The call came so long ago.
The Pope said that the Christian world would be forever touched by what this campaign would wrought, that God himself would smile down on the stirring of their hearts. “Deus vult,” rippled across a thousand tongues, “God wants.” Nicoló, a priest ready to prove his devotion to God, took these Latin words into his heart, breathed them in until he believed them without fault. This is what he had been taught, what he had been told to do. He could rescue the Holy Land and its City from the grasp of the heathens. It was a noble pursuit. It was what God wanted. His heart thrummed with the sentiment.
Now, three years and a path of blood carved in their wake, Nicoló’s heart barely beats at all. He waits, one moment to the next, want, want, want, bounding through his head. The Muslims cut them down so easily, so simply, how could God want this, they have lost so many already and Jerusalem is not even in sight. Arqa refuses to fall and they are stretched so thin.
Nicoló has evaded death’s snare this long, but he has been sliced, burned, and bloodied his fair share; everyday he watches his fellow soldiers fall and burns with hate for the Muslims who massacre them in multitudes. He wonders, When will God come to take me?
As Nicoló stumbles through the scores of wounded and dying on a nameless field years into this Crusade of theirs, his own side red and wet, he hears a voice whisper, “Est caedem.” He turns, but finds no one capable of doing anything but choking on their own blood.
He returns to his journey through the dead, thinking, Yes. It is a bloodbath.
That night, he dreams of dark eyes and a deep voice mumbling in a language he doesn’t know, but has heard on the lips of a thousand dying men by now. The man, the hostis, the enemy, casts his eyes up to the heavens, and Nicoló catches glimpses of a woman’s fingers, the slice of a double-sided ax, and the tight release of a bowstring. He wakes, breathing hard, staring up at the same stars of his dreams.
The next day, when an arrow slices through his bicep, Nicoló bleeds and burns with the pain, but when he lifts his mail to check the damage, his skin is unmarked. He dismisses the nonexistent injury, sending a thanks to God for his aid, and returns to the furor, his sword balanced high.
Nicoló holds his wooden cross between his fingers tightly the night before the final assault on Jerusalem as he warms himself by one of the many fires surrounded by dirty and drunken men. They have been at siege for weeks, but Genoese sailors, his people, came with siege towers so that they can finally put an end to this. They have to hurry; more Muslims are coming. They strike the Holy City in the morning, either to set it alight as the Greeks did to Troy, or to set the fires of their own funeral pyres. Either way, it will be what God wants.
“That is, after all, what we’re here for, right?”
Nicoló’s head whips around from where it had been staring at Jerusalem’s walls to a chortling, heavy-set Frenchman across the fire who is speaking with a greasy, thin man. He speaks in misshapen Latin phrases (one of the few languages that many here can speak, though not always well; Nicoló, as a man groomed for the priesthood, knows how to make the syllables sing).
A Florentenian next to Nicoló drinks deeply from his tankard and sputters, “What, dying for God?”
The Frenchman cackles and continues in his thick accent, “Flocci non facio de domine. I don’t give a damn about God. I was promised gold, and Jerusalem shall give her bounty to me!”
The men around the fire shake their heads and laugh. A fine justification. They have all heard it so many times before. Gold, glory, and God were promised to them in this undertaking. Each man cares more for one than the others, but all will die to see their goal fulfilled.
The thick-bellied Frenchman turns to his friend, continuing their previous conversation, “So what do you fight for, Nivelo?”
The fellow, Nivelo, grins into the fire in a way that unsettles Nicoló, “Why, I fight so God will forgive my crimes.”
Nicoló is suddenly struck with curiosity, “What kind of crimes?”
Nivelo lifts his eyes to meet Nicoló’s, and smiles again, “Raping, raiding, pillaging, fighting, frightening helpless women and dickless men; all the things that God would smite me for-” he stands and gestures to the city in the distance, “-but now, I will turn my skills to God’s hand, and he will cleanse me! The Pope himself has said it!” Nivelo raises his cup in celebration, sloshing the ale left in it over the side.
Nicoló doesn’t toast the man’s declaration or even move a muscle. Suddenly, the air has become thick; the fire is quiet, all the chatter around it fading as the blood roars in his ears. He stares at the greasy man with narrowed eyes.
After watching Nicoló’s frozen face for half a beat too long, Nivelo shrugs and drags up his fellow Frenchman. They stagger away to look for more ale. All the men go back to joking and drinking their way through the night, but Nicoló watches the city and wonders if God is watching too.
When he closes his eyes, he dreams again. In his mind, there is another campfire, filled with laughter, wine, and the song of swords being sharpened. But instead of Nivelo’s shaggy, thin face illuminated by the campfire, there are dark eyes and an untamed beard. He wants to touch the soft lines of the man’s features, but when he goes to reach, the flames lick at his fingers, and he snaps awake.
In the early morning light, he glances at the city, and just knows who is waiting for him inside its walls.
He just won’t die.
They have been at it for hours, days, weeks. Ashes from Jerusalem’s burning walls are raining down on their heads. The screams of the dying occupants never end, their moans cascading through the air like an ever-present, tortured specter. Nicoló faces the dark eyed man of his dreams and grits his reforming teeth (the man had knocked more than a few out with the pommel of his scimitar mere moments ago). He feels his body rush to heal his other wounds, but he suspects that the slipping away sensation he feels is his intestines leaking out, so he doubts he will live long. God will resurrect him once again so that he can kill the enemy, this Muslim man; surely that is the purpose for all this re-given life.
Nicoló glares at the man across the sand, its golden luster stained by blood and shit and God knows what else. He gasps out, “Cessa, daemon,” as he keels over, “Cease, demon.”
The man, himself brought to his knees by another deep swipe of Nicoló’s sword, says in stilted syllables, “Daemon? No, you.”
Nicoló's eyes widen as he realizes that not only does this man know the barest hint of Latin, but he sees Nicoló as a monster. Funny, that these are the first words they speak to each other. Demons, they are. Daemones.
Every time they jolt awake, they slice and stab and tear and bleed and cut and kill. The sun rises and the moon sets and it seems as if they are caught in a dance of death that will never end. Monsters that never die, demons that never fade, wounds that never slay.
Once, when the dark eyed man pulls his scimitar again through his heart, laughter grips Nicoló as blood slips from his lips. The man’s brow furrows in confusion, but Nicoló seizes his face and presses it close to his own so he can drive a dagger into his neck and whisper, “Est caedem.”
The enemy’s dark eyes slide shut, and Nicoló laughs hollowly through his death and into his next rebirth.
Eventually they stop killing each other endlessly. It is obvious to them both that Jerusalem has well and truly fallen. Either they battle forever or retreat to their own people to rejoin the actual fight. Nicoló hesitates in making the choice; he is drawn to the dark eyed man, so much so that he almost fears ending this dance. The enemy takes the choice out of his hands. He cuts out Nicoló’s stomach and when the Crusader wakes, the enemy is gone.
On his journey back to Jerusalem (for they had wandered amazingly far in their cycle of death and rebirth), Nicoló discovers he dreams only of the warrior women, hair dark and eyes bright, not the shadowed gaze of his hostis. He feels a sharp tug in his ribs at the realization, but he dismisses it. He will see the daemon again. Of this there is no doubt. For now though, he is alone.
When he finally enters the Holy City, he has been dead by water deprivation twice and starvation once. As mad as he is with hunger and thirst, he cannot miss the shriveled husk of a city he has returned to.
He begs information and water off a passing knight and learns that when his people took Jerusalem, they killed the heathens within its walls, men, women, children, and all. The knight smirks as he recounts the tale, desperate to relive the cleansing glory that met the end of their struggle. Nicoló hands the waterskin back roughly and staggers away to wander the streets of Jerusalem. He stares at its bloodied and blackened buildings. He remembers the ceaseless ash and discordant screams that surrounded him as he grappled with his daemon. He wonders if God is watching now. Nicoló admits, as his nose fills with the heavy scent of the rotting and burning flesh, that he hopes he isn’t.
He whispers to himself, “Mergemus sanguine. We will drown in blood.”
The bells ring for mass somewhere to his left.
Nicoló is, as it turns out, right.
There are many battles after Jerusalem. Many of the men he had marched with returned home after the city was taken, their task considered done and their immortal soul safe in the eyes of God. He is one of the few who stay to defend the new kingdom, his bodily immortality weighing on his soul.
At first, Nicoló thought it was only the dark eyed man whose death-giving touch he could return from, but when he takes an arrow to the head and wakes again on the field of battle, he realizes that he is untouchable to everything now. Even as he aches with the memory of his sister’s soft golden hair, the sharp tang of his family’s lemons, and the thick frankincense of his village chapel, Nicoló knows that his life before has truly been burned away. Every time he slides a knife across his palm and watches the wound heal in an instant, he knows that God is watching him. He cannot return until he fulfills the divine task set before him. It is not his time yet.
So he fights on, his surety in their cause shaken by the taking of Jerusalem, but his certainty in God unwavering. He prays to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, trembling with unease as he clasps his fingers together. He wonders, as he fights wave after wave of different Muslim armies and shuffles between the Crusader states to keep his immortality secret, how the dark eyed man fairs. If he will see him again. If they will meet and dance through death and rebirth on some battlefield soon. If he will ever learn his name.
One day, Nicoló gets his answer.
At the Battle of Ager Sanguinis, the Field of Blood, years (perhaps more like decades; hard to tell when even aging seems to be lost in this immortality) after their first meeting, they lock eyes.
Nicoló, desperate to touch the one man who knows the taste of death just as he does, rushes to his enemy. His hostis does the same, climbing over corpses and dodging between weapons as he races to reach Nicoló, dark eyes wild and unforgiving.
When they finally meet, all rage and fire and fight, Nicoló thinks impossible thoughts and says, “Solum nos, semper.” Their blades sing against each other, “Only us, always.”
When they wander from the battle this time, they do not return.
He knows that they never will the second his hostis heaves awake from a blow to the head and opens his mouth to hesitantly (and somewhat incorrectly) ask, “What- what is your name?”
Nicoló (who had been holding his face to the sun for a moment’s peace as his sliced neck knitted itself closed) snaps his eyes open and turns to stare at his enemy. He searches the man’s eyes and finds honest, blunt curiosity, “I am Nicoló de Genova. You?”
The man stands and dusts himself off. When his gaze returns, his eyes are sparkling with something unnameable. Nicoló waits with bated breath, overwhelmingly anxious to know his enemy as something more than a bearded face and the rush of a dying breath.
Nicoló grins, a manic feeling of pleasure overtaking him, at knowing this name and this man and this demon that he is irrevocably tied to. He thinks, unbidden, Yusuf, quomodo insolitus… et pulcher. Yusuf, how strange… and how beautiful.
Yusuf squints at the battlefield not far off from them; Nicoló follows his eyes and realizes that the Crusaders of Antioch are losing. Badly. Roger of Salerno’s hulking, jeweled (much too gaudy and golden) cross standard has fallen, and the Crusader army has obviously been routed. Thousands of gleaming knights fall to Artuqid blades, an ocean of screams and shouts twisting through the air. Nicoló thinks back to the blackened walls of Jerusalem and isn’t sure what to feel. The air feels hot and tight around him, like when he stared into that cutthroat Nivelo’s eyes, but he also smells the copper of fresh blood, so strong it will waft for days, and feels as if he could wretch.
Then, a hand touches his arm. Nicoló turns from the massacre and drags his eyes to meet Yusuf’s gaze. A thousand thoughts cross it, a million questions and even more answers. Nicoló feels dizzy with it, but centered in a way he has never felt before. He nods, and together they turn from the bloodshed behind them and wander into the horizon.
They roam for weeks in the desert without direction, stopping in villages only occasionally. Neither speaks much at all, instead communicating with glances and touches that are always a half breath too short for Nicoló’s liking. The silence is not uncomfortable, but it also stretches out over their time together, consuming it. Nicoló realizes he has only really spoken to Yusuf, his once enemy and now consors, companion (friend feels too presumptuous and acquaintance doesn’t grasp the bond between them at all, so companion does well enough), through the bloodlust of battle. He begins to worry that Yusuf fears conversation because of this. The thought festers through the baking sun and starry nights until he softly mutters, “Linguam tuam non loquor. Sed meam loqueris. I do not speak your language. But you speak mine.”
Yusuf’s head flicks up almost immediately at the sound of Nicoló’s voice. His eyes dart as he considers the statement. He chews the inside of his cheek. Nicoló feels oddly endeared by the nervous tick. Finally, dark eyes meet his own, “Not… much.”
Nicoló’s palms start to sweat now that they have reached the part of the conversation he has anticipated most. He clears his throat and carefully asks, “Should we teach each other?”
The face of his companion screws up in confusion. These are obviously not words he’s heard before. Nicoló motions at his mouth, then points to Yusuf’s and back again, “Language, share?”
Finally, Yusuf recognizes the suggestion. He eagerly nods, and they begin to trade nouns, adjectives, and verbs in each other’s languages with wild abandon. Nicoló’s tongue traces the words of the Muslim heathens while Yusuf’s caresses the syllables of the Christian infidels, and each basks in the idea of understanding one another. The fire burns low and the dawn stretches its fingers across the sky, but they are utterly mesmerized by the sounds of one another.
While their collective vocabulary grows steadily, Nicoló struggles to find words that describe what Yusuf is, what the two of them are to each other. Especially since he feels oddly at peace in their new, wandering life.
They don’t kill each other. Much.
Occasionally, they will spar, swords and all, because what are injuries and pain in training when they will heal in time for the next blow? Only they can fight with this ferocity. Yusuf swipes at Nicoló’s limbs savagely, arching his scimitar like he’s always dancing on a curve, a technique the Crusader has never seen before, but eagerly absorbs with every glancing blow. In return, Nicoló wields his longsword with heavy strokes, heaving it over his head and stabbing from his gut, exploiting any opportunity Yusuf leaves open. Often, they will die three, four times a sparring session, their tactics honing each time.
At the end of one session, Yusuf holds his hand out and nods his sweat-slicked forehead at Nicoló’s sword. He hands it off, pressing the cool weight in his companion’s hands. Yusuf considers it for a moment, then motions through the air with it as he would his scimitar. Finally, he laughs in that deep, rumbling way of his, hands back the longsword, and says in vastly improving Latin, “I thought it heavier, with how you use it.”
Nicoló smiles slyly. He replies in more muddled Arabic, “Any weapon can feel heavy, if you bring it down hard enough.”
Yusuf rubs at his freshly healed shoulder and gazes into Nicoló’s eyes before replying in a teasing voice, “Vero, scio. Yes, I know.”
However, for all their deathly sparring, Nicoló has no true urge to turn his longsword against Yusuf. Even when he catches his consors praying, an act which should inflame his Crusader blood, Nicoló finds himself only struck still in reverence. He watches the line of Yusuf’s back as he goes through the motions, lingers on the untamed curls of his hair as they catch the sun, and admires the quiet passion that overtakes his face as he murmurs Arabic Nicoló only understands scraps of. When Yusuf rises, Nicoló returns to whatever he is supposed to be doing, desperate to hide his consuming fascination. Sometimes, he thinks he feels dark eyes on him as he clutches his wooden cross and picks his way through his own prayers, but when he opens his green grey eyes, there is nothing; surely the feeling is imagined.
Nicoló finds out some of the things that make up this undying companion of his. That he was a merchant once, that he speaks many languages besides Latin with varying ability (Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Berber, even some Hebrew), that he knows how to barter easily, armed with a sharp tongue and easy disposition.
He discovers little bits of Yusuf that he keeps close to his heart, thrumming in his ribcage. That he loves the taste of peaches so much it’s sinful, that he speaks with the timber of a true poet in every language he knows effortlessly, that he sometimes stares up into the night sky and creates his own constellations. That he draws on anything he can. Usually, it is on scraps of paper he snatches in every town they visit with pieces of charcoal plucked from their fire, but he also draws in the sand with his fingers or upon walls with salvaged paint. Every surface is a canvas, waiting to be kissed by Yusuf’s imagination. There are suns and moons, fires and ashes, swords and flowers, hands and eyes.
One day, when Nicoló wakes from a nap underneath a wilting olive tree, he realizes that he is also on the list of Yusuf’s muses. He had expected to find his companion roasting their dinner, but instead he finds Yusuf with his fingers furiously dancing along a page, his eyes flicking between Nicoló’s body and the paper. When Yusuf realizes his muse has awoken, he grins sheepishly and rubs his blackened fingertips together while stuffing his art into his bag (later, Nicoló will pull the sketch out, overwhelmed by curiosity, and find an image of himself that is all things serene and dozing, hair soft and lashes long. He will then carefully tuck it away and watch the sleepy rise of Yusuf's chest for entirely too long).
Then, when they attach themselves to a caravan shuttling spice between Acre and Damascus as hired swords, Nicoló realizes something else, a truth he never expected. As much as he and Yusuf are used to the sound of each other’s death rattle, the sight of someone else dealing the killing blow is enough to curdle their blood. Nicoló learns this when a raid strikes in the middle of the night, the nightwatch killed silently so the bandits come upon them without warning. The immortals wake to blood choked shouts and the clang of metal. They rush out to defend, clad only in tunics and breeches; amidst the frenzy, Yusuf scoffs at the impertinence of the raiders for interrupting their sleep and Nicoló fondly shakes his head.
They separate to keep the bandits from the wagons as much as possible. There is only the light of the moon and a few flickering fires to light their way, so the battle drags on and they are pulled further apart. Nicoló hacks his longsword through the torso of one raider and goes to run at another one when he hears an anguished cry. It is startlingly familiar; he has heard that shout a thousand times. He whips his head around, eyes frantically scanning the darkened landscape for Yusuf, the sharpness of his cry echoing in his head.
He is caught between three men near a wagon beginning to catch fire, his right side slick with blood and his scimitar held loosely between his fingers as he rushes to meet the blows of his assailants. One raider behind Yusuf cuts the back of his calves so he is forced to fall to his knees with another low cry. Then, the raider’s sword pierces straight through Yusuf’s back, snagging on the divot of his vertebrae.
Suddenly, Nicoló sees red, the air thick and hot around him. He tightens his hold on his sword and bounds toward the group faster than he has ever moved in battle. When he finally reaches them, he roars, “Ne, non eum!” He slashes his way through his foes, blood soaking the ground as he slits necks and slices arteries and severs limbs. When it ends, he falls and holds his hand to the chest of his consors, whispering, “No, not him.”
Yusuf surges awake a moment later, hand already reaching for his scimitar and blood itching for a fight, but he finds Nicoló’s eyes in the light of the wagon’s now raging fire and calms almost immediately. Their hands intertwine against Yusuf’s chest, quiet overtaking them as the rest of the men scramble to salvage what they can from the halfway successful raid. But for the two immortals, nothing is more important in this moment than meeting each other’s eyes and drinking in the surety of life there.
A little later, they slip away from the caravan in the chaos, wandering into the desert to find a new job and a new direction (too many had probably seen Yusuf fall; besides, the both of them are covered in enough blood to appear suspect). They walk a little closer after than they did before. Sometimes, Nicoló thinks he can feel their fingers reaching out to touch, unbidden. He dismisses the feeling as a mirage of the heat.
They continue together, weaving through the years and forging their companionship one smile and one learned word at a time. He watches Yusuf pick his way through the verb tenses of Latin and Genoese with ease, Nicoló’s heart glowing a little brighter with every success. His consors grows even deadlier in a fight (they have stopped killing each other when they spar, though, agreeing silently that their tolerance for seeing each others’ blood has greatly lessened). Yusuf teaches him how to spice his food and transform the blocks of his Latin alphabet into the flourishes of the Arabic one. He learns that this dark eyed man is full of sweetness and passion, ready to draw blood and craft soliloquies in the same breath. The many sides of Yusuf continue to fascinate Nicoló to no end.
They visit cities across the Levant and Nicoló grows ever further from his once firm belief that the people here are heathens. He wanders through hundreds of twisting alleyways, stopping to break bread with withered beggars, play silly street games with children, and watch the careful, wrinkled fingers of old women as they craft baklava and ma’amoul. He gazes at vast libraries and chaotic markets, chatting neighbors and petty ruffians, richly spiced food and intricate art. So great and yet so ordinary, so close to his own home in so many ways. He thinks, How could I have ever thought this less than? Yusuf tugs at his arm when he stops to stare (and stew in his ever growing guilt) and leads him through what appears to be an endless stream of wonders with a soft touch and knowing eyes.
It is a life that Nicoló feels himself settling into, and the thought tugs at that old spot in his ribcage, creating an ache that won’t heal. It itches at him, filling the space between him and Yusuf full of things unsaid. The feeling rises and rises and then, one night, it shatters just a bit.
“Te somniavi,” Nicoló whispers when he knows that Yusuf hovers between awake and asleep, “I have dreamt of you.”
He means it in that he dreamt of Yusuf just as they both still dream of women full of raven hair and piercing eyes that fight wars a world away. But he knows, so deeply, that he means it another way. He means that he has been dreaming of just Yusuf, how he breathes and glances and moves and what it feels like when their gazes touch and the odium, the hate and the certamen, the fight that once filled his blood fades into a whisper of a feeling he can't quite name.
It feels like Nicoló’s dreaming even when he is awake, caught still by the heady touch of Yusuf’s dark eyes and the tempting draw of his skin. There is so much want that Nicoló thinks he will drown in it. When he stares at the stars, Nicoló finds himself wanting to see them through Yusuf’s eyes again; when he places his fingertips to the heat of the fire, he wants to press them along Yusuf’s neck, feather-light and trembling; when he plunges his hands into the scant water they find on their journey, he wishes that Yusuf would take his palms in hand and cleanse them of all their grime.
Most of all, he finds himself consumed by the sound of Yusuf’s breathing; he never thought that such a simple thing could be so enormous, but whenever he hears the rush of his companion’s lungs, Nicoló feels as if he could fly.
It is in these moments that he realizes he already has a word for how Yusuf makes him feel. He knows its letters, its syllables, its edges. He traces it in his mind, over and over, unsure, unready. So he speaks words that he thinks say just enough when Yusuf is flooded with the same uncertainty of waking and dreaming that now dominates Nicoló’s life. When Yusuf turns his head towards him and smiles so wide it brightens his whole face, Nicoló thinks this strange, spectacular man understands all that he says and cannot say. In the space of that one smile, Nicoló’s heart is broken and remade. The word for this spins in his head, throwing itself to the tip of his tongue, easing its way through his lips, but he turns back to the stars and forces it into silence.
He listens to Yusuf’s breathing slip into sleep and thinks, amo, amo, amo, amo te, I love, I love, I love, I love you.
Nicoló doesn’t like Constantinople. It’s the closest they have come to Europe, and while the thought of being so close to what was once home should be comforting, as Nicoló dodges a thrown tankard and takes a punch to the gut, he thinks that Constantinople is actually utter shit.
“Faex!” He hears burst from Yusuf’s lips as his companion kicks at the knees of a much larger man. He spares a moment to smile at Yusuf’s powerful fists and crinkled eyes before returning to his brawl in the middle of the tavern.
Apparently, tensions between Christians and Muslims had grown even more heated in recent months within Constantinople’s walls. But how were Yusuf and Nicoló supposed to know? The Crusader states and the rest of the Levant twisted themselves in knots constantly, shifting between peace and war, hate and acceptance. Beyond the odd whisper about the Leper King of Jerusalem or the curious and cloaked Hashishiyya, the immortals were hard pressed to care about the vapid and posturing politics of the region.
So when they sat down for a drink they weren’t expecting a brawl, but they got one nonetheless when a knight took issue with Yusuf’s wide smiles, rumbling laugh, and dark skin. The blond haired brute had risen with his friends to roughly pull Yusuf out of his seat, but Nicoló’s consors rewarded the act with a tankard to the face and they were off, Nicoló upending their table into half of the assembled knights.
They fight the Crusaders, burning in tandem hate and annoyance, cutting through livers and ripping through fascia, tearing apart this tavern and scaring away the rest of the patrons.
Nicoló grits his teeth as he chops at the hand of one decked in Anjou blue. He is confident that he and Yusuf will easily raze their way through these Crusader upstarts and ride away from Constantinople, their opinion of the city forever soured. Just as he begins to envision their escape to a nestled grove of trees or a quiet cliffside by the sea, he feels the thwack of something against his head. No, in his head. Blood rushes from the wound, slicking his shoulder and filling his eyes. The world deafens to a dull roar and he may hear screaming, but he can’t be sure. He falls onto a table, his body sagging from the weight of impending death. Fingers pull insistently at the nape of his neck, but his breath is already leaving him.
When Nicoló comes to, he is under the stars.
The next thing he recognizes is the feeling of someone clutching his hands tightly and pressing their lips to his fingers. Then, he hears a voice thick with tears brokenly moan, “Nicoló, suscita. Suscita!”
He knows that it is Yusuf, and the pain that adorns his companion’s words makes him ache to comfort and soothe, but Nicoló struggles to wade past the dullness of his senses and the sluggishness in his bones. Over and over, the cries come, “Nicoló, wake up. Wake up!”
Eventually, he manages to twitch his fingers just enough to halt the cries that have shifted to Arabic. Dark eyes snap open and rush to meet green grey ones. Yusuf appears almost mesmerized, his face speckled with blood and eyes brimming with a tearful shine. Nicoló becomes distantly aware of the ocean crashing near him and the slide of sand underneath his back, but those realizations fade against the enormity of dark eyes full of a thousand thoughts and a million questions and even more answers. He feels like he’s drowning. He feels like the whole world is caught between their heaving chests. He feels like if he moves at all, he will surely die and never rise again.
Then, Yusuf takes a hand from where it gripped Nicoló’s own and reaches for (the stars, Nicoló thinks, the moon, the world, everything that is goodness and happiness and kindness, Yusuf reaches for it all) the side of his head, smoothing the hair crusted with blood there.
He goes on to trail his fingertips, blackened by charcoal, along the edge of Nicoló’s cheekbone. They stroke down the bridge of his nose, ghost over his thin lips, and press, ever so softly, to the edge of his jaw. Yusuf looks into his very soul with those sparkling eyes of his and says, quietly, earnestly, lovingly, “Sum nihil sine te. I am nothing without you.”
In the next moment, he steals Nicoló’s breath entirely, never to give it back. Lips press against his own and the ocean crashes against the shore.
In the beginning, he thought that Yusuf was a demon God meant for him to kill, but now he knows better. Now, he has never felt more awake, his eyes never so open, his world never so clear, even while he loses himself in sensation and softness. As he meets Yusuf’s kiss, he finds that he can think of a thousand better names than daemon, but they’re still not enough. He doubts any word will ever match what he feels for this man, but he knows that he will search for one, in any language, forever. He mumbles everything he can think of between kisses, the sounds accompanied by the joyous thrumming of his heart, “Coniunx. Amans. Fatalis. Partner. Beloved. Fated.”
Their lips meet again and again, past words, past thought, past time. And as the moon shines down, Nicoló finds God in the hitch of Yusuf’s breath.
When Nicoló reaches into his soul, he can pull out a whole litany of names. Before his own, there was always, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancti. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He was a priest, after all (he doesn’t think he is one anymore); with every taste of Christ’s body and blood, he held those names close.
Now, deeper than all that, there is Yusuf. Nicoló’s blood sings with it. “Dice tibi nomen,” haunted their drawing of first blood. “Tell me your name,” Nicoló wanted to scream at the frightening, haunting, beautiful man before him. A few times he may have. The stain of all that death and rage has worn at the memory; he remembers dark eyes and ash and himself whispering about bloodbaths, but the rest has merged into an endless moment of rebirth.
In the aftermath, he watches Yusuf bathe in the small oasis they’ve found. Nicoló knows that his name will trace his life like no other. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit pale in comparison to this devotion, this worship, this certainty. He tries to imagine what this new path will mean, where it will take him, what languages it will use. He wonders how it has already changed his perspective on everything, but especially about the wars his people have subsumed this land in. How the surety of God’s want has worn away so that he now sees this fight for its wrongness. How he wonders if he will ever be able to remember his Crusading days without the pinch of guilt.
He also considers how the consuming want that once chafed at his heart is now so easily silenced by the mere glance of Yusuf’s dark eyes. How this man can be hostis and consors and coniunx all in one. How he wishes all the world could content themselves with easy love as they do.
But this is not the time for such thoughts. Yusuf is beckoning him into the water with an outstretched hand and a deep laugh; Nicoló cannot possibly deny such an invitation. He would go anywhere Yusuf led.
Nam is omnem et plus est. For he is all and he is more.