Yusuf is standing on the bow, hands resting on the railing. The moonlight reflects in the water, and it reminds Yusuf of Nicolò’s eyes. But then again, everything is reminding him of Nicolò these days.
Nicolò is technically in Yusuf’s employ, as Yusuf hired the caravel and its crew to cross the Mediterranean swiftly and safely. And as such, Yusuf should not be thinking of keeping Nicolò from his duties sailing the ship in favour of setting some other task for the handsome first mate.
He is sorely tempted – he has been watching Nicolò every day, before retiring into his cabin and furiously sketching Nicolò again and again, pressing a shaking left hand to his hard cock to relieve some of the aching need.
Nicolò is exquisite, whatever he is doing. Rigging the sails bare-chested, the muscles in his broad shoulders tensing. Climbing to the crow’s nest to watch the horizon, a hand above his squinted eyes. Sweating as he cooks a fortifying broth for the sailors on an open fire, handing Yusuf a bowl too with a smirk. He walks the swaying decks nimbly and sure-footed, and his large hands hold the rudder steady as the captain takes a break.
And he brings Yusuf tea in the afternoon, when the sun is beating down on the deck and the crew hides away from its burning beams, and sits down next to him on the aft where there is a little bit of shade and a faint breeze, and they talk. Nicolò apologizes for not knowing any of the philosophers Yusuf talks about, but he is smart as a whip and learns fast, often coming back two, three days later with deep, insightful questions.
He is better at languages than Yusuf, too, since Yusuf is not usually the one who travels sourcing the wares – only because his brother Karim was needed at home for the birth of his child, Yusuf has taken up this trip in his stead. Nicolò has picked up a wealth of languages from working with people on the ship, and from needing to get by around the docks of two dozen or more ports.
Sometimes, when Yusuf is sipping his tea, Nicolò tells stories about growing up in Genoa, spending more time on sea than on land, fishing with his father in their small rowboat. He is funny, once you get used to his dry delivery and poker face, and Yusuf laughs until his belly hurts, some days.
And Yusuf finds himself trapped on this ship for three weeks, and for the first time in twenty years he has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, no nosy brothers nearby to poke fun at Yusuf looking at anybody for longer than twenty seconds, and – a cabin, with a bed, small and narrow as it may be, all to himself.
So maybe this would be the ideal time to finally figure out what his married brothers whisper about when they think Yusuf is asleep.
And Nicolò definitely would be the perfect man to figure it out with – if only he didn’t work for Yusuf.
He thinks Nicolò might be willing to – to take care of this particular need of Yusuf, but – if he isn’t, might he feel forced to comply to Yusuf’s wishes nevertheless, since Yusuf is paying him?
It is a risk Yusuf cannot take.
And then there is also – the fact that Nicolò is not free.
During their afternoon talks, Yusuf has learned much about Nicolò, and the most important thing is this: Nicolò is married to the sea. He talks about sailing all over the Mediterranean, never a dull day, always something unexpected coming their way. Nicolò knows the sea, has spent most of his life smelling the salty breeze, hearing the shrieks of gulls, reading the water like Yusuf reads accounting books. He can identify the animals and the birds, navigates the sea by the sun and the stars easier than Yusuf finds his way in the meandering labyrinth of narrow alleys of his own home town. He knows where the storms are brewing and how to stay clear of them. Nicolò loves the sea – his life is the sea.
Yusuf wants Nicolò, he wants the relief Nicolò could bring his aching desires, yes – but Yusuf is a romantic, underneath the savvy businessman’s clothes. He wants more than that. He longs for a partner to stand beside him, to weather life’s storms with. Much as Yusuf would like to have a hot and steamy affair, he knows that three weeks, stuck on a ship with Nicolò, will not be enough.
Yusuf sighs, resigned to his fate, when a low voice suddenly sounds beside him.
“A bit late to be up,” Nicolò teases, as he comes to stand next to Yusuf, staring out over the sea as Yusuf is doing. He wonders if Nicolò is also comparing the moon to Nicolò, if Nicolò also has to struggle to keep breathing when he can smell Yusuf’s scent over the salty sea air.
“I, uh,” Yusuf stammers. He is known for his silver tongue, charming everybody into a favourable trade, but he cannot string three words together in the presence of Nicolò. “couldn’t sleep.”
Nicolò hums in agreement.
“I will miss nights like these,” he offers after a few minutes spent in companionable silence. “Nights when the sea is calm and the moon is guiding us home.”
Yusuf turns towards him, and Nicolò mirrors his movement.
“What do you mean,” Yusuf says, surprised, “you will miss it?”
“Oh.” Nicolò looks at him thoughtfully, biting his bottom lip. “I think this is my last voyage. I talked to the captain today, and if I want to, he will release me from service when we dock.” He grins sharply. “Alexei will be glad of the promotion to first mate, I wager.” He turns silent again, contemplating.
Yusuf looks at him, dumbfounded. Nicolò belongs to the sea, and now this –
“I turned thirty a month ago,” Nicky elaborates, when Yusuf doesn’t reply. He sighs. “I have loved the sea for most of my life. But maybe now the time has come to find something else to love. Or someone.”
He looks Yusuf straight in the eye, shrugging. Yusuf struggles to find his voice.
“Oh,” he finally says, and he snaps his mouth shut in embarrassment. This is the best he can come up with?
“Yeah. Life at sea is beautiful and adventurous and fulfilling, but it is also lonely. I think it would be wonderful to have someone keeping me warm during the cold nights, when the moon is hidden behind storm clouds.”
Nicolò turns towards the water again, staring at the dark horizon.
“Is there – is there somebody waiting for you, then?” Yusuf asks, unsure if he wants to know the answer.
“No.” He sounds a bit sad. “I have had lovers, but I have never loved. My heart was too full of the sea. But recently – as I said, she has lost some of the hold she used to have on it.”
Yusuf watches Nicolò’s profile – the strong nose, the mole almost hidden under his five-day beard, his mouth pursed tight.
“There is – someone though,” Nicolò says slowly. “I didn’t think I would ever meet somebody who would make me want to settle down, but – I did.”
Yusuf swallows. It must be somebody special, to replace the sea in Nicolò’s heart. When he mutters something in that vein, stammering and stumbling over the words, Nicolò chuckles shortly.
“He is.” A silence. “He is the most handsome man I ever saw, and when he smiled at me, I was more lost than I have ever been at sea. But he is also charming and intelligent and courteous and unassuming. And bright. So bright. He shines brighter than all the stars above us.”
Yusuf looks up. The stars seem so close from here, as if he could reach out with his hand and pluck them from the inky sky. He almost tries – maybe if he gifts Nicolò a star, maybe then Nicolò –
But no. Nicolò has found someone else.
“He sounds like the perfect man for you,” he manages to say, when Nicolò stays quiet, staring at the moon. The light makes his eyes shine silver. Yusuf wants to keep looking, wants to burn this image of Nicolò into his mind.
“Yes,” Nicky says. He keeps staring out over the water, sloshing calmy against the hull. “But I – I am unsure if he will want my suit,” he mutters then, almost inaudibly. Yusuf is not sure he meant to say it out loud.
“You – you will not know,” Yusuf grits out, “unless you ask.”
“You think I should?”
Nicolò is still not looking at him, and Yusuf’s voice is hoarse when he answers affirmatively.
“I only met him a very short while ago,” Nicolò says. “Less than a sennight ago.”
Seven nights ago, Yusuf hired the ship, signing the contract with Nicolò’s captain. Six days ago, he had readied everything for the journey.He had met Nicolò, as he was overseeing his luggage and wares being brought on board. Nicolò had nodded at Yusuf as they almost ran into each other on the narrow deck, and when Yusuf had greeted him friendly, Nicolò had smiled – a crooked, small smile that nevertheless warmed Yusuf’s heart. He hadn’t seen Nicolò again until next morning, when they raised the anchors and set sail at dawn.
So – Nicolò met somebody then, that last night before they sailed off?
“And –” Nicolò hesitates. “I am but a sailor. All I know is sailing and fishing. I don’t know how I could bring anything to him, when he is a wealthy merchant and knows so many things about the world I have never thought about.” He sighs deeply. “It was easier when I only loved the sea.”
Yusuf wants to lay his hand on Nicolò’s arm to comfort him, but he isn’t sure it would be welcome. He wants to speak, too, but Nicky goes on, dreamily.
“Maybe – maybe I could be of some help to him, when he needs to trade with foreigners, speaking some languages he doesn’t. Or he could teach me to keep his books for him.”
“He would be lucky to have you, Nicolò.”
The words taste like ash, but Yusuf desperately wants Nicolò to smile again, so he forces them out nevertheless.
“Would he?” Nicolò turns back to Yusuf, staring at him intensely. “When I bring no fortune, no connections? When I bring nothing to further his trade? When I bring only my body – I am strong and I can work, whatever needs to be done, I am willing to burn my muscles to do it –”
Your body alone would be enough, Yusuf thinks, unbidden, as Nicolò continues, softly.
“Would he be lucky with that? Would – would you be, Yusuf al-Kaysani?”
“I – would I be –”
Yusuf once again is tongue-tied, shocked by Nicolò’s question, so pointed, and the way Nicolò is staring at him, that singular intensity in his eyes, and –
Yusuf is sure his face must be red, even in the pale light of the moon, as he realizes.
“Oh, Nicolò. Yes. Yes, I would be. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”
“Yes?” Nicolò repeats, a bit bashful, bowing his head.
“Yes, Nicolò. Yes.”
“Oh.” Nicolò stares at him, seemingly unsure about how to go from here, but his smile is back, and his eyes sparkle.
“Yes,” Yusuf says again, for good measure, and a strange boldness strikes him, makes his blood boil and the tension in his lower body coils again. “I don’t know much about these things, but I think you should kiss me now.”
Nicolò grins, and does as requested.
It is – too short, too chaste, and Yusuf whines when Nicolò pulls back way too soon – until he hears Nicolò’s ragged breath, and notices the flush on his cheeks.
“We have to stop,” Nicolò pants, and his hips buck against Yusuf’s, and Yusuf realizes with delight why Nicolò is so dazed.
“On the contrary,” he says. “We should go to my cabin, and we should continue, Nicolò.”
It takes but a second for Nicolò to catch his meaning, and Yusuf laughs when Nicolò’s eyes go dark with want.
“Do you think you can teach me everything about love by the time we dock?” Yusuf says, looking at Nicolò through his eyelashes. He relishes the groan Nicolò makes, hiding his face against Yusuf’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” he answers with that crooked smile. “There is a lot to discover.”
Yusuf shivers at the hunger in Nicolò’s eyes.
“Then we better start,” he whispers, excited and elated.
“I can make sure this trip lasts a week longer than is necessary,” Nicolò replies after a long beat, and Yusuf laughs.
“Please do,” he says, as he leads Nicolò to his cabin.