It is 1100, less than a year since they have killed each other, but many months since they have tried.
“Tell me,” Yusuf says, “do you miss your wife?”
Nicolo snorts. “I never took a wife.”
“No?” He wags a cheeky finger at Nicolo. “But you-- you partook in delights of the flesh.”
“Yes, of course.”
Yusuf smacks his thigh and laughs. “I knew it! A pretty face like yours; surely women were lining the streets for a chance with you.”
He wills himself not to break into gooseflesh at the notion of Yusuf calling him pretty . Normally he would bristle at such an effeminate descriptive, but the way Yusuf says it is pure compliment, complete honesty, the way he says anything. It is because of this honesty that Nicolo cannot lie.
“They may have,” Nicolo admits, “but I never had eyes for the women.”
Yusuf squints for a moment as the sentence lands, and then the tiles click into place and his eyes go round as saucers.
“Oh,” he says. “Oh."
“Don’t worry,” Nicolo tells him, “I’m not about to ravage you in your sleep. You’re perfectly safe.”
A deep frown passes over Yusuf’s face like a cloud.
“Why would I think such a thing of you? I trust you with my life. Even the ones you took,” he adds, because he can. Because they have to make light of it, now that the thought of seeing the other one split open turns their stomachs.
Nicolo settles into himself. At least he is not judged. Maybe he had hoped - or even assumed, from the way he occasionally stared just a second too long - that Yusuf had similar feelings. But there is no dagger jutting from his ribs, no shame in Yusuf’s countenance, and for that he is grateful.
It is 1102, and Nicolo di Genova is in love.
If he’s honest, he’s been in love since the beginning, but time doesn’t dim his infatuation, only feeds it, lets it unfold into something vast and widespread. It is a many-limbed monster that claws behind his ribs and takes his breath away every chance it can get - and there are many chances.
When Yusuf brings him fresh bread from the market. When Yusuf offers him his blanket on a particularly chilly evening. When Yusuf patiently teaches him Arabic.
When Yusuf shares his bed.
It happens by accident, on a night filled with too much drink and laughter that ends with them sprawled together and falling asleep almost on top of one another. Somewhere in the night, Yusuf’s arm slinks around his waist, and Nicolo is far too in his cups to reflect on what a bad idea it would be to slide his fingers through Yusuf’s, so he does. Yusuf squeezes back and breathes out heavily, lips warm at the back of his neck.
The next morning he looks so completely shamefaced Nicolo could cry.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean to -”
Nicolo shakes his head gently, tries to laugh it off, say it was fine, but Yusuf insists on pushing.
“I would never -- I wouldn’t toy with your heart like that.”
The words are ice in his veins. He wishes Yusuf had punched him in the gut instead.
“I will not take your pity.” Nicolo turns away from him. “And don’t pretend to know my heart.”
He can feel Yusuf’s eyes on him, his gaze pressing on him like a new bruise.
“I know your heart like you know mine, Nicolo. You are my greatest -- my only --” He fumbles for words without knowing how each one stabs. “I love you more than I know how to speak it.”
Try , Nicolo thinks, even though he knows it’s unfair.
“I wish I could give you this,” Yusuf says wretchedly. He reaches for Nicolo’s hand. Nicolo wants to touch him again so very badly.
Instead he draws away, keeping his eyes fixed to the floor.
“We should not share a bed again,” Nicolo says, and his heart breaks.
It is 1105, and they have just been murdered. It is the first time they have died outside of each other’s hands, and it is awful. Nicolo is the slowest to revive, and when he awakes, Yusuf is crouched over his body, his bloodstained face cut through with tears.
His hands hover over his face, not quite touching. “Nicolo?”
Nicolo thinks the sound of his name in Yusuf’s mouth could pull him back from any death. He tries to say so, but his throat is still busy sealing itself back together. He coughs instead, and Yusuf weeps. They wrap their arms around each other, shaking. They say nothing, but every second they embrace says what a million words never could
That night, Yusuf comes to Nicolo’s bedchamber. He stands in the doorway, motionless, until Nicolo waves him in and peels back the covers. Yusuf slips in beside him, wraps an arm tight around his waist, and Nicolo decides that no matter what, he gets to keep this. Even if it is only this, he will hold onto it forever and kill anyone who tries to take it.
They never sleep apart again.
It is 1107, and he has found a new sister ( chị nuôi , she gently corrects him). She teaches him how to properly string a bow (he thought he’d been doing right, but she is quick to tell him the seven ways he hasn’t), how to catch a fish with his hands, and how to stay the pain of his heart.
The last lesson is the most important, and therefore the most difficult.
“You love him,” Quynh says matter-of-factly. They are picking wildflowers because they can, because sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself that you can hold something in your hands without making it bleed.
“I do,” Nicolo replies. There is no point in hiding secrets from her. Not that he’s doing a very good job of hiding things.
“And he loves you,” she continues.
“He does, but not-- not in that way. Not how--”
“How I love Andromache?”
Nicolo chuckles. “No one can love anyone the way you love Andromache.”
“Oh? And how do I love her?”
“Like death,” Nicolo answers, and Quynh thinks on this a moment.
“Yes,” she muses, “I suppose I do. But you are trying to distract me, and you know that won’t work.”
“No, it won’t,” Nicolo agrees miserably.
“Sweet boy,” Quynh says, “I wish he could see how he looks at you.”
Nicolo arches an eyebrow. “How does he look at me?”
Quynh raises a brow back, perfectly arched and perfectly judgmental.
“Like you are a drop of water in the desert. You know he does.” Nicolo opens his mouth to protest but she raises a hand. “He looks at you like you are a blade and he is a wound. He looks at you,” she says with great emphasis, “like he wants to fuck you.”
Nicolo blushes twenty shades of red. “He does not--”
“He does. He just doesn’t know what to do with it.”
What a peculiar, dreadful kind of torture, Nicolo thinks.
“Yes, it is.” Quynh reads his thoughts as easily as she notches arrows. “Be patient with him, Niko. In many ways, he is just as heartsick as you.”
She tips up on her toes to kiss his cheek. Then she leans back and slides a flower into his hair.
“There,” she says, “beautiful.”
“He certainly is,” says a smiling voice. Yusuf approaches them with heavy footfalls, a large deer carcass strung over his bare shoulders. Sweat trickles from his collarbones to his stomach. Nicolo thinks he might die.
“You’ll just come back again,” Quynh whispers in his ear. Nicolo swats at her, and Yusuf winks.
Nicolo is definitely going to die.
It is still 1107, and Nicolo is just trying to sleep.
“Nicolo. Nicolo, destati.”
He’s awake, of course he’s awake. He’s no longer able to sleep properly unless Yusuf’s arms are around him -- like it isn’t the most exquisite torture in the universe, but he allowed himself this because at heart, Nicolo di Genova thinks he deserves torture.
God would not have sent him Yusuf al-Kaysani if he did not want Nicolo to be tortured.
They’d spent the evening drinking more than their fill and glutting themselves on venison. Wine-drunk and dreamy, Yusuf had spent the meal looking at Nicolo like he wanted to touch all the secret places that light him up, and it was the most exquisite agony. At some point, he’d gone to relieve himself and Andromache had smiled at Nicolo with the sort of patient exasperation he’d grown accustomed to from her.
“Let me take care of this,” she’d said, and Nicolo had no idea what that meant, but he knew better than to ask. It was very clear to him that if Andromache the Scythian said she was going to take care of something, she was, and only a fool would question her.
She’d handed him her skin of wine then, and touched his shoulder with her fist.
“Have a little faith, Nik.”
Now Yusuf is the one touching his shoulder, so painstakingly gentle that it hurts. Nicolo squints in the dark and lifts himself onto one elbow.
“What is it?”
His vision has not quite adjusted to the dimness of the cabin, but he years Yusuf sniffle and he swears he sees something glint in the corner of his eye, just for a second. Yusuf sniffs again.
“Nicolo,” he whispers, and takes his hands. Well. This is new.
“Nicolo,” he says again, and of all the times Yusuf has said his name over the years, the breathless way he says it now is so different that Nicolo feels his heart thump against his ribs.
“I think I have been very foolish,” Yusuf confesses, and yes, those are definitely tears. “I was… confused. Can you forgive me?”
Nicolo shakes his head. “I’m not sure what I need to forgive you for, my friend.”
“That!” Yusuf seizes upon the word with a hiss. “Friend. Forgive me for calling you friend, when--” He swallows past a knot in his throat. “When you are so much more.”
Yusuf is stroking his thumbs over the backs of Nicolo’s hands, making his skin shiver with every brush. It makes him more certain than ever that this must be a dream. He never wants to wake up.
“Yusuf.” His voice cracks. “What are you--”
“Can I kiss you?”
Perhaps this is not a dream, because in every dream that Nicolo’s ever had, Yusuf has never needed to ask. Here, now, Yusuf is waiting. His hands shake.
“I - I don’t know what I will feel. I wish I could promise you that. Will you still let me try?”
Nicolo wants to ask why, he wants to thump his fists against Yusuf’s chest and scream how dare you, you wait this long and still you don’t know? He wants to tell Yusuf that he is not an experiment and that his heart does not deserve such a beating from someone he loves more than his own life.
But he also wants to kiss Yusuf al-Kaysani until he forgets his own name.
So he says, “Yes.”
Yusuf makes a shaky, broken sound and licks his lips. Unconscious gesture or no, it floods Nicolo with warmth. He trembles as Yusuf leans in, letting his eyes drift close.
It is a chaste, safe kiss. Nicolo stays very still. Yusuf doesn’t do much -- this is the first time he has kissed a man and he hasn’t quite yet realized that the mechanics are entirely the same. Nicolo tilts his head just a little, angling the kiss and letting the tip of his nose brush Yusuf’s cheek and oh .
Yusuf pulls away as if burned, and indeed, his eyes are filled with fire. Nicolo does not move.
It is very rare to know the exact moment your soulmate realizes they are in love with you, but Nicolo will remember Yusuf’s face in this second for a million years to come.
He kisses him again, tenderly taking Nicolo’s face between his hands. He kisses him with abandon, learning the secret softness inside his mouth, kisses him wetly and openly without shame. Between his kisses, because he is still Yusuf, words bubble out of him, broken bits of poetry and wild declaration.
“I have been such a fool, my love… I’m sorry… you are so beautiful…” He grabs wildly at Nicolo’s hand, holding it to his breast. “do you feel how my heart races…” (he does) “I did not know… your touch is… Nicolo…”
Distantly, he is aware he is crying, which is strange, because he has never been happier in his life.
Nicolo swallows all his words up, praise and confession and apology alike, he drinks them like wine, licks them from Yusuf’s eager mouth. Yusuf is a restless spirit of desire, carding fingers through his hair, angling just so so he can go deeper, hungrier. He kisses Nicolo with adoration and humility, reckless in his want and need to learn all he had missed for eight lonely years.
Eight years , Nicolo thinks distantly, eight years of waiting .
“I would have waited eight hundred,” he says around Yusuf’s tongue.
Yusuf pulls back - only a little, and quirks his mouth. “Say again?”
Suddenly it is imperative that Yusuf know this, know it in the marrow of his bones.
“I would have waited eight hundred years for your kiss. I would have waited forever.”
Yusuf kisses him instantly, a compulsion of reassurance.
“You will never wait for a moment, Nicolo. Never again.”
He laughs and licks his lips, this time a completely conscious gesture. “In fact,” he knocks their foreheads together, “I promise to kiss you at least five times a day for the next eight hundred years.”
Nicolo laughs, a joyful thing. “And after that?”
Yusuf’s hand slides to his waist, the touch still just a little hesitant. He looks up at Nicolo from under his lashes, asking permission. Nicolo, of course, gives it, and Yusuf, emboldened, squeezes his hip, letting his fingers splay.
“After that, I will have to make love to you five times a day.”
Nicolo pouts. “I will have to wait eight hundred years for you to make love to me?” He would, he really would.
Yusuf nestles himself closer to Nicolo’s body, a warm line of heat lighting him up in every place they touch.
“No,” he murmurs, “I will begin with making love to you at least ten times a day. There is much lost time to account for.”
“No time is lost when I am with you.” He can feel Yusuf flush under his fingertips at such praise.
“I mean it,” he says. “I would have been content with your friendship always, as long as you were with me.”
Yusuf settles close next to him and steals another kiss. “Where else would I go? You are the other side of my heart.”
Nicolo cannot help but laugh.
“What?” Yusuf asks.
“You call me the other side of your heart, and you never thought to kiss me once?”
Yusuf grins, wide and gorgeous and endearingly lopsided.
“I have been told,” he replies, “that I am a complete fucking idiot.”