Nicolo had been determined, as a child, to devote his life to God.
The idea of taking a wife had bothered him, and no trade had interested him. His parents had praised him for his devotion, taken the time to teach him the Latin he would need, and sent him on his merry way without looking back.
Now, of course, Nicolo saw the erroneous ways of the Church, and he was more than pleased to devote his life to something much brighter and closer than God.
Namely, helping people.
Namely, helping Yusuf.
Yusuf Al-Kaysani was the most beautiful and infuriating man he’d ever met. He was kind and gentle but also stubborn, unafraid to call Nicolo out and prompt him to question his beliefs. Yusuf was good, purely and truly, and Nicolo loved him.
And Yusuf loved him back, as last night had proven.
Nicolo sighed happily, coming into wakefulness on the bedroll they’d shared for the first time. He frowned when he realized the spot next to him was still empty -- Yusuf was usually done with his prayers by now.
Slowly, Nicolo sat up, running a hand through his tangled hair and climbing to his feet slowly. He grabbed his sword silently, listening.
And -- there.
Noise. Muffled noise. Sobbing.
Thinking that someone was hurting his Yusuf, Nicolo sprang through the bushes with a mighty battle cry, sword raised. But there was no one there, just Yusuf, kneeling on his cloak and facing east just like every morning.
Only he wasn’t praying. He was crying. Tears were streaming down his beautiful face even as he reached for the dagger he always brought to prayers. “What? What is it?”
Nicolo lowered his sword, wishing he’d at least put on pants. “Nothing. I heard you crying, and I thought -- Nothing. Are you… are you alright?”
Yusuf blinked, then swiped furiously at his cheeks. “Oh! Yes, yes I- 'm alright, thank you.”
“Are you sure?” Nicolo asked, dread filling him as he thought of another reason Yusuf might have not come back to bed. “You aren’t -- I didn’t hurt you?”
Maybe their gift only worked so long as they hated one another, maybe now that they were… lovers? Maybe they would stop. But no, Nicolo wasn’t hurting so-
“Was it...” Nicolo’s throat flexed as he choked on the word bad. “Do you regret it?”
“No!” Yusuf shot to his feet. “No, no -- last night was so beautiful, please don’t- I’m sorry, I’m so sorry-”
“What’s wrong?” Nicolo asked, crossing and reaching for Yusuf, hands hovering above his shoulders. “Please tell me, I -- I want to help.”
“Yes.” Yusuf swiped at his face again, “Yes I -- merciful Allah, Nicolo, I thought it would be different with you; I love you, why can’t I just-”
“I love you too,” Nicolo said patiently, “but you’re scaring me.”
Yusuf swallowed, then abruptly sat back down on his cloak, pulling his legs up to his chest.
“I don’t like sex,” he mumbled. “With anyone, not just you, please don’t think this is about you.”
“Oh,” Nicolo said, blinking. “So the tears?”
“I always feel ill afterward,” Yusuf said, pressing his face into his knees. “Like my skin is too tight. It’s so awful, and I love you so much, and now you’re gonna leave, and I just-”
“Who said I was leaving?” Nicolo asked, probably a little too sharp. Yusuf’s head snapped up to him, and Nicolo felt a surge of anger. “Infuriatingly stubborn mule of a man -- how could I leave you when you have completed my very soul?”
“You deserve-” Yusuf swallowed, “Nicolo this is — I doubt this will ever change about me, not if it hasn’t changed in the last eighty years. You deserve someone you can love-”
“I love you,” Nicolo insisted stubbornly, crossing his arms over his- nude, he was still nude, and it was cold, and dammit, he could be snuggling in their very warm bedroll with Yusuf right now.
“Properly,” Yusuf insisted, and Nicolo scoffed. “According to my faith, a sexless relationship is the only proper way to go about it. Who are you to tell me how to love you?”
Yusuf stared at him. And then stared some more.
“You,” - Yusuf swallowed, - “you really don’t care.”
It wasn’t a question, but Nicolo sighed, coming over to crouch in front of him and cup his face in his hands. He kissed Yusuf once, gently.
“Come back to bed,” Nicolo said. “It's cold, and fajr is over. You can tell me all about it once my balls aren’t trying to crawl back inside my body.”
They met Andromache and Quynh soon after.
They… They had a lot of sex.
Occasionally, Nicolo mourned that he’d never have sex again. Only in the vaguest sense. Only when he had to lay there and listen to Quynh scream, really. Never enough to make any sort of change, especially when Yusuf looked at him like that while Andromache and Quynh fucked across the fire from them.
“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Nicolo asked one day as Yusuf washed his hair for him. “Listening? We don’t have to stay with them.”
“Nope,” Yusuf said, then tilted Nicolo’s head back to look down at him. “You?”
“Nope,” Nicolo said, and then cursed silently when he realized his voice was pitched higher than normal.
Yusuf arched an eyebrow. “Nicolo.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Nicolo said honestly, trying to tilt his head forward again. Yusuf kept his hands clenched in his hair, looking more and more amused.
“Nicolo does it-”
“Please don’t say it.”
“It’s okay,” Yusuf said, very nearly laughing. “It’s a perfectly normal response.”
“It doesn’t happen to you!” Nicolo replied, petulant. Yusuf did laugh this time.
“I’m not normal! Oh, my poor sweet Nicolo, provided with his own personal fantasies and no one to fulfill them with.”
“I think that you deeply misunderstand the things that arouse me,” Nicolo replied dryly, and Yusuf snorted.
“Every human is a little aroused by a beautiful woman, Nicolo. It’s just a fact of life.”
Nicolo’s cheeks reddened as Yusuf rinsed his hair out, gently combing the tangles away.
After a long moment, Yusuf said, “You know you can act on it right?”
Horror clenched in Nicolo’s heart, and he whirled around so fast that some of his hair got caught in the comb and came free of his scalp. “I won’t rape you!”
“Who said anything about raping me?” Yusuf said, holding up his hands. “Also, maybe we don’t say that so loudly and make our ferocious sword-wielding sisters concerned!”
“I will not act on anything, not without you and not without your-”
“I meant,” - Yusuf sighed, - “on your own? With your hand?”
In hindsight, that made a lot more sense. Yusuf was far from a man who enjoyed torturing himself. He’d described it a few times, the things he’d done to try and feel normal. Nicolo would never do that to him, and Yusuf would never suggest it.
“With.” Nicolo flushed, “With you there? And the girls across the fire?”
“They’d probably find it invigorating,” Yusuf deadpanned. Nicolo was startled into a laugh, and the matter was dropped.
Well, until two weeks later.
Andromache and Quynh and Nicolo were drinking, and Yusuf was abstaining as always. Nicolo was pleasantly fuzzy, and Quynh leaned forward with eager eyes. “So what’s the deal with you two anyhow?”
“What do you mean?” Yusuf asked, and Andromache huffed as if he’d asked a very stupid question.
“You two finally stopped killing one another; we saw that in the dreams,” Andromache explained, waving an arm. “And then there was all the sexual tension and pining and sad poems-”
“You wrote me poems?” Nicolo asked excitedly. He loved Yusuf's poetry and had no idea any of it was for him.
Yusuf blushed. “I have them in my bag, but I wasn’t sure if that was too forward of me-”
“See, right there!” Andromache said, gesticulating wildly. “The tension is gone, but you just lay there like dead fish every night! So what’s the deal?”
“Is he a eunuch?” Quynh asked, pointing at Nicolo. “I’ve heard of priests doing that.”
“Of course he’s not a eunuch.” Yusuf scoffed, and Nicolo probably shouldn’t have answered this question while drunk, but he shrugged.
“Yusuf doesn’t like sex, so we don’t do it.” Nicolo shrugged. The girls stared at him.
“So you’re just going to be celibate for the rest of your life?”
“That’s no different than my original plan,” Nicolo huffed. “I’d much rather have a celibate life full of love than a sexual life without Yusuf.”
Yusuf stared at him like he’d hung the stars. Nicolo would do anything for that look, full stop.
“You could have both, you know,” Yusuf said, months later. “Sex and me. You could have anyone you wish, and I’d be right here for you to come home to.”
“No,” Nicolo said immediately, “I really couldn’t.”
They bought their first house on a little island just off of Sicily, about halfway between their homes. They filled it with Yusuf’s art and poetry and books and comfortable chairs. They had a large bed because Yusuf didn’t like to sleep alone. Yusuf would watch Nicolo garden or swim, would sit in an armchair with his sketchbook, and smile at him.
Nicolo bought him rings and sketchbooks and kissed his shoulders when he gave Yusuf back massages.
It was heaven. He was in heaven.
And then, well, Andromache and Quynh missed their check-in.
It took them too long to get to England. They got there three days after… well, after. The next several years were spent searching for Quynh, tracking down every lead.
In all that time, Andromache only snapped at them once.
“Of course you weren’t there!” she screamed as a storm raged around them. “You were too busy not doing anything goddamn useful!”
That was the first and last time Nicolo ever tried to kill her, just because of the look she put on Yusuf’s face.
They searched for five more years before going ashore and staying there.
Every year for Lent, Joe would tease that Nicky had to find something else to give up as they already did not have sex.
Nicolo, usually struggling through caffeine withdrawals, would cheerfully tell his most darling beloved that he could take his teasing and fuck right off. Yusuf would kiss him gently, laugh and snuggle close to him.
Somehow, Ramadan was harder for Nicolo to bear. Food and cooking were some of the ways he showed his affection for Yusuf, and when he fasted, all Nicolo could do was be there and hope his presence was enough.
Yusuf kept assuring him it was. Nicolo had to believe him.
Sebastien liked sex.
He liked sex, and he didn’t understand Yusuf at all. No sex, no alcohol, no pork -- the two of them were polar opposites in every way. And yet, they became friends. They bonded over a hatred of the English and a love of fine art.
And so Yusuf mentioned it again.
“He’s a man,” Yusuf said, “a gorgeous one, who might be amiable to-”
“Yusuf,” Nicolo said desperately, and Yusuf held up his hands.
“I’m just offering! I wouldn’t mind; you know that!”
“Never,” Nicolo repeated, would repeat as many times as Yusuf needed. “Not ever, my love.”
“I just,” - Yusuf sighed, - “I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy,” Nicolo insisted, cupping his face in his hands just as he’d done that first morning. “I’m happy with you. I have the entire world, right here between my hands. I’ll say it until I'm dead, and as we don’t die, that could be a long time.”
Yusuf wrapped him up in a hug and quietly asked to be held. Nicolo obliged without hesitation, as always.
Joe didn’t always like kissing.
For all his poetry, he was only able to describe the actual experience as wet and slimy. He indulged Nicky just often enough that the taste of him sometimes drove Nicky a little crazy.
That, and the memories of their one perfect night so long ago. Nicky had turned that night over in his mind so many times until it became smooth like a stone. Joe asked him, sometimes, when he’s feeling playful. Wondered aloud what made his beloved come, since obviously Joe couldn’t.
Nicky’s answer was the same every time - him, always him. And Joe always laughed and said Nah, Habibi, you don’t clean your browser history; I know you watch porn.
Nicky never cleared his browser history, just so he could see Joe laugh like that.
(Also, he didn’t know how and was too afraid of mockery to ask Sebastien.)
They got married relatively often.
One would think that they wouldn’t, that they wouldn’t want a drawer of wedding rings and the same vows repeated over and over, but they loved it.
To Nicky, marriage was one of the purest ways he can tell Joe he loved him. To Joe, it was the greatest gift he could give — it was his heart, fully and completely belonging to Nicky, time and time again.
They tried to beat one another in it — who could give the best proposal, who could give the fanciest ring, who made the other cry first during the ceremony. None of it undervalued their wedding, and Nicky was unashamed to say Joe usually won.
Then again, they hadn’t tried a flash mob proposal yet. He had a feeling Joe would like that.
(Andy wouldn't, but Nicky was sneaky; he could easily make plans for it without her knowing.)
The one thing that never changed, from wedding to wedding, was the way they ended it.
I take thee for all my eternities.
And then a kiss.
After the lab, Joe dragged Nicky into a shower and washed his hair four times until the water ran clear and his hair dried soft and fluffy, then he kissed Nicky and quietly asked for half an hour alone in their room.
Assuming Joe wanted to pray, Nicky agreed, going downstairs in one of Joe’s shirts and a pair of sweats. He made coffee and tea, checked on Andy, and didn’t even spare Booker a glance.
He betrayed them. More than that, he broke Joe’s heart. He would be lucky if Nicky ever talked to him again.
Exactly thirty minutes later, Nicky went back upstairs. Joe was sitting on the bed, naked and staring at a bottle of lube in his hands. Nicky froze in the doorway.
“I wanted to give you this,” Joe said softly, not looking up. “I wanted… we’ve never been through anything like that before, and I wanted to give you some… some reassurance I guess.”
“You don’t-“ Nicky started.
Joe scoffed and threw the lube across the room. “But I can’t. I can’t because I’m so- God, I wish I was normal.”
“Hayati.” Nicky sighed, crossing to set the cups down and straddle Joe’s lap, forcing Joe to look at him. “I don’t want this.”
“Well, maybe I do!” Joe cried, tears filling those beautiful eyes. “Maybe I want to feel you, to make you smile like you did that first night, to replace the memory of that asshole’s gun in your mouth with the memory of you sucking my cock-“
He cut himself off with a full-body shutter, shoulders jumping as he let out a single sob.
“But just thinking about it,” Joe muttered, “it makes my skin crawl, it makes me feel like — like I’m afraid of you. I hate it, I hate this, I hate-“
“Don’t say it,” Nicky interrupted, feeling an odd spike of fury. “That’s my husband you’re talking about; don’t you dare-“
“I’m broken, Nicky-“
“No, you’re not.” Nicky pressed their foreheads together fiercely. “You’re just upset and hurt; Sebastien betrayed us. You’re having a perfectly normal reaction to that, and your body is rejecting that. It is not your fault, and it does not make you anything less than the same perfect being I have married seventy times over and loved for the last nine hundred and twenty years.”
“I wanted to give you this,” Joe whispered, “I wanted — I wanted to give you one more night, in case…”
In case we died. Nicky shook his head, still pressed against Joe’s.
“I don’t want it,” Nicky insisted, “do you hear me, Yusuf? I don’t want it, I just want you. I want you in our house in Malta, I want you beside me in battle, I want you in every way, shape, and form I can have you, even if that means I never get to have sex again.”
Joe sobbed again, arms wrapping around Nicky. “What wedding is that from? Number seven?”
“It’s true,” Nicky kissed him quickly. “Every vow I have ever given you still holds true, my heart.”
“I know.” Joe kissed him. “I know, I’m sorry.”
They held one another for the rest of the night.
Two months later, Nile pulled them aside and said, “Hey, you know you don’t need to like, hold back for me right? I don’t care if I have to hear you-“
“Oh, we don’t do that,” Joe said, plain and simple. “I don’t like sex, and if I did trust me, you’d know.”
Nicky rolled his eyes at his husband’s bluntness, and understanding crossed Nile’s face.
“Oh, so you’re ace? Cool.”
“I’m what?” Joe frowned.
“Ace. Asexual. You don’t feel sexual attraction? Do you guys just not go on the Internet or-”
Nicky tuned her out, more focused on watching Joe’s face. He was staring at Nile, a look of pure hope filling his eyes.
“There’s-” he swallowed, “there’s a word for it?”
Nile’s gaze softened with understanding. “Yeah. And a flag and a whole movement of people working to make it well known.”
“Oh,” Joe said, voice reverent “Oh, that’s — there’s a word for it.”
Nicky wiped a tear off his cheek, and Joe laughed a little. “Don’t worry, my love, they’re happy tears.”
“Thank you, Nile,” Nicky said sincerely, and Nile nodded.
“No problem. I can give you some links if you wanna know more about it?”
They did some reading, and Joe cried some more. The next ring Nicky bought was black.
Nothing changed. Nothing ever really changed between them. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.