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The first time they meet it goes… well, it doesn’t go great, but it could be worse.

The Old Guard opens at seven a.m. on the dot every single morning, come hell or high water, and it’s only through Nicky’s love of their carefully cultivated little cafe and his love of his dear friends that gets him out of bed at four twenty five every morning to make that happen. It’s still dark outside and the streets are nearly empty, aside from the mountains of garbage still awaiting pickup, and Nicky pulls his peacoat closer around himself as he walks briskly down the street to catch the train that is only early when he himself is running late. 

The station itself is also mostly empty. There are a few people milling about in scrubs, and a young couple who are clearly just coming back from an enjoyable evening perusing the local bar scene, and Nicky has just enough time before the train arrives to check his text messages. There’s one from Nile from the previous night, and two spam messages asking if he’d like to lose forty pounds and purchase CBD oil, but nothing else. The message from Nile should be in Italian, because Andy’s been insistent that she learn another language from one of them and Nicky has been doing all he can to pepper it into their casual conversations, but of course it’s not. You can’t give Nile an inch without her taking a mile and Nicky can’t help it that he caves too easily; they can’t all have Andy’s stubbornness, thank god.

The train is suspiciously on time and his ride is unusually uneventful, without anyone bothering him for money or drugs. Maybe it’s because it’s a Monday - or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s going to be a good day - but he can’t help but feel uneasy by his good fortune nonetheless. Good things happening on his daily commute shouldn’t make him nervous, but that’s exactly how things usually work out and he’s not above feeling superstitious about it. 

Nicky gets to the cafe at a quarter to five and lets himself inside with his key, the tiny brass bells above the door jingling to announce his arrival. He punches in the security code and makes his way into the back, grabbing one of the black aprons hanging on the wall on his way. This is, truth be told, the best part of the morning. When Nicky is by himself in their tiny kitchen - cranking out a variety of croissants, scones, and other baked goods - he feels most at peace. There is something about the smell of butter and sugar in the air that makes him feel more awake than even their strongest brew and there’s something about creating something spectacular out of base ingredients that makes him feel accomplished. Baking is not something he learned to do as a child and wasn’t something he grew up wanting to get into, but when Andy had opened The Old Guard she had wanted to supply their own baked goods rather than bring them in and none of them had known how to bake. So it had seemed he was as good a choice as any of them to shrug his shoulders and say, with the air of a man who truly had no idea at the time, ‘ How hard can it be ?’ 

The answer is that it had been painstakingly hard. Nicky is patient, and he is good at following directions, but baking is a science and it leaves little room for him to make mistakes while he’s learning. Croissants are a far cry from the boxed muffins mixes of his youth and they’re entirely unforgiving when Nicky forgets a step, or fudges a measurement, or leaves them to prove for too long. But, as with all things, his patience had won out in the end and they had blundered through some truly abysmal danishes and pastries before something had finally clicked and Nicky had found his footing. Which hadn’t mattered then, because everyone comes for Andy’s unbelievable coffee and the baked goods are just the icing on the cake that already had icing on it to start, but Nicky feels proud regardless. He feels happy to contribute something of substance to their business rather than the ability to be a warm body who knows how to roast coffee beans. 

The first couple of months had been rough, but now everything operates like a well oiled machine. By six o’clock on the dot the croissants are glazed, the scones are iced, and there’s a familiar jingle above the door that signals Booker’s entrance - right on time. 

“Don’t ask,” Booker says, of the black eye he has tried and failed to conceal with makeup. He hangs his messenger bag on a hook behind the counter and pulls on an apron. He is either hungover or still drunk, smelling like aged whiskey even from a distance, but Nicky knows him well enough to not comment on that either.

Nicky holds up both his hands in surrender and says, in Italian, “ I would never .”

Booker gives him a tired, but warm grin and gets started roasting some extra beans for their morning rush. Green coffee beans smell a little unpleasantly like wet hay when they first begin roasting and Nicky ducks back into the kitchen to busy himself with taking the last batch of blueberry muffins out of the oven to cool so that he doesn’t have to smell it. He does drink coffee, and he does like it, but he’s not very picky. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t know the value of a good cup of coffee, but he is not the kind of person who gets especially worked up about it; he is, in short, not one of their customers. 

Andy shows up at six forty five with a busted lip and some impressive bruising of her own and Nicky clucks his tongue at the sight of her. 

“This is why I pick the bar next time,” Booker tells her, and hands her a mug of her usual fare. To Nicky he repeats, with an amused smirk, “Don’t ask, Nicky.”

“I’m not asking,” Nicky confirms, gesturing between the two of them as though surely they realize he doesn’t need to ask anymore about what they get up to on their nights out terrorizing the city. “After all, what is the first rule of Fight Club ?”

“You’re too good to us,” Andy says to him as she takes a sip of her coffee and moves past them both to put on her own apron. She sets herself up at the espresso machine and starts loading the hopper with the beans Booker recently roasted. “Nicky will be the one that bails us out of jail at three in the morning on a Wednesday and then takes us to get pancakes.”

Booker snickers and Nicky rolls his eyes, but she’s not wrong .

The morning rush starts at two after seven, right after Booker has flipped their closed sign to open, and Nicky busies himself pouring paper cups of drip coffee while Andy makes drinks. Booker rings up their customers, making idle small talk with their regulars, and seems to only disturb a handful of people with his rough appearance this morning. He manages to upsell a handful of college aged girls getting lattes on trying the muffins, which he packages up in brown paper bags for them, and Nicky pretends not to eavesdrop when they gush over them and take photos for their social media. 

The rush dies down around nine thirty to something a little more steady. It gives Nicky enough time to duck into the back to restock their paper goods and gives Booker enough time to add more change to the register. Andy has enough of a pause in orders that she starts making some concoction for them to try that smells faintly of cinnamon and star anise. 

Nicky is in the doorway leading from the cafe to the kitchen when he can’t help but overhear Booker asking someone, who has undoubtedly taken his suggestion on what to order, “Well? What do you think?” 

“This scone is absolutely exquisite,” the customer says, and Nicky cannot see him from where he is standing behind Booker but he sounds genuine enough. Then the man ‘hms’ thoughtfully and adds, as though it means absolutely nothing, “It is a little dry and perhaps a bit sweet. Too much icing? Otherwise it is perfect.”

Despite knowing that he should continue on into the kitchen, Nicky doesn’t move. He can feel the back of his neck heat up immediately in annoyance. He spent months perfecting that scone recipe. No one else has had a word of critique regarding his scones and of course there’s always going to be no accounting for personal taste, and taste is entirely subjective of course, but, in that moment, in rubs Nicky the wrong way all the same. 

Booker takes the well meaning criticism exactly as it's meant to be taken, nodding along and thanking him for his comments, but Nicky can’t let it go. He turns around on his heel, his previous journey into the kitchen all but forgotten. His agitation and scorn is immediately halted however because the customer in question standing at the counter - the asshole who is critiquing his baking - is infuriatingly attractive. He has ridiculously bright brown eyes, a gorgeous face accented by a well kept beard, and beautiful natural black curls. He is perhaps of middle eastern descent, although Nicky is terrible at picking out ethnicities, and he’s easily the most handsome man Nicky has seen since coming to New York. Still, beauty is only skin deep and Nicky will not let himself be distracted or sidetracked by a pretty face. 

He says to Booker, in Italian, without so much as another glance at the man, “ Please advise our customer that, if he does not prefer sweets, perhaps not to order something so obviously drizzled in fucking sugar next time.”

Booker’s expression doesn’t change - he’s always had a hell of a poker face when he needs to - but he does turn to the man with a pleasant smile already on his face. 

“My colleague is grateful for your input,” he says, and Nicky scoffs at him so loudly it can’t be mistaken for anything but contempt. 

“I’m afraid my Italian is something of a joke,” the man says, glancing bemused between both Booker and Nicky, as though the sour look on Nicky’s face is giving away the fact that he’s not grateful in the least. But he still says, specifically to Nicky, unbearably genuine, “ Grazie.”

“Grazie? Grazie!?” Nicky echoes, flabbergasted, but Booker is already turning him by his shoulders and pushing him bodily back through the swinging door and into the kitchen. Nicky allows himself to be corralled back into his safe place and doesn’t even give Booker’s retreating back a farewell glare. He rolls up his sleeves and starts washing dishes with far more aggression than they probably require, trying not to listen as Booker continues to charm their customers. 

And that’s the first time they meet.

 

-/-

 

It is a week later when they meet again and Nicky is elbows deep pushing two pounds of butter through the grating setting on the food processor. It’s nearly ten and the rush has died down enough that he felt safe slipping away to knock out some puff pastry while Booker watches the front. He’s thinking about making mille-feuille tomorrow, but it’s been months since he tried his hand at it and he’s thinking he needs to have a surplus of dough handy for the inevitable failures that are going to come out of it. There’s a French bakery near Booker’s apartment that does a mouth watering mille-feuille, with delicate pastry and elegantly piped cream, and Booker has brought it to him in a little plastic container enough times that Nicky is positive he can replicate it if he puts his mind to it. 

“Your friend is back,” Booker says almost sing-song, coming into the kitchen. “Should I recommend him the croissants or the tartlets? Which do you want him to scathingly critique next?”

“My friend,” Nicky repeats, looking up from his work and raising an eyebrow. “Who do you mean?”

“Your friend from last week. The man who insulted your scones and sent you flying off into an Italian rage.”

Oh , Nicky thinks. That one .

“You’re a funny man, Booker,” Nicky tells him flatly, turning the food processor off. “You waste your talents here when you could do comedy.”

“I’m going to suggest the madelines specifically so someone else can agree with me that they’re too dry,” Booker says and spins on his heel to go back out into the cafe. “I’ll let you know what he says, mon amie .”

Nicky exhales loudly through his nose and glances between his work and the swinging kitchen door for a good minute before his pride gets the best of him. He shoves the grated butter into the fridge, wipes his hands clean on a towel, and goes through the door and into the front. 

The man from last week is indeed standing there at the bakery case perusing his options, while Booker stands at his register and makes idle chit chat with him about the benefits of their croissants versus their kouign-amann. He is no less dashing a week later, even if his curls are hidden underneath a snug green beanie, and Nicky immediately regrets leaving the safety of his kitchen. 

“Ah, Nicky should be the one to make the suggestion,” Booker says, and Nicky has a whole handful of suggestions he’d like to make for Booker that he’s sure Andy would say were inappropriate to discuss in front of customers. 

The man looks up from the case, beautiful eyes focused solely on Nicky in that moment. He smiles, endearingly warmly, and straightens up when he says, “That would be excellent. I’d love to know what you recommend.”

Nicky stares back at him and says, with an emphasis on his accent, his tone bone dry, “I don’t speak English.”

He can hear Andy’s snort even over the sound of steaming milk.

There is a flicker of disappointment in the man’s face, but it fades quickly. His warm smile slides back into place easily and he says, “Ah, then I must work on my Italian.”

Booker looks as though it is physically paining him to keep a straight face. 

What would you suggest he try? ” he asks Nicky in Italian, even though Nicky has done nothing to bribe him into keeping up the pretense. 

The Starbucks down the street ,” Nicky replies back, and then, because he is still working on perfecting his madeleines and he’s half afraid Booker is truly going to suggest them, he adds, gaze flickering to their customer, “Croissants.”

“A croissant it is then,” the man agrees pleasantly, and steps over to the register so that Booker can ring him up. “ Grazie , Nicky.”

The back of Nicky’s neck is heating up again, but it’s impossible for him to tell if it’s due to annoyance or the entirely cheeky wink the man shoots him before he can turn away. Nicky pretends there’s any reason at all for him to rush back into the kitchen and heads back through the swinging door as though he’s left something in the oven. He can hear Booker wishing the man well, and then there’s the tell-tale jingle of the bells over the door, and Nicky busies himself with anything other than wondering how the croissant went over.

 

-/-

 

Wednesdays are uncommonly slow and are the perfect opportunity to let Booker and Andy take the day off while Nicky and Andy’s coffee protege, Nile, run the cafe on their own. Nicky works on preparing enough pastries to get them through tomorrow - Thursdays, blessed Thursdays, are his day off - and operates the register while Nile coaxes the espresso machine into pretending that it will work for anyone other than Andy. 

“I’m never going drinking with Booker and Andy again,” Nile tells him, at a quarter past ten. She doesn’t look hungover, but she does look tired and Nicky knows enough about what it’s like to spend an evening trying to keep up with the two of them to know how she’s feeling. “First of all, Andy abandons us the moment she makes eyes with an attractive woman. And I mean full on abandon - left the bar, turned off her phone, never looking back kind of abandon. Then Booker just decides he’s ready to go to another bar and he leaves. Doesn’t say a word, just gets an Uber and leaves.”

“I told you,” Nicky reminds her, as he returns from removing another batch of scones from the oven. 

“You told me ‘you can’t keep up with them, Nile,’” Nile corrects, holding up her index finger as though making a point. “I thought that meant I couldn’t match them drink for drink. Not that they would be physically impossible to keep tabs on.”

“It is both,” Nicky says, with a laugh. “I thought you knew what you were getting into.”

“Yeah, right, you probably heard Andy say I was going with them and laughed yourself sick on your ride home thinking about it.”

“We are laughing about it together now,” Nicky assures her, even though all it does is earn him another roll of her eyes as she goes back to filling the espresso machine with the beans Booker roasted for them yesterday morning.

There’s the crisp jingle of the bells over the door and a familiar, handsome man walks into the cafe and there is nowhere for Nicky to escape to. He immediately thinks to dive into the kitchen and leave Nile to run both the register and the espresso machine, but the man’s eyes light up in recognition and Nicky knows that small window of opportunity is long gone. 

Good morning, Nicky ,” the man says, in Italian no less, and Nicky can feel the tips of his ears start to burn. 

“Good morning ,” he repeats, pointedly not looking at where Nile is most likely shooting him a confused glance. He continues, “What can I get for you ?”

“An Americano, if you please, and whatever you recommend from the case today ,” he says, and his Italian is very well rehearsed but is noticeably uncomfortable on his tongue all the same, and Nicky tries not to think about this man practicing what he was going to say over and over just on the off chance Nicky might be at the counter. The man continues, gaze flickering away from Nicky only briefly, as though attempting to recall what he was planning to say, “ The croissant was the most incredible thing I have ever eaten .”

The man’s accent needs work, and his pronunciation is shaky, but Nicky feels like he’s been punched in the chest regardless. The flush on his ears makes its way down his neck and he swallows thickly. 

Grazie ,” Nicky manages to say. He clears his throat and asks, even though they have never once asked this of any other customer, “ What is your name? For the order?”

“Yusuf,” the man replies, and Nicky nods as he punches in the order. There’s nowhere on their antiquated computer system for him to even put that name in, but he files it away in his head all the same. 

Two eighteen ,” Nicky tells him, calling to Nile, “Americano.”

Two eighteen? ” Yusuf repeats, frowning. “ Coffee with pastry?

Nicky clears his throat and shrugs his shoulders and says, as though he’s ever given anything away for free before, “ Today, yes. Tomorrow, maybe not.

Yusuf smiles warmly at him and Nicky tries not to notice how bright it makes his eyes. It isn’t until he’s paid for his items and left with them in hand that Nicky carefully chances a glance at where he knows Nile is staring at the side of his head in quiet contemplation. 

Nile raises both eyebrows at him, as though she’s more than aware he’s been avoiding her for the past few minutes. “What was that all about?”

“A regular,” Nicky says, which is both the truth and a non-answer rolled all into one. He starts wiping down the counter, even though he can see Nile is not turning back to the espresso machine. 

“Uh huh,” she says, clearly unconvinced. “So do you speak in Italian so I won’t know that you’re flirting or is there some other reason?”

“It is because we are talking about you and don’t want you to know,” Nicky tells her with a completely straight face, before turning and heading back into the kitchen to check on how his scones are cooling. 

 

-/-

 

Yusuf comes in a few times a week after that point without fail, even if the days he chooses to come in on seem to be more arbitrary than anything else. He works his way through the bakery case one pastry suggestion at a time and Nicky doesn’t take it too personally when he does agree with Booker that the madelines are a little dryer than is palatable. 

He comes in on a Friday morning a little earlier than his normal time, early enough that he has to wait in line for the rush, but he doesn’t seem to mind the morning chaos. Nicky has a chance to suggest the kouign-amann he only just took out of the oven and the moan that Yusuf makes when he takes a bite almost makes Nicky reconsider giving up organized religion. It isn’t until he’s left that Andy catches Nicky’s eye and gestures with a tilt of her head that he should come see her. 

“He came in yesterday but you weren’t here,” she tells him, knowingly. “He’s learning Italian because he thinks you’re so fresh off the boat you don’t speak English. Just give him your number already.”

“That is the sort of behavior Nile would find charming and you would tell her he is a stalker - or a serial killer - or both ,” Nicky tells her, rubbing at the back of his eyelids with the tips of his fingers. “Nevermind the fact that he is a patron of our business, Andrea.”

“Who says ‘patron’? You sound like a seventy two year old Sicilian grandmother,” Andy admonishes, and nudges him with her shoulder. “Besides we’re not talking about Nile, we’re talking about you.”

“We should talk about anyone other than me,” Nicky replies, and is thankful when Booker casts a glance over at him and pantomimes smoking a cigarette. “I’m giving Booker his break. Try not to burn yourself on the steamer while you’re distracted by my social life.”

“Lack of social life,” Andy amends, but Nicky pretends he doesn’t hear her.

 

-/-

 

Here’s the thing: it’s not like Nicky is blind. Yusuf is breathtakingly attractive and doesn’t even seem to have to go out of his way to be as frustratingly charming as Nicky finds him. He never oversteps their customer-employee relationship, never makes the first wayward comment, but he smiles at Nicky like there’s no one else in the room and it’s not like Nicky hasn’t fucking noticed. Nicky has noticed, okay? That’s not the problem. 

Nicky has dated since moving to New York. Nicky just hasn’t dated anyone worth mentioning since moving to New York. Maybe it’s his luck, or maybe it’s his early morning schedules, but meeting people all on its own has been something of a challenge. Regardless, it was never his intention to meet someone at work . There’s a line between making small talk with their regulars and becoming friends with their regulars and it’s a line Nicky has never once considered crossing. 

Nicky knows nothing about Yusuf except how he likes his coffee, and how much he enjoys Nicky’s baked goods, and that he is probably an artist if the sketchbook he carries around is any indication. He doesn’t know if he is a student, or if he works nearby, or if he’s a serial killer biding his time, and this shouldn’t bother him because he shouldn’t want to know - but, damn it, he does.

So it’s a Tuesday morning, around ten fifteen, when Yusuf is perusing the case of baked goods that Nicky makes up his mind. He takes a deep breath and emerges from the kitchen, dusting his flour-covered hands on his apron. 

“I’ve been working on the mille-feuille,” he says, in accented English but in English all the same, and he has to swallow around his heart as it jumps into his throat when Yusuf looks up sharply  and makes eye contact with him. He continues, undeterred, “But you might want to sit and eat if you have time. It can be difficult to eat while walking.”

Yusuf smiles at him, and the knowing glint in his eye makes Nicky’s traitorous heart race faster, and he glances at Booker when he says, “Mille-feuille it is then. For here, today.”

Nicky takes a deep breath and plates up the pastry while Booker rings Yusuf up. He ignores the quiet snickering from Andy and tells her, taking off his apron and hanging it on a hook by the kitchen door, “I’m taking my break.”

“By all means,” Andy tells him, as she pulls the espresso for Yusuf’s Americano. 

Nicky carries the plate around the counter and sits it at one of the small round tables usually occupied by someone with a laptop. The cafe is mostly empty at this time of morning and he’s glad he’s not going to have to go pull the plug on the WiFi in order to commandeer Yusuf a seat. He waits until Yusuf has sat at the table and then gestures at the empty seat, as though he hasn’t already presumed to occupy it.

“Please have a seat,” Yusuf says, and lifts his fork. “I’m not sure what kind of opinion I can give. The only mille-feuille I’ve ever seen has been while watching The Great British Bake-Off and those were a disaster.”

“Bake off?” Nicky asks, trying not to stare as Yusuf takes a bite of the pastry. 

“A baking competition on TV. You might like it,” Yusuf tells him and then he leans forward, resting both of his hands on the table, “Nicky, I don’t know what it should taste like, but it is amazing.”

Nicky waves his hand dismissively and says, “The lamination is not very good. I do not have much experience making my own puff pastry.”

“If this is your idea of ‘not very good’ then I long to taste it once you’ve mastered it.”

“Baking is my passion,” Nicky says, already feeling the color on his cheekbones. “I will never master it.”

“Spoken like a true artist,” Yusuf says, smiling widely at him. He gestures to the sketchbook laying on the table, forgotten, and says. “I know a thing or two about being a perfectionist when it comes to art. You will always be your harshest critic.”

Nicky watches him take another bite and asks, “Is drawing your passion, Yusuf?”

“Call me Joe,” he says, and there’s that mischievous glint in his eyes again that Nicky shouldn’t be nearly as charmed by as he is. “My passion is art, yes, in whatever form that may take. Sometimes it is drawing, sometimes it is food. I try not to limit myself when it comes to appreciating the beauty this world has to offer.”

 

-/-

 

Taking his break when Yusuf - when Joe - comes in begins to become something of a habit. He hangs up his apron and puts his latest concoction on a plate for Joe to try and, sometimes, he even makes himself a coffee to have something to do with his hands while he sits and watches Joe appreciate his food. It’s only a couple of times a week, and it doesn’t have to be anything more than it is, despite all of the knowing looks he’s been on the receiving end of lately.

Nicky finds out that Joe is a freelance graphic design artist by day and an aspiring traditional artist by night. Joe reveals when and where he graduated college, which gives Nicky some insight as to how close they are in age, and occasionally speaks of the family he has in Jerusalem who don’t understand his love for New York but support him all the same. And maybe Nicky gives a little back, just to make things even. Maybe he discusses his summer trips to see his own family in Genoa, and maybe he elaborates a little on how The Old Guard came to exist at all, and maybe - just maybe - he admits he is still learning how to best take criticism. 

“It’s getting revolting to watch,” Andy tells him on Thursday night while they stand in the cold in Hell’s Kitchen and wait to get into some pretentious pop-up restaurant that Andy’s friend Lykon has been raving about all week. “Just give him your number. You’re giving me a toothache.”

“Your unsolicited advice is, as always, greatly appreciated,” Nicky says dryly, with his hands deep in the pockets of his peacoat and his beanie pulled down over the tops of his ears. 

“Shit, give him my number,” Nile offers, with an easy shrug. They’ve been waiting for over an hour already and she’s rocking back and forth on her heels to keep herself warm. In the beginning she had sandwiched herself between Nicky and Booker in an attempt at leeching whatever heat they might be generating, but that had quickly fizzled out.

“‘I’m done fucking around with men,’ quote Nile twenty nineteen,” Booker recites, dodging the hand that flings out to smack him in the elbow. “I’m just reminding you of your vows, Nile.”

“I’m not above removing your name from the waiting list,” she threatens, glancing towards where the hostess is peering around with an iPad in hand. “Freeman party of three, if you catch my meaning.”

Booker places a hand over his heart, as though he’s been mortally wounded, but it’s Nicky who chimes in with, “Make it party of two. Book and I will go get tacos and bottled margaritas from that taco truck on Keith while you two stay here and wait forever for ramen of questionable quality.”

“Lykon said it’s worth the wait,” Andy reminds him, like that’s all she needs to say on the matter. She would wait two hours in the cold, freezing and hungry, upon a recommendation from Lykon. 

Nile groans and rubs her hands together in front of her. “You guys should go get us tacos and bottled margaritas to eat while we wait to eat ramen. That’s called fusion cuisine, all right? It’s popular right now.”

“Margaritas followed by sake,” Booker says, nodding his head sagely. “That’s how you fucking forget a night, that’s for sure.”

“A sake chaser,” Nile concurs, because she still hasn’t learned her lesson from drinking with Booker and Andy the other night. 

“Someone has to stay sober enough to call us an Uber after this,” Andy says. 

Then, in perfect unison, her, Booker, and Nicky immediately each place their index fingers on their own noses and say, together, “Not it.”

Nile glares at the three of them. “I see how it is.”

“That’s what you get for being the baby,” Booker tells her, sliding an arm around her shoulder. 

“Freeman, party of four!” The hostess calls, and Nile gives them a look that says they’re lucky she’s not dining alone. 

 

-/-

 

Joe comes in on Saturday at his typical time and tries some of the macaroons that Nicky has been testing all week in his free time. They discuss a temporary exhibit at the MoMA that they’ve both somehow seen, and they discuss the chewiness of the macaroons and how they’re lacking in the orange flavor even though Nicky has worn his knuckles down grating orange zest. They discuss Nile’s musical taste as her playlist continues on quietly over the stereo system, and they discuss how it looks like rain, and they discuss everything that’s of no consequence whatsoever.

Joe leaves after Nicky’s fifteen minute break is over, right on schedule, and Nicky barely has his apron on before Nile is rolling her eyes so hard at him all he can see is white.

“You’re going to have to bite the bullet,” Nile tells him. “Joe is a cultured gentleman. He’s not going to ask you out while you’re at work. He’s got class.”

“So it is less uncomfortable for me to ask him out while I am at work?” Nicky questions, running a hand through his hair. “If he has been friendly this entire time and I ruin things by suggesting more then he stops coming in at all. Perhaps all he wants is a friend.”

“Nicky, please, you have to be less of a gay disaster. Just for my benefit. I’m begging you.”

“I am serious, Nile. We could be misreading the entire situation.”

Nile fixes him with another one of her patented looks. “You can either chance it being awkward or you can pass this opportunity up and have to tell your poor sweet mother, when she calls from Genoa to hear your voice, that you’re still tragically single.”

“A low blow,” Nicky says, wincing, but she’s not wrong.

“Don’t make me sink lower,” Nile threatens, and Nicky holds his hands up in defeat.

 

-/-

 

On Monday morning, Nicky places a stone fruit tart in front of Joe, but doesn’t immediately sit down across from him. 

“How familiar are you with Japanese sweets?” Nicky asks, without preamble, but Joe doesn’t seem the least bit thrown off.

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with them at all,” Joe says, and his expression is curious. “What have you been working on?”

“I haven’t - There’s - “ Nicky pauses and clears his throat, before trying again. “There’s a cultural market on Thursday at Bryant Park that has incredible taiyaki.”

“That sounds wonderful,” there’s that warm smile again, like it never left. “What time were you thinking?”

“Two,” Nicky says, then pauses. He nods, mostly to himself, and then takes his seat across from Joe. “You were going to show me your sketches today.”

“Ah, yes. How could I forget?”

And just like that he has a date.

 

-/-

 

Nicky makes it back to his apartment after work on Wednesday and immediately takes a four hour nap - which is a personal best record, and he still gets up with enough time to make a decent approximation of what might be considered real food. It at least requires him to turn on his oven rather than his microwave so in that regard he’s leaps and bounds above what he was capable of forcing himself to do as recently as last year. There are six missed text messages on his phone, four of them memes from Nile and one of them an invitation to go out from Andy, and he spends the rest of his afternoon and early evening sorting through his laundry and watching reruns of Law & Order .

Later that night he ends up at Coil with Andy, because there’s no better way to spend their night than watching burlesque dancers shimmy about on stage and crowding themselves up against people dressed as though they’ve stepped out of a black and white movie. This isn’t exactly Nicky’s ‘scene’, but Nicky’s also not sure he has a ‘scene’ per se, so in lieu of that he trails after Andy while she chases another wild hare.

The hare this time is one of the beautiful dancers, who Andy has been dating for enough time for it to be something of a record; she’s not known for her commitment to relationships. 

“Nicky, I’ve heard all about you,” Quyhn, sparkling in the sparse lighting from the glitter sprinkled across her face, says as she gives him a polite but friendly hug. She smells of bergamot and cedar and, despite being half his size, her biceps alone let him know that she’s probably more than capable of carrying him over her shoulder. “Andrea brought me one of your Chelsea buns and I’ve never been the same.”

“You’re too kind,” he tells her, kissing her cheek. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m afraid our schedules do not normally line up. I was fortunate you were performing so early tonight.”

“I’m something of a night owl,” she admits. “Wednesdays are our early nights.”

“Ladies night,” Andy explains, gesturing with her drink around them, as though Nicky hadn’t noticed he was greatly outnumbered by the onset. “I basically took you to a lesbian bar. Good thing you’ve already got a lesbian haircut.”

Maybe not a lesbian bar. Nicky has been here for a total of forty five minutes and has already turned away three drink offers from a variety of women who are tragically beautiful, but who are also tragically not men. He thinks perhaps Andy assumes all women are lesbians or bisexual because all women are willing to at least give her a once over; he thinks that, perhaps, Andy does not realize the common denominator here is her

Quyhn looks up from where she is texting someone rapid-fire on her phone and says, “I should introduce you to my friend. He is single and hot and in your area.”

“I’ve definitely received that text message before,” Andy mutters around her drink, and Quyhn winks at her.

“I just came to support you, actually,” Nicky says, ignoring the way his stomach drops at the idea of being set up by someone who is on the same wavelength as Andy. “I’m not looking to meet anyone.”

Quyhn doesn’t seem to hear - or seem to be listening to - him. She’s on her tiptoes, waving at someone she sees across the room, and Nicky debates whether he should feign food poisoning. He follows her line of sight through the crowd and his stomach drops again, but in an entirely different way. The man she’s waving at, who is approaching them looking as bewildered as Nicky feels, is Joe. 

Nicky immediately turns to give Andy the most dry look he can manage. “Really, Andrea?”

“You take too long to do everything,” she replies, nonplussed. “Empires were built in less time than it takes you to get your shit together, Nicky.”

“We have a date tomorrow .”

“No,” Andy says, patting him on the shoulder and then sliding her hand around Quyhn’s waist. “You have a date tonight.”

 

-/-

 

Nicky ends up buying them both a drink. The first reason is because Joe buys coffee and pastries from him all week and it feels wrong to let him purchase his own drink when there’s a socially acceptable reason for Nicky to do it for him. The second reason is because Nicky’s going to need it to get through the rest of the night, because he was unprepared for Andy’s meddling, conniving ways. 

He was also grossly unprepared for the black pants Joe is wearing that are hugging his figure like an old lover. Nicky’s own drink may or may not be a double.

“I feel as though they are too powerful together,” Joe says to him, speaking of Andy and Quyhn, even though Andy is standing off to the side of the stage while Quyhn dances her way across it. “An immovable object meets an unstoppable force, so to speak.”

“The Andy-Quyhn paradox,” Nicky agrees, and it earns him another laugh, another understated smile that twists his heart up in his chest like it's gotten stuck in his ribs. He takes another sip of his drink to have something to do with his hands.

“How long have you known Andy for?”

“A long time,” Nicky mutters, casting another look in her direction, even though there’s no way she’s going to take her eyes off of her girlfriend to spare him a glance. “Too long. She knows me unreasonably well. Knows all of us too well, actually. All of us at the cafe we’re… friends. Close friends. Like a family almost.”

“A family you got to choose.”

“Exactly. No great aunts asking why I never call and no hearing from my mother about how if I loved her I would give her sixteen grandchildren.”

Joe laughs and clinks his glass lightly against Nicky’s. “Amen.”

The set continues on for a little longer and they finish their drinks just as Quyhn bows and heads backstage. Joe glances off somewhere to the side, as though he’s contemplating leaving - and, honestly, perhaps Nicky has had enough time to dawdle these past few months. He knows the likelihood of getting what he wants by sitting around and waiting for it to come to him is low and, despite her meddling ways, this is an opportunity that Andy has given him. 

He opens his mouth to say something, but is interrupted when Joe looks back at him, expression difficult to read and says, “I usually go backstage after Quyhn’s set to see her before we part ways for the night. She would be happy to see you too.”

Which is an invitation if Nicky has ever heard one.  

He follows Joe off of the main floor, away from the clouds of smoke drifting in from the balcony, and down a wide set of stairs.  The music gets louder the further down the stairs they go, and it sounds like something instrumental – something with live people instead of the sound system overhead – and the bottom floor is twice as crowded as it was the first time Nicky tried to make his way through the cocktail dresses and waistcoats.  

The crowds of people don't thin out until they're in one of the corners of the larger room, where a guy twice Joe's size lets them back behind a curtained door, which leads to an unfinished hallway that makes the music from outside the door sound like it's being funneled in through a pipe.  The hallway is mostly empty aside from two young women waiting by a staircase, which probably leads up to behind the stage, who are strapping on admirably tall heels.  

They make it down the hallway, and through another door that isn't being guarded by anyone, and then one more door that is large, and metallic, before there's a burst of cool air and, just like that, they're in an alleyway sandwiched between two buildings. There's a fence at either end of the alley, and a girl and a guy at one end smoking and chatting in quiet voices, but otherwise there’s nothing but the sound of the city around them. There’s a door nearby with a ‘No Admittance - Stage Personnel Only’ sign on it that is presumably where Quyhn, and possibly Andy, will be emerging from. If Andy is helping Quyhn get changed Nicky knows better than to wait around. 

“Perhaps I will just message her in the morning,” Joe says, clearly on the same train of thought. He turns and gives Nicky a fond smile. “I will see you tomorrow then, Nicky?”

Missed opportunities, ’ Nicky thinks to himself again, and clears his throat. They are standing close enough that he doesn’t have to move in order to grab the cuff of Joe’s sleeve in between two fingers.

“You learned Italian for me,” he says, instead of perhaps the dozen other things Nile would tell him he should be saying. 

“Nicky, please,” Joe says and he reaches out to straighten the collar of Nicky’s shirt, fingers surprisingly steady even in the cold. His expression is teasing when he continues, unabashed, “I took four years of Italian in college, tesoro . For you I learned to like sweets.”

Nicky can’t stop the laugh that surprises out of him, nor can he keep himself from growing warmer underneath the look of patient adoration Joe gives him. They are of similar enough height that Nicky does not have to lean down to kiss him - just has to tilt his head a little, just enough to catch the slight part of Joe’s mouth - in the middle of the alleyway. 

The kiss is slow, and careful, almost like Joe is testing waters he’s not sure are safe to swim in; Nicky wants to tell him yes, absolutely, jump right in, and he's still working out the best way to say that when Joe's tongue slides across his bottom lip and Nicky moans into his mouth.  The noise is, apparently, a good enough sign as any. Joe curls his fingers tighter in Nicky’s collar and Nicky throws caution to the wind and winds both of his hands into Joe’s beautiful curls.  There is an urgency in the way Joe is kissing him now, tempo increasing from what it had been a moment ago, and if he is trying to make Nicky lose his mind then he's well on his way.

The whole thing feels surreal; it feels like a dream.  He doesn't know how long they stand there in the alleyway, Joe slowly making him lose his sanity with the patient slide of his tongue through his mouth; it simultaneously feels like forever and like no time at all.  It's the sound of a car alarm, at least two streets over, that reminds Nicky where they are and that Andy and Quyhn could emerge from the nearby stage entrance at any time. He reluctantly pulls away, even if he thinks he could stay right where he is for forever, and is rewarded by a flush high on Joe’s cheekbones that he can’t help but feel responsible for. 

Nicky is not breathing heavy, but his mouth feels strange and his heart is pounding in his chest.  He doesn't know when he curled the fingers of his left hand around Joe's sleeve, but they're clutching the fabric so tightly he can feel his fingernails digging into his palms through the cloth.  His mind is a whirl of emotions and thoughts, and his fingers are tingling with nerves and – and something that feels suspiciously like excitement.  

Joe doesn't move away – not really.  His hands are on Nicky’s hips and they feel like brands through the material of his pants.

“Come home with me,” Nicky says, and Joe leans in to kiss him again. 



-/-

 

He thinks that he doesn't want Joe to treat him any differently, but, when it turns out that Joe does, Nicky finds that maybe he does want it.  Because when they're laying in Nicky's full size bed, listening to cars drive down the rain-slick street and the wind finds its way through the edges of the windows, Joe treats him like something very intriguing he's just now noticed.  He moves his fingers across every square inch of Nicky's skin, as though he needs to be sure there's nothing he's yet to discover.  Down the curve of his elbow, across the soft skin from elbow to wrist, down to each individual finger. Nicky is exhausted, and comfortable, and warm; Joe's movements are exciting, but just on the edge of being innocent enough that his body can take it as a massage more than an invitation.

Some part of Nicky irrationally wishes he could have thought to clean his apartment before he left for Coil, but a more rational part reminds him that there's no way he really could have anticipated the night's events unfolding as they have.  There's no way in the world he could have convinced himself he would end up back at his apartment with Joe, both naked in his bed, and, really, isn't it better for people to find out your true tendencies towards avoiding housekeeping rather than putting up a front of cleanliness to lure them in?  Nicky is all about truth in advertising.

He realizes he's thinking about Joe in terms of him being on a need-to-know basis about the state of Nicky's apartment, which is weird.  Because it's almost like he's thinking that this is a thing now, wherein Joe might end up in his apartment – naked – again at some point.  Nicky realizes that the way Joe is tracing his fingers along his spine, careful and enamored, might be giving him the impression that he's not the only one entertaining the thought that this is something that could continue to happen.  The way Joe is looking at him is overwhelming in a way; if Nicky could bottle it, and keep it, just to make certain he got to see it every night, then he absolutely would in a heartbeat.

He thinks about saying something, but he's been keeping his tongue wedged so firmly behind his teeth that he thinks too much might come out if he opens his mouth.  There are a hundred thousand things it is probably not ideal to say right after sex, or even just in general when you're not absolutely certain if what you're doing is something that has lasting appeal or not.  He doesn't want to seem clingy and he definitely doesn't want to project-

Joe curls in against him, tucking his nose against his shoulder.  His breath is warm, and his body is comfortable, and Nicky wants him there today – and tomorrow – and a hundred days later.  It's a sort of frightening feeling, one that he can't control in the slightest, and he manages to squash it down enough to relax into Joe's chest.  He doesn't even think to complain about being the little spoon.

'Be here in the morning,' Nicky thinks to himself, once, twice.  He might mutter it aloud – or he might not – but Joe's breathing is sleep-even against his skin and there's no one to accuse him of it in the quiet of his apartment.

 

-/-

 

Joe is not only still there in the morning, but he’s made coffee and breakfast out of the nothing that was in Nicky’s kitchen. He’s sitting barefoot at Nicky’s tiny kitchen table, drawing in his sketchbook with a regular pencil, and the sight of him curls something undeniably warm deep in Nicky’s chest. 

They eat together in companionable silence and then, once Nicky has drunk the last of his coffee, Joe slides into his lap right there at the table and kisses him breathless.

 

-/-

 

Joe insists on going back to his own apartment to shower and change and promises they’re still on for their taiyaki tasting. 

It’s thirty eight degrees Fahrenheit and raining when Nicky steps off the train at Bryant Park, which is just miserable enough for him to silently admonish himself for making these plans at all. This would be the perfect weather to catch a movie, or go out to dinner, or any other number of indoor activities that did not involve trekking across half the city in order to eat Japanese sweets in the gloom and rain. 

Joe is waiting for him underneath the overhang of a closed yoga studio and, despite the rain and the cold, he looks warm and his eyes brighten when Nicky approaches him and gestures for him to share his umbrella. Joe crowds right into his space without hesitation, linking their elbows together in a way that should feel intimate but that Joe somehow makes seem natural and companionable; Joe has a way of making him feel like they’ve been lovers for decades, rather than two strangers who met a little more than two months ago.

Nicky leans in to kiss him, quick and chaste while they’re in the middle of the park, and he can feel Joe smile against his lips.

“Nicky, you didn’t tell me I should feel brave and adventurous to come here today,” he says when they pull away, before Nicky can apologize for the poor weather conditions. His smile is infectious and warm. “I saw some terrifying looking delicacies that stared back at me - with tentacles - when I walked through the park.”

Nicky laughs, already off guard. “I had not planned on enticing you to eat anything with eyes or tentacles, but if you’re feeling overly adventurous please do not let me stop you.”

They make their way through the sprawl of vendors, protected from the elements by a variety of tents and canopies, at a leisurely pace. Nicky spent all morning rushing to get here on time and he’s happy to slow down and let everyone else move around them. There is an assortment of different smells and sights on their way to the particular booth Nicky has in mind, and he tries to make a mental note of when Joe’s eyes linger on anything in particular. 

They get their taiyaki, and their dango, from two adjoining stalls who are exceedingly upbeat and friendly despite the weather. There’s nowhere really to sit right now, but Joe leads them to a vacant spot at the back of one of the stalls, where the tent canopy extends just enough to get them out of the rain. Nicky closes his umbrella and leans it up against one of the tent poles, just close enough that he can keep an eye on it without having to keep it in hand. 

“Tell me again that this is not seafood,” Joe teases, holding up the fish-shaped pastry and raising an eyebrow at Nicky’s soft laugh. 

“It’s not seafood,” Nicky assures him, and bites into his own without preamble. He turns the bitten pastry around to show Joe the inside is full of sweet red bean paste and devoid of any writhing tentacles or sea creatures. 

Joe gives him another wary look, but takes a bite of the one he’s holding all the same. His expression lightens as he chews, features relaxing as though he had honestly still expected to taste something briney when Nicky had promised him sweets, and Nicky laughs again as he takes another bite. 

They eat their sweets in relative silence. Their vantage point offers a great opportunity to engage in some serious people watching while staying out of the general flow of traffic making its way through the park. There is a young girl and, presumably, her boyfriend taking their time picking out a selection of baklava a few stalls over and it reminds Nicky he’s been promising Andy he’ll learn to make it. He’s not sure how well it will go over in the cafe, but it’s likely that Andy will be able to eat it all on her own regardless. 

“These are very different from what you normally give me, but they’re very good,” Joe comments, finishing the last of his dango and placing the empty skewer into the paper bag their taiyaki came in. “Although still mostly sugar. Since meeting you I’ve been spending so much time in my gym they’ve started to remember my name. I don’t even need to show my pass anymore - they just let me in.”

Nicky smiles and swallows his last bite. “You can’t be afraid of a little butter and sugar, Joe.”

“I’m not. I’m afraid of my personal trainer when he sees what your baking has done to my abs.”

There’s a vendor selling hot cider in small paper cups that Nicky buys two of and he and Joe reconvene underneath Nicky’s umbrella to walk through the rest of the park. There are more than just food vendors, but the idea of having to lug back any purchases across the city keeps Nicky from looking at anything too long. He drinks his apple cider and he talks to Joe about how he finally started watching The Great British Bake Off , and he tries not to notice that the afternoon passes by far quicker than he wants it to. 

It’s nearly four o’clock when they finally head towards the station together. They should be going in opposite directions, but Nicky lingers with his fingers in Joe’s hand for a long minute when they get to the platform. 

“When can I see you again?” Nicky asks, without letting go.

Then Joe is kissing him, or perhaps he’s kissing Joe. It’s irrelevant. It’s just the warm and soft press of Joe’s mouth against his, and it feels both new and familiar at the same time. Joe’s hand on his waist feels warm and sure, and Nicky’s knees feel like they could buckle at the way Joe’s tongue licks at the seam of his lips, at the way Joe’s fingertips scrape across the nape of his neck and down his spine. 

Joe pulls back just enough to put the space between them necessary to facilitate talking.

“Come home with me,” he says, like it’s not the only thing on Nicky’s mind. 

“You’re going to start to think I’m easy,” Nicky teases, but he knows the expression on his face is apologetic. He continues, regretful, “I have to get up at four thirty tomorrow morning to make it to the cafe on time.”

“I live three blocks from the cafe,” Joe tells him, as though he’s had plenty of time to think about it. “You could be there in ten minutes. Nicky, I will carry you there if you ask me to.”

“Oh, well,” Nicky says, and slides his fingers back into Joe’s hair. “I guess I am okay with being easy.”