”
Yusuf paused, torn between doing as Nicolo asked and doing what he wanted, needed, to do. Finally, he threw up his arms in frustration and returned to his place on the opposite side of the field.
Andromache squatted on the ground beside Nicolo. “He is a stubborn one.”
Nicolo only shrugged. “He loves me, as I love him.” He stated it as the simple, inarguable fact that it was. Yusuf could write a thousand poems about his love for Nicolo, probably had over the years they’d been together, it still boiled down to those three words that made all of this worth anything: he loves me.
“Listen, I’m not trying to be a bitch about this.” At Nicolo’s disbelieving expression, Andromache amended, “Not much of one anyway. I’ve just seen a lot in the world, a lot of evil, a lot of the strong taking advantage of the weak. We can help that, do what’s right to help them.”
“Almost a hundred years ago the Pope told me, and a lot of men like me, that we could do what’s right for the Church, for our faith, and free Jerusalem from the hold of evil men. He was talking about men like Yusuf, the most beautiful being I’ve ever known. So, I went and I killed them, killed him many, many times.” Nicolo shook his head. “The people they told me were evil, who they told me to kill, they have families, friends, they love their children, just like people in Genoa. They are artists and healers, poets and men of science like I have never seen before. Their sin is that they call God by another name and for that they must die? Is that right?”
“No,” Andromache agreed, “it’s not.”
“So how can I know that you are not asking us to kill the same?”
“In five thousand years, most of the wars I’ve seen have been waged over the stupidest things. The majority of them come down to one ruler wanting to prove his dick is bigger than the other's. Oh, sure, they claim it’s over land, over the true religion, over taking what is rightfully theirs. It’s all a pile of horseshit. Others do it simply because they can; at least they’re honest. They are bigger and stronger and they want what others have. I don’t give a damn about politics or religion. I’ve seen atrocities committed in the name of gods who no one even remembers today, battles fought for cities that have crumbled into dust. I just know that there are always those who are caught in the middle, who gain nothing from either side winning, and have no way to defend themselves or protect their children. Those are the ones we help.”
Nicolo listened, thinking that Andromache sounded like she genuinely wanted to help where she could. She sounded like she was actually helping people for the right reasons, and that was something Nicolo hadn’t felt he’d done in a very long time.
Still, he’d have to convince Yusuf, because there was no question that if Yusuf refused, they would leave together. He was still watching Yusuf as he paced irritably across the way, never taking his eyes from Nicolo. Yusuf paused, and by his stance alone, Nicolo could tell Yusuf was about to attempt to reach him again. Nicolo gave the slightest shake of his head, and Yusuf stepped back and crossed his arms, still angry, but at least not tempting Quynh to run him through again.
Andromache didn’t miss the exchange either. “You two could be amazing together on the battlefield; you’re already halfway there.”
Nicolo took a deep breath, pulled the blindfold back into place. “Then help us get all the way there.”
Andromache gave him a hand up and started to spin him again. “I’ll still kill you if you fuck up.”
She did kill him, many times, or at least wounded him in the most painful ways she could conceive, which were vast and varied, and no doubt based on thousands of years of experience, but their fighting improved.
“Think of it like having sex only with a sword in your hand,” she told them as their training progressed. She had them standing face to face, shirtless, barefoot to prove that armor wasn’t necessary for them in battle. She walked around them as if studying their potential. “You know the feel of each other’s body even in the dark.” She ran her fingers down Yusuf’s arms to take his hand and place it against Nicolo’s bare chest. Yusuf splayed his hand wide to cover as much of Nicolo’s skin as he could, and his expression softened to feel Nicolo’s heart speed at the sensation.
Ever observant, Andromache didn’t miss the exchange, her voice turning even more sensual. “You know what he likes, what you can give him to make him feel amazing, what you want in return, and how he can give it to you.”
Yusuf’s thumb rubbed a small circle against Nicolo’s skin, and Nicolo leaned into the touch, covering Yusuf’s hand with his own.
“It’s the same in battle,” Andromache continued. “You should know where the other is at all times even as you fight, know if he needs help, more time to recover, or are you the one in need and he can provide help to you. You should know that he will be there to do just that and be planning your next move accordingly. What weapons does he have? Does he need more? Does he have one for you? And your movements when doing all of this should be as natural and easy as moving against each other in your bed.”
Yusuf’s eyebrow rose slightly, his mouth curled in the corner, an invitation Nicolo knew so damn well. Nicolo licked his lips even as Yusuf leaned in the smallest fraction, only to have Andromache’s battle ax appear between them.
“So, to provide motivation, you aren’t going to be moving together in bed until you can move together in battle.”
Nicolo blinked in surprise, but he could feel the anger vibrating in Yusuf’s fingers still on his chest.
“You are the spawn of a thousand demons,” he growled at the woman. “You are the fornicator of three-legged--”
Nicolo knew where this was going, having heard it many times before, often directed at himself. Only this time, he knew the consequences. He’d already moved, seeing Quynh pull her blade, and stepped between her and Yusuf, blocking her first blow with his own sword, but taking a vicious cut above his right hip from her second.
“Stop!” he yelled before Andromache could cleave her ax into Yusuf. Amazingly she did, so Nicolo turned his attention to Quynh. “You were supposed to kill me, not Yusuf when he breaks the rules. And I did exactly what you said I should do,” he told Andromache. “I protected my partner when he needed it, so you don’t get to kill him.”
Andromache grinned. “Yeah, but war isn’t fair, kid.” She gave Yusuf an identical wound to Nicolo’s own, which was already mostly healed.
He learned that lesson countless times over the next week as he and Yusuf worked to improve their fighting during the day and slept on opposite sides of the field at night. The lack of sex was bad enough, but it was Yusuf’s touch that he ached for, so that as the week wore on, he found every excuse to touch him as they practiced, and Yusuf did the same with him.
Andromache and Quynh took turns staying with each man at night, and on the sixth night, Quynh shared Nicolo’s fire while Yusuf and Andromache could be heard laughing in the distance.
“They are drunk,” Quynh noted when Nicolo frowned at the sound. “It’s a distraction.”
Quynh’s Arabic was rough, but good enough they could easily converse. Still, Nicolo frowned harder. Yusuf rarely drank, and if he did, never to excess. Nicolo wasn’t even sure if they could get drunk. Apparently, they could.
“A distraction from you,” Quynh clarified. “He mopes endlessly at night. She might even try to seduce him.”
“I wish her luck with that,” Nicolo told her, confident in Yusuf’s devotion to him. Still... He looked over once more when they laughed louder. “Do you plan to try the same with me?”
She shrugged noncommittally. “The hour is early still, so we shall see.”
“I thought, maybe, you and Andromache...”
“We have,” she admitted, “we do. When Lykon was alive, he joined us, as well. Perhaps in the years to come, you and Yusuf will join us, too.” She laughed at his look of concern. “What? Do you find the idea unappealing, or does it simply offend your morals?”
“Honestly, I have never considered being with anyone other than Yusuf. He is all that I could ever want, and I love him.”
“Love has other meanings after a thousand years.” Quynh turned her gaze to the fire. “What I feel for Andromache, for Lykon, what I have felt being with them, it is not like love or friendship or desire, although it is that, as well. It is almost like how a person feels about food.”
“Food?” Nicolo scoffed at the comparison.
“Yes, food. Sometimes you eat because you are ravenous for it, sometimes because it is placed before you, sometimes the meal is simple, other times it is lavish and exotic, sometimes it is quick and necessary, and sometimes it more for the companionship of those who share your meal, sometimes you are sustained more by that comradery than the food itself. But it is absolutely necessary for life, like air and water.” She added another piece of wood to the fire. “Passionate love, it fades, but the love I have for Andromache never will.”
Before Nicolo could argue that he could never see that happening with him and Yusuf, that he didn’t need to wait a thousand years because he already had the love she discussed with the man, Yusuf himself chimed in.
“Nicolo, my love,” he bellowed drunkenly from across the glen, “can you hear me?”
“Yes, my heart, I hear you fine,” he answered.
“Ah, very good,” Yusuf called back. “I have some things I would like to say to you.”
“Very well, go ahead,” Nicolo urged, and since Yusuf was speaking in Italian, he explained to Quynh, “He wishes to tell me something.”
“It is about your body, and your heart, and how much they all mean to me...because they do mean much to me, very much...to me.” His words slurred sloppily but the emotion was evident in them. “And especially your cock...although all of you is beautiful, I am just especially missing your cock this evening.”
Andromache cackled in laughter in the distance.
“As am I yours,” Nicolo assured, suppressing his own laughter, before telling Quynh, “Apparently, he has composed a verse for me.”
“Silence demon whore, I am reciting,” Yusuf chastised when Andromache laughed even harder, before beginning his poem.
Nicolo listened, an amused smile on his face the entire time, giving abbreviated summaries to Quynh as Yusuf spoke. “He is describing my skin in moonlight, the great love he sees in my eyes when he touches me makes him want to please me all through the night until we’re lost in darkness. Oh, and he’s apparently very fond of the sounds I make.”
“I will admit you make some impressively wanton noises during sex,” Quynh conceded, seemingly finding the whole ordeal hilarious.
It was hilarious, with Yusuf standing across the way, his swaying silhouette outlined by the light of their fire, yelling at the top of his lungs about his undying love for Nicolo and unfettered lust for Nicolo’s body. Except that it wasn’t funny at all, because Yusuf meant every word he drunkenly confessed.
Quynh leaned forward, a smile on her face. “What is he saying now?”
Nicolo sheepishly admitted, “He’s comparing my taste to fesenjan. It’s a stew of chicken and walnuts with pomegranates, his favorite meal.” When Quynh snickered uncontrollably, Nicolo confessed with a chuckle of his own, “It may not be his best work, although, the fesenjan comparison has come up before.”
“And how did you react to being compared to a stew the first time?” she asked through her giggles.
“I learned to cook it for him.”
Quynh stopped laughing and stared at him like she was seeing him for the first time.
Across the way, Yusuf had finished his performance.
“That was beautiful, my heart,” Nicolo called to him, every word as truthful as Yusuf’s ridiculous poem had been.
“I was wrong,” Quynh confessed. “All this time, I thought Yusuf was the romantic one, when it was really you.” She stood, patting his shoulder as she headed to her bedding. “Perhaps tomorrow you will best us, and he can compose poetry to read to you alone.”
Besting Quynh and Andromache seemed an impossible feat, but at least the women attempted to play fair. While Yusuf and Nicolo could use their ability to heal to continue fighting, if he or Yusuf ever managed a mortal strike to one of them, the woman was out until the next round began. He and Yusuf were learning to use that to their advantage, and had even taken Quynh out of play more than once. Andromache, however, was quick, agile, and incredibly aggressive, and she rarely suffered more than a cut.
Nicolo and Yusuf, however, had died more that week than they had even during the war. At one point, Nicolo woke practically nose to nose with Yusuf. For a moment, it felt like waking beside him in the morning, especially when Yusuf reached out and brushed Nicolo’s jaw with his knuckles. Nicolo was torn between closing his eyes and savoring the feel of it, or staring back into the brown ones he loved.
The sun was suddenly blocked by Andromache standing above them. “I’m starting to think you two are dying on purpose.”
Yusuf’s wink at Nicolo said maybe she was right, maybe they were willing to do anything for a minute together like this. Yusuf was grinning when he said, “You’ve found us out. If we die enough times, we’ll finally beat you, and I’ll be able to touch this man again at leisure.”
They pushed themselves to their feet yet again. Nicolo handed back Yusuf’s sword, then adjusted his grip on his own. They assumed their fighting stance once more, their left shoulders brushing as their bodies formed a spearhead. Nicolo could feel Yusuf’s muscles flex, still loose as he prepared for the oncoming attack. The day was warm, they had been working since the sun rose, so that when Nicolo pressed back into Yusuf slightly to say he was ready, his own sweat soaked skin slid easily against Yusuf’s.
They’d been doing this for days—the lightest touches of fingertips on hot skin, conveying messages of, I am here. I’m unharmed. This way. Ready. I’ll cover you. Go. With every brush of skin, Nicolo wanted nothing more than to lean in and feel Yusuf’s hands on him. He took advantage of helping Yusuf up from the ground after a skirmish, just to feel Yusuf’s hand in his, feel his breath on his lips for a second as they stood face to face. They’d take a moment to check each other over after a particularly rough fight, Nicolo resting his forehead on Yusuf’s, and breathe him in for a heartbeat, before they were called back into their battle stance. It was infuriating and intoxicating and Nicolo felt as if he would crawl out of his skin if Yusuf couldn’t touch it, really touch, soon.
Quynh twirled her pudao , her bladed pole weapon, as she sized them up. Nicolo thought she was going for Yusuf, but at the last second, when Andromache started the charge, she pivoted and leapt in front of Nicolo. His sword caught the staff as it came down, and he turned, using his weight to push back into her smaller form and knock her off balance. The position also gave him a chance to check on Yusuf, who was countering Andromache’s blows with his own curved blade. Thankfully, she typically kept her ax on the sidelines when they were training; Nicolo didn’t think he would ever have sex with Yusuf again if they’d had to best her wielding her favored weapon.
Quynh had recovered quickly, swiping Nicolo’s legs out from under him, so that he landed on his back in the grass. Yusuf’s blade was instantly above him, blocking the pudao, so that Nicolo could roll to his dropped sword and into Andromache’s booted foot that kicked him hard in the ribs. With the wind knocked from his lungs, her blade skewered into his shoulder as he reached once more for his sword. His grunt was more of frustration than pain, and he gave Yusuf a quick shake of his head to let him know he should keep fighting Quynh, even as Nicolo pulled his dagger and cut a vicious gash into Andromache’s calf. Not a killing wound by any means, but enough to have her backing up and pulling her sword free from his shoulder.
Nicolo felt his joint healing, and by the time he gained his feet, he was able to lift his sword once more. The only sign that he had even touched Andromache was the fresh blood still on her leg. She smiled her approval as he faced off against her once more, attacking in a blinding flash of steel that drove Nicolo back to back with Yusuf. Ends up that’s exactly where he wanted to be.
They’d learned early on that as fast and nimble as Quynh was, Andromache was exhausting to fight, the force of her blows was staggering. To counter that, they’d learned to maintain a position where they could swap off fighting the two women, trading a few blows with each. It was also easier to gauge the severity of a wound the other received, just by the sound of an inhaled breath or the tension in their muscles when they were this close.
Apparently, Quynh had caught onto what they were doing, timing the swing of her short blade to when Nicolo turned from Andromache to meet her. It cut deep into his side, causing him to stagger sideways before his knees buckled beneath him. Yusuf kicked hard into Andromache’s stomach so that he could turn to stop the killing blow Quynh was about to deliver Nicolo. That’s when Andromache cut behind his legs, severing tendons, so that Yusuf could no longer stand. He stumbled to his knees beside where Nicolo lay on the ground.
Nicolo watched in horror as Andromache grabbed a handful of dark curls to pull Yusuf’s head back and slice open his throat. Only Yusuf was smiling that self-assured grin of his...then he winked as he leaned his body forward ever so slightly, so that Andromache had to lean over him further, pressed up against his back.
Nicolo saw it, saw the same chance Yusuf had seen, possibly planned. It was a great plan, and as much as Nicolo hated it, he loved Yusuf more. He took his sword and ran it through Yusuf’s body then kept pushing until his hilt was flush against Yusuf’s chest, until it impaled the woman slitting his throat.
Andromache’s eyes widened first in surprise, then crinkled in amusement.
Nicolo barely noticed, as he was too busy chanting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” against Yusuf’s temple, his own chest feeling a tightness at what he’d done. It would have hurt less to stab himself. Yusuf’s only response was to press Nicolo’s hand against the hilt of his own curved blade.
Know what your partner has to offer, Andromache has taught them. Know what weapons he has that you need. Learn what every glance, every movement of his head means, like the slight nod that he felt as Yusuf silently told him, Now .
Nicolo rolled and swung Yusuf’s blade to catch Quynh across the abdomen as she lunged at him once more. She staggered back in shock at the wound, and Nicolo jumped to his feet, for once going on the attack against the woman, fueled by the anger at what he’d just had to do to Yusuf, and the absolute certainty that his sacrifice would not go unrewarded. Quynh blocked his blows, attempting to move back to better regain her footing, only to have Nicolo tackle her to the ground and raise Yusuf’s sword for the killing strike.
“Yield! I yield!” she yelled.
Nicolo’s lips curled savagely. “Sorry, war isn’t fair.” He thought he actually saw a glimmer of approval in her eyes when he ran her through.
Pulling Yusuf’s sword free of Quynh, he tossed it aside before returning to where Yusuf and Andromache lay on the ground.
Having managed to pull Nicolo’s sword free, Andromache was rubbing at her chest. “Zeus’ balls, that hurt,” she complained, already climbing to her feet.
Nicolo ignored her, instead dropping to his knees beside Yusuf, who was sitting up with a grimace of his own. As soon as he saw Nicolo, he broke into a bright smile that was matched by the one on Nicolo’s face. Nicolo’s hands moved quickly over completely healed skin just to double check before cupping Yusuf’s bearded jaw and kissing him, kissing him hard. Yusuf kissed him back with as much enthusiasm, his hands sliding firmly along Nicolo’s sides in a way that had him moaning into Yusuf’s mouth.
God, it had seemed like an eternity since he’d done this, kissed Yusuf, been kissed and touched in return without inhibition.
“Okay, so are we ready to go again?” Andromache asked.
Nicolo’s response was to climb into Yusuf’s lap and straddle his hips, even as he licked deeper into Yusuf’s mouth. Yusuf’s fingers were already at work on the ties to their leggings.
“Don’t tease them like that,” Quynh scolded. “They’ve earned a celebratory fuck.”
Later, that would come later, after they bathed away the sweat and blood in the river, when they lay in their bedding and could take their time with each other, taking turns working each other up until they were squirming and begging for more. Right now, he just wanted to get them off the quickest way they could.
“Fine, I guess we’ll leave them to it,” Andromache sighed.
Nicolo’s ties were loosened first, and he thrust against Yusuf’s sweat-slick, muscular belly. The friction was amazing, nowhere near enough, but a good way to pass the time while Yusuf undid his own ties. As soon as Yusuf was done, Nicolo wrapped his hand around Yusuf and squeezed.
“Oh, my soul, how I’ve missed this.” Yusuf groaned the words into Nicolo’s neck, sucking on a spot that had Nicolo dropping his head back to expose more of this throat to Yusuf’s attention.
Nicolo’s hand moved firmly over Yusuf’s member, and he shifted his hips so that his own could rub against it, too. Yusuf’s hand joined in to wrap around them both and encourage Nicolo’s hand to pump a little faster.
Nicolo nuzzled blindly at Yusuf’s temple, wrapping his free arm around Yusuf’s muscular shoulders and thrust into their hands. He slid against the length of Yusuf in the most exquisite way imaginable until he felt his climax building, too fast, not fast enough. He sought out Yusuf’s mouth again, kissing him in a building desperation to match the knot in the base of his spine that pulled tighter and tighter until it finally snapped, with Nicolo groaning Yusuf’s name against his lips.
Yusuf’s breath hitched after a few more strokes, and he buried his face at the junction of Nicolo’s neck and shoulder with a stuttering moan.
Nicolo held him close, running his finger through sweaty curls until Yusuf finally relaxed and lifted his head to look adoringly at Nicolo.
Nicolo shook his head in disbelief that they’d won, that he and Yusuf had just done this in the middle of a field, that this beautiful man loved him.
Yusuf laughed to see what was writ plain on his face. “Good to know we can exhibit self-control when necessary.”
Nicolo laughed with him. “Considering we went six whole days, I’d say we exhibited plenty of self-control.”
From her camp, Andromache called, “You two done yet? We need to discuss where we’re going next.”
Yusuf sighed, dropping his head to Nicolo’s chest.
Nicolo yelled back, a little more hopefully. “Does this mean training is over?”
“We took a vote,” Quynh said. “You could use more practice, but we decided we’d let other people kill you for a while instead of us.”
"Besides,” Andromache added, “neither of us wants to hear more of Yusuf’s lovesick poetry.”
Yusuf sighed dramatically. “Remind me again why we spent all this time trying to find those two?”
Nicolo ruffled Yusuf’s hair. “My heart, I look forward to every verse you write.”
His heart overflows with a kindness of which this world is not worth y.
Baghdad, February 13, 1258
They had been watching the Khan’s army for days before they decided to enter Baghdad. Actually, they had been watching them for decades, ever since Temujin had banded together the various nomadic horse tribes of the region and declared himself Genghis Khan over the Great Mongol State nearly sixty years before.
Even Andromache had never seen his like before. On the one hand, benevolent and tolerant of any and all religions, if the people would bow down and accept him as their emperor, on the other, brutal to those who didn’t. Yusuf still remembered entering a city after his troops had attacked it; the smell of decay would haunt him for his entire life, as long as that might be, as would the image of neatly piled bodies of headless men, women, children, babies. They were efficient killers, dividing up the population between the warriors, lining them up, and beheading them. The look of horror in Nicolo’s eyes had mirrored his own. Of all the atrocities of war they had witnessed, they had never seen anything as chilling as the precise, orderly fashion in which the Mongol’s could slaughter tens of thousands of people at a time.
Over the years they’d watched the armies sweep across Xi Xia, seen the great cities of Zhongdu, Kaifeng, and Caizhou be decimated, their populations slaughtered, led by Genghis’ young general, Jebe. Yet, that was nothing compared to what the great cavalry general, Subutai, had done with nothing more than a raiding party of twenty thousand. He had overtaken most of the land from Xia all the way west to the Caspian Sea, leveling cities who would not yield, and outsmarting larger forces using a technique of luring them out from their protected flanks and picking them off in smaller groups.
Andromache was as impressed by their skill as she was determined to help those caught in their wake. There was no way she and her small band could defeat them; they moved as a force of thousands the way she had worked so hard to have Yusuf and Nicolo move as a fighting duo. Not to mention, their skill with a bow on horseback was the envy of even Quynh. Yusuf had long grown weary of plucking their arrows from his and Nicolo’s necks.
Still, the longer they watched them, studied their tactics, the more they learned to predict where they were going and what they planned to do. Sometimes they were successful in convincing the towns to surrender, and they were often left in peace. Other times they could only try to evacuate as many women and children as they could before the attack began.
Then, about thirty years prior, the armies pulled back. Genghis Khan was dead, and they prayed the wars would die with him. They did pause while the tribes worked through their politics for several years, then they resumed with a fury. His grandson and successor, Mongke Khan was just as ruthless as Genghis had been, setting out once again for the Abbasid Caliphate, starting in Alamut before pressing toward Baghdad.
“There is no stopping them,” Nicolo had said in their bed, sleep seemingly eluding him.
Yusuf kissed the back of his neck, tightened his arm around Nicolo’s waist. “We will do what we can.”
“They will destroy the city,” Nicolo lamented, saying out loud what Yusuf knew to be true.
“We will save those we can,” Yusuf promised. “ What we can,” knowing Nicolo feared the loss of the libraries, the universities, as much as, if not more than, the people.
Nicolo laughed softly. “You sound like Andromache now.”
“What can I say; after a hundred years or so, she starts to grow on you.”
After fighting side by side with Andromache and Quynh like they had, of course there would be a bond, but it went deeper than that. Nicolo was as necessary as air for Yusuf; there would be no life without him. But if Andromache and Quynh weren’t there, it would be like missing an arm, one that was as good at wielding a weapon as it was at carrying a frightened child to safety.
Andromache had been right about helping others, the good that they could do. As much as he had enjoyed screwing around with Nicolo for seventy years, it had felt even better to have a purpose like they did now. Nicolo felt the same, was usually eager to put his sword to use in a purpose he believed was just, even when he knew the odds were against them. His funk that night was odd for that reason alone.
Yusuf propped on an elbow. “Do you want to tell me what’s really going on in that beautiful head of yours?”
“There was a time,” Nicolo said softly, turning to lay on his back to look up at Yusuf, “before Andromache and Quynh, before we knew we will never age, that I thought we might live in Baghdad and grow old together there.”
“I would have been happy to grow old with you, my soul.” Yusuf smiled at the recollection of a similar dream he’d held for the two of them years before. “Just as I am happy to remain young with you.”
“I don’t feel very young today,” he admitted. “I feel my nearly two hundred years, and as useless as the corpse I would be if we did not have this gift.”
“It is a gift,” Yusuf reminded, placing his hand over the one Nicolo had resting on his chest, “and we will put it to good use when the time comes, as we always do.”
Nicolo linked their fingers. “We will save all that we can.”
“And a few more beyond that,” Yusuf promised, laying back down and rubbing the tip of his nose against Nicolo’s ear.
Nicolo had shifted to rest his head against Yusuf’s and eventually slept.
That night had been weeks ago, before the attacks began with thirteen days and nights of constant bombardment from siege engines and skirmishes on the walls.
At one point, as he and Nicolo took cover from rocky debris raining down on them as a wall was being destroyed, Yusuf turned to Nicolo and said, “This is very romantic. Reminds me of the day we met.” Yusuf had yelled to be heard over the siege engines and fighting, smiled and given Nicolo one of his winks that was usually rewarded by either a grin or an eye roll. This one earned him both, plus a quick kiss before Nicolo hitched his head and they returned to the fray.
That night had been before the city finally surrendered and had three more nights of preparing for the inevitable destruction that would occur.
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, one of the great mathematicians of the time, had brokered a deal with the commander of the Mongol forces to take as many manuscripts as he could carry before they entered the city. He was to relocate them to the library at Maragheh. Nicolo and Yusuf had helped him load the carts, while Andromache and Quynh gathered much more precious cargo, so that they slipped crates of children in the wagons full of books to get them out of the city. A few more beyond, as Yusuf had promised Nicolo they would do. Although, forty-thousand manuscripts and two-hundred children were nothing compared to a million people and hundreds of thousands of works of art and science left behind.
Nicolo lamented every one they couldn’t pack, tormented over what to take and what to leave behind, anguished at having to choose how many children and how many manuscripts to put in a wagon. Even Andromache told him that the books were necessary for the cover of the children.
“How many children will these books save in the future with their teaching on medicine?” Nicolo asked Yusuf on the second day. “And yet how many children can we fit in the cart if we leave them behind?”
Tusi himself had placed a hand on Nicolo’s shoulder. “Mathematics can determine the weight we can put in the wagons, but it cannot calculate this unbearable weight on our souls.”
Andromache had suggested, then ordered, Nicolo to stop, to rest, just for a few hours. When that didn’t work, she begged him to do it for Yusuf, if not for himself. They hadn’t slept in days, and if Nicolo didn’t sleep then Yusuf didn’t sleep either.
Nicolo had looked to Yusuf then, eyes dark-rimmed and exhausted, but desperate to the point that Yusuf shook his head. “We can keep working a while longer.” Nicolo looked like he might weep in gratitude.
“Fine, I give up.” Andromache threw up her arms. “Eventually one of you will die of exhaustion and get some rest.”
As soon as the last cart was loaded, she and Quynh left to see if they could convince the Nestorian Christians to shelter more of the women and children. It was rumored Hulagu Khan, who was leading the campaign against the city, often spared the Christians out of respect for his mother, who was also Christian.
Yusuf thought they might get a short reprieve once the wagons left the city, but the Khan’s army entered the city as soon as the gates opened to let the wagons out. They flowed around carts of books like a river around stones, and wiped away anything in their path. Many of the citizens tried to flee through the gates as well, and they were cut down by the invaders without a second thought. The devastation was immediate, and no matter how many he and Nicolo killed, they seemed to be endless, to the point that Yusuf began to wonder if the warriors they fought were able to heal and return to life, as well.
The stench of blood was eventually overpowered by the smell of smoke, ash drifting like snow around them. Nicolo snatched a scrap of paper fluttering down, its edges still smoldering red to match the ink coloring the intricate geometric patterns of the bit of illustration still visible.
Looking over his shoulder, Yusuf could see the flames growing higher behind the buildings around them.
“The House of Wisdom!” Nicolo yelled, already running in the direction of the great library.
“Nicolo, wait!” It was too late, and Yusuf knew there was no stopping him.
They fought their way through the horde, Yusuf doing his best to keep Nicolo in sight, but he lost him when he suffered a wicked cut to his thigh that severed an artery. He willed his body to heal before he bled out, because he honestly did not have time to die if he had any chance of catching up to Nicolo. The man who had struck him had already moved on, knowing he’d delivered a mortal blow. Yusuf pushed himself to his feet and staggered on towards the library in the city center.
Yusuf arrived to see Nicolo fighting several Mongol soldiers rounding up academics who had been trying to save more manuscripts from the building. His leg now healed, Yusuf joined him, blocking a blow from one trying to strike down Nicolo from behind.
Nicolo was yelling at the scholars, telling them to run, even as he struck down one of the invaders who had been intent on killing them. The men gathered as many books and scrolls as they could manage and stumbled away into the glow of flames that were everywhere. Yusuf feared he and Nicolo had only gained them a few hours of life, but maybe they would be fortunate and find a way out of the city.
Dispatching the last of the soldiers, Yusuf turned to see Nicolo run headlong into the building. “Nicolo, stop!”
Yusuf didn’t know if he was intent on saving more of the philosophers or the books they’d written, but he only glanced back at Yusuf once, a look of desperation and apology on his blood- and soot-streaked face, before he ran further into the flames.
Yusuf darted after him, but was stopped a few feet inside the entrance by a timber falling from the ceiling to block his path. The heat was incredible, every breath burned in his lungs. He lifted a hand to block the intense brightness and try to see Nicolo.
“Nicolo!” he called hoarsely, sucked in one more searing breath and tried again. “NICOLO!”
Another timber fell and Yusuf took a reluctant step back. “NICOLO!” All around him he could hear a massive groan, louder even than the roar of the flames. The walls around him heaved, like the building itself was taking in its final breath. Then Yusuf watched in awe as the great entrance folded in on itself, support beams tumbled end over end as they fell, mosaic walls collapsed, and the world went black.
Yusuf woke with a gasp and Andromache’s hand on his chest. “Easy, easy. You’re good. We’re going to get you out.” He looked around, trying to determine what exactly they were getting him out of, but found he couldn’t easily move.
“I need some help with this beam,” Quynh said near his feet, and Andromache gave him an encouraging smile before disappearing.
He heard the women grunt as they strained to move the object, and with it came white hot pain as his crushed pelvis set to work healing as soon as it was freed of the weight that had pinned him down. Then they were back, helping him to stand.
“Nicolo?” he asked, memories slowly coming back of the fire, the building collapsing, and Nicolo somewhere inside when it happened.
“We haven’t found him yet,” Quynh said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder, as she and Andromache walked him gently through the rubble. “We saw your hand and dug you out first, but he can’t be far.”
Of course, they would assume Nicolo was beside him, as he almost always was.
“We were separated,” Yusuf told them. “He was further in the building when it collapsed.”
He didn’t miss the exchanged look of dread between the women, and when he was able see the massive pile of wood and stone that had once been the greatest library the world had ever known, he understood why.
“No,” Yusuf said, in denial that Nicolo was trapped in there, somewhere. “No, no, no.”
“We’ll get him out,” Andromache promised. “But right now we need to go.”
“What? No!” Yusuf told her defiantly. “Nicolo is in there. He’s trapped; we have to get him out. He’s trapped!”
“He’s alive,” Andromache reminded. “Or will be once we get him out. But the fighting is over and now the Mongols are rounding up survivors for execution. We need to lay low until they pass through this area. Then we can come back and have some time to find him before they come again.” When Yusuf opened his mouth to argue, Andromache got in his face. “If you fight me on this, Yusuf, I swear on Athena’s bow, I will bash in your skull and carry you out of here myself.”
“Us being captured and beheaded isn’t going to get Nicolo out of that pile of rubble any faster,” Quynh reasoned.
They were right, of course they were, but it didn’t stop Yusuf from wanting to start moving every stone of that pile until he found Nicolo.
“Where are we going to hide?” Yusuf asked.
“The cathedral,” Andromache told him.
Yusuf had been in many Christain churches during his time with Nicolo. Nicolo still liked to go to them on occasion, light a candle, say a prayer, occasionally take the bread and wine that represented the divine body and blood of his Christ. While Nicolo preferred the Roman Catholic churches, sometimes he had to settle for the Eastern churches instead. The one in Baghdad was similar to most other Nestorian churches he’d been in over the years, although this one had no images of Isa ibn Maryum, who Nicolo called Jesus son of Mary, given the Islamic ban on images of saints and prophets, but it did have the cross of their belief displayed prominently.
Yusuf mimicked the ritual he’d seen Nicolo do upon entry of the church, kneeling and crossing himself while murmuring his prayer, and Andromache and Quynh followed suit. Yusuf wasn’t sure if they were copying him or knew the ritual, but it helped them blend into the mass of people taking refuge in the church. Given that Andromache had once told Nicolo they had heard Jesus speak in Galilee, and while she liked what he had to say about the weak being blessed, she was more impressed with his ability to feed a crowd, it could have gone either way.
Nicolo had looked at her in awe. “You saw the sermon on the mount? You heard Christ speak? In person?”
She had only shrugged. “If only more people had followed what he was saying that day, we might have an easier job of it now.”
It appeared that this church had followed the teaching given the number of non-Christains in the church that Andromache had convinced them to allow to stay. Yusuf only hoped the army executing the population outside didn’t discover the ruse.
Yusuf collapsed in the corner where Quynh led him, feeling numb at what he’d seen on the walk to the cathedral. The Tigris flowed black from the ink of the books that were being thrown into it; the invaders were tearing the leather bindings and using them to make sandals. Quynh noted the river had been red from the blood of those that had been executed the day before. Yusuf felt he should consider himself lucky that he missed that, lucky that Nicolo had missed all of it, surely it would have broken his heart to see it. Yusuf would feel the pain of it for both of them until they were able to pull Nicolo from the rubble.
Yusuf could feel the tears welling in his eyes, his chest aching at the thought of Nicolo trapped, his breath coming faster as the panic set in that he would never find Nicolo in the debris, that he had lost him forever.
Then Andromache’s hands were cupping his jaw gently, much more gentle than her words. “Hey, listen carefully, we are not losing him. We will get him out. Do you understand?” When Yusuf nodded his agreement, she looked over her shoulder to indicate a family sitting near the main altar. “That man worked at the House of Wisdom. He knows it well, knows it’s layout. You know Nicolo and where he would have gone inside.”
“Medicine,” Yusuf said automatically. “He would have gone to the medical section if he could have reached it in the flames.”
“Good, then we have a place to start.” Andromache moved her hand from his face to his shoulder. “You go talk to him, figure out where the medical section would have been, any clues to what we should be looking for in the rubble, anything that will help us find him faster.”
Yusuf could have kissed her for giving him something to do, something to concentrate on, on a way to help Nicolo. However it was the man who leapt up and kissed Yusuf on both cheeks when Yusuf introduced himself.
“You saved me,” he explained. “You and the other man, you saved me and the books.” He pulled back a cloak on the ground to reveal a neat stack of six books, badly singed but whole. Yusuf realized he must have been one of the scholars fleeing the library when he and Nicolo had arrived. The man looked around. “Where is your friend?”
“He was in the building when it collapsed.” Yusuf did his best to ignore the look of sympathy on the man’s face. “I intend to look for him, but could use your assistance on the layout of the building to help narrow the search.”
The man frowned, obviously thinking it was a lost cause, but motioned for Yusuf to sit. “Of course, of course, how can I help?”
A few hours later, his sketch of the library layout in hand, Yusuf paced out the distance as best he could over the rubble and started moving rock. Andromache and Quynh took turns between helping to dig and standing watch. Yusuf had no idea how much time passed. All he knew was that he dug until his hands bled, healed, and bled some more. Occasionally Andromache would force him to drink water, pause long enough to choke down a piece of bread, then he was digging some more. Patrols had them stopping several times, Yusuf wanting nothing more than to kill them all and return to his search. However, the women convinced him that sometimes stealth was better than action, and if soldiers kept dying in the area, it would draw attention to them. Right now the bulk of the army seemed concentrated near the palace, confident they had done all the damage they could in the academic sections of the city.
So, Yusuf waited, his muscles aching to resume the dig, his hands burning with the need, until Quynh declared the way was clear. He dug all through the night and the next day, his head swimming, vision blurring, until the world tilted under him and he felt he was being buried all over again.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard Andromache sigh, “Can’t say I didn’t warn you this would happen.”
When he woke again, the sun was setting, and three other men had joined in the search. Quynh pushed a water skin in his hand. “Drink it all before you go back to work.”
Yusuf took it and drank deeply, the water soothing his raw throat, still his voice croaked when he asked, “Who are they?”
“The father, uncle, and older brother of two of the children we smuggled out of the city,” she told him. “How they’ve avoided being caught so far, I can’t understand. They should have stayed hidden; they will die out here.”
Yusuf couldn’t argue the fact, but he selfishly couldn’t turn away the help. He thanked the men profusely, and they dismissed it, saying what he had done with the children had put them in his debt. Yusuf nodded graciously, not wanting to insult them by refusing their gratitude, and began moving the stones again. They had formed a pit in the rubble so that the piles of building stones rose above them. Yusuf stayed in the hole, handing up rocks to the men above. The only light was a small oil lamp, but at least it was hidden from anyone passing above. By the time the moon rose, he had turned over a stone that had part of a mosaic on it, obviously from the interior of the building, which meant they were closer. Yusuf kept himself from digging faster. The pile was unstable enough, and it would do no good to collapse it further. Within an hour, he came across wooden beams that had formed the interior supports of the roof. They were still warm to the touch, slowly smoldering as they lay buried beneath the stone. They were also forming a lattice pattern that created a pocket of open space beneath them.
Andromache’s head appeared at the top of the pit. “We need to go,” she warned, already urging the men from the hole.
Yusuf shook his head. “I’m going in. Looks like the roof supports have formed a cavern below me.”
Andromache only nodded. “Stay hidden until we return.”
Yusuf squeezed between a few beams, feeling his skin burn but heal quickly where it scraped against the wood. The space was too small to stand, but he could crawl on hands and knees. He took a moment to orient himself as best he could with his map. He swiped at the tile on the floor, making out a whirled pattern that he recognized from his time in the library. It was Ash sharq , named for the sharqiya , the directional wind that churned up the sands of the sahra , the vast desert near Yusuf’s home, and carried them across the sea. It pointed the direction the winds traveled-- east. That meant he needed to go left to reach Ash Shamal , which would point the way north to the mathematics section of the library and further into medicine.
Yusuf crawled when he could, wiggled on his belly pushing the lamp before him through some areas when he couldn’t clear debris out of the way, until he finally found the markings on the floor that he sought. The closer he got, the warmer the air, and Yusuf feared a fire still raged under the rubble, but while there were pockets thick with smoke, there were no flames. Perhaps the fire was further west, perhaps the heat and smoke just trapped. He didn’t know nor care; his only thought was to find Nicolo.
The path in front of him suddenly opened up a bit, and Yusuf realized he was in the stacks, the huge shelves had tumbled, scattering books and scrolls everywhere, most charred beyond recognition. The shelves, however, created a sort of tented space where they hit the walls of the building. It was large enough that he could stand if he crouched, but he was more than happy to be able to sit up and work the kinks from sore muscles as he tried to gain his bearings.
Shining the lamp, he was able to make out a few more cubby holes formed by the shelves leaning against one another. Not as large as the one he was in currently, but enough to protect someone from some of the larger chunks of debris that had fallen. He refused to let himself consider that Nicolo had been hit by one of those; he doubted anyone could heal from that. Although, the thought that he’d been alive in the searing flames was almost as bad.
He leaned his head back against the wall, trying to block those thoughts as he decided on the best approach to continue his search. “Where would I go if I were Nicolo de Genoa? Well, straight into the heart of a burning building, obviously,” he said in Italian, mimicking Nicolo’s voice. “That is, after all, the most ridiculous way to torment the love of my life and make him crawl through hell to find me.”
Yusuf sat up, listening intently to make sure he hadn’t just imagined the weak sound of his name.
“Nicolo!” Yusuf was already moving in the direction of the voice. “Keep talking so I can find you.”
“Hard...to do...hard to...breathe.”
“I’m coming,” Yusuf promised, still moving in the direction of his voice, catching sight of a foot to his right. “I see you!”
He scrambled over as quickly as he could, realizing that Nicolo’s clothes were mostly gone, burnt off of him by the looks of it, but his skin was healed, thanks be to Allah! He was curled on his side, and from the shoulders up, he was protected by one of the shelves, but his chest and abdomen were trapped under several large timbers.
Lifting the lamp, he craned to see over the beams. Nicolo raised his head slightly, squinting against the sudden brightness. Yusuf choked on something between a laugh and a sob of relief to see him alive. “Don’t worry; I’m going to get you out.”
“Not worried.” Nicolo struggled to pull in a breath with the weight on his lungs. “Knew you’d find me.” He lay his head back down in exhaustion. “Took a while... though….getting bored.”
“Should have thought of that before you ran into a burning building.” Yusuf grunted in effort as he pushed one of the larger braces off, and Nicolo sucked in a ragged breath. “Sorry,” Yusuf grimaced in sympathy of the pain he was causing.
“Oh, God, so much better,” Nicolo assured in a rushed breath before pulling in another one to fill his lungs a little more.
Yusuf tried to lift the last beam but it wouldn’t budge. Using the lamp, he could see the problem. “This one is trapped between shelves,” he explained. “There’s no way I can move it without moving the shelves, as well. That isn’t going to happen without taking this entire building off first.”
“Guess we’re...living out our years...in Baghdad...after all.” Even through his pain, Nicolo was grinning at him.
Yusuf looked around as if considering the possibilities of a new home and bobbed his head. “Needs a bit of work, but we’ll make do.”
“Bed’s...not very comfortable,” Nicolo noted as his face screwed with pain when he tried to move.
Yusuf squeezed Nicolo’s leg. “Listen, I’m going to try to lift this beam as high as I can, brace it with something, and pull you out. Okay?”
Nicolo nodded. “Take your time, not going anywhere.”
Gathering as many books as he could find that weren’t burned to ash, Yusuf stacked them as high as he could under the beam, then put another stack nearby to place on the existing stack as he lifted the support. He found the remnants of an iron ladder that was used to pull books from the higher shelves to function as a lever to lift the beam. He had maybe two spans of his hands that it would lift before being blocked by the shelves, but that should be enough to pull Nicolo free.
Given the tight spacing, it was hard to get the ladder in place, but after some work, he was able to squeeze it in. He used all his weight to lever the beam a bit higher and wedge a book into the stack, then repeated the process until he could get another in place. Nicolo cried out as the weight eased, and Yusuf asked, “Can you roll to your back?”
Yusuf knew from personal experience how painful healing bones could be, and Nicolo’s entire rib cage had been crushed, but Nicolo flopped over as he groaned through clenched teeth. When he did, he revealed three books beneath him, the books he’d been trying to protect when the building caved in on him.
Yusuf could only shake his head. “You ridiculous man.” He put out a beckoning hand. “Hand them over. No way we can leave them behind now.”
Nicolo did as he was told, then slowly wiggled his way out from under the timber with Yusuf’s help. Then Yusuf felt the days of fear and worry seeping away, as he finally, finally wrapped his arms around Nicolo. He shuddered as he ordered, “Don’t you ever do that to me again. Never.”
“Never,” Nicolo promised as he pressed rough lips to Yusuf’s neck.
Nicolo would need water, food, and sleep. Who was he kidding? They both did. That could come later, after they crawled their way back to the hole that led to the surface, after they climbed out with the help of Andromache and Quynh, after they escaped the city and the brutal army holding it. Right now, Yusuf only wanted to hold the man he loved, this stupid man who would risk everything for a few books, this beautiful, amazing man who saw the potential to make the world better with that same handful of manuscripts.
Yusuf felt Nicolo stiffen in his arms, and lift his head as he looked around at the destruction surrounding them. Yusuf realized this would have been the first time Nicolo had actually seen what had happened, given that he’d been trapped in pitch darkness the entire time.
“Oh, Yusuf,” Nicolo’s breath hitched, and Yusuf could feel warm tears against his neck. “It’s gone. All of it is gone.”
Yusuf cupped the back of Nicolo’s head, held him tighter. “I know, my soul, but at least you are not.”
His very thoughts make music of the mundane.
Harlem, May 30, 1933
Yusuf loved Harlem. He loved the music with it’s big bands and sultry jazz, and the art with it’s bold colors and smooth lines and people with dark skin and curly hair looking as if they were living lives as vibrant as the paint on the canvas. He loved the writers who loved their gin and clothes as much as the Hollywood actors who shared their table in the clubs where they talked about the art and listened to the music. Nicolo loved Yusuf in Harlem, because it made him so happy, and because they could sit at the same table, dressed in sharp suits like those writers and actors, while drinking gin, and laugh and lean in close, and no one gave them a second look. That was a rarity these days, with slavery still a familiar memory in the country, and segregation the norm, and the idea that two men could actually fall in love was an abomination in the minds of so many.
The world had changed in the past nine hundred years, and not always for the better. Yusuf, however, was as he had always been in Nicolo’s eyes, as bright and vivid as the paintings that he loved.
Yusuf was laughing at something Andromache had said. Andromache wore a beaded gown, her blonde hair cut in a short bob with a feathered band holding it back. The look suited her, although she looked as much a predator as she had with her hair long and tangled by the wind. She went by Andrea now, had for several hundred years. A name like Andromache tended to be remembered, and as time went by and trade expanded, they’d learned it was better to keep a lower profile. So over the years they’d adapted, disappeared, blended in. Sebastien was Booker, and he and Yusuf were Nicky and Joe. Although, he would always be Yusuf in Nicolo’s heart, and in their bed.
“Nicky?” Joe was looking at him with a curious expression. “Something on your mind?”
Nicky leaned in close, spoke in Arabic at his ear, “I was just thinking of you...and me.”
Joe’s smile turned sultry. “That’s some very nice things to have on your mind. You want to head out?”
“No, no, not yet,” Nicky dismissed. “You wanted to hear the music, the singer you like so much is supposed to perform tonight.” Here was the Catagonia Club, but everyone called it Pod’s and Jerry’s, it was one of the smaller clubs on 133rd Street, but it was known for some of the best music on Swing Street, and the singer was a young woman, little more than a girl, who went by the name Billie Holiday.
If Nicky had been a jealous man, the least bit insecure about how Joe felt about him, he would have never brought Joe within a hundred yards of the girl again. The look on Joe’s face when he heard her sing the first time, was one he’d rarely seen before.
The closest he’d come to seeing it in the past was when Nicolo had paid off one the Swiss Guard to let them into the Sistine Chapel a few nights before mutinous soldiers sacked Rome in 1527. The army had turned to looting for their pay when Charles V ran out of funds to do it himself. The great sculptor Michelangelo had painted the ceiling, and although Yusuf had heard about it, he’d never seen it.
They’d spent decades before looking for Quynh to no avail, every potential led to a dead end, every clue ended in failure. Andromache had decided to bury her grief in work to cover her heartache, and Nicolo and Yusuf had followed along for much the same reason. That’s how they’d found themselves in Rome to begin with, helping to pick up the pieces after the Holy Emperor's army had ransacked their way across the region. Viewing art was not part of the plan, but the thought that Yusuf might never be able to see the much-praised work if the troops mounting outside the city destroyed it in the coming days was too much for Nicolo to consider. That’s when he’d made other arrangements to gain Yusuf access to the Papal grounds that were already under lockdown.
Nicolo had watched Yusuf’s reaction before ever looking up himself, watched the way his eyes widened then watered at the glory of it. Looking up, Nicolo understood why; it was overwhelmingly beautiful, and the details incredible. Hundreds of figures filled the space, but Nicolo’s eyes were drawn to the image in the center, a field of pale blue with the even paler forms of a man, presumably Adam, and God, reaching toward one another.
Nicolo frowned, studying the cluster of angels surrounding the Almighty. “Yusuf, do you see it there? The angels, they form the shape of a human brain. As if God is bestowing wisdom on man.”
Yusuf had laughed and admitted with a voice hoarse with emotion, “I believe you are right.”
“I’ve never seen a painting do that,” Nicolo told him. “Tell more than it shows.”
He wasn’t sure if he was saying it right, but suddenly Yusuf was kissing him. “You astound me, my soul. And this.... this is like nothing anyone has ever made before. It’s magnificent.” Yusuf kissed him again. “Like you. Thank you for this. I just pray it survives the attack.”
Miraculously, it did survive, and he and Yusuf would visit the chapel many more times over the centuries. Each time, Yusuf seemed as enthralled as the first time he’d seen it.
Now, hundreds of years later, he’d discovered someone who could do with her voice what Michelangelo could do with his paintbrush.
Nicky pulled himself out of the memory and back to the club. “Besides, it will be our last chance for a while.”
Tonight was a celebration, a going away party of sorts, before they left for Germany in the morning. Things there had been simmering for a while, and with the new Chancellor wielding more and more power, and his political rivals falling one by one, it looked like it could boil over any time. They had just heard stories of books being burnt a few weeks ago, and Andrea felt they should go and have a see for themselves. The thought of burning any books was a sin of the greatest proportion in Nicky’s eyes.
It seemed they had just come out of one massive war that had changed the world, and Nicky couldn’t deny the feeling they were heading toward another. Considering they’d started the Great War on horseback and saber charges, and ended it with airplanes and long guns, it was unnerving to think what weaponry would come with another global conflict. It had only taken a matter of years to go from wars that killed fewer people during the whole campaign than were killed in a single day in the Somme, and all to gain a few miles of ground.
Nicky pushed away the memories of rain-drenched trenches, and mud so thick that it literally sucked men in, trapping them in no man’s land until they were begging to be shot, memories of craters from artillery blasts filled with toxic cesspools of rainwater mixed with mustard gas that would kill a man as easily as a bullet. Instead, he focused on his friends, his family, and their chance at a little fun before the work began again.
Booker narrowed his eyes at Andrea. “Who do you see?”
When he started to turn, Andrea grabbed his hand. “Don’t look.”
Nicky, from his seat, could follow her line of sight without turning around. “Hey, Joe, it’s that actress that was in that movie last week, the one with Robert Montgomery.”
As much as Booker and Andrea enjoyed the clubs, Nicky and Joe liked to spend their free evenings at the motion pictures. They claimed it was for the news reals, but Nicky loved sitting in a dark theater, leaning into Joe’s shoulder as they watched a story unfold on a giant screen. It was almost as enjoyable as watching one of Will’s plays had been.
“I told you not to look.” Andrea kicked Nicky under the table.
Nicky grimaced and rubbed his shin as Joe pointed out, “Oh, hey, that’s Tallulah Bankhead, and she’s coming this way.”
Andrea glared daggers at them all, but feigned a lack of interest as the woman moved across the room.
The actress stopped to say hello to others along the way, before reaching their table. “Andy,” she greeted, resting her hand on Andrea’s bare shoulder for a moment.
“Tallulah,” Andrea said in return, just as casually.
Tallulah continued her path across the room, looking back once, before heading through a door to the backstage of the club.
The three men at the table stared open mouthed before bursting out laughing.
“Andy?” Booker said between guffaws. “ Andy ?”
She gave Booker an innocent look. “I’ve gone by Andy before.”
“When you were pretending to be a man during the Civil War,” Nicky reminded her.
“I think I like it,” she said, standing and straightening her dress before giving an anything but innocent grin. “Don’t wait up, boys, I have a date with a blond.”
The men just laughed harder.
“Okay, Andy,” Joe stressed the new name that was definitely going to stick. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
Booker took another drink, still chuckling. “It’s been over a hundred years, and I still never know what to expect from that woman.”
“It doesn’t get any easier after eight hundred years,” Joe confessed, raising his hand to the cocktail waitress to order another round. “Although, she changed after we lost Quynh. A lot of things she used to do for fun, she now does for other reasons. ” He glanced back at the door she’d just entered to indicate that was one of them.
Andromache had always enjoyed her debauchery. If she was in the mood, she’d screw or drink with anyone who gave her a second look. Ends up, they always gave her a second look, and she was always in the mood. She had always bragged, as well, reminding them for days after of her most recent conquest. After Quynh, though, it seemed she only did it to forget, and she had a lot she wanted to forget.
“Yeah, well, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.” Booker downed his drink.
Booker’s last living son had died about sixty years before, and he still mourned him, mourned his other children, mourned his wife. If he’d had a choice, Nicky knew he would have drank himself to death. The fact that he hadn’t wasn’t for lack of trying.
Using his empty glass to point at the two men across the table from him, he noted, “You two, you’ve never been apart for more than, what, a few months?”
“One hundred and seventy-three days,” Nicky reminded him, since Booker had been there when they finally reunited.
Joe’s hand squeezed Nicky’s knee under the table as he looked him in the eyes. “Felt like one hundred and seventy-three years.”
Nicolo and Yusuf had been leading guerrilla raids against Napoleon’s forces in Spain when Yusuf was captured. Andrea was off searching for the man who’d they’d been dreaming about, the one who died hanging from a noose, frozen, and half starved. Given the French uniform they’d seen, the weather, and the movements of Napoleon’s troops, they’d decided he was probably in Russia. She’d left Yusuf and Nicolo to continue their work in Spain while she went to retrieve Sebastien.
She’d barely been gone three months when their safe house was raided. They’d left Nicolo for dead with five other resistance fighters, and taken Yusuf to a villa the French army had turned into a makeshift prison that also served as the military command. They wanted to question him further and learn who else was part of the resistance.
It took Nicolo weeks to even find where they were holding him. The first time he’d tried to rescue Yusuf, he’d ended up in front of a firing squad without even seeing him. Afterwards, he began a daily search of the mass grave where they had dumped Nicolo’s body, hoping they would finally give up on interrogating Yusuf and decide to execute him.
Unfortunately, they never killed Yusuf, which would have made things so much easier. If they weren’t killing him, that could only mean they were torturing him. The thought infuriated Nicolo to the point that he tried once more to breach the prison and free Yusuf. The second time, he actually did see Yusuf through metal bars, but the guard he’d killed outside the door had no keys, and Nicolo had no way to free him.
Nicolo finished his unsuccessful search of the guard’s body, looked up at his beloved with eyes full of desperation to free him and frustration that he couldn’t. “Yusuf…”
From the floor below, Nicolo could hear more guards coming. He stood, sword out, prepared to kill them all, because surely one would have the damn key.
Yusuf’s hand beckoned. “Nicolo, come here.” His smile was sad but genuine to see Nicolo after nearly two month, but he looked thinner, his eyes set deeper with dark circles around them, and Nicolo didn’t miss the dried blood at his hairline.
“The guards… ” Nicolo started.
“Will come and overpower you with their number, and they will lock you up away from me, and then both of us will require rescuing.” Yusuf reasoned. “So, come, I want to touch you before you go.”
Nicolo did stand then, covered Yusuf’s hands on the bars with his own, and pressed a kiss to lips he’d ached to have on his once more. “I’m not leaving you.”
Yusuf rested his head against Nicolo’s “When Andromache is back with the new one, you’ll have enough force to come back and free me.”
All Nicolo could think was that her return would be months from now, longer than they’d already been apart, and Nicolo felt he was going mad without him as it was.
The guards were at the end of the hall. Seeing Nicolo and the dead guard on the floor, one of them called the attack. Nicolo ignored them, closed his eyes and breathed Yusuf in like they had done back during their training days, when Andromache wouldn’t allow them to be together.
“Oh, what I’m going to do to you when we’re together again...,” Yusuf promised in a needful whisper, his eyes full of love and desire, but regret that it would be a while longer.
Nicolo huffed a laugh that was cut short by another kiss; then he was fighting his way through the guards. When he killed the third one, and Yusuf snapped the neck of a fourth through the bars, Nicolo thought, maybe, he would defeat them, and be able to free Yusuf, after all. Then one fired his gun, the ball passing through Nicolo’s ribs and lodging in his lung. He tasted blood, heard Yusuf yelling for him to run so that he wasn’t captured. He did, with just a quick glance at Yusuf as he ran headlong to the window at the end of the hallway, crashed through it, and tumbled three stories to the ground. Even the thick blanket of snow couldn’t cushion the fall, and the world went black.
His hand instantly grasped his sword when he came back to life. He was choking, so he rolled to his hands and knees and coughed out the lead bullet. His hip that was still healing from its break in the fall protested, but was already repaired by the time he heard the guards that had come to recover his body rounding the building. With a final, longing look back at Yusuf’s prison, he turned and ran into the night.
By the time Nicolo was being introduced to Sebastien la Livre nearly four months later, he was more than ready to attempt a rescue again.
“I’ve dug a tunnel,” he told them. “And I have a cannon, as well.”
“A cannon?” Sebastien scoffed in French. Not Nicolo’s strongest language, but he could understand enough of the words and the attitude.
“Yes,” Nicolo confirmed, already restless that they’d been here a whole ten minutes and they had yet to mount an attack to free Yusuf. “A cannon.”
“Where did you get a cannon?” Andrea asked.
He shrugged. “It was surprisingly easy to steal.”
That was true, although he had never gone out with the intention of stealing one. Nicolo had been particularly missing Yusuf the night in question, and since he couldn’t have Yusuf in his bed, he had decided to take out his sexual frustrations on the French army, any members of the French army he could find. He’d come across a small band in the process of moving the armament, all of whom ended up dead by Nicolos blade. As a result, Nicolo had found himself in possession of a very nice Gribervaul, several kegs of powder, and fifty of the eight pound balls it shot.
Andrea didn’t seem satisfied with his answer. “If you had the cannon, why do you need a tunnel?”
She had a point, seeing as one implied stealth, and the other, obviously, did not. Nicolo, however, had left logic in the dust months ago.
“Because I had a shovel and nearly six months waiting for you to get back!”
The shovel had been in the cart with the cannon and other supplies, and it seemed as good a way to put it to use as any other he could come up with. Besides, it gave him something to do on lonely nights other than kill random French soldiers. Although, he still did that on occasion. The shovel had also been used to dig more than one shallow grave in recent months, which was probably the main reason the tunnel was still a few hundred feet from the villa where they were holding Yusuf.
Andrea’s hand rubbed his arm. “I’m here now. We’re here now to help; so tell me your plan.”
“Someone can fire the cannon into the building, the other two can find Yusuf in the chaos.”
“Do you know where he is being held?” she asked. “I’d prefer not to blow him up, if possible.”
“There’s a room with iron bars, interior of the building, third floor,” he recalled from the last time he’d seen him.
“No, he’s not,” Sebastien corrected in rough Italian. When they looked at him in disbelief, he tapped his head. “The dreams. I saw him asleep on a dirt floor, in a room, a heavy door, no bars, moonlight came in from high up.”
“He’s in the cellar.” Nicolo shook his head. “Maybe we should finish the tunnel.” Although that would take weeks more.
“I still think we use the cannon,” Andrea recommended.
“Why don’t we just go ask to take him away?” Sebastien was grinning. “All you need are the right papers.”
When Andrea smiled knowingly in return, Nicolo’s frown of confusion grew.
“Did I happen to mention that before he became a soldier, Sebastien was a forger?”
“You can get us in?” Nicolo asked hopefully.
“I need the name of the commander here and an hour. Of course, we’ll need uniforms…”
Nicolo grabbed his shovel. “I know where we can find a few of those.”
By nightfall they were heading into the villa. Andrea had cut her hair short for the plan. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen her pretend to be a man, and it was amazing how simply wearing a uniform was enough to have most not give her a second look.
Sebastien took the lead, asked to speak with the commander, got his secretary instead, handed over the papers outlining a transfer of the prisoner to their custody. He was to be taken to Burgos to be questioned by the Duke of Dalmatia’s personal intelligence officers.
The secretary looked over the papers, then excused himself to find the commander.
Nicolo’s fingers itched to draw his sword, kill everyone in the room, and go find Yusuf. But the plan seemed to be working, so Nicolo did his best to not fidget or kill anyone, and instead look as bored as Sebastien did with the delay.
Finally, the commander himself came out, asked a few more questions, then irritably sent one of his underlings to escort the three to the prisoner's cell and oversee the transfer.
The soldier led them down the stairs and into the wine cellars, past casks of aging sherry that Sebastien eyed greedily, and to what looked like it had once been a tasting room. At the back of the room stood a large olivewood door, reinforced with iron, that the man unlocked with a large key.
Nicolo strained to see into the dark room that was suddenly brightened when the man lit a lamp and took it inside. Yusuf, who sat in the corner, glanced up and raised his hand to block the sudden glare. He looked like he had barely eaten the entire time they had held him, and he had to use the wall to push himself to his feet when he was told to stand.
Nicolo felt familiar hands try to stop him when he moved forward, but there was no stopping him now that he was this close to having Yusuf free. He stepped into the room so that Yusuf would understand what was happening, smiling when Yusuf exhaled in relief to see him. Although the smile faded when Yusuf looked at the French soldier with a sense of dread. Nicolo turned to see the man staring openly at him, then at the walls of the room, then back at Nicolo.
For the first time, Nicolo noticed what was on every white-washed, stone wall in the room. It was him. Drawing after drawing of Nicolo covered almost every inch of the space. Some from the early days they had known each other, with his full beard and long hair, others more recent with his hair trimmed close and his face clean shaven. Dozens upon dozens of them. They looked to be drawn with a handmade paint Yusuf had made with the red, clay earth of the floor mixed with water; Yusuf’s fingers were stained red from it.
Apparently, Yusuf had found a way to pass his time missing Nicolo, as well.
Nicolo suddenly understood exactly how Yusuf had felt seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time all those years ago. His overwhelmed gaze sought out Yusuf once more, and he was suddenly finding it hard to breathe through his emotions.
“It’s you,” the French soldier said in dawning recognition.
Nicolo didn’t hesitate, simply pulled his sword, and practically decapitated the man, his eyes never leaving Yusuf’s. He didn’t even remember closing the distance between them, but suddenly Yusuf was in his arms, and the world felt right for the first time in months.
“We need to go,” Andrea warned. “Walk him out of here like he’s our prisoner. Sebastien, find something to bind his wrists.”
Reluctantly, Nicolo pushed away from the embrace, but Andrea stepped in to take his place.
“I can’t leave you two alone for a minute,” she complained.
“About time you showed up,” he told her, hugging her back just as tightly.
Sebastien had found some rope outside the room, pausing beside Nicolo as he looked at the walls in amazement. “Suddenly, your cannon doesn’t seem that crazy.”
Then Sebastien was introducing himself to Yusuf as he bound his wrists.
Yusuf stumbled on his first step, and Nicolo was instantly by his side supporting him, arm wrapped around his much too thin waist when they were alone, gripping tightly into his bicep when French soldiers were in sight, grinding his teeth to keep from slaughtering them all for the abuse Yusuf had suffered at their hands. He helped Yusuf mount his horse, ensuring he could sit in his saddle before mounting his own, and riding so close their knees occasionally brushed.
Kind of like they did under the table at the club in Harlem.
Booker shook his head with a laugh. “I still can’t believe you had a cannon.”
“I can’t believe he never fired it,” Joe teased.
“Honestly,” Nicky admitted, “neither can I.”
The three men laughed again, enjoying simply being in each other’s company for an uneventful night out on the town.
Eventually, the announcer came out and adjusted the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I introduce our next act. This young lady has been gracing our stage here at the Catagonia Club for a while now, and we’re lucky enough to have her back again tonight. Mark my word, we’re going to be seeing big things from her in the future. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the incomparable voice of Miss Billie Holiday.”
The room broke into applause, Booker adding a whistle, as she stepped to the microphone. The music cued up, and she started singing Stormy Weather. The song was all over the radio, that version sung by Ethel Waters, and Joe hummed it to himself while shaving most mornings. Now, hearing Billie Holiday’s version, he looked like he was in heaven.
Booker leaned across the table, and told Nicky, “You better watch this guy. I think he’d marry her if he could.”
Nicky rolled his eyes at the joke, but Joe shook his head. “Are you kidding? Do you think she’d steal a cannon for me?”
Joe moved a little closer so he could rest his arm on the back of Nicky’s chair, his nimble fingers tracing along the sensitive skin between Nicky’s shirt collar and hairline, fingers that showed Nicky how much Joe loved him every day.
The same fingers that had been stained red to show his French captures how much he longed for the man he loved. The same fingers Nicolo had taken great care to wash clean along with the rest of Yusuf when they’d finally stopped for the night in a safehouse used by the Spanish resistance. The same fingers that Nicolo wrapped around a warm mug of tea after Yusuf had eaten his first real meal in months. The same fingers that moved lazily along the back of Nicolo’s neck when Nicolo wrapped himself around Yusuf to keep him warm through the rest of the night and all the nights to come.
Yeah, Joe loved Harlem, but Nicky knew, with a certainty that had seeped deep into his bones, that Joe loved him more.
He is not my “boyfriend.” He is not my “lover,” nor is he my “partner”.
Anniston, Alabama, May 14, 1961
“Joe, you with me?”
Joe tried his best to answer Nicky, but his lips just wouldn’t cooperate. The thing about being immortal, or practically so, was that sometimes it was better just to get killed straight out, because within a few seconds, you were usually good as new. However, something as mundane as being drugged or knocked unconscious kept you down for a hell of alot longer. That’s exactly what had happened with these assholes in Alabama.
He and Nicky had been riding with the Freedom Riders for a few months. Andy and Booker were up in Nashville with the student protestors sitting at lunch counters, while Joe and Nicky were making their way through the deeper south challenging segregation rules on buses, and pissing off a lot of racist pieces of shit along the way. Their bus had been stopped at the depot in Anniston, Alabama that morning, and while they had dealt with some angry mobs along the way, today was the worst so far. People fresh from attending church attacked the bus, busting out windows with pipes, then slashing the tires while still wearing their Sunday best. The driver managed to pull the damaged bus away, but they were riding on rims, and they could only go so far. Joe could see the cars of the mob following them until the bus could go no further, stopping in front of a small grocery store.
Joe and Nicky exchanged a knowing glance, already looking for the quickest way off the bus that would give them the best chance of protecting the other riders from the angry men surrounding them again outside. One of the riders screamed when the back window was busted out, and a molotov cocktail hit the floor, exploding and spraying fire throughout the bus. Nicky was using his jacket to try to put out the worst of the flames, his skin blistering and healing as he did. Joe was doing the same with a man whose shirt sleeve had been hit with the incendiary. Black smoke had Joe coughing and his eyes watering, and someone was yelling for everyone to get off the bus. Only, they couldn’t; the mob outside had blocked the doors with the intentions of burning them alive.
Andy talked alot about losing faith in the world in recent years, about all they had done, and yet there were people who still wanted to kill others for nothing more than the color of their skin, that would drop an atomic bomb on civilians. Joe understood the sentiment, felt his blood boil at the injustices of the world, and respected the hell out of the riders and others like them that wanted to change the world through peaceful means. Sometimes, however, peaceful didn’t always work, and as amazing as the people on the bus were, it seemed to Joe that there were more and more every day like the ones yelling racial slurs at them, desecrating the teachings of the man they had just been praying to a few minutes before. There were only sixteen people on the bus, thirteen freedom riders and a few who just happened to be taking the same bus that day, but even one of them dying was too many in Joe’s mind.
Joe looked to where Nicky was calling his name from the front of the bus to see him holding up a sawed-off shotgun. The riders carried no weapons, so neither did Joe and Nicky, but that didn’t mean they didn’t always know where the closest one was located. Both had noticed the stock of the gun peeking out from beneath the driver’s seat when they entered the bus, the driver who had bolted as soon as he could drive the bus no further. Joe nodded in understanding, and Nicky pumped the gun before firing it to blow out the front window, hopefully providing a path out for the smoke, and, possibly, the passengers on the bus.
The glass exploded, and the gunshot was enough to have those holding the doors closed ducking for cover. Those pushing on the doors from the inside practically tumbled out, the rest quickly following, coughing and gagging from the smoke. The crowd outside recovered from their initial shock, and started beating them. Joe did his best to block the blows that he could, taking down a few of the attackers with their own clubs when given the chance. Nicky was a few feet away doing the same, but there were probably a couple hundred angry men against the two of them, and there was only so much they could do. In the midst of the crowd, he noticed several highway patrol simply watching the violence around them.
It was disgusting, and demoralizing, and right then Joe was tempted to take their guns and put them to good use. That’s when Joe saw her. She was young, not even a teenager, and white. She was tending to an elderly black woman who had been on the bus, giving her a cup of water from a bucket she carried, then she moved to the next bus rider and did the same. It made Joe think that maybe there was hope for the world after all.
Eventually, the highway patrol did break up the crowd, stopping them from lynching one young man by firing a few warning shots into the air, and eventually making them disperse. Joe looked around to see his fellow riders, beaten and bloodied. Nicky was already moving through the group providing first aid where he could, waving Joe over to help.
Joe knelt beside him, leaning forward to look Nicky in the eyes, to really make sure Nicky was okay, waiting until he nodded, made physical contact like they always did, to confirm that he was.
This time it was a quick brush of his thumb to Joe’s jaw before telling him, “Apply pressure here, I need to make a tourniquet.”
Joe did as he was told, telling Nicky needlessly, “They need a hospital.”
“Do you think they’ll even let us in?” Nicky asked in disgust.
The ambulances did come and take the injured to the hospital, but they were left in the waiting room instead of being treated. Joe had a few choice words to say to the staff until Nicky pulled him away, telling him that if he kept it up, the men would be back and beat them some more.
“Come on,” Nicky coaxed, “Let’s go for a walk, cool down a little bit. It will be a few hours before the cars arrive.”
The Congress of Racial Equality, the organization that sponsored the riders, was organizing a caravan from Birmingham to come pick them up. In the meantime, they just had to wait, so Joe agreed to Nicky’s suggestion.
The night was warm and a little sticky from the humidity so common in the south, so that they rolled up their shirtsleeves and unfastened the top few buttons. The sun had set an hour earlier, and lightning bugs flickered around them as they walked. The smell of honeysuckle sweetened the air, and cicadas clicked in the trees crowding in on both sides of the road. Joe exhaled, trying to release the anger and frustration from the day.
“I could really use a shower,” he said. They’d washed most of the blood and soot off their skin in the hospital bathroom sinks, but it still stained their shirts.
Nicky bumped his shoulder with a grin. “I could really use you in a shower, too.”
Joe laughed even as he groaned. “Oh, man, you are killing me. Do you realize how long it’s going to be before we’re back in Birmingham?”
“Who said we had to wait until Birmingham?” Nicky titled his head curiously, fingers brushing over the buttons on Joe’s shirt.
Stepping in close with a smile, Joe traced his own fingers under Nicky’s elbow, leaning in for a kiss…
...that stopped at the sound of a woman screaming.
Nicky, as usual, was already running, giving a quick tug on Joe’s shirt to make sure he was following, which, of course, he was. They rounded a curve in the road to see several cars and trucks parked in a small clearing, the headlights illuminating the scene of a young black woman being held down by three white men, one trying to undo his trousers while also pulling up the woman’s dress.
Nicky only ran faster, tackling the man on top of her and delivering a hard punch to his face once he had him on the ground. The two other men seemed frozen in shock by what had just happened, not even noticing Joe until he stood over them and called, “Hey!”
He kicked one in the face where he sat, giving the other a swift kick when he started to stand. That’s when Joe noticed the car doors open, and half a dozen more men climbed out.
Joe looked to the woman still on the ground, who was staring at him wide-eyed but free.
“Go! Run!” he urged, planning to do the same as soon as he got Nicky’s attention.
They could easily handle the men, but he’d seen at least one gun amongst the crowbars and baseball bats, and ending up dead and then suddenly alive again with multiple witnesses was against the rules. It wasn’t like the old days, what with newspapers and televisions in every house. Not to mention what would happen if he or Nicky ended up killing any of them.
He gave a quick sharp whistle to get Nicky’s attention, which had him pausing before his next punch to turn and look back. The look in Nicky’s eyes, however, was more warning than confusion.
“No!” he yelled, just as something connected hard with the back of Joe’s head. His knees buckled under him as he watched Nicky scramble to his feet. “Joe!” he yelled again, running in his direction, as Joe was hit again on the side of his head, and he was out.
The next thing he heard was Nicky calling to him, “Joe, you with me?”
He did his best to open his eyes, managed to crack them a sliver, which just allowed the headlights to pierce like daggers right into his brain. It was also enough to see Nicky’s feet ready to spring into action as he stood between Joe and their attackers.
Joe managed a groan at the pain in his head, which Nicky must have heard.
“That’s it, babe,” he encouraged. “Come on; I need you here with me.”
One of the men taunted, “Hear that, boys? I think we got us a couple of those little fruity perverts that like to fuck other men.”
Another one chimed in, “Looks like this one likes to fuck camel jockeys, you know, them sand nig--”
Nicky’s feet danced away for a split second, and Joe heard a hollow thud followed by an abbreviated groan before his feet were back in view. There were also a couple of bloody teeth that landed nearby.
“Anyone else have any comments they’d like to share about the man I love?”
Joe managed to open his eyes a little more and look up to see Nicky holding a baseball bat that he’d obviously taken from one of the men, probably one of the two lying prone on the ground a short distance away. The other three they’d already taken care of were still down for the count. He was holding the bat in the same stance Joe had seen him wield his sword so many times in the past. Nicky blinked away some blood that was flowing into his eyes from his own injury that had already healed, unlike the latest victim of Nicky’s wrath, who lay still on the ground with a broken jaw.
Joe would have laughed at the comeback if he hadn’t been afraid he’d puke if he did.
Joe had heard it all, they both had, every disparaging remark that the various cultures around the world could come up with over the centuries. Slurs about race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality; you name it, they’d heard it. Sometimes Joe had been the brunt of the insults, sometimes Nicky, oftentimes both. At the end of the day, Joe really didn’t take any of it to heart, he only cared about the opinion of one person, and the teeth on the ground said all he needed to know about what Nicky thought of Joe.
Honestly, Joe had more problems with the good terms, because none of them seemed adequate to the task of what Nicky meant to him. Nicky, however, had an opinion on that, as well.
About ten years prior, during the Korean War, he and Nicky had been part of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, stationed near Chocksong, on what was known as the Nevada complex. The complex was a series of hills along the main line of combat, and had been given that name because one of the lieutenants had half-joked that it was a gamble if they’d even be able to hold it. Neither Joe nor Nicky were enlisted in the United States military at the time, but as Booker had once told them, if you want to be somewhere, just pretend you belong.
The entire team had been in Korea trying to save villagers from the atrocities on both sides. They’d been watching a group of North Korean soldiers interrogate a family, which meant they would break the limbs of their children until the parents confessed to aiding the American troops just so they’d stop hurting the kids, then the soldiers would execute the entire family for their supposed crimes. Joe and Nicky were waiting for Andy and Booker to work their way behind the soldiers, when suddenly the North Koreans went down in quick succession, a single bullet for each. Joe and Nicky had looked at each other in surprise.
“That wasn’t Andy, was it?” Joe asked.
Their answer came a few minutes later when two men appeared out of the jungle, one carrying a rifle.
“Marine snipers,” Nicky noted, his eyes lighting up appreciatively. “M1C rifle with the M82 scope and flash protector.”
Nicky was a good shot, probably the best of any of them, and he had a weakness for guns. When he’d seen his first crude representation of one in China, he had turned to Joe and demanded, “I want one,” like a child begging sweets in the market.
He was wearing that same look as he told Joe, “I hear they’re training them here.”
That’s how they ended up in the 5th battalion's sniper school, with a little help from Booker and his fake paperwork. Joe was a decent shot, but nothing like Nicky or the others in the class. Still, he and Nicky worked so seamlessly together, Joe was quickly assigned as his spotter. Given what he’d seen of their instructor’s spotter, he wasn’t sure he really wanted the job. The two would lure Chinese snipers to expose themselves by having the young private run along the line, daring them to take a shot. As soon as one would stand, the Marine sniper would take him down.
“That kid is nuts,” Joe observed.
Nicky considered the observation before pointing out, “They’ve done it nine times, and he doesn’t have a scratch on him, so they must be doing something right.”
Ends up there was a lot more to being a spotter than acting as human bait. Joe learned how to read the wind and terrain so Nicky could adjust his aim, and he confirmed the targets that Nicky could so easily dispatch. While other spotters could do the same, Joe could convey the need for adjustments with nothing more than a silent touch or nudge to Nicky’s arm. More than that, Joe was responsible for watching Nicky’s flank so no one could sneak up on him while he was behind his scope. Protecting Nicky was something Joe literally did in his sleep.
Joe had simply sighed at the designation they’d received, adding one more to a growing list.
They were on their first mission together as a sniper team, lying on their stomachs under a camouflage netting, when Joe noted in a whisper, “Over the years, I’ve been called your enemy, your friend, your lover, your boyfriend, your partner, on one occasion your slave--”
“And on another my master,” Nicky reminded him, before saying. “Stepping away.”
“Got you,” Joe assured, keeping their target in sight with his binoculars while Nicky rested his eyes for a few seconds. Eye fatigue was common with a sniper, who had to sight through a scope, sometimes for hours, waiting for the shot he needed. At least with Nicky, he recovered quickly thanks to their ability to heal.
Joe continued his listing while Nicky rolled his neck. “Your roommate, your coworker, your assistant, your employee, your boss, and now we can add your spotter and flankman to the list.”
“I’m back,” Nicky told him, once more looking through the scope.
“Twenty feet to the right,” Joe filled him in on the general’s movements so he could once again find the target in his sights.
“Got him,” Nicky assured, then said, “It doesn’t matter the name, it’s all the same. You look out for me, I look out for you, like we’ve done for nearly nine hundred years. They’re all just different words for the same thing, like God and Allah. They’re the same. Yusuf and Joe, Nicolo and Nicky. Boyfriend and spotter. It’s the same.”
“So what would you call me?” Joe asked, then seeing the target was finally clear of potential collateral casualties, he ordered, “Take him.”
Nicky exhaled, squeezed the trigger, and the North Korean general went down. Without even waiting for the confirmation of the kill, Nicky raised his head to look over at Joe. “Mine, I call you mine, and all that entails, just as you have claimed me as yours. Is that answer good? Can we go now before the North Koreans find us?”
Joe was already gathering their gear. “That answer’s perfect.”
Nicky was proving once more just how perfect it was while facing down a Klan gathering with nothing more than a Louisville Slugger and his absolute commitment to Joe and protecting what was his.
Joes heard one of the men, further away, closer to the cars, say, “Holy shit, did you see what he did to Carl?”
But another, closer, cocked his shotgun. “Boy, you are dead.”
Joe rolled his eyes at the confidence in the man's voice, immediately wishing he hadn’t when the world tipped precariously. He watched as Nicky planted his right foot before using it to launch himself forward. Joe had learned to dance the swords as a child, fought with a style that incorporated intricate patterns as it flowed gracefully from one stance to the next. Nicky wasn’t what Joe would consider a graceful fighter, but he was a wonder to behold, every move precise, causing maximum damage, nothing going to waste. It was even more impressive that, at the moment, Joe was watching two of him with his blurry vision.
Nicky darted straight for the man with the gun, pivoting at the last moment to his right, and using the bat to knock the gun straight up just as the man fired. Then he spun, swinging hard and connecting behind the gunman’s knees. The man went down face first, throwing his arms out in front of himself, and with them the gun. Nicky snatched it as he fell, pumped it single-handedly with his left hand, and fired it into the nearest man’s kneecap. That one went down screaming and didn’t stop. Turning, Nicky used the shotgun to whack the man who had previously been in possession of the gun behind the head, this time when he went down, he didn’t get back up. Pumping it once more, he shot another assailant coming at him with a crowbar in the foot, dropped the now useless shotgun as the man fell to his knees, and hit him once behind the neck with a two-handed swing of the bat. Then he advanced on another man with a pipe.
The man dropped it, raising his hands. “I don’t want no trouble.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Nicky informed him, no doubt breaking the man’s ribs with another swing.
Behind him, Joe saw a man climb back in his car, thinking he might have wised up and decided to get the hell out of Dodge. Instead, he came back out with a pistol in his hand. Before Joe could yell a warning, Nicky froze at the sound of the hammer clicking into place, then dove over the hood of the nearest car to take cover as the man fired.
Joe lost track of Nicky behind the glare of the headlights, and so did the remaining three men. With his vision finally starting to clear, Joe pushed himself up to his hands and knees, listening for any sign of Nicky through the ringing in his ears.
All he could hear were the men talking amongst themselves.
“Where’d he go?”
“Do you see him?”
“I think you hit him, Ray. I see blood.”
“Bet he hightailed it out of here.”
Joe pushed himself to his feet, swaying where he stood, swallowing down threatening bile from the concussion that still hadn’t healed yet. He bent in the middle, hands on his knees, and focused on making the spinning stop.
“Looks like he left his boyfriend behind.”
Joe took a deep breath, straightened, and prepared to face the three men… the six men… now back to three, walking quickly toward him. The one with the gun advanced a few feet further than the other two, aiming between his eyes.
Joe grimaced, because headshots hurt like a son of a bitch on their own, much less on top of existing head trauma. He was going to have a migraine for days after this.
“Guess your boyfriend must not like to fuck you much after all,” he taunted.
As if he didn't have enough of a headache, Joe had to listen to this arrogant piece of shit. Although, the great thing about arrogant pieces of shit was that they never noticed when they were fucked, like when a deadly shadow armed with a baseball bat was creeping up silently behind them.
“Guess again, asshole,” Joe said, grabbing the gun and twisting it out of the man’s hand as Nicky took down the two guys behind the gunman with a swing each. Joe used the pistol to cold cock the man in front of him, adding another tooth to the pile at his feet as the man crumbled before him.
Nicky still held the bat, ready for any other takers, even as he watched Joe carefully.
Joe nodded to say he was okay, although when he staggered back two steps, he doubted Nicky really believed him.
Nicky dropped his weapon, and he caught Joe before his knees gave out, cradling Joe’s face and looking him over carefully.
“I’m good,” Joe promised, waving a hand near the problem area. “Just stupid, fucking, head shit.”
Nicky snorted, still studying Joe intently. “I don’t remember ever reading about that specific clinical diagnosis.”
Joe gripped Nicky’s wrists, closed his eyes, and leaned his aching head against Nicky’s. “I’m fine, or will be as soon as my body fixes this damn concussion, or slow bleed on the brain, or whatever it is. I’m feeling better already.” He was, it wasn’t a lie, so he grinned. “Did I happen to mention how hot it is to watch you kick ass like that?”
“Yeah, okay, I believe you; you’ll live.” Nicky rolled his eyes but kissed Joe all the same, then gently pressed his lips to Joe’s throbbing forehead. “Come on, we need to get out of here.”
Stepping over the unconscious body at their feet, Joe noted, “Wow, Nicky, you sure made a mess out here.”
“They were very rude men,” Nicky justified as he steadied Joe, kept a possessive hand on his arm for good measure.
Joe didn’t mind one bit, felt it was right where it belonged.
He is all and more.
Chicago, May 14, 2013
Nicky ordered three coffees, two blueberry scones, and a chocolate croissant. At the last minute he threw in a turkey sandwich, because he had no idea how long it was going to take Joe and Booker to finish up at the Cook County Records Department, and breakfast was wearing off quickly. He’d barely made it through half his sandwich, though, when Joe came around the corner to join him at the table outside the coffee shop.
He shed his jacket then sat, moving the seat a little closer to Nicky. “Man, it is hot today. Hard to believe it was below freezing yesterday morning.”
“Chicago,” Nicky offered, as if that explained it all, which it did.
The other patrons sitting outside at the cafe seemed happy to soak up the sun regardless of the heat. There were a couple of college students at the table closest to them, with their earbuds in as they worked on their computers, a man by himself reading the paper as he drank a cappuccino with a decorative flower drawn into the foam, and a young black woman setting an iced tea in front of an elderly woman that was definitely a relative of some sort.
Nicky pushed a coffee and the second half of his sandwich in front of Joe. “Everything taken care of?”
Joe nodded as he took a large bite. “Uhm huh,” he said around the food. “I’m officially Yusuf ibn al-Kaysani, once again. Booker’s taking care of a few last things, then we’ll be all set.”
They’d been tracking funding for a human trafficking organization based out of Indonesia. Booker had hit the motherload when he’d found a ledger with names and numbers associated with Swiss Bank accounts, one of which belonged to a Yusuf ibn al-Kaysani, who they discovered had actually been born in Chicago while his father was assigned as a staff member at the Egyptian consulate there in the 1980s. They could have taken any of the names on the list and used them, but Andy said it was too much of a coincidence not to take advantage of having an actual Yusuf ibn al-Kaysani to play the role. The plan was to go to Switzerland and let Yusuf move the money from the other Yusuf’s account into one that had belonged to Nicolo DeGenoa’s family since the early 1900s; the ‘DeGenoa family’ meaning Nicky playing various relatives and heirs along the way. They would then use the dirty money to take down the operation that had provided it.
Nicky had opened the account after receiving shares of General Electric as a thank you from Thomas Edison himself. He’d saved the man from a lethal dose of radiation while he worked on developing the fluoroscope that had led to modern radiology, unfortunately, his laboratory assistant hadn’t been as lucky. Nicky, to this day, did not understand exactly how stocks worked. All he knew was that, even though the dividends had gone up and down over time, they made him a ton of cash.
They all had money stashed away across the world, funded by the various missions they had gone on when someone was paying, withdrawn from those same stashes when they took on a mission on their own. Through it all, they always knew they had Nicky’s account with more than enough funds for the lot of them when times were tight.
Nicky had only used the money once for himself, to buy a nice little house in Malta where he and Joe had taken cover during a particularly brutal night of bombings during World War II. They’d spent a lot of time in Malta over the years, during the slave trading that took place under the Normans in the eleventh and twelfth century, during the Ottoman siege of 1565, and during that summer of 1942 when the island was on the brink of starvation until Andy, somehow, manager to get a bombed out convoy of boats with rations into the harbor. During that summer, the island went through one hundred and fifty-four days and nights of sustained bombing, and Nicky and Joe had been there for every one of them. They helped treat those injured by the bombings, as well as those falling ill from dysentary and typhoid due to the detriorating conditions on the island.
The farmhouse had been abandoned when they found it; the owners had evidently fled the island earlier while they could. Joe and Nicky had to rebuild the roof over a dozen times during the bombings, but it felt more like home than anyplace they had been in a very long time. Nicky never knew why; maybe because they were trapped in one place for so long, maybe because it was just the two of them, maybe it was the simple domesticity of waking in the same bed with Joe every morning even with a war raging around them. Whatever the reason, Nicky could see that Joe hated to leave it as much as he did when the time came. After the war, Booker had helped Nicky track down the owners of the land, and he had transferred the money from the Swiss account to the family that had returned once it was safe to do so. The asking price was probably twice what it was worth; Nicky and Joe thought it was a steal.
That had been the last time Nicky had accessed the account. He’d be going in as the grandson of the man who had undertaken that last transaction when they walked into the bank tomorrow.
Booker joined them a few minutes later, handing over a manila envelope.
Nicky placed the last coffee and plate with the croissant in front of their teammate and looked curiously at the envelope. “What’s this?”
“What’s that?” Booker demanded, looking in disgust at the pastry in front of him. “What’s this?”
“It’s a croissant,” Nicky told him innocently, hiding his grin at the ongoing joke they had with Booker regarding what American’s were willing to consider croissants.
“ That is not a croissant,” Booker insisted, pushing back the plate. “It’s an abomination and anyone claiming it’s a croissant should be shot on sight.”
Joe reached across to take the pastry, and bit into it with an exaggerated look of pleasure. “Oh, Book, you don’t know what you are missing.”
“I know exactly what I’m missing, and so do you two animals.”
Joe laughed harder and took another bite. “You’re such a snob.”
“My blessed mother, God rest her soul,” Booker lamented as he looked heavenward, “is rolling in her grave at the thought of people eating that and comparing it to the perfection of a Parisian croissant.”
"Your mother had already been rolling in her grave for years when the croissant first came to Paris," Joe pointed out.
Booker ignored the history lesson, and being caught in his lie, as any good con man would. He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “I may take the train to Paris after we finish up in Zurich just to eat one, and I’m not bringing any back to share.”
Joe mocked being stabbed in the heart, but his laughter stopped when he saw Nicky holding the paper he’d pulled from the envelope. “Nicky?”
Nicky looked up in confusion. “It’s a marriage certificate.”
Booker was shaking sugar packets. “Mazal-tov. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
The certificate was declaring the marriage of Nicolo DeGenoa and Yusuf ibn al-Kaysani in Brussels on July 15, 2005.
“What?” Joe asked, looking over the paper that Nicky held. “Why?”
“It sure makes a lot more sense for the two of you to be combining your accounts if you’re married,” Booker pointed out, his smile showing he was very proud of his work, or maybe how he’d caught the two so off-guard with it.
“Look, Joe, we have an anniversary coming up,” Nicky pointed out, still not sure what to make of the certificate.
“July 15, that’s the day you met, right?” Booker asked. “The day Jerusalem fell.”
“It was the day we stopped killing each other,” Nicky told Booker, although he was looking at Joe with a soft smile.
Joe returned the smile, leaning in a little closer. "What's more romantic than that?"
“I figured that was your anniversary, I mean, give or take nine hundred years.” Booker removed the lid from his coffee, pouring in the sugar packs as he noted, “I’m kind of surprised you guys never did it for real once it was legal.”
“What do you expect with Nicky’s overwhelming fear of commitment.” Joe had taken the document and was looking at it closely, his knee pressed against Nicky’s under the table.
Nicky played along. “A catholic and a muslim? It would never work out. How would we raise the children?”
Joe winked at him over the piece of paper and Nicky hooked their ankles.
Booker shrugged, put out his hand to take it back. “Fine, if you don’t want it, we can come up with some other reason--”
“No!” they both said at the same time.
Joe pulled it close to his chest to keep it out of Booker’s reach. “It’s a good plan.”
“It’s a very good plan,” Nicky agreed, thinking Joe was going to wrinkle it terribly if he didn’t release it soon.
“Suit yourself.” Booker smirked smugly as he stood. “Tickets for the flight are in there, as well.” He snatched Joe’s scone and took a bite, considered it, and decided to keep it. “See you newlyweds in the morning.”
“Hey, that’s mine!” Joe called after him.
Booker turned and walked backwards long enough to flip him off as he took another bite.
“Asshole,” he grumped, but more in amused affection than anger, much like he shook his head as he slipped the certificate back into the envelope. “Guess we’ll add husband to the list of designators.”
“There are worse things to be called, I suppose,” Nicky added, although in the grand scheme of things, it seemed such a small word to call Joe after everything they’d been through together.
Friend, lover, partner, husband… individually, the words seemed insignificant, overwhelmed by all the shared history, the shared lifetimes Nicky and Joe had spent together. Although, when put together, they started forming the picture of their life, their love. Nicky and Joe were all those things, but the sum was much greater than the parts.
“I’m pretty sure you’ve called me those, too,” Joe said with a smile, about to lean in for a kiss.
They were interrupted by the young black woman approaching their table. “I’m sorry, I know this is going to sound strange, but my grandmother is absolutely convinced that she knows you two.”
Joe laughed lightly as he looked over at the old woman studying them closely. “I’m pretty sure we’ve never met.”
“Would you mind if I brought her over, just for a minute? I’m not sure if the heat is too much for her or what, but she’s usually very sharp and doesn’t get confused like this, and I’m getting a little worried...so maybe if she sees you up close she’ll realize she’s mistaken.”
“Of course, of course,” Nicky assured, offering, “We can go to her.”
“No, no, don’t get up, you’re still eating. I promise, this won’t take but a minute.”
“I don’t remember helping any little old ladies recently,” Joe murmured when the younger woman left.
“Not unless she was in a refugee camp in Darfur last month,” Nicky added.
Nicky stood and pulled out a chair for the old woman when her granddaughter walked her over, and she looked at them in awe. “It really is you,” she said. “As I live and breath, it is.”
Joe furrowed his brow. “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to remind us where we’ve met.”
“Anniston, Alabama,” the woman said, “You two saved my life from some Klansmen that were attacking me when I was just a girl.”
Nicky suddenly saw the resemblance between the young woman standing with her grandmother and the woman they had rescued from being raped all those years ago.
“Oh, no,” Nicky said, covering for the mild look of panic in Joe’s eyes. “You must have met our fathers; they rode with the Freedom Riders in the ‘60s.”
“Of course,” the woman didn’t seem completely convinced but she nodded her head. “That was over fifty years ago, you two are much too young to have been there. Funny, it was, well, fifty-two years this week. I remember it happened on Mother’s Day. They tried to burn that bus at the station.”
“I remember,” Joe started, then quickly added, “my dad telling me about that.”
“It was terrible,” the woman continued, “and when they couldn’t do that, I guess they were all fired up and decided to look for someone else to punish. I was walking home from work when they attacked me. I was scared to death for what they planned to do to me. I thought, ‘Bernadette, there is no way you are getting out of this alive’.” The younger woman placed her hand on her grandmother’s shoulder, and the older one gripped it.
Nicky remembered that night, as well, remembered the smell of gasoline as it exploded in the bus, remembered the sound of the woman’s screams, remembered Joe being clubbed with a baseball bat until Nicky broke the nose of the man holding him and took the bat from the man beating Joe when he called from someone to bring him a rope, remembered Joe taking an eternity to wake up and making sure not another one of those monsters touched him until he did.
“Then two men appeared like guardian angels to save me.” She smiled at Joe and Nicky. “Your daddy’s. They whooped the asses of almost a dozen men that night, too. I never got to thank them.”
“They wouldn’t need your thanks,” Joe assured her. “They were very proud of the work they did back then.”
Noting the past tense, she gave them a sympathetic look. “Have they passed on?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Joe lied.
“I’m so sorry to hear that.” With a shake of her head, she told them. “If not for them, my Lily here wouldn’t have been born muchless just graduated this past Sunday from law school, top of her class.”
“Nanna, please,” Lily dismissed self-consciously at the obvious pride her grandmother had in her accomplishment. “They don’t want to hear about that.”
“Actually, yes, I would love to hear it,” Nicky urged. “It’s always nice to hear about how our father’s made a difference.”
“Oh, they made a huge difference in my life,” Bernadette assured. “ The next day, my mama put me on a bus to Chicago to live with my aunt. I worked in a shirt factory where I met my Eddie. We married, had three boys, scraped and saved, and eventually paid for me to go to nursing school. My oldest son is a teacher now, my middle boy retired a colonel in the Air Force, my youngest is a doctor. His daughter is in medical school now, wants to be a pediatrician, after she goes off to God knows where with that Doctor Without Borders group.”
“Nanna, Bev just wants to help others, pay back all the good we’ve had in our lives.”
“And what do you plan to do with your degree?” Nicky asked.
“I’m starting an internship next week with the ACLU,” she told them, “Although Nanna here won’t be happy until I’m clerking at the Supreme Court.”
“Clerking?” the grandmother dismissed. “You mean sitting up there handing down judgments.”
“Nanna....” Lily rolled her eyes like she’d heard this expectation more than once.
“You should listen to her,” Joe advised. “The world needs more decent people fighting the good fight.”
“Amen to that,” her grandmother added.
“Well, we should let you get back to your day.” Lily offered, before asking, “Do you live here in Chicago? I’d love to talk to you more about anything you could share about your father’s experiences with the Freedom Riders. I hope to specialize in civil rights law.”
“No, sorry,” Nicky apologized, “we only came in for a few days. Leaving tomorrow, actually.”
“Just in town for a wedding,” Joe added, with a grin at Nicky.
Nicky was grateful he was wearing sunglasses so the women couldn’t see him roll his eyes.
“That’s nice. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here. Thank you so much for talking to us.” The woman offered her hand and she noted, “I’m sorry, I never even got your names.”
They shook her hand, intentionally leaving off a last name.
“Nice to meet you, Nick and Joseph,” Lily said with a curious smile, making room for her grandmother to take their hands.
She looked at them both and shook her head disbelief. “You two are just the spitting images of your fathers.”
“We get that all the time,” Joe laughed.
“All the time,” Nicky stressed.
With one last round of goodbye and congratulations to Lily on her graduation, the two women made their way back to their table, gathered their things, and left with a final wave.
Joe exhaled when they were out of sight. “Who would have ever thought we’d meet someone from our past like that?”
“The world is getting smaller,” Nicky pointed out, repeating what Andy was always telling them. She was right, scarily so, and Nicky worried that eventually they’d be found out. Everyone had a cell phone, a camera in hand, that could capture them at work, expose them to the world. Quynh had ended up imprisoned at the bottom of the sea when others had discovered her powers. Nicky was afraid their fate could be even worse if they were found. “But it was nice, huh? Seeing that we made a difference, even just a little one.”
The risk was worth the rewards. They made all that they had done with Andy and Booker, all this that he had with Joe, just a little bit more than it could have been.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed with a nod of his head, “it was.” He drank another sip of coffee before asking, “You ready to head back to the hotel? Apparently we’ve been married for almost eight years, and I don’t remember getting a honeymoon out of the deal.”
“Every day with me is like a honeymoon,” Nicky teased.
Joe, however, leaned in and claimed the kiss that had been interrupted earlier. “Amen to that.”
Nicky took the last scone to eat on the way, breaking off a piece as they walked and handing it to Joe.
Joe stuffed the folder under his arm so he could take the pastry while still holding his coffee cup. “I can’t believe that French bastard took my scone.”
Nicky knew he would, which was why he had bought two. He eased the envelope from Joe and chastised, “You’ll mangle it carrying it that way.”
Joe took another sip of his coffee. “I can’t believe he made that marriage certificate, either.”
“It’s a good plan,” Nicky justified, because it was. Although, that didn’t explain why Nicky wanted to protect the paper inside the envelope so much.
“It’s a very good plan,” Joe agreed, sneaking a glance at the envelope. “And as usually, Book did a great job with the forgery.”
“Very authentic looking,” Nicky concurred.
They walked in silence for another block, before Joe finally said, “We should keep it at the house in Malta.”
Nicky nodded. “I’ll buy a frame.”
He is my everything.
Malta, September 17, 2019
“You’re going to want to turn that up,” Andy warned Nile from the living room.
“Why?” Nile asked over the sultry voice of Billie Holiday. She’d just come across the album among the collection Joe and Nicky kept at their house, a first pressing of ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ Andy had found for Joe somewhere along the way.
Joe loved the album, loved the song playing, loved the man whose dick he was sucking in their shower, loved the way Nicky moaned loudly and started babbling in Arabic when Joe hummed along to the melody playing in the other room.
“Oh,” Nile said awkwardly in response to the downright pornagraphic sounds Nicky was making. “Yeah. Okay. I see what you mean.” The music volume suddenly increased.
Joe didn’t mind; it just made it easier to hear Lady Day. Besides, they had been very polite and let Nile and Andy take their showers first so they’d have hot water, which meant Joe hadn’t bitched when Andy called dibs. They'd earned the right to be as loud as they wanted in their own damn house.
Nicky’s fingers brushed against Joe’s cheek, and he looked up to meet Nicky’s gaze, to see him smiling down at him, bracing himself with one hand against the tiles.
“Yusuf, my heart,” Nicky said breathlessly in Arabic, his eyes mischievously bright with lust and want and need and love, always love.
Joe took him deeper, and Nicky’s head fell back against the tiles with a delighted smile, fingers moving to twist into Joe’s curls, and he moaned again.
Joe could have almost come from that sound alone, at seeing Nicky happy. As much as he knew Nicky was enjoying this, he knew the noises were as much for Joe. Joe needed this, after everything that had happened-- the abduction, the torture, the betrayal, the realization that Andy was no longer immortal-- Joe needed to know Nicky was okay, alive, here with him. As shitty as everything else was, just knowing that was enough.
Hell, it was everything. Nicolo was everything.
Joe could watch him like this forever. The way he bit at the corner of his lower lip as he fought not to thrust his hips that Joe kept a loose hold on. The way his hair was washed forward into his face, the water running down to darken his lashes. The last time Joe had seen him looking even close to this had been a couple days before, under much less pleasurable circumstance.
After leaving Merrick’s headquarters, they had needed to clean up. Not exactly easy to blend in and disappear if your clothes were blood stained and full of bullet holes. Their bags were still in the trunk of the car Nile had brought to Merrick’s headquarters, so they had a change of clothes, at least. Andy, however, needed bandages for her wounds, and Nicky’s hair was matted with blood from when he’d eaten a fucking gun in the labs.
Every time he looked at it, Joe wanted to do the same to Booker, which was why Andy and Nicky had kept the two men apart while Nile went to buy some supplies and they waited in the parking lot of an abandoned factory. She returned, and Joe watched her hand over a gallon jug of water and a travel size shampoo to Nicky.
“I thought you could use this to, you know, clean up,” she offered.
Nicky gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you, and not just for the supplies.”
“You did well today,” Nicky told her.
“Thanks.” She looked to where Joe stood off a little ways from the car, away from Booker. “Is he going to be okay?”
“He’ll be fine,” Nicky assured. “It’s just been a rough day.”
Joe snorted at how much of an understatement that was.
When Nile went to help Andy change her bandages, Nicky joined Joe in the corner of the lot. “Can you help me with this? I can’t exactly see what I’m cleaning.”
“Yeah, I wish I couldn’t,” Joe noted irritably. He also wished he could stop seeing Nicky lying there dead and not waking the fuck up. Big wounds took time to heal, and having the back of your head blown out was a big fucking wound. After learning Andy wasn’t healing anymore, Joe couldn’t help jumping to the same conclusion with Nicky, if only for a few seconds.
“I can ask one of the others--” Nicky offered, knowing Joe wasn’t going to let that happen.
Taking the water from Nicky before he could follow up with the threat, he ordered, “Bend over.”
Nicky’s lips curled with the slightest hint of smugness as he removed his bullet-riddled shirt, squatted down, and did as he was told. Joe stood behind him to keep his shoes from getting wet and poured some of the water over Nicky’s head, watched the stream of red run onto the pavement. Puting the water aside, he opened the shampoo and set to lathering Nicky’s hair, the suds turning instantly red as the dried and caked blood came loose. This wasn’t the first time he’d washed blood from Nicky’s hair, but it was the first where Joe felt it had happened because of a betrayal by a friend, by family .
“Joe?” Nicky’s voice held a trace of worry, like he was checking in to make sure Joe was okay, probably because of the rather aggressive way Joe was scrubbing away the blood.
Joe sighed, but eased up, using a much gentler touch as he ran his fingers through Nicky’s hair. “I don’t understand how he could do that to us. He knew what they would do, he knew .”
“Andy always said the first couple of centuries were the hardest,” Nicky reminded. “It’s barely been that long for him, been less since he lost his family.”
“We didn’t betray Andy and Quynh during our first two hundred years,” Joe pointed out.
“No, but we didn’t exactly put those early years to good use until we met them.” Nicky laughed lightly at the memory. “As pleasant as the time was.”
“Hey, tantric sex with you is always a good use of time,” Joe defended.
Satisfied that he’d loosened the blood as best he could for a parking lot shower, Joe poured the rest of the water over Nicky’s head to rinse away the bloody suds. He still needed a real shower, they both did, but it would have to do for now.
When Nicky started to stand, Joe stopped him so he could satisfy himself that the wound was truly gone, fully healed.
Nicky waited patiently for him to do so, understanding how important it was to Joe. Hell, Joe knew that’s why he’d asked him to wash his hair in the first place.
“We always had each other; we were home for each other,” Nicky continued while Joe ran his fingers over fully healed skin without a mark on it, then squeezed as much water as he could from Nicky’s hair. “Booker had a choice. He could either leave his family behind or stay and watch them die.”
Nicky stood, blinking water off his eyelashes, hair plastered to his forehead and temples, and Joe used his own fingers as a comb to brush it back. “He never should have returned to his family. He should have stayed away, made a clean break, like we did.”
Nicky looked to where Booker, Nile, and Andy were changing into new clothes by the car. “We never should have let him return to them. We'll do better with Nile.”
“So this is our fault?” Joe asked in disbelief, like Nicky was actually defending what Booker did.
With a barely perceptible shake of his head, Nicky explained, “He loved his wife, his children, like we love each other. If I were mortal and died, and you had to live without me for a hundred years, knew you would have to do it for thousands more, what would you do for the chance to die, as well?”
Joe took a breath, pushed back at the fear and panic he’d felt earlier that was rushing back. “For about five seconds today, I thought that was my fate. And that is why I can’t forgive him for what he did.”
“Yusuf,” Nicky caught Joe’s arm before he could walk away like he was planning to do. “Your death is mine, and mine is yours,” he assured in Arabic.
Nicky had always been convinced that they had been reborn together and would, therefore, die together. Joe prayed he was right, but after a day like today, it was hard to deny his fear that Nicky might be wrong.
Joe placed his hand on Nicky’s bare chest, felt his heart beating familiarly beneath his palm as it had for almost a thousand years. Joe loved the feel of it, the way it would race in battle, the way it would speed with just a touch from Joe. He loved the way it soothed him into sleep, either under his ear when he slept on Nicky’s chest or beneath his hand when he spooned up close behind him. Joe couldn’t imagine a world without that steady beat to prove Nicky was alive, to prove Joe was alive. Maybe Nicky was right in his belief, because for those few eternal seconds when he thought he had lost Nicky, he felt himself dying, as well.
“Your death is mine,” Joe repeated.
Nicky placed his hand over Joe’s and leaned in for a kiss.
Joe kissed him back and grimaced against his lips. “You taste like gun residue.”
Nicky rolled his eyes. “You’ve been kissing me since before the advent of toothpaste, so stop complaining.” He recaptured Joe’s lips and refused to let up.
Joe finally relaxed into the kiss, stepped in closer, and rested his hand against Nicky’s neck. “You still taste like gun residue,” he said when they parted, but he thumbed away a drop of water from Nicky’s earlobe.
Nicky snorted and hitched his head. “Come on, I need a new shirt.”
Nicky used his old shirt to dry his hair as best he could before depositing it, along with the rest of his and Joe’s clothing, into the garbage bag Nile was using to collect all their blood-stained apparel.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Joe said as Nile hefted the full bag that was going in the nearest dumpster. “It’s why Andy buys all her black tank tops in bulk.”
“Basic black never goes out of style,” Andy agreed as she moved to the driver’s seat once more; even injured and no longer healing, she was still the boss. “Everybody ready to move out?”
Nicky pulled his clean t-shirt over his head, and Joe straightened his still wet hair as Nicky slipped into his jacket. Then Nicky tapped Joe’s arm to indicate he should sit beside him in the backseat instead of riding shotgun.
Joe obliged, realized that’s where he had wanted to be all along, rested a hand on Nicky’s thigh as Andy started the car.
“Where are we going now?” Nile asked from the opposite side of Nicky.
“The Devil’s Tavern,” Andy told her, glancing back in the rearview mirror. “We have some family business to work out.”
It was called the Prospect of Whitby now, but they’d first visited it in the 16th Century when it was known as The Devil’s Tavern because it was a favorite of pirates and other ne’er-do-wells at the time. They had fit in nicely.
In the front seat, Booker bowed his head, knowing what was coming. Joe’s hand tightened on Nicky’s leg in his own dread, knowing they would have to pass judgment, come up with a punishment on someone he had considered a brother for two centuries, but had betrayed them all the same. Joe may have given Nicky the benefit of the doubt about them dying together, but that didn’t mean Merrick wouldn’t have kept them locked in cages for decades, possibly separated, while they used them as lab rats on a daily basis.
Nicky placed his hand over Joe’s and linked their fingers, bent his head to kiss Joe’s shoulder, then sunk in the seat a bit so he could lean his head there, obviously feeling as crappy about what was to come as Joe did. Joe rested his cheek against damp hair and closed his eyes for the rest of the ride, forcing himself to concentrate on the man beside him, and not the one who had sold them out so that Joe almost lost the one he loved.
Now, days later, together with Nicky in their shower, in their home, Joe was leaning his head against Nicky’s wet hair in a much more enjoyable moment. In the living room, Billie Holiday was finishing up the A side on the album, and in the shower, Nicky was still pushing back against him as Joe rode out the last few jolts of his orgasm before slumping bonelessly against Nicky’s back. The weight pressed Nicky flat against the tiles as Joe pressed sloppy kisses and murmured in Arabic, “Nicolo, my beautiful, Nicolo” behind Nicky’s ear, “my soul,” along his neck, “my love,” at his hairline, “my life,” between his shoulder blades.
Nicky turned so he could kiss Joe deeply, taking his time to be as thorough as possible. It has been a long, rough series of days since they’d been able to do this, simply take their time and enjoy each other. Joe intended to do just that, enjoy every second they had together tonight. The fact that he could already feel Nicky recovering from the blow job he’d given him a few minutes earlier told him all he needed to know about Nicky’s intentions for the evening, as well.
“Yusuf, my heart,” Nicky whispered against his lips.
“Yes, my soul?” Joe smeared the words against Nicky’s jaw, ready to offer to let Nicky fuck him next time, looking forward to it.
“The water is turning cold.” Nicky’s body shook with a chuckle, and Joe couldn’t help but join in.
“You have bathed in much colder water than this,” Joe reminded him.
“True, but that was before the wonders of indoor plumbing and water heaters.” Nicky bit at Joe’s lower lip. “Besides, we have a very comfortable bed, much more comfortable than a tile wall.”
“Are you uncomfortable, my royal princess?” Joe teased with a nip in return to his jaw.
“Just a small bit,” Nicky agreed, his laugh dissolving into ridiculous giggles of protest when Joe moved to ravage his neck with nibbling teeth. “No, Stop! No! No! I said, stop!” Then pushing Joe to arms length, he took on a serious, warning tone. “Yusuf, no!”
Joe sputtered laughter at the attempt, and Nicky’s facade broke instantly into his own fit of laughter. Joe sighed dramatically, “Fine, I guess I’ll finish debauching your body in our bed.”
They finished cleaning up quickly, then Joe was wrapping a towel around Nicky, drying him briskly as Nicky attempted to do the same with him. In the living room, Nile flipped the album to the B side, and ‘God Bless the Child’ started playing.
“Mmmm, love this one.” Joe used the towel he had around Nicky to pull him in closer so he could place one hand on his lower back. The towel landed in a damp heap on the floor, so he could take Nicky’s hand and start swaying to the music.
Nicky did the same with the towel he had been using to dry Joe as he noted, “So you get to lead?”
“I wouldn’t expect a delicate flower like yourself to lead,” he taunted. “Besides, I’m a much better dancer.”
“You’re terrible in a mosh pit,” Nicky countered.
“Everyone’s terrible in a mosh pit, that’s the point.”
Nicky rolled his eyes at Joe’s defense.
It had taken a while for Joe to understand Nicky’s fascination with punk and some of the hardcore rock music when it came along, but after a while, it made perfect sense. There was something wild and barely controlled about the music that reminded Joe of the way Nicky fought. It wasn’t trying to be eloquent, it was just energy and motion, same as Joe had witnessed in Nicky time and time again. Not to mention how the political messages often aligned with the causes they had fought for over the years.
As Nicky told him when he bought a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, “They speak our language.”
He couldn’t argue with Nicky’s assessment. Not to mention, the only thing Nicky liked better than wearing the shirt himself was the way Joe looked wearing it. Joe had been known to use that to his advantage on more than one occasion.
“Besides,” Joe added, “given a choice between dancing nude to Billie Holiday and slamming around nude to some really loud music in a pit, which is the better choice?”
“Ah,” Nicky conceded, moving his hand from Joe’s shoulder to curl behind his neck, “you make a very valid point.”
In the living room, Joe could hear Nile looking over some of the things they had stored here in Malta. Andy had her treasure cave; Nicky and Joe took a more civilized approach to cataloging their life.
“Oh, wow,” Nile said, “how old is this book?”
She had obviously found Nicky’s copy of ‘A Thousand Entertaining Tales’ that they kept in a specially sealed case to protect it. Nicky had eventually donated the books he’d saved from Baghdad to the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, but he couldn’t bear to part with the first book Joe had ever given him.
“They picked that up just after the first crusades, I think,” Andy provided. “Nicolo read that to us many times around many fires back in the day.”
Nicky smiled at the memory, and Joe pulled him in a little closer, leaned his head against Nicky’s, as he kept them dancing a tight circle in the small bathroom.
“All those pictures Copley had in his office.” Joe had seen the awe on Nile’s face in the office, could hear it in her voice now. “All those places you’ve been, all through history. Did you ever meet anybody famous?”
Andy paused in thought. “At the time, a few. Most didn’t become famous until after we left.” As if remembering something that might impress the young woman, Andy told her. “We did see a few new plays by William Shakespeare at the Globe. Joe and Nicky met him.”
Apparently, Andy's plan worked, given the astonishment in Nile’s voice. “Seriously? Shakespeare? They met the Shakespeare?”
“Met him, let him steal my work,” Joe grumbled in the bathroom.
“He did rewrite it,” Nicky pointed out, as if that could justify the theft.
“He didn’t need to rewrite it; it was perfect the way it was. ‘Hear me speak, my soul: The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service’.”
“It was beautiful just the way it was,” Nicky assured him.
Joe shook his head in frustration of the memory, straightening enough to look Nicky in the eyes. “And then he changed it to ‘Hear my soul speak’.”
Nicky quoted the rewrite along with Joe, having heard this grievance many times over the years.
“Completely changed the meaning,” Nicky finished, knowing what was coming next in the argument.
“I wrote that for you.”
“I know, my heart.” As if to bring an end to the whole thing, Nicky moved back in so that they were cheek to cheek once more.
Joe sighed. “That son of bitch made it better.”
“Maybe a little,” Nicky conceded.
“The phrasing really is better that way,” Joe agreed reluctantly.
“It really is.” Nicky laughed then kissed Joe’s neck. “You should be flattered.”
Joe was smiling, too. “Flattered, yeah, I’m real flattered.”
They swayed for a bit in silence, lost in the music and each other, before the conversation about Will brought back another memory. “And who the fuck quotes Leer like he’s their goddamned role model?”
Nicky’s fingers curled along the nape of Joe’s neck. “A psychopath who would stab you multiple times in front of me, that’s who.”
Joe had heard Nicky’s outrage when it happened, saw the way he was looking anxiously for that reassurance that Joe was okay when Merrick finally stopped. After a millennia Joe did it, too, to the point it was second nature whenever he came back to life-- his hand would close around his weapon and his eyes would search out Nicky, wait for contact, either eye or physical, hopefully both, to confirm he was okay. It was incredible how a tap of their heads could alleviate so much worry.
Joe gave Nicky a reassuring squeeze. “He missed the entire point of that play.”
Nicky straightened with an adoring grin. “Only you would be more insulted by his lack of literary comprehension than being attacked with a letter opener.”
Joe found that smile infectious. “I’m just saying, for all his bragging about his brilliance, he was kind of a dumbass.”
“The evil ones so often are,” Nicky agreed.
Nile’s voice broke in again. “Aww, they’re actually married.”
Nicky’s eyes softened, knowing Nile had found the marriage certificate.
“Oh, that’s a fake,” Andy informed her.
Joe looked heavenward with a roll of his eyes. “She really is the spawn of a thousand demons when she wants to be.”
Neither of them could put into words why that stupid piece of paper meant as much as it did. They had made a commitment to each other centuries before without any formal declaration. It never seemed necessary; besides, legal documents left paper trails they couldn’t afford. Yet, there was something special about having someone else recognize and validate that unbreakable bond he and Nicky had that just hit Joe straight in the heart. Legal or not, it was still real.
“Don’t start on the fucking of three-legged camels,” Nicky warned, evidently seeing the growing irritation on Joe’s face.
Joe held his temper in check but mumbled, “If anyone would do it, it would be Andromache the Scythian.”
Nile seemed disappointed by the news the certificate wasn’t real. “So they aren’t really married?”
“Oh, they are definitely married,” Andy assured with a chuckle, “just not legally. Booker made that for a job.”
It was a bittersweet reminder of Booker and who he had been to them, who he was to them, still.
“I’m going to miss him,” Nicky admitted quietly.
Joe leaned this forehead against Nicky’s as he confessed, “So am I.”
In the living room, Nile asked, “How much longer do you think they’re going to be in there? I need to pee.”
Joe sighed, stopped moving and reluctantly loosened his hold on Nicky. “Guess that’s our cue. Knowing Andy, she’ll be beating on the door soon.”
“Not yet.” Nicky held him in place, with his arms, as well as the expression on his face. “One more song.”
Joe trailed his hands down lean muscles to rest in the small of Nicky’s back and began moving once more. “One more song,” he agreed.
Nicky ran his nose along Joe’s before kissing him softly, then pressed his cheek to Joe’s.
Joe exhaled in utter contentment. There was no denying it had been a shitty week, and there was still a lot of shittiness to come, what with Andy’s mortality and adjusting to one hundred years without Book. Yet, for one more song, Joe got to hold Nicky close in his arms, feel Nicky’s skin warm against his own, his breath on Joe’s shoulder, Nicky’s fingers tracing circles at the nape of his neck. Somehow, that’s all Joe needed to know they’d make it through whatever was to come. It’s all he’d ever needed.
As long as there was always one more song with Nicky, Joe knew he’d be fine.
Epilogue: You incurable romantic
Malta, September 19, 2019
Nicky smiled to see Joe lounging on the sofa when he came in the front door. The fact that he was wearing Nicky’s Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, a hint of his abs showing as the shirt rode up when Joe stretched made the view even more enjoyable.
Andy and Nile had taken the car on the ferry back to Sicily so that Andy could show her a few more safe houses in the area. Nicky thought she was trying to let Nicky and Joe have a little time alone at home before Copley contacted them with their next mission, although she claimed it was to give Nile a break from all the damn bells ringing at ungodly hours. The Maltese loved their bells. While both Nicky and Joe argued they shouldn’t go, or that they could all go when Andy had fully healed, Andy had rolled her eyes and told them in no uncertain terms that she could still kick both their asses in a fight and to knock off the overprotective bullshit. Nile had quietly promised she’d keep an eye on her before they left, and Andy had threatened to shoot her in the head again if she started conspiring with Nicky and Joe.
That had been two days ago, and while they hadn’t given a return date or time, Nicky figured it would be later that day or the next.
“Any word from Andy and Nile?” Nicky asked, using his foot to shut the door behind him.
“Not yet. How was the market?” Joe asked around a yawn.
“Good. I picked up some things for dinner.” Nicky placed the bags on the table then asked, “How was the nap?”
“Would have been better if you’d been part of it.” Joe strained his neck back to try to see what Nicky had brought home, then reached a hand for him. “Not too late to join in.”
With a kiss to Joe’s forehead as he passed, Nicky promised, “Be right back. Let me put away the chicken first.”
“Chicken?” Joe asked hopefully.
“Look what I found in the market.” Nicky tossed a pomegranate, which Joe caught easily, as he put the rest of the groceries away. “Early crop, first of the season.”
“Fesenjan.” Joe drew out the word, making it sound almost pornographic.
“You’d think I just offered to do some very lewd things to you.” Nicky put the chicken and a few other items in the refrigerator and left the rest to deal with later.
“I guarantee they won’t be nearly as lewd as what I plan to do to you after dinner tonight.” Joe grinned and he set aside the fruit when Nicky joined him.
Nicky kicked off his shoes, and crawled onto the sofa, onto Joe. Joe spread his legs so Nicky could settle comfortably between them.
“Maybe that’s why I cook it for you,” Nicky teased, crossing his arms on Joe's chest and resting his chin there.
Joe rubbed lazy figure eights into Nicky’s back; Nicky just wanted to melt into Joe and let him do that forever. “I think you do it to spoil me.”
“Says the man who declared his love for me in front of a bunch of armed guards during an abduction.” Nicky lay his cheek against the soft cotton of the t-shirt, heard Joe's heartbeat steady and reassuring under his ear. He slid his hand under the hem of Joe’s t- shirt to rest on warm skin he knew so well, heard Joe's heart beat a little faster.
“Maybe the promise of fesenjan is why I did that,” Joe joked, although his hands never stopped their soothing trek across Nicky’s back.
“And here I thought it was maybe because you love me,” Nicky countered, lifting his head just enough to see Joe grinning at him.
Joe ran his thumb along Nicky’s jaw. “No ‘maybe’ about it, babe,”
Nicky turned to kiss Joe’s wrist before settling down to lay on his chest again. “I’m glad we were taken together. With the gas, being out, I feared we would be separated.”
Carding fingers through Nicky’s hair, Joe confessed quietly, “Me, too.”
“Then I heard your voice calling me, and I knew we were still together, and everything was as it should be.” Just hearing Joe’s voice coaxing him back to consciousness, as worried as he had sounded, had been the grounding that Nicky had needed, the kiss went a long way in helping, too.
“I meant every word that I told them.” Nicky could feel the way Joe’s chest expanded with the raw emotion of it, the way he’d seen it in his eyes in that cargo van when he spoke. “Every single word.”
Nicky chuckled lightly against Joe’s chest. “After nine hundred and twenty years together, do you doubt that I know that? Doubt that I feel the same for you?”
“Never,” Joe said confidently. “Your love for me is endless. But I still like to tell you how I feel.”
“Not as much as I like to hear it, my heart.” Nicky snuggled in a little closer. “Yusuf of a thousand names and even more words, and I love every one you speak.”
Joe’s laugh rumbled in his chest. “I seem to recall you begging me to kill you at one point so you didn’t have to hear my voice anymore.”
“And I seem to recall you accusing me of doing unmentionable things to sickly goats at the time.” Nicky laughed in return.
“I have no idea what you were up to before you met me,” Joe justified. “What kind of life you led.”
“One where I was waiting for you to come into it to make it worth living,” Nicky told him simply.
“Nicolo…” Joe pulled in a breath at the declaration. “Now who’s the incurable romantic?”
Nicky shrugged. “We have been so fortunate, Yusuf, to have each other, to have our life together. Booker was right; we don’t know what it’s like to be alone, we never will.”
“I know, my soul, and I’m nowhere near done living my life with you.”
Nicky didn’t miss the hint of concern in Joe’s voice that they may be coming to that time when they were done sooner rather than later. Given what was going on with Andy, he understood why.
“We’re young still,” Nicky assured.
“Lykon wasn’t much older than us,” Joe warned. “And Quynh--”
Nicky knew Joe had come to the same conclusion he had. “Quynh still lives, else Nile wouldn’t be dreaming of her.” It made him wonder if Booker had been dreaming of her this whole time, too.
“Yeah, I figured the same,” Joe confirmed. “And we’re still as helpless to save her as we were before.”
That fact ate at Nicky, too. It had absolutely devoured Andy. Nicky’s brain couldn’t even consider what he would have done if Joe had ended up in that metal coffin.
“And now Andromache…” Joe couldn't even seem to finish the thought.
Nicky closed his eyes, tried not to think about the inevitability of what her mortality meant, but it was there with no way to deny it. “It feels like Baghdad all over again, like something glorious and beautiful is going to be taken from us. The world will be so much less when it happens, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”
Joe tightened his arms around Nicky. “We’ll do everything we can to keep her safe for as long as we can.”
Nicky snorted. “You say that as if she isn’t still the most deadly person to walk the Earth.”
“Maybe when she ages into an old woman she’ll be less deadly.” Joe laughed. “But I kind of doubt it.”
Nicky hadn’t really considered growing old since they’d learned the truth of their powers. It had always seemed like they would receive a mortal wound, die, and never wake again. He’d never thought about surviving the initial wound and simply living out the remaining years as a mortal. “Maybe we’ll get that chance to grow old with each other, as well.”
“That would be nice.” Although Joe clarified, “A few thousand years from now.”
“We can help a lot of people in a few thousand years.”
“We’ve helped a lot of people already, more than I thought. All those photos in Copley’s office…” Joe shook his head in wonder. “I hadn’t thought about some of those missions in years, never thought they would do as much good as they did.”
Nicky hadn’t even seen most of those photos before, never knew they even existed. Yet, there they were, he and Joe, together, trying their damnedest to save as many as they could, to change the world for the better. “Do you remember the old lady in Chicago?” Nicky had been thinking of her since they saw Copley’s wall.
“I wonder what ever happened with her granddaughters.” Apparently Joe had been thinking about her, too. “Maybe Copley can find out.”
At times, it seemed like all they did was no more than a single raindrop of hope in an ocean of despair and chaos, but together all those raindrops had evidently helped. Copley had captured it all, the last one hundred and fifty years of their lives condensed down into a few dozen photos and newspaper clippings. It seemed so small, and yet, all encompassing at the same time.
Kind of like how a declaration of love in a van during an abduction had condensed down all nine hundred and twenty years of an epic romance into a few hundred words. It seemed an impossible feat, but then, his Yusuf was just the kind of guy to pull it off.
Joe looked up at Nicky with a quizzical expression when Nicky lifted his head and smiled, softly, adoringly at Joe. “What?”
“I was just trying to picture you old with wrinkles.” Nicky reached out and brushed a finger beside Joe’s eyes that crinkled when he smiled. “Your hair and beard grey.” He traced along a hairline of dark curls. “I still think you’d be the most beautiful man I’ve ever laid eyes on.” He stroked the bearded cheek of the man who was all and more to him, who was everything. “Whether it happens when we are young or old, I don’t fear dying, as long as I’m with you when it does.” Nicky grinned down on the man who had defined nearly a thousand years for him, would hopefully define thousands more. “Preferably to the sound of you declaring your love to me like you did in that van, but I’d settle for the sound of your voice accusing the people who have just killed us of fucking blind camels.”
Joe smiled brightly, laughing as he tugged at Nicky to pull him closer. “You know what? I really don’t feel like napping any more.”
Nicky crawled the short distance up Joe’s body, so that he could lean in and meet Joe’s lips. “I’m not that tired either.”
“Give me a little time and I’ll see what I can do about that.” Joe shifted beneath him, just enough that he could slip a leg between Nicky’s and pull him in closer to press against Joe’s thigh as he returned to kissing him.
Nicky’s hand, still inside Joe’s shirt, slid up and under Joe’s body when Joe cradled the back of Nicky’s head and deepened the kiss. Nicky was torn between wanting to lose the clothes immediately, or just keep making out a while longer, grinding against each other like they had their first time together in that temple in India. Every single time they did this, since that very first time, Nicky thought he would get lost in the sensation of Joe’s body against his, the taste of Joe on his lips. The anticipation of tasting other parts of Joe had his head spinning.
Joe was pushing Nicky’s own t-shirt up, and Nicky lifted enough for Joe to work it up further, had it halfway over his head….
When the door opened to Andy and Nile back from their trip.
“Oh, wow, okay,” Nile declared, turning away. “Am I going to have play another set of albums all night? Because I already went through most of your collection.”
Joe sighed in disappointment and pulled Nicky’s shirt back down.
Andy, however, just crossed her arms. “Is this all you two have been doing since we left?”
Joe raised his eyebrows. “If it was, would you be disappointed or impressed?”
“Actually,” Andy admitted, “a little of both.”
“It’s not all we’ve been doing,” Nicky assured, waving a hand at the pomegranate on the coffee table. “I went to the market earlier.”
Andy’s eyes lit up at the fruit. “Oh, Nicky, does that mean you’re cooking tonight? Because I will come over there and join you two--”
“No, no, no,” Joe warned.
“Not necessary,” Nicky assured, “you can eat the fesenjan without contributing sexually.”
“What’s fesenjan?” Nile asked a little hesitantly, as if she was afraid she’d be asked to contribute, as well.
“Nicky’s go-to dish whenever he wants to get laid,” Andy told her.
Nile didn’t seem too impressed. “From what I’ve seen, he could do that with a box of stale saltine crackers.”
Joe grinned up at Nicky. “She has a point.”
“You always were a cheap date.” Nicky gave a long suffering sigh and patted Joe’s chest as he sat up. “Come, you can help chop the walnuts.”
“I’ll help,” Andy offered. “Besides, I think Nile would rather talk to someone else for a while.”
“Actually, I’d love a shower,” Nile told them. “Andy’s secret caves don’t have running water.”
Joe went to show Nile where to find a towel, and Andy grabbed a knife, spinning it with a grin at Nicky.
“They’re walnuts, not sex traffickers,” Nicky rolled his eyes but bumped her shoulder. “How’s the gunshot wound?”
“Healing, slowly,” she told him in annoyance, pouring out a pile of nuts and beginning to chop. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing. Long time since I’ve had to deal with hangovers, too.”
“Ah, your excesses have finally caught up with you.” Nicky cut into a pomegranate, banging it to loosen the garnet colored arils inside. “I don’t suppose that’s slowed you down any.”
“Hardly,” she scoffed, then asked, “How’re you and Joe doing?”
“Healing.” Which they were. “Slowly.”
“Listen, I know what Booker did was fucked up.” Andy ignored the side-eyed glance Nicky gave her. “But he’s going to need you guys when his isolation is done. You’re going to need him, too. Promise me you’ll make sure he comes back, that he’s welcome back.”
“You plan to have the same conversation with Yusuf?”
She snorted at the thought. “Maybe in fifty years or so. I think he’s still holding a grudge with me about not letting you two sleep together for a week when you were training.”
“Maybe a little,” Nicky agreed with a laugh of his own, then sobered. “Sebastien is family. If he pays his price, he’ll be welcomed home. It may take a great deal of fesenjan, but I’ll make sure of it.”
She smiled, rubbed his arm in thanks.
“Are you planning to stick close to home?” Nicky asked her.
Andy had gone off on her own several times over the years. Sometimes they split because of the mission, sometimes because Andy just needed to be alone with herself, with her guilt. Usually it was only for a year or two, like she had before the whole Merrick ordeal, sometimes for much longer. She disappeared for almost fifty years just before Booker joined them. She went to Australia hunting bounties and met a former slave and came back with a painting of the two of them. Although she would never actually say it, Nicky knew she’d fallen in love and lost yet another person she cared for, this time to simple mortality. He hated to think she might do something similar now, when they had so little time left with her.
“I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” she promised. Nicky thought she meant more than just her solo trips, and he was more than happy to buy into her optimism.
Joe returned to the kitchen, reached around Nicky to steal a pomegranate seed and a kiss, hand pressing into Nicky’s lower back as he did, so low it was technically Nicky’s ass.
Nicky wasn’t going to let Joe copping a feel distract him. “My heart, if you eat them all, I won’t have enough for the recipe.”
Joe squeezed where his hand rested and grinned smugly as he popped the aril in his mouth.
“Uhgh,” Andy mocked, “Get a room.”
“We did have a room, our living room, until we were rudely interrupted.” Joe hopped on the counter beside where they worked, and in easy access to more seeds. “So what did I miss?”
“Andromache and I were just reminiscing about our training days,” Nicky told him.
“Oh, yeah, great time,” Joe said sarcastically. “Want to share a few laughs over the Spanish Inquisition while we’re at it.”
“It was six days, Joe.” Andy shook her head over the long running argument. “You couldn’t go without for six days?”
“With this sweet piece of ass waiting for me?” He winked at Nicky. “Not voluntarily.” He also snuck another aril.
Nicky sighed at the theft. “Yusuf, please.” Trying to put an end to the bickering, Nicky asked of Andy, “So, boss, was it worth it? All the sexual sacrifices we made, all the work over the centuries, do we finally fight like Achilles and Patroclus?”
“No,” Andy told them, then before Nicky and Joe could voice their outrage, she said, “You fight like Yusuf and Nicolo, which I’ll take at my back any day.”
It was a huge compliment, especially that she said it without a hint of snark or sarcasm. Of course, they couldn’t let her know that.
“Awww, Yusuf, did you hear that?” Nicky asked. “I think that is by far the nicest thing she’s ever said to us. Much nicer than ‘if you screw up, I’ll kill you’.”
“She must be getting soft in her old age,” Joe added.
Andy waved the knife at both of them. “Fine, you two can go fuck yourselves.” She was doing a crappy job of hiding her smile.
“That’s what we were trying to do when you showed up!” Joe pointed out yet again.
“Zues’ scaborous cock!” Andy exclaimed with a melodramatic roll of her eye. “We’ll get the stew cooking and you two can go at it on the counter top for all I care. I’ll take Nile and we’ll go for a very long walk.”
“Deal.” Joe put out his hand so they could shake on it.
When Joe reached for another seed as soon as he released Andy’s hand, Nicky slammed the knife into the cutting board a hair’s breadth from Joe’s finger. “Yusuf ibn Ibrihim ibn Mahhamed ibn al-Kaysani called al-Tayyib, you take one more and I’ll cut off your finger and throw it in the pot with the chicken.”
“Damn,” Nile said as she walked into the room fresh from her shower. “Is that your full name? Your moma probably forgot what she was mad at you about by the time she finished saying all that.”
“Perhaps,” Nicky agreed, eyes narrowed dangerously at Joe, “but I am not his mother.”
Joe pulled his hand away, but his eyes practically twinkled with desire. Nicky knew he was the only one to see it, just like Joe was the only one to see the slight curve of his lips that promised more when they were alone again, when Nicky could take the small handful of arils he planned to set aside and let Joe eat them off his nude body.
Then again, maybe Andy did see it after all.
“Okay, I think the walnuts are ready to go,” she announced. “Nile let’s go for a walk. I’ll show you the bomb shelter caves Joe and Nicky helped build during World War II.”
“More caves?” Nile lamented, but she was stepping into her boots.
“You’ll love them,” Andy promised, ushering her toward the door.
“What happened?” Nile lowered her voice, checked her weapon when Andy did her own. “Did they get into a fight while I was in the shower?”
“Oh, you really are a baby,” Andy tsked. “That’s not a fight, kid; that’s foreplay.”
As soon as the door closed, Joe fisted the front of Nicky’s shirt and pulled him into a hard, greedy kiss. Nicky gripped Joe’s hips and tugged him closer to the edge of the counter for better access.
“I thought they were never going to leave,” Nicky said, trying to undo the buttons to Joe’s jeans where he sat on the counter, as Joe simultaneously attempted to tug Nicky’s shirt over his head.
“Not that I want to stop,” Joe prefaced when Nicky finally raised his arms so that he could pull the shirt free, “but what about dinner?”
Nicky kneaded the palm of his hand against Joe’s groin with an expectant tilt of his head.
“I see your point.” Joe’s head fell back against the kitchen cabinet and he groaned out, “We can eat later.”
Nicky hooked his fingers in the front on Joe’s jeans, urging him off the countertop and back to the sofa. “Besides, I seem to recall you saying I taste like fesenjan.”
Joe grinned, holding tight to Nicky’s hips as he walked backwards. “My favorite twice in one night. You really are trying to spoil me, my soul.”
“I plan to do more than try, my heart,” Nicky vowed, tumbling them onto the sofa, like they had tumbled off that wall in Jerusalem, tumbled into one another’s lives, tumbled into love…
... in the most incurably romantic way possible.