The Holy Land, 1099
He was dying. He wouldn't need it anymore.
It would, at least, be a good death, as far as Yusuf was concerned. He died defending his people, his home, died stopping an invasion. It was a good death. But it was death, and it hurt, and he could still see the crusader's blue eyes flashing in the sunlight of the battle, just before they had both driven their swords into each other.
He stumbled, his legs feeling like lead, too heavy for him to move anymore, and he dropped to his knees. He collapsed fully to the ground on his back, his legs trapped under him, and he had a moment of hysterical laughter at the thought that his legs were going to have pins and needles as a result.
Blood loss can do that.
Yusuf blinked up at the sun, bright and shining, and there was a halo around it, shining and sparkling, and maybe he was already hallucinating from the blood loss. His breathing was labored, heavy, and he coughed. He wasn't sure but the cough felt wet, and like everything else, like breathing, it hurt.
His vision was already starting to brown at the edges, and he knew it was only a matter of time. Every breath felt like knives in his chest, every cough struck through him just like the crusader's sword, tearing and rending, and just as he felt what he was absolutely sure was going to be his very last moment, felt his breath catch and it was too much a struggle to free it, Yusuf spared one more thought for the man who had killed him.
He had been beautiful. Wild, murderous, streaked with blood and gore, blue eyes wide and crazed, but beautiful. Maybe in another life....
And that was it.
Until it wasn't.
And then there were flashes. Images. A woman with dark hair, the blades of her axe shining in the sun, reflecting the snow on the ground, as she spun and knocked the legs out from under the horse rushing at her. Another woman with black hair, quick with a bow, arrows flying faster than even Yusuf's eyes could track as she shot the rider who went down with his horse.
And the crusader, not far from where Yusuf had run him through with his sword, taking a first deep breath and practically choking on it, retching into the dirt in long, dry heaves.
To his credit he didn't scream when he came back to life. Neither of them did. Yusuf gasped, his entire body clenching, every muscle reacting to the sudden influx of adrenaline. The pain was gone, he was still covered in blood and he had no idea if it was his or the crusader's, but he felt like he was choking too, like the crusader, fighting to breathe as his lungs started working again. It was too much. It didn't matter, though, because his wounds were healed, and maybe this was heaven. No, it was still outside of Jerusalem. He could hear the battle a small distance away still, the sun was still high, the air still baking, and he pushed himself up, first to his knees, then to his feet.
Yusuf patted at his stomach and chest, but the wounds really were gone. He rolled his shoulders, stretching, and thought that he should thank God for the second chance.
Then he saw the figure approaching.
He would have recognized him even from across a battlefield crowded with combatants. He had been drawn to him beneath the walls of Jerusalem, he couldn't take his eyes off of him now. His breath caught in his throat, his heart stuttered, and as he pushed the heel of his palm against his chest to try and get something to restart, whether his heart beat or his breathing, one or the other, he started moving. Or tried to start moving because he collapsed back to his knees as he tried to get his legs moving again.
Pins and needles. He felt hysterical laughter bubbling in his throat again as he glanced back at the figure approaching.
The crusader. His crusader now, he assumed, haunting him like a battlefield ghost, following the man who killed him.
Maybe Yusuf had been wrong. Maybe this wasn't a second chance.
Maybe it was hell.
It's possible that he wasn't as recovered as he seemed to be at first, after all, it had taken him far, far too long to actually get his legs to working again, and he was still crouched on the ground when the crusader stepped close, close enough that Yusuf could have reached out and touched him, reached out to see if it was the heat of the sun making him stupid or if the crusader really would burn through him like a brushfire.
Instead, the crusader lifted his sword and in one swift move, he ran Yusuf through, stabbing deep into the softness of his belly. Yusuf moved with the movement, rising to his feet and moving closer, driving the sword deeper as he stood. He coughed, his breath sputtering, and he was sure his lips were covered with bloody spittle again.
He was so close now.
It was the blood, it had to be. The blood and the armor and the desert sun, but the feeling of the crusader made Yusuf's breathing go shallow. Those bright blue eyes boring into his, wide, not as crazed, but they were beautiful, and Yusuf was going to blame the heat and the dying for the urge to kiss the other man right then.
Thankfully, he never let him act on that urge.
He had picked up the rock when the crusader had first approached him, grabbing for it instinctively just to have some kind of weapon, and he lifted it now, swinging back with what little strength he had left. When the rock hit his temple, the crusader was actually caught off-guard. The shock of it caused him to let go of the sword, and Yusuf hit him twice more, each hit becoming less and less forceful as his strength drained out of him like the blood from his wound. When the crusader finally went down to his knees, Yusuf lurched backward, trying to regain his footing. He didn't go far but he managed to pull the sword out of his stomach as he did.
He abandoned the rock he had bashed against the crusader's temple and found a larger one on the ground. This one he brought down on his head until he fell to the ground. He lifted the rock over his head, stumbling and quivering from the strain and the blood loss but he managed to bring the rock down hard.
He dropped it on what was left of the crusader's head as blood loss finally took him and he fell back.
When the crusader got close enough, he didn't give him a chance to go for any kind of weapon, real or improvised. He simply lashed out, the dagger catching the crusader across the throat, drawing a deep slash that flooded red immediately.
Yusuf was still a moron, though, because he caught the crusader before he fell to the ground, easing him down onto his back as he reached up grasping at Yusuf's clothes, twisting his fingers in the fabric. He looked like he was trying to speak, his mouth working soundlessly, bloody spit bubbling from between his lips as he breathed. Yusuf slid his hand up, cradling the back of his head as he let the dagger fall to the ground.
He dropped to his knees, Yusuf cradling the crusader's body. It could have been (in another life, another time, another land, another war) romantic. He pressed his forehead against the crusader's, saying a prayer in Arabic, something to send the dying on their way in peace. He could feel tears pricking at his eyes, mourning for a man he didn't know, had killed, had dreamed about, would probably come back, but it didn't matter. It was still mourning.
There was an almost unbearable sadness that flooded him as he watched the crusader struggle to breathe as he died.
Right up until the crusader's hand managed to grip the knife on the ground and drive it up, hitting Yusuf in the soft area between his inner thigh and his groin, and the blood was immediately hot and wet against his skin as he dropped the crusader to the ground and tried to scramble back. His legs weren't working again, though, and he ended up trying to pull himself along the ground.
He knew how fast death would come from this wound, even as he pressed a hand against it, trying to stop the bleeding, trying to force some kind of movement back into the limb. It wouldn't work, he knew it wouldn't work, and when his vision started blacking out this time, he cursed the crusader. Loudly and for as long as he still had the air in his lungs.
He hoped the crusader was still alive to hear it.
Yusuf reached up then, grasping the crusader's wrist, tugging, knocking him off balance and causing him to let go of the sword. Yusuf released him and staggered back, his hands grabbing for the hilt of the sword still buried in his neck. He managed to pull it free, and he nearly fell before he forced his feet forward. He needed to get away. This was...this was exhausting.
It was exhausting to be constantly dying and coming back, to be bloody and wanting, to be haunted by a man with eyes so beautiful even now it took his breath away.
Or that could have been because his neck was nearly severed, he was losing a lot of blood, and he had to laugh, the hysteria that had never really gone away, bubbling up like the spittle on his lips as he breathed. He wasn't sure how far he got on the road away from Jerusalem, but it didn't matter. He could keep walking when he came back. If he came back.
He would, wouldn't he? They both would, most likely, God was fucking with both of them. That was the only explanation.
He managed another bloody, bubbling laugh as he collapsed to his knees and then fell forward into the dirt.
Why was this the theme of all of his deaths? Desert and dirt and blue eyes that made his stomach clench in a way that was not as horrible as it should have been.
Coming back this time was easier, each time had been easier, quicker. There were still dreams, those flashes of someone else's life, the women fighting, the same battle or some other one, Yusuf couldn't tell, and the crusader struggling to breathe as he came back too. As Yusuf's body returned to life completely, his body tense and his heart jumping, he could swear that he saw the light dimming in the crusader's eyes in the dream before he woke up.
He had stabbed him deep.
Maybe it was finally done.
He had no other word for what was going on. That was just how ghosts worked. A man he had killed now following him across the battlefield, dripping blood, but not from his wounds. His clothes were bloody, his hair matted with it, but he wasn't bleeding. And Yusuf was absolutely certain he should be bleeding.
And the last he had seen of the crusader was after he had nearly removed Yusuf's head from his body, after Yusuf had buried his dagger in his back and left him on the battlefield, staggering and bleeding, fleeing from the ghosts and the prone body of a man who should not still be beautiful after all of the killing, the blue eyes in a bloody face should not be breathtaking.
That was miles ago. And at least one death ago with Yusuf bleeding to death on the rocky path away from Jerusalem.
Now the crusader was behind him again.
Carrying that dagger Yusuf had left in him, like a reminder. Or a souvenir.
He whirled around to face the man, shouting over the distance. "What will it take to end this?" He didn't even know if the crusader spoke Arabic. He didn't dare try Maghrebi, he knew that was a longer shot. Maybe he should have tried Greek. Or what little French he had picked up from other merchants. He could have pieced together some Latin.
"You stabbed me in the back, Saracen!" The crusader's Arabic was laughable. Yusuf had heard better pronunciation from children just learning to talk, and he laughed, shaking his head. He felt a little bit like he was going insane. He stayed where he was, letting the crusader walk closer to him. He wasn't sure yet if he was going to attack. His weapons were somewhere...else. The dagger he had buried in the crusader's back had been his last, and now...well, now it was held loosely in the crusader's hand.
"That should have killed you!" he shouted, gesturing at the dagger. Honestly, Yusuf wasn't sure if he was going insane, if the heat had driven him giddy, if the lack of food or water had finally taken a toll, or if it was just a side-effect of dying so many times that he had lost count. Bonelessly, he dropped to the ground, sitting with his back against one of the road markers that typically told travelers how far they were from safety.
Even that felt like a joke, and he had to swallow back a giggle.
"Cutting your head off should have killed you." The crusader wasn't shouting, but he was close enough now to speak normally.
"You didn't actually cut my head off, it was only a little loose," and at that point, Yusuf couldn't hold back the laughter as he buried his head in his hands. He heard and felt the crusader come closer, but he didn't look up at him until he knew he was standing right in front of him. He looked at him through his fingers as the crusader tossed the knife into the dirt.
"I could have slit your throat." The crusader didn't say anything else, he just sat down on the ground next to Yusuf, pressing his back against the side of the road marker, so close his shoulder brushed Yusuf's. Each breath pressed a little line of warmth against Yusuf's skin, and it was almost unbearable. It was already too hot, the crusader only made it worse.
"Why didn't you?" At this point, Yusuf was just tired. There had been a war, was still a war, and then fighting this crusader. He was exhausted.
"It wouldn't have mattered. You won't stay dead."
"Neither will you." That sounded petulant, even to Yusuf's ears. He leaned his head back against the marker, turning his head so he could look over at the crusader. "You are beautiful." He didn't know what came over him, what prompted him to voice the one thought that had stuck with him through every single time they had killed each other, something that had struck him dumb during those stupid, confusing death dreams, those dreams of eyes worth drowning in. He would, of course, blame hunger or thirst or exhaustion if he was questioned about it.
"I dreamt about you." That seemed just as random as Yusuf's own admission. The crusader didn't say anything else at first, and Yusuf didn't reply either, just shaking his head a little before he reached over and grabbed the crusader's shoulder, turning him more toward Yusuf. He lifted his hand from his shoulder, sliding his fingers into the crusader's hair and urging him closer as Yusuf met him halfway, capturing his mouth in a kiss.
There was blood on both of their mouths, and the kiss tasted like copper.
He had caught the crusader off-guard, though. He went completely still at first, taking a moment before he actually responded, deepening the kiss on his own part, letting his tongue brush against Yusuf's bottom lip. Which was all the encouragement that Yusuf needed, wrapping his other arm around the crusader's waist and pulling him even closer, practically into his lap.
There were too many things in the way, though, things unsaid, things they would need to deal with eventually, maybe, assuming Yusuf could stand to be in the crusader's presence for long, simply kissing him felt like he was setting himself on fire, like the kiss was burning all the way through him. Yusuf broke the kiss with a sound that was half a moan and half a growl in frustration.
"I need to pray." That got a confused blink from the crusader, of course it did. It was, technically, obviously, a change of subject, but it was true, and not just because he had been kissing a man he had killed no less than three times, probably more. "Stay." He pressed his hand against the crusader's shoulder as if to make sure he understood.
He checked the position of the sun, just to make sure he wasn't too late, but it wasn't too far past midday, and he tried not to dwell on the fact that killing each other had only taken the morning. Praying at least allowed Yusuf to focus, to clear his mind of every single distraction that was currently boiling all around them. There was a war, after all, and it definitely wasn't finished, and the crusader was beautiful in a breathtakingly stupid way. But for a while, Yusuf could push that out of his mind.
Until he finished his prayers, and he caught sight of the crusader sitting on his knees a few feet behind him. He had picked up the dagger again, and for another moment, Yusuf thought he was considering attacking. But Yusuf was also considering how fast he could get the dagger from him and bury it in his throat. He shook his head.
"I told you to stay by the road."
"You did, but I am not your...." The crusader searched for the word, his eyes narrowed before he finally spit it out in a dialect of Latin Yusuf only kind of knew.
"Dog." Yusuf laughed a little, mostly at his own luck. It would figure that the beautiful crusader who spoke horrible Arabic also spoke the kind of Latin the Genoese invaders had been fluent in.
"Yes. That. I am not that, Saracen." Yusuf smiled and shook his head before walking over and sitting down next to the crusader. He stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles. The crusader shifted, moving his legs so that he was sitting with his legs crossed as he placed the dagger in his lap, and he pressed his hands into the dirt behind them. "Were you asking forgiveness because we kissed?"
Yusuf coughed at that, laughing as he looked over at him. "Stop speaking Arabic, you are horrible at it." That did not answer the question, but it did get him an annoyed huff and an eye roll from the crusader, which against all laws of sanity and common sense, Yusuf thought was adorable. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to look away from the crusader. "Is that what you did? Beg for forgiveness? I am your enemy, after all."
The crusader made a considering noise in his throat. "A heathen one, at that. Unwashed, unsaved, tragic," but there was no malice in the crusader's voice. Yusuf looked over at him again, eyes searching his face, and when the crusader looked back at him, he was, once again, struck. He could have spent hours waxing poetic about the blue of his eyes, sparkling like the sea in the sun, but that was foolish. He shook his head.
"No. I did not beg forgiveness. My sins were forgiven before I even left Genoa, and we died. So I don't know if any of that applies anyway," the crusader said. "If anything matters anymore. In matters of faith, anyway."
"Ah. So death has shaken your faith."
"No. Coming back has. That is not supposed to happen, not outside of very specific, very certain circumstances in the presence of very specific, very certain people."
"Your messiah," Yusuf said with a snort and a shake of his head. Honestly, he hadn't dealt with any of this. There was still the faint feeling of hysteria floating at the back of his mind, and everything about this...it felt like a dream. Some kind of fever dream, maybe he was still on the battlefield, horribly wounded, dying from a fever brought on by his wounds. Infection burning away any last remaining sanity.
"Why did you kiss me?" Yusuf looked over at him, and he felt the laughter bubbling deep in his throat, but he managed to swallow it down for the moment.
"Why not?" He shrugged. "Nothing makes sense, Roman. Kissing you was just...something to do before we started killing each other again." He rubbed his hand over his face. It was a lie, and he couldn't put into words how much of a lie it really was. He couldn't even explain to himself what the lie was.
"I'm not a Roman, Saracen." There was actual anger in the crusader's voice this time, and Yusuf looked up at him. He took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. He just tilted his head, watching the flush of the anger spread over the crusader's skin, down his neck, across the parts of his chest visible through the armor that had been sliced open, and he smiled, just a little. He had to clench his fingers in the sand at his hips just to stop himself from tracing that flush with his fingers.
"And I'm not a Saracen. I have nothing else to call you, and I get the distinct impression you would not appreciate being called a Genoesian dog." The last bit was said in Maghrebi, and the crusader looked up at him sharply like he at least understood those words. Or at least got the anger that laced Yusuf's word. He exhaled again and gestured vaguely, waving it all away.
The both stayed silent after that. Even though there were things that Yusuf wanted to ask. Like whether the crusader had understood Maghrebi, if he'd actually been taught about the raids his people had been doing against Yusuf's for centuries, but he also knew that would just start all of this all over again. And he was just so tired. Physically and mentally. Exhausted.
Coming back from the dead took a lot out of him.
Yusuf finally just made a frustrated sound and pushed himself to his feet. "I'm going to find somewhere to camp." He wasn't sure if he was inviting the crusader to follow him, but he had come to accept the other man as basically a ghost he'd never escape, couldn't escape (didn't want to escape?). He glanced down at the crusader and shook his head before stepping away.
Or starting to, because he hadn't even taken one step before he felt the Crusader grab his wrist, and fire and heat laced through his body before finally pooling in the base of his spine. He looked down at the crusader, and the crusader reached his other hand up to press it against his chest as he said, "Nicolo." Confusion must have flashed over Yusuf's face, because the crusader rolled his eyes. He didn't drop Yusuf's wrist though, and that was taking most of his attention. "You can call me that."
"I told you to stop speaking Arabic," Yusuf replied, still staring down at Nicolo's hand clasping his wrist. "You are still bad at it."
"Then teach me," and that made Yusuf tilt his head as he looked at him again, smiling a bit. "Or learn Genoese." That just made Yusuf snort.
"Nicolo," Yusuf said, stretching the word out, but he didn't even attempt to pronounce it in what was probably the proper way that the crusader - Nicolo - was saying it, but for some reason the sound of Yusuf saying his name made Nicolo actually smile, just a little. Yusuf turned his hand and took hold of Nicolo's wrist, tugging him to his feet to lead him to, well, hopefully, somewhere flat and not completely covered with rocks and sand. "Yusuf," he said, glancing back at Nicolo, "You can call me that."
He grinned and lifted his eyebrows as Nicolo just rolled his eyes at the obvious mocking.
It felt like hours later, but the sun hadn't seemed to move from the sky, it was still baking hot, Yusuf still had no clue quite what he was doing, where he was going, following only the signs of vegetation growing a little bigger, a little greener, and that meant water. Eventually they got lucky.
The building next to the oasis had probably once been someone's home, but the residents had fled long ago, probably running for the safety of Jerusalem's walls as the invading army marched through the countryside. What was left was burned and ruined, looted, and Yusuf stepped away from Nicolo to head into the ruins as much as he could. He had hoped to find something, some leftover supplies, something still usable, but everything had been taken or destroyed. At least the leaning and barely standing walls would provide some kind of shelter from the elements.
So it was something.
Yusuf dug around in the remains of what was the one main room of the home until he found a large piece of fabric that could work as a net to catch fish with. Assuming there were fish in the water of the oasis. He really hoped there were fish. They were down to one weapon, and as amusing as the idea of watching Nicolo chase after some desert antelope for their supper armed with nothing but a still bloody dagger, they likely wouldn't get any food out of it.
Yusuf carried the fabric out to the oasis, spreading it out over one of the many large boulders at the shore, and he glanced up, checking the position of the sun, just to make sure he hadn't missed his next prayer time. Once he was sure they hadn't walked that far or that long, he stripped out of his torn and bloody armor, leaving him in just his breeches, and as he leaned back against the rock to unlace his gaiters, he looked up to catch sight of Nicolo who had walked forward, close to the boulder, closer to the water, but not too close, and he was staring at it like he was worried it was filled with sharks or sea monsters.
"Afraid, Nicolo?" Yusuf said with a smile and a laugh.
"It's just water, Yus-..." Nicolo's words caught in his throat when he turned to look at Yusuf who finished undressing and stepped away from the rock to step over to him. Nicolo's eyes followed his every movement, trailing down the lines of his body. When he looked up and caught the amused look on Yusuf's face, he shook his head and looked away. "I'm sorry."
"For?" Yusuf was actually curious about that, tilting his head.
"Killing you." Nicolo gestured in the direction of the battlefield. "The extra times. Killing you again."
"Just those times?" His curiosity had been replaced by just amusement now.
"The first time was war. A battle." Nicolo turned, crossing his arms over his chest, and lifting his chin. Defiant. Adorable, and Yusuf realized he was still deeply, deeply a moron. "And you stabbed me first. It was self-defense."
"Self-defense." It wasn't a question. Yusuf tilted his head and lifted his eyebrows slightly. "A situation you would not have been in if you hadn't decided to invade my homeland."
"It...," Nicolo made a frustrated sound, and whether it was because he didn't have the words in Arabic or the topic in general, but eventually he stepped closer to Yusuf and even managed to keep his eyes on Yusuf's face. At least at first, because there was still a moment where his eyes dipped and a blush started spreading over his cheeks. "They said it was the end of the world. That...that we needed to defend God and the Holy Land from heathen invaders."
Yusuf stepped forward, crowding into Nicolo's space. "Invaders?"
Nicolo just lifted his chin but he didn't immediately respond. His jaw clenched, but he otherwise didn't waiver. Yusuf finally reached up, gripping his chin and making sure he maintained eye contact as he stepped forward again. He wasn't really angry. Nicolo wasn't saying anything he hadn't heard any number of Christian merchants coming to Jerusalem, to the Maghreb in general. The Byzantine's were fond of branding anyone, other people who were some place before they even arrived, as invaders. Finally he shoved Nicolo back and away before he moved back to where he had spread the fabric out on the rock.
He gathered the fabric and tossed it at Nicolo. "Strip, Roman. You'll fish for supper tonight."
"This isn't a net." He sounded both startled and confused, like the bundle of fabric was the only thing that should have made sense but didn't. He was staring at it before he looked up. He wasn't wrong, but Yusuf just shrugged and gestured at the other man as he leaned back against the boulder. Nicolo narrowed his eyes, shook his head, but he locked eyes with Yusuf and kept that eye contact as he got ready to fish.
This was probably a bad idea.
It wasn't even like Nicolo was being provocative, but he stripped off the armor, paused only long enough to pull his long hair back out of his face, and Yusuf's mouth went dry and his breath caught and this was going to kill him for the fifth time today. He cleared his throat and forced himself to look at the ground until he heard the sounds of Nicolo actually entering the water.
Either the oasis had very few actual fish (unlikely), the piece of fabric was a poor substitute for a net (possibly), or Nicolo was really bad at hand-fishing (likely), either way, when Nicolo finally trudged out of the wat, he only had two small fish wrapped in the fabric.
It wouldn't be a large meal, but at least it would be something.
"Can you build a fire? I'll clean these for cooking." He narrowed his eyes down at the fish before he looked up at Nicolo and lifted one eyebrow. "Hopefully there will still be enough to eat when I'm done."
"Get me a real net!" Nicolo said over his shoulder as he headed to gather up firewood. Yusuf didn't say anything as he washed the dagger off, cleaning off the dried blood of both of them, before he set about preparing the fish to be cooked. It took a little longer than Yusuf would have liked, but he still had a decent amount of fish for them to eat and they would cook fast and easy.
He sat down by Nicolo as the fish cooked, letting his body rest against the other man's, and all of this was ridiculously comfortable. Nicolo's body was a warm line against his, and Yusuf leaned against him lightly until it was time to eat.
It was probably everything that happened during the day, but it was still the best food Yusuf had ever had, no matter how meager it was. That was definitely not (and he would deny it if anyone asked) the company, but they were still sitting so close together, even after they both had eaten their fill.
Nicolo pointed at what was left of the fish and said something in Genoese. Yusuf just blinked at him, and Nicolo rolled his eyes and repeated the process, actually tapping the fish with a finger. And then it clicked. He was saying fish, trying to teach Yusuf his language, and for a moment, Yusuf considered being stubborn, refusing to repeat the word, but instead he repeated what Nicolo said. Almost exactly like Nicolo had said it, but the accent was a little too difficult to get at first.
Which only made him look smug, which made Yusuf roll his eyes before he pointed at the fish and said what it was in Maghrebi, and it took a couple of tries but eventually he got it, and Yusuf just grinned at him. He picked something else, pointing at a boulder and repeated the process.
And that was the way they passed the hours between Yusuf's prayer times: one of them would point at something, say what it was in their language, then the other would repeat the process in theirs. Eventually, though, the day and the dying finally caught up to him, and he grabbed what was left of his cloak and picked a suitable soft-looking stretch of sand not too far from the fire and settled down to get some kind of sleep.
Yusuf wasn't sure what woke him up. Likely some sound that shouldn't have been there, and he pushed himself up on one arm, planning on telling Nicolo to go to sleep, he was too loud, but when he propped himself up, the man lurking between him and the fire was not Nicolo. Yusuf would have recognized his form. He had spent long enough trying not to stare at him in the water of the oasis after all, he had practically cemented it to memory.
He didn't get the chance to shout an alarm though before there was another shout in the same language Nicolo spoke, and he found a dagger buried in his throat and a sword slicing into his stomach.
Dying came quick, thankfully, and he was already planning on how to get the sword away from the Genoese soldier before his body had even finished startling itself back to life, but he didn't get the chance for that either. Instead as he pushed himself up, prepared for a fight, he found Nicolo sitting by his side.
Covered in blood.
Beautiful, just as he had been beneath the walls of Jerusalem. Only now he didn't look wild or crazed.
Just calm, blue eyes relieved as he looked over Yusuf's form, and he didn't even hesitate as he reached out and pressed his fingers to where Yusuf had been stabbed in the throat. And that one touch...well. Nicolo's eyes widened, he had to be able to feel the sudden jump in Yusuf's pulse at just that one touch.
And on Yusuf's part...he had to bite back a groan. He was never going to be able to get his pulse under control, not with how hot Nicolo's fingers felt against his skin. He was practically panting, breath coming in soft gasps, and he had to reach up and take Nicolo's wrist, pulling his hand away from his throat as he sat up.
Nicolo pulled his wrist out of Yusuf's grip and pressed his fingers against the soft skin of Yusuf's belly. He was healed, of course he was, and he let his eyes flutter closed at that touch and what it did to him. Nicolo dug his fingers gently into Yusuf's stomach, and he couldn't even stop the groan.
Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, "Were you scared?"
Nicolo didn't answer immediately, he just pressed his hand flat against Yusuf's stomach, and Yusuf found himself leaning into that touch. "Terrified." He said that in Latin, and he refused to meet Yusuf's eyes. Yusuf had questions, a million and one, but everything caught in his throat. He was never going to be able to breathe again, let alone speak with Nicolo touching him.
“You should stop,” Yusuf said, his hand coming up to catch Nicolo’s wrist again. He tried to pull it away, to push Nicolo away, but Nicolo's refusal to move meant that he ended up with his hand pressed back against his stomach, flat against the area where the soldier's sword had killed him. And for a moment, Yusuf was lost, he could feel every press of Nicolo's fingers against the muscle. It was even harder to breathe now than it had been the moment before, and now Yusuf couldn't meet his eyes.
“Why? I need to make sure you’re okay.” Nicolo sounded so completely innocent as he said that Yusuf could almost believe that he was completely innocent, that he hadn't just killed a group of his own countrymen just because they had killed Yusuf and threatened him. Yusuf had to double take, and he caught the slight smirk, the faint twist of his lips that let him know that Nicolo was just being obstinate because he could.
“I’m fine. You know that.” he said, finally managing to push Nicolos hand away, but he had to rise to his feet. He couldn't sit there, that close to Nicolo, that close to the heat of him.
"Why...." Nicolo shook his head as he trailed off. His eyes never left Yusuf as he stood and stepped toward Yusuf, but he backed away, holding his hands up to keep Nicolo at a distance. Nicolo exhaled through his teeth, narrowing his eyes. "What...Are you afraid of me?" That question was so earnest, and Yusuf had to laugh.
He couldn't help it, the laughter bubbling out of him just like it had after they had finished killing each other. The problem was that Yusuf didn't have the words to describe what he was really afraid of.
That was a lie.
He had the words, but he wasn't willing to put it into words just how afraid he was of losing a man he had killed, who had killed him, who he should by all rights never be able to forgive. Not yet. Not when touch from Nicolo burned through him and he couldn't think straight. Things would go too far, too fast if he just let himself speak.
"Then what...." Nicolo was struggling with his own words, stumbling over the Arabic he wasn't familiar with.
Yusuf shook his head, looking out of the ruins of the house. He sniffed, lifting a hand and wiping at his mouth, thankful that this time, he hadn't died with blood in his mouth. That thought made him snort, and he was clearly laughing, even when he turned to respond to Nicolo.
"I hate you." Yusuf shrugged as Nicolo blinked at him in confusion. It was that simple, and so completely not that simple at all. It wasn't even the dying and coming back, the killing each other over and over, that had complicated things. Yusuf had been able to pick Nicolo out of everyone on the battlefield at the walls of Jerusalem. He'd felt...something then.
Destiny, maybe. Fate. All those ridiculous fairy tales for children.
"No," he corrected after a moment, clearly fighting the urge to walk forward, to sweep Nicolo into his arms in some grand romantic gesture that didn't usually follow saying that he hated someone. "I wish that I hated you." Yusuf laughed. "I wish that I wanted you dead, Nicolo. It would be easier, wouldn't it?" He gestured vaguely. "Less confusing. To just go back to hating the men invading my world, to wanting you, all of you, to just go home. Or to die, possibly horribly in the desert." Honestly, he wasn't sure he had wanted the crusader dead since the first time he had killed him. At the very least, the real fight had gone out of him when his head had been chopped off. Nearly chopped off. Whatever.
They stayed silent for several moments, and Yusuf once again stared out at the night sky outside the ruins. He glanced over at Nicolo again, offered a very small smile, something that would not even come close to easing his words, and he stepped outside of the ruins. He headed to the boulders that made up the perimeter of their makeshift camp. He let his eyes adjust to low light provided by the moon, and slowly, he noticed the tiny pricks of fire light down by the shores of the oasis.
"Huh," he said. There hadn't been people there before he had gone to sleep. He kept his eyes on the fires even after he heard Nicolo follow him out of the ruins.
"This...this is displeasing." Nicolo's voice sounded so certain. It would have been intimidating if it wasn't for his pronunciation being just a little bit off, but Yusuf still glanced at him over his shoulder as Nicolo moved closer to him in the dark. The Genoese must run hot because Yusuf could feel the heat of him even through the distance between them.
"This? What part of this is displeasing?" His hand reached out to grab Nicolo's wrist, holding him in place in case he decided to run. On the one hand, Yusuf stupidly, like the moron being around Nicolo turned him into, wanted to know what, if anything, could be changed to keep Nicolo there, but he also wanted every horrible thought he had had about the crusader to be confirmed. It would be easier.
"This. This is displeasing. All of it." Nicolo used Yusuf's grip on his wrist to jerk him forward, pulling him closer, and Nicolo managed to stay standing stock still and rock straight as he slid his hand up to cup Yusuf's cheek before sliding his fingers back to tangle in his curls. "To want someone so badly I can taste it like a particularly sweet fruit that's started to rot in the sun."
"That's not the poetry you think it is, Nicolo. Maybe it means something different in Genoese?" Yusuf replied, and the look Nicolo shot him was particularly dark. He could only smile and shake his head as he stepped back and pulled Nicolo over to the boulders with him. He pointed towards the fires. "I believe that's what your soldiers were after. Did they stumble on us or did you stumble on them?"
"They walked past the camp. I wasn't asleep yet, they were loud." He glanced at Yusuf and offered a smile that was actually apologetic. "One of them slipped past me, killed you before I could kill him." He glanced up at the fires, seeming to focus on the lights flicker over the water. "I should have been faster."
"You killed, what, ten men single handedly, Nicolo? Your men-..."
"They weren't my men," Nicolo interrupted, tearing his eyes away from the fires to look at Yusuf.
"Oh, they were from Genoa," he said, reaching up and tugging lightly on one of the strands of Nicolo's hair that had fallen free of where he had tied it back. "It counts." Nicolo just huffed at that and reached up to take hold of Yusuf's wrist, pulling it away from his hair. There was a long moment where he just held Yusuf's wrist and looked at him, and he wondered what was about to happen. It turns out nothing as Nicolo dropped his wrist and turned back to look at the fires.
"You have freckles." That was something so random it took Yusuf a second to realize that Nicolo was even talking to him, and he tilted his head in confusion. "When I first dreamed of you. I was drowning, and you were there, and all I could see was that you had freckles. They go down your throat." He bit his lip before smiling a little bit at Yusuf.
He was blushing, and it took all of Yusuf's self-control not to do something they would both regret.
"You know." Yusuf said, taking a step forward, and he canted his head at Nicolo. "It keeps me up at night, the worry that I will never, in a thousand years, be able to mix paint well enough to capture the blue of your eyes."
"You're a painter?"
"No. I draw."
"Ah." Nicolo said something in Latin, and Yusuf shook his head when he couldn't immediately translate it. "An artist." Yusuf smiled then before inclining his head in acceptance. Nicolo cleared his throat before continuing, "So what now?"
"Our war is done. Soldiers are supposed to go home now."
"My home sent me on a holy war that is decidedly not holy, Yusuf," Nicolo said with a snort as he gestured at the dead crusaders in the ruins.
Yusuf made a sound in his throat, glancing back at the fires around the oasis. "They're heading away from Jerusalem. They don't appear to be setting up a permanent home. Not here."
"And there's wolves in the desert...." Nicolo trailed off, blinking, knowing that that was not the right word, and he shook his head, but Yusuf just laughed.
"It works." Yusuf said, waiving away the incorrect word. "They will need protection, wherever they go, yes?"
"And once they're safe?"
"The world's a harsh place, Nicolo. People need help." That sounded right to Yusuf. After all, they didn't have answers about this...whatever it was, the resurrections, the healing, the way that Nicolo looked at him sometimes and his stomach twisted and he forgot how to breathe or even that the man had been an enemy or that he had helped do things that should have been unforgivable.
"Everything happens for a reason," Nicolo replied, his voice quiet, but certain, and he looked over at Yusuf and once again, he was lost. He had to close his eyes and exhale slowly. It was the only way he could maintain some kind of control.
"We have an obligation."
Nicolo looked back at the ruins, or more accurately at the bodies of his fellow crusaders. There were in fact ten of them, fully armed and armoured, and Yusuf turned to consider them as well. Nicolo didn't just stop to consider them, though, he headed back towards the ruins and the dead. He stopped at the first one, tugging his sword belt off and tossing it off to the side before doing the same with the outer cloak and armor, tossing it all into a pile. Then he moved to the next body, stripping them down and tossing their belongings in the pile.
Yusuf watched in silence, his eyes following Nicolo's smooth movements for a moment before he finally stepped up to offer a hand. They made short work of it then, one pile for weapons, another for clothes. Yusuf actually went through the weapons pile and pulled out two swords to replace the ones they had lost, a dagger each for extra protection, and then he stared down at the remaining weapons before looking up to where he knew the camp was.
"Do you think they could use weapons? It's probably just old women and children, but...."
"'They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation'...," Nicolo said, and Yusuf gave him a look, one that Nicolo just shrugged off.
"It's a war, Nicolo. They will need weapons more than crops," Yusuf replied, and Nicolo made a soft sound that sounded like agreement, but he couldn't really be sure.
"The clothes, too, what we don't keep, that is." Nicolo looked at him again, eyebrows lifting slightly as his eyes trailed down him, and Yusuf could only laugh. "Armor can be used for something, the cloth, the leather. Maybe they have food we could trade."
Yusuf grinned at that, quick and wide. "Oh. You don't think your fishing skills will feed us for the rest of eternity?" Nicolo picked up a cloak and tossed it at Yusuf, who caught the fabric easily, laughing as he did.
"Get me an actual net, and I will feed you for centuries," but Nicolo was laughing as he spoke, and it was a happy sound. Yusuf couldn't help but join in, mostly out of relief. They had a plan, a reason, and everything was falling into place.
They had a purpose, after all.
A purpose and each other.