Chapter 1: I have no doubt I could love you forever.
As soon as Nicky walks through the door he feels immediately suspicious. Booker and Andy are at the breakfast bar, twin expressions of poorly worn nonchalance.
“What’s going on?”
They look at each other, they look at Nicky.
“Your birthday is coming up.” Andy says.
“Dirty thirty!” Booker hollers, despite Nicky being the least dirty almost-thirty year-old Booker has ever known.
“Yes. And we agreed we would stop buying each other presents,” Nicky reminds them.
Booker holds up a finger. “I actually never agreed to that.”
Andy continues like neither of them had interrupted her. “Booker and I have been talking.”
Nicky sighs, “Do I need to sit down for this?” He doesn’t wait for an answer.
“It’s been two years, Nicky, since, well...” Since he asked to be released from his vows, yes, Nicky was very much aware. “And you haven’t...” Andy looks at Booker, who helpfully shrugs at her.
Nicky knows what she means. The few times he has joined them on a night out, he keeps to himself, turns down any offers of drinks from strangers, and leaves early. He shrugs. “So what? You want me to be more like you, like Booker?”
“No, of course not.” Andy sits next to him. He sees she’s holding a tablet. “We don’t want you to change. We just want you to feel more confident about yourself. We think you can still get stuck in your head sometimes, Nicky.” She touches his arm. “You are such a kind and wonderful person, but you’re not letting anyone in.”
The seat on his other side sinks as Booker makes himself comfortable. “Andy found this website.” Booker nods at Andy who hands Nicky the tablet.
For a long moment, Nicky doesn’t know what to say. “You want to hire a prostitute for me?” He’s dumbfounded.
“Sex worker,” Andy gently corrects. “And only if you want to,” she reminds him.
“You think this will help?” He asks, genuinely curious.
“Well..." He can see Booker and Andy mouthing at each other over his shoulder. " We think if you have a professional for the first time," Andy picks up, "it would get rid of any pressure, or anxiety you might have. And it’ll be safe. You will be in control of everything. You can learn what you like. This place is very exclusive, very professional.”
“Don’t worry. Andy can get a very reasonable rate.” Booker arches an eyebrow and smirks.
Nicky narrows his eyes at Booker and then turns to Andy. “I thought you said you found this website.”
“Uh...I did. I found it in my email when it was emailed to me.”
“How many people have you told about this,” Nicky hisses.
“Only Quynh.” Andy promises quickly.
Nicky groans. “Quynh knows?” He's met Andy's on-again-off-again girlfriend a handful of times.
“Yes. But you trust her, don’t you? She’ll have vetted them thoroughly, would only have picked the very best.”
“Crème de la crème,” Booker echoes.
Nicky doesn't know if he trusts Quynh, but she had always looked very put together and in control. He sighs loudly. “I’ll have a look,” He concedes. It’s actually quite sweet, Nicky thinks. Very weird and very nosy, but sweet. They’ve all been friends for so long, whatever boundaries they have left keep getting redrawn. He knows his friends only want the best for him. “But after this, no more, OK?”
Andy kisses him on the forehead and Booker ruffles his hair before they both retreat to the other side of the room to give him some privacy.
Nicky scrolls through the profiles. It feels strange, like he’s picking out new bed sheets. All the men are extremely attractive. The type of men, Nicky suspects, who would not look twice at him walking down the street. This is not doing much for his confidence. One more, he tells himself, and then it’s over. He tried. He swipes. He blinks. His grip on the tablet tightens. He sees the face of a man who feels like he had sprung fully formed from Nicky’s dreams.
Nicky inhales sharply. Booker and Andy are hovering over his shoulder in an instant.
Booker lets out a low whistle. “Damn, Nicky. What you lack in experience you certainly make up for in exquisite taste.”
“He has kind eyes,” Nicky says.
“Yeah... His eyes .” Booker says, looking pointedly at the shirtless photo. “That’s what I was going to say.”
Nicky frowns at him, tilts the screen away from Booker.
“His name is Joe.” Nicky looks at Andy instead. “Do you think that’s his real name?”
Andy shrugs. “Does it matter?” She asks gently.
Nicky looks down at the tablet and takes in the shape of Joe’s lips, the curl of his lashes. “I suppose not.”
Nicky is nervous. He has been pacing back and forth in the hotel room for what feels like hours. He wonders if it’s too late to cancel. Of course it is. He glances at the clock. He’ll be here any minute. Joe will be here-
There’s a knock at the door. No, there is no turning back now. Nicky checks his hair quickly, runs his fingers through it a couple of times. It stubbornly refuses to be tamed. He gives up and strides to the front of the room. He takes a deep breath, and opens the door.
“Hello. Nicky, yes?”
Nicky can only nod. Joe is even more handsome than in his photos. He is taller than Nicky and that small detail somehow thrills him. They stand there for too long until Joe finally asks if he can come in.
“Of course, of course.” Nicky is flustered. He steps aside and Joe brushes past him. Nicky can smell his cologne - woody and spicy.
“This is a nice room.” Joe turns and smiles at Nicky.
He’s dressed in all black with a leather jacket. Andy had discovered you could request certain outfits as she was keying in their details. Booker had insisted on this ensemble. “Danny Zuko vibes.”
“Yes,” Andy had agreed. “Nicky does give off a certain early Sandy look.”
Nicky didn’t know what to say to that, so he had crossed his arms and huffed at them. Blinking his big, blue eyes.
Nicky fidgets under Joe’s gaze. “I’m nervous.” He admits. He sees no point in lying.
“That’s OK,” Joe says. He closes the space between them. “Here.” He takes Nicky’s hand - the simple touch sends a jolt through Nicky’s entire body - and places it on his chest. “See? Not so scary.”
Nicky can feel Joe’s heartbeat. It is comforting.
“No, not scary.” Nicky says softly. They are standing so close.
Joe smiles and lifts Nicky’s other hand to his face and kisses his palm. He feels the softness of Joe's beard against his fingertips. He wants to feel it against his whole body. Nicky shivers. He slides his hand from Joe’s chest to the back of his neck and tugs him closer. Joe comes easily. Their lips meet. As far as kisses go, it's chaste. But it excites Nicky. Every nerve ending in his body feels like it's sparking to life.
“What do we do now?” He says, when they finally pull apart.
“Whatever you want.” Joe tells him. “Tonight, I am yours.”
Tonight... Nicky buries his face against Joe’s neck, pulling him closer, chest to chest. Joe wraps his arms around Nicky. Holds him until Nicky mumbles against his skin.
Nicky pulls back far enough to say, “Some wine?”
“Sounds lovely.” Nicky leads him to two armchairs by the window.
“I wasn’t sure what you would prefer,” Nicky says, gesturing to the two bottles in the ice bucket. “So I got a red and a white.”
“That’s very considerate,” Joe says as he sits down. “Red, please.”
Nicky nods in approval. “Excellent choice.”
They talk. Well, mostly Nicky talks. Joe listens. Two glasses in and Nicky is in talk-too-much mode. “I still believe in God.” Nicky says. “But the God the church presents with this conditional love and limited understanding,” he shakes his head, “that is not my God.”
Joe has been watching him this entire time, gaze never wavering. Nicky doesn't think anyone has every paid this much attention to him in his life. He wants his eyes on him always.
Joe puts down his glass and takes Nicky hand. “You are a very thoughtful person, Nicky.” He brushes his thumb over Nicky’s knuckles. “I know we have only just met, but I can see the kindness in you. It was very brave of you to leave. It must have been very hard.” Joe's voice feels like a warm bath. He feels safe. “Come here, please," Joe asks.
Nicky does. He brackets Joe between his knees and cups Joe’s face with his hands, emboldened by the wine and Joe's words. They kiss. What starts off as gentle and soft quickly progresses into something more desperate and urgent, open and wet.
Nicky is tugging fruitlessly at Joe’s jacket. “Off,” he mumbles against their lips. Like the command alone will be effective. Joe chuckles. “Bed?” He suggests.
He considers it, but he is loathed to be parted from Joe.
Joe must see the indecision on Nicky’s face. He shifts beneath him and curls an arm around Nicky’s waist. “Hold on.” Nicky is confused. Joe pushes off the armrest with his other hand and now he is standing, staggering slightly under their combined weight. He wraps his legs tightly around Joe.
“You’re so strong,” Nicky breathes as Joe walks them towards the bedroom.
“You’re heavier than you look,” Joe replies (“Hey!”) as he tries to deposit Nicky onto the bed. “You need to let go,” Joe sighs.
“I want to take my clothes off.” Nicky’s arms drop to his side. “Proceed.”
Joe sits on the end of the bed to undo his boots. “You know, you could help.”
Nicky rolls onto his knees to crawl to Joe, his hands reaching out to yank at the jacket.
“I meant,” Joe says, laughing, “you should get naked, too.”
Joe stands and shrugs out of his jacket, and tosses it onto a nearby chair. His fingers grasp the hem of his t-shirt. “Wait.” Nicky says suddenly. Joe stops. “Slower.” Joe blinks at him. “Take it off slowly.” Joe smiles. Joe obeys. Nicky sinks back onto his elbows and watches the flex of muscles as they reveal themselves. His throat feels dry. His body feels scorched. Joe doesn’t bother with the chair, drops the shirt somewhere on the floor. He rests his hands on the fly of his jeans.
He raises an eyebrow at Nicky. Nicky nods.
He starts to unbutton his jeans when Nicky changes his mind. Already shuffling forward with his hands out. “Let me, let me.” He locks eyes with Joe as he unzips the fly, tugs them down past his hips. He then reaches for the band of Joe’s briefs and pulls them down, too. His eyes flicker down. He sees how hard Joe is already. It is intoxicating. He leans forward.
“Nicky,” Joe’s breathing is ragged, his hands in Nicky’s hair. “You don’t-”
“I want to.” Nicky insists, his breath sends a shiver up Joe’s spine. He nods.
Nicky knows how this all should work. He sucks the tip of Joe’s cock into his mouth, wraps his hand around the base. He thinks he’s starting to get the hang of it, judging by Joe’s soft groans and the way he’s thrusting in time with Nicky’s momentum. He feels Joe’s hands cradle his face, gently pulls him away.
Nicky looks up at him. “Did I do something wrong?”
Joe swallows, shakes his head. “I won’t last much longer if we continue down this path. And there are still so many things I want to do to you.”
“It was good, then?” Nicky can’t help sounding a little proud.
Joe impatiently kicks off the rest of his clothes. “You are perfect.” Nicky flushes with pleasure. He urges Nicky to move further up the bed. “But, unfortunately, you’re still fully clothed.”
Nicky lets himself be pushed onto his back. “I want you to undress me.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Joe touches Nicky with such care. Pressing kisses on each patch of newly revealed skin. “What do you want?”
“You will have to be more specific, my love.”
Nicky thinks it’s cruel of Joe to call him that. He tries to ignore the twist in his gut. “Everything,” he insists.
Joe huffs a laugh against Nicky’s skin. “I don’t think we have the time. But we can try.”
They’re kissing and grinding against each other when Nicky whispers, “I want you to fuck me.” He hears Joe breath hitch, feels him nod. He pulls away with great reluctance. Nicky listens to the hum of the air-conditioner, as Joe rummages through his pockets, feels the cool air on his sweat-slicked skin.
“Roll onto your stomach,” Joe says when he returns.
Nicky frowns. “Why?”
Joe rests his hand on Nicky’s hip. “It’ll be easier this way. At least, to start with.”
“But I want to see your face.” Nicky feels embarrassed to admit it.
Joe doesn't respond immediately, Nicky feels the weight of his gaze as he stares at his hands. He feels the bed dip, Joe beside him. He lifts Nicky's chin to meet his eyes. He leans forward to kiss him. “Whatever you want,” he sighs against Nicky's lips.
He guides Nicky into position, rearranging pillows, double and triple-checking Nicky is comfortable.
“Yes, yes,” Nicky repeats. If Joe can hear the impatience in his voice, he ignores it.
“We’ll go slowly,” he says, kneeling between Nicky’s legs. “If it feels like it’s too much, you have to tell me. OK?”
Nicky is again touched by Joe’s gentleness, his concern. He nods. “Do we need something like a safe word?”
Joe smiles, amused. “Sure. You pick. Something you wouldn't normally say under these circumstances.”
Nicky thinks. “Baklava?” He doesn’t know why he picks that. Tries desperately to dispel memories of Andy and the inappropriate noises she makes when eating the pastry.
Joe arches an eyebrow. “You are so strange." He brushes his thumb across Nicky's inner thigh. “I like it.”
Nicky doesn’t use the safe word. He doesn’t even think about it again.
After, when Nicky’s soul has returned to his sated body, Joe gently rolls him onto his side and fits himself against his back. “Tired?” Joe asks, mouthing against his neck.
“No,” Nicky lies. His body aches wonderfully.
Joe huffs a laugh. “Well, I am.” He admits. “But, later, if you want, you can fuck me, too.”
Nicky wriggles around until he is facing Joe. He rests his hand on his cheek. “You want me to?”
Joe smiles. “Yes.”
“You will show me how?” Joe nods. Nicky hesitates. “I won’t be very good. Not like you.”
“Nicky.” Joe rolls on his back. Nicky props himself up by the elbow. “Do not doubt yourself. You are a very fast learner.” He winks at him.
Nicky grins and lets himself be pulled onto Joe’s chest. He feels Joe’s breath even out. He feels his eyelids growing heavier by the second. He glances at the clock on the bedside table. Midnight.
Ten more hours. His heart clenches.
They both wake up a few hours later, like their bodies were aware of the limited time they had left. Joe lets Nicky fuck him. Nicky doesn’t last as long as he would have liked. But Joe, between soft moans, asks, “are you sure you haven’t done this before?” Nicky nods, he can't help the smile tugging at his lips. “You are a natural, Nicky.”
Nicky watches Joe set an alarm on his phone. “I can be a heavy sleeper, (Nicky checks the clock. 4am.) especially after such a workout.” Joe grins. Nicky doesn’t look at him, suddenly very interested in picking at the threads of the bed sheets. He frowns. “Nicky, what’s wrong?” Nicky shakes his head. “Tell me.”
“Let’s just go to sleep.” He mumbles, curling onto himself.
Joe is silent for a moment. “Do you want me to go?”
“No,” Nicky says quickly. “Don't go.” He can’t make out Joe’s face under the shadows. He wonders if Joe can see his. “Please.” He holds out his hand. “Let’s just go to sleep.”
Joe takes Nicky’s hand. Shuffles forward to get comfortable against Nicky. His arm rests around Nicky’s chest. Nicky clutches Joe’s hand.
“Goodnight.” Joe presses a kiss at the nape of Nicky’s neck.
“Goodnight,” Nicky echoes back. It sounds so sad in his own ears. He wonders if Joe can hear it, too.
He closes his eyes.
Chapter 2: The only trouble is, you really don't have the time
The morning after.
Andy isn’t waiting for Nicky to come home, per se. It’s just that this bookcase really needs to be rearranged by year of publication. She hears Booker clanking around in the kitchen and suspects he’s doing something similar. She’s not nervous. She knows Nicky is an adult man and is capable of taking care of himself. “Don’t worry,” Quynh had said, running her fingers through Andy’s hair. “Joe is one of the best. Very romantic, very gentle.” She then shrugged, “You know, if you’re into that.” And then flicked Andy on the forehead.
The problem is, Andy realises now, like an inept detective at the end of a predictable thriller, Nicky was very into that. And maybe this wasn’t such a good- she hears the jingle of keys at the door. Booker’s head appears. “Is that?” She nods. They both scramble onto the couch, rearranging themselves to look as relaxed as possible. She gets elbowed in the chest. She digs her knuckle into Booker’s thigh in retaliation. “Ow! Mine was an accident.” He tries to shove her off the seat completely, but Andy grabs onto the front of his shirt, so they both go down together.
They're upside down, half-sprawled on the ground when Nicky walks past. At any other time, he would have rolled his eyes at them. Or, if he was in a good mood, dump his bag on their faces.
But this Nicky, hoodie pulled up, doesn’t even look at them. Uh oh. “Nicky, wait.” Andy finally untangles herself from Booker. Nicky waits, staring up at the stairs. “Are you- what happ- Did he-” She pinches Booker’s neck. “What she means is,” he winces and squirms away from her, “how was the sex?”
“It was wonderful,” Nicky says softly. He continues up the stairs.
Andy punches Booker in the shoulder. “Hey! What is with you? Do you also need to get laid?” She gestures towards where Nicky was standing a moment earlier. He looks at the empty space and then back at Andy. “He said it was wonderful.”
Andy groans. “You are such a man.” She gets to her feet. “He’s obviously upset.”
Booker shifts so he’s leaning against the couch. “Nicky wouldn’t lie to us.”
“No,” Andy agrees. “But he seemed sad, right?”
Booker considers this. “He did have his hoodie up,” he says slowly.
“Did we fuck this up?” Andy asks softly.
“We ?” Booker squints up at her.
She frowns at him. “It was your money, too, asshole.”
He nods in concession.
“So what do we do now?”
Booker is silent for a moment. “Well,” he begins, “since it was our meddling that got us into this. I can only assume our continued meddling will get us out of it.”
Andy crosses her arms, uncrosses them, shifts her weight to the other foot, and crosses her arms again. She does not have a better idea. “How are you so smart, yet also so stupid.”
Booker shrugs, “I’m French.”
Nicky kicks off his shoes and crawls into bed.
He had woken up to Joe gently rubbing his thumb against his wrist. Their hands loosely clasped together. Joe must have felt Nicky’s shift into consciousness. He squeezed his hand. “Good morning." Nicky glanced over his shoulder. “Hi.” He said, sounding almost shy. Nicky thought he saw something flash in Joe’s eyes. But he was still bleary-eyed, and there was sunlight streaming across his face.
Joe sat up. Nicky immediately missed the warmth. “Shower?” Joe suggested.
“What’s the time?” He hated himself for asking.
“Enough time for a shower.” Joe smiled. “Come on. It’ll feel good.”
Nicky knew he had to savour these last moments with Joe. He looked at the clock. 9:21. He sighed and followed Joe into the bathroom. He snagged his boxer briefs on the way, having suddenly felt very self-conscious.
The shower was running and Joe was brushing his teeth at the sink by the time Nicky appeared. Joe was definitely not self-conscious. “Water’s warming up,” he said around the toothbrush.
Nicky nodded and tried to look busy putting toothpaste on the spare toothbrush when he was actually staring at Joe’s body. He wanted to memorise it.
If Joe noticed, he didn’t say anything. What a professional, Nicky thought. Joe rinsed out his mouth and stepped into the shower. Nicky watched the water run down between Joe’s shoulder blades and then down to the curve of his ass.
“Come on.” Nicky’s eyes snapped up to Joe’s amused face.
“Shower together?” Nicky spat out foam in surprise.
“Yeah.” Joe beckoned him. “It’s good for the environment.”
Nicky abandoned his toothbrush and yanked down his underwear. The water was just on the edge of too-hot, but Nicky kind of liked it. There was so much steam, Nicky could barely make out Joe. But he felt Joe’s hands on his shoulders, pulling him closer. He felt Joe’s lips against his jaw and neck. He turned Nicky around so his back faced him. Joe reached around for the soap. It had felt like Joe’s strong, capable hands were everywhere. Well, almost. Joe moved slowly, like they had all the time in the world. Nicky was so close to begging.
And then, finally, finally, Joe wrapped his hand around Nicky’s hardening cock. Nicky groaned. Joe stepped forward and Nicky felt Joe’s own erection press up against him. Nicky thrusted into Joe’s fist. He wanted to take his time, and relish in Joe’s touch, his attention, but there was also a desperation clawing inside his chest. His hips snapped forward of their own volition. Joe’s grip tightened and Nicky was done. He had both arms braced against the wall in an attempt to keep himself upright. Joe’s arm was around his waist and he was kissing him across the shoulders. He was murmuring something under his breath, but Nicky couldn’t hear him over the sound of the rush of water and the pounding in his ears.
Nicky turned. He stared into Joe’s eyes while he curled his hand around Joe’s cock. When he started moving his hand, Joe’s eyes fluttered shut. “Look at me.” Nicky whispered. He wasn’t sure Joe had heard him. But after a long shuddering breath, Joe’s eyes opened. He looked at Nicky. “Please,” Joe said. Something heavy in his voice. Nicky jerked harder and faster. Joe’s fingers dug into Nicky’s hips. Joe shuddered and tipped his forehead against Nicky’s shoulder and came across Nicky’s hand and stomach, before the water washed it all away.
In the distance, they heard Joe’s alarm go off.
Joe kissed him.
Nicky is startled awake by a knock on his door. “Nicky.” Andy. Nicky ignores it. She knocks again. “Well, I’m coming in anyway. So... please don’t be naked.” The door swings open. Nicky cracks open one eye. She is holding a tub of ice-cream. “It’s your favourite.”
“I don’t have a favourite.” He mumbles into his pillow.
“You do,” she insists. “Chunky Monkey is definitely your favourite.”
“That’s your favourite.”
She pulls out his desk chair and sits down.
“Do you want some or not?” She pulls off the lid and holds out the second spoon.
Nicky knows Andy will not go quietly into the night. He is also a little bit hungry. He snatches the spoon from her hand. She scoots closer and clamps the tub between her knees. They eat in silence.
“So,” she finally says, “I don’t have to kill Joe, do I?”
Nicky glances at her. She’s holding the spoon like it’s an axe. He shakes his head.
“Oh, good.” She turns her weapon back to the ice-cream. “Quynh would be pretty upset with me. But I would have done it. That’s how much I love you.”
Nicky can’t help the smile tugging at his lips. “I know.”
After a few more bites, Nicky relinquishes his spoon. The sickly sweetness on an otherwise empty stomach is starting to make him feel ill.
“Talk to me, Nicky. I can’t fix it if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“You can’t fix it.” Nicky says, pushing himself up into a sitting position. He sighs when he sees the look on Andy’s face. “I don’t regret it,” he admits. He rubs his face with both hands. “It’s just...in the span of a single night, it feels like I’ve fallen in love and then had my heart broken.”
Andy closes her eyes. “Oh, Nicky.”
“It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid. He probably has a partner. And they’re almost certainly very beautiful. And they must have sex all the-”
Andy presses her ice-cream-tub-cold hand across Nicky’s face. “Stop. Just stop.”
Nicky recoils from her and rubs his face with the sleeve of his hoodie. “What is wrong with you?” He mutters.
Andy’s pushing the lid down onto the tub when Nicky asks, “Do you think I’ll ever see him again?” He’s not looking at her and when Andy doesn’t immediately reply he slumps back onto the bed, pulling the duvet over himself.
She leans over to pet the tuft of hair left peaking out. “I don’t know, Nicky.”
Andy stomps down the stairs, pauses halfway when she sees Booker lying on the couch with the remote in his hand.
“Meddling?” He asks.
She nods. Meddling. She pulls out her phone.
Chapter 3: You taught me the courage of stars
When you meddle right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
Joe loiters in front of the building. He’s been parked here for 10 minutes, frozen in indecision. He wonders for the hundredth time how he ended up here. He had a plan. He had accounted for the instant attraction he felt when Nicky had opened the door. Sure, it was infinitely stronger than anything he had felt before, but he had at least prepared himself. But then he had listened to Nicky talk, was charmed by the gentle rise and fall of his voice, the flutter of his eyelashes when he laughed, the way he looked at Joe with such conviction.
And Joe was fucked. Joe was so fucked.
It had taken all his will power to close the hotel door behind, to leave Nicky behind. This was for the best, he told himself over and over again. Do not turn around. Keep moving forward. He jabbed at the elevator button harder than necessary. OK, it wasn’t a great plan, Joe would be the first to admit that. But it was still a plan. And it was working? Probably? Maybe he had overestimated his ability to resist a beautiful man with a gentle heart and captivating eyes, but he had been able to leave, right? He followed the plan . And though it had veered almost dangerously out of control, Joe had at least expected all of this, to some degree.
What he had not accounted for was a furious-looking woman and a sombre Frenchman requesting to meet him. He had agreed to it because his immediate concern for Nicky had overridden any sense of self-preservation Joe had carefully built. He knew it revealed more of his hand than anything he could say to deny it. But say it he does.
Andy looked surprised and then annoyed. “What?”
“It won’t help. He needs time. He’ll get over it.” It had hurt him to say it, but he knew it was true. Had to believe it was true.
“He’ll get over it?” Andy repeated, like Joe was stupid.
Joe bristled, stood to leave. He was being smart! He dropped some bills for his untouched coffee. “Trust me.” They had told him Nicky was fine (relatively, Joe tried not to dwell on that) and that’s all he needed to know.
“But Quynh said...” Booker was already wincing before the words had finished coming out of his mouth, like he was revealing something that was told to him in confidence.
Joe knew he should have left then, but he had already sat back down. “What...” He saw a spark of what he thought was sympathy in Andy’s eyes. A sudden kinship when she recognised the exasperation in his voice, another person who has to deal with the mercurial whims of Quynh, “..did Quynh say?”
Booker glanced at Andy, and once seemingly sure he was not going to be immediately injured, he looked back at Joe. “She said you requested some time off, and...that it was indefinite.”
He was extremely annoyed, but also a tiny bit impressed with Andy, what skills she must have to pry such information from Quynh.
“I am...planning to travel.” It was such a pointless, transparent lie. Joe felt like a kid with cookie crumbs smeared across his face and hands.
“What’s your number?” Andy pushed forward. “I’ll text you our address.” Like she had not listened to a word Joe had said.
“I don’t give out my number,” He responded automatically.
They both stared at him. “ We’re not the ones in love with you,” Booker clarified. Joe couldn’t hold back the wince, as if Booker had knuckled down on a fresh bruise.
“Fine.” Andy said, and reached over to yank a napkin from the container between them. She gestured towards Booker expectantly. He frowned at her. “I don’t have a pen.”
They sat in silence until a waitress returned with a pencil. Andy nodded a polite thank you before she looked back at Joe and brought the lead tip down with such force Joe was surprised the napkin didn’t tear.
“Let me ask you this”, Andy said as she scribbled. “And if you can’t be honest with us, at least be honest with yourself.” She held out the flimsy paper. “Do you want to see Nicky again or not?”
Joe's eyes flicked down at the napkin, then to Andy, then to Booker, and then back at the napkin. He sighed, he stood, he took the napkin.
He thumbed a message once he was back in the relative safety of his car. It was unnerving having two sets of eyes just stare at you. Your girlfriend is terrifying.
The reply was almost immediate, as if she had been waiting for it. Thank you.
He read the napkin - an address, just as Andy had said, but also a date underlined twice.
From his rear-view mirror, Joe watches a woman with an absurd amount of balloons jauntily trailing behind her buzz the intercom of the building Joe has been staring at for - he doesn’t even know for how long now.
With his window down, he is just close enough to hear a distant gruff male voice say, “It’s just Nile.”
“What do you mean just Nile?” The woman shoots back. But there is no reply, as she huffs and shoves the door open.
“You can still walk away from this, Joe.” He tells himself out loud, like that would make it somehow more true.
He tries to think of something clever to say into the intercom, something about being in the neighborhood, but is relieved when he’s buzzed in without a word.
“You’re late.” is the first thing he hears once he’s stepped out of the elevator.
“You didn’t write a time,” he protests when he sees Andy holding the door open. She only smirks at him when he enters. Well, she’s got him pegged, hasn’t she.
“Hi!” Nile greets him brightly with a wave. Booker lifts a glass to him. He nods at them. His eyes lingering at the brightly-coloured balloons bobbing behind her head. "Whose birthday?” He asks, before he can help himself.
“Nicky,” they all replied together, like it had been rehearsed.
He looks at Andy. “You didn’t tell me that.” He sounds more annoyed than he means.
“Why? You would have brought him a present?” She nudges him with her shoulder. There's a smile ghosting her lips, a lightness in her eyes. Joe feels a sudden, irrevocable rush of gratitude towards her. He opens his mouth but she cuts him off with a nod. She understands. “He’s upstairs, Romeo.”
He hears a cheer followed by one set of hands clapping as he turns towards the stairs. He looks back at them. Nile is already looking embarrassed. “Sorry, sorry,” she mumbles. “Got carried away.”
Joe knocks on the door. “I said no, Booker.” And just to hear his voice, however muffled and annoyed, warms Joe from the inside out.
“It’s Joe,” he says, hesitates, before adding, “from...the other night.” Smooth, Joe, smooth.
There’s an excruciatingly long silence, just long enough for Joe to consider if Nicky doesn’t actually want to see him. But the thought is interrupted by an urgent, “Just a minute!”
There’s a series of loud thumping and soft cursing, and when Nicky opens the door, his cheeks are flushed, he’s slightly out of breath, his hair tousled.
Bed head, Joe thinks, fondly. He wants to reach out and run his hands through it. He clenches his hands into fists instead.
Nicky shifts forward like he wants to hug Joe, but seems to think better of it. He steps back. “Please, come in.”
Joe had not considered what Nicky’s bedroom would look like, and despite the dishes stacked precariously on his bedside table and the pile of clothes haphazardly shoved under his bed, there is a coziness to it that Joe immediately likes.
“I wasn’t expecting company.” Nicky explains watching Joe look around. “Normally, I...” He trails off when Joe smiles at him. “Here,” he pushes his desk chair towards him. Joe sits. Nicky hovers for a moment before finally sitting on the edge of his bed. “What are you doing here?” He can already see the realisation dawning in Nicky’s eyes as he completes the question. He groans and slumps down onto his bed. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t - I didn’t ask them to.”
Affection blooms inside Joe’s chest. “I know,” he tells him, gently. “They are very protective of you,” he offers.
Nicky frowns at the ceiling. “They need to mind their own business.” He sighs. “What did they say?”
“They said you were upset and...” Joe hesitates, stares at his hands so he doesn’t have to look at Nicky. “And that you think you’re in love with me.”
“I am.” Nicky says quickly. Joe looks up, sees him propped up on his elbows, so he can look directly at Joe.
“You’re upset...?” Joe knows it’s not what Nicky means, but his heart is pounding so loud and he can’t focus.
“I’m in love with you,” Nicky says, unnecessarily so.
“Nicky...” Joe had not expected this. Had not expected the absolute certainty in Nicky’s admission. Joe has a plan. And Nicky is very flagrantly not following it.
“Do you not feel it, too?” Nicky is sitting upright now. He says it with a quite confidence like he already knows the answer. He must be able to read it so clearly on Joe's treacherous face.
“I do,” Joe says, so softly. A confession wretched out of him from deep inside his chest.
“Why do you fight it?” There is no judgement in Nicky’s voice. Just a sense of curiosity like the idea is so foreign to Nicky.
And it seems only fair then, to meet Nicky's unassuming honesty with his own.
“Because I’m afraid of how much I love you,” he pauses, “could love you.” The patience in his eyes encourages Joe to continue. “There is so much more in this world than me.”
Nicky shakes his head. “There is no-one else.”
Joe laughs because he is nervous. It all feels so surreal. A week ago, they didn’t even know each other. And now? Now?
Nicky isn’t laughing. He’s watching Joe carefully, he looks a little hurt like he thinks Joe is mocking him. The laughter dies in his throat.
“When I first saw you,” Joe isn’t sure why he’s telling Nicky this, perhaps as a form of an apology. A secret he had hoped to keep buried in his heart, “it felt like I had seen you before.”
Nicky is silent for a moment. “Like in a dream?”
Joe considers it. “Maybe. Or like in another life?”
“Like destiny,” Nicky says softly, almost to himself.
Joe doesn’t know if he believes in that, but he finds himself pushing off from the chair and kneeling before Nicky. He believes in Nicky.
“I would wait for you,” Joe takes Nicky’s hands and holds them to his chest. “If you would still have me.”
“There is no-one else,” Nicky repeats. “Only you.” He hauls Joe up by the shirt. They both tumble onto the bed. “So stupid,” Nicky mutters before he kisses him.
Later, Joe will tell Nicky his name is Yusuf. “Growing up,” he’ll shrug, “it was easier to go by Joe.”
“My parents named me Nicolò, after my great grandfather.”
“Nicolò,” he repeats.
Nicky will smile at him. “I like how you say it.”
“Happy birthday, Nicolò.”
“Yusuf, Yusuf, Yusuf,” Nicky repeats happily. “I love you.”