Yusuf lay on the shore, collecting grains of sand in his hair and under his nails. The waves were quiet and calm, and the air was still around him. He exhaled, long-drawn, and felt himself sink into the sun-warm sand. Time was swallowed by nature here, and if not for the sun’s subtle movement above him, Yusuf could easily lose himself to the meditative silence.
The sun had not shifted much before the soft crunch of sand alerted him to Nicolo’s approach. Yusuf did not open his eyes or turn; instead he tracked each footstep by sound, waiting until Nicolo stopped, surely regarding him from above. Still, Yusuf did not acknowledge his presence. After yesterday, the silence was an olive branch, but Yusuf still did not know on which side of anger or forgiveness he had landed. The tension between them, palpable in the moments between each breaking wave, was halfway between apology and altercation. Yusuf could feel the phantom agony in his neck still.
Without speaking, Nicolo sat next to Yusuf. He was probably gazing over the ocean with his deep, dark eyes, but a quiet part of Yusuf wondered if Nicolo was looking at him, instead. He carefully did not hope for it.
“You will burn if you lay in the sun for long,” said Nicolo mildly. Yusuf could have laughed if his mood allowed it. Speaking of the weather, of all things.
“No,” he laughed and opened his eyes. Nicolo was watching him, his gaze, as always, intense. “I will not. There is no need to worry yourself over it.” He let the thinnest reed of reproach line his tone, and they lapsed into silence once more. Yusuf had no desire for meaningless prattling.
Just yesterday, Nicolo’s hands and sword had been warm and slick with Yusuf’s blood. The brutality of it was still fresh in his mind, as was the sudden, cold shock of Nicolo’s sword slicing through Yusuf’s neck. He was no milksop. Anger simmered under Yusuf’s skin, its usual call beckoning him back to the field of carnage once more. How many times had they run this course, the same story playing in a variety of ways? Yusuf would kill Nicolo, or Nicolo would kill Yusuf, and they would rise to battle again.
This time, however, his temper was dampened easily by the memory of Nicolo’s wide, terrified eyes as he aligned Yusuf’s head to his neck and body, begging him to wake. The echo of it twinged along his throat, but the flesh under the bandage had knit itself together seamlessly. Eventually, the memory of pain would fade, but he did not think he would forget Nicolo’s expression.
Yusuf did not wish to hurt Nicolo any longer. That was the small, specific conclusion he had woken with this morning, when he had roused to the sun and the sound of the sea in an unfamiliar makeshift cot in a cove. His neck was bandaged and the rest of his wounds healed, Nicolo was lying asleep on the ground next to him, and near the entrance were the remnants of a fire smoldering slightly. Their swords and armor were strewn in one pile next to it, insignia and colors unseparated. Yusuf had stared at them, sitting very still and feeling rather empty and bruised within himself, then risen and shuffled outside.
His throat felt tight, but when Yusuf pulled the bandage off to check, his skin was unmarred, of course. He could not stop feeling Nicolo’s hands on his neck, his face. The world was now dizzying and unclear, revolving around that man, a storm without a calm eye. Confusion frothed within him, like a volcano on the verge of eruption, and he felt pulled apart by his warring desires. He needed to center himself, to calm his frayed nerves. So Yusuf settled on the shore, syncing his breaths with the lapping waves, and stared at the clouds above him until his mind was blank. That was how Nicolo found him hours later, resting uneasily in the warm-blazing sun.
“Are the sun and the sky the only topics we are permitted to speak on?” asked Yusuf dryly, when Nicolo failed to say anything else.
“You are not the only one who wishes to contemplate his life,” Nicolo said.
“Oh?” said Yusuf, as neutrally as he could manage. Nicolo was an island with no bridges, a fortress with a moat wider than the sea. He was an unreachable obelisk that disappeared above the clouds, but Yusuf had time now and lives. He would bloody his fingers and break his nails on it, skin his knees and break his back, then try again, to find a foothold.
Finally, in the space between breaths, Nicolo confessed: “It is not God-given invincibility that we have. I do not believe I am more or less blessed than any of my brothers.” He glanced at Yusuf plaintively, wordlessly asking that he understand. “I am thinking on these terms and forcing myself to accept them.”
Yusuf’s iciness melted somewhat, primed to do so by the tentative, peculiar camaraderie he had struck with Nicolo over the course of their endless clashes. It was difficult to maintain anger at someone you killed and were killed by in equal measure.
But he had seen Nicolo’s face twisted in fear and panic yesterday, and this morning had watched him wrinkle his brow and murmur in his sleep, curled on his side. It was not new, this tenderness toward Nicolo, but it was the first time Yusuf had felt safe harboring it. Nicolo was inscrutable, not due to his enigmatic veil and far off home, but because it simply hurt to look at him sometimes, like the blinding sun, or a blue that is too blue. Yet, yesterday, he had held Yusuf and apologized, had opened his chest and pleaded with Yusuf to stay. They had found each other in the madness of war.
Still laying on his back in the sand, Yusuf laughed. “So the God-fearing man has turned his back on his faith?”
“You mock me for being God-fearing?” Nicolo asked, surprised. When Yusuf was the same, he meant.
“It is your churches that send armies into my people’s lands in the name of God. I am simply defending my home.” Yusuf slanted his eyes toward Nicolo but found nothing but intrigued contemplation.
“So God plays no part in your battling?”
“I did not say that,” answered Yusuf. “But I have died on the battlefield for my God countless times. I have lost track of the ways you have killed me or the ways your brothers-in-arms did so before you reached me. What is the point of believing in God when you cannot die? And if so, then, what is the point of the war?”
“You will not fight?” asked Nicolo. He fidgeted his fingers where they were clasped around his bent knees.
“Yesterday my head was separated from my body,” Yusuf said mildly, seeing Nicolo flinch slightly. “I believe I am done with warring for now.”
Nicolo looked up above them, to the white clouds traveling aimlessly across the sky. To them, he said, “I will leave the Crusaders.”
Yusuf raised an eyebrow, feigning nonchalance. His heart was beating in his throat. “I will not argue against what I would be pleased about. Perhaps without their immortal Crusader, the church will retreat. But what will you do if not fight?”
“I desire many things,” said Nicolo, the prick.
“Will you elaborate?” Yusuf asked wryly.
Nicolo gazed down at him with a fathomless look. For a moment, the air around them stilled, and Yusuf thought—. But Nicolo dropped his eyes and said plainly, “No.”
It was a battle not worth fighting. With a sigh, Yusuf said, “I command no men and have no family, so I am less weary of leaving. But you have obligations to your people, and in part to your God.”
“My people will not miss me. Like you, I have no family. And my God will forgive me, and if he doesn’t, what can he do?” Nicolo gestured to himself. “My men will be fine.”
“You cannot turn your back on them,” Yusuf insisted. “Your men love you.”
Nicolo turned fully to face Yusuf and regarded him for a moment. The space between them was charged once more with the unknown. “And this man,” said Nicolo. Yusuf watched his lips form the words. “In front of me now?”
Yusuf found himself on the precipice. His lungs felt full of an air he couldn’t breathe, and his exhale shook. “You do not play fair.”
“I am your enemy, remember?” Nicolo had teased him similarly many times, but Yusuf heard the disarmed edge of it now, the shard of doubt hidden under Nicolo’s boisterousness.
And it was that, finally, that made Yusuf sit up. The sand fell away from him. His heart thundered, the ground shaking under a thousand horses galloping blindly. A wild surge of hope gripped him, and Yusuf reached his hand out slowly, gently placing it on Nicolo’s cheek. Their eyes met, and Yusuf felt with his being that Nicolo knew what he was about to say. It was the split second when an object in the air stopped and began its descent, crashing down to the Earth.
“No,” he said. “I do not believe you are.”
Slowly, like the sun’s slow movement across the sky, with his breath held tight, Yusuf leaned toward Nicolo, and Nicolo met him. Their lips touched for a moment, a searing brand of a kiss.
Then Nicolo reared away, startled, his cheeks growing steadily ruddy and flushed. He jerked back from Yusuf’s touch, jolting him to move.
“Forgive me,” Yusuf said, rising immediately to his feet. He brushed sand from his tunic and turned away, so at least Nicolo would not see his face. Already, his wavering tone betrayed him. “I did not mean to overstep.”
He took a single step before Nicolo grasped his wrist, holding him still. Yusuf turned back. Nicolo’s eyes were kinetic, his expression stunned and immeasurable in equal parts, and Yusuf’s focus narrowed on him, like the sudden muting of sound when dipping one’s head underwater.
“You have lost your mind,” said Nicolo. His expression was awe-struck, glowing with hesitant hope.
“I have lost my heart,” Yusuf said in response, emboldened. “You have it.”
This time, it was Nicolo who leaned in, and he pulled Yusuf toward him. They met in the middle, a bolt of lightning through Yusuf’s veins. His stomach fluttered, and his lungs quivered against his ribs, and the adoration within him expanded through the branches of his being. He wanted a thousand things he could not name with such a rush it startled even himself. He kissed Nicolo, wondering if he could taste this indescribable feeling on Yusuf’s lips.
The day passed similarly, the two of them and the world expanding around them. They watched the low tide breathing on the shore and the sand shifting colors in the setting sun, soft-hearted and warm with the sea breeze through their hair.
Yusuf looked at Nicolo. “Will we live forever, do you think?”
Nicolo clasped their hands together and pressed a lingering kiss to Yusuf’s knuckles. “I will hope so every day."