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offer no absolutes

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It takes many years for Yusuf to learn they can be rough with each other.

At first, after violence had melted into a hesitant truce, after truce had melted into a travelling companionship for lack of better options, after companionship had melted into a stumbling friendship based on the handful of phrases they shared in Greek, after friendship grew into something tentatively more, they had been gentle with each other.

Yusuf had been scared, those first times, that the touch of his hands would be too reminiscent of how he’d slain Nicolò, first before the gates of Antioch and then behind the gates of Jerusalem, unable to leave well enough alone, chasing each other down time and again, using their hands when their swords had failed. (Yusuf should have known, even then).

It had taken weeks upon weeks of travel for him to reach out to so much as clasp Nicolò’s clothed shoulder gently, to shake him out of a bad dream. Nicolò’s eyes had been hazy and confused and Yusuf had started back, afraid he was making it worse.

“No—” Nicolò had said, had reached out and grasped Yusuf’s hand in his.

They sought excuses, after that: Nicolò’s fingers combed softly through Yusuf’s beard, removing stray bits of dirt after a long day on the road, Yusuf’s hand a hair’s breadth from the small of Nicolò’s back, guiding him through the narrow alleyways of a Sicilian town that he knew no better than Nicolò did. Touch so soft it might as well have not been there, except for how it burned Yusuf to the very core of his being, how badly he wanted more of it.

Touch inspired touch, until Yusuf’s fingers itched when they weren’t near Nicolò’s skin.

His prayers were muddled things, by then.

When they’d begun their trek from Jerusalem, he’d doggedly insisted on five prayers a day, on keeping his compass clean and functional at all times so he could find Mekka always. Nicolò had watched, at first, perplexed and judging. Then, abruptly, ten days into their journey, he sank to his knees beside Yusuf and began reciting his own prayers, Yusuf had stopped dead.

“Go on,” Nicolò had told him in Genovese, the language they resorted to more often than not because Yusuf’s Greek and his poor, poor Latin helped him to understand more of it than Nicolò did Arabic. “I will say my prayers while you say yours.”

Later, over dinner, Nicolò had explained haltingly, with the aid of a rough sketch of a sundial, that in his old life, he too had prayed many times a day.

“Every three hours,” Yusuf had repeated, aghast. “Did you do nothing else?”

“I devoted my life to God.”

Yusuf had swallowed heavily. “So why did you not pray with me sooner?”

Nicolò had shaken his head. “I envy the constancy of your faith.”

Yusuf had turned the sentence over in his mind again and again, trying to parse the word constancy. He hadn’t heard it before, but he had a sense it was wrong.

Since Nicolò, since the squalor and death before the gates of Antioch and behind the gates of Jerusalem, Yusuf’s prayers had been anything but constant. He said the words and performed the motions, but in the sanctuary of his mind, his certainty in Allah had turned to questions, his prayers had turned to bargains.

“Performing the actions is not constancy,” Yusuf had told Nicolò after their morning prayers, the next day.

By the time they were spiraling in on each other, nearly a year after they’d left Jerusalem behind, drawing closer and touching more, Yusuf’s prayers were split down the middle, half begging Allah for the wherewithal to resist the temptation Nicolò presented, half bargaining for the right to touch, to take what Yusuf knew to be his for the taking. He had reduced his prayers to twice a day, citing Sicily as the reason, where he could barely pass for a Greek trader as it was without stopping in his work during the middle of the day to pray towards Mekka. I will give half my week’s earnings to the poor, Yusuf thought as he spoke his evening prayers, only for a kiss. Allah would not begrudge me one kiss, would he?

One kiss from a Christian priest, his conscience reminded him.

But then Nicolò returned to their cottage, midway through Yusuf’s evening bargain with his God, smiled and said, “Don’t let me interrupt you,” when Yusuf got up to welcome him.

“I don’t think I can keep praying,” Yusuf said hoarsely.

“No?” Nicolò asked. His own prayers had been sporadic, recently, or perhaps he had just prayed when Yusuf was not watching him, out on the fishing boat he worked on these days while Yusuf worked as a potter.

Nicolò’s shoulders were broad and tanned from the work, his eyes bright from the exercise, the fresh air, from his happiness at coming home to Yusuf, and Yusuf was helpless.

“Tell me to stop and I will,” he said, “but I can’t stop myself anymore.”

He stepped closer to Nicolò, his hand came up to cup Nicoló’s cheek as softly as he was able, and he pressed their lips together for no more than a breath.

Nicolò’s eyes remained closed long after Yusuf pulled away. When he spoke, he sounded strange, as if he was strangled by his own want. “If we don’t die, God can’t punish us,” he said.

“It has been punishment enough to not touch you,” Yusuf said, aware his voice had gone deep and scratchy

“Covetousness is a sin,” Nicolò said, but it was barely a whisper, his eyes trained on Yusuf’s mouth.

“My only sin is that I love you more than God,” Yusuf told him, and nothing could have stopped them after that.

For years after that – decades – longer than Yusuf cares to admit, they had been soft with each other. Gentle. Reverent. How else were you supposed to touch the man who had killed you for the first time? How else were you supposed to show him you loved him more than you had thought you were capable of loving?

When they take each other to bed, it is a symphony of softness. They touch only to stroke, to pet, to tickle; they kiss slowly and for hours; they go slow.

In Constantinople, things change.

The sack of Constantinople is enough to put any man off religion, even one as pious as Nico (as he lets Yusuf call him by then). Yusuf knows he’s struggled, since they met, with his faith and its strictures. Where Yusuf shed the rigidity of his religion the moment he first took Nico in his arms, retaining only a vague sort of notion of a God he could respect, a God he could bargain and chat with when he feels the need, a God he will occasionally pray to when he feels the need but whose rules he no longer feels beholden to, Nico has oscillated back and forth on a sliding scale of guilt.

In his good-humored moments, he has said that guilt is what makes a Catholic and Yusuf should not read too much into it; in his deeper moods, usually after attending a church service in whatever town they’re living in, he will sit by the window, staring out at the sky, not letting Yusuf near him.

But in Constantinople, they lose sight of each other in the mess of it all.

They haven’t been separate since Jerusalem, Yusuf realizes in the midst of his panic. When they’d fought, since then, it had been together. They have traced and retraced the steps between Italy and Jerusalem again when more Crusades followed the first, but they had done it side by side with the goal of minimizing the death toll.

They have sometimes taken different jobs in peacetime, but he’d always known where Nico was, he’d always been able to find him, always known Nico would return to wherever they currently called home at the end of the day.

The rising tide of panic chokes Yusuf as the Crusaders attack indiscriminately and the city fails to defend itself. Nico is gone, swept away by the opposing tides of attackers and civilians, and Yusuf knows he took an arrow to the gut at some point but he doesn’t know how much time he lost and where to search next.

What would Nico do, he asks himself.

He spends the next ten hours helping civilians escape the city.

His hands are on his task, but his eyes are always searching, panning the crowd for Nico’s bright eyes and broad hands.

When he can find none more to save, when the smell of smoke has gone from a faint worry to an acute threat, Yusuf returns to their house for lack of other options. They’ve been here two years, a heartbeat by their standards, but the slightly crooked windowsill at the front still makes Yusuf’s heart clench. Seven hundred thirty days are still a lot of days to return to a certain place, to expect a person behind a certain door, to make that place a home.

The room is dark and empty when he enters it, the fireplace cold and burned-out.

“Yusuf,” Nico says in the dark.

Yusuf has not remained Yusuf since they’ve met; he’s been Josef in the Holy Roman Empire, Giuseppe in Genova, which Nico loved. But for an unfortunate two months in Nuremburg, the locals had nicknamed him ‘Sepp’, and ever since, Nico has banished any name but his true one when they are alone.

Right now, he could call Yusuf anything he wants.

Yusuf sags against the door in relief. “I’ve been looking for you for hours,” he says.

Nico moves, then, sudden and harsh and in Yusuf’s personal space, arms bracketing either side of Yusuf’s head. “You went down,” he says. “You were gone and I didn’t see you come back up.”

“I came back up,” Yusuf says stupidly.

Nico’s kiss is unlike any kiss Yusuf has had before, harsh and biting and pressing Yusuf’s head back into the wood of the door. He knows, distantly, that he had kissed others, even other men, before Nico came into his life, but if the last hundred years had not erased their memory from his lips, Nico does so now.

His hands are rough, pulling at Yusuf’s smoke-stained clothes, ripping where they don’t give fast enough. His grip on Yusuf’s hip is a vise. The skin stains under his hands, bruised, and heals immediately.

Nico moans at the sight.

He bites into Yusuf’s neck, and Yusuf knows he is feeling pain, but it is sharp and bright and so good he gasps with it. The toothmarks fade instantly and Nico laves over the spot with his tongue. Yusuf’s head tips back and Nico presses his advantage, shoves a thigh between Yusuf’s legs.

The pressure awakens nerve endings Yusuf had been ignoring, reminds him how arousing it is that Nico, his sweet Nicolò, is this untethered, ravenous man, pressing sucking kisses down the arch of his collarbone only to watch his marks vanish.

He bucks up against Nico, and Nico’s grip on his hips tightens.

Nico swears in Genovese, all mother-of-god and sweet-saints-preserve-me, and Yusuf wants to laugh at the incongruity of his altar-boy curses and the heady scent of sweat, blood and arousal thick between them, but he can’t, because Nico has stolen his breath away with the way he’s hoisted Yusuf up to wrap his legs around Nico’s waist, so Nico can continue to worry at Yusuf’s throat with his teeth, but his hand can inch around to press dry, rough fingers against the passage into Yusuf’s body.

The dust and soot of the town center is still layered in Yusuf’s hair. Sweat has layered heavily at the small of his back, under his arms, in the backs of his knees. He can smell himself and it is not pleasant; he has never let Nico touch him like this without feeling clean enough to be presentable. But Nico doesn’t seem deterred by the state he’s in, blunt fingers skimming over Yusuf’s hole.

In fact, he groans as if mortally wounded when his first finger slips in dry, pulls back to drop Yusuf to the floor, to spin him around and blanket his back as he shoves his fingers deep into his own mouth, perfunctory and sloppy, just wet enough to not tear Yusuf open when they return to his ass. Yusuf crosses his arms against the wall and leans into them, overwhelmed, knees locked against the rough push of Nico inside him.

“Can I have you,” Nico says, and it’s not quite a question, but it’s also not not a question.

Yusuf agrees in most of the languages he knows, garbled against his own wrists on the rough wood of their door, feeling like his body is about to burst into flames.

Nico’s cock spears him open and it burns, it burns it burns it burns until it doesn’t, until Nico’s resting, plastered against Yusuf’s sweat-soaked back, until Yusuf is shivering with the fullness, knees shaking and locking to keep steady as Nico drags out of him, skin sliding roughly against skin.

The ache never precisely stops, but Nico’s aim is impeccable and Yusuf is lost in a maelstrom of burn-hurt-GOOD-ache-sweetness that is unrelenting in its effort to drive him to his knees. His cock is throbbing, he realizes distantly, secondary to the spear of Nico within him, pushing him up onto his toes and down onto his heels over and over again, splinters lodging themselves in his arms from rubbing against the door and being spat back out again.

“Nico,” he gasps out over the pounding of his own hearbeat, “Nicolò.”

Nicolò is as unrelenting as the sea, as the wind, as the desert that first brought them together, harsh and sharp and so encompassing that Yusuf is lost within him. He uses his grip on Yusuf’s hips to shift him how he wants him, as if Yusuf weighs no more than a feather to him, as if Yusuf is his to do with as he pleases, and he is, he is, he is, it is the soft card of Nicolò’s thumb across the fading bruise left by his hand that sends Yusuf careening, untouched, over the edge, pleasure slopping over like foam on a mug of beer, thick pulses of his come shooting against the door as pleasure tightens and slackens his muscles.

Nico groans out a wordless, animal noise against his shoulder as he, too, succumbs. Yusuf’s knees give out halfway through and they sink to the floor, separating, Nico still spurting heavily against Yusuf’s hole, all over his ass.

Yusuf uses the last of his energy to turn around, back heavy against the door, back of his head thunking back against it. He might be getting come in his hair, but he’s covered in so much dirt and sweat and come that it hardly matters.

“Did I hurt you?” Nico asks. His eyes have gone sweet again.

“Yes,” Yusuf tells him. “I loved it.”

“I love you,” Nico says. “I was so scared. Don’t go where I can’t follow.”

“Never, habibi,” Yusuf tells him, cupping Nico’s face in his hands, soft as ever. “Never.”

“The city is burning,” Nico points out. “Last I saw.”

“We should leave,” Yusuf agrees.

“Soon,” Nico says, and leans forward until their foreheads rest together gently.

The gentleness does not leave them; Yusuf never does quite learn to be rough with Nicky in return, but as the years go by, he learns he can turn his softness into cruelty, if he just makes it last long enough. And if it never quite stops feeling like worship, being with Nicky, no matter what they might be doing to each other, well, that is between them.