Nicolo makes his way along the path back to his home with Yusuf, just into the hills outside Bona. They have been settled here for nearly seven years at this point, and it is a happy home. He is happy.
They live far enough from their homelands that they are not at risk of being found, of questions being raised at their inability to age, but near enough in this seaport town to get news from both lands.
Nicolo has learned some rather important news today, news that he knows will change both of their lives. “Dinner smells wonderful,” he says as he enters the house.
“The fishing was good today,” answers Yusuf, stepping over to him and leaning in expectantly for a kiss.
Nicolo obliges with more than one as he hangs up his things. “And is that makroudh I smell also? You spoil me,” he adds when Yusuf winks at him.
“You are rather easy to spoil,” Yusuf teases.
When they are sitting down to dinner, Nicolo brings up the news he learned earlier that day. “Word in the city is that the newest Pope has ordered a second crusade,” says Nicolo. He hates to dampen the mood, but this is not the sort of information they can easily ignore.
Yusuf’s spoon halts in midair. “Another crusade?”
“The fall of Edessa was a heavy blow,” replies Nicolo. He has not sympathized with his former companions in many decades, but he does keep up with what news that he can. “They are calling for their soldiers to go to battle to win it back.”
“We do not fight those wars any longer,” says Yusuf. His voice is quieter now, more solemn, and Nicolo hates that his words made it so.
“True,” he says now. “But then, perhaps it is time to leave after all. It has been a while here in this city.” He’s thoughtful as they eat, thinking about what the future holds and what this means for them. Maybe they can search for the women in their dreams now. This making a home has been wonderful, but they do not die and they do not age. It makes Nicolo wonder if they are meant for a greater purpose.
They finish eating and wash the few dishes. Yusuf is still quiet, distracted somehow, and he does not respond to Nicolo’s touch.
“Yusuf,” tries Nicolo again, wrapping his arms around him from behind. “What has gotten in your head now? Come my love, kiss me while we’re young and free. Let the problems stay outside for another night.”
Yusuf tilts his head back and lets Nicolo kiss him, then suddenly he’s twisting in Nicolo’s arms and surging in for a deeper kiss, like he’s searching for something. He pulls away nearly as abruptly. “I need a walk,” he says.
“A...a walk?” That was not a kiss to quiet passions, thinks Nicolo in confusion.
“Yes. Yes, I need to...I need to clear my head for a moment,” says Yusuf. “You could make coffee?”
There is a catch in Yusuf’s voice that Nicolo nearly misses and he thinks he glimpses tears in Yusuf’s eyes. But he’s already nearly out the door.
“Of course,” says Nicolo. “Whatever you need. I’ll be here.” He watches as Yusuf closes the door behind him and the sound of footsteps fades away.
Nicolo waits for Yusuf to return from his walk.
He waits and he waits and he waits.
Yusuf doesn’t come home.
Nicolo begins his search for Yusuf in earnest after a week’s time. He searched that first day, thinking something had happened, perhaps his love was beset by bandits or soldiers, but there is no sign of him.
He goes to town the following morning, asks around at the places they frequent, perhaps someone saw something. There is news, though it devastates him. It does not appear that Yusuf was taken by force, but left of his own free will. He had purchased a waterskin, some food, and a covering to protect against the sun.
Several look at him as though they want to ask, want to know what happened to split them. Their life is not approved of by many, but after enough of their attackers ended up dead, their little town had grudgingly accepted that to know one was to know the other.
No one will ask him though. They might’ve asked Yusuf, who looks like he belongs and speaks the language with a natural accent, and understands the customs. Nicolo is still a foreigner, even after so many years.
He takes this information, this knowledge that his Yusuf has left him without a word, and he carries it with him as he goes back to their home.
Is it their home?
Perhaps it is just his home now.
He drinks for four days straight, possibly dies of alcohol poisoning at least once--it’s difficult to tell if he died or just passed out--and curses Yusuf’s name for hours on end.
Nicolo runs out of alcohol eventually, so he goes to sleep, resolved to get more when he wakes.
He dreams of the others for the first time in months. The warrior women are always difficult to kill, making dreams of them sporadic. It’s one of the reasons he and Yusuf stay in the same region, doing their best to make it easier to find them. The women seem more well-traveled and eventually they will meet.
In his dream, Yusuf is dying on the side of the road heading east. He’s not fighting back and this Nicolo does not understand. His Yusuf is the best fighter he knows. But in the dream, Yusuf does not pick up a weapon, he does not lift his hands to block a beating, he weeps and he dies and he does not rise from where he has fallen.
Nicolo wakes, confused and scared and still so angry, but he fills a pack with supplies and a clean set of clothes and he goes to look for his Yusuf.
He finds him after a long day’s journey, just as the sun first begins to tilt below the horizon. Yusuf is huddled against a tree and he shakes under Nicolo’s hand.
Nicolo was certain he knew how this moment would go. That he would yell a little and provoke Yusuf enough for him to yell back. He would demand to know what he was thinking, leaving like that without a word. Insist that Yusuf be man enough to at least tell him it’s over and kind enough to tell him why.
So he kneels beside him, places his hand on Yusuf’s shoulder, and says “Yusuf,” but gets no farther.
Yusuf twists and flings his arms around Nicolo’s neck and bursts into great gasping sobs.
It’s an unexpected reaction, to say the least. So he holds his love and he turns them so they are both sitting, Yusuf mostly in his lap. Nicolo strokes Yusuf’s hair and he whispers a mix of kind words and questions, “Hush mio caro, tell me what is wrong, why did you leave?”
“Do you love me?” asks Yusuf. His tears seem unstoppable, no matter what Nicolo tries. “Do you love me, Nicolo?”
“Of course I love you,” he answers. He has loved Yusuf for longer than even he knew, slow as he was to realize that in the early years.
“If you love me,” cries Yusuf, his hands grasping at Nicolo’s shirt, his eyes haunted, “if you love me, let the others kill me. Please, Nicolo, I can die a thousand more deaths, but I cannot bear another by your hand. Please Nico, please, promise me you will let the others kill me until it takes. Until this torment is ended and I am no longer a burden on your soul.”
Nicolo is so confused. Why does his Yusuf think that he would want him dead, worse that he would want to be the one to take his life if such a thing is even possible with either of them? “I could no sooner let another kill you then that I could kill you myself,” says Nicolo, his own eyes filling with tears. “My love, why do you think I would want such a thing?”
“The Pope,” begins Yusuf. “The Pope has ordered another crusade, you told me so. I know how much you love your God. I knew you would have to obey, to leave me.”
“I do love my God,” answers Nicolo. “I do not think He loves these men who use His name. And I would never leave you.”
“You said it was time to leave. With the news of the invaders, you said ‘perhaps it is finally time to leave’...I assumed…”
Nicolo kisses Yusuf’s forehead and pulls him in close, his fingers running through the soft curls of Yusuf’s hair as he gently shushes until Yusuf’s breathing is less shaky. “I’m so sorry for my lack of clarity. I meant that we should leave, that we should begin to search in turn for the warrior women in our dreams, instead of hoping they would find us. I do not wish to see you die at the hands of murderous armies.”
“No. Never. How can you think such a thing?”
Yusuf buries his face in Nicolo’s shirt and mumbles something. He gently pries and pulls until Yusuf is looking at him again. “Tell me what I did to make you think I would want to leave you and see you dead?”
“There were so many years of fighting and killing each other,” answers Yusuf amidst fresh tears. “And then you let me fuck you, and kiss you, and love you, so long as I still died, for a decade more.”
Nicolo swipes his thumb under Yusuf’s eyes, wiping away at tears that seem in danger of never ceasing. “And you told me I did not have to settle for a ghost.”
Yusuf’s words are so quiet, Nicolo can barely hear them. “So you settled for me. But now a new generation of soldiers comes, ones who will not wonder that you are not dead and have not aged. You can be free of me and my ghost.”
Has Yusuf thought this for all this time? Three decades have passed since that day and underneath it all, this fear has lurked beneath the surface. Words are not his forte, they never have been, but Nicolo prays for the language of the poets as he speaks. “I do not settle for you. I do not settle for your love or your touch or your kiss. I was blind and you made me see. I once grasped at the ghost of you, not knowing what I overlooked. My love, I do not settle for you. You inspire my love, you hold my heart in your hands. I aspire every day to be worthy of a moment of your attention, of an ounce of your love. I am free because I am found in you.” He kisses his Yusuf at the end, putting a promise for the ages into the kiss.
They clearly have much to discuss, much that needs to be said and promised, and if it takes a thousand years to convince Yusuf that he will never wish to leave, he will spend every moment in worshipful reassurance.
For now, though, he sits. He holds the love of his life in his arms and he promises forever.