They’ve been travelling north - at first aimlessly, their only clear direction away from the chaos and carnage of the Crusades. With every step, Nicolo feels unfettered; unencumbered by creed, his shoulders loosen, like a marionette whose strings have been cut. He’s relearning how to walk, move his arms and hands of his own volition.
His hands, he is finding, seem to find refuge in the act of doing. They forage for food and flint fire, they pinch a thread through a needle and sew his shirt where Yusuf had torn it open the last time he died, they tend to the horses. They make aborted movements to Yusuf, reach out to clasp his shoulder or stroke his forearm. At night, he stares at them and wonders how long he will be scraping off old blood. Perhaps if he can make good use of these hands, he can be forgiven.
Then one night, Yusuf awakens from a dream with a single name on his lips: Andromache.
“Hector’s wife? From the Iliad?” Nicolo questions, brows furrowed.
Thus begins their journey toward Athens.
From Byzantium, they find passage on a trading vessel through the sea of Marmara. They’d barely ridden past Edirne and crossed the border into Greece when they hear the news from a passing traveller: the Christian knights have taken Jerusalem.
They reach Thessaloniki by nightfall; Yusuf does not speak for the remainder of the evening, and Nicolo wonders how the absence of his voice can be so inescapably deafening. They are given boarding, a single room for the night, in a local inn.
The cot they share is small, and the emptiness in the space between them feels heavy, thick with tension and guilt. Although they are not facing one another, Nicolo knows Yusuf is not sleeping, can tell by the way his breaths come uneven, and impossibly, he thinks he can feel the uneasy beating of Yusuf’s troubled heart.
Nicolo wishes he had the words to reach out and envelop around Yusuf, to drape him in compassion, in apology, in regret. But he has no words for this, and his reticence reverberates off of sharp edges; off set shoulders, off of the tense plated armour in place of Yusuf’s sternum.
Nicolo is terrified, he realises. Of losing Yusuf, of Yusuf deciding that his sins outweigh his usefulness. That Nicolo is not worth keeping around. Unmoored, Yusuf is the only thing he can cling to, and Nicolo is immobilised with it, with this fear and this guilt. He does not know how to carry it, but he cannot put it down.
In the morning, Nicolo rises before Yusuf to leave for the markets. At some point in the night, Yusuf had pushed his face into the back of Nicolo’s neck, seeking heat or comfort, his hand resting above Nicolo’s hip. Nicolo felt the steady breaths tickling the hair on his nape and his first thought was that he was vulnerable; his back turned, his carotid artery exposed.
He held his breath for a long moment, but Yusuf didn’t strike, pressed further into him, and Nicolo let out a quiet sigh. Yusuf’s body was warm against his own, and he eased into the touch. He felt broken open, this simple act of unconscious trust allaying something deep inside of him, some heavy feeling he could not name.
Thessaloniki is a rapidly growing port city, a refuge for a diverse people, and Nicolo is glad they are staying somewhere where they can lay low, unnoticed. The town is waking with the day as he reaches the city streets. He can see sailors and travellers walking along the docks, fastening ropes, passing around wares and coin. He listens to the jumbled, disorderly sounds of bustling trade, feels himself fade into the gentle background hum of the town.
He looks around to see what the merchants are selling; they have no need to resupply just yet, and Nicolo is unsure of what he’s searching for - until he spots the charcoal and parchment in a nearby stall.
When he returns to their room, Yusuf is staring absentmindedly out the window, and the light cuts a line across his beautiful face, framing his obsidian eyes in warm light. Nicolo is drawn into them, wants them to look at him, to look through him, to look anywhere but him.
In place of a greeting, Nicolo places the small bundle on the table before him.
“You mentioned you were an artist before- before we met,” he clarifies as Yusuf looks at the bundle uncertainly, “I thought perhaps you could show me.”
Something unreadable passes over Yusuf’s face. He looks like he might say something, but Nicolo turns away to gather their belongings before he can speak, unable to look into Yusuf’s sad eyes for any longer.
They’re in Athens when Yusuf first begins to present jagged pieces of himself to Nicolo. They cut into him in ways he cannot easily heal from, but it gives his hands something to hold onto.
Yusuf stands beside him in the Parthenon; they are very much not touching, and the tense separateness of it conveys a significance unto itself. Nicolo’s hands become knots of restraint, and he kneads the flesh of his palms to keep them occupied.
“This place used to be a temple for the patron Athena; the Greeks would honour their Gods here,” Yusuf says, not looking at Nicolo, “then when the Byzantines conquered Greece, they outlawed pagan worship, and converted it to a Christian Church.”
Nicolo finds it difficult to believe that a people that built such a magnificent tribute could be considered heathens. He looks above him, struck by the sheer enormity of the temple. Piety, untainted and all encompassing, is carved into every piece, from the base to the cornice, from the excruciating detail in the metopes to the ovule symmetry of the voluta. How must it feel, Nicolo wonders, to have it misappropriated to house a God they do not recognise?
Yusuf’s hand rests along one column. He brushes his fingers down the spinal carcass of pilfered faith. “I wonder what will remain of my church, when they take it too,” he whispers softly, almost to himself.
All the air in Nicolo’s lungs is replaced with a suffocating sorrow. He tries to breathe around it, but it reaches up into his throat like bile. He’s no longer in the Parthenon, he’s outside the wall, coming back to life, half buried in the ground, hands meeting dirt and dirt and then pure open air-
He breathes in, steadies himself into the moment. Yusuf is still not looking at him, seemingly lost it thought. Nicolo wonders if he has been cursed with the lifetimes of the people he’s killed, to spend this unfathomable amount of time beside a man who sees him as a symbol of all that has been taken from him. Are they to be like the Parthenon? A vestige of something stolen or destroyed, an edifice to loss.
Nicolo does not want that; he intends to build something new.
“You will remain,” he replies, and these words are a branch, an offering. Give this sorrow to me, for it is not yours to bear.
Yusuf’s eyes flicker over to him. Nicolo takes another breath - in, in, out - and meets his gaze, steady and sure.
“You will remain,” Nicolo repeats, “and so will I.”
We can remember together, is left unsaid, but Yusuf hears it anyway. He takes Nicolo’s hand and squeezes, briefly, before letting go.
The Library of Hadrian is another beautiful feat of Greek architecture, even more so just before sunset. Yusuf says there should be texts about Andromache here, in the works of Homer, Plato and Euripides. Nicolo hopes they might hold a clue to the woman in their dreams.
The Iliad seems like the best place to start. Nicolo tears over the pages, searching only for the woman’s name, when something catches his eye, causing him to pause.
A last request – grant it, please. /Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles, /let them lie together.
But now you lie here torn before me, and my heart goes starved /for meat and drink, though they are here beside me, by reason /of longing for you. There is nothing worse than this I could suffer.
“By reason of longing for you,” Nicolo utters quietly, testing how the words roll off his tongue. They feel like something tender, something painful, and yet beautiful.
Nicolo looks to Yusuf where he is reading across the table, for the first time considering how fragile one lifetime seems now. What if Yusuf had stayed dead? What if Nicolo hadn’t come back, that first time? What if Yusuf was torn from him now, leaving him alone to suffer, as Achilles suffered Patroclus’s death?
Abandoning his original cause, Nicolo is enraptured by the tragic lovers. He moves on to Plato’s Symposium, discovers the words Erastes and Eromenos; protector and beloved. Nicolo has never been someone’s beloved, but this fierce desire to keep Yusuf safe might be his final undoing.
He is lovely, Nicolo thinks to himself, watching Yusuf read in the warm, flickering light of the oil lamp.
Nicolo shifts his stare back to the page when Yusuf catches him looking. He should not be thinking these thoughts about Yusuf. It is painful, and yet.
Yusuf holds the knife with a sure grip, the peach resting in his other palm. He’s speaking, a soft, matter-of-fact tone - You have to slice a circle into the peach around the pit, he says, then grip either side and twist until it gives - but Nicolo’s gaze remains on the way Yusuf’s wrist cuts a fluid line with the blade, on the assuredness of his movements as he wields it.
They have not been in France long, but Yusuf adores it. Greece had been a beautiful dead end; the most they had gleaned was that Andromache may be as old as Homer, or older. The realisation of a life unbounded from time slowed their urgency for answers, and these days seem to move like treacle. Yusuf sketches Nicolo as he lays in the garden outside their dwelling, thinking about phrases like the reverent company of Patroclus’s thighs, thinking about the muscles that shift in Yusuf’s legs as he performs Salat al-fajr.
Yusuf is showing him how to roast peaches. They’re by the kitchen table, shoulders brushing as Yusuf shifts on his feet. He holds either side of the peach in large hands and his fingertips press into the flesh, and, as it parts for him, its juices push out from the skin like blood, dripping into the gaps between Yusuf’s fingers where he holds out each part, an offering. It smells fragrant, as if it is blooming under his touch. The peach looks so small in his wide palms.
Now we release the pit from the peach
Yusuf takes the knife handle, and with his finger guiding his movement, slices a laceration underneath the pit and pulls it out, pressing it between his thumb and forefinger. Nicolo cannot help but linger on the honeyed syrup that glistens a steady path down his wrist.
Suddenly Nicolo is reminded of when his mother would pluck a fig from its branch, split it in two and offer Nicolo half. He can still remember the mild sweetness on his tongue, and the way it would drip down his mouth and hands, how it dried sticky with the heat of summer afternoons.
Now, Yusuf brings the soft part of his thumb to his lips, and Nicolo wants to sample the taste against the warmth of Yusuf’s skin. He doesn’t realise he’s staring until he flicks his gaze to Yusuf and finds he is staring right back at him. Without breaking eye contact, Yusuf licks the syrup off his thumb, his pink tongue swirling around to catch it off his wrist.
Nicolo tries to swallow, fails. Clears his throat and tries again.
The peaches are delicious; sweet and so warm.
Nicolo’s hand clutches the blade against the soft skin of Yusuf’s throat. There’s a memory tugging at him in the back of his mind. He pulls on the thread and the image unspools before him, of a time from years before, of Nicolo slicing an ugly line across Yusuf’s jugular. He blinks it back, focuses on the moment, breathing in the lavender oil Yusuf had scrubbed into his beard before he’d asked Nicolo to trim it.
His eyes flicker up to Yusuf’s face, and he looks at Nicolo with nothing but open trust, a trust he still feels mostly unworthy of.
Nicolo readjusts his position between Yusuf’s legs; they’re both sitting on short stools, Yusuf’s knees wide so Nicolo can sit closer to his face. Yusuf is not wearing a shirt, a detail that Nicolo is both keenly aware of and resolutely ignoring.
He brings the razor to Yusuf’s jaw, holds Yusuf’s chin in a gentle hold with his other hand to keep him still while he carefully shaves the excess hair on his neck. Summer is approaching, and Yusuf has been scratching where his beard grows thicker under his jaw.
Nicolo keeps himself cleanly shaved, and at one time he might’ve suggested that Yusuf just cut off his beard. But Nicolo has felt the roughness of that beard against his shoulders during cold winter nights, has yearned to feel that burn between his thighs. Now, he could not bring himself to suggest Yusuf shave it.
Nicolo tilts Yusuf’s head back, cups the back of his head to cradle it while he works. He is diligent, focused, until Yusuf’s Adam’s apple bobs with a short swallow. Nicolo halts his ministrations with the movement, caught off guard. He worries his bottom lip as his gaze flickers over Yusuf. He wants to lick the exposed vein he can see on Yusuf’s neck, wants to feel the fresh stubble against his skin.
This longing has sat like a deep ache inside his chest for years, pressing against his ribcage. Nicolo is utterly consumed by it.
His body has been a house of worship, it has been a weapon of unholy cause, and he holds both of these in each hand to love Yusuf. His hands are no longer his own; they are an extension of devotion, a service of trembling nerves. When Yusuf and Nicolo fight together (always others, never each other, not anymore), he takes his cue from Yusuf, lets him guide his broadsword.
He wants his knuckles to curl into points of a fist and gently caress Yusuf’s cheek, he wants to press his palms in the valley of Yusuf’s shoulder blades, in the divot of his neck, in Yusuf’s own hands.
Yusuf hums a questioning noise in his throat at Nicolo’s hesitation, and Nicolo almost moans when he can feel the vibrations of his timbre cadence against his fingertips. Yusuf lifts his head up and looks at him. They are so close, Nicolo could count the crow’s feet by his eyes.
“What are you thinking, my friend?” he asks, all concern and softness that Nicolo has come to know as entirely Yusuf.
Nicolo opens his mouth, then closes it.
He wants to say, ‘I would break my own bones, reshape them into a shield, so I can keep you safe.’
He wants to say, ‘I did not understand how to want anything until you touched me and painted my soul with golden warmth.’
He wants to say, ‘I am irrevocably changed by your very existence in this world.’
Nicolo’s face feels unbearably hot, and he’s sure that Yusuf can see the blush rising on his cheeks. He swallows unnecessarily, unsure why it feels like he’s the one exposed, his tongue feels too big in his mouth, he cannot figure out what to do with his hands-
Yusuf’s fingers wrap around his wrist. “Nicolo,” he whispers, using his other hand to stroke Nicolo’s face, and Nicolo is lost.
The blade slips from Nicolo’s grasp, and his palm slices open before he distantly hears the clatter of it hit the floor.
It severs the moment, and Yusuf turns Nicolo’s wrist upwards to watch as the skin along his lifeline seals back together.
“You’re a mess, habibi,” he laughs, and Nicolo wants to drink in the sound like wine.
He laughs too, distracted momentarily, but then the words sink in, and realisation hits him like the word of God.
Because Nicolo knows this word; has spent many nights scouring texts for words that hold the weight of his feelings for Yusuf. Eromenos; Philtatos; Amati; Aimé; Habibi; Beloved, beloved, beloved.
Nicolo gives relief to the longing; he leans forward and captures Yusuf’s mouth with his own.
Everything seems to collapse inward on itself, his whole being narrowed down and reduced to an exposed vertebra of burning want. It licks up his spine, swirls low in his gut until it feels like all his nerves are alight and alive from just this touch of lips. And then Yusuf is opening up, moves a hand to his nape, tilts his head to get closer, and Nicolo becomes a raw, jagged thing when he sinks his fingers into Yusuf’s curls.
Yusuf nips Nicolo’s bottom lip as he pulls away, and Nicolo follows, intoxicated by Yusuf’s mouth, before Yusuf’s hand tightens on his neck to keep him still, coaxing a soft moan from him. Nicolo’s gaze is unfocused, and he can hear himself letting out breathless huffs. Yusuf’s brows crease into a slight frown, and then his thumb presses down on his bottom lip. Nicolo’s parts his mouth for Yusuf, even as his cheeks get impossibly warmer.
“I have looked upon these eyes for years, yet I have been unable to depict their viriditās,” Yusuf murmurs when they part, looking between Nicolo’s eyes.
Yusuf releases Nicolo’s lip and brings him in closer for a slower, gentler kiss. This feeling in Nicolo is still wild, he can still barely breathe for the pure want inside of his belly, but he lets Yusuf guide the soft slide of lips.
“Yusuf,” Nicolo begs, finding his voice. “I want-” he cuts himself off by pushing off his stool, knocking it over in his rush into Yusuf’s lap, balancing atop splayed knees and throwing his arms around Yusuf’s shoulders.
He presses kisses of I want you, I need you, I love you, all these words inside of him that he cannot say, against Yusuf’s lips. He can feel the man’s beard rasping against his cheek, his jaw, and his hips push against Yusuf’s in a wrecked proffering.
Yusuf’s hands find purchase on Nicolo’s thighs, rubbing, squeezing the muscles there, making Nicolo jerk upwards. He is starved, overcome, overwhelmed.
This first time is not graceful, and their mouths are too busy trying to make bruising clouds on each other’s skin to say much. There will be time, an eternity, for words after.
After Nicolo rubs his cheek on the wiry skin of Yusuf’s chest hair, after Yusuf frees Nicolo’s cock from his breeches, after Nicolo surges against Yusuf, grips harder, trying to get closer, closer, closer.
When Nicolo’s so close to the edge he can taste it, Yusuf groans against his lips, “Come on, habibi, let me feel you,” and Nicolo unravels, coming all over both of them.
When Yusuf goes to take himself in hand, Nicolo stops him, replaces it with his own.
He pleads, “let me love you,” and Yusuf does.
Yusuf and Nicolo are lying naked together in another temporary home. They’ve been in Prague for a little while now; Nicolo enjoys being close to the water. It reminds him of summer, and of kissing Yusuf.
The man to which that name belongs, the man Nicolo belongs to, is currently sprawled half on top of him.
Yusuf’s breaths are still coming a little heavy as he says, “I die of love for you, habibi,” making Nicolo smile wide.
“La petite mort does not count,” he teases, splaying his hand wide on Yusuf’s hip.
“I give him poetry and all he has are jokes,” Yusuf grumbles half-heartedly, but his eyes are mirthful.
“I give you cock, amati,” Nicky replies, just to hear him laugh.
When he does, Nicolo revels in the crinkles around his eyes and slips his fingers between Yusuf’s thighs, where he is still warm and sticky with their lovemaking. He is so in love, utterly ruined by this man. He wants to give Yusuf poetry, wants to give him everything, wants to take him apart with these hands that have loved and laboured and fought, all for Yusuf.
Nicolo shifts so he’s lying atop of Yusuf. He traces one finger down his lover’s nose, resting a fingertip on his lips.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” Nicolo whispers, eyes on Yusuf’s lips, “for your love is better than wine.”
When he glances up, Yusuf’s eyes have gone dark and heated. Nicolo leans down and brushes his mouth over Yusuf’s, just barely, just a touch. He can feel more than hear Yusuf’s hitch of breath. He pulls back slightly when Yusuf tries to capture his lips.
“Your lips drip nectar; honey and milk are under your tongue,” he continues, kissing him then, sliding his lips over Yusuf’s, parting them to allow himself a taste. Yusuf groans, reaching up to grip Nicolo’s neck.
Nicolo indulges him for a moment before pulling away. Yusuf lets him go, drops his hands to the sheets. Nicolo loves Yusuf like this, all pliant and willing to let Nicolo do what he wants, knowing he will get his pleasure.
He places both hands on Yusuf’s face, stroking his beard, before they sink into his tight, unruly curls. Yusuf lets out a small noise in his throat when he tugs at the strands.
“His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.”
Nicolo sits up, cups one of Yusuf’s calves in his hand and lifts his leg. “His legs are alabaster columns, set on bases of gold,” he reveres, kissing his ankle before dropping it.
He runs his other hand over Yusuf’s shin, revelling in the feel of hair, moving over his strong thighs, squeezing the muscles there. Yusuf’s cock twitches where it’s filling between his legs.
“I am my beloved’s,” Nicolo says, sitting between each of Yusuf’s legs as he slips one easy finger inside Yusuf’s stretched hole, “and my beloved is mine.”
When his finger pushes all the way in, brushes against Yusuf’s abused prostate, Nicolo watches the bob of Yusuf’s Adam’s apple as he swallows and clenches his fists in the sheets.
Nicolo’s other hand grips Yusuf where he is hard and wanting, repeats, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”
He gives Yusuf’s cock one firm tug, before moving his hand to push one of Yusuf’s thighs out and upward, making room for his mouth between his legs. He licks a long line from Yusuf’s balls to his cock before dipping down and lapping at his own come dripping from where he’s currently opening Yusuf up.
“With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste,” he murmurs against Yusuf’s exposed hole, before he pushes his tongue as deep as he can next to his finger. He laves over his hole, loving the breathless gasps from Yusuf, until he’s sloppy with come and saliva. He adds a second finger before sitting back up, presses the pads of his fingers up against his prostate and rubs.
“Fuck, Nicolo,” Yusuf swears, grip clenching and unclenching while his thighs shake.
“His mouth is most sweet,” Nicolo smirks, switching to scissoring his fingers, stretching him wide, hearing Yusuf groan at the feeling.
Nicolo brings a hand up to Yusuf’s face, and Yusuf immediately grabs it, kissing his palm, the meat of his thumb, his wrist - like he can’t get enough. Nicolo knows the feeling. Sometimes he feels like he could climb into Yusuf’s skin and not feel close enough.
“Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love,” Nicolo whispers, looking deeply into his lover’s eyes.
He pulls his fingers out of Yusuf’s hole and lines his cock up with his entrance. “My beloved is mine,” he says, pushing inside Yusuf, carving out a space just for him, “and I am his.”
He briefly shuts his eyes, letting out a moan as he’s enveloped in Yusuf’s tight heat. When he’s seated all the way inside, he closes one hand around Yusuf’s cock, eliciting a high whine from Yusuf as he buries his face into his elbow, breathing deeply through the intensity.
“Let me see your face, let me hear your voice,” Nicolo recites as he pulls out and thrusts back into that tight heat, hard, just to hear Yusuf’s choked moan, “for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”
He lets go of Yusuf’s cock to bring one of his legs over Nicolo’s shoulder, hands now on Yusuf’s hips to keep him still while he thrusts inside. Nicolo is still warm and shivery from his last orgasm, and he cannot imagine how Yusuf must be feeling, pinned on Nicolo’s cock, too sensitive, quivering, owned.
He caresses a hand down Yusuf’s side, to anchor his overwhelmed lover. His strokes are deep and strong, pushing Yusuf further towards the edge, but not enough for him to drop off just yet. He knows exactly how much Yusuf can take, how much Yusuf can give to Nicolo.
“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you,” he finishes breathily, and on his next thrust in, he throws Yusuf’s other leg over his shoulder and grinds up hard against Yusuf’s prostate while he gives his cock one firm stroke.
Yusuf knocks his head back, and then he’s shuddering through an orgasm, tightening a vice grip around Nicolo’s cock. Nicolo groans, hips stilling inside as he follows, coming inside Yusuf for a second time.
The gentle way he pulls out is in direct juxtaposition to the roughness with which he shoves three fingers back inside Yusuf, plugging him up with Nicolo’s come, barely pulling out before pushing them back inside.
“Oh, fuck, fuck, Nicolo,” Yusuf begs, hips moving erratically, like he can’t decide if he wants more or less.
Nicolo presses a large hand down on Yusuf’s abdomen, just above his cock, which is still hard, holding him down while he presses against Yusuf’s oversensitive prostate over and over. His forearm is aching with the effort, muscles straining to keep up a steady rhythm. Yusuf is held down, making hitched, choked noises, like he can’t get a reprieve to breathe in. Good.
“You’re going to give me another one, Yusuf, yes?” Nicolo pants, leaning over to capture Yusuf’s sounds with his mouth, tugging on his bottom lip with his teeth, bumping chins as Yusuf’s whole body is pushed up with the force of Nicolo’s fingers fucking him.
Yusuf keens. “Habibi, it’s too much, I can’t-”
Nicolo shushes him with a soft kiss, whispers, “yes you can, my love, come on - give it to me.”
Nicolo wants to leave permanent marks behind; on his lips, his waist, his cheeks. He wants to feel Yusuf burning with his love, with this heat inside of him. He wants to reduce Yusuf to nothing but his name, so that everything is Nicolo, he wants to gently break him open, pull out his heart and replace it with his own, wants to bite into the ripe red fruit of Yusuf’s heart until its dripping down his chin. For now he satiates his hunger by sinking his teeth into Yusuf’s shoulder.
Yusuf gives Nicolo his exquisite rapture. Nicolo’s universe tilts on its axis, watching Yusuf come apart under his hands. Yusuf sobs out a moan, clutches at Nicolo’s back so hard he feels like it might rupture into a bright contusion, and spills over himself.
Nicolo slips his fingers out and gathers him close, holding Yusuf’s flushed, sweaty body against his own. He presses kisses to Yusuf’s forehead, over his curls, his nose, his cheeks.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death.