“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.” — Anaïs Nin
He tastes death in the air. It hangs thick over the battlefield, permeating the furious clangor, steeping in the echoes of iron on iron, and the sick, soft whispers of iron on flesh. There is too much smoke and dust to see just where the acrid rot emanates. It twists the senses too heavily. But the red; so much red it must reach the horizon, further than the parasang they had marched to their peril.
Yusuf slumps to the side, his legs giving out. His sword cast aside but within reach. He doesn’t have the strength to pick it up. His head rests against what was either once a horse, or a pile of his countrymen. He tries to breathe, but his lungs force out the poisoned air in revulsion.
He knows it is a maddening, vile contortion of his own grief, but this place does remind him of home. Not the horror or the futility; that shares nothing with the city that bore him. There where he had known peace and brotherhood. There, where Yusuf would walk amongst his people as they bartered, embraced, and prayed. There, on his long walks home he would pass by the open doors of the muslakh as the livestock were herded through the city gates. A line of hale, healthy offerings to and from il-allah. Each hooved creature granted dhabihah, mercy and kindness in the swiftness of their deaths, the blessed word of the almighty on the lips of their slaughter. But even the holiness left a trailing scent.
That is what this is, and is not, Yusuf realizes. Slaughter made godless. Across from him, an invader spies his movements. He sees that Yusuf still lives. Towering metal and sharp hatred in the form piercing eyes and a raised blade advance upon him.
Yusuf stands one last time, his own weapon steady. He will not be the only one who dies here so far from home.
* * *
To unmake death is a pain Yusuf has never known. His sinews and viscera scream out unto him, expelling sand and splinters from his open wounds. Across a deep crevice, bone meets bone again, much the way two lost friends greet after a long fateful parting, clasping too tight for too long. Yusuf screams. It hurts to reshape a whole. It hurts to realize how many pieces a man must bear to live.
“Is this the after?” Yusuf wonders aloud. He marvels that he still has a tongue. It feels like the first words he has spoken in days. Now the moon is low and the night is noiseless. The battle is gone. The war somewhere far. But now it tastes of something other than blood. He has tasted defeat.
He fought. He killed. He fell. He died. They both died.
Within arms reach is the other man. The invader. Yusuf had taken his final moment of strength to strike his sword between his amor and jazerant. His entrails had spilled from his body before Yusuf was hacked apart.
Now, his entrails slide across the dry earth, as a net would pull closer to its wielder. The pale man’s body swallows itself up and Yusuf can hear him draw an impossible breath.
“No,” Yusuf swears. This cannot be his judgement. This other would not follow him to the afterlife, be it damnation or paradise. Yusuf climbs atop the stirring form. Bright eyes stare up at him. It is not a look of horror as it should be.
“Wait!” he pleads, garbling Yusuf’s native tongue. “Let me! I stay!”
It is hard to talk with a slit throat. After, Yusuf realizes with little malice, the soldier may have been begging for more than just his life.
* * *
It doesn’t end. Even as the war has long moved on, they two are left behind, killing and waking, rising and falling. A cycle of sunrise and life setting that does not break until one of them expires of something beyond the other man’s hand.
Yusuf dies of thirst. Crawling, heaving in the dirt, throat dry and head pounding like the enemy’s drum. He dies curled like an animal. The last thing he sees is the tired outline of his opponent above him.
Yusuf wakes near a well, outside a village that was taken by the invaders. Whatever guards they have placed here have retreated. The people have fled as well. Now it is only Yusuf and his tormentor. He hasn’t the strength to kil him again. Not until he feels the cool water running over his lips. Yusuf startles drinks and drinks and drinks. He suckles at the hand that replishess him, kissing his beautiful palms. He hadn’t known anything in life could taste so sweet.
“Nicolò,” says the man attached to the hands, dispatching Yusuf’s dazed reverie. Yusuf pulls away. He has died at those hands. Now he lives at their fingertips. The invader repeats the strange sounds, pointing to his chest. “Nicolò.”
He understands it is a name, if not the sentiment attached. Why spare him? Why drag him all this way to sustenance?
But there is no power in a name. There is nothing lost in sharing his.
“Yusuf. I am Yusuf.”
“Yosef,” Nicolò repeats, wrong, but close. “Saluti.”
Yusuf can’t be sure what it means but he is certain when he is well enough, he will rise and they will kill again.
* * *
It is tiresome. Eventually they move on. First on foot and later by horseback when Nicolò trades one of his swords for the creature. “I have no use of it,” he tells Yusuf, handling over the thin, flat metal. “Not any longer.”
Yusuf looks down at his scimitar. His own blade is just as useless. He trades it for gold dinars and food in the next settlement outside of Damascus. He and Nicolò sit close, weary, eating dried dates, nuts, and spiced barley. No one questions them, nor are they hauled off for interrogations. Nicolò clearly fears this, though he lacks the language to express as much. But Yusuf knows these people, counts himself among their kind. They are guests and patrons until they prove themselves unworthy. Mere existence, though puzzling, will not bring violence.
Then the crusaders arrive. That brings the fire and carnage. Nicolò is recognized, and he speaks swiftly to his countrymen. They shackle Yusuf with sneering eyes.
“I tell them you are my prisoner. Do not resist. You will see. We are not cruel.”
The absence of cruelty is what kicks Yusuf in the back of the knees. It drags him until he is boneless, wrenching his shoulder from its sockets. Nicolò is protesting, furious and desperate as Yusuf’s eyes blacken until the world slips away. The vicious and angry men spit words he doesn’t understand. “Heathen,” they shout until he hears no more.
Yusuf’s last thought; would it hurt more to die at a hand other than Nicolò’s?
He wakes from death faster ths time. Fast enough to see Nicolò turn on them, sword raised. Yusuf pulls his smashed hands free from his shackles before it heals. He joins his strange companion, wielding a knife from a fallen crusader. They aren’t so finished with killing as they had thought. But they fall and rise together now.
* * *
“I think you are a trial,” Yusuf says in the long stretch of time that comes after. “A trial from the Almighty.” They speak much more of each other’s language. Not without fail or error, but enough.
“Do you think God is testing you or punishing you?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Yes,” Nicolò insists. “You can surpass a test, but to be punished is to be doomed.”
“Again, I see no difference.”
“You are so,” Nicolò calls him a word that Yusuf does not know. An insult, perhaps. Certainly a laughing taunt made playful. “You only see the ugly and hopeless.”
Yusuf has seen many ugly things. He has dealt them out and reaped them in kind. Blood and loss and broken faith. But here, now, on this road out of the Holy Lands, he sees nothing ugly. Only the clear face and bright eyes of his companion. The strange nose, the long straight hair, that kindly wrought smile.
* * *
Yusuf leaves him in Tunis.
They had no real destination in mind as they reached a bustling city. They simply tired of the war, now years and years ended but Rome was reluanching ships. Neither had homes to return to, not ones where they could explain their unbreakable skin or undying bodies. This war belong to someone else now.
Nicolò says they are blessed, perhaps. “If there is a plan ordained for us, we must face it together.”
“Everyone believes there is a plan,” Yusuf counters. “In every people and in every city. They have their belief and soon enough, they have their graves and ruins.”
“But we rise, Yusuf. Every time.”
“Carthage rose again, too,” Yusuf mutters, remembering his histories. His own people, the Numidians and the Phonecians had bled for this land generations ago, driven out by more Romans. Perhaps some were even Nicolò’s forefathers. “And Carthage fell again.”
“Wait—” Nicolò pauses outside a vendor’s stall. “Did you see the Great Fall of Carthage?”
Yusuf scratches his chin. “Do I look that old?”
“I don’t know. You could be. If we do not change, we do not age.”
Nicolò’s eyes are searching. Yusuf tires of being at the mercy of those soft green lights. He knows what Nicolò speaks of is within the realm of possibility, even if it is unthinkable; Immorality.
“You were my first death,” Yusuf tells him with a sigh. It seems to appease him; he brightens measurably.
“You were my first as well.”
They continue on. They eat, partake in drink, and in a low roofed bathhouse, they bathe together privately as water laps against the ornate tiles. Their naked forms face apart, not out of custom or modesty. Yusuf knows it was not death that seeded this affliction in his heart. He has always loved the shape of men, the scratch of their bearded faces, the warmth of their company. But it is Nicolò’s company that grows cold with ache. They share a longing too closely bound to justify the distance Yusuf insists on keeping.
He can bear dying but he cannot bear this. Not for much longer, no less an eternity.
He feels Nicolò’s hands at his shoulder. The first kiss tastes of ecstasy after ecstasy. Yusuf moves Nicolò until he steps backwards, pressed to the shimmering walls, gasping for life between their tongues. It has been so long since the thought of killing the other man has sprung to mind. The pointless violence and the futility of trying to destroy the thing between them faded from mind and heart. Now he holds the hands that broke him apart, that poured water into his soul, that salved his battle-worn faith.
Nicolò’s hands drive between his legs, and he aligns their bodies. He shivers as if struck by sin itself, and begs in too many languages to count. “I’ve waited so long, Yusuf. Why… why did we wait?”
Yusuf slides their bodies together, stoking their fire and fist pumping their cocks. Nicolò’s face is taut, heaven-touched. Yusuf cannot swallow enough air, not while he cannot stop catching and savoring Nicolò’s slick wet skin with his teeth. His every touch is blistering and deep as he clutches Yusuf. They could break, so easily against a force like this. All that keeps them standing is each other.
They culminate in tandem, cresting with pleasure. Nicolò smiles so beautiful and free at Yusuf as he utters the words that damn them: “I have lived and died all so I could love you.”
A day later, surrounded by smoking candlelight and plates from a half finished meal, Yusuf slips from their bed. He does not return.
* * *
Time is an empty restless thing. Nothing centers Yusuf, or Yosef as he is now called. He drifts and wades through civilization and through nature and long, long still roads. Part of him is always searching for the man he abandoned. The part of him that knows he is a coward. Forever frightens him, still. A forever alone is no greater comfort, but being the one to leave meant one solitary thing was within his power.
Faces and places slip from view; they die and replenish with meaningless consistency. He joins armies and causes and bands of warriors. He learns new tongues and histories. He tries his hand at the scholarly and the divine and even medicine. Nothing truly changes. Nothing truly fulfills him.
Of course, he finds Nicolò again. Once on the isle of Cyprus and again in the city of Cairo. In the distance, on the direct path on which he had been walking, beautiful as ever. He speaks with the locals with ease and good humor. He belongs to this world as he belongs to the ages. Immortality could be truly radiant on the right sort of person.
He watches Nicolò until his eyes water from refusal to blink. And when Nicolò turns, suddenly and sure, he doesn’t find an old lover darting into the shadows.
* * *
The Mediterranean seas is where he finally learns to sail at long last. It’s a safe profession, where all colors and creeds find themselves on the same decks chasing the same coins. No one questions him, not even the Eastern men who call him Iosef and brother and the luckiest dog on the sea. He’s survived three apparent drownings. He knows he will keep on surviving, no matter how hollow it feels.
* * *
Reaching the Roman cities and all their rivers makes the stone of his heart sink. Freshwaters make him dwell on lifesblood, on well water, on bathhouses. He cannot hide is awe at this fantastic sights of the land. The art, the music, the philosophies. This place that shaped Nicolò, even if it and its church cast him across the sea to kill him.
He wonders if Nicolò ever walked back into the Holy Lands. If he ever tred over the foothills of the Levant and thought of him. He hopes not. He wishes and wishes it could never be so. But Yusuf knows, like Yosef and Iosef and Joseph all know, that if he walks this earth forever or longer, the feel of Nicolò against his soul will never, ever fade.
When at last he does find Nicolò in the capital city, the Italians are putting him to death. He’s shackled, locked in a wooden stockade as throngs of inflamed faces surround him. His nose is broken and blood runs free from it like an unstopped bottle. His hands and feet are being burned, torturous and slow. The smell of charred flesh hangs everywhere. All around him they shout about sin and carnal knowledge and uncleanness. That the diavolo will not perish from their fair country until they have taken his head from his body. Nicolò’s face shifts at the ire and roar of the crowd, eyes tilting up from the floor of the platform he is bonded too.
Their eyes connect.
Nicolò, damn him, he smiles.
* * *
Many deaths and much blood later, under the cover of night and slipped coin to an innkeep, Nicolò is swathed in all the comfort a sailor has to offer. Meager blankets, a small cooking fire, wine, stolen bread and salt. Nicolò heals quickly, almost painlessly. He can’t focus on his own body while so enraptured by another.
“Yusuf,” he calls, expectant and astonished.
“No one calls me that anymore.”
“Yusuf,” he repeats, he rises from the cot to join him beside the hearth.
“Nicolò, I—” the kiss he lays upon him is more brutal than any death. Demanding and anguished and infuriating. Nothing has changed. The fire burns the same.
“I waited for you to come back.” Nicolò presses their foreheads together. “I waited and I waited in that bed. They found me starved with hunger when my coin ran out.”
“No, I didn’t want—”
“You wanted what? For me to know to chase you?”
He shakes his head. “No.”
“Well, I did. I went back to Jerusalem, and Damascus, all the way through Galilee. I didn’t find you. But I knew I would. It didn’t matter how long. How many battlefields or countries it took. And I did. I saw you in Cyprus, and in Egypt. And again in Athens.”
“Greece? No, you weren’t… you weren’t there.”
“I was there. I saw the siege and the storm that broke it. I saw you for a fleeting second and you disappeared.” Nicolò presses his eyes closed, as if trying to recall a painful dream. “You always disappear.”
“Which siege?” he asks, half in jest, his mind turning over with guilt. “There were so many.”
“You make jokes when you owe me a lifetime of apologies.” Nicolò presses in closer. His smell is still the same. “This is the last place I thought I would ever find you. Why did you go?”
He hangs his head, rather than answer.
Nicolò grips him tightly. “Tell me why.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t stay. I didn’t know how to stay.” He pauses for too long, unsure of every step he has taken that led him so far from Nicolò . He’s never said the words aloud, never shared them with another soul, but it spills out of him whole and true all at once. “I didn’t know how to live forever. Not even with the man I wanted more than anything.”
Nicolò bows his head, eyes squeezed shut. He nods. “I forgive you, Yusuf.”
Weak in the face of such kindness, he puts his mind to anything else. His hands race down Nicolò’s skin and spine. “Let me check your skin again.”
“It’s fine, you know it’s fine.”
“No,” he insists. “They were torturing you.” All that blood, the violence they wove into his skin. The blade they raised to his head. “Killing you over and over. And for what? Touching men? Loving men?” He grits his teeth. “I could burn that whole church to the ground. I could kill them all.”
“I don’t care about them, I don’t care about their pulpits or hellfire. Not anymore, Yusuf. They tried to teach me to hate you once before; you and your beautiful country and your faith, but they couldn’t stop this. They couldn’t keep me from loving you.” Nicolò breathes deep, inhales him. He begins to unbutton his shirt. “And I didn’t care about the others, the men they found me with. They were lovely, yes, but they did not have these hands.” Nicolò kisses every knuckle balled in his fist, then licks his way up his chest. “They didn’t have these eyes, or this face that I have been searching for.”
“I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t—” he feels dizzy, shaken. Years of exhaustion and wandering feet finally catching up to him. “No one will ever touch you again. I won’t let them. I won’t.”
Together, skin bare and wanting, Nicolò pulls away for the briefest of seconds. “You made me wait again. Promise me, no more.”
The man that was once called Yusuf, groans under the weight of his own fears and disbelief and self inflicted reasoning. He feels his long-lived hopeless scrambling up his throat from the darkest parts of himself. He could still give into his fear of forever, of his long night of barren skies, cold and emptied. But Nicolò is the sun rising over all. Yusef is done denying himself its warmth. He lets the painlessness settle into his bones and kisses the lips the feel like home. “Never again.”
* * *
Lost time is made up for, and then multiplied. By the time they reach the western points of Europe they’ve been together longer than they have been apart. France is a wonder, the rivers of the Rhine yield the printing press and more wars and riches, and to the south Spain and its Moors brings so many flavors of home. England and their anglicization of odd, hard vowels takes some getting used to. Once, he had believed there was no power in a name; now he knows better. Together they become Joseph and Nicholas. Seasoned and worldly, joyous and made new.
Sometimes, tucked together in shelter, they dream of others.
“They are so alone,” Nicholas murmurs one night against Joseph’s throat. “We should help them.”
They’ve discussed this before. Joseph still hates the very idea of it. “We don’t even know how to find them. Or if they want to be found. What if they mean to harm us?”
“Nothing hurts us, Joseph. Not for long.”
He makes a disagreeable noise. “I made a promise. I intend to keep it. They can’t have you.”
Nicholas scoffs, grinning. “No one is coming to take me.”
“You’re damn right they’re not.”
Hours later, they wake and rise as they have a hundred thousand times before, Nicholas puts the kettle on and rations breakfast. “If we found them, we could have more. A family, camaraderie. I don’t know. But it would be more.”
“That heart of yours only gets more gentle with age. I love it but I won’t risk it. Not for anything. You are mine to protect and mine alone.”
Nicholas shoves a plate of eggs and a rasher of sliced lamb across their shared table. “If you had told me during the crusades I was going to fall for the most stubbornly romantic heathen in all of the Holy Lands…”
* * *
Eventually, she finds them. Her name is Andrea. It’s short for something, but she hasn’t explained what for. She feels older. Harder than either of them, though she’s as weary of them as they are of her. Her countenance is sharp and she keeps her boots on the table as she orders drink after drink. She proves herself without flinching, slicing her palm open like offered fruit.
“So,” she asks, “what do you know about the new world?”
“Nothing,” Joseph states simply.
“But from what we’ve seen of the old worlds,” Nicholas adds, “we’re sure its a mess.”
“Oh it is,” Andrea says. “Slavery, rape, profiteering, theft, genocide.”
“War is still war,” Joseph muses. “No matter where, no matter when.” It dawns on him that only soldiers are reborn into the likes of them. He, Nicholas and Andrea, clearly battle-hardened herself. All of it couldn't be a mistake.
“I’m catching a boat. I plan to do something about it. Give the new world a fighting chance.”
Nicholas looks at him and Joseph sees an old fire burning behind his eyes. He nods. “We would like to be on that boat.”
“So it’s settled,” Andrea slaps her hands to the table. Englishmen milling about regard her with angry glares. They do not appreciate her trousers or her volume. “We leave in three days time, you know the docks. I’ll see you there, Joe and Nicky.”
Heaving up and out the door, she leaves them there, dumbfounded.
“Don’t worry love, it’ll never stick.”
* * *
It is strange, the things that become permanent without meaning to. Andy, Joe, Nicky and Booker. All parts of a whole, family and comrades, just like Nicky predicted. Joe should have learned by now to have more faith. They learn to fight and kill and rise and fall together, a cycle outside of humanity, but always coming close. It's hard to rationalize a place in this world absent the attempt to make something matter, to make the endless age count from the shadows of history.
The Sudan op going south and the threat of exposure makes Joe want to run. Not toward the enemy, but away. He wants to take all that he loves and hide it somewhere untouchable. But the world is too big now, or it is too small. War has changed and so has combat. Nicky can feel his apprehension. They cling a little tighter between the firefights.
Nile appears in the face of it all. Lovely and young and a little naive. But she comes back for them when she does not have to. Saves them from the trap their own brother sprung them into. She’s a keeper. Booker isn’t.
“We’ve never killed each other before, and we’re not starting now!” Nicky shouts. It’s been two days after Merrick met his quite timely death — and aces to Nile for killing him in style, catapulting an enemy down from a high rise is a new one. But now with the dust settled, Nicky’s been devoting all his energy two days into talking Joe off the ledge that is throttling their brother until his immortality runs out.
“He gave us up!”
“I know and I’m angry, too!”
“No you’re not!” Joe bangs his fists against the wall. “You want peace and forgiveness and to tell him its alright because of all his grief! And I love you for it Nicky, but what about my grief? Huh? I’m the one who had to watch them experiment on you. I’m the one who had to lay there, powerless to stop it!”
“I was there too. Watching them hurt you,” counters Nicky, indignant.
“That animal put a gun in your mouth and blew your brains out the back of your skull. I broke his neck but I shoulda, oh, I should’ve done worse.” Joe feels the rage creeping up his spine. But Nicky’s eyes are still too soft; a thousand years and they had never hardened. Joe needs him to understand. Needs him to let Joe hold onto his anger. He takes his face in his hands and the word grind out of him, quiet and furious. “You took too long to come back. You know I hate it when you do that.”
“I know, I know, and when I think about what he was trying to do… trying to find a way to end it. I know that if they had, they wouldn’t just use it on Booker. It would kill all of us.”
That isn’t anger in Nicky’s voice. Its sympathy. “But?”
“But I know what it’s like to give up hope. To want this long crawl of forever to just stop. He did something stupid because he’s in pain.”
“It’s not the same,” Joe cuts in, voice edging on realization. “When we were apart, it wasn’t that long.”
“They were the longest years of my life. There were times I was so sure you weren’t ever coming back.” Nicky crosses his arms; the way he does when recalls something awful, when he wants to be held. “I’m telling you this, not to hurt you, but because I understand his pain. I wanted it over, too.”
Joe has to look away. “You never told me that.” Nicky's faith in him had always felt so absolute. He'd never once hinted at the real anguish underneath. “You should have told me that.”
“I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want you to blame yourself. Forever isn’t always a gift. Not for everyone. We know that better than the others give us credit for—”
“It is to me!” The outburst half startles Nicky. “Forever, with you? It’s a gift. And I won’t give it up. Not again.”
Nicky shushes him, smoothing the curls of his hair. “I know that. I know because the end didn’t come back for me. You did. That is why I choose to believe in the good things, the things we love. When the time comes, we have to let them back in.”
Joe scrubs at his face. They were going to have a whole other argument about Nicky keeping this secret, about hiding how much Joe had hurt him all those centuries ago. And Nicky would of course call it ancient history of no consequence. Say that the lifetimes together were worth it and more. Life and death had shaped them this way. One who held on, and one who could release. One to remember, and one to absolve. Two parts in a cycle, circling the earth.
“I won’t forgive him for hurting you. For hurting all of us.”
Nicky shrugs. “Someone can hurt you, and you still forgive. That is the only time forgiveness actually counts.”
After a millennia of weathering that look, Joe knows when he’s beat. “I won’t go any lower than two hundred years.”
With his knowing smile, Nicky shakes his head, “yeah, you will.” He leans in to kiss his husband and Joe tastes the sweet relief of his eternity.