If anybody had asked Yusuf, which they had not, he would have told them that he was certainly not versed in all the things that men and women might do in the throes of passion. However, he was nearing his fiftieth year and had been married ten years before his first death, and knew in broad terms what they were. Not some of the details, so much; he had been married only once, and never had an interest in taking casual pleasure with anyone else, before or after. But it didn’t seem that there was much variety to it, in the end.
That was why, when he came back to their house to find Nicolò fucking a man, it took him a moment to realise what he was seeing.
He had not seen Nicolò since early that morning; he had gone to help with the widow Umm Ibrahim’s goats, which had wandered down to the river where women were doing laundry and started to eat clothing. Most of the men in this village were fishermen, and out at sea. Yusuf had found himself in charge of a number of excited children, dispatched by their mothers to assist. He had told Nicolò that it would likely be all morning, but the goats were smart enough to know the path of least resistance – thanks to God it had not been sheep – and Yusuf found himself wandering back up to the small dwelling they shared before the middle of the day, with a cloth-wrapped lump of goat cheese as thanks.
He had not known whether Nicolò would be there. Nowhere on Malta was very far from anywhere else, but the village they lived in was a solid day’s travel from Mdina. Once a month, a man named Iskandar would travel out here to sell pins and sharpen knives; Nicolò had wanted a new edge on his everyday knife. Depending on how many others did, and how early he had spoken to Iskandar, Nicolò might still be in the main village.
Malta was good for them, Yusuf thought, as he climbed the hill to the small dwelling they had repaired together, which overlooked the road. They had sailed here three summers ago, intending perhaps to go to Sicily, which was ruled by a Norman count but where – so it was said – many followers of the Prophet still lived peacefully. It had been fourteen years then since the siege at al-Quds, and thirteen since they had made peace between themselves, on the thin ground of the knowledge that they shared a blessing, or a curse, or maybe something else altogether. They had both been tired of war.
Lately, however, Yusuf had been considering how long they could stay. They were accepted because they were helpful, and lived quietly. It was a source of bewilderment for some that a Frankish Christian might choose to live among Muslims, but there were plenty on Malta whose parents or grandparents had been Christians. The general expectation at the masjid was that sooner or later Nicolò would likely convert, as he had listened politely to many verses of the Quran as he sought to master Arabic, and in the meantime he showed no tendency towards putting anybody to the sword. Yusuf’s lips curved a little bitterly at that thought. They did not know, of course, the truth of how he and Nicolò had come to travel together.
But they were outside the slow cycle of life here, with no families or future, and Yusuf was painfully aware by now that neither of them had gained any wrinkles or grey hairs, in sixteen years. Sooner or later they would have to move on.
He had made up his mind to speak to Nicolò of this, and was marshalling his arguments, when he walked past the open shutters of the house’s single window and saw Nicolò, on his knees, unmistakably doing something that was not praying, and every thought flew out of his head.
Yusuf stopped, and took a step towards the window, trying to understand what he was seeing. Nicolò, on his knees; and in front of him, on his back, Iskandar who sharpened knives. It took Yusuf a moment to recognise him. He was a handsome man of around the age that Nicolò and Yusuf appeared to be, bearded, as all the men here were save Nicolò, and Yusuf knew him by sight; but not like this.
In the moment that everything resolved, he knew he should leave – knew that he should shake his head, and walk away, and tease Nicolò about it after. But he was caught, somehow, like a fish on a line. There was Nicolò, on his knees, his eyes closed, hips working furiously. There was Iskandar, on his back, Nicolò’s hand wrapped around his cock, one leg hooked around Nicolò’s hips. There was Nicolò’s cock, long and slender and hard, plunging into Iskandar, something Yusuf had barely been sure that men actually did. Or at least that they did for pleasure; he had been to war, after all, and knew that rape was not only something for women to fear. But the low noises both men were making spoke of nothing but pleasure.
Yusuf couldn’t stop looking at the point where Nicolò’s cock was disappearing into Iskandar. It was shiny-slick with something, and Yusuf wanted to touch it. In seventeen years, he had had plenty of opportunities to see Nicolò’s cock, including the unfortunately memorable time it had been cut off, and he had never wanted to touch it. He could feel heat prickling at the back of his neck.
The noises Iskandar was making began to rise in pitch, and Nicolò’s eyes dragged open. Yusuf dropped to the ground as swiftly and silently as he ever had in an ambush – much more silently than that, actually, as he was not wearing mail. His nose was in the short grass, his heart was pounding, and the uncomfortable contact with the ground brought forcibly to mind the fact that he was desperately aroused.
He prayed for wisdom, and silence, and for both the other men to be too caught up in their pleasure to pay attention to any noises he might make, and moved cautiously away. By the time he made it back to the main part of the town, he had dusted the dirt away and was presentable again.
“You’re back very quickly, al-Tayyib,” said one of the old men in the main square.
“I meant to trade for some eggs, but the goats put it entirely out of my mind,” Yusuf told him, with an easy smile; everybody laughed.
Behind his eyelids, all he could see was Nicolò. He wondered how to make it stop.
He passed Iskandar on the way back, making his way towards the main road. The other man only nodded to him, which would have been suspicious if Yusuf hadn’t already known why. He did wonder why, exactly, Nicolò had chosen him. He wasn’t that handsome. Then again, Nicolò would never have to speak with Iskandar’s wife, who lived, Yusuf presumed, in Mdina. Perhaps that was why.
Nicolò greeted him perfectly normally when he returned. “Yusuf! Are the goats safely returned?”
“Yes.” Yusuf set the cheese, and the eggs, down on the table. “At least it was not sheep. One of them at least would have contrived to kill itself, or get stuck in some gully. Did you get your knife sharpened?”
“I did,” Nicolò said, with a smile that was not at all appropriate to such a minor chore. He was lazing back in their only chair, all the lines of his body – still capable of whip-fast action – relaxed.
“I will say,” Yusuf added, “if you are going to have a guest, and do not wish to be disturbed, you might let me know. As a courtesy.”
Nicolò became, abruptly, extremely unrelaxed. He didn’t blush, but his eyes narrowed.
“Especially with the shutters open,” Yusuf said, to make the point clear, and gestured. That got a blush.
“I…really thought you would be gone all morning,” Nicolò said, glancing at the exact spot where he and Iskandar had been – doing what they had. “And it was not – it was an impulse. You know.”
Yusuf did not know. Yusuf had never had an impulse like that, or at least not one so overpowering to carry him through to bedding a man he barely knew. He knew that men did have those impulses, or at least they all swore they did, and how could it be helped, when the object of their affections was so lovely, but it had always been a mystery to him. It had taken six months of marriage before he had found himself eager to bed his wife, and she had not been shy about matters, either. He still remembered the moment he had seen her half-dressed, the curve of her breast, and his mouth had gone dry. He would always remember it.
“As you say,” he said politely. He had meant to make a joke of it; it was not the first time he knew of that Nicolò had slipped away to bed somebody, and there was no reason for Yusuf to take it ill. He did not know why he could not make light of it. “Perhaps I should have made more noise, in approach.”
“I cannot say we wanted to be disturbed.” Nicolò frowned. “And you do not have to look at me like that. It’s not your business.”
“Of course it isn’t.” Yusuf did not want it to be his business. He wanted to forget the whole thing. He forced a smile. “Consider it forgotten.”
“Good,” Nicolò said, smiling back, but his eyes on Yusuf were still sharp, and somehow…hurt. Yusuf wished he knew why.
Two nights later, Yusuf awoke what felt like only a short time after he had fallen asleep to the quiet sounds of Nicolò pleasuring himself, on the other side of the single room of their house, a whole body-length away, maybe. This was nothing new. They had been traveling and then living together for more than ten years, and before that Yusuf had travelled as a merchant. You did not always have privacy for these things, by yourself or with another. Good traveling companions pretended they were deaf to it, unless invited to comment. Yusuf had always thought of himself as a good traveling companion, and neither commented nor invited it. Nicolò had never had any complaints.
It was not new, but tonight, suddenly, it was different. Every faint noise of skin on skin, every rough breath, found its way to Yusuf’s ears. The memory of what he’d seen the other day, Nicolò’s hand on Iskandar’s cock as he fucked him, sprang to his mind unbidden. He wondered if that was what Nicolò was remembering, as he touched himself. He wondered what it looked like; whether Nicolò had let his legs spread, whether his head was thrown back, whether his mouth was open. He felt himself hardening, felt every stitch touching him, his skin achingly sensitive. He didn’t dare look; just lay there, dizzyingly hard from doing nothing but listening. It went on, and on. How long could it possibly take, Yusuf thought resentfully, for Nicolò to work himself to climax? Had he forgotten how?
Without thought, his hand had wandered down of its own accord, his fingertips resting in the crease between his thigh and his body. There was nothing but the faint noises Nicolò was making, the beat of his own pulse in his ears and heavy in his cock. He dragged his fingertips lightly along it, through the fabric of his tunic, and it was so good he nearly made a noise. Across the way, Nicolò let out a barely audible moan.
Yusuf decided that the right to be politely ignored in the night went both ways, and rucked up his tunic to grasp himself. He had to put his other hand over his mouth to stifle his own moan. It was dry, and faster than he usually liked, and he was so hot just from listening to Nicolò that it took almost no time at all; a wild fantasy seized him, of Nicolò fucking into him the way he had seen, and he came so hard he had to bite the meat of his thumb to stay quiet.
He came back to himself slowly, panting shallowly, trying to keep it quiet. Nicolò must have finished; there was no noise now except rapid breathing much like his own. The air felt humid.
“Well, that was new,” Nicolò said, and Yusuf startled and nearly choked on his own spit, which would have been the most ignominious possible way to die he could imagine, and worse still because he would live again to know it. He flushed in the darkness, and said nothing.
“Hmmm,” Nicolò said, and rolled over. Yusuf got up and washed himself, feeling silent and stupid and aware of Nicolò as he had never been before, tingling along his skin.
Nicolò said nothing about it when they got up, and nothing after Yusuf had finished his morning prayer. Yusuf thought they had silently agreed to not speak of it until Nicolò came up behind him, put his arms around his waist, and murmured in his ear.
“If you are not otherwise occupied this afternoon…we could return to what we did last night.”
“What we did?” Yusuf said, stupidly, knowing exactly what Nicolò meant. His breath was warm in Yusuf’s ear. Yusuf remembered a time when that would have heralded Yusuf getting his throat cut. Now it made him want to lean back into Nicolò.
“I think you remember,” Nicolò said. He was so close Yusuf could feel the curve of his mouth as he smiled. “I promise it will be worth your while.”
“No,” Yusuf said, the first thing that came to mind. No, he had not wanted – except he had; no, he did not know how to respond; no, he did not think he could bed Nicolò casually, as a way to pass the time. He had never managed that, with anybody, ever, and it was not as if there had never been offers.
Nicolò jerked; he had not expected that answer. “No?”
He was still standing so close. Yusuf could feel almost every inch of him, his lean body that Yusuf knew almost as well has his own. Sixteen years of killing and fighting and travelling, of sharing beds and friendly shoulders to lean on. He wanted to know how much closer they could get. What it would feel like if –
“No,” he said again, panicked by how badly he did want this, and his complete lack of knowledge about what he might do about it. “I am sorry if…I led you to think I was interested.”
“Well, no matter,” Nicolò said, stepping back, as Yusuf turned to face him. He was stiff with wounded pride. “I know you usually do not take an interest in such things.”
“Exactly,” Yusuf said, relieved. But if he was relieved, why did he feel this churning in his stomach? “It is not – you are extremely handsome, I am sure you know this.”
Nicolò gave him a strained, puzzled smile, and stalked off. He was extremely handsome; easily the best-looking man of Yusuf’s current acquaintance, not only in his face, and his extraordinary sea-coloured eyes, but in his broad shoulders, his trim waist, his powerful legs. Yusuf contemplated all of this as Nicolò walked away from him, and wondered what was wrong with him, that he had seen all that almost every day for nearly sixteen years and now it mattered.
Nicolò spoke to him in short sentences the rest of the day – always accompanied by that same strained smile, as if to reassure Yusuf that he did not hold their conversation against him. Yusuf thought this, and then in the next moment thought about what he would like Nicolò to hold against him, since Nicolò had offered. He could not discern whether that was what he truly wanted or whether it was just some trick of his mind, after what he had seen, after last night.
Nicolò spent the evening hours praying, using the knotted rope he had started carrying after the half-year he had spent in that monastery in Egypt, early in his acquaintance with Yusuf. He was praying in Latin, though, in a low drone that went on and on, round and round. Normally Yusuf found it soothing; today it was almost unbearable. He performed his own sunset prayer by rote, barely able to concentrate.
He wanted to blame Nicolò for disturbing the balance of their lives, but knew he was just as much to blame. Why could he not have accepted his offer, and let it be another thing they shared? Why did it frighten him, to add Nicolò to the short list of people in his life that he had wanted that way? It was not even as if Nicolò was the first man. There had been Tawfiq, his first friend at the madrasa, later his most common companion in trade. He had not come to al-Quds, that awful, fateful year. He had sailed home, and was probably dandling his grandchildren on his knee.
Yusuf had wanted him and survived, and he could survive Nicolò, he was sure. They had endured so much. They had slain each other. This could only be a temporary hitch in their companionship, like the time that Nicolò had thrown up on Yusuf, two full days’ travel from any prospect of a proper bath. They would laugh about it, one day.
They had to.
Yusuf went to sleep regretting how cool things had been between them the rest of the evening, stiff and awkward in a way they had not been since the first days after they had agreed to not kill each other. It probably would have gone on like that the next day if one of the boys from the main village had not come to wake them in the hours before dawn, saying that Yusuf the fisherman (so-called because there were two other Yusufs in the village, aside from Yusuf himself, which was why they all called him al-Tayyib) had slipped and twisted his ankle while the boats were setting out, but would Yusuf and Nicolò be willing to take the boat out instead?
They had done this a few times; both of them had spent time on the sea, and Nicolò in particular was familiar with small boats. The usual arrangement was that they got a share of the catch. Yusuf was not in a mood to spend the day with Nicolò in a small boat, with things as they were, but apparently Nicolò did not care.
“Of course we will help,” he was saying. “A moment for us to wash, and we will come.”
Over the years Yusuf had persuaded Nicolò of the value of cleansing yourself after sleep and other polluting events, even if it was not a requirement of his religion (somewhat the opposite, Yusuf was given to understand); they both made a hurried job of it, and walked quickly down to the village, and further on to the beach.
There was no time to talk of anything else as they got the boat in the water and sailed it out in the greying dawn light; the wind was light but steady. Yusuf breathed in the salt air, and tried to find peace in the way he and Nicolò could move around each other, without speaking. Sixteen years had given them that. They would not lose it over something so small.
“You love it out here,” Yusuf said as the sun rose, watching the way Nicolò smiled up at the sail and cast an expert eye to the horizon. He hadn't meant to break the silence first; he just couldn't help it.
“It’s peaceful,” Nicolò said, with only a moment’s hesitation. “Just you and the ocean and the eyes of God.”
“And a great many fish ready to cast themselves into our nets, God willing,” Yusuf said. It warmed him to see Nicolò happy.
“So we pray,” Nicolò agreed, and sang to himself as they put the nets out. It was in his Ligurian mother-tongue. Yusuf had heard him sing it before, when they were at sea, enough to sing the chorus with him. It made the work go faster.
God was willing; they pulled the nets back in full, which meant that they would have fish for their supper, and probably fish for the next while if they wanted it, and their neighbours’ continued goodwill.
“A good catch,” Nicolò said, pleased, as they heaved, the rope burning their hands and healing again almost as quickly, a strange sensation that stung but did not build. “That is well; it is coming into autumn, and they will start to lose more days to weather, soon.”
“You enjoy helping people very much,” Yusuf mused. It was nothing he had not observed before, in Nicolò; it just struck him sometimes.
“They need help, and we could give it,” Nicolò said. “It would be wrong not to.”
Once, long ago now, Yusuf had thought he would never be able to exchange ten words with this man without the memory of streets wet with blood overwhelming him. Now it almost never came to mind; and then, sometimes, it did.
“Sometimes I don’t understand you,” he said.
“Says the man who spent an entire morning, not a few days gone, rounding up a widow’s flock of goats.”
Yusuf hesitated; he didn’t want to raise the spectre of al-Quds, if Nicolò’s mind was not on it. Nicolò frowned, and he knew that he had, without speaking. Sixteen years. They knew each other too well.
“Sometimes I don’t understand myself,” Nicolò said, simply, picking the last undersized crab out of the net and returning it to the ocean. “If that is any help.”
“What would you do, if you could choose again?” Yusuf could not help asking.
“To, to,” Yusuf groped for the Ligurian words Nicolò had once taught him. “Take the cross.”
“Oh,” Nicolò said. “Yes. That. Of course.” He looked out to sea. “I would…I think…I think the important choice was long before that. I think I would have become a sailor, when I was a boy, and travelled to strange and distant lands without carrying a sword, or the cross.” He flashed Yusuf a grin. “Maybe we would still have met, in a port somewhere. Alexandria, or here on this island.”
Yusuf thought about the Genovese fleet sailing into Mahdia, when he was young; Nicolò would have been just old enough, perhaps, to have sailed with them. But he knew Nicolò was not thinking of that, in this moment, and so he said nothing, just smiled and looked away.
“Or do you just mean to ask, do I have regrets?” Nicolò went on. “I think you know I do. Every day I am inexplicably alive.”
“I don’t,” said Yusuf. “Or not about things I could have known to choose.”
“Good for you,” Nicolò said, a little tartly.
“I mean, I don’t regret being here.” Yusuf waved his hand around, to show he meant this small boat, right now, as they skimmed over the waves back towards the beach. “With you. After everything.”
“Ah.” That had surprised Nicolò, truly; Yusuf wondered at that. “Oh. In that case…neither do I.”
That night, exhausted from the long day, he dreamed of the women. The dreams had started shortly after Nicolò had killed him, and he had killed Nicolò, for the first time. At first they had been no more than glimpses; two women, dressed as warriors, one who might be from many places Yusuf had travelled, one who had the look of travellers from the lands east of the Indus. One of them carried an axe, mostly. One of them used a bow, mostly. Sometimes in the dreams they killed. Sometimes they were killed, and awoke, as Yusuf and his Frankish enemy did. Sometimes the dreams were of the most mundane things. The women riding, eating, combing each other’s hair. They were close companions, that much was plain.
Nicolò dreamed of them as well. Yusuf had learned that one night early in their acquaintance, when he had shot awake to the feeling of his throat – the woman with the axe’s throat – being slit, and opened his eyes to see Nicolò clutching his neck.
“They were ambushed,” Yusuf had said.
Nicolò had started. “What do you mean?”
“I dream of women,” Yusuf had said, in the Greek that was their only shared tongue, and that not well.
“I don’t, usually,” Nicolò had said, smirking.
Yusuf rolled his eyes. “Two women. Two warriors. Sometimes they die. Like us.”
Nicolò’s lips thinned; he looked away. “Yes. I know. I do not know why.”
“We share this, for once,” Yusuf had said, and startled Nicolò into a bark of a laugh. It had been perhaps the first moment when he had thought that he might like him.
That night, when Yusuf dreamed of them, dreamed of being them, they were not riding or eating or killing; they were in a hide tent, swaddled in a nest of blankets, and one had her mouth between the other’s thighs.
Yusuf could feel it vividly, as vividly as he ever did when they died, and all of it at the same time. The feel of a clever tongue on parts he did not have, the slick salt taste of a woman on his mouth, heat winding through his limbs. In the way of dreams, he could see them as well, the one on her back touching her own breast, digging her fingers into the blankets. Clever fingers slipped inside him, and he felt the start of a climax that was familiar and alien all at once.
He gasped awake to the sight of moonlight creeping through the cracks in their shutters and the sound of Nicolò panting in his ears. He could still feel the women’s phantom pleasure coursing through his veins, satisfied for them and desperately not so for him. He was burning up with it. And Nicolò was right there.
Nicolò’s voice cut through the haze. “Bad dreams?”
“The women, again.” Yusuf licked his lips, waiting to see what Nicolò would say to that.
“I thought so.” There was satisfaction in Nicolò’s voice, but also something like hunger. Yusuf had heard that before, over their years together, directed at other men; for the first time he felt its answering call in himself, and didn’t know what to do.
“So, not…bad, precisely,” he said, trying to make light of it.
“No,” Nicolò agreed ruefully, and Yusuf decided in a sleep-hazed way, why not, it had not ruined everything the first time, and reached down to ruck his tunic up enough to put his hand on his already-leaking cock. It recalled to him the sensation of slickness against his mouth, from the dream, and he sighed. “No.”
Nicolò said something very profane in Ligurian, and by the time Yusuf had processed that, Nicolò was leaning over him. The thin strips of moonlight through the cracks lit up his eyes, his mouth, a line across his chest.
“I promise that we never have to speak about this again,” Nicolò said, his eyes burning, “whatever it takes for you to make this right with yourself, but just this once, let me.” He put a hand right on top of Yusuf’s, where he was holding himself, and made a pleased humming noise at what he found.
Yusuf didn’t say anything; he couldn’t think of anything that would be right to say; he just took Nicolò’s hand, and wrapped his long fingers gently around Yusuf’s cock. It felt so good, right away, that he sucked in a breath.
One side of Nicolò’s mouth curled up, with a terrible sort of joy, and he bent his head down between Yusuf’s legs. His mouth burned like his eyes had, and he did something with his tongue that Yusuf couldn’t envision or describe but could feel all the way to his toes. Yusuf would have liked it to go on forever, but it felt like only a moment or two before he was spilling helplessly into Nicolò’s mouth.
“You didn’t really give me a chance for my best work there,” Nicolò said, sitting up. He licked a drop off his lips. Yusuf felt his balls clench even though he’d just come.
“Shut up,” he said, and sat up. Nicolò was in the same simple tunic he was. It was the work of a moment to get his hand under it, and find his cock, hard and warm and twitching against Yusuf’s palm. If Yusuf stopped to think about this he wasn’t going to do it, so he didn’t think about it.
“You don’t have to,” Nicolò groaned, but his hips rocked up. It took a second for Yusuf to work out how to handle the foreskin, but otherwise it was much like touching himself, except for Nicolò panting in his ear, all around him. He couldn’t stop to think about that, either.
“Shut up,” he said again. He had meant to do this quickly, but Nicolò appeared to think that the fact Yusuf had his hand on his cock was an invitation to nibble on his earlobe, his breath hot on Yusuf’s ear the same way it had been the other day, when Nicolò had propositioned him. Yusuf felt himself slowing down, drawing Nicolò out with long strokes to feel the way he chased Yusuf’s hand with his hips. He spilled with a shuddering cry, and bent his head into Yusuf’s shoulder.
Yusuf sat there, his hand sticky, halfway to arousal all over again, slowly becoming aware of how they were sitting; Nicolò grasping his upper arm so tight it would have left bruises on a man who could be bruised for more than a few moments, pressing a kiss to Yusuf’s collarbone. It felt like a brand.
“I was beginning to think you didn’t do this at all,” Nicolò said eventually, lifting his head.
“Did you mean what you said about not speaking about this, or not?” Yusuf asked him tersely.
“All right,” Nicolò said, eyes searching Yusuf’s face for something he didn’t see; or maybe he did. “Let us pray for less disturbing dreams, the rest of the night.”
He kissed Yusuf on the mouth, lightning-quick, biting his lower lip as he pulled away. Yusuf closed his eyes, so he didn’t have to see him returning to his own pallet, wiped his hand on a corner of his blanket, and tried to sleep. It took a long time.
The next day he took all their blankets down to the river, to wash them and himself, properly. It also took him away from their hut for a good long time. When he returned, it was a little past noon, and Nicolò was sitting on their doorstep.
“You know,” he said as Yusuf approached, “I have no idea why after all these years your eye has landed on me, but I cannot think of anything I have done to make you resent me for it. You have reasons enough for that, which you may lay at my feet, and have. The urges of your cock aren’t one of them. I would think it was simply jealousy, except you could have me if you wanted, and you know it.”
“This isn’t anything to do with –” Yusuf said, and felt his face heating when Nicolò shook his head impatiently.
“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “What it looks like when a man wants another, or a woman, and hates himself for it. It is a particular sin of priests, you know, because they are supposed to lay aside the urges of the flesh. Sometimes it just used to mean someone getting assigned a penance they didn’t deserve, and sometimes…worse things.” He looked Yusuf up and down. “But you are not a priest, and as I understand what you have told me, your religion doesn’t ask that even of your priests, anyway. So I do not understand it.”
“Neither do I,” Yusuf said, feeling weary, and not just because he had carried the half-dry blankets back up the hill, to hang on the branches of the tree next to their home. “And I do not hate myself, or you. I just…”
“All right,” Nicolò said, and stood up. He took one of the blankets from Yusuf’s arms. “I think it is going to rain, later, and I do not feel like sleeping under a damp blanket, or without one.”
Nicolò was right; there were clouds on the far horizon, even though the sun beat down overhead. They hung the blankets up together, so they would dry and not fall down onto the dusty earth below. They were unwieldy, and for a moment Yusuf got tangled up in one; Nicolò unwrapped him, a laughing grin on his face. It was the other side of the coin, the one that had been tossed in the air when Yusuf had seen him and wanted. He loved him so much in that moment his heart hurt.
He reached for Nicolò, his pulse hammering in his ears as fast as it ever had facing him with a sword in his hand.
Nicolò moved back, his face giving nothing away. Yusuf dropped his hand. It wasn’t at all like being stabbed – Yusuf knew that better than any man alive, perhaps save Nicolò – except that it was.
“I fetched fresh bread,” Nicolò said. “Shall we eat?”
Yusuf nodded, and followed him inside.
There was bread, and fish from the day before, and olives. They sat near the doorstep, shaded by the blankets they had hung, and watched the clouds getting nearer.
“Can I try and explain?” Yusuf asked, once they had eaten.
“If you must.”
“I don’t want to fuck anybody,” Yusuf said, starting bluntly to save them both the trouble of specifics. “Or almost all the time, I do not.”
“I know,” Nicolò said, without surprise. “We have travelled together long enough. You aren’t abstemious otherwise. At first I thought it was because you had been married, and then I wondered if it was a vow, but you did not act like someone who wanted, and held back – until a day or two ago. And you never sneered at me, because I did not. Although that might have just been because you are a good man.”
“My father and my older brothers told me I would when I got older,” Yusuf explained. “Want to. I am old enough to be a grandfather, likely I am one by now, and it hasn’t changed. Except…very occasionally. When I married; I despaired for the first few months, and tried to be a good husband in all the other ways I could think of. I learned to love her like that. Then one day, it was as if…I had stepped out of a shadow into sunlight; and I thought, oh, this is how everybody else feels, why they do such stupid things over it. There was someone else, a friend I made trading journeys with…it was like that again. I thought before him that perhaps I was so particular that Aisha was the only one for me, but after him I knew that it was not only her, it was that I only…after a long time of knowing someone. After they were in my heart.”
Nicolò nodded, and didn’t say anything; Yusuf leaned back, and went on. “And you…I hated you when we met. I doubt you are surprised to hear that. I hated you, and I couldn’t kill you, and you couldn’t kill me, and even when that stopped I felt like all the dead of al-Quds would lie between us, always. I saw you had kindness in your heart, I saw you were always ready to give charity or aid to those in need, I saw you grieve what you had done and I hated it, because if you had had all those things in you, always, and I thought you had…why were you there that day? What drove you all the way from your home to murder people in their beds?”
Nicolò’s eyes were wet, even though his face was stern; Yusuf’s were too. He wasn’t done. “And somehow along the way I stopped remembering the dead, I could only see you, and I wondered if that was right. You were the moon in my sky and I didn’t know how it had happened. And then I saw you with Iskandar that day, and I wanted you like that, and I remembered what I had let myself forget since al-Quds; that I had never wanted anybody I didn’t love.”
Nicolò said, quietly, “It is even more unpleasant to be resented for being loved as for the other.”
“I would not wish to be the cause of any unpleasantness in your life,” Yusuf said, just as quietly, and reached out as he had before. This time Nicolò leaned in, and let him brush his fingers along the side of his face, rest his thumb on the curve of his cheekbone. It was damp. Nicolò closed his eyes. Yusuf’s fingers trembled.
“You say that,” Nicolò said, his eyes still shut, “but I seem to remember that you once gutted me and left me to bleed out, entirely on purpose.”
“Yes, and that was very foolish of me, because you healed much faster than I had expected and my back was turned when you did,” Yusuf agreed. “I think a better argument is that last week I ate the last of the cheese, knowing there would be no more for days, when I know how much you like it.”
“You are, truly, my dearest enemy,” Nicolò said gravely, turning his face into Yusuf’s hand and kissing his palm. Yusuf’s mind went entirely blank, and he had no idea what would have happened next if a drop of rain hadn’t landed on his hand.
Nicolò jerked back, swearing by five different saints, and they both scrambled madly for the blankets.
“I hate autumn,” Nicolò said, once they were inside, panting and very slightly damp all over. The rain was not heavy, but it looked to be persistent. “What a good thing we were asked to take the boat out yesterday, and not today.”
They lit the fire, and spread the blankets out over all the furniture they had, and didn’t speak of hearts or wants or the dead again for the rest of the day.
It was still raining when they woke the next morning, a steady cool drizzle. Nicolò was curled between Yusuf and the door, pressed up close as he was sometimes when the weather was cold. It was not that chilly, but of course the blankets had not been quite dry. For the first time that Yusuf could remember, sharing Nicolò’s blankets, he had awoken in a state of arousal. Nothing seemed more appealing than grinding himself against Nicolò, in what he realised for the first time would be a shadow of the act he had seen. The memory made him shiver with anticipation; his hips did rock forward, without conscious thought. Nicolò, who was still asleep, let out a sigh and wriggled closer.
Nicolò, who was still asleep. Yusuf made himself roll away, get up, and wash himself before his prayers. There was a touch of chill in the air, whistling through the shuttered window and under the door. It was autumn, and winter would follow all too soon on its heels. Which made what Yusuf had to say all the more important.
“Oh, you’re up,” Nicolò said after Yusuf was done, sleep-blurred; his eyes, though, were sharp when they landed on Yusuf.
“Good dreams?” Yusuf asked, standing up and folding his mat.
He saw Nicolò consider the question, and the way his mouth curled before he said “Better if I’d woken up with you still here.”
“I will remember that,” Yusuf said. Nicolò’s eyes went dark, and Yusuf had to concentrate very hard on remembering how to breathe; did other men truly feel like this all the time? About people they did not even know? The mind boggled.
“I have been thinking,” he said, sitting down at the table. “It will be winter soon, and ships north or south will be few and far between –”
Nicolò sat bolt upright; it had been years since Yusuf had seen panic in his eyes like that.
“– and we,” he stressed the word, “need to go and find these women we dream of. They are like us. Perhaps they are the only other people in the world like us. Perhaps they know why God has given us this, what we are meant to do. We cannot stay here forever.”
“You were speaking yesterday of being a grandfather,” Nicolò said, scratching the back of his head and pushing back his blanket; his tunic barely covered the tops of his legs. Yusuf had never been interested in Nicolò’s thighs before. Now he couldn’t stop looking at them. This was going to be inconvenient. “Rashid keeps telling me what a nice young man I am, when I buy his bread. He was born the same year as you. It will catch up with us, sooner or later. And I think you are right. If God has any purpose for us, it cannot be catching fish and helping with the olive harvest – as worthy as those tasks are.”
They looked at the same time towards the wall, where their store of funds and their swords lay in a long, nondescript wooden box. Their mail had been sold; they would have to find new armour.
“But first,” Yusuf said, getting down from the chair to kneel in front of Nicolò, and kissed his sleep-warm mouth.
Nicolò promptly grabbed the front of his tunic and lay backwards; Yusuf had to catch himself on his hands, but moved with him eagerly. He had meant it to be a gentle kiss, a question, but Nicolò was making it filthy, cradling Yusuf’s jaw in his hands and plundering his mouth. Yusuf supposed that was an answer.
“Beloved,” Nicolò whispered blindly when they parted for breath, and several things rearranged themselves in Yusuf’s head.
“I thought you said…”
“I said I didn’t want you to resent me for this,” Nicolò said, hooking one leg around Yusuf; there was an excellent chance Yusuf was going to embarrass himself very shortly, if this kept up, and he couldn’t bring himself to care. “If you can do this and still look me in the eye the next day, that is…something very different.”
“I will look you in the eye every day of our lives,” Yusuf assured him, and kissed him with his eyes open. Nicolò groaned into his mouth and ground his hips upward, Yusuf already hard against his thigh. They rocked against each other, too caught up in the newfound joy of touch to do much more. Yusuf came with the twin thoughts that this was phenomenal, amazing, he wanted to do everything with Nicolò he knew could be done in bed and all the things Nicolò doubtless knew that he did not, and also that Nicolò was never going to let him forget that he had spilled like an eager boy the very first time they had tried this.
Nicolò was nibbling his earlobe again and kissing a line down his neck. “When is the last time you…”
“Last night, with you. But you mean…at home, with my wife, before I set sail for Tyre,” Yusuf said, lifting himself up so he could get a hand between them. “Seventeen years ago.”
Nicolò opened his mouth and moaned against Yusuf’s neck; this was almost certainly because Yusuf had fisted his cock. “That is… a very long time.”
“It wasn’t a problem until now,” Yusuf said, jerking him slowly, and then slower again, enjoying the thought that he could want this and do this and all was well about it. “And it seems as if it will not be a problem now.”
“Since,” Nicolò gasped, “since it is raining, and seventeen years, sweet Mary Mother of God, I think that we should stay inside today and try to catch you up a little. It seems only right.”
“I thought you could show me how to use my mouth,” Yusuf said, which was the smallest part of what he suspected Nicolò might show him, but the only part he was sure of the words for. Nicolò made a very high-pitched noise and came hot in his hand.
“This wanting of yours,” Nicolò said, when he got his breath back. “It might be the death of me.”
“We can’t be the deaths of each other, my heart,” said Yusuf, smiling at him. “If we know anything else, we know that.”