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Unfortunately, It Was Paradise

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Nico was lying on the bed. His face was turned toward the window. Slanting rain hit the bars of the window-grille and shattered into a fine spray over his face and his smooth, bare shoulder. From where he sat at the end of the bed, sketchbook on his knees, Yusuf had only the light of a single flickering candle to see by. Bits of Nico wavered in and out of focus. The sharp line of his jaw. The jut of his nose. His collarbones like wings that spread from the base of his throat to the ends of his broad shoulders.

Nico turned his head and looked at him.

Yusuf sat very straight, his hand stilling on the page. Even after one hundred years, Nicolò’s essence remained elusive to him, impossible to capture with charcoal or ink or any other medium that he tried. Fragments he could manage. Nico’s strong, clever hands, the arch of his foot, the curl of his mouth. The prow of his hipbone. Even his cock, quiescent against his thigh or hard against his belly. All those, Yusuf could draw in his sleep. But he couldn’t put them together; or rather, the pieces refused to cohere. Nicolò eluded capture.

Because Nico—subject, object of art—turned the gaze back on him, Yusuf the artist, Yusuf the man. It was nothing Nicolò did, per se, there was no belligerence in his eyes or in his posture, his loose naked limbs bespoke nothing but ease… yet all the same, Yusuf wilted under the force of his return scrutiny. Even if he directed Nico to look away, to look elsewhere, the end result was the same: the man on the page bore no resemblance to his beloved.

Yusuf sat even straighter. The charcoal was starting to crumble between his fingers.

He could see the liquid glint of Nico’s eyes in the dark. His soft, mobile lips. Sometimes Yusuf fancied there was something wounded-looking about that mouth. He wanted to take his fingers to it, to touch the words that it made.

He abandoned his sketchbook and crawled over the bed to where Nico lay against the pillows. He touched Nico’s mouth. His fingers followed the shape of it and felt the sharp edge of teeth. Nico caught his hand in his own and kissed it. Yusuf pressed against the coldness of his cheek, wet with shattered rain.

Then he raised his head and met Nico’s eyes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with—for all their warmth—something withdrawn and secret about them.

“Why do you like me?” Nico asked suddenly, his voice low.

Yusuf stared at him.

One hundred years together—and Nicolò was asking why he liked him.

“Definitely take your time answering,” Nico said dryly.

“… I love you,” Yusuf said. “Like doesn’t even begin to—”

“You can dislike the people you love best,” Nico pointed out.

“That’s not—”

“Love is… irrational and unknowable. I would never ask why you love me and expect a concrete answer.” Nicolò drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them. “But I do want to know why you like me, because sometimes I think you have every reason not to.”

“I-I like you, of course I like you,” Yusuf spluttered. They had been arguing a lot recently, but he put it down to the general malaise of the new century. The Holy Roman Empire was bleeding Malta dry, and trade had all but evaporated. It was time for them to move on; they had talked about it and not talked about it. The prospect of leaving the first place they had called home together had put them both in a melancholy humor. But depart they must: they could not stay forever anywhere, and to wish otherwise—

Nico raised a single eyebrow.

Like. Yusuf’s very being revolted against the notion. He was a man of passions; he didn’t like and dislike, he loved, he hated, he loathed, he worshiped, he cherished, he detested, he abhorred. He had felt all those things for Nicolò at one time or another and sometimes simultaneously.

The candle guttered and went out. The shadows deepened. Yusuf could feel Nico waiting patiently for his reply. Nicolò had the patience of water, slowly carving away at the bedrock of his soul, laying it bare to the moonlight.

At last Yusuf said: “I like you because you soften me, you soften everything around you—like a hot knife, because you yourself are not soft.”
A quiet huff of laughter.

“I like you so much that I want to eat you,” Yusuf said.   

“Like a meal?” Nico asked.

“… Like an apple,” Yusuf said.

“The next time you draw me,” Nicolò said, “don’t look at me like I’m the moon. Look at me like I’m an apple.”

 

*

 

Nicolò sang to the goats, scraps of liturgy and verses from Abu Nuwas set to melodies of his own devising. As an audience, the goats were largely indifferent. He couldn’t blame them; it was awfully early in the morning. He shuffled through the motions of milking and feeding, barely awake himself and so utterly peeved to be out in the cold and dark while Yusuf slumbered on in the warm bed. The goat he was milking danced restlessly under his fingers. In a fit of pique, he belted out the Eucharist in his lowest, raspiest register:

“Hosanna in excelsis, benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini—”

Yusuf stumbled out of the cottage, shirtless, his hair in disarray. “What the fuck is going on out here?” he shouted, sleep-hoarse and irritable. “Are you holding mass with the fucking goats?”

“The goats and I—” Nicolò took his hand off the nanny’s teat to gesture grandly at the small flock around him, and received a sharp hoof to the shin—“ah, damn you! We are simply keeping one another awake.”

“Must you keep me awake as well?” Yusuf asked plaintively.

Nicolò regarded him through his lashes. He was usually charmed or at least amused by Yusuf’s morning surliness, but recently it had begun to wear on him. He resented their division of labor, which seemed designed to ensure Yusuf the maximum amount of sleep while his own needs went unmet. Just what those needs were, he couldn’t quite say. He had always been a light sleeper and a morning person; he would rise with the dawn anyway, goats or no goats. He had enough to eat and a roof over his head, he had love and companionship and copious amounts of sex.

He had Yusuf, standing crossly before him in his unlaced breeches, arms folded. Nicolò belonged to Yusuf in every way, Yusuf canopied his entire world like the sky, but there was an anger that lived at the bottom of his soul these days. Yusuf’s unerring generosity and his willingness to love people who didn’t deserve to be loved exasperated Nicolò and sometimes made him want to hurt Yusuf—just as a lesson, a precaution.

Harsh words sat heavily on his tongue, waiting to be uttered. But his eyes were drawn to the swell of Yusuf’s bicep, and his anger evaporated. He rested his forehead against the goat’s warm flank and began to hum.

When he finished the milking, Yusuf was still there. He was shivering, arms wrapped around his torso, but his eyes were heated. Nicolò stood up and went to him. Yusuf cradled his face between his palms, the skin rough like sandpaper.

“Have you ever heard something so beautiful that you want to open it up and live inside it?” Yusuf asked.

“I’m not sure,” Nicolò said, eyes on Yusuf’s mouth. The shapely pink lips framed by his beard. He curled his fingers around Yusuf’s bicep, swaying closer.

“That’s how I feel when you sing,” Yusuf said. “I would throw myself into a fire for your voice.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Nicolò said.

“Without a thought, I would do it. God, how I love you, Nicolò.”

He opened his mouth to respond in kind, sensing it was expected of him, but words of devotion—in any language, Zeneize, Arabic, Greek, Latin—had lately become strange to him. He liked that Yusuf wore their relationship so boldly, like a brightly colored robe garlanded with words like jewels. But he felt drab in comparison. It made him moody and distant, his happiness a restless thing, flapping its wings inside him as though looking for an opportunity to fly away.

So he simply kissed Yusuf and left it at that.

 

*

 

“If I soften you,” said Nico, “then what do you do for me?”

Yusuf frowned. He didn’t like Nicolò very much at the moment, even though he was about to fuck him. They were in the middle of a fight. A fight over what, Yusuf couldn’t have said, but they were several days into it and Nico had been lashing out with silence. Trying to provoke an eruption. All too often he succeeded, and Yusuf would vent his temper in long, passionate diatribes, only to find Nico looking positively cheerful again. They were never angry at the same time. Nothing fit right anymore, every touch wrongly placed or wrongly timed.

The question Nico had just put to him: those were the first words he had spoken to him all day.

“What do I do for you?” Yusuf repeated, dipping his fingers into the jar of oil. “Shouldn’t you tell me that?”

“I want to know what you think,” Nico said.

Yusuf was offended by his eyes. Nicolò’s eyes behaved as though they belonged to someone else. Someone staring out the window at the sea. What are you looking at? he wanted to demand. What do you see when you look at me? Nicolò’s eyes made him feel like he was disappearing. It had been happening for a long time, the disappearing, but now he suddenly looked down to discover that he didn’t have a body anymore; there was nothing but the bed, the ground.

Nico rolled onto his side, facing away.

“I… help you find your words,” Yusuf said finally.

Nico looked at him over his shoulder, and Yusuf crashed back into his body and all its acute sensations. His heartbeat. Pins and needles in his calf. His pulse. The impatient throb of his cock.

“True,” Nico said. “My vocabulary in Arabic isn’t the—”

“It’s more like you get lost in there,” Yusuf said, leaning forward to tap Nico’s brow with the fingers of his dry hand. “You…”

“I get lost, yes,” Nico agreed.

Yusuf breached him with the first oil-slick finger, and Nico emitted a small, plaintive sound.

“I am utterly lost without you, my love,” he said.

It was the nicest thing he’d said in weeks. Yusuf molded himself to the shape of Nico’s back, continuing to pump his finger slowly in and out. He kissed the tiny constellation of freckles adorning his shoulder blade and added a second finger. Nico arched his spine. He was so beautiful, Yusuf thought, and for some reason the thought filled him with sadness. He wondered why there was always a little current of hate running alongside love now.

 

*

 

Nicolò bolted awake in the middle of the night, nerves thrumming with excitement. “Yusuf!” he hissed, nudging the man plastered to his back like a barnacle. “Yusuf, wake up. Yusuf!”

Yusuf mumbled something incoherent, and his arms tightened around Nicolò’s waist.

“Wake up!” Nicolò insisted, delivering a sharp pinch to the web of skin between Yusuf’s thumb and forefinger.

“Bismillah ar rahman ar rahim!” Yusuf jolted into wakefulness. “Motherfuck, Nicolò, what’s the matter?”

Nicolò squirmed around in his arms so they were face to face. Yusuf’s sleepy, grumpy countenance sent a rush of tenderness through him, but he was too wound up to kiss away the frowns. “I dreamed,” he said. “And this time I caught a name.”

“The women?” Yusuf made a visible effort to shake off the cobwebs of sleep.

Nicolò nodded. “The taller one. Her name is Andromache.”

“Andromache,” Yusuf repeated.

“Andromache.”

They passed the name back and forth like a blessing.

Then: “Another reason to leave soon,” Yusuf said.

Nicolò turned away. There was a heaviness in his lungs. Yusuf had been saying this for months now. And he was right. Malta was on its way toward becoming little more than a fortified garrison. Muslims were emigrating in droves, under the threat of forced conversion if they remained. Yusuf blended in well enough because he spoke Zeneize like a Ligurian and hadn’t visited the local masjid in a decade. But Nicolò knew it troubled him, the hiding in plain sight. They were forced to conceal so much about themselves—their age, their origins, their relationship. He couldn’t ask Yusuf to live as a Christian. It was too high a price.

No, home was the price they paid for their longevity. Their lives would always be placeless and transient. Nicolò knew this. But Malta—a rock in the sea, a midpoint between the lands of their births—had slipped under his skin and become a part of him, of them. Uncharted territory, a place they could call their own. A place where they might love as equals, where Nicolò didn’t have to look around him and see every day the ruin his religion had wrought on Yusuf’s people.

But now the mutilated topography of politics was overtaking them once more.

Nicolò said nothing. He feigned sleep. Yusuf did not speak again, either, and the silence lay between them like a third person.

 

*

 

Yusuf came home from the market to find Nico in a foul mood. He was sitting at the table, scrubbing the bitterness from a wizened qarabaghla with an air of barely contained savagery. Yusuf watched him bemusedly. Nico began to slice his qarabaghla with precise, vicious strokes, green slivers of skin flecking the front of his tunic. He did not acknowledge Yusuf’s presence. He gathered up his vegetables and all but threw them into the cooking pot.

“If you’re angry, the food will taste bad,” Yusuf pointed out mildly.

“Then make your own fucking dinner,” Nico said.

Yusuf intercepted him in his warpath before he could dump the qarabaghli onto the fire. “I am not afraid of you like this,” he reminded him. “This is what you looked like the first time I saw you.”

Nico glared so ferociously that Yusuf burst out laughing.

“Why, I think you would kill me if you could!” he exclaimed.

“Who on earth says I can’t?” Nicolò demanded.

Yusuf howled with laughter.

It wasn’t helping the situation, he knew that, but he couldn’t seem to stop. Full-bellied guffaws tore through his body. He doubled over and clutched the table for support. Everything was falling apart, they were falling apart, him and Nico, and all he could do was laugh. He was laughing at his own temerity to laugh, his wounds cauterized by the confirmation of his own inconsequence. Nothing mattered. Nothing they did mattered. He and Nicolò had broken all the rules, they had crossed into forbidden territory, they had tampered with the laws that governed the universe. The unthinkable had become thinkable and the impossible really happened. And still they couldn’t figure out how to love one another properly. 

“Get out,” Nicolò said. He had gone very pale.

Yusuf wheezed and wiped his streaming eyes. “I—”

“Get out,” Nico repeated.

“I’m sorry.” He sank into a chair, hiccupping, his limbs weak like overcooked spaghetti.

“No, I don’t think you are, and that is what scares me.”

“You’re right,” Yusuf agreed, still chortling, “I’m not. I don’t even know what the fuck I’m apologizing for.”

“Get up,” Nico said quietly. “Go outside. When the devil has left your soul, you may knock on the door and I will let you back in.”

That set Yusuf off again, a fresh round of titters for the devil, because he really thought Nico had moved beyond that silliness. “Don’t be ridiculous, Nicolò.”

“I am not joking,” Nico said.

Yusuf met Nico’s eyes. Throughout Yusuf’s hysterical outburst he had remained restrained and strangely composed. It was a composure born of extreme provocation, stemming from a lucidity that lay beyond rage. In those cold, emotionless eyes, Yusuf saw—for a fraction of a second—the same fanatical pilgrim who had slain him at the gates of Jerusalem one hundred years ago. And what did Nicolò see when he looked at him—a barbarous Saracen who drank the blood of Christian children?

The laughter finally died in his lungs.

“I am not joking,” Nicolò said. “Get out.”

Yusuf went.

 

*

 

Yusuf had been gone for hours, and Nicolò was crawling out of his skin.

He had sent Yusuf away.

And Yusuf had gone.

One hundred years of deathlessness had done strange things to his perception of time. He had forgotten that things could change in a day, that a few hours could affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. He had forgotten how consequences worked, how easy it was to shatter a story with a single unkind word.

He had sent Yusuf away, and Yusuf had gone.

Being with Yusuf made Nicolò feel as though his soul had escaped from the narrow confines of his peninsular homeland into the vast, extravagant spaces of Yusuf’s. Without Yusuf, there would be no such thing as death for him, just the end of living.

He had sent Yusuf away, and Yusuf had—

There was a knock at the door.

Nicolò crossed the room and opened it. Yusuf was standing on the threshold. He’d fashioned the hem of his tunic into a sort of sling for the dozen red apples he was cradling against his body. When Nicolò seized his elbow to pull him inside, the apples tumbled loose and fell heavily to the floor, rolling away in all directions.

They stared at each other.

“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Nicolò said at last. His voice wasn’t working properly, and his throat made an odd clicking noise when he swallowed. “I thought…”

Yusuf regarded him curiously, head tilted slightly to the side. “You thought what?” 

“That I had ruined everything.”

“You told me to come back,” Yusuf reminded him. “After I had banished the devil from my soul. And I think I succeeded, for I am no longer possessed to laugh.”

“Yusuf…”  There was a phantom pain between his ribs, the memory of Yusuf’s blade sliding home and piercing his heart a century ago.  

Yusuf’s expression was cautious. “Nico—”

“Sometimes you look at me like I’m something you should have left in another country,” he said in a rush, before he could think better of it.

Yusuf didn’t flinch. “And how do you think you look at me?” he asked. 

“…I don’t know,” Nicolò said quietly.

Now Yusuf’s beautiful brown eyes were bright with unshed tears. “You look at me like you’re tired of me.”

Nicolò inhaled sharply. He held the breath in his lungs, knowing he had the space of a single exhale to determine how to make this right. “We have loved each other for one hundred years,” he said slowly. “We may be the only people who have ever loved for so long. That we continue to look at each other at all warrants a prize.”

Yusuf chuckled, a little wetly. “A prize?”

“A big fucking prize,” Nicolò told him, lips twitching. Then he closed the distance between them and pressed their foreheads together. “Of course our love is tired, Yusuf. It has traveled many borders and many seas. It has every right to be tired.”

Enough words. He flicked his gaze toward the bed, and Yusuf’s smile broadened. 

They undressed each other slowly and left their clothes in a messy heap on the floor. Nicolò pushed Yusuf onto the bed and allowed himself to be dragged down on top of him. Marveling at the way his skin seemed to exist only where Yusuf touched him; the rest of him was smoke. The first time they had done this, he had been convinced that for every tremor of pleasure they would pay with an equal measure of pain. He knew better now, of course.

Nicolò crouched over Yusuf, his mouth on his. Then he slid further down, reintroducing himself to the rest of him. His neck. His nipples. The fine dusting of hair along his sternum. The hard planes of his stomach. The hollow of his navel. He pressed the heat of Yusuf’s erection against his eyelids and tasted him, salty, in his mouth.

Eventually he ended up on his back, with Yusuf easing his fingers inside of him. He hooked his arms under his knees and pulled his legs back against his chest, performing a kind of vulnerability that would have been unthinkable a century ago. Now it was second nature; he wanted to give Yusuf every access to his body. Yusuf moved his fingers carefully, patiently, finding all the right places, dipping his head to press a kiss to the base of his cock and nuzzle at his balls as he stretched him. Nicolò arched against his hand, inordinately pleased at the quickening rasp of Yusuf’s breath. He twined his arms and legs around him, drawing him closer.

“Please fuck me,” he said.

“Nico,” Yusuf said, his eyes tenebrous with want.  

Nicolò smeared Yusuf’s cock with oil. As Yusuf entered him, he caught a fleeting glimpse of youth in those dark eyes he knew so well, a look of wonder at what they had discovered together, and he laughed to see it. “We have done this thousands upon thousands of times,” he said breathlessly, “and yet you seem almost—surprised.”

“Because every time, it is new again,” Yusuf replied.   

“Rank sentiment, even for you.” Nicolò reached down and pinched Yusuf’s backside, earning a growl and a sharp bite to his earlobe. He laughed again, then drew Yusuf in for a cloudy kiss.

They held back a little, tormenting each other, giving of themselves slowly and deliberately. With every measured grind of Yusuf’s hips, the stakes rose higher. A fever pitch building in all those unhurried touches, Nicolò rubbing himself against Yusuf’s stomach, Yusuf teasing one of his nipples between thumb and forefinger. At last Nicolò wrapped his legs around Yusuf’s waist and sank his teeth into the muscle of his shoulder, leaving a semicircle of marks that faded after a few seconds. The dam broke, and Yusuf began to fuck him very hard and very fast, their skins growing slippery with sweat. Nicolò pressed his lips the drawn tendon of Yusuf’s neck and felt the pulse galloping away under his mouth.

Yusuf’s body was in perfect rhythm with his, effortlessly matching every twist and turn of his hips. Yusuf moved deeper and deeper into him, asking to be let in further, then further and further still. Stopped only by the shape of Nicolò, the shape of himself. Nicolò spread his legs wider and canted his hips up, determined that Yusuf should touch the deepest depths of him. And when Yusuf did, Nicolò shattered and came with a sobbing, shuddering sigh. It went on and on, seemingly endless waves of pleasure, as Yusuf thrashed above him, frantic, and came too, with a noisy, unstifled cry that made the whole room echo with joy.

 

*

 

Nico lounged naked against the pillows, eating an apple, while Yusuf, just as naked, sat opposite, sketching him. Nico’s legs were slightly parted, and Yusuf could see between them where he had been just a short while ago, stretched loose and open. It made him want to dive back in immediately, first with his tongue and then with his cock, but then he thought how nice it would be to lie on his front while Nico fucked him from behind and utterly overwhelmed him. He would finish his sketch and then he would ask Nico to do exactly that.

Nico took another bite from the apple. His mouth moved as he chewed; his throat bobbed when he swallowed. Otherwise he held himself perfectly still. Yusuf’s blunt stub of charcoal was too soft to capture the sharp lines of his body—longer, harder, flatter, and more angular than the likeness taking shape on the paper. Yusuf turned the page over and began again with a fresh piece of charcoal.

Nicolò’s eyes were large, luminous, and drownable in. But it seemed those eyes had finally given up their sea-secrets tonight. Perhaps it was the utterance of unutterable things. You look at me like you’re tired of me. You look at me like I’m something you should have left in another country. Yusuf’s hand was moving swiftly now, almost of its own volition, and then Nico’s eyes were looking back at him from the page, too.

He held the drawing up for Nico to see; or rather, he brandished it triumphantly under his nose. “I think I’ve finally done it!” he announced.   

“Hmm,” Nico said. First the left corner of his mouth ticked up, then the right. A slow, sinuous smile.

“Yes?” Yusuf pressed.

“There is a passing resemblance,” Nico said.

Yusuf groaned. “You’re fucking impossible.”

Nicolò held the half-eaten apple to his mouth, and Yusuf took a bite. A rush of tart sweetness enveloped his palate. They crunched away in silence for a moment or two, then Nico set the core aside and kissed him. A deep, warm kiss tasting of apples, and when Yusuf eventually pulled away, Nico drew him back, cradling Yusuf’s head against his shoulder.

“I love you,” Yusuf said.

Nico’s fingernails scratched soothingly against his scalp.

“Do you love me?” Yusuf asked, a bit idly. He knew the answer, of course, but he liked to hear Nicolò say the words out loud.

Nico was silent.

“Do you love me?” Yusuf repeated, a little more urgently. Fear flickered to life in his chest, scalding his guts. He wrenched himself away from Nico’s shoulder. “Nicolò, answer me. I know you love me. But tell me anyway. I need to hear you say that you love me.”

“A Sicilian vessel docked at the harbor today,” Nicolò said. “It sails for Antalya in six days.”

Yusuf blinked at him, torn between terror and confusion. “Nicolò—”

“From Antalya—east, I suppose, and perhaps our dreams will guide us toward Andromache. We can sell the goats tomorrow.” His voice cracked slightly. “Good riddance.”

Yusuf felt the ground shifting under his feet; he didn’t know whether to lean backward or forward to regain his balance. “One day we’ll return to Malta,” he offered, hesitant. “Empires crumble, attitudes change. I’m sure there will come a time when our religions are no matter to anyone, and we can make ourselves another home here.”

“Perhaps.” Nico nodded. “But—”

Yusuf barreled on: “I know how much this place means to you, Nicolò, and I promise that—”

“You must let me finish,” Nico cut him off.

“I’m sorry.” Yusuf ducked his head contritely. “Continue. Please.”

“Malta was good to us, yes, but I have realized that it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.” Nicolò sat up very straight then, regal in his nakedness, and rested a hand on Yusuf’s cheek. His eyes glistened with tears, and Yusuf felt his own eyes fill too, automatically. “You are my homeland,” Nicolò told him in Zeneize, his voice low and firm. “You are my flag waving in the wind,” he went on in Arabic, then switched to Latin. “You are my only allegiance.” He dragged his thumb over Yusuf’s lower lip. “I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: love. And it is still not enough to describe how I feel about you. Okay?”

“…Okay,” Yusuf said shakily. He wiped his eyes, feeling at once comforted and desirous of further comfort. “Sing to me?” he implored, like a child.

“Sing to you?” Nicolò repeated. When he blinked, a leftover tear ran down his cheek, and Yusuf leaned in to catch it on his tongue. “Why?”

Why? Because I would fucking die for your voice, Nicolò, and in another world, the one where I am an artist, you would be a singer,” Yusuf explained.

Nico raised his eyebrows.

“That’s what I hope the afterlife is for us: some faraway universe where every night you sing to me my favorite songs and poems.”

“I would rather sing for you here,” Nicolò told him, “in this one.”