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You had me at "Hello": A collection of Meet-Cute oneshots

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Only one thing is certain in the life of a gay man: Dicks. You are going to suck a lot of them. You are going to meet a lot of them.

Joe didn’t use to be this cynical. But after his fair share of “dicks”, it’s the outlook he’s been left with.

One could imagine how excited he was about going on a blind date.  

Therefore it took some convincing – in the form of a potent concoction of bribery, blackmailing and cruel and unusual torture – to get him to agree to go on this blind date that his “friend” had arranged for him. A “friend” who earned those sarcastic quotation marks, with the immoral methods he had resorted to; even expecting him to believe he was actually doing him a favor by giving his “social life” a “gentle push”. Yes, Joe's life was full of derisive quotation marks.

And he should have known better than to trust the ever-drunk Booker to set him up on a blind date.

The momentous day on which the blind date would take place had arrived and Joe got out of bed after a sleepless night, feeling nauseous. He had never exactly been a social butterfly, but especially over the last year he had let his social skills wither to the point where nods and grunts came more naturally to him than actual words, let alone a string of words that might be considered a coherent sentence. He didn't like engaging in activities he knew he wouldn't excel at, so the prospect of spending an evening maintaining the back-and-forth of the contrived ritual of getting-to-know-someone was as daunting as it was frustrating.

Over the course of his entire life he had only met four people he genuinely liked; a fondness he sparsely expressed. There was no reliable way to determine how many people he had actually met in the thirty-three years he had roamed the earth, so he could not calculate the percentage of hits and misses precisely. Hits being the four people he ended up having affection for – all in a purely platonic sense -, misses being everyone else. But the mythical 'one in a million' felt appropriate.

Any reasonable guesstimation would confirm his standing impression of mankind, namely that an overwhelming majority of them were dicks; not worth his trust, nevermind his love. So what were the odds that his “friend” had been able to find someone that Joe would be able to stand?

Mumbling under his breath he left his apartment after taking a shower and getting dressed. Since he wouldn't have time to come back to his home to change in preparation for his date, he would have to suffer wearing slacks and a button-up shirt the entire day, hoping his jacket would make it through the day wrinkle-free as he took it from class to class, refusing to wear it. His regular style was much more casual, certainly too casual for a date at the kind of place his “friend” had made reservations at. Damn him and his old-money from his French heritage.

No, Joe’s style was much more about jeans that went out of fashion five years ago and cheap sweaters that he could simply throw away if he spilled coffee or mustard on them. His students never failed to give him grief about it. He was not looking forward to their appraisal and prodding of his unusual outfit today.

He drove to the coffee shop, owned by said “friend”. It was more of a coffee shop meets library, as Booker lived up to his nickname. It had started as a display of some books he had no space for in his own attic anymore. Then it had grown from there, like weeds. More and more shelves had been mounted to the long wall opposite of the coffee bar, in a sort of haphazard way that Booker passed off as artsy.

For the day ahead of him, Joe would need a strong brew, a good book, and maybe a complementary croissant to make it through.

It was quiet in the coffee shop. There was only a single customer, an old man seated in the corner who was there every day, at every hour Joe happened to stop by. One of these days, he realized as he walked in and the bell chimed to announce his entry, he would have to ask Booker if the man actually ever left. How Booker kept his business afloat with only two customers, as it appeared, was beyond Joe's comprehension. But he supposed sinking money into this place wasn’t an issue when the well of inheritance he drew from was bottomless.

He would have never thought he could be friends with someone as wealthy as Booker. It was almost basis for dismissal, right off the bat, but for the first seven months of knowing him, Joe never had any idea of how rich he was.

Probably because the man dressed like a slob – much like Joe.

The barista stood behind the counter, leaning back against the glass cabinet that displayed a selection of coffee beans and grinds from around the world. Balanced on his splayed hand was a book that had his undivided attention. Their small group of friends had oftentimes expressed their concern that Booker was so preoccupied with reading about other people’s lives, that he was neglecting to live his own.

They said the same about Joe.

Joe didn't understand their concern. Enjoying a good book was a perfectly decent way to live one's life. He himself would pick a good book over poor company any day and as was the case with Booker. Auto-biographies appealed more to Joe than fiction. They usually exchanged books if they had come across something particularly interesting that was worth sharing.

If the man wasn’t straight – and annoying as Hell – Joe would probably have been dating him.

Without looking up from the text, the Frenchman mumbled: “Good morning, Joe.”

"Good morning. I see you've finished 'A long walk to freedom'."

"Hm. Finished it last night." He continued to read until he was satisfied and then slipped a folded coffee filter into the book to mark the page before putting it down and starting work on Joe's breakfast of choice. "I'm reading 'The Quitter' now. The author was a professional pessimist. You would have liked him."

"Some say pessimist, some say realist," Joe argued with a shrug.

"Some say coward," The remark was made with a tiny smirk.

"I see your girlfriend has been keeping you well-informed. Not wanting to go on a blind date out of fear I'm being set-up with another jerk is not cowardice."

“She’s not my girlfriend,” He routinely corrected. “But, yes, Nile did tell me you were thinking about chickening out. Honestly, we can’t all be the miserable recluse, that position is taken. You need to-”

"Just give me my breakfast, coffee-boy." He took the mug of black coffee and the plate with the warm croissant that was pushed across the counter towards him and carried it to a near table.

Booker followed and took a seat across from him, watching as Joe spread butter and jam on the croissant and took a number of big bites before daring the first sip of scalding hot coffee.

"Is that what you're wearing tonight?"

Joe glared at his friend. "It's a nice suit, it's perfectly appropriate."

"Yes, but… not so much if you've been wearing it all day. And let me guess, your jacket is on the backseat of your car."

"It'll be fine."

"You shouldn't sabotage this date before it has even started. You should make a good first impression."

"Why? I'd only ruin it with the second impression." At Booker raising his eyebrow at him Joe explained: "I'm fully aware I’ve become as much of an insufferable jerk as the rest of the population of North America."

"How fair of you…"

He chewed thoughtfully and reached for the newspaper on the table, only to realize it was yesterday's.

Halfway through his breakfast, the professor couldn’t stop his mind from wandering towards his upcoming date. Andy had been less than forthcoming about the man when he’d pried her for information last week, revealing no more than Booker had, namely: nothing. Usually the black-haired minx happily shared every little detail of her life – too much detail, although Joe had never objected to listening to her stories. She could see right through people, so she was interesting to listen to. She could tell the most amazing anecdotes about people she’d met fleetingly. Yet she had nothing to say about this mutual friend of her and Booker. “So… this Nicky…”

“His name is not ‘this Nicky’. Stop saying it like that. It’s just Nicky.”

“Right, just Nicky. So what’s just Nicky like?”

Booker grumbled: “I already told you: he’s nice.” He started leafing through yesterday’s newspaper.

“Nice,” Joe repeated. That was all anybody had told him about the man. Booker. Andy. Quynh. Nice. Nice. Nice. Through his limited social experiences he had learned that people call someone 'nice' when they don't actually have anything specific or positive to say about that person and that either meant they didn't know them very well, or didn't really like them, but were too polite to say so. "That's all. Just Nicky. Just nice…"

“He’s the nicest guy ever, you’ll like him.”

It still didn’t spark much confidence.

"Honestly, he might actually be too nice for you."

"Thanks."

Booker grinned.

Joe stuffed what remained of his croissant in his mouth and mumbled an “excuse me” and “goodbye”, spraying flakes on Booker’s newspaper as he did. He took his to-go cup and left the coffee shop. If Booker was not going to answer his questions, then he might as well make it to his first class on time for once.

As expected, the students took immediate notice of his attire and deduced that he was dressed up for a date. The little smirks they sported were a distraction. Every single class, the ordeal repeated itself.

“Looking sharp, professor Joe!”

“Hot date, professor Joe?”

He wondered if any of them were listening to him as he went through the curriculum’s theory of sex and gender in art, from the ancient Greek and Roman era to the modern and postmodern.

There was no respite during his lunch break either. He made good use of the time by crossing the campus to the auditorium in building H, while eating a hot dog he had gotten from the stand that was always parked outside building B, where he had most of his classes. As he weaved through the students meandering about the quad, his phone started to vibrate in his pocket.

One arm was pressed up tightly against the side of his body, pinning his books and loose papers there. If he didn’t want to spend the rest of his lunch chasing after term-papers, he’d better keep that arm right where it was. So he gripped one end of the hotdog between his teeth to free his right hand to dig into his pocket. As he cast his gaze down, he felt the blob of mustard hit him straight in the center of his chest. He mumbled “shit” around the mouthful of food. Again when he spotted the name on the screen of his phone. He tucked it between his shoulder and cheek after answering, freeing up his hand to take the hotdog out of his mouth and throw it away in the nearest bin. The stress of it all was making him lose his appetite anyway.

“You,” He said, foregoing a greeting.

“Good afternoon, Joe.” Andy sounded entirely too pleased with herself.

He didn’t have any tissues, so he wiped the mustard off his shirt using his finger, glaring at how it made the resulting stain even larger. He shook most off his finger and then sucked off the rest and took the phone in his hand before it could slip and fall to the ground.

"I'm just calling to remind you of your date tonight as well as the dire consequences if you bail."

"I'm well aware of the consequences." He studied his shirt. He wasn’t planning on wearing a tie tonight – it was a blind date, not a job interview – but it seemed like he would have to ask one of his fellow professors if he could borrow one, to cover up the stain. He did some quick math to come to the unfortunate conclusion, yet again, that he really didn’t have the time to swing by his apartment between his last class and the time he was expected to be at the restaurant.  This was so exhausting. Why did his friends insist on meddling and making his life so much harder?  "I don't understand why you are so invested in getting me to date."

A sigh crackled through the line. "I want you to be happy."

"I am happy!"

"I know you believe that. I believed that too. I believed I was perfectly happy alone. But then I met Quynh and I realized that what I had was not happiness."

"I'm not like you," Joe grumbled.

“Look Joe, I know you think that because we’ve only known each other for a year, that I don’t really know you. But I do. I see straight through your bullshit. I know you’ve been hurt-“

“I’m on my way to a class, Andy,” He said hurriedly. “Can we not talk about this?”

"I see a lot of myself in you," The other continued. "We've both been betrayed by someone we trusted and I see you making the same mistakes that I did trying to get over it. I'm telling you that you don't need to go through this trial-and-error phase of trying to cope. Removing yourself from society might seem like a good strategy for self-preservation but you're just killing yourself slowly. You need someone in your life. Please, give this date a chance. One date. One chance."

Too frustrated to continue the discussion he agreed: "Fine! But you have to at least tell me something about this guy."

"He's a really nice guy!"

Joe threw his gaze up at the ceiling. "And?"

"Don't worry about it. He's the nicest guy, you'll like him."

The word “nice” was absolutely meaningless to him.

"This will be good for you," Andy insisted.

"Right, right. I feel better already," He snarled. "I'm hanging up now, doctor Phil."

She barely managed to say her goodbye before the line was abruptly disconnected.

He may have taken his frustration out on his students for the remainder of the afternoon. At one point resorting to making them spend the class writing an essay, the assignment for which he made up right on the spot. He loved his students, he really did, and he loved teaching. But sometimes his students were just a little too familiar with him, teasing “professor Joe” about his dating life. It was too much.

He’d been doing better every day, but some days, letting people into his life, was still too much. Too invasive. It made him want to clam up; shy away from eyes that were too knowing.

Some days, he’d forget – wouldn’t think about it at all. 

Other days, he couldn’t help but study every single person in front of him and wonder: Did you see it?

It had been a hard year, for sure. Uprootinghis life, moving halfway across the world to escape something that cannot be escaped.

Was a year too long or too short to start dating again?

Did it even really matter? Just like there wasn’t enough space in the world to run away from this ghost that haunted him, there was no stretch of time long enough, because ghosts don’t die anyway.

His last class ended at six and on his way back to his office to pack up for the day, he stopped by Copley’s office, a few doors down, to borrow a tie. Copley didn’t have a spare, but happily gave him the tie he’d been wearing all day. He was a good guy, if a bit too eager to be friendly.

The tie didn’t match Joe’s suit or shirt at all, but it was better than showing up for the date with a yellow stain right at the center of his chest.

It was almost an hour’s drive to the restaurant Booker had given him the address to.

For all intents and purposes, it was the perfect restaurant. Up on a hill with an uninterrupted view of the ocean and the sun setting at the horizon. The Italian name of the restaurant  arched over the entry, illuminated by sparkling lights. A valet parked his car for him, which made Joe feel silly, handing the young man the keys to his second-hand Ford.

Luckily the perks of being bullied into a blind date by the inheritor of millions, was that Booker would pay him back the expenses.

He took a deep breath before heading for the door. He was startled by the door opening just as he reached for the door handle. A doorman smiled at him and nodded politely and gestured for him to move further inside the restaurant, where the tall, pale maître d' was waiting for him behind a large book of reservations.

"Good evening, sir," Greeted the snobbish-looking ghoul.

“Reservations. Al-Kaysani,” He managed to croak.

“You are a little early,” Said the man, making Joe feel like he was being scolded by a kindergarten teacher. “Your company has not yet arrived. Would you like to be seated at the table, or wait at the bar?”

"The table, please." He knew that if he ended up at the bar he would be tempted to order drinks until the nerves would go away – and it would take a very large consumption of alcohol to achieve that. Also, sitting at the bar felt too exposed.

“Follow me, sir, I will escort you to your table.”

Joe was led to a table for two by the window overlooking the decorated patio and the ocean beyond. The setting sun was on the left and the dusty moon was on the right, the expanse of sky faded from bright tones of orange and pink of the last daylight, to the soft hues of blue of nightfall. He wasn’t overstating it by calling it the “best seat in the house” and he had a feeling Booker had called to ensure Joe would be treated royally during his date at Booker’s favorite restaurant. He was a well-loved patron of the place. Well-loved because at the end of every visit he was always drunk and generous enough to leave a big tip.

"Please take your seat, your waiter will be with you shortly." The man floated back to his post silently.

Immediately Joe could feel pairs of eyes staring at him. A quick glance confirmed that the group of three male friends – snotty rich kids - seated two tables over, were looking at him and discussing something among themselves in hushed tones. He took another deep breath, but he could already feel his heart starting to race. His fingers toyed with the napkin on the table in front of him, folded into a swan. He pulled it apart and wiped his clammy palms on it.

“Good evening, signore.”

He jumped at the waiter announcing his presence in a purring, Italian accent. He liked being called that, “signore”. Joe looked up at the man and hoped his eyes didn't widen to comical proportions as he appreciated the waiter's good looks, dressed in all black with a white waist apron. He was tall and slender, but with wide, sharply angled shoulders. His hair was nicely tousled, the kind of look that hints of a night of good sex, getting your hair all messed-up. His eyes were bright pebbles of sea glass. On his clean-shaven jaw he had a beauty mark. Eventually Joe realized the perfectly shaped mouth had been moving, but he hadn't heard a thing. Stupidly, Joe said: "Hi."

The waiter grinned and replied, treating him to more of that delicious accent: “Hi.” The grin was reshaped into a more appropriate, polite smile and he started: "My name is Nicolò, I’ll be your waiter for this evening. Are you by yourself or are you waiting for someone?"

"Waiting for someone." His throat constricted as he spoke those words.

"Blind date?" The waiter accurately analyzed.

"Hn." He couldn’t even manage a real word. He worried any and all would betray him.

"Then I take it you would love a drink while you wait."

The man’s tone put him at ease. "Correct again," He admitted with a bitter chuckle. "Red wine, please."

"Any in particular? Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Port Vintage?"

"Just… any will be fine," He said, feeling his face go red, embarrassed at having his unsophistication show.

"Any red wine, coming right up." The waiter spun around and walked away and Joe had to force himself to avert his eyes. He was here to meet someone else after all. Ogling the waiter was poor blind-date-etiquette.

The waiter had barely left him alone when one of the men from the other table got up from his seat and after some further encouragement from his friends, he walked up to Joe's table. His heart jumped up into his throat when he noticed the man's approach. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and pretended to be busy placing his napkin in his lap and smoothing over the folds.

Unfortunately the man was not deterred. He stopped at his table and leaned forward, saying “Hi” to get his attention.

He looked up at him in alarm.

The man had a slight furrow to his thick eyebrows as he was scrutinizing Joe’s features carefully. "I'm sorry to bother you but… don't I know you from somewhere?"

With effort he managed to swallow the near-suffocating lump in his throat that was his panicked heart. Unable to speak, he merely shook his head, hoping the man would leave him alone, but no such luck.

He used to be so confident and so unashamed. What a cruel thing that matters could be changed so easily.

"I swear I've seen you before somewhere." The younger man’s frown deepened. "Have you done commercials or something?"

He was desperately shaking his head at the inquiry and prayed the man's memory would fail him.

Unfortunately one of his friends, who was still seated at their own table, suddenly jumped up and proclaimed excitedly: "Oh my God, now I remember!"

His loud voice caused every nearby guest to look up from their meals and take their refined noses out of their glasses of wine.

"He's 'The King'!" At that, the friends started to laugh.

"No," He kept shaking his head. "No, you're mistaken. I don't even know what you're talking about."

Suddenly the tall waiter appeared, without Joe's glass of wine. He noticed only because at that point he was in dire need of a drink. The waiter paid little attention to the rude man and instead laid a kind hand on Joe's shoulder. "Sir, I must apologize. There has been a mistake. Your reservation was for the VIP table. If you would please follow me, I'll escort you to the right table."

Grateful for the escape he got up in such a hurry he bumped into the waiter. He didn't even bother to apologize, he wanted to get away as quickly as possible so he headed back towards the bar. Behind him the waiter instructed him to go left around the bar and then managed to catch up with him. He took him around the corner to the other side of the restaurant and showed him to a small table in a poorly lit corner, right by the door to the kitchen. The waiter pulled out a chair.

"Is this really the VIP table?" Joe wondered as he took a seat. A bust-boy came bursting through the door and he could hear the sharp sounds of pots and pans banging together and a chef shouting orders.

"Actually, it's the worst seat in the house," The waiter admitted with a shrug. "But I figured to you it wouldn't be. Those guys really seemed to be bothering you."

He smiled in genuine gratitude. "Thank you."

"No problem. I'll bring you your wine shortly. Unless you'd like to change your order to something stronger?"

"No, please, just wine." Anything stronger and he would soon be a mess. He had discovered last year, when he was trying to dull his pain with alcohol, that he didn't hold his liquor very well. Although, in spite of that knowledge it still, at times, seemed like the best and easiest solution. And Booker, the first friend he had made in this new city, had been more than happy to oblige him.

The waiter indeed returned shortly and served him his wine. As soon as he left again Joe took a big drink. It was a good wine, even his woefully crude palate could tell. It had to be expensive. But he didn't worry, Booker would be paying for this train wreck after all.

He felt his heart rate starting to slow down. It had been a while since someone had recognized him, but he knew that was mostly thanks to his extensive efforts to keep away from people. With a shudder he remembered how bad it had been, especially the first few weeks, at that time everyone seemed to know who he was, even one of his colleagues at the previous university he worked for. He thought they had been friends, but when Joe got fired – because of “his questionable reputation” - he knew he had been mistaken.

His “popularity” had died down greatly after two or three months, but to his dismay he knew from experience that he still had some notoriety in the gay community; that became apparent the first time he dared to go to a club after. It was also the last time he had been to a club. The only good that came out of that night, was meeting Andy and Quynh, a lovely married couple who had shielded him from the unwanted attention and had brought him to a quiet bar to drink and cry.

He finished his wine with small, slow sips, savoring the taste on his tongue. When the glass was empty and he had nothing to distract him anymore, he remembered why he was at the restaurant in the first place and he looked down at his wristwatch.

His date was nearly half an hour late.

The waiter appeared by the table with kind eyes and the bottle of wine. "Would you like a refill?"

He covered the glass with his hand to stop him from automatically pouring the red liquid into it. "No, thank you. Just water, please."

A few minutes later the waiter returned with a water carafe, the many ice cubes made delicate sounds against the glass as the clear liquid swayed slightly with his step. He poured him a glass of water quietly and was then called to another table.

Joe finished his water before looking at his watch again. There was still no sign of his date and it was already forty-five minutes past the agreed time. He rubbed his temples. A headache swelled as he realized he was being stood-up. After all the humiliation he had already suffered, why did this have to be piled on top?

He produced his phone from his pocket and called Booker. He ignored the displeased stares of the guests around him. He never understood why people got so worked up over someone using their phone in a restaurant, he would just be talking, exactly what they were doing.

"Joe, why are you calling? You're on your date!"

"Not quite," He bit. "He's a no-show."

"That's not possible. He's such a-"

"Nice guy…"

"He is!" Booker defended. "He's running a little late, that has to be it."

"Are you sure you told him to be here at seven?"

The other scoffed indignantly. "Of course I did." It seemed he bothered to look at a clock at that point and realized how late he was. "Oh."

Joe let out a deep sigh. More than anything he was relieved, but obviously there was a hint of frustration at walking around with a knot in his stomach all day at the prospect of the date-that-would-never-be.

"Give him fifteen more minutes, please. This is not at all like him, Nicky is the nicest guy ever."

Right, he thought with a dramatic roll of his eyes. "Fifteen more minutes, then I'm walking out and you will never set me up on a date with anyone ever again." He said his goodbye gruffly and stuffed the phone back into his pocket. He was looking at his watch every minute or so from that moment on and the intervals only seemed to be getting shorter until he was actually watching the hand count the seconds.

"Is your date late?"

Joe looked up at the waiter, embarrassed. "Nearly an hour."

"Hm. Caro mio, he's not coming."

He nodded in agreement, but then realized: "Wait… How did you know it's a 'he'?"

He was slack-jawed momentarily as his mind raced to find a politically correct explanation.

Joe looked down at himself. "Is it that obvious?" He kept his tone light, to ensure the waiter understood that he wasn't offended.

He smirked slyly. "It takes a thief to catch a thief." He poured him more water, maintaining mischievous eye-contact and then strutted off to tend to other guests.

Joe knew his cheeks were bright red, but he hoped the 'romantic' lighting hid the discoloration of his complexion. He looked down at his watch again and the short, thick hand on the clock face was squarely pointing at the eight. The date had been an inconvenience all day so it was annoying that all his troubles and concerns had been for nothing, including the run-in with the group of friends at the restaurant, but he was happy to not have to endure an evening of forced conversation. He took the napkin out of his lap and reached for his wallet to pay for the wine and the water and to give the kindhearted waiter a generous tip – Booker was paying him back anyway.

Before he had even opened the wallet, the waiter had hurried to his table.

"Are you leaving so soon?"

"Like you said, he isn't coming."

"Well, don't let a stronzo like that ruin your evening."

Joe chuckled at the foulmouthed remark. Even though he didn’t speak a lick of Italian, he knew exactly what was meant. "The evening was ruined before the day even started."

"Then let's salvage it. You've come all this way and the food here is really good." To emphasize his point he produced the leather-bound menu which he had been holding behind his back. "A boy's gotta eat. Might as well eat a rack of lamb." He added a playful wink.

"I don't know, it's been a long day and to have dinner in a restaurant by myself… seems unnecessarily pathetic."

"No one is going to pay attention to that. Food critics come here all the time, all by themselves."

Dryly he pointed out: "I'm not a food critic."

"Everyone's a food critic," Said the waiter with a roll of his eyes. "Besides, I'll keep you company."

He laughed. "Don't you have work to do?"

With a careless shrug he stated: "It's a slow evening and the more time I spend at your table, the less time I have to spend negotiating kiddie-friendly alternatives to our menu with 'octo-mom' over there," Inconspicuously he nodded at a table at the far side of the bar; a large round table that seated an overweight woman with a pearl necklace constricting her fourth chin, her sickly thin husband with dead eyes, and eight fussing children, ranging from toddler to teenager. "Please," Begged the waiter, "I'll throw in a free chocolate cake for dessert."

After mulling it over a little longer he finally accepted the menu and opened it in front of him. "Chocolate cake seals the deal."

"You, signore, drive a hard bargain," He joked. "I'll give you some time to study the menu and I'll be right back to take your order."

It didn't take him long to make his choice. His mouth had started to water the exact moment the waiter jokingly mentioned rack of lamb. The mashed potatoes with truffle butter that complemented the lamb didn't sound off-putting either. And since the waiter had suggested it himself, he supposed it wasn’t blasphemous to select a non-typical Italian meal at an Italian restaurant. He placed his order when the waiter returned and asked him to refill his glass of wine. In spite of the man's assurance that no one would think twice of a guy eating by himself, he did feel a little awkward and although the waiter made his best effort to entertain him, in between his transitory visits Joe was kind of bored. He ended up checking his phone a lot and busied himself deleting old messages and unused contacts, resisting the urge to open a news feed.

When the waiter came to clear away the plate and cutlery of his appetizer he asked: "How are you hanging in there?" The smirk on his lips made them look so kissable.

"A little bored," He admitted.

"That's what I thought," He replied and then walked off abruptly, leaving Joe with a frown. Moments later the man returned and placed a worn, hardcover book on his table. "I keep this in my locker, to read during my breaks," He explained. "You're welcome to it, just be mindful the bookmark doesn't fall out."

Joe stared at the book with wide eyes.

"I know a biography might not seem very interesting, but trust me, it's really good."

"I know," Joe said dumbly. "I've read it." He shook his head, dumbfounded. "I've read it several times actually, it's one of my favorites." He pulled the old, used copy of Into The Wild towards him.

"No shit," The waiter remarked, equally amazed. "Me too. What are the odds…"

He looked up at him. "Yeah…" He frowned at himself. One in a million?

They held eye-contact for a moment and it was the most intimate and exhilarating thing Joe had experienced in a long time.

Unfortunately, the waiter was called over by “octo-mom” and Joe opened the book and started to read. The evening was instantly transformed into a relaxing event. He was enjoying the fine wine, the great food, and the interesting book to escape into, to forget about his own reality and the people around him who may or may not be staring. Who may or may not be recognizing him. The sporadic company of the waiter was also undoubtedly pleasant. What were the odds…?

Halfway through his delicious main course the three friends that had been bothering him earlier were about to leave the restaurant. While one of them asked the bartender for a light for the smoke he held cockily between his index and middle finger, one of the others spotted Joe from across the dining room. He jabbed his friend in the side and nodded at the lone figure by the kitchen door. Joe had noticed them, but pretended not to be aware of their staring and pointing, until the two of them started to make obscene noises – painfully familiar obscene noises and calling out: “My King, please, yes!”

He desperately looked around for the waiter to come to his defense, but the man was apparently in the back. It was “octo-mom” who turned around in her seat with an expression mean as piss and hissed at them: "Excuse me, I have children here."

They had a good laugh and then the three of them left, just as the waiter came through the kitchen door.

Joe flinched when he felt a hand land on his tense shoulders.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. It has been a while since I've had to deal with that. It's why I don't really like going out," He shared, being uncharacteristically candid and he didn't know why. Perhaps his friends had been right and he had been deprived of social contact for too long and now it was just spilling out of him inappropriately. He buried his red, hot face in his palms.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about. I do stuff like that. I mean, I don’t share it online, but…" He shrugged, emphasizing his complete and total lack of judgment.

Joe lowered his hands and snapped his neck to look up at him. "What?" He did “stuff” like that? No, more pressingly: He knew what kind of “stuff” the men were mocking him for?

Joe’s face blanched at the realization.

The waiter had seen the video.

The man chewed on the inside of his cheek and indeed admitted apologetically. "I've seen it. Your video. 'The King'? I didn't recognize you at first, but then when those guys- Sorry."

"Oh God."

He offered a sympathetic smile. In a hushed voice, to keep their conversation private, he said: "Don't be embarrassed. Seriously. Like I said, I've seen it and trust me when I say: You've got nothing to be embarrassed about. Those guys are just jealous. They don't look as good as you and they are certainly never going to get a good fuck like that."

He appreciated the pep-talk but it was too shameful to hear someone say those things about him.

"You must agree. Even if only a little bit. Why else would you put something out there?"

"I didn't!" He hurried to explain, feeling an old bitterness and anger bubble towards the surface. "I…" He looked around himself suspiciously and then confessed: "I didn't even know there was a camera."

"Dios mio, are you for real?" His pretty eyes widened in shock.

"My boyfriend – my ex-boyfriend… He hid a camera in his bedroom and recorded us while… I had no idea… and I also didn't know he had posted it online, until one day I was recognized by someone at a café."

The waiter looked deeply disturbed.

"A small clip of it sort of went viral and then it seemed like everyone had seen it. Had seen me-…” He didn’t finish. The waiter had already told him he had seen the video, so he had seen the exact same thing everyone else had. He shook his head. He didn't even know why he was telling the waiter that deeply personal story, but he felt like he had to explain. He certainly didn't want anybody to think he willingly posted that video for the entire world to see. He had never been ashamed of his sexual preferences before being outed like that, but it had been something private. Something he only shared with people he trusted – or people he thought he could trust.

It was a kink that had started as a joke in college, cuffing a one-night-stand to the headboard of his bed with those silly cuffs with the pink fur. Gradually, it had evolved into him considering himself a dominant. It was like he himself had been evolving. From a young man who struggled to be open about his homosexuality, to a man who was out and proud. To a man who could reduce his lovers to whimpers and pleas with the skillful touch of his hands; make them submit to him. It was a display of power reserved for the bedroom only, but it made him feel stronger and more confident in his daily life as well. It was as much about taking control of his lovers as it was about taking control of his own sexuality.

All of that had been taken away from him when his ex betrayed his trust and secretly recorded them and posted it online. Joe had the man on all fours, begging him to fuck him, literally crying with need, while Joe worked expertly to tie him up in intricate rope work. Joe liked his submissives to call him “King”. Another thing that had started as a joke but made run blood run hot. Not anymore though.

His entire life had been ruined. He’d been fired from his job. Friends who didn’t know about his “lifestyle” distanced themselves. Religious family members were appalled.

Something that had brought him so much pleasure, had been twisted and turned into something that had caused him so much pain instead. It had stripped him of his confidence and his trust in people.

"I'm so sorry that happened to you. That's fucking awful. Fuck, I thought it was just a 'hidden camera' gimmick. If I had known it was for real-" He stopped himself short of finishing his thought.

"What?"

Sheepishly he continued in a quiet tone: "I wouldn't have jerked off to it."

"Oh." His face went painfully red, but the tiniest smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth anyway, as he remembered the waiter admitting to doing that “stuff” himself. For the first time in a year, he wondered what he would look like in a shrimp tie, or strappado, or with his hands tied in the prayer position to match the golden cross that gleamed in the hollow of his collarbone.

"I'm sorry," The waiter added sincerely.

"No… No, it's-" He let out a breathless chuckle and managed a genuine smile. "It's a little weird, but it's fine."

The waiter smiled in return. "Then I'll back away slowly and leave you to enjoy your meal." He gave a little bow that made heat flare in Joe’s body.

"Thank you." He watched him leave with a contemplative gaze. He had always figured everyone had been laughing at him, it never really occurred to him someone would have enjoyed the video for different reasons other than a laugh at his expense. It didn't make him feel any better about the video itself, but it did cause him to reevaluate the attention it had been getting, especially shortly after it was uploaded. If people had been watching it and sharing for “the right reasons” he supposed that was better than the alternative he had always believed; that the entire world was mocking him.

He finished his meal and when he spotted the waiter, he called: "Nicolò!" Barely remembering his name from when he had introduced himself while Joe had been distracted by his beauty. He figured the man was expecting him to give the all-clear before he was allowed to step into his personal space again.

He was looking forward to his complementary chocolate cake. Chocolate was an even better accompaniment to the five stages of grief than alcohol; it was only thanks to his obsessive – and aggressive – exercising that he hadn't turned into a fat drunk.

"Feeling less weird?"

"Actually, yes."

The waiter started clearing the table and as he did he said: "You know, since we're sharing-“

I shared. I don’t know anything about you,” He chastised mildly.

The man shot him a devious smirk. “I know, signore, I’m trying to remedy that, if it pleases you.”

Joe sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and bit down on it. He really, really liked being called “signore”.

“I thought I should tell you, that since seeing your video, I’ve sort of adopted the nickname ‘Prince’, and calling my partners ‘King’.”

Joe was blushing a bright red. It burned his cheeks. The nicknames clearly confirmed what he had expected and had even dared to hope: that the man was a submissive. “Yeah?”

“Am I making you feel weird again?” He teased.

“You’re making me feel… something.” All he could do was give in to the smirk that forced its way onto his mouth. Since the man was openly flirting with him, he let his gaze glide over the long lines of his body, noticing his elegant movement and the ripple of muscle underneath his shirt.

The waiter sweetly batted his eyelashes at him, but then a laugh escaped him, one that ended with a snort. It was very endearing. The blush on his cheekbones even more so, as the waiter’s confidence cracked for the first time that evening. “I’m not very good at this,” He said.

“You are excellent.” The praise made the blush on the waiter’s face burn brighter and it awakened something in Joe that had been dormant for too long.

“Do you still go by ‘King’?”

“Uh… no. I don’t really go by anything now. Other than Joe.” It occurred to him then that he hadn’t even introduced himself. He held his hand out and then felt incredibly stupid when he noticed Nicolò had plates balanced on his hands and right forearm. He brought his hand down into his lap. “Haven’t done any of that ‘stuff’ – as you put it – in a while.”

“That’s a shame.”

“… Yeah.”

“Is it something you never want to do again?”

He shook his head. “It’s definitely something I still want to do. Just… haven’t met the right person.”

The man nodded. “I hope you will meet him soon,” He purred. Then, as if with the flick of a switch, his demeanor changed. He replaced his sultry, flirtatious expression with a polite smile and announced: "I'll go get you the chocolate cake I promised." He pivoted on his heels and walked away and Joe was sorry to see him go. He would happily trade the cake for more of the waiter's company. He watched as the man was delayed by “octo-mom” who demanded her bill.

Once she had paid and she and her family had vacated the restaurant, Joe noticed there weren't many guests left, only a few tables were occupied and the dining room was comfortably quiet. The waiter instructed a bust-boy to clear and clean the large round table and then headed into the kitchen.

Joe tried to read a couple more pages of the book, but found it difficult to focus. All he could think about were sea-glass eyes looking up at him, tears of need clinging to his eyelashes, the words “please” and “signore” tumbling from those pretty lips. Joe praising him for being such a good boy for him… Drawing moans from him. He wondered what he would sound like. 

He hastily put the book aside to give the handsome waiter his full attention when he returned, expertly balancing a plate on the tips of his fingers. He placed it in front of him and while it looked absolutely delicious with its layers of chocolate cake interspaced by layers of chocolate mousse, with hot, melted chocolate and caramel on top, the size of the thing was a little intimidating.

"I present to you: your dessert. I hope you'll enjoy it."

"I'm sure I will, but it's pretty big, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it." He made a courtesy, earning him a chuckle and then headed back into the kitchen, disappointing Joe who had hoped he would stick around a little longer, since there weren't many other guests left to tend to. Luckily he had an enormous chocolate cake to console him. He picked up the fork and took his first, big bite. He moaned at the taste, at the chocolate cake crumbling away and the mouse melting on his tongue.

He mused how the evening had both been horrible and wonderful. Getting stood-up and being recognized and mocked, while at the same time being able to flirt again and feel something for someone again, something other than distrust and weaponized disinterest.

The kitchen door opened again, but Joe paid it little attention, enjoying his third bite, until the person who had burst through the door dropped down into the seat across from his unannounced. Their knees knocked together under the small table.

With his mouth full of chocolate cake he was rendered speechless but his perplexed expression spoke volumes. Seated across from him was the waiter, dressed in casual attire; a dark pair of jeans and a blue shirt.

"Hi," Said the man with an impish grin. "Sorry I'm late. Someone called in sick at work, I was supposed to get off at six, but they made me stay the entire evening to cover his shift."

Joe's expression went from perplexed to utterly dumbfounded.

"Right, mi dispiace. Where are my manners?" He leaned forward and reached his hand across the table.

Hesitantly Joe put down the fork and shook the waiter's hand.

"Hi, I'm Nicolò di Genova. But my friends call me Nicky."

Joe's blue eyes widened comically. "You- You're Nicky?"

His smile was beaming. "Sure am."

Still dazed by the astounding revelation he asked dumbly: "You're Booker's friend?"

“Well, he calls me Nicky, so by definition, yes, I consider him to be my friend,” He replied much too smartly. He looked smug.

"I… What?"

Nicky chuckled sympathetically. "Look, all joking aside. I really am sorry for making you think you were being stood up. They did force me to cover the shift of this guy. I know I should have said something, but honestly, I had been dreading this date all day. I've gone on a lot of blind dates back in the day and it wasn't good. Booker told me you were a 'really nice' guy, but frankly, what the fuck am I supposed to think when all they say about someone is 'Oh, he's nice'? The world is full of assholes and I've met a lot of guys who were supposedly 'nice guys'. So I was kind of worried and I figured I could abuse the unfortunate turn of events by seeing what kind of guy you were first, make sure you're not a serial killer before I'd blow my cover."

Joe’s gaze wandered from his expressive eyes to his equally expressive hands that danced in front of him in meaningless but graceful gestures. He blinked and looked at his face again when the man stopped talking. "And it took you all night to figure that out?"

"Honestly, I still can't be sure you're not a serial killer," He said with a wink, "But I like you and I had fun talking to you. I didn't want to ruin that by dropping the I'm-your-blind-date bomb prematurely. Blind dates are always the worst and everyone is so nervous and uptight that it never amounts to anything anyway."

Joe shook his head, slowly getting over the initial shock. "So Booker only told you I was a nice guy?"

Nicky nodded. "Yeah and now I know he meant that as a genuine compliment. But when someone says 'He's nice' I always figure they don't actually have anything positive to say about them, or they would be more specific." He snorted at himself. "Apparently I was wrong." Then he let out a chuckle.

Joe started laughing, causing Nicky to frown. At the odd look he was getting he assured him: "Nothing, it's nothing."

Nicky sat forward and leaned his elbows on the table. He held Joe’s gaze. "I meant what I said. Your blind date is a real idiot for not showing up and he sure as Hell regrets it."

Joe bit his lip in an attempt to hide his smile.

"So," Nicky drawled and he produced a fork which he pointed at the cake. "Can I join you for dessert so we can have our date after all?"

"Sure." Still bewildered at the turn of events he watched Nicky dig into the cake and take a big bite. A smile came to Joe’s lips unabashedly when the handsome man let out a drawn-out moan at the taste. It was a gorgeous sound and something he wanted to hear many, many times over.

Nicky paused, the second forkful of cake halfway up to his mouth. "What?"

"Nothing." He took another bite as well. Booker was a better matchmaker than Joe had given him credit for.

Nicky di Genova was one in a million.

Chapter Text

He watched the newlywed couple have their first dance to "When a man loves a woman"; their movements clearly practiced. Giovanna swept across the dance floor with elegance and ease, the full skirt of her designer gown doing a mesmerizing dance of its own as it moved around her with the rustle of tulle and silk. Harry Merrick was decidedly less comfortable moving to the rhythm. To the undiscerning eye he might have appeared to be mouthing along with the lyrics, something to be mistaken for romantic, when instead, he was counting the steps. His eyebrows pinched together in focus.

She might make a good dancer of him yet. Giovanna was not the kind of woman to settle and Harry was not the kind of man to admit defeat. In each aspect of their lives they would train each other to a level of perfection and they would likely both get a sense of satisfaction out of this and maybe that was why they decided to get married. They were what the socialites would call, a “smart match”. Still though, they shared about as much chemistry as a pair of sea cucumbers.

Giovanna Bianchi was the daughter of an Italian diplomat, who was friends with all the right people. Including the politician slated to be the Republican candidate for the next presidential election, who was actually in attendance at the wedding. Including Harry Merrick’s father, CEO of the largest pharmaceutical company in North America.

Harry Merrick himself was editor in chief of the LA Times – making him Joe's boss. However impressive these credentials, it was his lineage that scored him his betrothal to Bachelorette number 1. He stood to inherit the family fortune, and his mother was chairwoman of Unicef; successful and charitable. Harry had the proper pedigree. Too bad he was an asshole, he got that from his father.

What all of this boiled down to?

An incredibly dull wedding.

The theme was “propriety”, or it might as well have been. Everything proceeded according to tradition and etiquette. The music was mostly soft and of slow rhythm. The color scheme was purposefully bland to be inoffensive to all. The average age of the guests was well above midlife-crisis. Men wore three-piece suits and women wore gowns, silk gloves, and all the jewelry they owned. The food was pretentious. The wedding cake was… vanilla.

Joe hated it, as he knew he would. But he could have hardly declined his boss' invitation. Although he suspected that he only got the invite because the bride wanted an even three-hundred for the guest list and it would look good to invite some of the common folk. So Joe was number 299 – rum-glazed shrimp - and his date was number 300 – stuffed pork with asparagus.

Everyone at the office, including Harry, knew that Joe was gay. The day after he had received his invitation, he had been called to Harry's office and the beady-eyed Pulitzer prize winner was reduced to a red-faced, bumbling buffoon until he finally managed to make his request clear: “For one night, Joe, don't be gay”. He knew Harry meant no offense, in fact he had always gotten interesting vibes from the man, that made him wonder if there was any truth to the rumors circling Harry's closeness with his body guard Keane.

To avoid ruffling any feathers and securing his Christmas bonus, Joe invited his coworker and best-friend Nile Freeman along as his plus-one.

Nile looked stunning in her navy blue gown with black lace gloves. One of the groomsmen evidently agreed and Joe hadn't seen her since the man had come to ask her to dance.

It was all fun and games when he still had his partner-in-crime with him, to secretly make fun of the other guests and conspire to spike the non-alcoholic punch, but without her there was no distraction from the dull affair.

He sat alone at the table, the place card with his name in delicate, cursive script in front of him. His surname had been misspelt. If being assigned the table in the back, by the door to the kitchen, wasn't already enough of a clue, misspelling his name made it apparent they weren't exactly honored guests. So he stopped feeling guilty about getting them a forty-dollar gift-certificate as a wedding present. If Harry had wanted a better gift, he ought to have given him a raise anyway.

Joe glanced down at his watch and wondered when it would be appropriate to leave and what excuse would be most suited. That he had to go in to work tomorrow? Harry could easily debunk that. That he was sick? He surely hadn't appeared sick when he made Nile nearly wet herself when he was making up names and funny voices for the shrimp on his plate. She couldn't even watch him eat 'Broderick' after that.

He knew he should probably just wait for Nile to drunkenly stumble back to him and then he could leave with the excuse of taking the lady home.

He sincerely hated weddings. They were pompous events, emphasizing the most superficial aspects of a relationship: primarily the bride's beauty and the man's status and wealth.

Brides want to be like princesses and lose weight, wear gowns, have their hair and make-up done, and stress over unimportant things like floral arrangements and table settings.

Grooms waste money buying or renting a suit that they will only wear for that single occasion and be uncomfortable the entire time and fret to say things in the vows that normally wouldn't need to be outspoken if the love is real.

Couples spend tens of thousands of dollars to not be themselves for one day! Boys and girls are raised to think that love and commitment are not real without an elaborate party, paperwork, and the exchange of expensive rings and pretty words from Google. It is the stress and strain of this “special day” that causes the first crack in many relationships. People reveal unattractive things about themselves during the preparations; women are often accused of getting too emotional and greedy and men disappoint their fiancés when they can't live up to their romantic expectations, because they don't care about nosegays versus biedermeier bouquets.

And as soon as the high of the wedding has passed, couples start to feel the pressure to check the next big box. Marriage reduces a relationship to crossing things off a checklist. It's how boys and girls are programmed: fall in love, move in, get engaged, get married, buy a house, have the first kid, have a dog, have the second kid - oh-twins-what-a-fun-surprise! -, buy a bigger house, buy a mini-van, organize bake-sales, get that promotion, don't-you-dare-miss-fifth-grade-graduation… Fail at any of these points on the checklist and people end up pitying you.

The one good thing about coming out to his parents at the early age of eleven, before he could even have the sense to be embarrassed about it, was that all that pressure and all those expectations were immediately lifted off his shoulders and the only dream his mother ever cherished for him henceforth was to not get AIDS and to please not dance in pink lace body stocking on a gay pride float.

Joe's father even told him that he should consider himself lucky that his life would never be expected to fit into that prefabricated, old-fashioned mold. This advice was not surprising. Al-Kaysani senior had divorced Joe's mother after nine years of an unhappy marriage, ended it with his second wife after five years of cussing and screaming, and got the third marriage annulled after less than two months. He died in a car-accident in his late fifties; no wife, no house, no dog, no mini-van to leave behind. His life was considered a failure, even though he had been happy as a clam on his own. Joe's mother remarried and has been with the same uncaring workaholic since, she's miserable but all everyone ever sees is her perfect house, her charming daughters, her “successful” journalist son – squint and you won’t even see the gay - and that fucking mini-van.

Joe stopped a waiter that came bursting through the kitchen doors to ask for a refill of his champagne glass. At least the drinks were topnotch. Still, if he was forced to attend a wedding reception, he preferred cheap booze, upbeat music, and laughter, to Dom Perignon, stiff conversations, and waltzes and foxtrots.

At least his date was having fun, he thought to himself when he caught a glimpse of Nile and the groomsman on the dance floor. She flashed her coworker a grin and Joe raised his glass at her. If he had wanted someone to sit beside him quietly as they suffered through the occasion, he should have brought anyone but his boisterous friend. Every party was a good party to Nile. She’d make sure of it.

With a smirk Joe turned his head away and as he was about to take a sip from his new glass of champagne, when his eyes suddenly met someone else's and he stilled with the glass at his lips.

Seated a few tables over, also all by himself, was a handsome man of Joe's age. Piercing blue eyes sparkled with mischief as the man regarded Joe.

Joe took a drink, acting as aloof as he could, while he maintained eye-contact, noticing the other wasn't shying away either. He was a little disappointed when the bodyguard, Keane, approached the bright-eyed man and lay a hand on his shoulder, demanding his attention. Joe observed the man as he talked with Keane. His brown hair was swept back, his tanned features were classically beautiful, his large eyes were pools of the Mediterranean sea. He wore a dark blue suit that made the shade of his eyes impossibly bright in contrast. The suit was paired with a white shirt and a silver tie he had loosened improperly.

There was an intensity about him as he conversed with the tall, dark, and handsome man; a focus in his eyes and a tightness around the mouth, but no animosity. Keane patted his shoulder and walked away. Mister Bright-Eyes took a drink, scotch or bourbon, and seemed to have forgotten about Joe.

Joe chewed on the inside of his cheek. He redirected his gaze to watch his own finger trace the rim of his champagne glass, hearing the delicate, hollow note over the romantic music. When he looked up out of curiosity that would not be denied, he couldn't fight his smirk discovering Bright-Eyes was staring at him, amused by something, perhaps by how hopelessly he had been playing with his glass. The eye-contact was undeniably seductive and Joe knew he had found a kindred spirit in the homogenous crowd.

He hesitated for only a moment – “don't be gay” - then he shook his head and got up from his seat. He never looked anywhere other than into those incredible eyes as he walked over to his table, bringing his champagne with him. He glanced at the place card at the seat next to Bright-Eyes and wondered playfully as he idled by the chair: "Do you think… mister Copley will mind if I occupy his seat for a little while?"

"I doubt it," The man replied and Joe reveled at his accent. "It doesn't look like his wife will be done with him any time soon." He nodded at a couple on the dance floor.

Joe took a seat in Copley’s chair. He put away his drink and reached out his hand for a formal introduction: "Yusuf Al-Kaysani. Call me Joe."

"Nicolò di Genova," He shook his hand firmly and flashed a smirk. “Call me Nicky.”

Joe let his fingers trail down the length of the golden digits before letting go of his hand. "I’m assuming you are here as a guest of the blushing bride."

"Your assumption is prejudiced but not incorrect. What about you?"

"The groom. He's my boss," He made a dismissive gesture. "How do you know Giovanna?"

Nicky took a drink before he replied offhandedly: "Gio and I used to date."

Joe blinked at him. He hadn't been expecting that, with the way Nicky flirtatiously engaged him. "Aren't you gay?" He blurted. He looked around himself suspiciously as he realized that came out a little louder than intended.

Nicky chuckled. "Yes. But back then I thought I could force myself not to be. And Gio still thinks she can force me not to be."

"Excuse me?"

"We went to the same boarding school in Italy and became friends. We dated for two years, until I came out. She still thinks it is a phase."

Joe laughed, even though it was also a bit sad that she couldn't accept it. Needing to verify if Nicky was currently unattached, he inquired nonchalantly: "Did your date dump you, like mine did?"

"Actually, I'm here by myself. I was told there weren't enough seats at the table for me to bring a plus-one…" He rolled his eyes, knowing he had been lied to so he wouldn't embarrass the bride by bringing a date – man or woman in his case, it seemed Giovanna still had a bit of a crush on him. "Giovanna is very worried about appearances."

"Was there anyone you wanted to bring along?" Joe inwardly winced at himself. That was not so nonchalant.

"No."

Since he had shown his hand anyway, he said with a smirk: "Good."

"What about you? You mentioned a date."

Joe pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the dance floor. "She abandoned me to 'dance the night away' with one of the groomsmen. I was explicitly asked to ‘not be gay' tonight, so I brought my friend. It doesn't matter much. There was no one else for me to invite anyway."

Nicky smiled and leaned in a little closer. Joe felt his heartrate pick up. The smile was a tiny bit crooked; the right corner of his bottom lip dragging down more than the left. There was something boyish and carefree about it and yet those eyes were still so intense, so fierce.

"And how is that working for you?" Nicky asked. "Not being gay for one night?"

"It's very boring. I would enjoy myself much more if we would be dancing."

Nicky laughed.

Joe was suddenly struck with a mischievous idea. "We should do it. We should dance."

"Gio wouldn't like it."

"I know." He grinned cheekily.

The Italian man looked tempted, but shook his head.

"Come on!" Joe urged. "Next song, we should head out onto the dance floor and slow-dance together. Everyone will flip their shit, it will be hilarious!" Fuck anyone who disagreed, he thought. He was a proud gay man, and he wanted to dance with Nicky. It was fine to heed Harry's request when it didn't feel like it compromised him, he wasn't planning on “being gay” that night anyway – whatever that even meant -  he knew what kind of crowd he was dealing with. But he wasn't going to let anyone's narrow-mindedness stand in the way of getting closer to this attractive man.

Nicky was shaking his head at the suggestion but the amusement and mischief apparent on his face convinced Joe to press on.

"You know how to dance, right?"

"Close enough."

The song that had been playing winded down and effortlessly transitioned into the next and the two men giggled abruptly as they recognized the smooth opening of the soft rock song – very soft. Lady in Red.

"It's perfect!" Joe concluded and he promptly got up from his seat and extended his hand out to the man. "Can I please have this dance?"

"I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight, I've never seen you shine so bright," The singer of the band crooned. "Never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance, looking for a little romance… given half the chance."

Nicky looked around himself self-consciously but couldn't help his grin. "Yeah. Okay. Fuck it." He accepted the hand that was offered to him and he let Joe guide him to the center of the dance floor, where they stood amidst couples gently rocking side to side, in each other's arms. With one hand the Italian man covered his mouth, mortified as the first people started to pay curious and judgmental attention to them.

Joe smiled at him reassuringly and entwined his left hand with Nicky's right and he placed his other hand on the man's waist, maintaining an appropriate distance that reminded him of his awful high school dances.

"Why do you get to lead?" Nicky argued jokingly but placed his free hand on Joe's shoulder without further objection.

Joe studied the blush on the other's cheeks and the uncomfortable smile on his lips as his blue gaze flitted around them, watching as those surrounding them watched them. They moved slowly to the music. Joe was aware of other people staring, but he didn't pay them any attention and he wasn't put off by the corny and mostly inapplicable lyrics of the song, instead losing himself to the overall, sentimental, romantic notion of the it; so utterly overwhelming and all-encompassing.

To keep Nicky from focusing too much on the bystanders, Joe asked him softly: "So, why a boarding school?"

"My father sent me there. I was considered a problem child," Nicky replied and finally those beautiful eyes found Joe's again.

Joe chuckled. "Yeah, what kind of problems did you cause?"

"Embarrassment. I had kissed a boy."

"Oh."

"He didn't want to deal with it, so he sent me away. When I started dating Gio, he was so happy. It was the only time he had ever told me he was proud of me. I think that's the main reason I let the relationship drag on for as long as I did."

"Are you still in touch with your father?"

He smiled bitterly and shook his head.

"I'm sorry."

"It's fine. It's better this way." He let out a sheepish laugh. "People are staring. This woman over your right shoulder looks like she is going to cross herself and call upon the holy spirit."

"I don't care what people think. I wanted to dance with you."

A small, endearing smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "What about your parents?"

"I don't really have a dramatic coming-out story," Joe admitted. This truth always made him a little uncomfortable because he felt like he had it easy compared to others. "I told my parents I was gay and their response was my first lesson on safe sex."

"A condom and a banana?"

"A big zucchini." He smirked. He let out a laugh when his dance partner raised his eyebrows. "Don't get any ideas. I think they were trying to scare me into abstinence. I was only eleven."

"Did they? Scare you?"

"Definitely not."

Nicky's gaze darted off to the side and he cursed under his breath. "Gio is watching. She is going to kill me."

"Giovanna needs to know that it's not a 'phase'." With a grin Joe pulled him closer to him and let his hand on Nicky's back slide lower. He smiled as Nicky softly pressed his cheek against his and he could feel his body relax.

Maybe it was just the act of defiance that exhilarated him, but Joe could feel his heart thundering in his chest, creating pleasant vibrations that spread through his entire body. As Lady in Red melted into a cover of Tony Bennett's The Way You Look Tonight, Joe ended up not resenting weddings for three minutes long, as long as the song lasted. For three minutes he loved the smooth sounds of the cliché wedding song, tickling Nicky’s clean-shave cheek with his beard, and the soft rustle of fabric as their suits brushed together. His eyes slid closed to lose himself to all of it. The sweet lyrics and the smooth voice of the singer highlighted the sudden shift of the mood between them to the romantic.

Oh, but you're lovely

With your smile so warm

And your cheeks so soft

There is nothing for me but

To love you

Just the way you look tonight

The song slowly came to an end. When the final, delicate note of the piano died out, Nicky pulled back and Joe opened his eyes to meet his gaze. A new song must have started to play, but he could hear nothing and he could see nothing beyond those bright eyes. Nobody had ever looked at him like that, so intensely. He had never been seen like that. Goosebumps appeared on his skin.

The moment came to an end and Joe took a deep breath.

They shared a silly grin.

"Want to cause a real scandal?" The Italian man wondered.

Joe merely nodded.

Nicky didn't elaborate. He led Joe off the dance-floor and out of the ballroom, onto the sprawling balcony lined with a glass balustrade that allowed for an unobstructed, impressive view of the expanse of the ocean that glittered shades of blue in the light of the full moon.

Joe let out an “oomph” when he was roughly pushed back against a wall, out of sight. Nicky closed the distance between them and kissed him passionately without hesitation. The shock of the situation quickly evaporated and Joe wrapped one arm around the slender waist of the other man and with his other hand he cupped the back of his neck and titled his head as he responded with equal fervor – almost desperation – to the kiss. They breathed harshly through their nose, not willing to part for the sake of oxygen. As the kiss continued to intensify, Joe put both hands on Nicky's hips and slid them under the jacket of his blue suit, feeling his heated skin and tight build through the thin button-up shirt.

Two older gentlemen wandered onto the balcony for a smoke and startled the two entangled young men. The older men quickly headed back inside and Joe and Nicky laughed at their rushed, flustered departure.

"Do you have a condom?"

His arousal swelled at the dip of Nicky’s tone and the way he held his gaze – as intimately as he held his waist. Joe stared at the other man, shocked by his question and all its implications. "N-No…"

"Then jerking off in the restrooms will have to do." Nicky planted one more urgent kiss on Joe's mouth and then pulled him inside through another set of doors that led into the main hallway.

But Joe had a better idea, since a quick tug-of-war in the John wouldn't do. He informed Nicky glibly: "My place is only about a fifteen minute drive from here."

Nicky briefly contemplated the options, glancing at the restroom door once before agreeing: "Yeah, let's do that."

Joe nodded curtly and excused himself for a moment. He hurried back into the ballroom to find Nile, still dancing in the arms of a groomsman, and he asked her if it was okay if he cut out of the wedding early. Nile exchanged a look with her dance partner and then replied with a grin: "Don't worry about it. I have a ride home." Joe kissed her on her cheek and then darted back across the ballroom, ignoring everybody's stares and the indignant murmurs.

Outside he handed the valet his ticket and once the keys of his old, beat-up car were handed back to him, the two of them climbed into the vehicle and Joe sped home.

Nicky had taken a seat in the back, right behind Joe, offering nothing more than a wink in response to his questioning look. After only a few minutes it became clear why Nicky had seated himself directly behind the driver's seat. His head appeared over Joe's right shoulder and he kissed and licked at the shell of Joe's ear while his hand appeared in Joe's lap. Nimble, urgent fingers massaged the growing bulge.

The car swerved and Joe cursed when his pants were undone and the warm hand was placed over the outline of his erection in his boxer briefs.

"Don't crash. We're not wearing our seatbelts."

The driver chuckled nervously but the sound evolved into a moan when Nicky's thumb teased the tip of his arousal that peeked out of the elastic waistband of his underwear. With his free hand the passenger threaded his fingers into Joe’s curls. "I love your hair…"

Joe couldn't respond to the compliment. His arousal was pulled free and Nicky pumped his tight fist up and down.

Thankfully they soon arrived at the apartment building safe and sound and the two of them stumbled into the elevator on unsteady legs, with hands, mouths, eyes, and attention preoccupied.

"What floor?" Nicky asked, being the one within reach of the control panel. His lips brushed against Joe's as he spoke.

Joe let out a hearty laugh. "Fuck! If you could stop driving me insane for a moment, I might be able to remember."

The other man simply intensified the kiss and when they parted he bit on Joe's bottom lip.

"Fuck… Five… It's five!"

A button was pressed. The elevator moved. They arrived on the fifth floor and struggled to find their way to the front door of Joe's apartment. A neighbor down the hall was having a party and a dull beat resonated in the apartment. It would have annoyed Joe on any other night, but in that moment all he could think of was becoming one with that pounding rhythm and make the bed creak in tune with it and have their moans and cries of passion accompany the track like primal, adlibbed vocals.

They started stripping each other out of their clothing, sharing a breathless laugh when Nicky warned him not to pop the buttons of his shirt because it had “cost a fucking fortune”.

Finally the bed appeared beneath them. Joe toppled backwards onto the mattress and Nicky fell on top of him. They continued to kiss, grope, caress and stroke for as long as they could stand it, a mess of naked limbs. Then Nicky sat up, straddling Joe's hips and he asked for the condoms and lube.

The journalist pointed at the drawer of his nightstand and watched Nicky stretch out above him to reach for the supplies they needed. He didn't say anything and curiously wondered how Nicky would assign the roles. Usually he had clearly defined preferences – topping almost exclusively – but once in a while he met a guy like Nicky; a guy as beautiful and irresistible as Nicky wouldn't be denied either way and the positions ceased to matter much to him, he just needed them to be as close as possible and to move as one.

He watched and moaned as Nicky rolled the condom down Joe's swollen length, certainly not dissatisfied with his decision.

The other man poured a liberal amount of lubricant into his hand and reached behind himself to quickly prepare himself and then stroked the slick hand up and down Joe's arousal to ensure it was nice and slick. "You don't mind being top, right?"

"No…" Joe frowned at the tremble in his own voice. Before Nicky could lower himself onto him, he rolled them both over so his soon-to-be-lover was beneath him and he lay between his spread thighs. He kissed him deeply and then pushed inside him in a single, swift thrust. The kiss was interrupted by their moans. Nicky felt wonderful. Not just his tight heat around his cock, but also his thighs bracketing his hips, his fingers in his hair, and his tongue dancing with his as if The Way You Look Tonight was still playing.

He started slowly, but it wouldn't last and it probably wasn't supposed to last. They moved together ferociously and started to nip at each other's lips, jaws, and ears while they got louder and louder until they drowned out the music from down the hall.

"I'm sorry," Joe grunted, "I'm gonna come."

Nicky nodded and reached one hand between them to help himself catch up.

"Don't." Joe grabbed his wrist and pinned it above his head. "I'm going to suck you off after this."

Naturally his lover made no objections to that. His free hand slipped over Joe’s shoulder. The feel of his palm over his skin was smooth as Joe’s back was slick with sweat. Nicky breathed harshly in his ear and whispered: "Please come. Come deep inside me."

Joe snapped his hips, losing himself to the animalistic urge. He bit down on Nicky's shoulder

Nicky yelped and the passage tightened around Joe's cock. "If you don't come right now I'm going to fucking blow my own load!"

With a final cry Joe reached his climax. The contractions at the root of his arousal spread through his entire body, like ripples spreading across a body of water and the intensity of the orgasm left him shaking.

He collapsed on top of his partner heavily and buried his nose into the crook of his neck to breathe in the smell of sweat, sex, and fading cologne. He allowed himself a moment to rest and wait for his muscles to solidify after being reduced to useless gelatinous blobs under his skin. Then he disentangled himself from Nicky, got rid of the full condom and repositioned himself between Nicky's wantonly spread legs. He kissed and licked at the thighs, tasting sweat and traces of lubricant. With a leisure rhythm he jerked him off, keeping the grip of his fist loose – and looser still whenever Nicky bucked his hips off the mattress. He chuckled breathily at the other's needy moans and curses.

"Oh! Ah! Please, give me your mouth… and a finger or something!"

He grinned up at him. Or something? He crawled up his body and exchanged a long, open-mouthed kiss with him before reaching for the drawer of his nightstand to retrieve “or something”. He showed Nicky the slim vibrator in a bright purple color and noted the mixture of curiosity and excitement.

Joe sat upright on his knees between Nicky's legs and rolled a condom onto Nicky’s cock and one onto the toy as well, as an extra measure for hygienic purposes. The vibrator wasn't very big; certainly not as big as the cock that had just been inside Nicky, but it was definitely better than a mere finger. He twisted the end of the toy and it buzzed to life. Keeping it on the lower setting he teased the sensitive head of his lover's erection first, but then slowly moved the toy down to his balls, his perineum and eventually his entrance.

Joe lay flat on his stomach and pushed one of Nicky’s legs outward and directed the other over his shoulder, opening him up for him. Slowly, he worked the vibrator into him, each thrust a little deeper than the last, angling the tip up in search of his prostrate. When Nicky howled, he knew he had found it and focused the attention of the vibrating toy there. He wiped the smirk off his own face and took the erection into his mouth again, applying pressure to the underside with his tongue and sucking on it persistently while he twisted the end of the vibrator further and further until it reached the highest setting.

To catch his breath he released him with a pop. He dragged his tongue up the underside of the heavy erection and teased the crown with the pointed tip of his tongue. Then he took him into his mouth again. Nicky cried out and dug his fingers into Joe's thick hair. He bobbed his head up and down, swallowing as much of him as he could while keeping his hand wrapped tightly around the base. The other hand was splayed on his stomach, feeling the muscles tense underneath.

Nicky warned him that he was close so Joe took his mouth off him and rid him of the condom, choosing to stroke him with a tight fist instead. He wanted to see him come all over himself. He finished him off with a slick fist, making sure that the vibrator was touching him right where he needed it.

The Italian man let out a cry and arched his back, spilling on his stomach and Joe’s hand. Joe chuckled lightly as he was kicked by a heel against the small of his back, milking the last of his orgasm out of him.

Nicky gasped for air in the aftermath of his release and looked down his body with a sheepish laugh, noticing the glisten of white semen on his own abdomen and chest.

Joe smiled at him and leaned in for a lengthy kiss.

When they parted Nicky breathed: "Please take it out of me."

He heeded the request and removed the toy and rid it of the protective latex.

"That's a nice toy." Nicky let out a laugh.

Joe lay down next to him and ran his hand through the smooth hair that was damp with sweat. "Hmm. Better than the one you have at home?"

"I don't have a vibrator, or a dildo." At Joe's odd look, Nicky explained with a hint of embarrassment: "I'm worried that if I do stuff like that too often I'm going to stretch myself too much."

"Well, you are very tight. But I don't think there is anything wrong with indulging yourself from time to time, even when you're home alone. It's not going to stretch you any more than being fucked by a big dick." He flashed him a wicked grin.

Nicky smiled. After a few moments of silence he asked if it was alright if he went into the bathroom to clean himself up.

"Sure. There are clean towels in the cabinet under the sink." He watched his lover climb out of bed and leisurely walk into the bathroom. Nicky didn't bother closing the door, there was no point to privacy after that night, and Joe enjoyed the sight of him as he wetted a washcloth in the sink and wiped his torso and thighs clean before drying himself off with a towel. He leaned towards the mirror with a look of concentration and fretted over his hair until he caught sight of the red bite mark on his shoulder and he soothed it with his fingers.

Joe lay stretched out on the bed, one hand under the back of his head. He stared down the length of his sated body at the man in his bathroom.

Joe wasn't unfamiliar with casual sex and one-night-stands. As a gay man, he considered it a hard-fought, integral part of his life; the right to fuck whomever he wanted. He frequented clubs and bars for this purpose. But that night was different. Unlike before, Joe didn't want Nicky to leave, he didn't feel like they were “done” yet. For the first time he wanted more than just sex. He wanted to know more about Nicky's dad, his awkward dates with Giovanna, what he did for a living, and what he did for fun.

The man walked back into the bedroom. His eyes found Joe's and he pointed at the mark on his shoulder.

"Sorry," Joe said insincerely.

Nicky chuckled and shook his head at him. He picked up his underwear from the floor and put his briefs on and then searched the room for his pants.

"Why are you getting dressed?" Joe asked dumbly, rolling over onto his side and propping his chin up on his hand.

"Because I'm going home."

"Right now?" He glanced at the clock, it was a quarter to midnight. "Who are you, Cinderella?"

The other man snorted and zipped up his pants. "The last train for Oxnard leaves at twelve thirty."

"Oxnard?"

"I live in Oxnard," Nicky explained matter-of-factly.

"Oxnard?"

"Yes. It wasn't my choice. I bought an apartment with my boyfriend. Shit-" He paused and shook his head at himself. "My ex-boyfriend." Clearly it was a recent split that he hadn't fully gotten used to yet.

"You still live with your ex?" Joe surmised.

"The place won't sell. Until it does, I'm stuck there."

"Then why would you even want to go back there tonight?" He patted the empty expanse of mattress next to him invitingly. "Stay."

Nicky smiled but said nothing and continued buttoning-up his shirt.

"I'll make you a mean breakfast in the morning. After I fuck you again, of course."

"Of course," Nicky mirrored jokingly. He tucked his shirt into his pants and picked his discarded jacket up from the chair in the corner.

"Stop that."

"Stop what?"

"Getting dressed."

"I can't stay, Joe." He sat down on the foot of the bed to put on his shoes.

Joe crawled to the edge and kneeled behind him. He wrapped his strong arms around the man and kissed his neck. "Fuck… I don't know why, but I just can't stand the thought of you leaving."

Nicky looked over his shoulder and allowed Joe to kiss his mouth. Unlike their previous kisses, their tongues entangled tenderly and unhurriedly. They parted with a sigh and Joe felt a petty sense of bitterness when the other reiterated: "I can't stay." He freed himself from Joe's embrace and got up from the bed.

"Why can't you stay?" He challenged.

The bright-eyed man struggled with an answer for a moment. While making vague gestures with his hands and frowning at his own words, he said: "I don't do relationships right now."

"I'm not asking you to move in with me, I'm asking you to spend the night and… yeah, maybe see what happens?" Joe replied lightheartedly.

"We talked about phases before, right? Obviously, being gay isn't a phase, but I have gone through a couple of phases. I've had the Greyson-phase, the Javier phase, and now I'm just coming out of the Keane-phase," He tried to explain.

Ah. Joe thought there was something there when he had seen the two talk at the wedding.

"I've had three boyfriends, my entire life. I was with them for years and was never single for long between these 'phases'. I've rushed into relationships when I was too young. I need to be on my own for a while. I don't want to string anyone along, or risk falling in love. I do that too easily – fall in love that is – and I don't want to anymore. Right now, I just want to dance, try new things, meet a lot of people and have casual sex with cute guys I meet at weddings. …" He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "I'm sorry if that makes me sound like an asshole."

"It makes you sound like me," Joe replied. Joe was the opposite of what Nicky had been, he had always partied and enjoyed short-lived flings.

Nicky looked down at his watch and cursed. "I'm going to miss my train."

"Let me drive you to the station."

"We would have to leave right now." His eyes pointedly traveled up and down Joe's naked body.

He wasted no time. He jumped out of bed and put on sweatpants, not bothering with underwear, and he ripped a clean T-shirt out of his dresser and put it on as he already headed towards the front door where he stepped into his sneakers. "Let's go."

They hurried down to the parking garage and Joe raced to the train station. They arrived less than five minutes too late, but too late nonetheless. The train had departed. They stood in the large hall, looking around aimlessly. Joe knew there was no point inviting Nicky to come back home with him, so he offered to drive him all the way home, to Oxnard.

"Are you sure? It's a three-hour round-trip." The Italian grimaced.

"It's fine. It's my fault that you missed the train. Please, let me drive you home."

Nicky reluctantly agreed.

They went back to the car and for the first ten minutes of the drive they were both silent. The radio station played soft rock songs. Traffic on the freeway was light at the late hour. Joe finally interrupted the quiet. "So, Greyson, Javier, and Keane, huh?"

Orange street lights illuminated Nicky's small smile. "Greyson, Javier, and Keane," He confirmed with a single nod.

"What happened?" He cast a sideway glance and noticed Nicky making a face. "That bad, or… you just don't want to talk about it?"

"It wasn't that bad. But I didn't know what I was looking for, so it took me too long to realize that I hadn't found it."

"What are you looking for?"

He shrugged and looked out the window into the black countryside, or perhaps at his own reflection in the glass. "I guess I still don't know."

"Which is why you don't do relationships right now," Joe concluded. "It also means you might not realize you've found what you're looking for until it's too late."

Nicky smiled at him. "Touché." He didn't say anything else.

For the duration of the drive they talked quietly, mostly about the wedding. Occasionally Nicky interrupted the conversation to give Joe directions as they neared their destination.

Joe stopped the car in front of a brick, three-story apartment building across from a small park and right next to a Starbucks. "This is it?"

"Yeah." Nicky remained seated and he looked out the window at the building.

"You think Keane is home yet?"

"No. But I'm not inviting you up," He smirked at him.

Joe shrugged. "Worth a try."

He was silent for a little while and seemed unwilling to get out of the car, but then he finally said: "Thanks for the lift, Joe. And thanks for a great evening."

"Thank you. It was the first time I didn't regret coming to a wedding."

Nicky took a deep breath and then popped the door open and climbed out.

Joe contemplated getting out and walking him to his front door, but it seemed silly and he didn't want to make Nicky feel like he was trying to get into his pants – again. He returned a half-hearted wave and watched the man in the blue suit walk up to the building. He tore his gaze away and stared at his fingers on the steering wheel. When he wiggled them he could feel how sweaty his palms were. He didn't understand why he was feeling so nervous and felt like he was making a huge mistake. It wasn't like he believed in love-at-first-sight or any other of those ridiculously romantic notions.

Still, his heart leaped when a finger tapped on the side window and he looked up to see Nicky standing there. He quickly rolled down the window and had no time to say or think anything before Nicky reconnected their lips for a final, passionate kiss. Carding his fingers through Joe’s beard.

They parted and Joe stared at him, mesmerized.

"Bye," Nicky said.

"…Bye."

That time Nicky really did head into the building. Joe remained parked outside for several more minutes, to unscramble his brain, and then the drove home again, deeply lost in thought.

A few days after Giovanna's wedding, Joe sent a cheeky gift to Nicky's address: a vibrator.

“Think of me”, the note had read. Joe realized afterwards that the present might have been more stalker-y than intended. He didn't hear from him for a long time and many times he thought of stopping by to apologize for the inappropriate gift and to explain that he had meant it to be funny and cute. He had decided against it, only because that might make him seem like even more of a stalker.

He was very surprised when, weeks later, his phone rang at one in the afternoon while he was at the office and he answered to hear the most delicious string of moans. In the background he could hear the soft humming of the vibrator. In the blink of an eye he was rock hard and he scurried towards a supply closet. The impromptu phone-sex left him quivering. Once they had both caught their breath, they agreed to meet for coffee. Joe drove down to Oxnard and Nicky was waiting for him in front of the Starbucks right by his home, but as soon as they laid eyes on each other, they were no longer in the mood for coffee. They stumbled upstairs to Nicky's apartment – luckily, Keane wasn't home – and they didn't even make it to the bedroom. He fucked the Italian man against the kitchen counter.

Afterwards, they did go get that coffee. Nicky made it clear that he wasn't looking to start a “Joe-phase”. It would be a casual, open “relationship” – he used those words with actual air-quotations. He had been the dutiful, devoted, docile partner his entire life and he needed a change. Joe was happy to oblige. He had never been the dutiful, devoted, docile partner anyway. He welcomed the opportunity to have more of Nicky. He accepted that he wasn't the only lover in his life and he didn't stop picking up guys at clubs himself either.

After a while though, he realized that none of those men were able to fulfill his needs. While in the throes of passion with them, he would see Nicky's face and hear Nicky's moans and afterwards it was always hugely disappointing to find out it had been an illusion and he ended up yearning for the real thing. It wasn't uncommon for him to drive straight to Oxnard to have sex with Nicky at his place, or in the alley behind the building whenever Keane was home. That was how desperate matters had become.

When he confessed this to Nicky, the man admitted he felt the same.

Joe asked: “Will you try a ‘Joe-phase’ with me?”

Nicky smiled, nodded, and kissed him.

It wasn’t a phase.

Chapter Text

None of this had been Joe’s idea. No, Joe’s idea of a Friday night well-spent was with a good book – or a sketchbook. Not prowling the streets for a transgender hooker.

Still, he was the one who had his car crawl down the empty industrial street to that one corner in the outskirts of the city that wouldn’t be abandoned, even at this hour; long after the factories had closed and the workers had gone home.

He’d volunteered for the chore. The other guys had already been too drunk to drive and, more importantly, he didn’t trust any of them to be respectful about it.

The joke of surprising Booker with a transgender prostitute at his bachelor party was completely unfunny to Joe. The premise was built on the humiliation of the woman involved and he was uncomfortable with that and was fairly certain Booker would be too. But the group of friends was going to do this with or without his approval or his help, so he may as well cushion the blow for the lady involved and be honest about what she was getting herself into, if she were to agree to being the butt of this cruel joke.

He approached the corner at a snail’s pace. His hands were tight on the steering wheel, trembling as he fought the urge to turn the wheel and drive in the opposite direction. A black SUV idled there, smoke billowing out the exhaust pipe. One woman was half inside the car, through the passenger side window. Five others stood by on the corner, waiting, watching Joe as he rolled up. They were all giving each other a wide berth.

They were all dressed in revealing clothing and he spotted a lot of latex and lace. Most had big, blonde wigs. Some were more feminine-looking than others.

When he came to a stop behind the SUV, the woman closest to him was arguably the most masculine of them all. But Joe wryly thought to himself that the friends would get a good laugh out of that.

He waited, not knowing what the proper etiquette was. He actively avoided eye-contact with any of them as they sized him up, but snuck a few glances at the woman closest to him and she took notice and took it as an invitation. She started towards him with a sway of her hips that didn’t suit her build, but was alluring to watch either way.

She was dressed in all white clothing. Thigh high, latex boots with platforms and heels that were best described as stilts. A mini skirt that left muscular thighs bare and sat low on her hips. It was tight enough to show the texture of lacy underwear underneath, as well as a bulge in the front as she had done a poor job of tucking her penis back. In combination with the sleeveless crop top, most of her abdomen was exposed. She had a flat stomach, shadows licked into the dips over her hipbones and ghosted over the faint shape of muscles that worked as she walked. The chest was flat, she was not wearing any stuffing to mimic breasts. Nor did she wear any padding to feminize her hips.

Nothing about the outfit masked her masculine, although slender silhouette, least of all her broad shoulders.

Joe hadn’t seen her face yet, it was out of view, as she got closer to his car. He rolled the passenger side window down, just as she leaned forward.

He wouldn’t call her a pretty woman. Her nose was too big and her smile was crooked. Overall her features couldn’t be considered delicate or feminine. But she was captivating to behold nonetheless. Her large, bright eyes were mesmerizing.

She peered at him from underneath thick, fake eyelashes. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, one of the other women interrupted. She had wobbled over on het platform heels and pushed the woman in white aside. She poked her head into Joe’s car. She looked far more “convincing” as a woman, but she had a mean expression that made her insufferably ugly.

The woman in white straightened up and stood by at the side of the car. Joe could see her hesitation in the restlessness of her hips, which was all he could see of her now through the window. She was apparently unsure of whether to intervene or walk away.

“Don’t take this man home, sweetie,” The lady in a red lacy outfit spat. “A gentleman like you deserves a real lady.” Then she got smacked by a tiny, white purse.

“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re a woman, not a lady,” Said the one in white, tone soft but raspy – a tickle in Joe’s ear.

Joe smiled at the pleasant, Italian accent. He said to the lady in red: “Sorry, milady, she got here first.”

With a harrumph she left as fast as she had come over, muttering under her breath along the way. Her heels made hollow sounds on the pavement. There was something amusing about her short, little steps and the wiggle of her overstuffed buttocks.

Large hands with fake, sparkly nails gripped the frame of the car window and the first woman leaned down again. A small smile graced her lips, the kindness of it reached her eyes, making them even more beautiful. “Can I join you in the car?” She kept her voice light, but could not hide her rasp.

Joe nodded and watched as she popped the door open and folded herself into the passenger seat. Her long legs were made even longer by the boots she was wearing, so her knees were high once she was settled.

Joe’s gaze traveled from her latex-covered knees along her smooth thighs to the tiny purse perched in her lap. Then up her flat abdomen and equally flat chest, in time to see her stroke a hand down her long, dark hair. Clearly a wig, but a nice one. The hair was shiny but not overtly fake. Wispy bangs touched messy eyebrows.

“Want to drive some place private, tesoro?”

“Tesoro?”

“Darling,” She translated.

Joe’s cheeks heated up.

Mi dispiace, if you want, I call you something else.”

He shook his head. “No, whatever is fine. Or… I guess you can just call me Joe.” He held his hand out to her.

Their hands fit together well; palms the same size, fingers just as long.

The lady introduced herself as Nicky.

“Is that your real name?” Joe realized what a stupid question that was as soon as he had asked it.

She didn’t give him any grief for it. “Close enough.”

Joe stared at her for a moment. Not-pretty as she was, she was, for lack of a better word, stunning. His gaze danced from the beauty mark on her jaw to the freckles and moles on her exposed shoulders, like he was looking at the constellations, trying to find the shapes between the stars. He noticed her putting her hands on her purse, it appeared even smaller in the grip of her hands. Masculine hands, with a web of pronounced veins and course knuckles. His staring was making her nervous and understandably so. However, he hesitated to be forthcoming about his intentions. At that point, he couldn’t tell if it was better or worse than what most of her clients called on her for.

“I-… Uhh… I have to be honest with you here…”

“It’s your first time. It’s okay,” She said routinely, although not insincerely.

“No- I mean, yes! I- I’ve never done this before.” He gestured between the two of them as if that was supposed to mean anything. “But ‘this’, this is not what you think.” He laughed at himself and allowed himself a moment of quiet to sort through his thoughts. “I’m not looking for sex.”

If anything, this seemed to alarm her, not put her at ease.

“I have a friend, he’s getting married tomorrow. It’s his bachelor party tonight. And his friends thought it would be funny if we got someone to surprise him with.”

She just blinked.

What else did he expect?

“I’m sorry. It’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. But they insisted and I figured… I figured if I’d be the one to get the woman, at least she wouldn’t get tricked into something and get blindsided.”

“Your friend, the ‘bachelor’, he’s straight?”

“Yes.”

“And all of your friends are straight too?”

“Not my friends. His friends,” He corrected, hanging his head in shame. Colleagues, mostly, in fact. Even Booker didn’t seem to cherish any particular fondness for at least half of them.

“So they don’t like…” She pointedly looked down at herself.

He swallowed. “They wouldn’t find it arousing, no.” He had taken his time to choose his words carefully and still it sounded so grotesque and wrong coming out of his mouth.

“They would laugh?”

He nodded, with his lips pressed together tightly.

“Hm.” She swiveled her head around to the other side, probably contemplating getting out of the car, or perhaps only to hide her face and hide her emotions.

After a while he said: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have even asked. I’m sorry. Please-”

“Two hundred.”

“… What?” He cleared his throat.

She turned back to face him. “For two hundred dollars I will do the prank.”

He held her gaze. “You really don’t have to.”

“It’s fine,” She said curtly. She pulled the sun visor down and flipped the mirror open. Without looking away from her reflection she opened her purse, producing a tube of sparkly, pink lip gloss that she applied and Joe felt he was watching her put on war paint. “You and the guy wasting Joy’s time,” She nodded ahead at the black SUV, with the woman still handing in the side window, “are the only two to stop by all night so far. If I go with you, at least I’ll get paid tonight. Two hundred,” She reiterated.

“O-okay. Uhm… I’ll have to stop by an ATM.” The guys had sent him away with a hundred bucks. He didn’t know if they would have more cash on them. If they did, they would have probably spent most of it by now in the VIP lounge they had rented at the club.

She simply nodded.

“Alright.” He pulled the car away from the curb and headed back downtown.

She fussed with her hair for a bit before flipping the visor back up.

Joe had trouble focusing on the road in front of him, continuously stealing looks at his passenger, trying to commit her profile to memory so he might sketch it later. The contradiction of the downward arch of the Roman nose and the upward arch of the exaggerated eyelashes – the masculine versus the feminine – was very interesting to him. He startled when, the next time he cocked his head to the side, he made eye contact with her.

The beauty of those eyes could not be denied; it transcended gender. Male or female, those eyes were exquisite.

“Watch the road,” She chastised, but a smirk pulled the corners of her mouth up.

“You have beautiful eyes.” He wanted to explain to her that he wasn’t staring because he was appalled or that he was judging her.

“There is no need to flirt.”

He opened his mouth to object, but then caught her expression and realized she was purposefully making him flustered.

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” He was quick to say.

“Hm.”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, considering letting her smoke after all, if it made her feel more at ease. It was probably the least he could do for her. But he knew his car would smell of cigarettes for days to come and he would swear he could still smell it months from now, even though he’d know it would all be in his head. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the smell… “I recently quit,” He admitted. And he was… struggling… The “innocent” addiction had filled a not so innocent void, as it had turned out.

Once he had quit, he realized how little there was on any given day to get excited about. It dawned on him that the reason he had no trouble getting out of bed in the morning was because he was looking forward to his first smoke. He realized that his favorite lunch was nothing but a side course to his two cigarettes at midday. He didn’t so much like coffee as he liked how the nicotine tasted with coffee. He’d never been able to flirt with someone without the icebreaker of asking for a light. There were times when he would only leave his house because he had to get cigarettes. Without a cigarette to occupy his fingers, he had started picking at his cuticles whenever he was nervous or bored. He had to relearn how to hold his pencils and paintbrushes because for the past fifteen years he had held them in a way to allow him to hold a smoke as well. The smell reminded him of his mother and his grandfather and his favorite teacher – all dead.

A few weeks ago he had followed an elderly lady through the entirety of the supermarket because the scent hunt around her so heavily. He’d bought a pack of smokes at the cash register then, but had ended up tossing them in the bin right outside the store.

But… he was doing better. Finally. He couldn’t be trusted with temptation. Not now. Not while he was already filled with nervous energy and shame.

“Oh.” She gave him that crooked smile that he found utterly disarming. “I’ve been meaning to quit as well. I know I should. Even if only because it’s so expensive. But I recently quit beer as well and it’s too much to quit both.”

“You ‘quit beer’?”

“Carbs,” She explained and then motioned down at her exposed torso. “This outfit doesn’t work when I’m bloated.”

Joe laughed at her scrunched-up features and the laugh vented out most of his anxiety.

“You know what I mean. You look like you work out,” She observed. Her gaze trailed up his arms, mostly left bare by the polo shirt he was wearing.

He grinned at her. “There is no need to flirt.”

The crooked smile reappeared. Her eyes lit up. Even in the shadow of her fake lashes they managed to sparkle.

He spied her exposed arms and noted that she looked like she worked out as well. Although her musculature wasn’t as pronounced as Joe’s, her arms were nicely shaped and the veins in her hand trailed up her forearms – all the more visible without any arm hair. He swallowed a compliment, because she’d have nice arms for a man but as a woman, she probably didn’t like them much on herself. The same for her thighs, they weren’t soft like a woman’s but instead defined like a man’s. Joe could picture himself plying them open, directing them around his waist, encouraging her to squeeze him, to hold him tight, to try and stop the thrusts of his hips…

Nicky was a confusing person to him. She was a woman and Joe knew he was gay when he was only a twelve year old boy, so logically there should be no attraction. But, as shameful as it was to even just think in the privacy of his own mind, she looked like a man in a miniskirt and there was something very, very attractive about that. It wasn’t something he had experienced before.

“Do you want to listen to some music?” He reached for the dials on the radio. He didn’t usually have it on. He didn’t drive much and when he did he enjoyed the quiet.

“Is it a long ride?”

“Uh, about another fifteen minutes or so.” He fiddled with the controls, acknowledging only to himself that he was nervous once more. A hand appeared over his and he consciously didn’t pull away for a few seconds, not wanting his surprise to be mistaken as disgust. He enjoyed her touch; the warmth of her hand and the accidental scratch of her nails.

“You focus on not crashing,” She said, alerting Joe to the fact that he had let the car half drift into the other lane. “I’ll find us a song.”

He retreated his hand and placed it firmly on the steering wheel.

She quickly familiarized herself with the system and pulled up the radio stations on the touch screen on the dashboard. She clicked from one station to the next so fast, Joe didn’t even have time to recognize the song before she had moved on. He stole another look. Her expression was pensive, eyebrows pinched, lips pursed. He liked it.

“No pressure or anything, but a song choice says a lot about a person.”

She whipped her head around at him and he noted the movement in her bangs and the long locks falling over her chest. “Ok. Then I will pick one first and you pick one after that.”

He didn’t point out that there was little sense in them trying to get to know each other through music and that he’d only joked to fill the silence. He didn’t point out that they wouldn’t see each other again after tonight, so there was no need to bother.

Yet she said, as if he had spoken those thoughts aloud: “Just because we are only in each other’s lives for one night, does not mean we have to be strangers.”

She said it so offhandedly that he already felt like he knew her that bit better. This was how she went through life, not shutting anybody out, treating everybody like a full and complete person. He imagined her making small talk with people in line at the supermarket, remembering people’s birthdays even without ever being invited to the party, and not looking away from homeless people. Everyone deserved her time and no person she met was left as a stranger afterward.

He was pulled out of his musings when she finally settled on a station and he focused on the song that was playing. An old, upbeat track played, accompanied by romantic lyrics. It was from the eighties, or nineties, Joe couldn’t quite place it, although he’d heard it playing in clubs often enough, perhaps remixed to have more oomph; a timeless rhythm to dance to.

Nicky crooned along with some of the adlibs, voice too raspy and not even pretending to be womanly.

Joe didn’t even realize he was smiling until he caught sight of his reflection in the rear view mirror. Then all of a sudden he became aware he was smiling so wide it hurt his cheeks. He couldn’t tell yet if it was the effect of the song, or the effect Nicky had on him. It was a powerful thing to see someone as “traditionally unfortunate” as Nicky be so exuberant and enjoy a song on the radio so carelessly. Meanwhile, Joe lived a comfortable lifestyle, never had a want for anything other than companionship, yet he couldn’t remember the last time he smiled the way he was smiling now.

Nicky was looking at him. “Do you like the song?”

Joe’s answer was turning up the volume and cranking his smile up more too.

The woman drummed her fingers on her knees and bobbed her head along, causing her hair to dance in fluid motions.

Before the song had completely winded down, she urged Joe to pick a song, but reminding him to keep his eyes on the road. He blindly switched from one station to the next, sometimes accidentally going back to one he had already passed. He settled for a Top 40 song that he recognized and knew he liked. One of those singer-songwriter tracks, but with actually clever lyrics. The song was descriptive. It weaved a story that was easily visualized. More than anything it sounded like a painting. That only made sense in his head, that much became apparent when he tried to explain it to Nicky.

“But it’s a sad song, why would you pick a sad song?”

He shrugged. He didn’t really have the answer to that, at least not one that didn’t make him sound horribly jaded. When he looked at Nicky, her expression lacked all judgment, all prejudice. She pitied him. A woman, cruelly born in the wrong body and forced to sell that body, forced into sex and pranks at bachelor parties… she pitied him. Joe wasn’t insulted, he was amazed. Amazed that she had it in her to care for his troubles, when they could only pale in comparison.

“You pick a song again,” He said. “You’re much better at it.”

Nicky spent the rest of the ride tapping her finger on the screen, often times growing tired of a song before the first verse finished. It would have been annoying if not for the play of emotions on her features. Big frowns and big smiles suited her big eyes and big nose well.

The closer he got to the club, where the group of friends were waiting for him and where Booker was none the wiser – thinking Joe had simply cut out early – the more he dreaded what awaited her there. They would probably want her to do a lap dance, or perhaps a strip tease. Although she wasn’t wearing much that she could strip off. They would probably goad Booker into putting his hands on her. Booker wouldn’t want to, so the others would. They would draw attention to her wide shoulders, her sinewy arms, the bulge in her miniskirt.

It wasn’t right.

He knew from the start it wasn’t right. After knowing her through little more than a single song and that crooked smile, he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He couldn’t do that to her.

Joe considered making a U-turn and taking her back to the corner of that street, but the thought made him ache all over. So instead, he took a turn into a suburban neighborhood, going in further and further without her noticing until he pulled the car into the driveway of his own house.

As the car came to a halt, Nicky turned the volume down and leaned forward to look at the dark and empty house. “Is this where the party is?” There was an edge to her tone. One of skepticism and concern.

It dawned on Joe how creepy he was being. He tried to fix it with a joke: No, this is never where the party is.” He laughed bitterly. “This is my house.”

“Oh.”

This clearly had not put her at ease, so he started in on an awkward tangent – meant to be funny – that he wasn’t trying to kidnap her and tie her up in his basement, just that he couldn’t go through with the prank and wanted to offer her coffee instead.

Her face didn’t change much after the word “basement” had left his mouth.

“That was a dumb joke, I’m sorry. That was really stupid. I swear I’m not a serial killer.” Why did he just say “serial killer”? He took a deep breath and turned his head away for a moment, hoping his face would stop burning if it wasn’t under the scrutiny of her stare for a minute. “You make me nervous and I don’t know why,” He admitted, still not looking her way. “I swear it’s not because-… I’m just nervous. I think it’s because I was about to make a really horrible mistake, by bringing you to that bachelor party.” Finally, he could bring himself to face her again.

“It’s nothing I’m not used to. I can handle it.”

His heart clenched, at her words and at her matter-of-fact tone. She really was used to it – that and much worse. He hated it and he hated himself for nearly subjecting her to it. For volunteering to bring someone, best intentions or not. “Well, you don’t have to handle it tonight. I’ll still pay you for your time. I’ll bring you back, if you prefer, but if you’d like, you’re welcome to come inside and have some coffee.”

She looked at the house again. Really, there couldn’t be anything ominous about it, just a three story house with the bricks painted white and the shutters painted blue. Joe’s bedroom window was open and the curtains billowed out. A porch wrapped around the entire home. Stepping stones led the way from the driveway to the front door. Along the way you’d pass a lawn flamingo – a gag gift that, some days, was the only thing that could make Joe smile.

“We didn’t stop at an ATM,” She said.

“Oh. Yeah, but it’s fine, I have cash in the house.”

“Ok.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, ok.”

Joe stiffened. In the span of a minute, they had gone from Nicky thinking Joe was going to kill her, to Joe thinking Nicky was going to rob him. The absurdity of the situation hit him over the head. He had brought a hooker home! What was he thinking? But he climbed out of the car and listened to Nicky’s footfalls trailing him. On the second stepping stone, he stopped and turned around and wordlessly offered her his hand for support. The stones were uneven and far apart and must be hard to walk on in ten inch heels.

Nicky took his hand, gripping it hard enough for her knuckles to go white.

He helped her to the porch, where he let go of her hand with a sensation akin to regret – a hollow throb from the tips of the fingers of one hand to the fingertips of the other. He fished his keys out of his pocket and their movements caused the porch light to come on, helping him find the right key and the key hole. Standing there, it amused him to think what the neighbors must be thinking. He knew the lady across the street liked to spy.  

He flung the door open and tossed his keys into the darkness. He heard them land on the table in the hallway and his hand found the light switch by the door.

The hallway was small. Straight ahead was a screen of wooden lattice work, through which one could peek into the living room. The entry to the living room was to the right, the coat closet and downstairs bathroom to the left.

Joe paused as Nicky joined him in the space, which felt cramped by the two sets of broad shoulders. Nicky was quite a bit taller than him, but that was probably mostly due to the boots. “Do you mind taking your shoes off?” As he spoke, he toed off his own shoes. He tensed up when the big hand with sparkly nails grab a hold of his bicep. Nicky bent down to unzip her tall boots and one-by-one took them off, balancing on one leg at a time, squeezing Joe’s arm a little tighter as she did.

He watched and chuckled at the sight of her patterned socks.

“I wasn’t expecting anyone to ask me to take my boots off tonight,” She explained. Looking up at him, she blew away her bangs.

When she straightened up, Joe noticed her height advantage had not just been mostly boot, but all boot.  She turned out to be about an inch shorter than him. It seemed to take her aback about as much as it did him.

“Huh, you’re taller than I thought.”

“You’re shorter than I thought,” He shot back then invited her further into his home with a gesture. He walked after her. The sway to her hips was gone, replaced by a casual gait. She held her purse in front of her stomach and while idling in the center of the room she wiggled her toes. It was hard to miss, given the bright colors of the socks.

“I’ll get you your payment first.” With quickened pace he headed into the kitchen at the back, passing the staircase between the living room and the kitchen and flicking on more lights as he went. In one of the cabinets, hidden in a tin marked “tea” he had hidden away some cash in case of emergencies. He counted four fifty dollar bills and then put the tin back on the high shelf. He was paying her with his own money so he could return the money the other guys had given him when he would see them next. Which, to his dismay, would be tomorrow, at Booker’s wedding.

Nicky still stood exactly where he had left her, behind the couch in the middle of the living space. She’d been looking around herself, studying the surroundings, but honed her focus in on him when he returned to her. She accepted the money without a word, checked to ensure it was the agreed amount and then opened up her purse to stuff it inside. Joe caught a glimpse of the tube of lip gloss, pack of cigarettes, an assortment of condoms, as well as a small bottle of lube. She came very prepared. He supposed he could do nothing but admire that, although it made him sad and something else as well.

Jealous?

That didn’t make any sense.

“Did you want me to drive you back or would you like some coffee?”

She pinched her purse shut and said: “Coffee, please. Thank you.”

He motioned for her to follow him and headed back to the kitchen. He rummaged about, getting the coffee machine fired up and fetching two mugs. “I don’t have a fancy espresso machine or anything. Is just regular coffee okay?”

“Sure.” She settled herself in one of the bar stools at the cooking island. The collection of bracelets and bangles she wore jingled as she rested her forearms on the surface of the counter, right next to where she had placed her purse.

“Black?”

“…Sure.”

With his back turned to her, he smiled. She was lying. Perhaps not waiting to be a bother. While the coffee machine hummed, he got milk from the fridge and a pot of sugar and put them in front of her.

She stared. Surprised at first, then just… happy. Made happy by something so simple. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

The machine beeped and stopped humming. The coffee was ready. He placed one of the steaming mugs in front of her and cradled the other in his hands. He watched her poor a truly distasteful amount of milk and sugar into the brew, causing him to ask: “Do you even like coffee?”

“I like the caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks.”

“That’s not coffee.”

“Then no.” She showed off her crooked smile and then took a sip anyway.

“What kind of Italian are you?”

“A bad one?” She proffered with a grin he already knew to characterize her.

“Why did you agree to coffee if you don’t even like it?”

She shrugged. “I suppose…” She put the mug down and traced the ear with a finger and then thought to wipe the stain of her lipstick off the rim. “I’m just not in a hurry to go back. Besides, you paid for my time, right?” She winked, she actually winked. It made Joe feel weak in the knees and he could not explain it. “This is the most respectable thing I’ve done in a while to earn my pay.”

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. The money is yours. I can take you home if you’d like.”

“No. I’m not in a hurry to go back,” She repeated, alerting him to the fact that she had been talking about not wanting to go home all along, not about not wanting to go back to the corner of the street with the other “ladies of the night”. “You have a lovely home,” She said.

“Thank you.”

“I like the big painting in the living room.”

He ducked his head between his shoulders. “Thank you. It’s uhh… It’s mine.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Really? You made it?”

He made a dismissive gesture. “It’s nothing special. Just something I whipped up because I’m very particular about colors and I couldn’t find an artwork with the right color to match the carpet. It was…” He snorted at himself. “It was a whole thing.”

“Nothing special?” She rolled her eyes at him. “I think it’s beautiful. Do you make more art?”

“I do, yes. It’s my job.”

“You’re an artist?”

“Yeah. Well, it pays the bills. I’m not at that stage where if I cut off my ear my stuff will be worth millions after I’m dead. But, sure, yeah, I’m an artist.”

She leaned back in her seat, no longer even feigning interest in the coffee. “You are too humble. You are obviously talented. That painting is beautiful and so is this house, so you must earn good money from your art.”

“What about you?” He asked, to get the attention and flattery away from himself. “Any talents?” Maybe that was a stupid and insensitive question to ask and he regretted it instantly. He hid his face behind his mug, taking a big sip.

“I give really good blowjobs.”

He sprayed coffee all over the counter, thankfully too far removed from her to get a combination of brew and spit on her and her immaculate white outfit. She stared at him wide eyed for too many Mississippi’s and then she burst out in laughter that ended with a snort.

He wiped his chin with his palm and laughed breathily at himself. Using the kitchen towel he wiped the counter dry.

Nicky apologized for the joke.

“Don’t be. It was funny. Obviously.” He tossed the soiled towel into the sink. He’d worry about cleaning the kitchen properly later. But he did take a moment to open the faucet and cup water in his palm to rinse out his beard, as he could smell the coffee on himself. He patted himself dry with a clean towel from a cabinet.

“I’m not much of a lady, am I?”

“Ladies can joke about blowjobs too.”

Nicky chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment and squinted her eyes as she contemplated something. She opened her mouth, about to say something, but pressed her lips shut again and only offered a smile.

“Can I get you something else to drink?”

She shook her head.

“Not a beer?” He teased.

She smirked at him. “No. But do you mind if I have a smoke outside?”

“Not at all. I actually think there’s still an ashtray on the bannister.”

She popped her purse open and produced her pack of cigarettes and a hot pink lighter but fumbled with both and didn’t get up from the bar stool. Joe caught her looking down at herself and that clued him into something. “The back yard is private, none of the neighbors will see you if you stay on the porch.”

“Actually, do you have clothes I can borrow?” Her tone was unbearably apologetic. “I’m starting to feel silly. I don’t know… I-…” She couldn’t find any words to express herself and knew Joe probably wouldn’t be able to understand anyway, so she gave up and finished with a wave of her hand that meant nothing but was elegant and mesmerizing regardless.

“Of course. If you’re comfortable with that. I only have sweats and shirts and stuff.”

“That’s fine.”

“Ok. Follow me.” He led the way up the dark staircase to his bedroom. The first thing he did was close the window and close the curtain, so she would have some privacy. On his way to his closet he wiped his palms on his polo shirt. Obviously, he didn’t have anything womanly for her to wear and it felt like an affront to hand her his clothes, but he had no other option. He produced a pair of black sweatpants and a black T-shirt that he knew was too tight on himself, so would probably fit her well. She was broad for a woman, but still slimmer than Joe.

“Is this ok?” He laid it on the bed for her.

On his bed.

They were in his bedroom.

There was a hooker in his bedroom.

A wire short circuited in his brain and he stammered meaninglessly for a moment before simply concluding his momentary lapse in reason with a smile.

“It’s perfect, thank you. Can I use the bathroom as well?”

“Yeah, of course. En suite is right through there.” He pointed at the black doorway to the right. “I’ll be downstairs.” With his head dipped low he walked out of the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

He knew this was going to be a weird night the moment Booker had invited him to come to his bachelor party. He had had no idea of just how weird.

Joe went back downstairs, giving her her privacy and not wanting to hover and have it be mistaken for distrust. The fears of her robbing him had vanished as soon as the ugly thought had even reared its head.

He paced back and forth, from the living room to the kitchen and back again. He was nervous. The way he was nervous when he had a date and he laughed bitterly at the realization.

This isn’t date. This is a hooker.

This is a female hooker, nonetheless. Yes, she obviously still had a manly body, but she was a woman nonetheless and Joe was gay. Or was supposed to be, anyway.

He’d met transgender women before and they had never had this effect on him. Not even the ones that were more masculine than Nicky was. 

Finally, he stopped moving and waited in the kitchen, leaning over the counter, where he had sprayed coffee before. It took Nicky longer to reappear than Joe had expected and he worried she would feel uncomfortable. Without the outfit, there was nothing outwardly feminine about her, so even though she had expressed that she felt “silly”, she might feel worse still in men’s clothing. He wondered if she would keep her wig and make-up on and was then quick to assume that she would.

There was an odd sensation fluttering in his belly, which might be hunger or butterflies. Frankly, he hoped for the former and he did remind himself that he hadn’t had much to eat that day, anticipating a lot of nervous and bored snacking at the VIP lounge.

At the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, he straightened up and searched for something to do. But he couldn’t find anything to occupy his hands with and pretend he hadn’t been waiting in silent contemplation. Once more he missed just the task of smoking.

As Nicky walked into the kitchen, Joe prayed that his jaw hadn’t dropped. It was impossible for him to tell, having lost all control over and sensation in his face.

The not-pretty woman made the most beautiful man.

In the black clothes she looked tall and slender. The items fit her well and – although Joe hated himself for thinking it – suited her well also. She exuded a comfortable manliness, of the cozy kind. Joe’s arms ached to wrap around her frame. Feel the broad shoulders. Feel the slim waist.

It was so confusing…

To his surprise, she had taken off her wig and her make-up, as well as she could. There was still dark eyeliner around her eyes, somewhat smudged and faded. Her natural hair was short and a lighter shade of brown than her wig. It had been messily styled upward, probably with some hair gel she found in the bathroom – the hair gel Joe used to tame his curls whenever he could be bothered to care.

Nothing feminine was left and it threw Joe off balance more. Because he was definitely attracted to this “man”. But it was not about what someone looked like. It was about what they feel they are; what they know they are, whether or not the rest of the world wants to know it too.

He had been staring. Nicky let him. He wasn’t aware he was doing it until his gaze traveled back up and caught that smirk on her shapely lips, little more than a pink stain left on them. None of the sparkle of the lip gloss had remained.

Subconsciously he took a step back and when he felt the edge of the counter against his hip he leaned into it, in an attempt to assume a casual posture. In the meantime his brain kept firing error messages.

Nicky tilted her head and she finally put him out of his misery with a delicious, deep laugh. “You can stop your trans-ally-panic,” She said. No malice to be detected in her tone. She closed the distance between them and it took Joe entirely too long to realize she was reaching for her cigarettes. He stepped aside at the last moment. Nicky shook a smoke out of the pack and said, without meeting his gaze: “I’m not trans.”

“Sorry, what?” That was the most intelligent response he could manage.

Her lips curled. His lips? What? Nicky held the cigarette close to her face, arm bent at the elbow and resting in her side. His face? His side? “I’m not transgender. I’m CIS.”

“No shit,” The unintellectual babble continued.

“Yeah. Sorry.” A little laugh cushioned the blow. “Is it still ok if I…?” She – he! – threw his thumb over his shoulder at the back door and motioned with the cigarette.

Joe nodded, not wanting to say a third stupid thing in a row. He led the way outside, unlocking the door and switching on the porch light.

It was an Indian summer night, still warm outside, even hours after sunset. It smelled of the rainstorm that had passed over earlier in the evening. Every blade of grass and leaf on the trees glistened in the moonlight.

They stood at the bannister, where the ashtray was perched. Joe tipped out the water that had collected there into the lawn below and placed the tray in front of Nicky.

The man – a novel thought to occur in Joe’s head – lit his cigarette and took a long drag. He held the smoke in his lungs for a long time before releasing, shaping his lips to blow the smoke away from Joe.

Joe could taste it on his tongue. But there was one thing he craved more than a smoke. There was a shameful want swelling in his chest…

“So, if you’re not trans, why do you…?” He let the rest of the question hang, feeling too silly to put it into words.

“It’s a bit of a long and weird story.”

“Ok,” He said simply.

At his expectant gaze, Nicky chuckled and sucked in more smoke before starting: “A friend of mine, she got me started doing this. All of it. I moved here from Italy with my ex. Things ended badly.” He paused for a smoke, the air came out trembling. “I didn’t have a Visa to work here, but no money to leave either. I burrowed some cash from some wrong people for an emergency. I needed to pay them back fast before shit would get bad.” He swallowed.

Nicky looked down at where he tapped some ash off the end of the cigarette, giving the task much more focus than needed. “This friend of mine, she was my roommate. I- I guess I should say first that I like dressing up at times. She knew that. She’d get a good laugh out of dressing me up and then making herself scarce. She’d been doing this for a while, so when I needed money, she got me into it. She’d help me. We’d go together, at first, like a package deal, before I got…” He scrunched up his face and settled on: “Before I got better. It pays well. More than if I’d do it dressed as a man. And when I don’t look like myself, it’s easier to pretend that I’m not myself.”

Joe nodded along. The shift in Nicky’s personality, from when he was dressed in his white outfit, to when he was dressed in Joe’s clothes, was noticeable, even barely knowing him. It wasn’t a jarring difference, but it was there.

“It’s… It’s just easier,” He waved his hand, making cigarette smoke move through the air. “The other ladies hate me for it. I can’t blame them.”

“Was your friend there tonight? We can go back and get her, if you’d like. I’ll pay her too.”

Nicky shook his head. “She’s dead.”

Joe reeled back at that. There was a hurt in Nicky’s eyes that he wouldn’t let taint his tone, detaching himself from his emotions as a self-preservation.

“She got beaten to death by a John, only a few weeks after I got started.”

Joe pieced the bits of information together in his head.

She got killed when Nicky first got started.

When he first got started, they went with John’s together.

He had seen her get beaten and had been powerless to stop it.

Was probably beaten himself.

Joe didn’t ask for any details. It would hurt Nicky too much and Joe wasn’t even sure if he could handle it himself. “I’m sorry.”

Nicky took another drag of his cigarette. He didn’t say anything; didn’t accept nor reject Joe’s expression of sympathy.

“Why didn’t you stop, after that?”

“Hadn’t paid off my debt yet.” For the first time that evening, it looked like he was about to get defensive. Like he was prepared for Joe being judgmental, when really he was only curious, longing to understand.

“May I ask how long you’ve been doing this?”

“You may.”

In the following silence Joe worried his bottom lip with his teeth. Was Nicky really going to wait for him to ask? But no, Nicky was merciful. With a smile that didn’t reach his eyes and one that wasn’t crooked, clueing Joe in that it was a calculated smile, he answered: “A little over a year.”

He nodded, not knowing what else to do. “Did you pay off your debt?” Joe knew that if the answer would be no, he’d grab the tea-tin immediately and give Nicky everything he had.

“Hmhm. I’m saving up to get out of here.”

“Where you would you like to go?”

He chuckled. “I’m not sure where I’d like to go, but I guess I’d go back to Italy. The devil you know, that sort of thing. At least I can get a real job there.”

Why did that cause Joe to think that he’d like to live in Italy for a while? He’d never been, but all of a sudden he was curious. He had a history of moving all over the place – all over the world.

Was he really considering moving back to Europe to follow a hooker he’d only just met? When had his life become this laughably pathetic? That nothing grounded him here strongly enough that even an Italian hooker couldn’t uproot him?

He craved nicotine then. The smell that hung under the porch hit him and had him swaying towards Nicky. Boldly – or at least he liked to think of it as boldly, not as desperately – he held out his hand and said: “Give me a drag.”

Nicky scrunched up his face. “No.”

“Come on, let me.”

 No!” He protested, but with a laugh.

Joe reached out and Nicky twisted his body away, protecting his cigarette.

“You quit! I will not be a bad influence.”

A laugh ripped out of Joe and he stepped closer still, snaking an arm around him in search of the smoke.

“No! Joe!” In a last ditch effort he flicked the cigarette away. The small dot of light flew through the air and was extinguished as soon as it landed in the wet grass. Then Nicky became tense and shot a wide-eyed look over his shoulder at Joe. “Shit! I’m so sorry. Shit. Joe.” He hurried off the porch and onto the lawn. “I can’t believe I just littered in your backyard. I’m so sorry, Joe.” He continued muttering under his breath in Italian as he searched in the dark for the cigarette butt, soaking his socks in the grass in the process.

Joe liked the way his name sounded, tumbling from Nicky’s lips. A little clipped. And somehow he managed to get so much Italian accent into that one syllable… “Nicky, forget about it. It’s fine.” He laughed, unable to help it. “Get back up here. Get off the lawn.”

Nicky ran a hand through his hair but it sprung back upon release. With one last, apologetic look up at Joe, he climbed onto the porch again, leaving dark footprints on the wooden boards. He peeled his socks off his feet, making a face at the sensation.

Joe laughed more, his nervousness from before cured. Without having to resort to nicotine.

The word “Nickytine” popped into his mind unbidden and he knew instantly it would stick with him forever, the way some asinine things just do. Nickytine, just as addictive and capable of both causing and curing nerves.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky repeated.

“Don’t be, you saved me from myself.”

He draped the socks over the armrest of a chair under the kitchen window.

“The socks are an interesting choice,” Joe commented when Nicky assumed his spot next to him again.

“They’re just a joke. For myself. Something frivolous for me to see at the end of the night, when I take the boots off. Helps me bridge the gap to being me again.”

Joe blurted, in awe of him: “You are very open-hearted.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Ok. Just not what you expected?”

“No.” He grinned. “Not in the slightest. Nothing about you is what I expected. I mean, Hell, I expected you to be a woman.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“I don’t mind it.” That sounded more flirtatious than intended, but it earned him such a nice smile that Joe was left with no regrets.

“You are a very kind man, Joe. For you to consider me a woman when I know I don’t… I know I don’t make a pretty woman.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and rubbed his foot on the pant leg, presumably drying it or maybe he was nervous. “You are not what I expected either.”

“No? I suppose that’s good.”

“It is.” That was definitely flirtatious.

“What did you expect?”

“At first just a John, looking for a blowjob, or maybe even only a hand job. Absolutely insisting all the way up to his orgasm that he’s ‘not all that interested’. Then some jerk who would make fun of me with his friends. And, finally, a serial killer,” He deadpanned.

Joe chuckled sheepishly and scratched the back of his neck. But he grew progressively more concerned and he noted: “And you still got into my car and walked into my house…”

“Occupational hazard,” He shrugged.

“Have you ever gotten in trouble with uh- a John?”

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate. Although he held Joe’s gaze fearlessly, Joe knew he shouldn’t press on, if no information was volunteered.

Instead he asked: “Are you hungry?”

“Hungry?”

“I could order in. I’m kind of hungry myself,” He said, knowing it would make it easier for Nicky to accept the offer of food.

Nicky looked at him like the proposal was preposterous. And he was right. It was preposterous. It was insane. But Joe was not deterred and eventually, faced with Joe’s unwavering resolve, he replied: “Ok.”

“Thai? Or is that too many carbs?”

“No, Thai’s fine.”

Joe moved back inside, fishing his phone out of his pocket along the way. In a kitchen drawer he collected take-out menu’s and he shuffled through them to find the menu of that Thai place that had blown his mind last time. Nicky had trailed in after him, barefoot. Joe stole a look at his feet, planted on his kitchen floor. Why was there something homey and intimate about that? Joe forced himself to meet his gaze and checked if he had any preference, with the phone already to his ear. The answer was a shake of his head.

Joe ordered way too much. He’d be eating leftovers for days, but he wanted to spoil Nicky. It was inexplicable yet irresistible.

Nicky wandered towards the living room, so they wouldn’t be staring at each other while Joe listed one dish after another.

“35 Minutes?” He repeated their estimate. He checked his watch. It would be late, but: “That’s fine.” He was in no hurry for Nicky to leave and he hoped Nicky was also still in no hurry.

He hung up the phone and put it down on the counter, then went to find Nicky.

The man stood in the living room, in the spot where he was first landed, when he had still been a she to Joe. He stood behind the couch, looking into the living space. The furniture stood a little cramped together, not because the living room was small, but because Joe liked it that way, he liked the coziness of it. He liked it that when he’d have his friends over, they would all sit really close together and conversation  would quiet down to near-whispers until laughter would interrupt it. He liked being able to reach out and touch a friend’s arm or knee as they talked; to feel their closeness.

But Nicky wasn’t looking at the furniture. He was studying the painting he had admired before. “You really don’t like it?”

“Oh, no, it’s not like I don’t like it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t hang it in my living room,” He clarified. “It’s just not special. I don’t even really consider it art. It’s more like… another piece of furniture. Something to fill the space.”

“Can you show me some of your real art, then?”

He hesitated, but agreed because Nicky had been so forthcoming with him and had trusted him with some personal details of his life. “I have a studio up in the attic.”

The two of them climbed the stairs to the top level of the house. The studio was as modest as Joe’s career was. There was little space to stand up straight, under the angled roof. Where the ceiling was too low to stand, he had rows upon rows of canvases leaning against each other, cloths covering them to protect them from the daylight that would stream in through the double skylight that he had installed when he moved in. The beams had been painted white so the space dind’t feel too claustrophobic to visitors, but Joe had always quite like it. It was his little shell.

At the end of the center line along the entire width of the house, stood his easel. The project propped up on it was in such an early stage that it didn’t look like anything yet, not even to Joe. He had the habit of layering a lot and moving things around. He liked the texture that created in the end result, even  - or maybe particularly so – when the texture didn’t quite line up with the image, because they were thick brushstrokes of a previous version that had been painted over. His paintings had secrets, a past, a story, beyond what could be expressed in shapes and colors. He liked the second-guessing of it, it fit him well. At times too well.

He moved around Nicky in the cramped space, reminding him not to hit his head on any of the beams, and pulled the cloths off the archive of paintings, not remembering most of what was under there. He threw the cloths into a pile and welcomed Nicky to sift through the paintings to satisfy his curiosity. Joe was content with watching him and caught himself searching for his sketchbook. He spotted it on the small desk under the skylight, opposite of the sink where he had piled his brushes onto the tiled surface. On the wall opposite of his easel – the only usable wall-space he had, there was custom built shelving to maximize the use of the wall and he had pots and tubes of every color and every type of paint. He was oftentimes too lazy to mix his own colors, although he had a couple of jars with colors he had premixed because he hadn’t been able to find them in any store and by any brand.

Nicky crouched down in front of the paintings, his expression studious.

Joe was vulnerable but the feeling was not unwelcome. He traced Nicky’s silhouette with his gaze; his folded legs, his bowed back.

“What do you think?” He dared to ask.

Nicky frowned. “I’m not really thinking anything,” He admitted, his tone thoughtful. “I don’t think you asked the right question.”

“Oh?”

“I think you should ask what I’m feeling.”

His heart stuttered and the suggested question came out in a whisper.

“I feel… everything.” He pointed at one, predominantly yellow and said: “This one makes me happy. A small kind of happiness, like the first day of spring. But this one makes me yearn for something I’ve lost so long ago I can’t even remember the shape, smell, or color of it.”

He sucked in a breath. “I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”

Nicky cocked his head and looked up at him with a smile. Nothing else. Yet it was all and more.

It made Joe feel everything. Happiness. Yearning. Regret. Jealousy. Fear. Lust. Sadness. Hope.

“Is it alright if I make a quick sketch of you?”

The request perplexed Nicky. Joe’s paintings veered sharply into the abstract, but they always started as something more defined that he broke down with every added layer. Broke down to the core of what it meant. Underneath some of these dreamy swirls and angry splotches were portraits of friends and even of himself.

“I know it doesn’t look like it, but I can actually draw.” He grabbed his sketchbook off the desk and held it out to Nicky.

The man straightened up and bumped his head against a beam. “Ow!” He winced and rubbed the top of his head.

“Are you ok?” Joe fretted. He took a step closer and his fingers were twitching and itching to run through Nicky’s hair and soothe over his scalp.

Nicky chuckled impishly at himself. “I’m fine. Show me.” He motioned for him to hold the book out to him again and he accepted it from him. The sketchbook was tied closed with a leather string that he unwrapped and then he flipped it open. Upon seeing the first sketch, he shot a look up at Joe. “This is incredible…” He breathed. He stared at the single sketch, a quick study of Booker, sitting half-asleep in the arm chair in Joe’s living room, for a long time, soaking up every detail. It seemed like he couldn’t get himself to move on to the next page, but eventually he forced himself to and he appeared even more enthralled.

“Do you trust me not to make you look like a Picasso?” He jested.

“I- I’d be honored for you to draw me.” He handed the book back to him and in the exchange their fingers brushed.

“Gr-great. Ok. Uhm…” He thought of rolling back the desk chair but then had a better idea and grabbed two of the cloths used to cover the paintings and spread them out on the floor, one on top of the other for some thickness. He invited Nicky to sit down on it, like a picnic blanket and he joined him on the floor. They both sat cross-legged, facing each other.

Joe took out the pencil that was sandwiched between the last page and the back cover and didn’t waste any time committing the shape of Nicky’s features to paper. As the pencil created a jawline, lips, nose and eyebrows, he imagined the strokes of charcoal as caresses on Nicky’s face. Imagined thumbing along his lips and smoothing the hairs of his eyebrows. The scratch of the pencil on the paper was furious in the silence.

He flinched and made one of the lines of the shell of Nicky’s ear too sharp when he heard the shrill doorbell echo up the floors of the house.

Half an hour had passed in the blink of an eye.

Nicky shifted to get up, but Joe told him to stay put. “I’ll bring the food up.” The “picnic blanket” had given him an idea.

He scurried downstairs to accept the delivery and pay the young man and then fetched some wine glasses and a bottle from the kitchen before going up to the attic.

He arranged the food between them, opening up one carton after another. Delicious smells filled the space. Steam rose between them. They shared the food, poking their forks into whichever dish struck their fancy next.

A picnic of Thai take-out and whine, in the attic, with a prostitute.

What a strange Friday evening.

What a wonderful Friday evening.

The two of them talked while they ate. More often than not with their mouth full and it didn’t seem to matter.

Nicky told Joe about Italy – Genoa, specifically, the distinction was important.

Joe told Nicky about Tunis. Amsterdam. Paris. Berlin. Prague. Vienna. Miami. New York. Seattle.

Nicky nearly got him to spray wine like he had sprayed coffee when he offhandedly mentioned he had been studying to become a priest.

A priest who became a crossdressing hooker. It sounded like the start of a bad joke, one that Joe altogether found much more amusing than it should be.

He swallowed. Coughed. Then laughed.

Nicky joined him. He had a wonderful laugh, completely uninhibited, like the laugh of a child. What a strong man he had to be, to be able to laugh like that after all he’d been through.

Nicky didn’t talk about anything bad ever happening to him. But it was there between the lines. It was in the pauses. It was in the dismissive gestures of his hands. It was in the moments when he averted his gaze. Pieces of his stories were missing. It was as glaring as any kind of censorship – blacked out words in a document, or beeps in the audio.

“My dad kicked me out.” – “The second shelter I ended up at was ok though.”

“We had a fight.” – “When I came out of the hospital…”

“He seemed nice at first.” – “I learned I couldn’t trust him.”

“I told him I don’t do anything without protection.” – “I tested negative.”

They both said things that they had needed to say but hadn’t been able to say to anyone. And they both left out things that they didn’t want to speak of ever again. It was the easiest conversation Joe had ever had.

They had absolutely nothing in common as far as he was able to discern and it sparked a curiosity that he knew would never be satisfied.

After they had eaten their fill, Joe was granted the time to complete his sketch and then Nicky insisted that they box up the leftovers. Nicky brought them downstairs to put in the fridge, while Joe dismantled their little picnic set-up and draped the cloths over the paintings again.

It struck him again, the oddness of it all. Every few minutes or so, it would happen. This time, what caught him off guard was the simple thought that a prostitute was putting Thai take-away into his fridge for Sunday. It was absurd. Joe adored the absurdity of it. It was a story he’d never be able to paint, so perhaps he’d write it down at some point in the future, in one of his meager attempts at prose and poetry. Ink was not as kind of a friend to him as paint.

Nicky came up the stairs and then went to stand close to him.

Joe stared into his eyes.

“I’ve had a lovely night, Joe. Thank you.” His voice was softer than it had been all evening. His tone full of gratitude and reverence. He struck Joe as priestly, and all of a sudden that seemed to suit him much better than his actual profession.

Joe swallowed the lump in his throat – his heart, possibly. “Do you want me to take you home?”

“No,” Was the easy reply. He took another step closer. The floorboards creaked under his weight. His eyes became hooded. He tilted his head. His gaze drifted down to Joe’s lips. He waited.

Joe’s mouth went dry.

He took too long to appreciate the rhythm of his own heartbeat, becoming fast and wild not unlike the song Nicky had chosen in the car. A moment that felt like a memory from years ago.

He took too long.

Nicky blinked his eyes fully open again. His mouth was pressed into a taut line on his face as he leaned back. When he opened his mouth to say something – knowing him, an apology most likely – all that escaped him was a pained sound that startled him as much as it did Joe. He scrubbed his face with his hands. Joe heard him suck in a deep breath through his nose. “I thought-…” He shook his head. The next sound was a bitter chuckle. “It doesn’t matter what I thought. It’s fine. I understand.”

Joe recognize he was about to take a step back and possibly walk straight out of his life and he couldn’t stand it. He slipped a hand around his neck, feeling his tension through his palm. Inspired to rare confidence, Joe brushed off his delay as: “I don’t usually kiss on the first date.” Then, with gentle pressure he coaxed Nicky forward and met his lips halfway. He swallowed the third sound; a delightful, surprised moan.

Of course Nicky wasn’t shy. The kiss was destined to be void of innocence. He parted his lips and that was enough to drive Joe to claim his mouth. He pressed his body against Joe’s chest. One hand landed on Joe’s elbow – of the arm that was hanging uselessly at his side – and the other on Joe’s side. Both trailed up. One caressed his bicep on the way up to his shoulder. The other ghosted over ribs and slid across his back. One ended up threaded into the curls at the nape of Joe’s neck and the other twisted into Joe’s polo shirt, between his shoulder blades. 

They parted for a breath and Nicky wondered with a quirk of his eyebrow: “Date?”

“Am I wrong?”

“… No.”

Joe smiled and Nicky leaned in for another kiss. This one was teasing, with Nicky refusing to meet his tongue. They laughed into each other’s mouths.

He cupped the face in his hands and took a moment to appreciate this beautiful man. In the calm, he asked: “What did you think when I didn’t kiss you at first?” He shook his head. “No, wait. I’m asking the wrong question again. What did you feel when I didn’t kiss you?”

Nicky closed his eyes. He whispered: “Disgusting.”

He pecked his lips, startling him into opening his eyes again. “I don’t want you to feel that way. Ever.” Joe moved his hands to his waist, feeling his body through his own shirt. He touched the tip of his nose to that sculpted, Roman nose, but felt the gravitational pull of his lips. “How do I make you not feel that way?”

The other man sighed: “You’re doing it already.” He reconnected their mouths, surrendering to that same force that Joe experienced. This kiss was slow, the way their first kiss hadn’t been. Joe savored his taste. The taste of Thai food and a faint hint of nicotine. He reveled in the smoothness of his lips and the soft texture of his tongue. Nicky was skilled kisser. While reaping the benefits of that, Joe couldn’t be jealous.

There was no telling which one of them grew impatient first. But the next time Joe’s brain could spare a moment of thought, his hands had slid under the shirt and he was digging his fingers into the small of his back. Nicky’s hands had buried themselves into Joe’s curls and were tugging on them. Their tongues were sparring. Their breaths were harsh through their noses, sweeping across each other’s cheeks. Nicky’s body was flush against his, making him privy to the heave of every breath and his pleasant shudders.

Joe’s hands glided up, exploring the expanse of his back. When they reached as high as they could, they traveled South again, slipping just the tips of his fingers into the waistband of the sweats, feeling the scalloped hem of the lacy underwear Joe had spotted under his miniskirt at the start of the night.

“Joe?”

“Hm?”

“Will you have sex with me? It’s been so long since I’ve been with someone who makes me feel so… human.”

Not wanting to make the same mistake as before, Joe did not pause before answering: “Yes. Bedroom?”

Nicky let out a laugh, one that sounded relieved. “How provincial.” At the furrow of Joe’s eyebrows he conceded: “Bedroom. Now.”

Joe grabbed his hand and tugged him along, down the stairs to his bedroom.

Nicky’s miniskirt and crop top were on a chair in the corner. Stepping backwards, bringing Nicky along with him, hands and lips already searching for his warmth again, Joe found the bed and sagged down on the edge. Seated in front of the Italian man, Joe looked up in adoration. He took hold of his hips, thumbing the hem of his shirt up enough to expose a band of skin for him to kiss.

Suddenly, Nicky was gone. Joe’s hands fell into his lap. “Wait. Sorry,” Nicky said, taking yet another step backwards, regrettably. “I need to get something.”

Before Joe could protest, Nicky was out of the bedroom and going downstairs. Realizing he went to get condoms from his purse, Joe called after him: “I have condoms up here!” He laughed. Did Nicky think Joe’s sex life was so non-existent that he wouldn’t have the essentials in his bedroom?

Thankfully, the man was quick to return, holding the purse. He came to stand as close to Joe as he had and Joe put his hands on him again. This time his grip was strong enough that Nicky wouldn’t be able to leave him so easily and it earned Joe one of those crooked smiles.

He watched him put two fingers into the purse and pull out the four fifty dollar bills Joe had paid him with. “Please, take it back.”

“Nicky…”

“Please,” He insisted. “I don’t want you to be my John. You’re… You’re my Joe.” He blushed.

The prostitute blushed and the artist fell in love.

None of his paints matched the rosy hue, but he’d be happy to mix a whole jar of it. Might paint his bedroom wall with it.

He accepted the cash and tossed it to the floor. The purse was next. He hooked his thumbs under the shirt and hiked it up. With his nose pressed into his stomach and his lips brushing his skin, he urged: “Off, off, off.”

Nicky obliged, helping him take the shirt off him and then returning the favor. Nicky’s hands on Joe’s bare shoulders had him moaning out his name. He kissed his abdomen and teased the skin with his beard and his teeth, soothing away the irritation with his tongue.

“Joe, call me Nico.”

He gazed up at him.

Nico.

Yes, without the wig he looked more like a Nico.

“Nico…” He tested. He liked it.

His stupid joke returned to him unbidden and it was even more perfectly ridiculous now.

Nicotine.

A laugh erupted out of him but he was quick to mutter apologies into Nico’s skin and kissing him and licking him to earn his forgiveness. “Nico,” He moaned in earnest.

The name turned into a mantra.

Under his chin the bulge in the sweatpants swelled and he nuzzled it through the layers of polyester and lace. He felt it twitch in response to the attention.

Joe scooted back and pulled Nico into his lap. The man straddled his thighs and settled down on top of him. In the closeness, more heat brewed. Nico bowed his back to be able to kiss Joe. In the meantime, Joe’s hands did not idle. He caressed the lithe body and was most excited by the reaction he got when he thumbed over his nipples.

Nico moaned sharply. He rocked his hips, giving them both the friction they needed. Arms wrapped around his shoulders and Nico buried his nose into the crook of his neck. Pressed tight against him, he trapped Joe’s hands between their chest. Joe abused it by pinching the sensitive nipples, as it was all he could do.

He laughed when he was pushed down onto the bed, Nico hovering over him. The laughter died in the back of his throat when the Italian grinded his hips. With his feet still off the bed, Joe couldn’t get any leverage to raise his hips and return the torture, leaving him at Nico’s mercy.

“Are you a top?”

Joe groaned. “I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”

The other lowered himself down onto his elbows, bringing his face closer. “I think that’s my line.”

He giggled in response.

“I like it both ways,” Nico said, “but tonight I really want you inside me.”

Joe was not going to argue, all he did was moan. He especially liked what hung in the air unspoken: the possibility of there being more than tonight.

“Would you like that?”

“I would love that.”

They moved up the bed, rolling and wrestling and laughing and Nico saying: “Just because you are going to top, doesn’t mean you’re going to be on top.” But in the end he had to surrender when Joe pinned him to the mattress with his weight. Joe lay between parted thighs and shifted his hips experimentally. Nico voiced his appreciation for the friction provided. Joe was hard in his jeans.

He kissed him. Groped him. Rutted against him. Nico took it submissively, but with a mischievous gleam to his eyes.

In no time at all, Joe was on the edge and he wasn’t even out of his pants yet. He worked to remedy that, sitting up to undo his jeans and push them down along with his underwear and while awkwardly shifting around he managed to get himself naked. Next he tugged on the black sweats and Nico raised his hips off the bed. He dragged the pants down the length of his legs and helped one foot out of it at a time. The fabric followed the denim; tossed off the bed where it ceased to exist, as nothing existed beyond the bed.

He marveled at the sight of Nico spread out and wanton. His erection was barely contained by his white panties. The open pattern of the lace revealed the erotic, red shade of his cock. Joe stroked his hands along his smooth thighs. First on the outside, then on the inside. Nico was completely shaved. His legs, his groin, his chest, his arms, his armpits. Joe placed a kiss on each knee and leaned forward. When he rolled his hips, he felt the texture of the lace underwear against the head of his dick and the heat of Nico’s arousal. To say it was thrilling would be a gross understatement.

Joe realized that – at 33 years old – he had discovered a new kink: men in panties. His sex life had always been… non-creative. Now he was picturing Nico still wearing his thigh high boots. Wondering what the latex would feel like under his palms or against his sweat-slicked sides.

He remembered Nico saying that he enjoyed dressing up off-the-clock. Joe was curious about his other outfits.

He latched his mouth onto a nipple and rolled the other between his thumb and forefinger. Rearing himself up on his knees so his free hand could cup Nico’s balls.

The long legs jerked and his back arched as much he could, trapped under Joe. The ball sac drew up to the base of his cock.

When Joe looked next, the panties were wet with pre-come.

Nico was far more responsive and sensitive than he had expected. And he supposed it was because, in spite of all of his experience, he was rarely spoiled by being on the receiving end of such attention. He was always the one giving pleasure, not the one getting it.

Joe vowed to make the night all about Nico enjoying it. So when the man reached out to stroke Joe’s cock, he grabbed the wrist, pressed a kiss into his palm and then pinned his hand above his head.

“Relax. I’ll get my pleasure by giving it.”

“Oh, Joe. You’re ruining me.”

He palmed the red erection through the white lace and Nico pushed into his touch. He was moaning and biting his bottom lip. Joe bent down and kissed the side of the shaft, then sucked on it.

“Joe, don’t. Not without…”

“I know. Don’t worry.” He took care not to put his mouth on the leaking tip, however tempting it was. He wanted to know the taste of him. Not for a second did he doubt it would be addicting. But he couldn’t indulge himself.

Nico went to the free clinic regularly to get tested, he had said. And he never willingly did anything without protection. But “between the lines” it was painfully apparent that not all Johns respected that. He couldn’t guarantee he was clean.

He teased the head with a light touch of his finger instead and Nicky’s hips were restless.

There was too much anticipation between the two of them to delay much longer. He sucked a hickey into the inside of his thigh and left it at that. He kissed his way up the body. Before kissing his mouth, he touched his lips to the mole on his jaw.

Joe dragged the panties down his legs. The erection popped out and fell back onto his stomach. The red and purple shaft rested on the creamy belly. Joe licked into the dips over his hipbones and then slotted his thumbs into them, to keep him from writhing. He scooted his knees closer, opening Nico up more and the man wrapped his legs around Joe, hooking his feet behind the small of his back.

Joe mouthed along his jaw and the slender column of his throat.

“Take me, Joe. Just like this.”

“Missionary? How provincial,” He teased, mimicking Nico from before. Although any objection would be in jest only.

“All the Johns always want to fuck me doggy style. I want you like this.”

He nodded eagerly and kissed him to get that ugly word – “Johns” – out of his mouth. No more Johns. Only Joe.

He retrieved condoms and lube from the drawer of his nightstand. “How much prep do you like?”

“None.”

Joe snapped his head up to raise an eyebrow at him.

Nico chuckled. “Just use plenty of lube. I like it.”

His cock throbbed. A pathetic whine vibrated in the back of his throat. Fingers worked to put the condom on his length. Then he poured lube onto himself, spreading it with his hand and then applying more. It dripped off his cock and onto the sheets. He drizzled more into the cleft of Nico’s ass as well.

The man flinched and groaned when the stream of cold, clear liquid hit his taint.

The man moaned when Joe pressed his cock against him.

The furled, pink hole was tight. It was stupid to think otherwise. The head of his cock couldn’t push in and kept slipping up and bumping into the underside of Nico’s balls. He held himself right behind the crown and rubbed against the hole, feeling the flutter of the ring of muscle. He felt it when Nico relaxed enough and he canted his hips forward. The tip of his cock flattened against the opening but he steadily applied more and more pressure.

Nothing happened until suddenly everything happened.

The ring surrendered to his resolve and stretched to accommodate him. But with how strongly he was leaning into it, he immediately sunk into him all the way.

“Oh, Allah,” He moaned. His face burned. Fifteen years of sex under his belt and he had never been driven to blasphemy before.

Nico let out a puff of air. Joe could imagine the overwhelming fullness he felt. The burn of the stretch. Nico’s next breath was released as a drawn-out moan.

“You feel so good, Nico.” The name tasted wonderful on his tongue. He wanted to say it in the morning and with every cup of coffee and at lunch and at dinner and always.

“You too,” He said through gritted teeth, but he wasn’t being disingenuous. A flush had spread from his cheeks down his neck to color his chest. He held Joe’s gaze. His eyelids gradually lowered as he adjusted. Rather than holding his breath, he began to pant.

Joe was trembling with restraint, leaning over Nico. He studied the beautiful face, watched the pleasure manifest there.

“Kiss me, Joe,” He pleaded breathlessly. “Kiss me, then fuck me.”

With a growl he lowered himself down. He licked into his mouth, enjoyed how pliant he was. He rolled his hips, drawing moans from both of them.

Nico squeezed around him and Joe knew it was meant to spur him on. So he obliged and started a rhythm that doomed them both to not be able to last long. Soon their moaning drowned out the wet sounds of Joe’s cock sliding in and out of Nico and the slap of his hips and his balls against his ass.

The Italian pawed at Joe’s chest, scratching through the hairs there. Every thrust punched a sound out of him:  a moan, a groan, a growl, a mewl, a keen. When Joe sat up straight, the response to every thrust was a scream as the new angle helped him hit his prostate perfectly.

“Oh, Joe! That’s it! Right there!” His face, chest, and neck were flushed red, almost as red as his cock.

With his slick hand Joe pumped Nico’s arousal. Whenever he moved his fist up to the tip, he paused to tease under the head with his thumb.

That was when Nico started to mumble in Italian and Joe was undone. He was able to snap his hips a couple more times and then they were both coming. Nico’s nails left scratches on Joe’s chest. Creamy white fluid flowed out of the tip of his cock and onto Joe’s hand and his own stomach.

Joe’s pleasure was barely hindered by the condom. His hips stuttered. He rested his forehead against Nico’s, sharing the air between them.

Too soon he had to pull out. He regretted the distance. He hated the cold. The only real issue he had with wearing condoms was peeling them off afterwards. He rid himself of the condom and crawled to the edge of the bed. A touch of Nico’s foot, before he was out of reach, stopped him.

“Where are you going?” The toes curled and uncurled against Joe’s ticklish side.

“Getting rid of this.” He showed him the full condom; an obscene sight to anyone but a prostitute. “And to get you a washcloth.”

The foot drew back, which Joe understood to mean that he had permission to leave. After a smirk he got up from the bed and padded over to the bathroom. He elbowed the light switch and squinted when the tiled space was flooded with light. The condom was discarded in the trash. He moved to stand at the sink to wash his hands and wet a washcloth.

Draped over the edge of the sink was the wig.

He looked at the cascade of dark, glistening hair. It looked so casually natural there.

He’d like for Nico to be Nicky again one evening. For him to ride Joe while wearing that with. For his make-up to get ruined by sweat and needy tears as he pleasured himself on Joe’s cock...

He hoped there would be plenty of opportunities for that and more. For sex. For conversations. For meals. For better wine. For more sketches. For quiet evenings on the couch. Joe wanted it all and more. Here. In Italy. It didn’t matter to him.

Of course he wasn’t naïve enough to think it would be easy. But not-easy didn’t mean it wouldn’t be fantastic or that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. The same way a not-pretty woman was the most beautiful man with the most beautiful soul.

With a wet washcloth in hand he headed back into the bedroom.

Nico was spread out on his bed, skin glowing, expression content, eyes closed. He cracked his eyes open when the mattress shifted under Joe’s weight. The Italian moaned as the warm cloth was used to clean the semen off his belly and the lube off his thighs.

It landed on the floor with a wet flop.

Joe settled himself on his side next to the man, head propped up in his hand, elbow digging into the pillow. “You know,” He started dreamily, “This is the first time I’ve had sex since I quit smoking.”

“Oh? Craving a cigarette?”

“No.” He grinned. “I’ve already had my dose of Nicotine.”

It took a while for the joke to land – as was often the case when they were this bad. But laughter burst out of Nico. His body shook with it. And it was marvelous.

Joe owed all romantic movies an apology. He had criticized them for being unrealistic, but the truth was apparent to him now: you can fall in love in the span of a single night. “What about you? Do you need a smoke?”

“Hm. No. When the sex is good, I crave a smoke.” He paused for effect. “When the sex is great, I’m fully satisfied.”

“Good to know.”

“Or was that your way of trying to kick me out?”

“Not at all.”

“Good.” Nico moved. He rolled onto his side, facing away from Joe and scooted back until he was met with Joe’s chest.

Joe encircled him with his arm as if he had done so for every night of his adult life. They fit together well. He pressed a kiss to his neck, under his ear. Then he brought his mouth close to the shell and asked: “Do you have any plans tomorrow?”

“Why?” He sounded sleepy.

“Want to be my plus-one to a wedding?”

Nico giggled until he realized the offer was not a joke. “What, in my thigh highs and miniskirt?”

“You could borrow a suit of mine. I don’t think the bride would appreciate it if you showed up in white.”

He laughed so hard he snorted. “Sure. I’ll be your plus-one.”

Nico spent the night.

Booker was all smiles when Joe told him the story of how he had met his plus-one. 

What a weird but wonderful Friday night it had been.

And what a weird but wonderful life it would be.

Chapter Text

Joe is my best friend. He’s my only friend, but the same is true for him, so that makes me feel less embarrassed. I’ve been living with him for two years now and I’m very grateful. Many say he rescued me and that is probably true, so now it is my responsibility to rescue him. I keep an eye out at night, when he’s asleep upstairs and I make sure that the mailman doesn’t get cheeky; halfway up the path is close enough if you ask me, pal. Never mind that the mail gets wet whenever he drops it, with winter snow on the ground.

I feel like I’m supposed to do more for Joe, but I trust that I’ll recognize the opportunity to pay him back for his troubles and the good kibble when the situation presents itself.

I first met Joe when I was less than a year old. It was summer and it had been very hot outside. That’s the strange thing about this place, the summers are extremely hot and the winters are incredibly cold. The cold I like, the heat not so much. The shift in temperature still catches me off guard sometimes. The humans I had been living with at the time, the first people to call me ‘Perry’, must have also not expected the heat to get as sweltering as it did, that first summer since I was born.

Baby and Honey – that’s what they called each other most often, so I’m assuming those were their names – left me in the car in the parking lot for a couple of hours. They meant no harm, I’m sure, they had been forgetful lately, especially where I was concerned. They were preoccupied because Baby was pregnant, her belly was getting big. At the time I was too young to understand what that meant, I was only a puppy.

That car got really hot, parked in the sun in the middle of summer. I felt restless at first, at being left alone, but I soon started to feel drowsy and after a while it became difficult to breathe and I got sick. When Baby and Honey returned to the car and found me they were very scared. Baby sat in the back with me and held my head in her lap, stroking my ear in the exact way I had come to love. She shouted at Honey to make haste. I was only vaguely aware of the jerky movements of the vehicle. Baby was crying and I felt very bad about that. She was my human, I didn’t want to make her cry! I wanted to make her happy. I licked her hand, as best as I could, but this only made her cry more.

By the time the car stopped I couldn’t move at all and I could barely keep my eyes open.

Honey opened the car door and lifted me out of Baby’s lap. He carried me inside some place where it smelled like a lot of other animals – dogs, cats, birds, rodents – but the most powerful smell of all was the scent of fear. I, however, was far too exhausted to escape Honey’s hold. Baby followed us inside, I could hear her sobbing.

At the call of another human I was rushed into a private room and placed on a wonderfully cool surface but it did little to invigorate me.

Someone opened my eyes and shone a bright light in them. When the light moved away, I saw him, Joe, in a white coat that scared me for some reason, more so than his worried expression.

Joe was a ‘vet’ and apparently that meant he was the only person who could make me feel better and that was exactly what he did, though I still don’t understand how or why.

I felt much better later that day, but I wasn’t allowed to go home with Baby and Honey for a couple of days. I missed them very much and was very happy when they came to visit me every afternoon to see how I was doing.

During one of those times I overheard them explaining to Joe – Dr. Al-Kaysani, they called him – that it was an accident. They went into the doctor’s office for one of Baby’s routine check-ups, which shouldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but there had been a couple of complications. They had been so concerned about the consequences to their unborn child that they had forgotten about me, luckily the baby was fine after all. I could tell they felt very guilty and ashamed and if you asked me, there was nothing to forgive. Joe, however, was harsh on them, he warned them to never leave me in a car again and Baby and Honey solemnly vowed to not make that mistake a second time and it wasn’t until they made that promise that Joe allowed them to take me home.

As I grew older I saw Joe a couple more times; twice a year for check-ups and injections. I was never scared like I could tell the other animals were, I felt safe with Joe and he was an excellent ear-scratcher, though not quite as talented as Baby.

In the meantime, Baby had her baby. What the young, new family member was really called, I could not tell. Sweetie, Angel, Beauty, Lily, Gumdrop, Precious, Baby Girl… it was too hard to keep track of. I settled on ‘Sweetie’.

Everything was fine when Sweetie was still a baby. She would always be upstairs or in her crib and I was free to run around the house and play with Honey in the backyard whenever he could spare the time. But two years later it was Sweetie who was running around the house and I had to be really careful around her. Sweetie was tiny and I was enormous.

Joe literally explained to my humans that I was a ‘giant’ Alaskan Malamute, when at my check-up I weighed over one-hundred and twenty pounds. He warned them that because I was still young, I might be too energetic and clumsy to be trusted around a toddler. So whenever Sweetie was downstairs, crawling and waddling around, they put the leash on me and tied me to the kitchen table.

That didn’t last long. Honey felt guilty and he convinced Baby that it would be fine if they kept a close eye on me.

“He’s not going to hurt her,” Honey said, “He loves her!”

I did, I really did love Sweetie, as much as I loved any of them.

At his insistence I was allowed to walk around and for another year everything went fine, aside from a few minor incidents where my clumsiness had made Sweetie cry because I grabbed a toy or knocked her over. I’d get reprimanded – “Bad dog!” They’d say and that would make me feel very sad – but luckily it was never serious and they always forgave me.

One summer day, however, things did not go fine.

I was lying on the carpet between the couch and the coffee table, playing with my chew toy. Sweetie was on her blanket on the floor not far away, also playing with her toys – though oddly, I hadn’t seen her chew on anything since she was much younger and even then it was more of a suckling than a chewing.

Honey came home from work with a friend and that friend smelled like everything I had ever considered interesting and delicious and on top of that the friend grabbed one of my tennis balls which was on the floor and he said to me: “Hey boy, want to come play?”

I did! I really did want to play! Baby was nice but she never wanted to play anymore, so the days were kind of boring. I jumped up and I rushed over to him, focused solely on the ball he held up. I felt myself bump into something in my rush and I thought it was the coffee table.

It wasn’t the coffee table.

I had run past Sweetie and had accidentally knocked her over. The little thing had fallen and hit her head against the edge of the coffee table. She was bleeding and crying and Baby was screaming in panic. I wanted to go to them and lick away their pain, but Honey grabbed my collar and pulled me into my cage. I felt incredibly bad but he didn’t even notice, he was paying very little attention to me. The friend was deathly pale, he felt responsible but I knew it was my fault.

“We have to go to the hospital,” Honey said and that’s what they did.

They didn’t come home until very late at night. Baby went straight upstairs, carrying Sweetie. She couldn’t even look at me. Honey kneeled down in front of me and looked at me through the wiring of the cage with pained eyes. “She’s going to be fine,” He told me, “But we were all very scared and upset…” He sighed. “This might not work out.”

He left me in the cage for the night. I felt horrible and ashamed. I wanted to apologize to them, but they never understood me when I tried to tell them something.

That next morning Honey approached the cage with my leash and I thought we were going to go for a walk. He always took me for a walk before he went to work every day. But the atmosphere was different. There was a tension in the air that I could taste.

Baby was standing in the hallway, on the lowest step of the staircase. She had her arms wrapped around herself and she was shivering like she was cold, but it was summer so that didn’t make any sense. Honey kept my leash short as he guided me outside and he stopped in the doorway and asked her: “Do you want to say goodbye?”

Baby shook her head and then covered her mouth with one hand and bit back a sob.

Honey nodded and started dragging me out of the house. I didn’t want to go, I had to make Baby understand how sorry I was. I never meant to hurt Sweetie! I didn’t want her to feel bad!

I knew what was happening. We weren’t going for a walk. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, they wouldn’t let me, because they couldn’t trust me.

When we were halfway down the driveway, Baby suddenly yelled: “Wait!” She emerged from the house and ran out, on her bare feet. She knelt in front of me and pulled me into a tight embrace. I could feel her shaky breaths as she cried, grabbing handfuls of my fur as she held me close. Eventually she pulled back to look me in the eyes and she reached up to rub my ear the way only she knew how.

“I love you,” She said and her lower lip trembled. “I love you so much.”

I know, I tried to tell her, by licking her cheek. But you love Sweetie more. It’s okay. I understand.

“I’m so sorry,” She wept.

No, I’m sorry! I pressed my nose against her. She hugged me one last time and then got up from the ground and ran back into the house without ever looking back.

“Come on, buddy.” Honey opened the trunk of the car and reluctantly I jumped in.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the veterinary hospital where Joe worked. Honey led me inside by the leash and he was clearly upset when he tried to explain to the desk clerk that he wouldn’t be taking me home. He didn’t know where else to bring me but there. He couldn’t make himself drive to the “pound”, he said, stuttering his words.

The desk clerk nodded and she walked around the desk to take my leash from Honey. He walked away a few steps and stopped just in front of the automatic doors and turned around. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. Tears fell from his squinted eyes. After staring at me for a couple of seconds he shook his head and muttered: “Jesus Christ…” He scrubbed his face with his hands, rubbing away the tears and then he walked away.

I started howling pathetically and the noise drew Dr. Al-Kaysani out of his exam room.

“What happened?” He asked and he immediately knelt in front of me to offer me comfort.

“There was an incident with the baby,” The clerk explained forlornly. “He’s too big for them, just like you told them before. He’s too big for anyone to handle, I imagine.”

“Is the baby girl alright?”

“She’ll be okay, but she had a nasty cut and it took a couple of stitches.”

Joe sighed and looked me in the eyes. “It’s okay, Perry. I’m going to take care of you.”

He did take of care me, just like he had the very first time I met him. He helped make me feel better. It took a lot longer that time, but eventually, I did feel better. I would never forget Baby, Honey or Sweetie, but Joe takes care of me in a way that they couldn’t.

He doesn’t just take me for walks every morning, no, we go running for five miles at the break of dawn every day. During his lunch hour we play in the park – Joe has an excellent arm, he can throw the ball really far! In the evenings he gets on his bike to run errands and stop by old patients and I have a harness to pull him along on his bike. In the fall and spring, when it’s not too hot, we regularly go on long hikes on his days off and I have a special backpack to carry bottles of water, so many bottles that Joe hands them out to other hikers we come across. And at night he doesn’t lock me up in a little cage like Baby and Honey did – it was my own fault, I shouldn’t have destroyed the couch. Joe lets me sleep outside, in his big back yard, where it was nice and cool in the summer and in the winter it is great to curl up in the snow, cover my face with my fluffy tail and sleep with snowflakes falling all around me and I wake up covered by it, sometimes so deeply Joe can’t find me.

Joe is nice but not easily outwitted, that took some getting used to. When he tells me to do something, I really have to do it. I won’t be punished if I don’t, but he’ll look at me really angrily and I don’t like that. So nowadays I sit, lie down, heel, stay, fetch, eat, roll over and play dead at his command but it’s better that way. I like making him proud. I do what he says and he trusts me and always lets me off the leash and do my own thing in the park, that is a great feeling.

The only times I’m not allowed to roam free in the park is when Trooper is there. Trooper is a mixed-breed, medium sized dog, slender but muscular and mean as piss. There have been a number of incidents, but Trooper is never punished. His human always allows him to run around, even though he hasn’t earned that freedom, because he never responds when his human calls him. Trooper bullies other dogs, he scares them and chases them around. Sometimes it comes to a fight and Trooper is the kind of dog to really use his teeth. Only thanks to luck it has never been serious enough to get him in real trouble.

Joe always calls me and puts the leash on me when he spots Trooper and then we promptly leave. Joe is not afraid that the bully will hurt me, he has explained. He worries that if Trooper ever attacks me, and push comes to shove, I’ll seriously injure him or even kill him and then I’ll be the one in real trouble. You see, I’m six years old now and weigh nearly one hundred and forty pounds and it’s not fat either, it’s sheer size and muscle. I’m over twice as big as any other dog that frequents the park and I dwarf Trooper.

I don’t care that we have to leave though. I might be the only dog who isn’t scared of that bully, but the park is no longer any fun when he’s around; the atmosphere changes and humans and dogs alike get nervous. That’s no fun. When that happens we go home and simply play fetch in the quiet street or in the back yard.

Joe loves playing with me and unlike Honey and Baby he doesn’t tire easily and he sometimes even wrestles with me, that’s how unafraid he is.

But I worry about him. I don’t think it’s normal for a human’s only friend to be a dog, because there is a lot about his life that I don’t understand.

He wasn’t always lonely. Until last winter – almost exactly a year ago, come to think of it – he was a pretty happy-go-lucky, social guy. Lots of his friends came over and one friend in particular seemed very special to him. This guy, that he called ‘Booker’, oftentimes spent the night and in the morning Booker would sneak downstairs and I would watch him through the windows as he quietly prepared breakfast. Joe would thank him by kissing him on the mouth. Honey always kissed Baby on the mouth and nobody else and they were married and clearly in love, so I think Joe and Booker were the same as Honey and Baby, because they, too, only kissed each other on the mouth. That is pretty unusual, I realize, because most human couples I’ve seen consist of one male and one female, but I don’t pretend to understand the ways of the human. Joe and Booker treated it like a normal thing, so I assume that’s what it was; normal.

I liked Booker. He could throw the ball really far as well and he never did the fake-throw – which Joe does a little bit too often for my liking, but it makes him laugh so I guess it’s okay.

Booker started bringing boxes over, heavy boxes and he gathered them in the garage. Joe and Booker would argue about where to put “his stuff”. The more boxes came, the more they argued. Joe had gotten a little bit too used to his freedom, so it was an adjustment for him. I know this because he explained it like that to Booker often enough. Their fights never lasted and Booker kept bringing more boxes.

The garage was filling up with boxes quicker than they could empty them. The garage became overstuffed. I liked going in there, into the maze of boxes and lie down. I always liked being in the garage because the floor was cold and the petroleum smell of Joe’s motorcycle reminded me of him. I liked the boxes because they smelled strongly of Booker and the mix of scents was perfect.

One day Joe came home late from work, alone and that was unusual, because Booker had been sleeping over every night by then.

I was outside, in the backyard. I was never in the house unsupervised while Joe was away at work. He shuffled through the living room to the back door to let me in. I was apprehensive because he was behaving oddly. He knelt down in front of me and for a moment covered his pained expression with his hands.

“It’s just you and me now, Perry.”

And it was. Booker never came back. I don’t know what happened, Joe never said. I’m only a dog after all. And there was never another friend, never another sleepover.

In the next couple of days people came by to pick up a handful of boxes at a time, until eventually the garage was empty again except for the motorcycle and Booker’s scent disappeared for good.

It’s been a year, so Joe is not sad anymore, like he used to be, but he has become fearful around other people. I can smell it on him. He is nervous around them and interacts as little as possible. He’s different around kids, he still likes them and seeks their company, but adults intimidate him. I don’t think it’s normal. After Booker he is clearly afraid of getting hurt again. He has been abandoned, just like I was abandoned by Honey and Baby. Maybe he made a mistake, like I had, but I’m sure he should just forgive himself and it was my job to help him get over it, like he helped me get over Honey and Baby.

I don’t know how yet, but I would figure it out.

It is winter – the coldest winter in twenty years, according to the man in the television – but neither Joe nor I mind the cold. In fact, we both love it. I was sleeping outside, covered by a thick blanket of snow but I wake up when I the back door opens with that familiar creak. My ears twitch, flicking away the snow and I hear him laugh, as I imagine only my two wedge-shaped ears are poking out of the snow. I raise my head and blink at him, still tired.

“Oh, I’m sorry, old man,” He mocks. “Too early for you, is it?”

I wait until he is close and then I jump up and shake the snow out of my fur. I can hear it hit his ski-pants and thick, dark parka. His gloved hands shield his face. I make use of the opportunity to sneak up on him and I rear up on my hind legs and press my big paws against his chest. When I lean my weight on him he easily topples over, his fall is cushioned by the thick snow.

“Fine! Fine! You’re young! You’re still young! Prime of your life!” He fends me off when I move in to slobber all over his face. “Perry! Perry, get off me, you oaf!”

I do as instructed and innocently lay down next to him.

He watches me with mirthful eyes. “Crazy beast,” He says and he digs his hands into my mane and presses a kiss on the top of my snout. Then he ruffles the fur sticking up wildly between my two far-apart ears and he leans some of his weight on me as he gets up on his feet.

“The clinic is closed today for anything but emergencies,” He explains as if that means anything to me. “Doctor Copley is on call for those, so I have the day off.”

My ears perk up at that. A day off? That is always a good thing! I watch him intently as he walks to the shed at the back of the yard and he emerges carrying the wooden sled and my harness for the bike.

“What do you say? Should we take this and head to the park?”

I scramble up to my feet and enthusiastically wag my tail. “Woooo!” That’s about all I can say to the humans and they hardly ever know what it means, but that’s okay. We don’t always understand what they’re saying either and we’re supposed to be the smart ones.

He laughs and tucks the sled and harness under his arm. He locks the kitchen door and we leave through the back gate. The park is only two blocks away and with this kind of snow there won’t be any cars riding around, so he doesn’t bother with the leash. However, he does call my name in a warning tone when my excitement causes me to walk ahead a little too far. I get the hint and wait for him to catch up and then stick to his side.

I like the rustling sound his ski-pants make, I think to myself.

We arrive at the park and it’s still pretty quiet. But a lot of snow and no work means there will be no school either, so soon the park will be filled with children and I can hardly wait. Since I’ve been with Joe there have never been any incidents with kids. He doesn’t allow me to play with the really young ones, but the slightly bigger ones are okay. They don’t knock over as easily and when they do they laugh and use the position to tickle my belly. In the summer I go swimming with them in the lake and they mock my pathetic attempts at catching the geese. In the winter I pull them around on the sled.

Joe props the sled up against a tree and produces my favorite ball from his pocket.

I bounce excitedly and howl at him, urging him to throw it.

When the ball goes flying I race after it, making sure I’m looking up and tracking it in the sky, or else it will be difficult for me to find it once it lands in the snow. I see it land and I’m right on its tail! It doesn’t bounce in the snow, which is too bad, it’s far too easy to catch when it doesn’t bounce, but it’s still fun to dig it out of the snow. I find it quickly and victoriously I strut back over to my human.

Only once we lost a ball because I couldn’t track it down. The striped ball. I still miss that ball. I dream about it sometimes.

I let Joe take the ball from me – this one has stars on it.

We play fetch for a while and luckily he only fake-throws it once and I don’t fall for it, I see him bring his arm down and hold the ball behind his back.

“Woooo!” Asshole.

“Smart-ass,” He says with a grin and then he throws it for real and I chase after it with vigor. I leap up and I catch it mid-air and I hear Joe applaud me from across the field.

As expected, kids start coming to the park and after making some of the local kids whine a bit, for his own twisted amusement, Joe fits me with my harness and attaches it to the sled. The kids take turns on the sled, sometimes two at a time. I love pulling the sled around the park, racing up and down the faint slopes. I always make sure to check on Joe. He uses the time to rest, taking a seat in the snow. He doesn’t sit on one of the benches, because he knows that if he does, one of the parents will come sit next to him and want to talk to him. He probably likes the kids because they never ask him anything personal, they are only ever interested in me. 

Around noon Joe decides it has been long enough. The parents eagerly take their children home, sick of standing around in the cold. He waves the kids goodbye and then drops down on one knee in front of me and starts unclasping the harness.

I whirl my big head around when I hear something land close by me, but it disappears in the snow. The next thing I hear is someone calling from across the field: “Sorry!” He’s so far away I can barely see him, the wind must have gotten hold of whatever toy he had thrown.

Then suddenly I become aware of a dog rushing towards me and I stare dumbly as she sniffs the snow where the toy disappeared. She can’t find it and she looks back at her owner.

Joe chuckles and he reaches over. His hand goes into the snow and when he brings it up he is holding a polka-dotted ball.

How did he do that?!

He throws the ball back in the direction where it came from and the dog goes chasing after it – I nearly do too. Joe waves at the other human when the man calls “Grazie!”, which is a word I’ve never heard before. Then Joe turns his attention back to me. “Time to head home, Perry.”

I don’t want to go home. I want to go meet that other dog! She seemed nice. I howl pathetically but he shakes his head at me and starts walking away. I know better than not to follow, so begrudgingly I ignore my curiosity and I go home with him.

But that was only the first of many times we would see that dog and her human.

The snow doesn’t relent, but Joe decides he has to go to work anyway. However, he still makes it a point to trek home every day during his lunch break to take me to the park so I can get my exercise. It seems noon is the time that other dog and her human also visit the park for some much-deserved playtime.

We never meet until one day Joe and the other human throw the ball at the same time and they end up close together. The other dog is much faster than me and she is already there, picking her ball out of the snow by the time I arrive. This time, she comes over to say ‘hello’, never releasing her toy. We thoroughly sniff each other. I totally forget about my starry ball.

She is medium-sized, with a very thick coat, floppy ears and a fluffy tail. She is a silvery grey with  irregular black spots on her back and white points on her legs and snout. Her eyes are bright and piercing. She’s young and energetic and prances around me, looking me up and down.

We both look back when her human calls: “Blue! Come here girl!”

Her tail starts to wag and without a second thought she sprints back to him.

I like her, I decide, but then I remember I was supposed to fetch my ball. I scour the snow and find it shortly after and I run it back to Joe to have him throw it again.

Blue and I meet up more often like that. Joe doesn’t like it, it makes him nervous. He’s afraid that our friendship will mean that her human will approach him at some point. He actively prevents that from happening, walking away when the other comes nearer, pretending not to notice. I see him fishing his phone out of his pocket a lot and he just stares at the blank screen. The behavior discourages Blue’s friend from coming over to meet him.

I would leave it alone if I believed that he truly isn’t interested in the other man, but I know my human better than that. He is my best friend after all. I see the way he glances up from his phone. I remember that look. That was how he used to look at Booker. The difference was that back then, he wouldn’t waste much time looking, he would go introduce himself. He used to be very good at making friends, he easily made others laugh. He could still be that way, he just needed nudge!

I wait patiently for the next time we run into Blue and her friend.

I don’t have to wait long.

We enter the park, only a few days after I have concocted a plan to get Joe to meet Blue’s human friend, and I see her running around, hunting her ball. Joe purposefully picks a spot at the other end of the field, thinking he can prevent interaction like that. He doesn’t have a clue of what I’m planning to do. He starts throwing the ball and I play along innocently – I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. I know he will eventually do a fake throw and at that point I would set my plan in motion. I can always trust Joe to try the fake-throw at least once. He loves fooling me, although he hasn’t succeeded in quite some time.

After about ten minutes of running back and forth through the park, fetching my starry ball, the moment has come.

I spot the grin on his face and I know he is about to try to trick me. The hand that holds the ball pulls back and then his arm makes a mighty swing forward. I can see he is holding on to the ball tightly, he isn’t going to let go. But I don’t stare at him and watch him drop his arm and hide his hand behind his back, like I usually do when I see through his act. I turn around and I start sprinting, as if I genuinely believed he made the toss.

He is laughing smugly, thinking I have fallen for his deceit, like the young fool that I used to be. But his laughter hitches in the back of his throat when he sees what direction I’m going in; I’m heading straight for the spot where Blue is playing tug-of-war with her human.

“Perry!” He calls after me. “Perry!”

Nu-uh, I think, you are going to have to come after me.

This is the first time I’ve played deaf with Joe in a long time and I feel a little bad about it, but I know it is ultimately for his own good. It is fine that we are best friends, but he needs a human friend also. As much as I wish I could, I can’t give him everything, he needs more in his life than just a dog. So I ignore his calls and my own gnawing feeling of guilt at my betrayal of his trust and I stick to my trajectory: heading towards Blue and her friend, under the pretense that I thought my ball had landed somewhere near them.

I put more weight on my hind legs to slow down when I get close and I narrowly avoid bowling over Blue’s human. 

Blue trots towards me and tries to engage me in play, but I need to keep up my game of pretend, so I plow my snout through the snow, supposedly searching for my toy. Blue bumps her nose into me and she barks when I ignore her.

I want to play! She’s telling me.

Give me a second, I urge, I’m on the job.

She cocks her head at me, confused, and one of her ears flops over.

“Hey boy, are you looking for your ball?” The human’s voice is nice and vibrates as he speaks. He pronounces his words in a way that I haven’t ever heard before.

I take my nose out of the snow and hold still as he walks up to me and lowers himself down on one knee in front of me. The first thing I notice about him are his eyes, which are bright and piercing, just like Blue’s. His complexion is golden, but his nose was a different shade due to the cold. His wild hair blows around his face and the ends of the tendrils tremble as he shivers in the cold. I don’t know why he is cold, he is wearing a thick coat.

“Perry!” Joe’s voice is far away but I hear him pant so I know he running towards me.

“Perry, huh?” Blue’s human remarks with a smile. He reaches up and grabs my left ear and he caresses it in a way that I thought only Baby knew how and I get a nice, fuzzy feeling about him.

I howl softly and I like that his smile widens and brightens.

He looks up just when Joe’s footfalls in the snow become deafening.

“Sorry,” Joe breathes and he holds my ball in front of my nose. “I have it right here, you oaf.”

“You have an amazing dog,” Blue’s human observes.

I look up at Joe. Hear that? Not an oaf, amazing!

My friend croaks in response: “Thanks.”

I smell the nerves on him, as can Blue.

“What kind of breed is he? He looks like a wolf.”

I roll my tongue out, flattered by his compliment. An amazing wolf.

“Alaskan Malamute.”

Joe is always really talkative with me, so his curt replies are odd to me. He doesn’t even sound like himself. His tone is monotonous and boring.

“He’s so big,” Blue’s human buries his hands into my thick mane.

“Thanks,” Joe says and I can tell that he knows his response isn’t entirely appropriate.

He stands up and Blue and I both watch them shake hands and introduce themselves.

“I’m Nicky Di Genova, nice to meet you.”

“Joe Al-Kaysani,” He states gruffly, returning none of the friendliness that Nicky is offering him.

Joe has his arm stretched out as far as he can, to keep a distance between them that he feels most comfortable with. It looks horribly awkward and I feel bad when I see the expression on both their faces. Joe looks to be in extreme discomfort and Nicky looks hurt, he can tell Joe isn’t enjoying meeting him and he is taking it the wrong way, thinking Joe doesn’t like him. His body language changes as soon as their hands release; he pulls his shoulders up and wraps his arms around himself and it’s not because he’s cold, it’s because Joe is making him feel insecure.

Blue glances at me and her icy eyes speak volumes: Look what you’ve done. He was in a perfectly good mood and now he’s upset.

Sorry… I drop my ears to convey my regret.

Blue walks around them and retrieves her rope from the snow and while holding it in her jaws she presses her nose against Nicky’s legs and squeaks, urging him to continue to play, intending to cheer him up.

“I’ll guess I’ll see you around,” Nicky says and he raises his hand in a halfhearted wave. “Bye. Bye, Perry!”

“Woooo!”

He smiles, I’m grateful, I don’t want him to feel bad. He looks at Joe one last time and then he grabs the other end of the short, thick rope and lets Blue pull him along.

“What was that all about, huh? Don’t tell me you are trying to play Cupid,” Joe chastises.

I make my eyes big and innocent, hoping to endear him into forgiving me.

“Very cute.” He sighs and kneels in front of me. “I don’t need you to be matchmaker, okay? I don’t need anybody in my life but you.”

That is a lie and we both know it.

His lips form a sad smile. “He was very handsome though, you have a good eye.”

My tail brushes along the snow as I wag it.

“Come on, buddy, time to go home.” He gets up and walks away, heading for the park exit. I follow him, with my head held low.

He doesn’t say anything on the way home and he has me worry that I really screwed up. I thought he would like Nicky, the man smelled good, had a nice, soothing voice and he was an excellent ear-scratcher, what’s not to like? Apparently, it isn’t quite as simple for humans, not for Joe, at least, not any more. Maybe humans are more like cats; critical and fussy. When I spend time with Joe at the clinic in the summers, when it is too hot for him to leave me in the back yard so he takes me to the chilled building where he works, I meet a lot of cats and they never seem to like anybody, least of all me. They’re scared, but their fear causes them to lash out, sometimes they scratch up Joe’s arms or the nurse’s arms. Their fear manifests itself as rage and aggression. It makes them very unlikable.

I look up at him, waiting for him to unlock the door to the house. Was he afraid of Nicky? Was that why he was being so nasty?

It feels wrong to compare my human to cat. I don’t like cats very much and I love Joe! I hope he never finds out I related him to a nasty cat.

I duck my head and slip into the hallway as soon as the door opens. I stop and take a seat on the tiled floor and Joe grabs a towel from the radiator and he uses it to rub me dry. I don’t like this part, it is very boring, but I like it less when Joe scowls at me if I get the carpet dirty, so this is better. I spot a tiny spider on the ceiling and fix my gaze on it, following it as it starts to move around the overhead lamp.

Joe’s motions slow down until all he’s doing is holding the towel to my back.

I tear my gaze away from the little pest on the ceiling and study his face. His eyes are distant and clearly his thoughts are preoccupied. I push my black, wet nose against his cheek and it startles him.

The light returns to his eyes and he lets out a single laugh. “Sorry about that. Wow, I was miles away, wasn’t I?”

Don’t go anywhere I can’t follow you.

He continues to towel-dry my fur. When he is satisfied that I won’t ruin the furniture, he hangs the towel over the radiator again and opens the hallway door to the living room. “Perry?”

I’m staring at the spider again, it’s moving down the wall, past the mirror, just a little closer and I can…

Joe moves in and he grabs the spider, pinching the little thing between his thumb and index finger. It’s quite incredible how dexterous the humans are. He opens the front door and puts the creature on the branch of an evergreen plant.

I whine softly. I only wanted to play with it. I quickly forget about it when Joe kicks my starry ball across the living room floor and I hurry after it. Once I’ve got it, I carry it to my pillow, only to realize some of my other toys are missing. Sometimes I misplace them, other times Joe hides them on purpose, with a smirk. It’s okay though, I can track them down easily. My squeaky-bone is in the kitchen behind the trash bin. Moose is under the couch, just far enough to make it a challenge for me to get him, but not far enough that I absolutely can’t reach. My chew toy is on the dresser and I’m easily tall enough to grab it. The tennis ball is on the couch, Joe put a pillow over it but I can smell it. When I reach for it he puts some of his weight on the cushion, but I dig with my snout until I can close my jaws around the ball and I pull it out. Triumphantly I gather all my toys around me on my pillow and I lie down, surrounded by them, and curl up.

I expect Joe to either turn on the TV or to get up and prepare lunch, but he does neither. I crack one eye open to spy on him and he’s just sitting there, in silence, staring into thin air. I grab Moose by his only remaining antler and I head over to Joe, maneuvering my big body around the coffee table. He doesn’t even notice my approach, even though I imagine I’m pretty hard to miss. I place Moose on his lap. Moose always makes me feel better, he’s good company. I hope Moose will lift Joe’s spirits.

Joe smiles at me. With one hand he pets Moose and with the other he pets the top of my head.

“I feel like a jerk,” He says.

You’re not a jerk!

“I was really shitty to that guy. And you probably just wanted to play with his dog, right?”

I don’t know why Joe keeps asking me questions, since we’ve figured out a long time ago that I can’t answer him in a way he understands, the poor thing.

Then he tells me to forget all about it and he hoists himself up from the coach and fixes us both a hearty lunch.

If he feels bad about how he treated Nicky, maybe a do-over is in order…

I gobble up my lunch and then settle on my pillow for a nice nap. In my dream Blue and I are playing with the striped ball.

A few days later when we are back at the park, I see Blue and her friend right away. I jump up excitedly but don’t race off. I look over my shoulder at Joe, awaiting his permission.

He is chewing on the inside of his cheek but with a dismissive hand-gesture he says: “Sure, go ahead, make friends.”

My intentions aren’t as selfish as he implies. I know that if I go play with Blue, our two humans will talk eventually, that’s how I always see it happen in the park. When dogs become friends, so do their humans. Or vice versa? It doesn’t matter. I would be his wingman, just like in the movies. With my tail swinging uncontrollably behind me I sprint towards Blue. When I’m nearby I stop and lower my chest down into the snow, but keep my rear up.

“Wooowooo!”

She barks and pulls on her leash.

“Alright, alright!” Nicky laughs. He bends forwards and unhooks the clasp, setting Blue free.

She hurls towards me, her slight body is fast and flexible. Before she can jump on me I shoot up and avoid her. When I start to run she chases after me and she’s much faster. As she runs alongside me, she’s grabbing mouthfuls of my fur and tries to pull me over. Her bites are gentle and playful. Suddenly I veer to the left and knock her over. We both roll through the snow but she is quick to get up on her paws and then it is my turn to chase her and she gives me a hard time with her sharp turns and crazy leaps. We race in circles around our humans though, even as we play, we have to keep an eye on them.

I get distracted when Joe finally closes the distance between him and Nicky and Blue abuses my absentmindedness to double back and wrestle me to the ground. She’s a total lightweight but with the element of surprise on her side I topple over and in a flash she’s already off me and she brushes her fluffy talk by my snout, adding insult to injury.

With her high-pitched bark she teases me. The bigger they are…

The worse it is when they sit on you! I howl in return and I scramble upright to hunt her down.

Blue easily outmaneuvers me, much to my horror. But what I lack in speed and agility I make up for in endurance. I can run around for hours, even through the thick snow and she is already panting heavily, struggling to plow through.

Our friends are just standing there, side by side, a few feet apart. They both have their arms crossed in front of his chest. Joe is being sulky, but Nicky just seems cold, like last time. Neither of them say anything, they are both using the spectacle of our game as an excuse to not have to talk.

Blue barks: Is your friend a cat-person?

Don’t call him that! Only I’m allowed to think along those lines, if others do it’s simply rude.

He’s so stand-offish! She innocently explains.

He’s just shy, I argue.

No, Nicky is shy, your friend is being catty.

He’s not a cat… I think to myself, sullen.

With our game interrupted, Blue prances back to her human and then curiously sniffs at Joe.

Joe chuckles and he kneels down to properly greet her. He takes off one glove and lets her smell his hand before he scratches her ear and trails his hand down to rake his fingers through her smooth, white mane. “What a beautiful Australian Shepherd,” He remarks.

I’m excited he has finally said something and I’ve been around Joe long enough to know people light up when he compliments their pets.

“Thank you.” Nicky drops down to his knees as well and strokes Blue’s back. “Her name is Blue.”

“Great name.” He turns his head and briefly makes eye-contact with Nicky. He quickly looks back at the dog. “Incredible eyes…”

I tilt my head, for whatever reason I suspect it weren’t Blue’s eyes that he was so enamored with. It were Nicky’s eyes which had made him blush and tense up after all.

Nicky nods but doesn’t speak. His teeth are chattering.

“Are you cold?” Joe questions. “Maybe you need a new coat.” He eyes the seemingly perfectly fine parka the other man is wearing, similar to his own.

“It’s not the coat. At least I hope not, it cost a fortune. I’m not used to the cold yet, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Joe stares at Blue and I can see his face contorts as he realizes he should say more, but it’s not easy for him. Nicky intimidates him, but I can’t fathom why. Joe is bigger than him – not much taller, but broader. Just like I am much bigger than that bully Trooper and I am certainly not afraid of him. “Did you-… Did you recently move here?”

Nicky bares white teeth in a smile. “Yes, I’m new here.”

“I thought so,” My friend says and then he makes a face. “I don’t mean… what I mean… I- You have an accent, I noticed.”

Nicky chuckles at Joe’s struggle to make conversation and I thought it was kind of mean but it seemed to put Joe at ease.

“Where are you from?” He inquires, getting a little bit more confident.

“I just moved here from Australia.”

Joe raises his eyebrow. “Australia, really? I wouldn’t have guessed…”

“But before that I lived in Italy,” Nicky elaborates. “Born and raised.”

Joe nods as if that explains everything. I do not understand what they were talking about. “So you went from an Australian summer straight into a Minnesotan winter?”

“Hmhm.”

“No wonder you’re cold.”

Nicky nods. “People keep telling me I’ll get used to it but so far the only one of us who is truly enjoying the snow is Blue.”

“Yes, Australian Shepherds have a warm enough coat. Just to be sure, she should probably not spend too much time outside too soon, give her time to really build up a winter coat.” He feels her ears and her paws. “The extremities are still nice and warm, so I think she’s handing the cold just fine.” Offhandedly he adds: “I’m a vet, by the way.”

“Really? Where? I’m still looking for a good clinic. V-E-T’s make Blue quite nervous normally.”

Joe chuckles. “The clinic on Pine street. It’s out of sight and the long driveway is sandwiched between two residences, so it’s easy to miss, but it’s about halfway down the street. If you’re approaching from Main street, it’s to the left and the entry comes right after the house with the red door. If you see a god-awful statue of an eagle, you’ve missed it and you have to make a U-turn.”

He is rambling, why is he rambling?

“Thanks.”

“Sure… Sure…” Joe nods and looks away

“Is it okay if I ask for you when we come to the clinic?”

Joe swallows audibly. “Yeah… Sure. Just ask for Joe Al-Kaysani.”

A smile spreads across Nicky’s lips. “I remember your name.”

He scratches his ear. He is blushing. “Right.”

All four of us look to the right when we hear aggressive, incessant barking. I’m disappointed when I see Trooper bouncing up and down at the base of one of the massive trees, barking at a squirrel most likely. Nobody likes squirrels but he doesn’t have to be so high-strung about it, it’s unnerving. I know his presence means that Joe will want to leave and sure enough it takes Joe only a second to get up on his feet and announce that we must head home.

“Be mindful of that dog,” Joe warns Nicky. “He’s a mean one.”

“Okay, grazie.”

“Bye,” He says over his shoulder and he is already walking away. It seems like he is happy Trooper provided him an excuse to cut the conversation short.

I gave Blue a look. Sorry, I’ll see you next time.

“Woof!” Bye!

With quickened pace I catch up to my friend. He is in a hurry to get out of there and it’s not because of Trooper. It was going so well, I don’t understand the rush! That squirrel – imagined or not – will keep Trooper occupied for a few more minutes at least. Joe was doing so well! He resembled his old self, when he was social and chatty, why would he want to leave so abruptly and rudely?

We arrive home and he lets me into the back yard through the gate. He looks down at his watch and grumbles. “Oh Hell, I might as well head back to the clinic early. You be good, okay?”

“Wooooo!”

“That’s what I thought. I’ll see you later.” He steps back and closes the gate.

Staring at the gate I sulk for a few minutes.

Damn Trooper, he ruins everything. Pitchy little thing better not think I’m afraid of him or something, just because my human takes me home every time Trooper comes to the park.

We meet Blue and Nicky at the park a few more times, but it never amounts to anything. Nicky is very pleasant and Joe grows comfortable with him. He’s always tense to start off with, but after a while he visibly relaxes. That is, until they accidentally touch, like when their hands meet when they’re both stroking either me or Blue. Joe gets very stiff and awkward whenever that happens and Nicky always mirrors that behavior. I keep hoping one of them will suggest to “grab a bite” or “get coffee”. The act of going out for coffee or dinner was some sort of human ritual that apparently serves as an initiation to a relationship. It was how Joe and Booker got close, the second time they met Joe offered to buy him coffee and that was how it all started. Running into each other at the park wasn’t enough for humans. With their underdeveloped sense of smell and odd social inhibitions, casual run-ins aren’t enough for them to decide if they like each other and if there is a foundation to build a relationship on.

Consumption of either drink or food was key, or so I had gleaned.

I enjoy playing with Blue every chance I get, but I’m easily distracted by Joe’s callow responses to Nicky’s unsubtle hints, which are obvious, even to the humans of seeing-eye-dogs. The guy even said once: “I’m so cold, it’s going to take a big cup of coffee to warm me up.”

I asked Blue once why Nicky didn’t just ask Joe out for coffee or dinner, we could both tell he wanted to.

Blue explained that Nicky’s last human friend left him heartbroken and insecure. She didn’t get into the details, but I paid close attention to the short snippets of conversation our two humans had with each other and I pieced his story together to the best of my abilities. Blue helpfully filled in the blanks.

He had been living with a man in Italy, but this man moved to Australia for business. The man, referred to as ‘Keane’, begged for Nicky to come with him; begged him to leave everything behind, uproot his life and move to Australia with him. Nicky didn’t want to, growing up in a small town he wasn’t very adventurous and his English was poor. He was afraid of becoming lonely, with Keane away at work all day, and becoming purposeless. However, he was more afraid of losing Keane, so he moved South with the man.

He soon did grow lonely, his lacking English left him alienated from the community he had moved into. To make him feel better, Keane came home with a gift one day: a puppy, an Australian shepherd. Joe interjected at that part of the story to routinely inform him that the Australian shepherd, as a breed, wasn’t really from Australia but from the United States. That seemed completely irrelevant to me, but it successfully eased Nicky’s tension at the time. He had chuckled and then continued with his story.

He named the puppy Blue and Blue was his only friend. His English improved, but he explained it was easier to just avoid people, he was still ashamed of his accent and poor vocabulary. Keane teased him about it too. Keane liked that Nicky was cooped up at home all day, because out of boredom he kept the apartment clean, did the laundry, and had dinner ready for him every evening. Keane enjoyed him being his “piccola moglie”, or “little wifey” Nicky translated when Joe looked as confused as Perry had felt.

Nicky had himself convinced that it was enough for him, that he didn’t need anyone other than Keane and Blue.

A year later he found out Keane had been “cheating” on him, for a long time and with many people. He never explained what that meant, “cheating”, but judging by Joe’s sorrowful expression he understood. It was a human thing, I think. The relationship ended and that was when Nicky relocated to a house only a few blocks removed from ours. He hadn’t yet explained why he had moved here specifically, but he didn’t want to stay in Australia and going back to Italy felt like moving backwards when he needed to “go forward and never look back”.

When Nicky said “Blue is still my one and only friend”, I had hoped Joe would say that he was his friend also, I think that would have made Nicky feel much better, but he didn’t say that.

I don’t think Joe is obtuse or mean. He is scared, much like Nicky is scared.

In turn, Joe told Nicky about Booker, although he was being much more curt and detached than Nicky had been while telling his story. He told him that Booker drank too much and had been in an accident.

I don’t understand why drinking too much is a problem and how that relates to an accident, but Nicky had looked very sorrowful and had placed a gloved hand on Joe’s shoulder that he didn’t pull away from.

Since meeting Nicky, Joe is oftentimes lost in his own thoughts when they get back home. I suspect he’s thinking about Nicky, when he stares into thin air with narrowed, focused eyes, as if he sees something.

I have a feeling Nicky and Joe would be a good fit. Joe looks at Nicky the way he used to look at Booker, in the beginning; alternating his gaze between the eyes and the lips. Nicky did the same. I think that means something. And Blue told me Nicky kissed Keane – another man – on the lips, like I told her Joe kissed Booker – also a male – on the lips. We both realized that is an unusual trait in our humans and we agreed that this connects them somehow, in a way that is beyond our understanding as dogs.

Blue wants to make Nicky happy, and since Nicky is her human that is her responsibility, that is her job. It is a job all us dogs do, out of love. She sees the same thing I see; that our friends make each other happy, even though they are both afraid to admit that and open up to those feelings.

It took little to persuade her that further trickery is necessary to get them both to realize they should at least “go out for coffee”.

I have spent enough evenings on the couch with my friend, watching old movies, to know that nothing works quite like having one rescue the other. Those situations always end very romantically. Of course we can’t cuff either of them to a railroad-track in the path of a run-away train, but I have a plan that I hope will work. 

The next time we happen to see each other at the park, Blue is going to run away, or pretend to anyway. She is going to hide in the bushes and Joe and I will help Nicky find her. Surely, when we are all reunited again, coffee or dinner will be in order!

It’s a Saturday and we haven’t seen Nicky and Blue at the park since last Tuesday, which is not unusual. But we always end up at the park at the same time on the weekends, so I’m jittery knowing that the plan will go into effect today.

Joe is nervous too and for a moment I worry that he is somehow onto me, but I shake my head at myself. Joe can’t even decipher what I’m saying when I’m trying my hardest to make him understand, let alone when I’m being secretive about it. Still though, he fusses with his hair in front of the mirror before we leave and constantly readjusts the new scarf he purchased last Thursday.

I smell his anxiety, but it’s of an excited kind. He is looking forward to seeing Nicky. I’m certain my plan will be successful! I’ve seen people hug Joe before when he saves their pets, today he is going to “save” Blue and Nicky is going to hug him and then they will finally know how the other feels. Surely they can pick that up in each other’s scents when they are that close, humans do have some sense of smell, right?

“Wooo! Woooo!” I howl. Why are you taking so long?!

“Don’t rush me!” He snaps and he appraises his reflection one last time. He forces on a smile but it falters. He runs his hand through his curly hair. “Do I look ok? Is my hair getting too long?”

Does it matter? I simply stare at him.

“Right,” He chuckles at himself. “I keep forgetting you’re just a dog.”

Excuse me, not “just a dog”! An amazing wolf! I let out a long howl to illustrate my point.

“Okay! Okay! I’m ready. I’m coming. Hold your horses.”

I don’t have any horses.

He finally tears himself away from the mirror and he leads the way out the front door.

It’s still snowing. Sometimes it snows for so long that I wonder if summer will ever return. I wouldn’t mind it if it didn’t. The white blanket that covers the street is thick but cars still stubbornly plow through. The wind has created a bank of snow at the end of the street and Joe lumbers around it but I burst right through, earning myself a laugh from my best friend. I shake off the excess snow and strut after him, all the while wagging my tail in anticipation.

I pause at the park’s entry and scan the grounds. In the distance I see Nicky and Blue and Blue immediately notices me; she has been waiting for me.

Joe sees them too but pretends he doesn’t. I don’t know why he still bothers. It’s like he’s playing a strange game; a game that nobody knows the rules to and nobody really seems to be enjoying…

He holds the ball in front of my nose, grabbing my attention and then he flings it across the field. The wind picks it up and it goes so far that it nearly reaches the lake at the far end. I chase after it, charging through the snow. There is practically no one at the park, it’s too cold for most people and the man inside the television said a nasty snowstorm is expected to hit the town later in the day. I love snowstorms; when the wind picks up the snow gets blown all around and it creates white whirlwinds in our backyard that I like to attack.

Other people don’t seem to care too much for them though. Not even Joe, he calls them a “frigid nuisance” but they never stop him from taking me to the park. One of many reasons why he is my best friend.

I find the ball near the base of a tree and I look up to scan the branches momentarily, wondering if what I heard was a squirrel or just the wind. I don’t see anything, so I head back towards Joe who is still lingering by the exit, as if he doesn’t want to cross the field to say hello to Nicky.

I’m not even halfway back to him when I hear a voice echo.

“Blue!”

I stop and watch Nicky – his figure tiny in  the distance – walk in circles calling out Blue’s name.

Joe is looking over at him as well. Absentmindedly he calls to me: “Perry, come over here.”

I come to him and drop the ball at his feet but he pays it no attention. He keeps staring at Nicky.

Nicky isn’t thinking about us. The tone of his voice shifts and he gives me the shivers when he calls again: “Blue!”

I eye my friend expectantly. This is the part of the plan where he is supposed to head over and offer his help, but he just stands there.

“Blue! Blue, come here bambina!”

We don’t have time to stand here and thinks things over! Who knows how long Blue can resist the call of her human?

I take charge of matters and I nudge Joe’s leg urgently with my snout.

“Right, shit. Let’s go.” He picks up the ball and puts it in the deep pocket of his parka and then he jogs in Nicky’s direction.

Finally! I run alongside him. Joe to the rescue!

“Blue!” Nicky turns around himself and desperate eyes land on Joe when he sees him coming towards him.

“Hey, Nicky. Is everything okay?”

“I can’t find her,” His voice is a little panicked.

“Okay, okay. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. I’m going to help you find her.”

 “Woooo!”

My friend nods at me. “Perry is also going to help.”

Grazie. Thank you.” He takes a deep breath.

“How long has she been gone?”

“Only a minute or so. She was right over there,” He pointed to a bench by a line of trees. “She was just walking around, exploring… I look away for like a second and all of a sudden I don’t see her anywhere.”

“Has she run away before?”

“No! Why would I let her off leash if I think she would ever run away? This isn’t like her at all. She always comes back when I call her.”

“I’m sorry, I know.” He touches his shoulder briefly to offer him comfort. “She’s probably chasing down a squirrel or something. Let’s start by looking for her in that patch of trees over there.” Joe leads the way and Nicky and I follow. They call out Blue’s name while we scour the park and I howl and sniff the ground, pretending to be useful.

We search around every tree and under every bush. They keep calling her name but she never appears, not even as time drags on and even I start to get worried.

Nicky and Joe approach the few people that are in the park, asking if they’ve seen an Australian shepherd but none of them are able to help us.

The last man they talk to reeks of the cigar he is smoking and his weathered face doesn’t show the slightest hint of sympathy. He is Trooper’s human, I’ve seen him before. The little devil must be running around somewhere and that worries me. What if Trooper went after Blue while she was hiding from us?

“Sir,” Joe politely addresses him. “Have you seen an Australian shepherd around?”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know what an Australian shepherd looks like?”

My best friend makes a face at him but he is quick to hide his dismay. Nicky stands off to the side, observing the exchange. I can smell that he is very upset; close to tears in fact.

“She’s medium sized, with a long coat. Her color is mostly grey, but with black spots and white and tan points.”

“No man,” He shakes his head. “I haven’t seen your fucking dog.”

At this moment Trooper comes running towards us and he digs his heels in the snow to come to a stop right in front of me. He starts to bark aggressively.

I bare my fangs and growl at him.

“Mind that monster of yours!” Trooper’s human warns.

Joe grabs a hold of my collar, but he knows that if I wanted to harm the foul mutt he couldn’t stop me with all his might. “Thank you for your help, sir,” He says, but it sounds more like: fuck you! “Come on, Perry, let’s keep looking.” He turns us around and drags me with him and also puts an arm around Nicky’s shoulders, guiding him away from the angry man.

I don’t know if the two humans hear it, but the big man calls after them: “Fucking faggots!” Neither of them responds. I don’t know what the word meant, but I know damn well it is an insult and I don’t appreciate someone talking down to my friend and Blue’s friend, but Joe still holds my collar so clearly he doesn’t want me to go back over to him to teach him a lesson.

The wind picks up, the falling snow gets blown horizontal making us all squint our eyes. Before long, we are the only ones left in the park. Everyone else heads inside for warmth and shelter. The weather worsens at a rapid pace. I can feel the temperature drop with the shift in the wind. Nicky is shivering violently but he keeps moving forward, like a locomotive. His voice is hoarse as he calls again and again: “Blue!”

Joe stops. He is frowning deeply. He looks up at the clouded sky and then down at his wristwatch.

It’s getting late in the afternoon. The sun – which we haven’t seen all day due to those thick clouds – is about to set and it will only get colder. I recognize he is torn, I can read the struggle on his face. If we stop looking for Blue, we would be leaving her in a pretty bad, dangerous situation, but if we keep looking for her we risk exposing ourselves to the elements and especially the warm-blooded Nicky might not be able to last much longer in the cold.

Blue has been gone far too long, this isn’t part of the plan. With a sinking feeling in my gut I know something has gone wrong and instinctually I know Trooper has something to do with it. Either he chased her off and she got lost, or… I shake my head, I don’t want to think about it.

“Nicky!”

Nicky whirls around. His hair gets blown around his pale face.

Joe catches up to him, with an apologetic expression he says: “I think you should go home. You’re freezing, you’re not used to this weather. I don’t want you to get hypothermia. Blue wouldn’t want you to either.”

“How can I go home? I can’t leave her here, in the cold!”

“Perry and I will keep looking for her. We’ll find her.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” He turns around and continues to zigzag through the park. “Blue!”

Joe glances down at me. “Can’t say I blame him. I wouldn’t go home without you either, boy.”

I know and I would never leave you alone.

We follow Nicky’s footsteps and continue our search.

“She must have left the park,” Joe concludes. “She’s not here, we’ve looked everywhere.”

Nicky nods. His lips are trembling, because of the cold, or because he was upset, or both.

I want to make him feel better, this is all my fault after all, so I rub my cheek along his leg and lick his gloved hand. He reaches down with a sad smile and scratches my ear in that magnificent way. I don’t deserve his kindness after what I’ve done. I feel very guilty but unable to express that. I hate that I can’t apologize to him in  a way that he can understand.

“I think we should head out onto the streets and search the block around the park,” Joe strategizes. “I’m suspecting Trooper might have chased her out of the park. It wouldn’t be the first time. Come on.”

“You don’t-” Nicky struggles with his words. “You don’t have to do this. It’s not your problem or your responsibility.”

“I want to help, Nicky,” He assures him with a smile. “And Perry wants to help too, right?”

“Wooooo!”

“See, now let’s go. Don’t worry, we’ll find her. Oh, but first…” He pulls his scarf from his neck and he wraps it around Nicky.

“Won’t you get cold?”

“Nah, it was actually a little too warm for me.”

We leave the park through the East exit and we start searching the streets for Blue, checking in doorways and underneath parked cars. The sun sets quickly and the streetlamps flicker to life, casting circles of light on the sparkling snow. The streets are very quiet, the storm has gotten too bad for cars to be able to drive through it and we only come across a single man who is hurrying to head home, muttering under his breath about “freezing his ass off”.

On occasion I pause to let out a long howl, hoping Blue will hear me. I listen to the sound echo off the brick walls of the warm buildings. I don’t hear her return my call.

I keep a close eye on Joe and Nicky. Humans aren’t made for these conditions, in fact, most dogs aren’t either. Of course I worry about Blue and if she is able to stay warm in the storm, but my main concern is Joe and – because I am the one who got Blue into trouble – I feel responsible for Nicky also.

We circle the park, first one block out, later two blocks out. Without success.

Joe consoles Nicky, reassuring him that Blue’s fur is thick enough to keep her warm if she’s found shelter from the wind, and he keeps restating that we will find her eventually. If not tonight, he says, than he will call his friend at animal control and have him help them look tomorrow and he will put up flyers in the clinic. It’s a small, kind community, if someone sees a dog walking the streets unattended, they will take care of her and bring her to see him. With his words he intends to prepare Nicky to accept that they might need to give up on the search soon. It’s only going to get colder the longer the sun is down.

It doesn’t quite work. Nicky stops dead in his tracks and starts to cry. Ashamed, he covers his face with his hands.

For a moment Joe watches, unsure how to act. 

“I’m sorry,” Nicky sobs.

“No! No. There’s no need for that.” He closes the distance between them and rubs Nicky’s arms in an effort to comfort him.

“I feel so embarrassed. Crying like this. Dragging you around all evening. You must think I’m crazy.”

“Not at all,” Joe speaks softly. “I think you love your friend very much.”

He drops his hands and peers up at Joe. “Yeah. She’s my friend. I know that’s pathetic-”

He shakes his head and interjects: “It’s not. Dogs aren’t ‘just dogs’, they’re our friends. In fact, that’s true for any pet. As a dog owner and a vet, I understand that. Trust me, if I lost Perry, I would cry too. I would feel the exact same way you are feeling.” He smiles warmly at him. “But you shouldn’t cry. Your tears are going to freeze solid on your cheeks.” He reached up his hand, takes off his glove and gently wipes the tears off Nicky’s face. “Besides, like I said, one way or another, we are going to find Blue.”

Nicky takes a deep breath and nods.

“I know you want to keep looking for her, as long as it takes. But in the night the temperature is going to drop below minus forty. I’m not saying this to scare you, I’m saying this because right now I’m more worried about you making it through the night than her. I suggest we go back and check the park one last time. Maybe she found her way back there and is waiting for you. If she’s not there, I’m going to take you home.” His tone was careful but definitive.

“But you think she might be in the park?”

“She could be, maybe. If she’s not then I’m sure she’s found shelter somewhere.”

We head back to the park as Joe suggested. My heart feels heavy. If we don’t find her…

This is all my fault… I’m a bad dog. A bad dog!

We arrive at the park and they call Blue’s name a couple of times. The only response is absolute silence.

“I’m sorry, Nicky.”

Nicky covers his mouth with a trembling hand.

Seeing the other man upset like that makes Joe not want to give up, so he calls again, at the top of his lungs: “Blue!”

I freeze when I hear a bark. Glancing at the two humans I can tell that they haven’t heard anything, but along with a weak sense of smell, humans also can’t hear very well. I throw my head back and let out a long, loud howl, calling for her.

Another bark resounds and this time Joe and Nicky hear it too and they both turn to face the same way.

“Wooooooooo!” I howl again.

All three of us stare into the distance intently and I can feel relief wash over all of us when Blue appears from behind the news kiosk, where she had been hiding from the cold wind. She barks a few more times and then comes hurdling towards us, jumping over the tall banks of snow that lie in her path. When she reaches us she launches herself against Nicky’s chest and he falls backwards with her on top of him. She wags her tail so excitedly that her entire body rocks from left to right uncontrollably.

“Where have you been all this time?” Nicky gets up on his knees and hugs her tightly. “I’ve been worried sick!”

Joe scratches the top of my head and I look up and see him smiling. His eyes are sparkling. He gets down on the ground next to them and he checks to make sure Blue is unharmed. He feels her ears and nose, checks her paws and searches her fur for signs of injuries. “She’s fine,” He concludes. With a laugh he grabs her head and looks into her bright eyes. “You silly girl. You better not scare us again like that.”

She wriggles free and trots over to me, nuzzling her nose into my mane.

“Wooo!” Where have you been?

That gnarly dog tried to attack me! She barks in response. I ran away but then it took me a long time to find my way back and when I did you weren’t here!

Joe and Nicky get up and dust the snow off their bodies.

“Thank you so much for helping me,” Nicky says. “I- I don’t know what to say.”

Blue and I look at them expectantly. Things may not have gone as planned, but perhaps it still worked?

“You don’t have to say anything. I was happy to help. The important thing is that Blue is safe and that you are smiling again.”

Nicky looks up at the other man shyly and his smile brightens, but he doesn’t say anything.

Come on! I think to myself. Coffee or dinner! It’s not that difficult, just ask! One of you, please!

Joe scratches the back of his neck sheepishly. “Uhm… I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked up quite an appetite and I’m sure these guys are hungry too,” He gestures at Blue and me. “My house is just down the street. I have plenty of kibble and I could reheat yesterday’s Chinese take-out for us… If you want.” He glances down at his feet nervously.

“Shouldn’t I be the one treating you to dinner? Considering what you’ve done for me.”

Joe grins and his eyes sparkle with an old mischief and confidence that I haven’t seen in a long time. “How about you take me out to dinner next time and we settle for Chinese left-overs for now?”

The other chuckles and nods in agreement. “I’d like that.”

I wag my tail and look at Blue with mirthful eyes. It worked! It may not have gone as planned, but luckily it all worked out in the end. Blue is safe and Nicky and Joe are happy. There is just one thing missing…

I sneak up behind my human friend and rear myself up on my hind legs. With my front paws I push against his back and he stumbles forward. He manages to stay balanced and upright, but now he is standing nose-to-nose with Nicky. They look into each other’s eyes, a little shocked and nervous.

Joe swallows audibly. “I want to kiss you,” He whispers. “Is that okay?”

Nicky nods and Joe doesn’t waste any time. He snakes one arm around Nicky’s waist and puts his other hand on the back of Nicky’s neck. He leans in and they both tilt their heads to fit together, then Joe connects their mouths, drawing a sigh from both of them. They both have their eyes closed as their lips brush against each other.

“Woooo!” Get a room! I tease.

When they finally part they keep their faces close together and they both chuckle breathily. The air they breathe comes out in white puffs.

“Let’s go, before you freeze,” Joe says with a wink.

“Freeze? I feel quite hot now.”

Joe promptly kisses him again, but not for long. “I’m serious, let’s go and get you warmed up.” Joe puts his arm around his shoulders and guides him in the direction of our house.

I briefly share a victorious look with Blue and then we follow them home.

As promised Joe treats us both to a large bowl of excellent kibble and while we chomp down on our food he lights the fireplace and spreads a blanket out on the floor in front of it. Nicky is taking off his coat and boots in the hallway and then sits down on the blanket in front of the blazing fire, warming himself. He is still wearing Joe’s scarf. The microwave beeps and normally that would get a rise out of me but I pay it little attention, too preoccupied with my meal to care about the shrill cries of that darn machine. But when Joe sits down next to Nicky and hands him one of those cartons that always smell so amazing, I pause to observe them.

Nicky accepts the carton with a smile. When he opens it white steam comes out. “Smells good.”

That’s an understatement.

Joe nods in agreement and with a smirk he tugs on the end of his scarf that Nicky is still wearing around his neck. Before the other gets self-conscious about it, he remarks: “It looks better on you.”

First they eat their fill and then they sit even closer together, facing the fireplace. They talk the entire night while outside the wind howls and snow continues to come down. Normally I would sleep outside and I would want to, but that night I rather stay in the living room, dozing off listening to their soothing voices and quiet laughter. I enjoy that Blue curls up against me and sleeps soundly.

Joe and Nicky have a lot of coffees and dinners together and then sleep-overs, until one day Nicky and Blue simply don’t leave; never again. Their home is with us now and the four of us are happy together.

Even though I will never pull another stunt like that, you can’t argue with the results…

Chapter Text

Andy bellows: “When Joe says he’s in the mood for some Italian. He means he’s in the mood for some Di Genova.”

“Is that a type of pasta?” Booker wondered.

+

The risotto was inedible. The pasta con Pomodoro made him sick. The lasagna was stew. The pasta carbonara was cold – every time. The minestrone came straight from a can. They put parmesan on the crab linguine, which Joe’s been told is a big nono. On every table there was salt, pepper, and a ketchup bottle

But the waiter was scrumptious. Delicious. Served piping hot and fresh. He smelled of spices but smiled so sweet. What a dish.

The waiter, however, was not on the menu.

“I can’t believe you’re making me eat this shit again,” Nile said as she scanned the menu for her options, her face souring as she went down. On paper it all sounded great, but she’d heard the stories about the food. Of course, Joe’s stories about the food were nothing but appetizers, or side-dishes at most, for what he really wanted to talk about:

His infantile, shameful crush.

“And he’s not even here,” She hissed, looking around the restaurant again.

“He will be, he always works on Thursdays.” Joe drummed his fingers on the table and wiggled his foot out of rhythm. He kept his gaze trained on the kitchen door, expecting him to come bursting through any second. As an afterthought, he added: “And you just had a workout, so you’ll eat anything with carbs and you know it. Stop complaining.”

A waiter sidled up to the table. Not the waiter. “Hi, are you ready to place your order?”

“No, thank you, we still need a minute.”

The man made a face but walked off without a word.

They had been sitting at the table for twenty minutes and had brushed him off three times before.

Nile leaned forward and kicked Joe against his shins. “Joe, I am starving. This is ridiculous. How many times have you come here?”

He shrugged but did the math in his head anyway. He had accepted a teaching position at the university six months ago, exchanging Austin for Chicago. He had his first date two months later, at Ristorante Piccolo Famiglia – which was actually owned by a small Irish family. The date was awful. The food was too. But the waiter saved him from it both; being charming when his date wasn’t and pointing him to a great pizzeria one block over. The waiter treated him like they had been friends for years. It was unlike anything Joe had ever experienced. Joe had come back every Thursday since.

“Seventeen times.”

“Seventeen times,” She repeated and she ought to be applauded for her restraint when it came to mocking him. “You don’t even have seventeen friends.”

“Which is why I’m cycling through the ones I have for a second time.” He flashed her a smirk. A self-loathing – please-pity-me – smirk. “No, Booker likes this place. The booze is cheap. Andy has a stomach made of steel. And I’ve… come alone a couple of times. You know, brought a book. Did the whole ‘boy’s-gotta-eat-but-don’t-wanna-do-the-dishes’ schtick.”

“Why don’t you just ask him out?”

“You’ve seen him!”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him and he’s a doll. But Joe, lemme tell ya a secret: you’re a hot-damn catch. You’re handsome, you have this whole worldly-thing going for you, you’re intelligent, you’re romantic, you’re funny, you’re sweet, you dress well, you grow a good beard,” She counted it all on her fingers to emphasize her point.

He rolled his eyes as she’d meandered into the preposterous. “I don’t even know if he’s into guys. And you can never assume about that sort of stuff. I mean he’s Italian.”

“Then ask! And if he says he is, ask him out, for the love of pasta.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

He looked at her poignantly. “You know why,” He said. He sounded frustrated but not with her. No, with himself.

“Joe-“

Whatever words of comfort Nile was going to offer him – nothing that hadn’t already been said a hundred times over – a commotion from the kitchen drew their attention.

Staff shouted effusively. It sounded like Italian but not quite, like the food they served. It was an imitation. But unlike the food, which Nile argued was purposefully blasphemous, the greetings that resounded, accompanied by the banging of pots and pans, was well-intended. It was enthusiastic and cheerful. One voice cut through the ruckus: “Grazie mille! Sei troppo gentile!”

Joe could hear the smile and if he closed his eyes he could see it too.

“Oh boy, here we go,” Muttered Nile.

The kitchen door popped open and Nicolò di Genova backed into the “ristorante”.

“No, please, call me Nicky,” He had said when they first met.

Nicky’s fingers worked at the small of his back to tie the ends of his long waist apron. He bowed theatrically to thank his colleagues for the warm welcome. As soon as he turned around, his gaze found Joe and Joe liked to think it was because he had sat in this exact booth every Thursday, for four months and Nicky knew he would be there today.

“Joe!” He exclaimed happily and he made a beeline for the table. He dressed the same every single time Joe had seen him. A black waist apron over black jeans and a black T-shirt that had been washed too many times. The other waiters were dressed the exact same way. It was a uniform. But on Nicky, it was a look.

He’s tall and slender, but with broad shoulders. The apron was tied snugly around his waist, creasing at the front, not doing much to hide his manly shape. His short hair wasn’t styled. He wore silver earrings. Most days he’s clean shaven. Some days he’s not. Today he sported about a week’s worth of scruff that framed his mouth and accented his jawline and made his beauty mark a little less obvious.

Yeah, Joe had that kind of crush. Where he called a mole a beauty mark like he’s talking about Dita Von Teese.

At their table Nicky bounced on the balls of his feet. Nicky was all energy, whenever Joe had seen him. A nervous, coy energy that he masked with an air of exuberance. Whenever he spoke, his hands were always moving, even if he was holding plates. Nobody grieved much when food was spilled on the floor of Ristorante Piccolo Famiglia.

Joe had been to the restaurant seventeen times and had seen Nicky drop something seventeen times. He got orders mixed up and was typically a little sweaty near the end of the evening. It would show in the darkness of the hair at the nape of his neck and on his shirt under his armpits. He would bump into other staff. He openly critiqued the recipes. He never knew the chef’s special of the day. He would spend too much time talking to patrons and when someone had his undivided attention, he tended to ignore everything else – like people shouting for a refill.

By all accounts, he was a terrible waiter. But everyone adored him anyway and, as Nicky said himself: he lent some authenticity to the place, being the only actual Italian on payroll.

“You brought Nile again,” Nicky said, cheerful as ever. It was so like him to forget an order of two iced teas, but still remember the name of a friend Joe had invited along just once, four weeks ago. The two had bonded when Nile noticed the glint of a gold necklace with a cross around his neck, similar to hers. “I hope you are hungry, the food is no good otherwise.”

Nile laughed.

The waiter stood at their table with his hips cocked and he did this thing where he folded his arms behind his back and as soon as he spoke he would bring his hands forward to gesture erratically in front of his chest but then forcing himself to hide them behind his back again. Like he was trying and hopelessly failing to stop himself from expressing himself with his hands.

Nile was speaking, so Nicky was listening attentively, hands behind his back, bouncing back and forth, bright gaze fixed on her.

“Just had a killer work out with Joe, so I am definitely starving. Joe always pushes me, but he’s so fit, it’s hard to keep up. I mean look at him, he’s ripped.”

Joe wanted to kick her under the table for being so obvious about talking him up.

“Ah you do the uh- boxing? Like Joe?” With his right hand he lightly punched the air.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m not as good as Joe, but he helps me train.”

Joe rolled his eyes.

“How often do you train?”

“Three times a week.”

“Molto impressionante! So you could probably – how do you say? ‘Kick my ass’?”

“I could. But I wouldn’t. It’s too nice. Joe would kick my ass.”

Oh my God. Joe regretted bringing her. He sank a little in the leather booth and he wanted to hide his face with his hand but he caught himself and pretended to casually scratch his beard. At least the orange lighting of the restaurant would hide his blush.

“Joe wouldn’t, he is- ah…” Nicky stared at Joe as he struggled for the right word. His hand wafted through the air.

Weak? Pathetic? Wishing he was dead right now?

“Da gentiluomo,” Nicky decided, “Like-… Like a gentleman.” He looked proud of himself for his translation.

Joe felt a warmth he hadn’t felt anywhere else in the cold city of Chicago. Only here, in ristorante Piccolo Famiglia, did the cold leave his bones.

“Yes, oh, Joe is such a gentleman,” Nile agreed.

“I am being rude,” Nicky said. “I should take your order. Get you food. You said you were starving. I am so sorry, tesoro,” He rambled to Nile. “What will it be?”

She batter her eyelashes up at him. “What would you recommend?”

“Vietnamese from next door.” The deadpan was flawless.

A chuckle broke out of Joe, like a bubble being popped.

Nile, unconcerned with trying to look cool, laughed heartedly at the joke. “I didn’t see that on the menu.”

“I will smuggle it in for you, if you wish.”

“Could you?”

“Nile,” Joe warned.

She waved her hand at him. “I’ll have the Caprese salad and lots of garlic bread. Like, an obnoxious amount of garlic bread.”

Nicky frowned and looked to Joe. “Obnoxious? I do not understand?”

“Just a lot.”

“Oh, ok.”

“And a diet Coke,” Nile added.

Nicky nodded, he didn’t write any of it down.

“I’ll have the… Margherita pizza and a beer.”

“Ok, coming right up.” He pivoted on his heels and walked a few tables over to greet someone else who looked to be a regular. He made his way through the restaurant like that. He was friendly to everyone. It made Joe like him even more, but at the same time it crushed his heart, because he knew what he shared with Nicky was nothing special. Not to Nicky, at least.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Nile?”

She blinked at him innocently.

“What was that all about?”

“Just making you look good.”

“Laying it on a little thick, weren’t you? And you’re the goddamn middleweight boxing champion of the state.”

She shrugged. “Obviously, he doesn’t know that.”

They fell silent when Nicky brought drinks to their table.

A beer and a sparkling water.

“With a slice of lime, not lemon,” Nicky boasted, as if he’d done a good job. And then he was off again, making someone else feel like Piccolo Famiglia was a port in a storm.

Just not a port where you got what you ordered.

Nile quirked an eyebrow at Joe  and took a drink from her water. “It’s a good thing he’s cute.”

“He’s scatter-brained, I think it’s endearing.”

“Please just ask him out.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. Not yet.”

“It’s been six months, Joe.”

“I know, I-“ He scrunched up his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want to talk about it. Can we talk about something else? Anything? Please?”

She stared at him for a moment and thankfully did not push the subject.

Joe got served his pizza, but Nile got mushroom risotto. At least she got the garlic bread she had asked for: three baskets of it. They barely ate any of it and Nicky appeared at their table several times, looking terribly sorry, as he always did.

They were served an actually delectable dessert they didn’t order and then Joe paid, leaving behind a big tip and he waved goodbye to Nicky who was talking to the bartender.

Nicky waved back. “See you next week,” He called through the restaurant, cutting through the indistinct murmur of the guests.

Rude.

Adorable.

Joe zipped up his coat and pulled up his shoulders in the freezing cold. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, his fingers were already going numb and stiff.

Nile looped her arm through his and pressed herself against him as they walked to the car.

“You know, I did notice something…” She started.

“Hn?”

“He got your order right.”

Joe smiled. Nicky always got his order right. Maybe there was something special there after all.

+

Blind dates were always a bad idea, but this one turned out to be catastrophic.

Joe had been invited to some hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant that didn’t even have parking out front and he’d waited in the cold for twenty minutes for his date to show up.

When she arrived though, she seemed nice enough. She was pretty and new to the city, just like Joe. They “knew” each other through a friend of a friend of a friend… that sort of thing. Had heard the other’s name mentioned at a birthday once or twice.

She was recently divorced and a little older than him, but he didn’t mind. And he had just gotten out of a long term relationship himself. They both understood that they shouldn’t put any pressure on this – whatever it was going to be. It had “rebound” written all over it, but neither used that word when they texted back and forth to set up the date.

She was a doctor, a research scientist, so she had a busy schedule, but she was free this Thursday evening.

Joe was a doctor too, having a PhD in Art History. Not the kind of “doctor” that would make a parent particularly proud, never mind in-laws.

Meta was perfectly lovely and she put him at ease when they sat down and she suggested they should just get the awkward-ex-talk out of the way. He liked that kind of directness. He was never brave enough to do something like that himself, but he responded well to it.

She described her husband in a few words – none openly negative – and explained they had gotten married too young, changed too much over time, and had simply fallen out of love.

When Joe described his ex-boyfriend and forced himself to be honest about the fact that he had been cheated on - which made him feel raw - he could tell when he finally dared to look up at her that she hadn’t been informed that he was bisexual.

She became cold like the wind of Chicago.

They hadn’t even ordered drinks yet and already the date was ruined.

Joe fidgeted with the napkin in his lap while Meta studied the menu. It was the most awkward silence he had ever suffered. He considered broaching the subject of his bisexuality and apologize to her that she hadn’t been told. But then he thought of how ridiculous that was. He shouldn’t have to apologize to her. He done nothing wrong. And there was no reason for her to react to his sexuality like this.

It was a relief when a waiter appeared at their table. Clean-shaven. Mole. Roman nose. Ocean eyes. Crooked smile.

“Buonasera! Is it your first time here?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You are in for a surprise,” He said with a thick accent and wrinkles in the corners of his eyes.

Joe would later learn just how funny that joke was. At that moment, it only got his hopes up about the food. Joe caught the glint of his golden nametag, pinned over his heart. It was upside down, he couldn’t read it. He’d been staring when he realized Meta was scrutinizing him. She probably thought he was checking out the waiter. 

Maybe he was.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

“An iced tea,” Meta said.

“Same.”

“Ok.” The waiter looked back and forth between them. “Would you like to hear our specials?”

“No, thank you.” Meta was being dismissive. She wasn’t even looking at him, she had redirected her gaze to the menu. “I’ll take the tortellini.”

“Lasagna, please, thank you.” Joe made it a point to meet his gaze. He was granted a smile that made him feel warm again. “I’m sorry… It’s-… Your nametag? It’s upside down.” He was compelled to say it. It was just the sort of thing you point out to people. Same for if they had something stuck between their teeth, or if their hair stood up in a weird cowlick, or if the tag of their shirt was showing, or their zipper was down. You don’t let people go through an entire day walking around like that and then feeling mortified when they realize it themselves.

The waiter looked down at himself and chuckled sheepishly. He re-pinned his nametag, right side up.

Joe squinted at it. “Nicolò.”

“No, please, call me Nicky.” He shot a look at Meta who was still ignoring his very existence. “I will bring you your drinks right away.” He darted off but didn’t even reach the bar before he got distracted by someone else and he wouldn’t return for several minutes.

Meta was chewing on the inside of her cheek.

“Copley told me you are new to Chicago as well,” Joe tried. “Where do you hail from?”

“I lived in New Mexico before.”

“Oh, how are you faring in this cold? I just moved up from Austin and I can’t get used to it. I sleep in sweatpants, a shirt, and a hoodie, under two blankets.”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

Probably because you are frigid yourself, Joe thought miserably. “Did you have trouble finding a place in the city? I don’t know about you, but I find the rent here impossible.”

“I earn a lot of money, so it’s a non-issue.”

He fought hard to turn a grimace into a smile. “Yeah, being an Art History professor doesn’t pay very well. But, after a long search, I did find a nice apartment. It’s close to the university and there’s a good coffee shop between home and work. I can’t function without coffee in the morning.”

“I don’t drink coffee.”

He was going to have a migraine, he was sure of it, and he spent the next minute trying to remember if he still had aspirin at home. He took a strip with him to work two weeks ago when he had a cold, but was it the last strip he had? Joe had a tendency of putting empty boxes back in the cabinets.

Thankfully, speaking of drinks, the waiter appeared.

Joe looked at the glass placed in front of him. Some fruity cocktail with a straw and an umbrella, like he was on a tropical vacation. It was comical really. He couldn’t help but smile and all he said was “Thank you”.

Meta was served a bitter lemon.

Fitting.

“No, this is not what I ordered.”

“Mi scusi?”

“I ordered iced tea. We both ordered iced tea.” She gestured between them.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” He said, but he didn’t sound particularly apologetic. His voice had that all-in-a-day’s-work tone to it, like it happened all the time.

The waiter reached to grab their glasses but Joe stopped him and their fingers briefly met. “It’s fine. I’ll take this drink. It looks good.”

“I’d like my iced tea,” Meta said sourly.

Nicky wordlessly exchanged her drink for the one she had ordered and Joe hoped he had spared a second to spit in it.

A little while later, Joe was served penne with vegetables and Meta got ravioli.

Oh no.

The ordeal repeated itself. Joe kept his dish but Meta insisted that she got what she ordered. In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with that. It was just how she talked to the waiter that bothered Joe so much. She never looked up at him and her tone was condescending. If she would just ask him politely, Joe would take no offense, but, frankly, she was being a cunt about it.

Joe felt responsible in part. She was probably as rude as she was because she thought her bisexual date was flirting with the male waiter.

“He looks to be the only waiter in the restaurant tonight. He’s probably overworked,” Joe said, taking his bite of penne. He had to chew on it for ages before he dared to swallow the rubbery food.

“He could kill someone with his carelessness. What if someone has an allergy and he forgets about it?”

“That’s a bit of a strawman argument.” He muttered in defense of a man he knew nothing about. But he didn’t make it a habit to judge people he didn’t know, preferring to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Joe would find out five Thursdays later, when Andy dragged her wife Quynh along, that Nicky did take care where allergies were concerned. Quynh was allergic to peanuts and he wrote that down.

“If someone is even too dimwitted to be a waiter, they should just be a bust boy. Although I guess he’s too old for that.”

Joe poked his fork at his penne. He had half a mind to walk away, or rather yet, tell Meta to piss off, but he was too polite to do either. He would suffer her company for the rest of the meal and then he never wished to see her again. And Copley was never allowed to play matchmaker for him again.

“Your tortellini,” Nicky said as he placed a steaming plate in front of Meta. He eyed Joe’s plate, still full, even after ten minutes of having been served his meal. “That bad?”

“No! It’s fine. Just not that hungry.”

“Please, you are too kind. There is no need for you to lie. I sold my soul to work here and I pray every night to be forgiven. They put formaggio Parmigiano on seafood and meatballs in the spaghetti.”

Meta had taken one bite of her tortellini and put her fork down. “You are right, the food here is very bad.”

“Put some ketchup on it,” Nicky said, jutting his chin at the bottle of the table. It was clearly a joke and a laugh ripped out of Joe, but Meta looked ready to explode. “Mi scusi. It is joke. You can get good pizza around the corner. Not Italian pizza, you can only get good Italian pizza in Italy. It is New York style, but it is very good. Chicago style is zuppa di Pomodoro – tomato soup, in bread bowl. Allora, let me get you something else in the meantime. It is a special night for you. It is a date, yes?”

It took Joe a while to answer. He had gotten a little dizzy, but pleasantly so, tracking Nicky’s hands as he moved them while he spoke. “Really, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

“No, please, I will not let your date be ruined. Please,” Nicky insisted and he grabbed both their plates and left. With his hands full he pushed the kitchen door open with his hip and he disappeared.

“I find him exhausting to understand when he speaks.” She took a sip of her damned iced tea.

Oh please, Nicky, Nicolò, I hope you spat in it, Joe thought.

The kitchen door swung open again and Nicky walked towards them with one plate in his hand. He placed it on the table, midway between Joe and Meta and handed them each a fork. It looked like some sort of cake, but Nicky explained excitedly that it was semifreddo, a frozen – or “half-frozen” rather – dessert. It was not on the menu, Nicky had made it himself. Every day he brought a home-made dessert to work, that the staff would share after closing.

“We couldn’t possibly. You made this for your co-workers.”

Nicky waved his hand dismissively. “Please, there is plenty, do not worry. I want you to have it.” Instead of walking away, he kept standing at the table, arms folded behind his back and he waited for them to have a taste.

Meta stubbornly refused.

So Joe dug in, scooped up a big mouthful and ate.

It was delicious. It was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. It melted into a sugary cream on his tongue and the taste of strawberry exploded in his mouth. He moaned in appreciation. “This is amazing…”

“Ah, grazie. My nonno will rest in peace now that I have defended the Italian honor.” His smile was beaming and his face was flushed at the compliment.

“You should try some,” Joe encouraged Meta. Not that she deserved to have a taste, but she was being really rude.

“No, I don’t like sweets.”

Figures.

Nicky idly stood by, rocking back and forth a bit, smiling down at Joe. His lingering was awkward, but Joe welcomed it, since he’d rather not be alone with Meta. He wondered if Nicky sensed that.

Three Thursdays later, Nicky would confirm that, yes, he did sense that.

Finally, he was called away and he left with pursed lips.

“I think it’s very unhygienic that he served us something he made at home.”

Joe finished the entire dessert, even though it was meant for two.

Meta wanted to split the bill evenly, until Nicky brought the check over. She started arguing with Joe about how they should not be expected to pay for the penne and tortellini. The dessert was not on the bill.

Joe was happy to pay and happy to tip too. It made Meta all the more indignant. She had already stormed out of the restaurant when Joe still stood in the doorway, wrapping his big scarf around his neck several times in preparation for the cold that would bite him. A hand landed on his shoulder, strong enough to be felt through the thick, down-filled parka, but gentle all the same. When he looked over, Nicky was close to him, standing in his personal space as if for Nicky there was no such thing as personal space.

“The pizzeria,” He said, rolling his R’s so nicely. When Nicky spoke it was like he was purring. “It is to the left. Walk down the street to the left and then go left again. You can’t miss it, you will smell it.” His smile was so kind. “Where did you park?”

“Uh, that way.” He thumbed towards the left.

“Good. It will be on your way. This city is terribly cold.”

Not right now it wasn’t. Joe was sweating in his coat.

“I guess I won’t see you again. Most people only come once.” He winked.

Oh Allah he winked.

Joe would return every single Thursday after that. He would finally introduce himself on the third Thursday.

“Yusuf Al-Kaysani. My friends call me Joe.”

“Nicolò di Genova. Nice to meet you, Joe.”

Nicky wasn’t dimwitted – damn you, Meta. He was enrolled in Religious Studies courses at the university where Joe taught Art History, which was how it came up. He was older than the other students, because he had already graduated in Philosophy and had been three years into a five-year graduate-level seminary formation in Theology, both at the university of Bologna, Italy, when he upended his life: stepped off the path towards priesthood and came to the United States. What caused him to make that drastic choice, he didn’t say.

He paid tuition with his job at the restaurant and tutoring Latin. Apparently a lot of wealthy parents thought Latin would look good on their kid’s résumé one day. Joe was fluent in Latin himself as well.

Nicky was new to the city, just like Joe. Hadn’t been in Chicago for much longer than him. He, too, had trouble adjusting to the first winter.

He liked to bake. Italian desserts and treats, mostly, but lately he had been experimenting with baklava recipes. He promised to let Joe try it, once he had perfected it. Joe liked to cook. Hearty meals that he invited friends to enjoy. He almost invited Nicky to a dinner on Friday once, the Friday after the tenth Thursday, but he stopped himself.

This was how their conversations went. Quick, but easy. Nicky would come to his table, take his order, take a piece of his soul and give a piece of his own in return – and give him a bit of delicious, home-made dessert.

On the fifteenth Thursday, Joe had stayed at the ristorante Piccolo Famiglia until closing– on the evening Nicky disclosed that it should have actually been “Piccola Famiglia”. He came so close to asking Nicky to come have a slice of New York style pizza with him. But the man was laughing so hard at something the bartender said, playfully slapping his shoulder, that instead Joe ducked out of the restaurant without even saying goodbye.

+

Joe was grading papers during lunch. He barely touched his salad, wanting to preserve his appetite. It was a Thursday after all.

Andy was lounging on the couch in his office, even though her office was much bigger. Joe had only been working at the university for a few months, it was his first teaching position. He’d still have to wonder if his contract would be renewed six months from now. Andy had made tenure years ago. She was a valuable asset to the university, having published multiple research papers, won awards, and reeled in sizeable grants for the Grecian and Roman history faculty.

But, as she liked to say, she often came “slumming it” in his cramped office. The couch wasn’t even wide enough for her long legs to fit, so she had her ankles up on the armrest as she lay on her back, casually translating some ancient script.

Becoming friends with Andy hadn’t exactly been a choice. She had forced her friendship onto him. She was relentless. But Joe was grateful. She saw that he needed it, even though he tried to push her away.

With Andy’s friendship came Quyhn’s friendship, Booker’s friendship, and Copley’s… well, acquaintance. It was a package deal.

When his phone rang, he was already a little annoyed.

More so when he saw the name on the screen. Annoyed and confused.

“Gonna answer that?” Andy asked with a tone that indicated she was annoyed too, annoyed by the incessant buzzing on the table.

He figured he might as well.

What’s the worst that could happen?

He flicked the green icon up the screen and brought the phone to his ear. “Keane,” He said by way of greeting.

“Hey, Joe, what’s up?”

After three years, that’s what you ask, seriously? “Nothing much. What about you?”

“Surprised you still have my number saved on your phone.”

“Yeah, well…” What was he supposed to say to that? He swiveled his chair around when he noticed Andy sitting up and watching him with an expression of curiosity and amusement at his loss of words. “So do you,” He finally managed.

“Actually I got your number from Copley.”

Ah, fuck it.

“I’m in town and apparently, so are you. I had no idea you moved up here.”

“It’s a recent development.”

“Shit dude, what are the odds?”

“I’m an Art History professor, math is not my strong suit.”

“Art History professor, go figure. Student becomes the master.” He laughed at himself. “Hey, so I was thinking, since I’m in the city, how about we have dinner? Catch up?”

Joe scrunched up his face. “Uhhh…”

“Come on! Come relive the glory days with me.”

To Joe, college had not been the glory days. But they did this, every couple of years or so Keane would resurface from whatever covert military operation he was on and he would reach out, out of nowhere. Pretend they had been best friends in college, instead of just roommates that last year, and ask to hang out. People always used to mistake them for friends because they both happened to be Arabic. Maybe that was why Keane still mistook them for friends too.

Keane wasn’t a bad guy, just not Joe’s kind of guy.

But he was also the kind of guy you just didn’t say no to.

So, with a shrug, he agreed: “Sure. How about tomorrow?”

“Bro, tomorrow is Friday. Fridays I gotta leave open, you never know who you’re going to meet, if you know what I mean.”

“Right.”

“Are you free tonight?”

Technically, yes. Although Joe liked to think he had a date with Punica – the Latin poem book he’d been reading – and a waiter. “No, I can’t tonight.”

A fraction of a second later, the phone was snatched out of his hand and Joe yelped. Actually yelped. He spun around in his seat and watched Andy in horror as she brought the phone to her ear with a grin and told Keane: “Hi, I’m Joe’s assistant and let me assure you: his schedule just blew wide open. Tonight is fine. Great. Yeah. No problem. He’ll pick a restaurant and text you the address. Fantastic. You too. Bye.” It was over a minute. She hung up looking victorious.

“Why did you do that?”

“Joe, love, you can’t say no to a date to hang out with a waiter.” She put the phone down on his desk and sprawled herself over the couch again in fluid, elegant movements.

“It’s not a date, Keane’s straight,” He said.

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah!”

“Who the fuck is he, then?”

“He’s my roommate from college. He’s a special forces guy, that’s probably how he knows Copley.” Copley used to be CIA in a past life he spoke of very little. “Every couple of years, he’s stateside and meets up with some old friends, because he doesn’t make any new friends. You know, because he’s fucking off to third world countries having a jolly ol’ time killing enemies of the state and whatnot.”

“Mm. He sounds hot.”

“He is hot. He’s a very hot, very straight guy.”

“You don’t mean ‘very straight’ as in ‘very homophobic’, right?” She looked defensive on behalf of both of them.

He deflated in his seat. “No. He’s not a homophobe. I mean, he’s not the most sensitive, but he’s not a dick or anything.” Keane gave him the same shit about being bi as everyone else did, about it just being a rest-stop to homosexuality. Joe was used to that.

“I’m sorry, Joe. I thought I was doing you a favor.” She was genuinely apologetic. “You could just cancel.”

“You know I can’t cancel.”

“Why not?”

“Because my mother raised me right.”

“Oh my God, ok, fine.” She threw her head back. To the ceiling, she said: “Whatever you do, don’t take him to Piccolo Famiglia tonight.”

+

Joe texted Keane the address to the ristorante between classes that afternoon. He had gone to see the waiter every Thursday for the past twenty weeks. He wasn’t about to let Keane come between that. Besides, he had literally dragged everybody else he knew to the restaurant, so he might as well take Keane as well.

Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen?

He waited outside the restaurant, away from the windows so Nicky wouldn’t see him shiver so pathetically. He kept his gaze trained to the left, expecting Keane to round the corner any second.

Instead, a gleaming town car rolled to a stop in front of him and Keane stepped out of the back seat.

“Yusuf!” He said and he walked up to him. They didn’t hug, Keane ‘treated’ him to a hard pat followed by a tight squeeze on his shoulder. Both strong enough to hurt. He looked exactly as he did last time, big and intimidating, even now that Joe had built up his own muscle mass.

His head was shaved on the sides. His beard, more like a dense stubble, was impeccably shaped. His skin was weathered by desert winds.

All exactly as Joe remembered.

There was just one difference: his clothes. He used to dress in cargo pants and tight T-shirts. Now, he stood before Joe wearing black slacks, a grey button-up, and a long wool coat. Everything looked expensive. A Rolex glinted on his wrist. He was exuding wealth.

“You’ve been working out,” Keane appraised, letting go of his shoulder. It didn’t sound like a compliment, oddly.

“Yeah, picked up boxing a few years back. Dabble in mixed martial arts. That sort of thing.” When Nile had told Nicky three weeks ago that she had been training with Joe, what she actually meant was that she had been training him, not the other way around. And she could still kick his ass, but he had definitely gotten better since first meeting her at the gym. What had started as a way to vent anger, had become something he took pride in. That pride crumbled, standing before the special forces soldier. Still that tad taller and that tad broader than him. And now his wallet was thicker too.

He felt silly standing in front of the cheap Italian restaurant in boots he’d worn for two years, jeans, a sweater, and a parka he got on sale.

“Is this the place? Let’s go inside, you look like you are freezing, Joe.”

Keane went in first and Joe followed him.

It was warm inside, like it always was. He shook off his coat and sat across from a booth Keane picked out. Not Joe’s usual booth with a view into the kitchen whenever the door swung open. They weren’t even seated in Nicky’s section of the restaurant. They were in the front, by the window. The son of the Irish family, who worked whenever he felt like it, did the front and he was here tonight.

“Been here before?” Keane wondered.

Oh, you have no idea, Joe thought. “A couple of times.”

Declan came to take their drink order but allotted them some time with the menu, since Keane was new. Two minutes later they were actually served the beers they had ordered.

“So, the car, the clothes, what’s up with that?” Joe wondered after the first swig of his beer.

“Yeah, I’m in corporate security now. Made the switch two years ago. Not that long after we last met, actually.”

“Corporate security, what’s that like?”

“I’m a consultant. Big companies hire me on to plan out their security for their offices. You know, keep the fat cats safe. Security camera’s, motion detectors, bodyguards, the whole nine yards.”

“And it pays well?”

Keane smirked. “It pays very well. And I still get to travel, although mostly stateside nowadays. Last week I was in New York. Now I’m here four days. Monday I fly to Washington.”

“Pretty cool.”

“Very cool,” Keane asserted, as if no compliment was ever good enough for him.

“Joe!”

He perked up at the sound of his name coming from across the restaurant. He couldn’t help his smile when Nicky made a beeline towards him.

“You’re in the wrong booth,” He said, when he reached the table.

His face became hot. To divert attention away from the fact that he came here so often he had his “own booth” at this point, he gestured at the brawny man seated across from him. “I brought someone new.”

“Joe, sometimes I worry you don’t like your friends,” Nicky said. “You keep bringing them here.”

“The desserts are divine.” Oh, how he loved how the praise made those eyes light up.

Keane looked Nicky up and down. His gaze dragging over his body slowly. He paused on the nametag. “Nicólo?” He mispronounced the name, putting the emphasis on the wrong vowel.

“Nicky,” The waiter corrected.

Joe snapped out of his haze and hastily said: “Yeah, right, Keane, this Nicky. Nicky, this is Omarr Keane. A friend from college.”

“Nicky.” Keane’s voice was dripping. “Will you be our waiter for the evening?”

Joe stared at him. What the Hell is going on here?

Nicky did a cute little head tilt, shifting his gaze towards Joe. “You sat in the wrong booth. You’re not in my section.”

“We’ll move,” Keane said, drawing the man’s attention back to him.

Nicky chuckled, the soft ringing of bells. “No, is fine. I will switch with Declan. You will come to regret it, though.” Nicky was perfectly aware and unashamed that he was, for a fact, a horrible waiter.

“I doubt that very much.” Keane’s intense eye contact made Nicky blush.

It made Joe see red.

“Are you ready to place your order?”

“Sorry, I haven’t even looked at the menu yet.”

“Nessun problema, caro. I’ll be back in little while.” Nicky’s gaze sought out Joe’s one more time and then walked back to his end of the restaurant.

Joe watched Keane stare at Nicky as he walked away. “What was that all about?”

Keane smirked at him and grabbed one of the two menu’s that was propped up between the ketchup bottle and the salt and pepper shakers.

“I thought you were straight.” Joe hissed.

“I thought so too.” He explained nonchalantly, not taking his eyes off the menu: “I experimented in college, but, I mean, who doesn’t right? And I did stuff with guys in the army. Again, who doesn’t? You wouldn’t know, but trust me, everybody does. Couple of years ago though, I realized it wasn’t just about experimentation and convenience.” He concluded his revelation with a shrug, as if he didn’t just shock Joe to the core.

This man. This handsome, confident, powerful, well-traveled, intelligent, wealthy man… was gay.

And Joe had just introduced him to his crush. 

Oh no.

“Ok…”

“You’re shell shocked,” Keane said with a bellowing laugh.

“Well… yeah.”

“Don’t worry, this is not a date.”

“No. No! I could tell from the way you were flirting with the waiter.”

“Yeah, good thing I always leave my Friday nights open.”

“I don’t think he’s gay,” Joe blurted. “Like, he wears a cross and everything.”

“So?”

Joe had nothing.

Keane shook his head at him, bemused. The way one would be amused by a small child. He redirected his attention to the menu.

“It doesn’t matter what you order. He’s gonna bring you the wrong thing,” Joe muttered. Maybe he was a child. Petulant and jealous.

“Hm.” He continued to study the menu. “When did you move here?”

Joe had a feeling he was making conversation only to kill time. “Little over six months ago.”

“And Lex?”

Joe chewed on the inside of his cheek.

“No shit. You guys broke up?”

“Yep.”

“Sorry, man.”

Joe opened the menu and hid his face. He did not want to talk about it. Not with anyone, but least of all with Keane. He didn’t want to be vulnerable around the man. He didn’t trust him with that.

Nicky appeared at the table, as if he sensed his discomfort and had come to his aid, just like he had come that first Thursday. “Decided yet?”

“I’ll have the salami calzones.” Joe hadn’t tried those yet, but he knew better than to have hope.

Keane looked up at Nicky and sweetly said: “Surprise me.”

Dammit, that was kind of perfect.

“I always do.”

“I look forward to it.”

Nicky ducked his head between his shoulders. He always came off openly flirtatious with everyone, but now that he was on the receiving end of it, his undercurrent of shyness flowed to the surface. “I’ll kick the chef into gear.” Nicky walked away and Keane once more shamelessly watched his retreat, studying the movement of his hips and shoulders with the same attention Joe always did.

Joe hoped he hadn’t looked quite so predatory when he himself did it.

“I can see why you come here.”

“Oh, no it’s nothing to do with-… It’s close to my apartment, is all.” That was a lie, but Keane would never know that. He’d be gone in a couple of days and they wouldn’t see each other again for years.

“There’s nothing going on between you two?”

Joe blinked at him. “No, of course not. Like I said, I don’t think he’s into guys.”

He let out a laugh. “I think your gaydar is broken.”

“You can’t just assume stuff about people’s sexuality.”

Keane ignored him and stated: “He’s gay. Repressed, Catholic kind of gay, but gay nonetheless.”

Joe didn’t feel comfortable with assumptions like that.

“You’re not into him?”

Joe clenched his jaw. The question was innocent enough. Something a friend might ask. But coming from Keane, it sounded like the start of an interrogation. “Why do you ask?”

“Look, if you like him, I’ll back off. But if you’re not interested, I’m gonna go in for the kill.” His smooth voice gave Joe the shivers, but not the good kind.

“He’s a friend.” He shook his head at that. “No, not even that. He’s just a waiter. I happen to come here a lot.” Again, he was just trying not to be vulnerable around Keane. Around anybody, really.

“Ok. Had to check. Good to know.” He leaned back in his seat and threw a look down the aisle between the booths, to where Nicky stood, leaning forward against the bar, talking to the bartender.

Later, Nicky brought Joe his calzones and served Keane Caprese chicken.

“Smells great,” Keane said, even though the steaming plate barely smelled of anything, almost completely unseasoned.

“All of your friends are such kind liars, Joe,” Nicky said.

“You don’t approve of the chef’s cooking?” Keane asked.

Nicky turned his head away from Joe to give Keane his attention. “The chef is a Dutch exchange student,” He said, as if that answered everything. In his lovely, Italian mind, it undoubtedly did.

“Do you like to cook?”

“I bake. I will let you try some for dessert.”

Joe looked up from his plate when fingers brushed his shoulders.

“I think I’ve finally perfected the baklava.”

He offered him a smile. It spread wider and wider as Nicky’s fingers lingered. “I can’t wait.”

“Where in Italy are you from, Nicky?” Keane stole Nicky’s gaze away from Joe again.

“I was born in Genoa.”

“Really? I’ve been there. Beautiful city. Beautiful churches.” He nodded at the tiny cross that rested in the dip of Nicky’s collarbones. “I guess that’s more than a fashion statement.”

Nicky reached up to touch the cross, then dragged the tips of his fingers up the long column of his neck to flick the gold hoops in his earlobes. “The earrings are fashion.”

“Looks good.”

“Grazie.”

Joe was going to be sick and he couldn’t even blame the food. He hadn’t taken a single bite yet. 

“Are you a professorre, like Joe?”

Keane let out a rumbling laugh. “No, I was in the military, now I’m in the security sector. Why? Do I look like a professor?” He flexed his muscles and it looked like he could have torn the seams on his expensive shirt if he put in a little effort.

“No, but neither does Joe.”

A new warmth bloomed in Joe’s chest. He liked the idea that Nicky had taken notice of his broad chest and muscular arms. He turned it into a joke though: “Are you saying I look stupid?”

“No, Joe! Perdonami, I meant-…  You look-” His hands were trying to explain what his mouth could not. He gestured at his own, slim, lithe frame and then at Joe, expanding his arms out to indicate he was that much bigger. He was flustered and it was endearing. For a moment, Joe forgot all about Keane and it seemed Nicky did too.

“I’m just kidding. I’m not offended, don’t worry.”

He blew out an exaggerated sigh and then cracked a smile. “I will let you eat. Good luck.” He was off again.

Joe tried his calzone, which was soggy and tasted of nothing but salt. He watched Keane chew endlessly on the chicken he knew to be dry.

“You definitely don’t come here for the food,” Keane said, shooting him a knowing look.

Joe didn’t say anything.

After only a few moments of silence, Keane took them through their usual routine of reminiscing about college life. Which was a very different experience for Keane than it had been for Joe. Joe had been studious and secluded himself to his dorm room and the library. Keane had gotten in on a football scholarship, although he was annoyingly smart and passed his classes with minimal studying, which was nothing but a necessary evil between going out to party and getting laid. Apparently not exclusively with female students, but nobody had any idea back then.

“Have you really been to Genoa?” Joe asked, tiring of talking about college.

“No, of course not,” He said easily, alluding that lying was nothing out of the ordinary for him.

“How did you know there are beautiful churches there?”

“It’s a city in Italy. Every city in Italy has churches. And he’s Catholic. To him, every church can be considered beautiful.”

“Very clever,” He grumbled, poking at the exposed innards of his calzone.

“Sometimes you gotta bring more than just the face and the body.”

“You gotta bring lies?”

Keane glared at him. “Come on, man. Give me a break. I thought you weren’t interested in him.”

“I’m not,” He lied. He supposed he had no right to judge. 

Nicky came to clear away their half-full plate without bothering to ask if they liked their meal and shortly after he returned with home-made baklava, giving them each a piece on a small plate. He waited expectantly, with his gaze trained on Joe as he took his first bite.

The pastry was perfectly flaky and he cupped his hand under his mouth to catch any crumbs that wouldn’t stick to his lips with all of the sugar and might fall. “Mmm… Mm!”

“È buono?”

“Mmm, Nicky… It is so good.” He took another bite, unable to resist. “Hazelnut?” He wondered with his mouth still full.

“Sì!” He clapped his hands excitedly. “Do you like it?”

“Very, very much. What’s this-… This other thing I’m tasting?”

“Melograno.” He crinkled his nose, unable to think of the English word.

“Pomegranate?” Joe guessed.

“You have a very good tongue, Joe.”

Joe thought filthy things only in response to that, so he wisely kept his mouth shut. But he was disappointed when Nicky turned to Keane in the silence.

“What do you think?”

“It’s amazing. Now I know why Joe comes here so often. I haven’t had any better anywhere in the world.”

“You travel much?”

“Yes. I’m going to Washington after the weekend. And France next week.”

“You do not live in Chicago?”

Keane sucked on his thumb while he held Nicky’s gaze. “I wish I did. But whenever I’m here, I’ll come visit. If I may?”

“Of course. It is a restaurant. If you pay, you are welcome here,” He joked awkwardly.

“Can I just come visit you?”

Nicky’s jaw went slack. His gaze darted to Joe, but Joe didn’t know what to do or thinl.

“I’m sorry for being so bold. But when I find something I like, I want more of it.”

“The baklava?”

Keane’s laugh was deep and delicious, even Joe had to admit. “The baklava is good. But you are sweeter.”

Joe pursed his lips and rolled his eyes but at that point neither of them were looking at him.

Nicky ran his fingers through his hair, all the way to where it was a little sweaty at his neck. He averted his eyes but he was smiling. It was apparent he was not used to this kind of attention and seeing him get all coy would have endeared Joe if not for the fact that Joe was already preoccupied with being jealous and frustrated.

“Can I have your number, Nicolò?” Keane asked, saying his name right this time. Saying it sensually.

For the first time in twenty weeks, Joe caught himself praying: Please say you’re straight. Please say you’re straight. Please say you’re straight. In the moment, it seemed to be easier to suffer than the alternative: Nicky actually giving Keane his number.

They was a pause.

Thank you Allah.

But then Nicky took his pen and notepad out of his back pocket, which the two nearly never left because he couldn’t be bothered writing people’s orders down. He put the pad on the table and one hand next it, leaning his weight forward. When he clicked on the pen, Joe flinched. Nicky was close to both of them now, close enough to remind Joe of how nice he smelled even though he was sweating after a night of shuttling plates around and helping out in the kitchen and behind the bar. But when he looked up, he looked at Keane, their faces close together and they only had eyes for each other.

After a pause, which Joe hoped was hesitation, Nicky looked down at the paper and he scribbled his phone number onto it. He tore off the page and handed it to Keane.

“Thank you very much, Nicky.” Keane’s voice was like honey.

Joe was nauseous.

Nicky righted himself and put pen and notepad back into his pocket. “I will bring you both espresso and more baklava,” He announced and then he walked off, his movements not as fluid as Joe was used to and he threw a look back at them over his shoulder with the most adorable, flattered smile. It would be cute if it wasn’t for the fact that he was being all cute because Keane had asked for his number.

He grinned at Joe’s vacant expression. “Told you he was gay.”

“Congratulations.”

Keane immediately saved the number on his phone, frowning as he did, but still folded up the paper and tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt for safe keeping, like it was a trophy. “Excuse me, I see I have a missed call. It might be important.” He slid out of the booth, grabbed his wool coat and walked out of the restaurant.

Joe watched him through the window as he made his call. Watched him with unbridled hatred and jealousy. How could this man just swoop in like that and do what Joe hadn’t been able to do for twenty weeks? He realized he hated himself more for it than Keane. Why couldn’t he have just shaken Lex out of his system, stopped caring the way Lex had stopped caring and move on?

He was startled out of his thoughts by the return of the kind waiter bringing him a second serving of baklava and a cup of espresso.

“Where’s Keane?”

“Out front. He had a missed call.” Something awfully important, no doubt, in the corporate security sector. Joe wanted to gag.

Nicky sat back on the bar stool across from the table. “Joe?”

“Hm?”

Nicky fidgeted. “Your friend, is he… nice?”

“Why would you give him your number if you’re not sure?”

“No, he seems nice. But I don’t do this much. He is your friend, yes? You know him well?”

“I mean, I know him from college.”

“So… Is he a good guy?” Nicky looked at him pleadingly.

Joe wanted to say “no”, for selfish reasons. But Nicky had been so flattered that Keane had asked him out. It seemed like such a big deal to him. He didn’t want to ruin that. As far as Joe knew, Keane was a good guy and Joe had no right to be jealous. So he put Nicky at ease by saying: “Yeah, he’s a good guy.”

A smile appeared and Joe smiled back.

“And… you don’t mind?”

“Mind?” He parroted dumbly to stall.

“It’s not weird for you?”

He blurted: “Why would it be?” Never allowing himself to be vulnerable, to be open.

Nicky physically reeled back. He stared, longer than comfortable, but then with a shrug the tense set of his shoulders melted away and a strange, almost bitter smile appeared on his face. He bowed his head down and whispered to his fidgeting fingers: “Errore mio…”

My mistake? Joe thought that translated to. But he didn’t ask, he didn’t say anything, because it was clear he wasn’t even supposed to have heard or understood and to ask would be to pry in a through process that was supposed to be private in spite of the slip of the tongue.

Keane came back into the restaurant and Nicky jumped up from his seat.

“I’m so sorry. I have to cut the evening short. I have to go to work.” He never looked at Joe once as he spoke. He stood in Nicky’s personal space, but Nicky let him, because Nicky didn’t have personal space as he had shown Joe before. Encouraged, Keane even touched a hand to his shoulder. “It was lovely meeting you, Nicky. I will call you. Have a good evening. Bye, Joe.” He tossed some cash on the table – way too much for this cheap Italian restaurant. With that he stormed out of the restaurant, just as the town car he had arrived in pulled up in front.

Nicky watched him leave. Like he’s thirsty and Keane’s a glass of water.

Joe watched Nicky, in much the same way.

Nicky raised his hand in a shy wave, so Joe presumed Keane waved at him before sliding into his car and being driven off. The waiter smoothed his hands down his shirt and then one hand through his hair, composing himself. When he finally looked at Joe again, he gave him nothing more than a silly grin before walking away to tend to other guests.

Joe sipped his espresso. The bitter taste of it was barely noticeable with what already lingered in his mouth. He didn’t eat the baklava that Nicky had brought him. He didn’t want to taste such sweetness now, knowing it would go to waste. The waiter came by and wrapped up both pieces for him.

“Thank you,” He said. He gave Nicky the money Keane had left. At his wide, shocked eyes at the amount, Joe just shrugged. It was more than three times the bill, but if Joe kept the change for himself, he would feel like a pimp, getting paid for setting Nicky up with Keane.

Nicky looked extremely grateful, once Joe had convinced him to take it, saying his baklava was “priceless” anyway. But of course the waiter was grateful. He was sweet and humble and working his ass off to pay for tuition. A tip like this was a big deal. Knowing him he would still share it fairly with the entire staff though, not leaving all that much for himself.

“Have a good evening, Nicky,” Joe said on his way out.

“Thank you, Joe.”

He stepped out into the cold, where the way Nicky’s mouth pronounced his name, froze over and burned like frostbite. Joe shook his head. He shouldn’t give up hope like this.

At least now he knew Nicky was gay. So all he had to do was abide his time. Wait for their one-weekend fling to… be flung. Wait for Keane to fuck off to Washington and then France and then Genoa, for all Joe cared. Keane would leave and then, finally, Joe could make his move.

What’s the worst that could happen?

+

“Smitten kitten” was how Quynh described the waiter when she and Andy joined Joe for dinner at Piccolo Famiglia the next Thursday.

Keane had taken Nicky on the most amazing date on Friday evening, at an exclusive restaurant. Then he’d used his connections to arrange a helicopter ride for them on Saturday morning and afterwards they had spent the entire day together until Nicky had to start work at the restaurant. But it didn’t end there. Keane had invited himself over to Nicky’s place on Sunday and had made him a bargain. Nicky would show him how to bake his favorite treat and Keane would show him how to cook his favorite meal. They had spent the entire day in the kitchen, talking and laughing and “getting each other messy”. Joe was left to wonder what that meant, exactly, but he imagined Keane and Nicky licking syrup and sauce off each other. Sucking their fingers into their mouths… Shedding stained clothes…

After an incredible weekend like that, they had agreed to try the “long distance thing”.

Nicky walked away from their table with a bounce in his step after serving them the meals they didn’t order.

“Joe…” Andy started, looking as miserable as Joe felt. “I’m so sorry.”

Quynh shot a look at her wife. “Why is this your fault?”

“I kind of forced Joe to agree to take Keane out. In my defense though, I did tell you: don’t bring him here. Granted, this wasn’t the outcome I was worried about, but I did warn you…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” He dropped his face into his palms. “I’m fucked.”

“You’re not fucked,” Quynh insisted, elbowing Andy who was muttering: “He kind of is…”

“How is this not the very definition of fucked?” He threw a glance in Nicky’s direction. He stood behind the bar, helping the bartender dry beer glasses and he was humming along with the Greatest Hits of Andrea Bocelli album that played on repeat in the restaurant. He looked so giddy and in love.

“It’s a set-back, for sure,” Quynh conceded. “But come on. Keane is never in the city. How is this ever going to work? It’s sad, because he clearly likes him, but it won’t work out. He’ll need some time after that, but if you still have this romance-novel kind of crush on him by the time he gets over him, you can ask him out.”

“Yeah… It’s just… I feel dirty.”

“Why?”

“Look at him. He’s so happy. And here I am wishing for it all to come crashing down on him.”

“Yeah, don’t do that, that’s hideous. Try to move on the meantime.”

“Andy, if I knew how to move on, I wouldn’t be in this mess. I would have moved on from Lex as soon as he had from me and I would have asked for Nicky’s number before Meta had been served her goddamn tortellini.”

+

Four Thursdays later, Nicky wasn’t at the restaurant and Declan served Joe and Booker exactly what they had ordered.

“Hey, where’s Nicky?” Joe asked, worried that he might have come down with a cold, knowing Nicky was as ill-adjusted to the Chicago weather as he himself was.

“Took a long weekend off. His boyfriend is in town.”

Joe was left reeling.

Booker tried to be supportive the only way he knew how: “You should try the gin and tonic here. It’s strong and it’s cheap.”

+

Months later, it was a cold and desperate night. He’d come home to his freezing apartment after spending the night in the warm heat of ristorante Piccolo Famiglia, being mostly ignored by Nicky who spent the majority of the night behind the bar, his face lit up blue as he stared at his phone screen, giggling and texting rapidly. As he waited for a reply, he’d either play with an earring or with the delicate cross on his neck, nibbling on his bottom lip the entire while. 

Joe had been alone. He only had a book to keep himself company. He ordered plenty of gin and tonics and Declan seemed to make them stronger every time.

At home, he only took off his shoes before crawling into bed. It wasn’t even ten o ‘clock yet. If he slept enough, perhaps he wouldn’t have to cancel his early morning work-out with Nile.

Driven by stupidity, he brought his phone to his face, squinting at the light, and he texted Keane, when he should have just texted Nile that he would be too hungover come morning.

Things are going well between you and Nicky, huh?

An hour later he was startled awake by the reply.

Definitely.

That was it. Nothing else. Not even a “thank you”, although that would have made Joe even more mad, the confrontation that he had orchestrated this fate for himself. He was the only one to blame. He tossed his phone across the bed and rolled over onto his back.

“I have to be patient. Keane is not right for Nicky, I am right for Nicky.” His drunken stupor made him unjustly confident. “I’ll wait it out. What’s the worst that could happen?”

+

When he received what was clearly a wedding invitation, he didn’t open it for two days, leaving himself in limbo. Leaving himself the illusion that maybe he did have one cousin left who wasn’t married yet, or maybe professor Lewis from the Microbiology department considered him a friend even though they only met once at the faculty Christmas party.

“How do you even know it’s a wedding invitation?” Andy challenged him.

“Because my name and address are written in fucking calligraphy.”

He had stopped going to the restaurant because Nicky had quit his job there. Keane paid for his tuition. By no longer having to work to support himself, Nicky could take more courses at once and he was on the fast track to graduation. At least, that was the last Joe had heard, that’s what Nicky had told him on what would be the last Thursday in the ristorante for them both. They hadn’t seen each other since. That was weeks ago.

“Aren’t they still doing the long distance thing though?” Andy asked. “It hasn’t even been six months. Who would get married after spending so little time with someone?”

“A cute Italian guy who’s fallen head-over-heels and an alpha-type who always get what he wants, that’s who,” Joe glowered in response.

That day, after work, he finally forced himself to tear open the envelope.

It was cute. It really was.

Dammit.

The letter unfolded as a triptych: a left panel, a center panel, and a right panel. On the left was text in Italian. On the right was text in Arabic. At the center was the translation in English. Something about two people from different parts of the world, with different heritages, religions and languages, finding each other in the United States and falling in love.

Joe was pretty sure Keane wasn’t even fluent in Arabic and never really identified himself as Muslim, but he supposed to note that detail was petty.

The ceremony would be in a small, liberal church in Chicago, but Joe wasn’t invited to that. He was invited to the reception afterwards, which would be equally small and intimate, but in an event room of a hotel where a room for the night was as expensive as a month’s rent.

He was allowed to bring a plus one, but that stressed him out instantly.

Joe’s invitation came with a loose note folded between the panels. Instead of the neat calligraphy that spelled out the wedding invitation, the paper was written on with ugly scribbles.

I know we haven’t seen each other in a while. I know you might not think of us as friends, but I do. It would make me so happy to see you again on this day. You are the reason we are together and I want to thank you for all, but mostly for your friendship.

Love,

Nicky.

PS: there will be baklava.

Joe let out a drawn out whine.

Why was life like this?

+

The wedding was in early autumn, before the first frosty night.

Joe treated himself to a new suit for the occasion. Because dammit, he was at least going to look good to compensate for how awful he felt. His plus one was Nile, bless her heart. She looked incredible in a powder blue, tailored suit, wearing the jacket open over a silvery, silk top with plunging neckline. Joe would date her if he hadn't already long considered her to be his little sister. He told her so in the Uber. Nile smacked his arm. “As if I would date you, old man.” She was indeed a bit young for him.

But as soon as the sting on his bicep faded, he felt her take hold of his hand on the seat between them.

“Are you going to be okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah. It sucks, but… what else is new?”

“Hey, don’t be so bitter. You look amazing. And weddings are a great place to meet people.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, at weddings single people get all desperate and worried about dying alone unloved and shit.”

Joe sighed. “You are not helping.”

“Sorry, babe.”

Not until Joe saw Nicky in his wedding suit did he even realize he had never seen him in anything other than black jeans and a faded, black T-shirt.

He looked like a million bucks in a light grey suit with waistcoat and shimmering blue tie. He had shaved and wasn’t wearing his earrings for the occasion. For once, his hair was styled, a little messily but it suited him so well. It had grown out a little and had been swept up. He was smiling so much his eyes were squinting beyond recognition.

As a present, Joe had gotten him the first edition of a Latin book of poetry he knew the man loved. It was Punica, the book Joe had once spent many Thursdays reading at Piccolo Famiglia when he couldn’t coerce any of his friends into accompanying him and instead he had spent the evenings talking to Nicky about the poetry.

He was pulled into a hug when he went to congratulate him and give him the gift. It was completely unexpected. He had never had the man’s arms wrapped around him. It was wonderful, even with the book and Joe’s hand holding it, awkwardly sandwiched between their chests. He sunk into the embrace.

“Grazie mille, Joe,” Nicky whispered into his ear. He disentangled them and peered into his eyes. “I’m so glad you are here.”

“Congratulations,” He said again. It was all he could manage.

Joe simply shook Keane’s hand and then shuffled away to mope around for the rest of the evening.

Only about fifty people were present at the reception. Joe recognized some people from the restaurant, like Declan and the Dutch chef. He supposed most of the staff was there. No family, as far as he could tell. Nobody with a last name of Di Genova. Nobody with an Italian accent. The rest were all guests of Keane. Family members, some guys from his special-forces-days, and even some guys from college, from the football team.

Over the course of the evening, Nicky undressed further and further. First he left his jacket over the back of the chair. While he mingled he undid the cuffs of his sleeves and rolled them up. Next time Joe saw him, he had lost his tie somewhere. The time after that, he was no longer wearing his waistcoat. Eventually, he undid the top buttons of his shirt. The shirt so white and thin that was a little sheer and clung to his back as he danced with his husband.

Keane’s hands were rubbing all over him, not caring how much it made Nicky blush and self-consciously look around himself. Maybe Nicky didn’t care either. He carded his fingers through Keane’s short hair and pushed himself up on the tips of his toes to kiss him.

Not even Joe’s nice, expensive suit could compensate for the hideous jealousy he experienced.

Nicky was so happy, he felt guilty for resenting it.

After doing the “long distance thing” since they met, Keane was finally settling down. A pharmaceutical company had hired him on full-time for the security of their CEO. By all accounts some English twat that had been on the cover of Forbes once or twice. The headquarters were in London, where the guy lived, and Keane needed to be there. So that’s where he and his new husband would move to, right after the honeymoon.

Joe would never see Nicky again.

Nile yanked him out of his chair and led him to the dance floor. “Come on, old man. Enough of that. Let’s dance.”

He allowed himself to take his gaze away from Nicky and focus on Nile instead. He twirled her around, making her laugh and then they both made their best attempt at dancing the night away.

When they both deemed they had stayed a sufficient amount of time to not be mistaken as rude, it was time to go home. Nile went out front to call for an Uber. Joe excused himself to go take a piss. He hadn’t seen Keane and Nicky in a while, which made him uncomfortable, but he tried not to think about it.

It was their wedding night. He definitely should not be thinking about that.

He pushed through the door to the men’s restroom.

“-can’t wait to get outta here. I’m going to fuck that virgin ass so hard…” Keane’s words trailed off as his gaze met Joe’s in the mirror. He closed the faucet with his elbow and shook water off his hands before reaching for a towel.

The best man was still standing at the urinal, with his back towards them. “Can’t believe Mr. Almost-A-Priest refused to put out all this time.”

Keane grew so tense there was a vein in his neck ready to pop. “Hey, Joe.”

“Hey,” He replied tersely.

The best man mumbled “oh shit” under his breath. He shook his dick, zipped up his pants, flushed, and headed for the sinks. “Locker room talk,” He said dismissively.

“Yeah, sure.” Joe crossed over to the urinals. Behind him the door opened and fell shut. He let out a sigh and unzipped his pants. It took him a second to relax enough to be able to pee, as he mulled over what he had overheard.

Was Nicky really a virgin? Was that why they had gotten married so soon?

Keane’s tone irked it. He sounded so predatory. He didn’t sound like a man in love.  

When he was done he spun around and flinched when he noticed Keane was still standing by the sinks, leaning his hip against the marble counter. He had his big arms folded in front of his chest. The biceps were bulging.

Trying not to show that he was intimidated, Joe walked right up to the sink next to the one Keane was blocking and he took his time washing his hands, hoping to telegraph his calm.

“What you just overheard,” Keane started.

“Locker room talk. Yeah, I get it. I work out too, nowadays, Keane.”

“It doesn’t mean I don’t love him.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“He’s Catholic, found a way to make that work with his homosexuality. He wanted to save himself until marriage. I respect that. I didn’t force anything. I asked him to marry me because I want to spend the rest of my life with him, not because I want to spend one night in his pants.”

Joe was vibrating while he listened. “Ok.” Thou doth protest too much, came to mind.

“Are you going to mind your own business?”

Joe frowned at him. “Or what?”

He clapped a hand against Joe’s shoulder. “Nothing.” He flashed a humorless smile. “We’re good, right?”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

“Good. I’ll see you around some time, Joe.”

Joe watched him walk out of the restroom and not until the door fell shut did he release a sigh.

After that, he raced outside, not going to find Nicky to say goodbye. How could he face him now? He felt weird. Too weird. He had to get out of there. Had to not think about how sweet it was that Nicky still had so much respect for a religion that did not respect him, that he would save himself for marriage. Had to not think about how romantic it was and how nervous he must be for tonight, yet filled with so much anticipation at the same time. Had to not think about how much Joe would treasure a gift like that and revel in such intimacy and all the little ways in which he would put Nicky at ease and make him feel good and safe and loved. And he had to definitely not think about Keane “fucking that virgin ass so hard”.

“Joe?” Nile called out to him when he stormed past her in the hotel lobby.

“Is the Uber here yet?” He circled back to her.

“No, in like, five minutes or something. What’s going on?”

“I have to get out of here.” With that he walked outside. To no one in particular – maybe the valet by the door – he said: “I think I might be sick…”

“Joe!” Nile chased after him. “Joe, don’t make me kill myself on these fucking stilts,” She groused, not used to wearing high heels. She caught up with him a few yards away from the door, where he leaned back against the wall. She looked at him in distress. “What happened?”

“Why didn’t I ask him to go out with me, Nile?” His voice cracked. “Why am I such a fucking coward?”

“Oh, honey… You’re not a coward. You’ve been hurt.” She came to stand close in front of him and rubbed her hands up and down his arms.

“Keane doesn’t deserve him,” He muttered. “I’m not saying I do, but Keane definitely doesn’t deserve him.”

“It’s gonna be ok, Joe. For better or for worse: Nicky loves him, he’s happy with him.”

Joe groaned. It was like a punch in the gut, although he knew she didn’t mean it that way.

“You’ll find someone else and you’ll be happy too.”

“And until then?”

“Until then, you have me. And Sebastian, Quynh, and Andy.”

+

It was the kind of restaurant where you took someone to impress them. Where important people met and talked about important things. Business men would talk about how to rule the world. Diplomats would discuss peace. Sons of a line of aristocrats would ask pious women for their hands in marriage. It had the authoritarian air of one of those gentleman-only clubs. Walls clad with dark ebony wood. Patterned curtains, carpet, seats, and table cloths that, according to all logic, should clash, but looked impossibly lavish instead.

Was that real gold thread?

The chandeliers were certainly real. The crystal wine glasses were real. There was a painting over the mantle that had Joe do a double take.

Was that a genuine-…?

The menu was a single sheet of hand pressed paper with calligraphy script in a leather binder that felt old and soft. The menu was not so much a presentation of choice but a royal decree: you will eat this.

There were no prices on the menu but there was no need.

“Uhm… I’m not paying, am I?” If that was the plan, he was ready to bolt.

His friends laughed at him and assured him they would take care of the bill. And with “they” everybody knew they meant that monsieur Sébastien Le Livre would get the check. He came from old money. His grandfather probably came here for brandy and cigars when it once was truly a gentleman’s only club, shortly after arriving from to the states from France.

“Why this place?” He had to ask. Whenever they wanted to splurge on dinner, they’d go someplace more modern. Some new fusion kitchen that had opened uptown, or an obscure pop-up restaurant by the river front, that you could only get into if you knew the right people. And between Andy, Quyhn, and Booker, they knew all the right people. Joe and Nile were always just along for the ride.

“We felt this place was befitting to celebrate the birthday of a man your age,” Andy jested.

“Thirty five, old man,” Nile chimed in with that delicious twenty-something flair. “It’s officially rounded up to forty.”

“Yeah yeah yeah… Ok.” He took a drink from his wine. The bottle was on the table, exactly as old as he was, which was why they had gotten it, even though the connoisseur of the group assured them that the Bordeaux from that year had aged like congealed blood.

“About as well as Joes,” had been the running gag.

A group of elderly men in suits at the table next to theirs got up in unison and shook hands. Congratulating each other on deciding the fate of the world, no doubt. Joe watched them like a curiosity. Spotting the chain of a pocket watch dangling out of the breast pocket of one of them.

But when they parted and shuffled away after their early birds special, Joe stared at the people seated one table over.

Keane and Nicky.

Keane was sat facing Joe, but he hadn’t noticed him, completely enraptured by his husband as he ought to be. He looked exactly the same as he did three years ago. Still infuriatingly handsome. Insufferably so. He was leaned forward on the table, hands reached out to toy with Nicky’s. He spoke with smiling lips.

Nicky had his back turned towards Joe. All he could see was that messy brown hair and his broad shoulders. The shoulders shook with inaudible laughter at something Keane said. It was enough to make Joe’s heart stop.

“Joe?”

He blinked and braved to meet his friends’ gazes. A mixture of confusion, amusement, and concern.

Nile, sitting on his left at the round table, asked with a smirk: “Dementia? Already?” But the touch of her hand to his arm belied her true intentions. She was such a sweetheart. One bad-ass sweetheart.

“It’s him,” He said.

And even though it had been three years, every single one of his friends understood whom he meant.

Joe tried not to think about how pathetic that was, rather focusing on how supportive his friends were and had been since he met them when he first moved to the city. How they had comforted him the past three years as yearning and regret gutted him. How Nile and Andy and Qyunh each had coached him through a panic attack as he questioned if he should have told Nicky about the “locker room talk” he had overheard. He had spent sleepless nights wondering if he had doomed this wonderful man to unhappiness by letting things go unsaid – even when it wasn’t his place to say anything.

Of course, all four of them simultaneously turning their heads to watch wasn’t exactly discreet. The attention was caught by Keane and his gaze zeroed in on Joe. His jaw clenched. The smile stiffened but didn’t go away.

Not knowing what else to do, Joe raised his hand just above the table in a wave that reminded him of his days sitting alone in the college cafeteria. Waving at Keane who was hanging with the football team, who was supposed to be Joe’s friend if you asked anyone on campus.

Only in college, Keane at least waved back. This time, he didn’t. He held his stare for a moment, then refocused his attention on Nicky. That tension in his jaw never left. A vein in his neck was becoming pronounced.

“No fucking way,” Nile hissed. “What are the goddamn odds…?”

“You didn’t know they were in town?” Andy asked.

“No,” He said, it sounded like “of course not”.

“Wasn’t it sort of your thing with Keane though that he would call to hang out whenever you were randomly in the same city?”

Oh, right. He frowned then. But he always figured out Keane reached out to him because he was lonely. The man wasn’t lonely anymore. Besides, they didn’t end on the best terms. Keane’s threat that evening in the restroom had been poorly veiled.

He picked his napkin out of his lap and wiped his mouth. Then he fretted with his hair. “I should go say hello.”

“Should you?”

“We made eye contact. It would be weird to ignore each other all evening.”

“But you’re not going over because you want to say hello to Keane. You’re going over to see Nicky. Is that really a good idea?”

“I can handle it, Andy,” He replied. He took a moment to wipe his clammy hands on the napkin as well. He wasn’t as reserved as he used to be, but the stress was undeniable. Could he handle it? It was only a few strides. Not enough time to come up with something suave to say and mold his expression into something to match, but he pushed through the veil of his old self.

As he approached, Keane leaned back in his seat and jutted his chin out in a displeased way.

Joe realized he would be interrupting a very romantic date, given the restaurant. But it was too late to go back.

He forced on a smile, took a deep breath in preparation for his greeting and stopped next to their table.

Then nothing.

Nicky wasn’t Nicky.

A new face looked up at him. A face that looked nothing like Nicky’s. No Roman nose. No beauty mark. No ocean eyes. No sharp corners to his jaw. No scar on the bridge of his nose that Joe wanted to know the story behind.  

“Hi, Joe,” Keane said without kindness.

Joe didn’t spare him a glance. He stared at the unknown man, not caring how he grew uncomfortable and confused under his scrutiny.

The man reached up a hand and Joe reflexively shook it. “Hello, nice to meet you. I’m Anthony.” Accent sounded like he had lived in Chicago all his life. Jacket and shirt looked like he had dinner at restaurants like this all his life.

“Ahuh.”

“This is Joe. Someone I know from college,” Keane filled in.

Keane had demoted him from friend to acquaintance in his introduction.

Joe had demoted Keane from acquaintance to arch enemy with one look.

Keane was rising out of his seat, reminding Joe how big he was. Not that much taller, but still so much bigger. Even though Joe had further thrown himself into boxing and mixed martial arts since he last saw the man. Joe had a lot of anger since then that he needed to deal with in a healthy way. A hand landed on his shoulder, reminding Joe of that anger he had been dealing with.

“Joe, can we talk for a second?”

He hadn’t even agreed and he was already being steered away from the table by that hand. At one point he nearly tripped over his own feet.

He was led to the fire place where he couldn’t feel the warmth through the heat that already burned his face. He shot a glance at his friends who were watching carefully. They all looked ready to get up at a moment’s notice to come to his aid.

Keane smiled at him, friendlier than he ever had and it was unnerving. He didn’t say anything, he simply waited.

“So, did you and Nicky break-“

“No.”

Joe clenched his jaw. “Where is-“

“Home.”

Still in London, while his husband is here fucking around. “So, you have a whore in every-“

“Careful, Joe.”

“Does Nicky know ab-“

“Yes.”

He frowned at that and didn’t like how much more amused Keane’s expression became. “Is he okay with-“

“Of course.”

He balled his fists at his side. That was a lie. And perhaps the most annoying thing of all was that Keane was a very good liar but he purposefully wasn’t bothering now. He looked gleeful about it, lying straight to Joe’s face. It was a mockery.

Keane’s eyes trailed down the length of his trembling arms. He repeated: “Careful, Joe.”

In spite of his rage, Joe wouldn’t be able to overpower the special-forces soldier. With Nile’s assistance he might, but if it suited Keane’s fancy Joe would be dead on the floor before Nile would have had the chance to get up out of her seat. “You’re a piece of shit.”

“And you’re a coward.” His inflection was flat, as was his smile. “So go back to your friends and I will go back to my date.” Without further ado, he walked away, but making it a point to brush his shoulder by Joe’s.

He was riveted to the floor. His stomach churned. He averted his gaze away from the dancing flames because the movement exacerbated the sudden onslaught of nausea.

The only person he hated more than Keane in that moment was himself.

He remembered that first Thursday, when Nicky’s simple, friendly touch warmed him as much as that big fireplace did.

“The pizzeria,” The Italian waiter had reminded him, before Joe was about to follow Meta out into another cold Chicago night. “It is to the left. Walk down the street to the left and then go left again. You can’t miss it, you will smell it. Where did you park?”

Joe was lost in his bright eyes, looking into them was like sinking his body into the turquoise water of a hot spring in Iceland. “Uh, that way.” He motioned to the left.

“Good. It will be on your way. This city is terribly cold.”

Not with Nicky smiling at him so warmly.

“I guess I won’t see you again. Most people only come once.” Nicky winked at him, cheeky little thing – Joe didn’t know yet that much of it was a defense mechanism to hide his natural shyness and sweetness.

“I want to see you again,” He should have said, but didn’t. “In fact, I don’t want to leave right now. Let me wait here until your shift is over and we will go get pizza together.”

He hadn’t said that. Because Keane was right, he was a coward.

Joe smoothed a hand down the front of his shirt and then stiffly walked back to the round table where his friends were waiting for him. As soon as he sat down, Nile’s hand found him.

“What happened?” Andy asked, her tone alluded to the fact that she was ready to go to war. “Why didn’t you talk to Nicky?”

“That’s not Nicky.” Before any of them could say or ask anything, Joe added: “Keane’s cheating on him.

“Putain d’enfer,” Booker muttered, shooting a look over his shoulder. His shoulders and jaw were tense.

In a daze, Joe wondered: “Should I call him?”

“Who? What?”

“Call Nicky?” Or fly to London and go get him?  

“Oh, Joe. Sweet Joe… How would you even reach out to him? As I recall, you never asked for his number.”

Andy meant no harm, but her words stung and he flinched. She was right. He didn’t have his number. He didn’t even have an email address. And all he knew was that he lived in London, a city of nine million.

“I’m so sorry, sweety.”

Joe nodded. “I’d like to go, if that’s ok.”

“Of course.” The group readily agreed and they left, even though that made Joe feel even worse somehow, because he knew Keane would interpret it as a victory.

 

+

Joe took the L-train home from a workout with Nile. She was seated next to him, leaning over his shoulder, reading the news feed he was scrolling through on his phone until she couldn’t be bothered anymore.

Joe heard her chew her gum, heard the high pitch of the wheels on the tracks, heard the rain of a summer storm beating on the window, heard a family argue in a language he didn’t speak, and then he heard Nile say:

“Oh my God.”

“Hm?” At the alarm in her tone, he tore his gaze away from the screen and looked at her. He studied her stunned expression as she looked past him, down the wagon that jostled through a turn. “What?”

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. No, not a smile, a smirk. “Are you in the mood for some Italian?”

Joe frowned at her. He hadn’t had Italian food since he last went to Piccolo Famiglia. The cuisine was ruined for him, not by the ristorante, but by Nicky. He couldn’t even look at a plate of pasta without thinking about the Italian waiter and it never ceased to make his stomach feel too heavy to be able to eat anything. But curiosity compelled him to look in the direction she was looking at, instead of scolding her for a joke that she knew damn well to be cruel.

His heart squeezed so hard it elevated his blood pressure and he could feel it in the tips of his fingers and his toes.

Seated at the far end of the wagon, slouched forward in the plastic chair, sandwiched between an elderly lady and a construction worker manspreading, was Nicolò di Genova. His body rocked back and forth gently with the movement of the train. His attention focused on the book he rested on one knee.

A well-worn copy of Punica.

His hair was long and kept falling in front of his face. He’d bring his hand up to smooth it back and tuck it behind his ear, exposing his earrings. But then the train would move and the smooth hair would fall forward again. But Joe would still recognize him anywhere – even though it made no sense that he would be on the L in Chicago, when he was supposed to be in a London penthouse.

Beauty mark. Roman nose. Bright eyes.

Joe had missed them.

“He’s not wearing his wedding ring,” Nile observed, her voice cutting through the veil that shrouded Joe’s mind.

He looked at the hand that cradled the book, noting she was right. No wedding ring.

“That doesn’t have to mean anything,” He said with strained voice. “You can’t make assumptions like that.” And as he said it, he knew what he sounded like. He sounded like Joe from three years ago. But he wasn’t Joe from three years ago anymore.

So when Nile suggested: “Go find out”…

He did.

Chapter Text

It was just another Friday night.

Nothing special.

No one special.

Shit, his friends probably wouldn’t appreciate him thinking that…

And it was supposed to be a special occasion, considering…

“Congrats, Joe,” Andy said, raising her glass of beer and the others followed suit.

They’d commandeered a booth at their favorite watering hole. They’re here every Friday – three of them, at least. Booker came so often he knew the bartenders better than his own family.

Joe raised his glass halfheartedly. He had objected to them making a big fuss about it and had managed to negotiate them down from a lavish dinner to just drinks at the bar. The price: all rounds would be on him.

“You’ll regret this,” Booker had warned. “I drink so much, you’ll be taking out a second mortgage on the new place to finance the evening.”

“Thanks, guys. And thanks for the help, today.” Joe took a swig from his beer and licked at the foam he felt tingle on his upper lip.

The three of them had come to his new house after work to help him unload the moving truck he’d rented. Joe got the keys in the morning and had spent most of the day cleaning up his old apartment and then the house. It was the kind of house his parents would have been proud to see him buy. The kind of house they had never had. His sister had squealed at the pictures he had sent her, she would be flying stateside next month to come see it.

Amal had said: “Who would have thought it? Who would have known that those little doodles you’d always make, in the corners of your poorly done homework, would someday buy you a house?”

Joe took another drink from his beer and watched Booker down his vodka like it’s water – and like he’d just run a marathon.  He chuckled and shook his head at him. “Jesus, Book.”

The Frenchman made a face at the last gulp and then slammed the glass down. He reached out a hand and clapped it on Joe’s shoulder, before squeezing it. “I’m proud of you, man.”

“Us too,” Quynh chimed in.

“Thanks. Couldn’t have done it without your support.” Then he grimaced for effect. “Actually, no. Fuck that. I did all of the work. You were more a distraction than anything.” He nodded towards Booker in particular.

“Oh please… don’t think for even a second that we didn’t see some similarities between ourselves and your rag-tag team of immortal warriors.”

“Rag tag?” He mirrored, tilting his head as he looked at Andy. “You sound like an old white man.”

She pointed a finger at him. “That’s rude and you know it.”

“Don’t worry, Andy, you’re not that much older.” Booker toyed with his glass, already craving the next drink.

“Oh, age-jokes don’t insult me. But calling me a white man? That hurts my feelings.”

“Oh honey, if we had a nice house like Joe, you’d be yelling at kids to ‘get off the damn lawn’ and you know it.” That earned Quynh a sharp elbow in her lower ribs but she only laughed.

“Get off the damn lawn,” Andy drawled and mocked: “What was that accent supposed to be?”

Her wife shrugged. “The old white man accent.”

Andy smiled and draped her arm around her wife’s shoulders.

“Alright, alright.” Booker waved his hands. “As the only old white man in present company, I urge you to stop. Ok? We’re people. We have feelings too.”

“How about I get you another drink, pops?” Joe offered with a smug smile.

“I appreciate that, son,” He replied with that “old white man” accent that Quynh attempted earlier.

Joe laughed and then slid out of the booth, checking the ladies’ drinks as he went. They were far from needing a refill. He cut across the open space to the bar on the other side. It was too late for after-work-drinks and too early for the club hoppers to come pre-gaming, but it was a popular bar and he had to wait to get the bartender’s attention as he was preparing a big order for a group of giggling women, who were shamelessly flirting with him. The bartender made eye contact with him, offered an apologetic smile and raised two fingers, indicating he’d be with him in two minutes.

“No rush,” Joe mouthed back. He wasn’t going to cost the bartender a good tip by demanding his attention right away.

He caught his reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar, his face appearing between a bottle of Jack Daniels and Baileys. A corner of his mouth pulled down reactively. He reached up and mussed with his curls. Maybe that’s why Andy had suggested they just stay at his place and have a drink. He looked terrible. Tired and unkempt. The final phases of buying the house while being whisked off from one city to the next for his book tour, had taken a toll on him.

His curls were messy, his beard a little longer than he usually kept it, and he’d been wearing these clothes all day. He could have at least changed. Maybe he still stood, the new house was only five minutes away.

As he was scrutinizing his reflection, a figure sidled up next to him. He saw movement, but the face was obstructed by that bottle of Jack Daniels. He felt knees brush his outer thigh as the person sat on one of the empty stools that sandwiched Joe at the bar.

Frankly, he was irked and he turned his head to request some respect for his personal space. He caught sight of vibrant eyes, a big nose, an easy smile and… something, on his jaw. But before he could say anything, or change his mind about whatever clipped and rude thing he was about to say, he was rendered speechless by a sudden kiss.

Warm, soft lips pressed against his. Quick – no, chaste, rather – with a certain, inexplicable familiarity. The big nose pressed into Joe’s cheek, barely long enough for him to realize that it stirred a fondness within him.

The stranger pulled back. But while their lips were disconnected, Joe could still feel a knee against his leg and the man’s hand found his on the counter and covered it. A big, warm, dry palm rested atop his hand.

“Hi,” The man said and he flashed another smile. It was adorable in how imperfect it was. Uneven. Possibly not even pretty.

“Hello?” He should be given points for even being able to speak, given how flabbergasted he was.

“I’m sorry I’m late. How was work?” The man’s voice was louder than necessary. Aside from the women still flirting with the bartender, the patrons were fairly subdued and the indistinct murmur of conversations was distant and soft. But mostly, Joe noticed the accent. Unmistakably Italian.

He frowned. Was he supposed to know this man?

The man’s expression became tense, although the smile never wavered. He clasped his fingers around Joe’s hand tighter than was comfortable and his gaze flicked to the left right before Joe became aware of another stranger approaching him.

A man with broad shoulders, wearing a shirt two sizes too small, closed the distance between them with confident strides. His beard was impeccably trimmed – obnoxiously so. He was handsome, or should be by all accounts, but there was something exceedingly unattractive about him, in the way he had his eyes trained on the Italian stranger and the balled fists at his sides. Joe found him repellent and he leaned a little closer to the bar as the man came to stand inside the Italian’s personal space. Which happened to mean he also violated Joe’s personal space.

“Keane,” The Italian said and his voice was steady even though Joe felt his hand trembling.

“Nicky, what are you doing here?”

Nicky. Joe looked at him. Really looked at him, for the first time. His light brown hair was short and messy, but not the stylish kind of messy. Just the kind of I-don’t-care messy. In spite of his large nose, which Joe could tell now, seeing it in silhouette, had the perfect, Roman arch, the eyes were his most prominent feature; big and expressive, the color more complex than could be described in a single word. Joe had a feeling even with an entire verse he’d fail to do them justice.

The something was a mole, on the jaw, to the right of a shapely mouth. A mouth that had just kissed his.

This was a very strange stranger.

In reply to Keane’s question, Nicky said: “I’m having a drink with my boyfriend.” And that’s when that gaze fixed itself on Joe again.

The strangest stranger.

Only then did Keane finally look at Joe as well and he looked him up and down with contempt. He didn’t even bother to hide it.

Oh, realization hit Joe. This was an ex. This was an angry, intimidating ex. He realized it was a ruse to get rid of him, it was a cry for help. Joe wasn’t much of a hero, unlike the character he wrote and drew, but he would do his best. He slipped his right hand out from under Nicky’s and he felt how much tenser the man became, practically clawing at the back of his hand to stop him from pulling away.

Joe forced on a smile and reached out that hand towards Keane. “Hi, I’m Joe. The boyfriend.” He exchanged a quick look with Nicky to confirm his relief at his willingness to play along.

Keane shook his hand, tight enough to hurt. He didn’t introduce himself, he just glared.

Not trusting the situation, Joe grabbed Nicky’s hand again and redirected his attention to him. “Babe, I hope you don’t mind, I invited our friends.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder, in the general direction of the booth the others were occupying. “Let’s go join them. The bartender is gonna be a while.”

“Sure. Yeah.” The Italian slid off the stool, which brought him that much closer to Joe. His cheeks flushed with color and he smiled again. It was genuine. And cute.

“Nice to meet you,” Joe said to Keane and then guided Nicky away from the bar with a hand on the small of his back, continuing the game of pretend. He didn’t dare to look over his shoulder. He felt jittery with nerves.

A singular thought ran through his head: that was a big dude. Big, big dude.  

He subtly pointed at his friends when he noticed Nicky’s hesitation as they neared a row of booths on the far side.

His three friends looked at him quizzically as they approached.

Joe let Nicky slide onto the half-circle bench first and then sat down next to him, so the Italian was between himself and Booker.

Before anyone could do anything, Joe told his friends: “Don’t shake hands.” He was met with awkward smiles. He threw his arm around the man’s shoulders, holding him to his side the way Andy was holding Quynh. His friends were so confused it was comical and brought levity to what Joe sensed was a very serious situation. He cocked his head to the side when he heard a soft, thickly accented “thank you”. He met those incredible eyes. “No problem, don’t worry about it. You’re just gonna sit with us for a while.” He threw an inconspicuous look around the bar and didn’t spot Keane, but he didn’t feel comfortable yet easing up on the ruse.

“Sorry,” The Italian said to the group. “I’m Nicky and I have bad taste in men.”

Andy quirked an eyebrow.

After a self-conscious laugh he explained: “I got stood up by my friend and I was just about to leave when I saw my ex. I just wanted to get away from him, so I pretended that- Uhm…” He shot a sideways look.

“Joe,” He reminded him.

“Sorry.”

“It’s ok.” He meant it. He wouldn’t fault him for forgetting his name in the stressful situation.

Continuing his story to the group, Nicky said: “I pretended Joe is my boyfriend. I didn’t want my ex to know I’m here alone.”

“Do we need to call the police?” Andy wondered, her face serious.

“Oh no, it’s not like that. Oh God, I feel so silly.”

She reached across the table for his hand. “You’re not silly. Whatever the situation is, between you and him, you did what you know is best.” Andy leaned back in her seat again and then introduced herself and the other two.

“It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you, for this.”

The silence that stretched between them threatened to get uncomfortable, but Booker broke the ice with a miserable: “So, no drink, huh?”

The group laughed and Quynh took it from there, easily starting up conversation and Andy and Booker participated.

Joe felt Nicky relax. He had no idea if Keane was still around, but he kept his arm around the man’s shoulders. He noted how well they fit together. Nicky was only an inch or two shorter than him, but naturally tucked himself into the crook of his arm as if he had always been there – or as if he was meant to be there. He watched the friends talk like he was watching a tennis match, his gaze bouncing back and forth. His lips were curved in a gentle smile.

Joe was distracted by those lips, already knowing how soft they were.

It couldn’t have been more than five minutes when an unwelcome presence appeared at the table and the conversation died down and every looked up at Keane.

With the way he was standing, feet shoulder width apart and arms crossed in from of his chest, he looked authoritarian. He looked like one of the military villains Joe had drawn for his comic book series.

“Nicky, can we talk for a minute?” He asked, with a tone that telegraphed he wasn’t about to take no for an answer. He ignored everyone else at the table. His black eyes were fixated on the Italian man.

Joe tightened his arm around him, overwhelmed with protectiveness. “You’re interrupting our evening,” He tried with a light tone.

“You’re interrupting my conversation,” Keane shot back, seething.

Keane would have to try harder to intimidate him now that he was with his friends.  Quynh was a black belt martial artist. Andy was a former Marine. Booker was a plain brawler. On top of that, Joe had been boxing since he was twelve years old and feeling those broad shoulders under his arms he could tell Nicky was fit himself.

It was five against one now.

“Nicky, this is ridiculous,” He said with a condescending laugh. “I haven’t seen you or heard from you in months. The least you can do is come talk with me.”

“I don’t owe you anything, Keane.”

He scoffed. “So, just like that, huh? You walk out of my life and six months later turn up in some bar with some guy.” He gestured at Joe like he was filth.

“This is a great bar and I’m a great guy,” Joe rebuffed with uncharacteristic confidence.

Keane’s nostrils flared, like an angry bull in a cartoon. He wouldn’t look at Joe. “Nicky.” His demanding tone sent a chill down Joe’s spine.

“Goodnight, Keane,” Nicky said definitively.

He held his gaze for a moment longer and then snorted with disgust when he realized he wasn’t going to get his way. “Unbelievable,” He muttered and then wandered off.

Joe followed his big body cutting through the crowd until he saw him head out the door.

“Jesus Christ, Nicky,” Andy was the one to break the silence. “He’s hot, but you’re right: you have bad taste in men.”

Nicky chuckled lightly. “I swear he wasn’t this scary when I first met him. Although, that might be worse. That I made him like this.”

“You’re not responsible for how he behaves,” Joe is quick to say.

“Thank you all very much for the cover. I guess I should-…” He shifted in his seat.

Joe thought to pull his arm away, remembering that he’s not actually his boyfriend, remembering that they were still strangers. He was about to scoot out of the booth to let Nicky leave, when Booker interjected, stopping Nicky with a light touch to his bicep.

“Nonsense,” The Frenchman said. “Have a drink with us. Joe’s buying.”

Joe let out a laugh. “And Booker sure as Hell won’t let me forget it.”

“We’re celebrating,” Booker elaborated for Nicky’s benefit. “Mister Writer Artist Man over there got published and bought a house. We’ve all heard him brag a million times before,” He lied, “help us out and let him tell the story to someone new for once.”

Nicky looked hesitant.

Joe nudged him to get his attention. “What drink can I get you?”

“Uhm… Are you sure?”

“Come on. I wouldn’t have taken you for the shy type. Given how we met.” He winked.

Allah did I actually just wink? He thought to himself with some measure of distress, like he was having an out-of-body experience.

Nicky smiled in a way that made his nose scrunch and his eyes glitter. “Just a beer, thanks.”

Joe raised his eyebrows. “Just a beer? Any beer?”

“Yeah, any is fine.”

“No. If you actually liked beer you would have ordered the kind of beer you like. What do you actually want?”

The smile evolved into a cheeky grin. “Whiskey sour please.”

“That’s better. Book, ladies, the usual?” The three nodded.

Joe went to the bar again to get them a round of drinks. When he returned to the booth, Nicky, Andy, and Quynh were laughing at one of Booker’s drunken man tales.

The rest of the evening, conversation was easy. The only difficult thing for Joe was resisting putting his arm around Nicky’s shoulders again. It had felt so natural. He had a little trouble getting comfortable now on the faux leather bench. Nicky didn’t talk much about himself, instead, he coaxed Joe to “brag” about his comic book being published and being an unexpected success, and the house he had bought.

Nicky slotted into the small group of friends well. They talked like the five of them had been friends for years.

When Booker started to become incoherent and messy, they decided to end the evening. The Frenchman was squished into the back of a cab along with Andy and Quynh, they would make a stop on their way home to drop him off at his place. Nicky offhandedly mentioned that he lived close by and Joe was compelled to offer to walk him home.

“Keane isn’t a stalker, he’s not lurking somewhere, waiting for me. You don’t have to walk me home.”

“I know, I want to.” That was all Joe needed to say. Nicky accepted his company with a smile.

They walked side by side, occasionally bumping shoulders or brushing their arms together. Maybe the three whiskey sours had taken a toll on Nicky. Or maybe he was voluntarily leaning closer, the way Joe was.

The cool air of the night was sobering, but not enough so for Joe to walk off this love-drunk feeling. It was a novel feeling for him. He didn’t date much. He didn’t like meeting new people. But Nicky didn’t feel like new people. He felt comfortable and familiar. In part thanks to their introduction and in part thanks to his gentle personality.

They had been discussing the neighborhood – how nice it is and whether the coffee house on the corner of Bushel, or the one by the park was the best – because it turned out Joe’s new house was close to the apartment Nicky had moved into after breaking up with Keane.

Although the conversation had circled back to the man, Joe didn’t dare to inquire further. He was about to steer their talk back to something lighthearted, when Nicky spoke up with a sudden, serious tone:

“He never hit me.”

“Good,” He replied instantly and then made a face at how ineloquent that was.

Nicky shrugged and then stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket – an army green jacket over a grey T-shirt, with dark jeans and brown boots. The man had absolutely no style and Nicky had joked earlier in the evening that that had been the reason why he had to flee Italy. Joe supposed no sense of style was necessary when you’re as effortlessly gorgeous as this man.

“I just wanted you to know that,” He continued, looking at Joe with pursed lips and squinted eyes as if he was straining the muscles in his face to not betray any actual emotion.

“Ok.” He was silent for a moment before he thought to say: “You don’t have to explain anything. I’m not-“

“No, I- I meant what I said: I wanted you to know that. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. You don’t need to pity me, or something.”

“I don’t pity you,” He was quick to say.

Nicky nodded and Joe hoped that meant he believed him. “He- uhm-…” He stopped walking and Joe halted, looking back at him. “I want to tell you, is that ok?”

“Sure.”

“I haven’t told anyone yet.”

“Ok.”

“I feel like I want to.”

“Ok.” He took a step closer to him and waited. When Nicky was quiet for a long time, he wondered: “Do you want to talk at home?”

“Show me your place,” He countered and he braved a grin.

“Really?” He sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. “There’s nothing there. Just boxes and a mattress.” He cringed at himself. Why mention the mattress? It wasn’t like…

“Ok. That’s fine. Come on, show off your new house. It’s close, right?”

They’d been walking for about fifteen minutes, practically in the direction of his house. “Yeah, it’s close. I’ll take you.” He reached out his hand to Nicky and felt a thrill when the other man took it and they started walking hand-in-hand. They walked in silence for a minute or two and then Nicky started talking:

“He was very charming. And very handsome. I felt lucky, for being noticed by someone like him. The relationship moved very quickly. I didn’t notice at the time, but he was pulling me along, like the undercurrent in the ocean, taking you out further and further. He became more and more possessive and started dictating how I had to live my life. I was so far out at sea at that point, he was all I had left to hold onto.”

Joe quietly listened, squeezing Nicky’s hand and rubbing it with his thumb. His sister had been in an abusive relationship. She, too, justified it by stressing that she had never been hit, her boyfriend had never been physical with her. But he isolated her and controlled her, and made her feel like she would be worthless without him.

“He wouldn’t let me go anywhere without him. He didn’t trust me to be alone with my friends. He even gave me grief about socializing with my colleagues at work. Until, eventually, I didn’t have any friends anymore and he guilted me into quitting my job. God, looking back at it, it’s so stupid. I was crazy. But I still felt so lucky to have him. I felt so loved.” He laughed at himself, darkly and bitterly.

“After a while, I barely left our apartment. He arranged everything. It was easy, at first. I didn’t feel like there was anywhere else I wanted to be anyway. I had everything I had always wanted. Everything everyone had always told me I would never get.” He explained offhandedly: “I’m from a catholic family. They don’t believe in ‘gay love’; that two men can be committed to each other. They said I’d only ever have meaningless one-night-stands.”

Nicky shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. An ex-colleague of mine was pregnant when I left. When she had the baby, she sent me a card and I wanted to go see her, but Keane wouldn’t let me. We had a big fight about it. I ended up conceding that I wouldn’t go and figured I’d just sneak out of the apartment while he was away at work. But the next day, I couldn’t get out. Literally. The door and the window to the fire escape were locked. I searched everywhere for my keys, but he had taken them, he had locked me up.”

Joe felt a cold shiver and he swallowed a lump in his throat.

“I didn’t want to confront him, because then I’d give away that I had tried to leave when I had told him I wouldn’t. But when he came home, it burst out of me. We had another big fight. He never hit me, but since that night I was always afraid that he would. He kept me locked up. I had panic attacks every day, while he was at work, but when he was home, I pretended everything was fine, because I was scared… of him. One night, when he was asleep, I tried to escape. I searched for his keys but couldn’t find them and he woke up and I threatened to call the police and he just… he laughed at me. Anyway…” Nicky made a dismissive gesture. “That’s why you shouldn’t pity me. It was all my own fault, really. I should have called the police. I should have smashed the window and went down the fire escape while he was at work – I mean, I did, eventually, but I should have done that sooner.”

Joe stopped and stood in front of Nicky. “This wasn’t your fault. He’s a scary guy. You can’t fault yourself for being scared of a scary guy.”

“He never hit me – never laid a hand on me,” Nicky reiterated and then looked down at his boots in shame.

“But he had you thinking he would. And whether or not he hit you, he still abused you. Nicky, look at me, please?”

Nicky blinked up at him.

“I don’t pity you,” He assured him. “I admire you. Because you are one bad-ass mother fucker for getting yourself out of there and it was bad-ass the way you dealt with him tonight.”

The man stared at him for a long time and then slowly leaned in closer and closer, his eyes becoming hazy. Joe tilted his head ever so lightly, expecting to be kissed – not for the first time that night – and maybe that was what Nicky was going to do. But when they were close enough to share a breath between them, he bowed his head and angled his face and ended up pressing the cold tip of his nose into the side of Joe’s neck as he leaned into him. Joe unclasped their fingers and encircled him with his arms, pulling him into an embrace. Nicky didn’t return it, keeping his arms at his sides, but he melted against Joe. Joe could feel his breath, his heartbeat and his own fluttered when Nicky nuzzled into the crook of his neck.

He held him. Enjoying the feel of him. Enjoying the easy fit.

Then, Nicky muttered against his skin: “This is a very strange night.”

They both laughed.

“Still want to see my house?”

“Yes, please.”

They continued on their way and within a few minutes, they reached Joe’s new house.

It was a modest place, really. Two stories. Three bedrooms. One and a half bathrooms. A small living room but a big kitchen. Nicky told him that was exactly how it ought to be. A kitchen is the heart of a home, after all, he said. Joe showed him around, but it was a short tour. The house was bare. The colors on the walls – fifty shades of white – had all been the choices of the previous inhabitants. They’d left the place with nice oak floors and a marble kitchen counter top though.

All of Joe’s boxes were crammed into the living room. They had only bothered to lug the big mattrass up the narrow flight of stairs to the ‘master bedroom’ – which was just real estate speak for the slightly-bigger-bedroom of the three.

Thankfully, courtesy of Booker, the one thing he had in his fridge, was a sixpack of beer. He popped off the caps of two bottles using the edge of the counter top and handed one to Nicky. Even though he didn’t care much for beer, he had said he wanted one.

The Italian took a swig and then scanned the boxes. “So, uhm… do you happen to have a couch in any of these boxes?”

Joe chuckled. “Furniture gets delivered next Tuesday.”

“Mm.” He shook off his jacket and then took a seat on the floor, leaning against a wall that showed slight discolorations; the rectangular shapes of a dresser and picture frames, the holes in the wall so neatly plastered over, the repairs were invisible in the light of the single, bare bulb that dangled from the ceiling.

Joe took off his own jacket, throwing it over a stack of boxes labeled for the kitchen and sat down next to him.

“So,” Nicky started and cleared his throat and took sip, “now that I’ve told you my tragic backstory, are you going to make me into a character for your comic book?”

“What?”

“Come on. Booker said the current characters are basically him, Andy, and Quynh.”

Joe chuckled. “Yeah, they are. I made Booker’s character more handsome than he really is though.”

Nicky grinned. Another swig and then he asked: “Do you have it here?”

“Hm?”

“Your comic book. Do you have a copy lying around?”

“Well, in one of these boxes…” He pointedly looked around.

“Right.”

“You’d make a cool character,” Joe said, after giving it some thought.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Bad-ass mother fucker?”

Joe looked over to see him grin. “Definitely. I already know how to introduce you into the story too.”

“Oh?”

Joe angled his body sideways and waited for a heartbeat, studying Nicky’s expression. Then, he slowly leaned in and pressed his lips to Nicky’s in a chaste kiss, but long enough to appreciate the softness of his lips and the pressure of his Roman nose on his cheek. He pulled back and with a grin he said: “Hi.”

Nicky grinned back at him and mimicked him from earlier that night. “Hello?”

Joe kissed him again, this time moving his lips against the other’s.

Nicky’s lips moved too, but not to kiss back. Instead, he teased: “That’s not how it went.”

The laugh that bubbled out of him interrupted the kiss more than Nicky had. He heard the sound of glass on wood and he barely had time to set aside his own bottle of beer when fingers carded into his curls and Nicky recaptured his mouth. A moan escaped him. He reached out his hands and grabbed at Nicky’s waist and he pulled him towards him until his hip was against his and he could snake one arm around him, fingers tickling at his ribs through the worn cotton of his shirt, and his other hand trailed down his thigh to his knee. He hooked his hand into the hollow of his knee and tugged at the leg. Nicky quickly got the gist and maneuvered himself into Joe’s lap, his lips never leaving Joe’s, not even to breathe. They breathed through their nose, maybe a little too harshly, too desperately.

Joe moaned again when Nicky settled on top of him, pressing his pelvis against Joe’s. And as his mouth was open to moan, a tongue flicked against his upper lip – a question. His answer was another moan and then that tongue met his and arousal pulsed through him. He felt it in his cock, in his chest, in his fingertips, in his ears.

Nicky grinded his hips. It was minute and yet, at the same time, too much. Before long, Joe was painfully hard in his jeans and he could feel Nicky’s erection as well. He rubbed his palms up and down Nicky’s side and eventually pushed the fabric up so he could slip his hands under the shirt and feel his heated skin. His fingertips explored the small of back, then up his spine and following the line of the ribs to the front. He felt each sharp intake of breath and he felt goosebumps on the skin. He pushed his hands up his chest until his thumbs brushed over hardened nipples and he elicited a whine.

Or maybe the whine had been his.

He thumbed at the pert nubs repeatedly until he sure Nicky was the one moaning and whimpering and rocking their hips together more persistently, chasing a friction they both needed.

Suddenly, Nicky’s hot and pliant mouth was gone and Joe’s hands were being pushed away, out from under the shirt. Nicky used Joe’s shoulders for support to get up from the floor – up from his lap.

Joe was about to apologize when the Italian said: “Come, let’s go christen your bedroom.” The accent had never sounded sexier. Nicky held a hand out to him and as soon as Joe gripped it, he was yanked upright and he chuckled. Instead of letting go of his hand, he used it to tug the man against him. Their chests slammed together and then so did their mouths. They kissed with a ferocious hunger.

“Come, come…” Nicky urged against his lips and started shuffling them towards the staircase.

“Wait.” He gestured at the mountain of boxes. “Let me dig up some stuff first.”

“Right.”

With effort he pulled himself away from the warm, hard body and approached a stack of boxes marked with ”bedroom” in his own, barely legible handwriting. “Help me look, it’ll be twice as fast.” The idea of a veritable stranger rummaging through his belongings didn’t bother him at all.

“I should probably freshen up a little bit.”

Joe stilled, understanding the implication. His body was vibrating with anticipation. He hadn’t dared to expect more than an exchange of blowjobs, really. “Yeah, ok. You know where to find the bathroom,” He said with a grin. “Wait!” Before Nicky could head upstairs, he ripped open one of only two boxes labeled “bathroom” and got lucky. He grabbed a towel an tossed it at Nicky. “I’ll look for condoms and lube,” He said.

Nicky nodded and rushed upstairs, skipping steps as he went. Halfway up, he threw over his shoulder: “And sheets!”

“Sheets! Good idea,” Joe agreed, picturing the bare mattress upstairs.

He had to plow through four boxes before he found everything he needed and then went upstairs. He put the box of condoms and the bottle of lube down on the floor, threw a sheet over the mattress – taking the time to tuck the ends under so it wouldn’t move – and bundled a duvet up on the foot of the bed. He heard the shower was still running, so then he took the time to stuff the pillows into pillow cases.

The light from the bare bulb directly above the bed was glaring and decidedly unromantic, so he switched it off in favor of letting the light from the hallway stream in through the open door. He decided against going back down to the living room to see if he could find some candles. He didn’t want to give the wrong impression. As personal as this evening had been, all it was for now, for all intents and purposes, was a one night stand. He didn’t want to come off too strongly with a candlelit bedroom. Even though he definitely wanted more than just one night.

He toed off his shoes and took off his socks and after some thought he stripped down to his underwear, since Nicky would be coming out of the shower undressed as well. He settled back in the center of the mattress and fondled his half-hard dick through his boxers. Anticipation was thrumming in his veins.  

It was just another Friday night.

Nothing special.

No one special.

Oh, how untrue, he thought to himself. All thoughts ceased when Nicky appeared in the doorway of his bedroom. Naked.

His hair was wet and water trickled down his neck, his chest, his abdomen. As predicted he was fit. Not sculpted, persé, but in good shape. His shoulders were broad, especially compared to his slim waist. His thighs were strong, thick. His uncut cock was soft but twitched at the sight of Joe which made him grin.

“Come over here,” He beckoned, making grabby hands at him. His own cock was tenting his boxers at that point.

Nicky padded across the bedroom, leaving wet footprints on the floor. He stepped onto the mattress and straddled Joe’s hip, taking a seat on top of him. His body was so wet that it soon soaked through Joe’s underwear and the sensation made him tingle all over. He liked the idea that Nicky was too impatient to towel dry himself. He ran his hands up the pale thighs, scratching fingernails through the short hairs. Then he grabbed at Nicky’s sides, fingers digging into the skin, perhaps hard enough to bruise and he pulled himself upright.

Instantly, Nicky’s arms snaked around him, holding him tight against his chest and their lips met once more. They licked into each other’s mouths, in exploration. Joe felt Nicky’s cock hardening between them. He felt it swell and throb, sandwiched between their bellies.

Suddenly Joe was slammed back down onto the mattress and he giggled – actually giggled – as Nicky only climbed off him enough to impatiently rid him of his underwear. He settled on Joe’s thighs, back far enough for their erections to touch. They both groaned at the contact. Nicky wrapped one hand around each and stroked them in unison. Joe bucked as much as he could, being pinned down by the other man’s weight. He gripped at those delicious thighs. If Nicky had been able to clean himself properly, he would have loved to have his face between those thighs, irritate the sensitive skin just right with the tickle of his beard as he’d lick and nip at the supple flesh before sucking kisses onto his taint and tonguing into his hole.

He really didn’t want this to be just one night.

Nicky stretched out and retrieved the condoms and lube, putting the items right by Joe’s shoulder. Joe watched him work, soaking in the sight of him. His eyes were like the warm waters of the Mediterranean. The trails of water on his skin made Joe thirsty. He had a mole in the shadow of his right collar bone, a companion to the mole on his jaw. It was in a perfect dip of skin, bone and muscle that Joe longed to lick into. He vowed to kiss him there before the night was through.

He watched him pour the clear liquid from the bottle into his wide palm and touched one hand to the other, sharing the slick. With one hand he reached behind himself for a quick prep. Something that Joe wouldn’t want to rush the next time – if he were to be blessed with another time. He’d work him open slowly, bringing him to the edge of orgasm with just his fingers. Joe prided himself for being really good at that.

With his other hand, he stroked his own cock, slowly and lightly. Not doing much more than spreading the lube onto himself.

Joe was painfully hard watching everything and when Nicky locked eyes with him, peering at him from underneath long lashes, Joe groaned as the intensity of unexpected intimacy overwhelmed him and Nicky smirked. The Italian broke eye contact only to throw a telling look at the box right by Joe’s shoulder.

Understanding the clue, Joe took out a condom, fumbled with the packet for long enough that he was reminded of when he was seventeen and doing this for the first time, and then rolled the condom onto himself. He poured lube directly onto his cock and stroked himself just once or twice.

Nicky shifted, scooting further up until he was straddling his hips and Joe’s slick cock slotted between his ass cheeks.   

“Fuck,” He groaned.

“Fuck indeed.” He raised himself up and held Joe’s cock upright as he gingerly lowered himself back down.

Joe held his breath the entire time. From the moment his cockhead touched the opening, to the moment he was sheathed to the hilt by that warm heat. It was a slow and controlled push into his body. Not until Nicky rested his full weight on him again and he was buried inside him, could he breathe again. He sucked in and released it in a moan.

It took willpower not to close his eyes and just give into the pleasure. He watched Nicky’s face, got drunk on the pleasure he saw there, so open and vulnerable.

“You’re so pretty… you feel wonderful… you’re amazing,” Joe whispered, feeling vulnerable himself, but he wanted to give into that. He wanted to embrace that. Nicky deserved his honesty.

Those vibrant eyes cracked open and peered at him and Joe writhed as he subdued the need to grab hold of his hips and thrust in and out of him. Nicky leaned forward and they shared a kiss. No tongue, just their lips. Once again that big nose pressed into Joe’s cheek and Joe wondered if any kiss would ever feel complete without that, without that exact pressure. When the kiss ended, he regretted it, but not for long.

Nicky straightened up and used those powerful thighs to ride him. He built to an unforgiving rhythm, only to slow down to a mere grind when Joe’s moans and cries betrayed his impending orgasm. The sweet torture continued for an impressive length of time and Joe loved every minute of it. All the more so because he liked to believe Nicky exercised this incredible control to make the night last longer.

And Joe was happy to surrender control to him. Nicky proved he knew how to make them both feel good. And given the history they had talk about earlier that evening, Joe wouldn’t feel comfortable doing anything that could be mistaken for him trying to control Nicky.

As the Italian rolled his hips slowly, letting them both settle down, he reached out a hand for his own erection. Rather than taking it in hand and stroking it, he laid his wide palm flat on top of it, pressing his cock against Joe’s stomach. The movement of his hips had his cock sliding back and forth on Joe’s abdomen, the glide made slick and comfortable by the lube he had applied on himself earlier and soon precome made it even slicker.

Joe watched the pink cockhead peek out from under Nicky’s hand with every measured thrust. He licked his lips and he knew Nicky had seen that, because the man groaned needily.

“I could suck you off, after?” He offered and his mouth was honestly watering at the thought. His voice was thick with lust.

But Nicky shook his head. “No. I want to come like this. With you inside me.”

He certainly wasn’t about to complain.

Nicky leaned forward slightly, planting his hands on the pillow, on either side of Joe’s head, to give himself more leverage. He moved up and down so powerfully his neglected cock slapped Joe’s stomach with each movement.

Joe grabbed at the exquisite ass, pulling the cheeks apart. He dug his heels into the mattress and thrust up to meet Nicky’s every downward move.

It was a good thing they were doing this in his new house and not his old apartment. They were moaning so loudly, Joe would have gotten an awkward note about that under his door the next morning.

He palmed at the ass a little longer and then moved his hands up to Nicky’s flushed chest, teasing the hard nipples there. Nicky fisted his hands into the pillow. His mouth was wide open, his eyes were screwed shut. “My cock… please, my cock!” He whined desperately.

Joe took him in hand, ready to work his orgasm out of him, but at the very first touch, come shot out onto his stomach and chest and all he had to do was milk him.

“Oh, fuck! I’m- Sorry!” He managed between his cries.

Joe hushed him and let him ride out his orgasm, ignoring how painfully hard he himself was and that Nicky’s slowing movements weren’t enough to get him over the edge, even as his tight hole pulsed and clenched around him.

With an exhale the man collapsed on top of him, knocking the breath out of Joe in a chuckle.

“Sorry…” He murmured into the crook of his neck. “I thought you were close too.”

“I’m am close. So close,” He ground out and then laughed at himself and at the lazy, apologetic whine in return. With a wolfish grin he flipped them over, causing Nicky to yelp. He pulled out of his warm body, stripped off the condom and settled on his knees between Nicky’s splayed thighs. At just the touch of his knuckles against the soft skin, Nicky spread his legs wider for him. Joe feasted on the side of him. The satisfied, tired look on his face. The smear of come on his chest that matched his own. His cock still swollen but not hard enough anymore to stand up, resting heavily against his belly instead. His pink hole and the way his thighs, taint, and ass glistened with the mess of lube.

Joe inched closer and directed the long, limp legs around his waist. He leaned over the other man, balancing his weight on one hand as he stroked himself with the other, all the while looking into those incredible eyes. It didn’t take long until he marked him with streaks of white. Much more satisfying than coming into a condom.

He let out a breathy laugh when he was finished and dropped down onto the mattress next to Nicky.

“Sorry,” Nicky said again, although he didn’t sound all that apologetic, just sated. “My timing was off there.”

“No worries.”

He lifted his head off the pillow and looked down at himself. “… I’m gonna have to use your shower again.”

“Yep.” He smirked. “Wanna shower together?”

They did. Although they were both too spent to do more than kiss and playfully pinch each other.

“I really can’t convince you to stay?” Joe asked again, absentmindedly toweling himself off while watching Nicky button up his jeans.

“My bed at home is much more comfortable than a mattress on the floor.”

“Ah…” He shook his head and chuckled. “Tuesday, then? Will you come over Tuesday and spend the night?”

“And first help you build the bed, I suppose?”

“We’ll make an evening of it. Order in. I’ll make you a whiskey sour.” He smiled when Nicky closed the distance between them and kissed him, not even that kiss could wipe the smile off his face. But what Nicky said next did.

“I’m sorry, Joe. I don’t think I’m ready yet.” He looked down at the tiled floor of the bathroom. “This was my first time with someone since…” He made a dismissive gesture which of course meant since Keane. “It was a really intense night. Running into him, my first night out, I mean what are the fucking odds?” He snorted. “And you…” He paused and looked at Joe again. “That was intense too. In a good way,” He rushed to say as he must have caught the dejected expression in Joe’s eyes. “But intense nonetheless.”

“Ok.” He gave a curt nod.

“Maybe… I just need to think about it first. And decide on a less intense night.” He offered a smile.

Joe smiled back. “Ok. Look, I’ll-… Let me give you my phone number,” He scrambled to say. “You go sleep in your comfy bed.”

Nicky’s smile widened.

“You call me, or text me. When it’s less intense.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

So there, in his new bathroom, while Joe was naked and Nicky fully dressed, Nicky produced his phone from the pocket of his jeans and handed it over to Joe. He opened up the contacts, noting he only had a handful and he put in his name, Yusuf, and his phone number.

“Yusuf Al-Kaysani,” He said, as he handed the phone back to the other. “That’s me.”

“Very official,” Nicky replied with a smile. “Nicolò Di Genova.”

They shook hands.

“Nice to meet you, Nicolò.” He could barely contain his laughter.

“Nice to meet you too, Yusuf.”

They kissed once more and then Nicky saw himself out.

Joe was certain he would call. His friends were too, once he told them the full story the next day, over lunch, giddy with excitement. Andy and Quynh helped him clean the kitchen and unbox the boxes with kitchen stuff. Booker mostly idled by, finished that six pack of beer and messed with Joe’s head by repeatedly sending him random texts or calling him, tricking him into thinking Nicky was reaching out.

Soon enough it was Tuesday and his furniture was delivered.

He hadn’t heard from Nicky yet, so Nile came over to help him put the bed together and figure out against which wall to put the couch. Joe couldn’t stop talking about Nicky, but Nile was happy to listen. She was much younger than him, but a good friend. They met through Andy. Nile, too, was a former Marine, albeit much more recently retired from active duty. She had helped Joe with his comic, being his source of information when it came to the military aspects of the plot.

“I gotta admit, Joe, I love the comic book, but I enjoy gossiping about your sex life much more,” She admitted with a cheeky grin before finally convincing him that the couch should go against the East wall.

Nile, too, was convinced Nicky would call. Or text. Eventually.

The weekend after that, all three ladies came to help him paint. White wasn’t his color. They brought in buckets of deep, jewel toned colors: dark blue, green, burgundy. They painted the walls and each other. They all cooed and “awed” when Joe wondered aloud if Nicky would like the blue kitchen.

They still went to the bar like clockwork; every Friday. Weeks went by and Nicky hadn’t called, hadn’t texted, and hadn’t shown up at the bar either.

His friends were starting to carefully prepare him for the let-down.

“You should probably consider yourself lucky. You would have just been his rebound guy – if you were the first since Keane.”

Keane had become a bit of an insult in the group. Any random douche bag on the streets they’d describe as a Keane. “Look at that Keane over there.” “Ugh, I went on a Tindr date, but he turned out to be such a Keane.”

It was funny until it wasn’t. Until Joe started to worry that maybe something had happened.

But he had no way to check on Nicky to make sure he was alright. Beyond knowing that he lived close by, he didn’t actually know where. He didn’t have his number either.

Joe started going to that coffee shop on Bushel that Nicky had mentioned, even though Joe liked the one by the park more. They had those Starbucks-esque sugar-coffee-hybrids that the Italian despised, whereas the one on Bushel was authentic, Italian coffee; too bitter and strong for Joe’s liking. Still, he went there more and more often. At the busiest times, hoping to run into him. Once, he even went as far as asking the barista about a guy with an Italian accent and a mole.

It took the alarmed frown of the barista for Joe to realize what a creep he was being. Trying to stalk Nicky.

He left without ordering coffee and never went back.

This kind of possessive, obsessive behavior would surely freak Nicky out if he knew about it.

As much as it pained Joe, it was apparent Nicky had made his decision. He wasn’t interested in more than the one, intense night that they had shared. It was difficult, but Joe had to accept that. He tried not to take it personally and maybe his friends were right. Maybe this was better than being the rebound.

So life went on.

He finished decorating his house and then created a sequel for his comic book, featuring a new character, a mysterious Nico. He went on dates but nothing… inspiring. Nothing… intense.

The sequel was published and his friends urged him to celebrate.

It was just another Friday night.

Nothing special.

No one special.

Again, his friends would take offense to that. A little bit.

Because he had been written a “big, fat check”, rounds were on him again.

“Cheers to volume 2!” Said Andy, once again taking it upon herself to make an official toast.

They all raised their glasses and took a big swig. Nile was with them this time. Lately, that meant Book drank less, so that was good.

Andy and Quynh left at eleven. Quynh was teaching a martial arts class early in the morning. Booker and Nile left half an hour later, together. Booker told Joe not to get any ideas about that.

Yeah right.

He clapped Booker on the shoulder. It was unusual that it was eleven thirty on a Friday night and the man still wasn’t too drunk to stand up straight. But yeah, sure, that had nothing to do with the spunky former Marine who gave him shit for his drinking but also made him laugh so hard he forgot about the drink in front of him.

“I’ll see you guys Sunday,” Joe said, grinning at the two of them.

“God, Joe. Home owner. Published author. Hosting dinner parties. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re almost a responsible adult.”

“Almost,” He replied with a wink. He watched them head out the door and then crossed the space to the bar to settle the tab with the barkeep. When he was handed back his credit card, he caught something.

“I love your accent. Very sexy.”

He rolled his eyes at the drunken drawl. A guy making a last ditch effort to pick someone up to go home with, or else be left to go home alone.

“Italian, right?”

Joe straightened up and looked to his left. Seated at the bar a few feet away, a couple of empty stools and other patrons between them, was a young guy with too many buttons of his shirt undone to be taken seriously. Too much gel in hair. Too smug of a smile on his face. He only had eyes for the man on the bar stool next to his. A man with his back turned to Joe. All Joe could see were broad shoulders, messy brown hair, and his hand toying with a glass of whiskey sour.

“I told you to leave me alone,” The brown-haired, broad-shouldered, whiskey-sour-drinking, Italian man told his suitor with an even tone.

“I know. But you said it so sexily.”

“I just came here for a drink.”

“Let me buy you another.”

“I’m not interested.”

Mister Hair Gel wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Joe shook his head. With his heart going wild in his chest, he pushed off the bar and walked around the other guests and went to stand right by the two of them.

Those Mediterranean eyes widened as they looked up at him. The shapely lips parted slightly in surprise.

Joe didn’t hesitate. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to his mouth. When he pulled back, he simply said: “Hi.”

That adorable, crooked smile appeared. “Hello.” It was barely more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry I’m late. How was work?” He remembered that first meeting like it was yesterday, instead of seven months ago. He didn’t wait for an answer and turned his attention to the other man. “Is this man bothering you, baby?”

The man grumbled under his breath, slid off the stool and scurried away.

Joe took his seat and studied Nicky for a moment. The hair was a little bit longer and he wasn’t clean shaven. He wore silver earrings. “You look good,” He concluded.

“So do you,” Nicky said and, God, that accent was very sexy.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. “How have you been?”

“Good. Congratulations on the new book.”

Joe cocked his head in surprise. “How-?”

“I bought the first one, after we…” He let that trail off and then continued: “Anyway, you know how internet shopping is. As soon as the sequel came out, it was recommended to me. A lot.” He took a drink from his whiskey sour. “Nico, huh?”

Joe blushed somewhat and he scratched sheepishly at the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sorry, is that… weird?”

“No,” He replied easily. “Flattering, really. You truly made me a bad-ass-“

“-mother fucker,” Joe said with him in unison. “Well, the inspiration was all there.”

“I liked how Nico handled Kane. Once and for all.” He smirked. “My therapist would have opinions about that.”

They hadn’t seen each other in seven months and were only meeting for the second time and yet Nicky felt comfortable enough to mention therapy so offhandedly. It reminded Joe of the first time they had met. How intense it had all been. It seemed that was just the way things were between them. Because of that, he decided not to beat around the bush and he asked: “Why didn’t you call?”

Nicky pressed his lips into a taut line and cast his gaze down.

“I’ve gone over it in my head a million times, because at some point I was absolutely convinced you hadn’t called because I mistyped my number. But then I remembered that you know where I live, so if you really-… you could have-… I put in the right number, didn’t I?”

“I assume so. I haven’t tried it.”

Joe nodded dejectedly.

“I thought about it. A million times.”

“Why didn’t you?” He asked again.

“It wouldn’t have been fair to you. You deserve better than being my rebound.”

“That sounds a little bit like a bullshit excuse.”

“I know. It’s not though.”

He chose to believe him. “Have you been with anyone else, since?”

“Uh…” He laughed uncomfortably.

“What I meant is: have you had your rebound?”

A small smile appeared on his lips. “Yes.”

“Do you still have my number?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.” He slid off the stool. “Then give me a call if you’re still interested. If it really wasn’t a bullshit excuse. Because I’m still interested.” He gave him a brave, flirtatious smile and then walked away.

Joe had taken about six steps when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He stopped, but didn’t turn around and fished the phone out of his pocket to see an unknown number calling him. With a near painful grin he brought the phone to his ear.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Chapter Text

“And what is this young man’s name?”

Nicky swallowed. It wouldn’t be his first time lying to his mother, but it never got any easier.

John? Jack? “… Joe?” Great, only the third most generic name he could think of. Future generations will write sonnets of his creative ingenuity.

He shifted the phone from his left ear to his right, with fumbling fingers.

“Joe? Just… Joe?”

“Well, he has a last name, Mamma,” he said petulantly, as if she was crazy for being suspicious. “But he’s just Joe to me.”

“And this is the same man you mentioned at Christmas?”

“Same one,” he chimed. That was the point of the lie, after all. To convince his mother that even he, as a gay man, could be in a committed, loving relationship. It had been the only way to get her to stop nagging at him over Christmas dinner. He hadn’t flown all the way back to Italy for his mother to serve him the same old “you just need to meet the right girl”. 

She chastised him instantly: “No need to be so defensive.”

“It just feels a bit like an interrogation, rather than a conversation.”

“If it feels that way, it’s only because you never share anything. I’m your mother. Yet you leave me no choice but to interrogate you.” She rattled on, slipping into her mother tongue of Sicily, when her husband would prefer her to speak the Genoese dialect. Accusing him, not for the first time, of fleeing their family – abandoning them – and moving across world.

He snorted a laugh. “I moved to London, Mamma.” But to her, Italy was an entire world in and of itself, and anything outside of it, was the other end of the world. With no choice but to suffer her outspoken disappointment, he started gathering the ingredients for dinner. Unable to open the can of tomato sauce one-handed, he resigned and leaned his hip against the counter and amused himself with the thought that he’d be disowned for making pasta with canned sauce instead of using Nonna’s recipe.

Being disowned was a tempting solution when his mother concluded her rant with:

“At least I’ll finally get to meet your Just Joe at the wedding.”


“What did you tell her?” Nile was howling his laughter. Entertained by his misery – disconcertingly so.

“What was I supposed to tell her?” He shot back as he frantically paced back and forth in her studio apartment which was, miraculously, even more cramped than his own. It probably just felt that way with her habit of letting laundry pile up.

“That this Joe-person doesn’t exist. That you made him up to get your parents to stop pestering you about your ‘loveless, gay lifestyle’. That the most committed relationship you’ve had in two years was the weekend you got snowed-in with what was supposed to be a one-night-stand.” She was laughing all the while, barely able to get her words out. “And that that’s your damn prerogative.”

He rolled his eyes and scoffed at the notion. “Yeah, right.”

“What did you actually tell her?”

He stopped and stared at her with desperate eyes. “That I’d love for her to meet him.”

She threw herself back onto the bed, cackling until she was out of breath.

“Look, I tried, okay?” He argued and began pacing again. “I told her he couldn’t get the time off from work. I told her someone had to feed the cat.”

“You don’t have a cat,” she helpfully supplied.

Undeterred, he went on: “I told her it would be expensive to get another plane ticket. I told her it would be awkward, because of the gay-thing, which nobody is thrilled about, least of all Pappa. I told her Vittoria wouldn’t want her gay brother to be gay at her wedding.”

“Ok, Nicky, Nicky!” Nile propped herself up on her elbows. “You’ve stopped speaking English.”

“I tried,” he summarized, not knowing exactly where he lost her. “But she wouldn’t budge! She said that she got the feeling he didn’t want to accompany me and then started questioning whether he even really loved me if he didn’t want to meet my family, or if I even really loved them!” He slumped onto the edge of her bed and deflated at the feel of Nile’s hand on his shoulder. “She guilt-tripped me into bringing my fictitious boyfriend.”

“So now what?”

Even without looking at her, he could tell from the sound of her voice that she was speaking with a big smirk on her face. Instead of angering him, it finally got him to release some of his tension in a chuckle. “Oh God… I guess- I guess I have eight days to find a man named Joe, willing to fly to Italy with me for my sister’s three-day wedding extravaganza and convince my entire family that we’ve actually been together for about ten months.”

Nicky sighed and dropped his head into his hands. He supposed the only real option he had was tell her “Joe” was sick and couldn’t come, although he knew she would recognize it as a lame excuse and just pick apart his relationship and draw into question the entire validity of two men being in love and being in a relationship. It would be a whole discussion, just like Christmas. And his mother and aunts would use the wedding as an elaborate scheme to find him “the right girl”.

Or he could admit that he’d been lying to them since Christmas about being in a relationship and had in fact been single for as long as he’d been living in London. Giving credence to every insulting prejudice his traditional, Catholic family had when it came to homosexuality…

Nicky groaned. “Oh, I’m so fucked.”

“Actually, I know just the guy.”

He snapped his head up and caught Nile’s pleased grin.

“You’re gonna owe me big time.”


His old Peugeot sputtered as he pulled it towards the curb. He leaned over to the passenger window and peered at the sign on the corner of the red brick compartment complex. Once more he checked the address Nile texted him, as if he didn’t know it off the top of his head by now, after fidgeting over the situation for the past week.

It was the right address.

This was it.

He sat back and waited and took his hands off the steering wheel the moment he realized he was wringing it. He watched his sweaty palm prints fade away.

The radio crackled, urging him to give it a slap. That usually did the trick and it did now.

Nicky didn’t pray much anymore, but he’d prayed last night for a freak storm that would ground all air traffic.

“- and clear skies from Plymouth to Leeds. Enjoy this lovely day,” the weatherman said, as if to mock him specifically.

Nile had arranged everything. Much too gleefully, for Nicky’s liking. She was mysterious about it too. But she “knew a guy”. Not a friend, persé, but a friend of her French professor. She’d met him a couple of times and she mentioned a Christmas office party in passing that had her eyes sparkling with mischief. She wouldn’t answer any of Nicky’s questions, like why a college student would go to some lame office party.

Or what the guy’s name was.

Or what he looked like.

Or if he was even gay.

On the fourth day, Nicky was convinced she was setting him up with an assassin, when it was confirmed that the guy was willing to go to Italy with him, but they wouldn’t be able to meet beforehand. Nicky was just instructed to come pick him up at the address on his way to the airport.

“Trust me on this,” Nile kept telling him.

A man stepped out of the building with a stuffed duffel bag flung over his shoulder. He spotted Nicky’s car and made a beeline towards him. The man squinted, trying to make out Nicky’s face through the windshield that reflected sunlight and clear blue, perfect-for-flying, skies.

Nicky’s mouth went dry.

He was exceptionally handsome. It was ridiculous, really. If Nicky was a better, more pious man, he would have first taken note of his warm eyes and the way the corners crinkled as he maintained a kind smile. But no, the first thing Nicky noticed was the way his shirt stretched across his chest. The shadows under his pecs. The strip of abdomen and a trail of dark hair when a gust of wind hiked his shirt up.

Big arms. Big thighs. Big calves.

He was wearing shorts and dio mio.

When the man waved, Nicky waved back.

He approached the car and pulled at the door handle.

Locked.

Fuck.

Nicky stretched out to unlock the door.

The stranger slipped into the passenger seat, muscles visibly working under his shirt. For a moment all Nicky saw was the duffel bag as he brought it up and then maneuvered it into the back through the space between the two front seats.

There was an overwhelming scent of clean laundry, oranges, and sandalwood.

“Hi, I’m Yusuf.” He held out his hand.

Nicky looked at the wide palm and long fingers, many of which adorned with silver rings. He slotted their thumbs together and shook his head. When he looked up again, he finally took note of those inviting eyes, near black with a halo of amber. He had thick, curly hair and a beard to match, but nothing detracted from the strong bone structure underneath.

“And you must be Nicky,” he mercifully said when said Italian remained quiet for an embarrassing stretch of time.

“Yeah. Hi. Sorry. This is weird.” He scratched the back of his neck. His hair was a little damp at the nape. “I don’t even know what Nile told you, exactly.”

“She gave me a sufficient briefing, but you can fill me in on all the details.”

He nodded, he supposed they’d have a fair amount of time for that, during the wait at the airport and the actual flight. He peeled his little car away from the curb and thus their journey began.

There was a lot they needed to discuss, but Nicky didn’t know where to start and the longer he was quiet, to more insurmountable the threshold to speak became. In his distress, his mind wandered as the full reality of the coming four days hit him; how awful and awkward it would be.

“You’re very tense,” Yusuf observed but with zero judgment to his tone.

“Just… not looking forward to this,” he admitted. They stopped at a red light and he focused his gaze on that. Anything to stop sneaking looks at the other man. “Wondering which ring of Hell I’d be condemned to if I called in a bomb threat at Heathrow.”

Yusuf let out a laugh. “Hell? How about prison? That should be your first concern. Pretty guy like you wouldn’t last a day.”

“Wha-?” He looked at him slack-jawed, until cars started honking behind him. The light had turned green. Shit. He raised his hand in apology and took off as fast as could, jostling them both as he made a sharp corner too fast. “Getting into character already?”

“Sure.” Yusuf chuckled.

“So, how did Miss Freeman con you into this?”

“Oh, I owed her one.”

Nicky nodded, that was her Modus Operandi: butting into people’s business for her own entertainment and collecting favors.

Yusuf volunteered: “I’m not out at work and I’d like to keep it that way. Got a little too creative weaving stories about me and ‘my girlfriend’ though and then everyone wanted to meet her. I didn’t know Nile very well – still don’t I suppose – but she caught wind of my predicament and she was game, tagged along, did the rounds with me.”

That would be the Christmas office party then. “Yep, that sounds like her.”

“We had a good time. She’s fun.”

Nicky couldn’t help but smile. “She is.” She was the one constant source of joy in his life. He had no one else who made him feel so accepted, so loved, and who could make him laugh as hard.

“I guess she figured that made me the perfect guy for the job. She was my fake girlfriend and now I’m your fake boyfriend.” He flashed him a toothy grin. All pearly white and straight and perfect.

Nicky scoffed while paying attention to the road as they were nearing the exit. “To anyone other than my own family it would be a tough sell that someone like you would be my boyfriend.”

Yusuf turned his torso in his seat to better face Nicky – who was avoiding eye contact with religious dedication. “Why?”

“Come on.”

The man was silent for a while, then said with that kind tone that Nicky already knew characterized him: “I wasn’t being facetious when I said you’re a pretty guy. You are.”

Facetious? Jesus Christ, the man’s vocabulary might be a big as his- “Right.” He paused to let out a bitter chuckle. “What’s my prettiest feature? The big nose? The big mole? The big bug-eyes?” When he braved a sideway glance he caught a frown. Nicky felt like any second now sweat would be sloshing out of his armpits.

“I can’t tell if you’re being serious or just fishing for compliments.” After a moment of thought, he said: “I see a perfect, Roman nose. A beauty mark. And gorgeous eyes.”

Nicky’s face was burning. He shifted his hands on the steering wheel, not knowing what to do with them, in an attempt to stop him from nervously touching his mouth or his hair. He cleared his throat because a lump was forming. “… Thanks.”

“No problem.” After a pause he added cheekily: “I’m a very supportive boyfriend.”

Nicky grinned. “Good to know.” Antsy to recover from the painfully awkward topic, he joked offhandedly: “I’m actually surprised you’re gay.”

“Really? Isn’t it obvious?”

“With those shoes?” Nicky countered.

Yusuf looked down at his feet. “What’s wrong with my shoes?”

“Nothing. If you weren’t wearing them in combination with those shorts.” He felt proud of himself when he could tell Yusuf was staring at him wide-eyed from the corner of his eye.

“… Rude,” Yusuf said, but around a big smirk.

“I hope you packed some better clothes. You’re going to be judged by Italians.”


They had coffee at the airport.

Well. Nicky had coffee. Yusuf had a coffee-flavored caramel drink with whipped cream. Another thing the Italians would judge him for. Harshly.

As they sipped their drinks and made their way to the gate, Nicky rambled about the situation, to prepare his fake boyfriend.

With no hope that he would actually remember any of the slew of information, he told him the names of his parents, his sisters, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, cousins anyway.

He talk too long about the distinction between Italian, Ligurian, and Genoese – “Zeneize” his family would call it – and the importance of that distinction. He told him the entire family was from Genoa, for so many generations that that was literally what his surname meant. But his mother was from Sicily; a Southerner. That had been a big deal. Sometimes, when certain uncles were drunk enough, that was still a big deal. Another big deal were his mother’s trouble with conceiving, not having Nicky until many years into the marriage.

He talked about his sister Vittoria. They weren’t very close. Nicky was ten years older than her and spent most of his time at boarding school and then the monastery while she was growing up. She was a vapid and self-important personality type that clashed with Nicky. Now she was marrying Michele, the son of wealthy family, giving her the wedding of her dreams.

Nicky had a better relationship with Laura, his even younger sister, although he’d spent even less time with her. She was only twelve; a very late addition to the family, lovingly referred to as “piccolo miracolo”, given that their mother was 45 when she was born. Laura was the only one whose sense of self and sense of worth and pride wasn’t rooted in tradition and religion. Yet. The family had a way of making sure things would eventually turn out that way.

When he mentioned his father, he kept it brief, because it hurt. The extent of his father’s affection for him stopped at plain tolerance. The man had treated him like an inconvenient stranger ever since he came out. 

They were somewhere above France when Yusuf stopped him with a touch, delicately grazing his fingertips over Nicky’s knuckles. “Maybe you should tell me about yourself,” he suggested. “Things a boyfriend would know. And then I’ll tell you about me.”

“Shit. Right. You’re right. Sorry for rambling. Fuck, I haven’t even thanked you yet for doing this.”

“Don’t worry about it. I got a free trip to Italy out of it.” His smile was so easy.

Still, Nicky thanked him for his trouble and he meant it.

“You’re welcome.” He seemed to mean it too. “So? Tell me about yourself. Pretend we’re on a first date.”

“Oh…” He shook his head and laughed. “I’d better not. I’m a mess on first dates.”

“Second date?”

“There usually isn’t a second date.” He shrugged with one shoulder.

“Because you’re a mess,” Yusuf filled in. “Just, tell me. You know what, wait. I got a better idea. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a student.”

“Aren’t you a little old?” Yusuf teased.

“Ouch!”

“Well, aren’t you? How old are you?”

He grimaced. “I turned thirty last month.”

“Thirty-three,” Yusuf said, pointing at himself. “And I’m a travel agent – until that job goes extinct. Which I’m guessing will be… some time tomorrow.” The wink implied he wasn’t too attached to his career. “What do you study?”

“Psychology. A master’s degree and auto-therapy seemed like the cheaper alternative to a lifetime of crying on someone else’s couch,” he joked and he enjoyed that he was able to make Yusuf grin. “I do have a job, parttime as a tour guide at the National Gallery.”

“You like art and art history?”

“I do, yeah.”

It earned him another smile. “Me too.” Yusuf held his gaze for a moment. “What else do you like?”

“Running. But, as a student of psychology, I recognize the Freudian irony of that. I mean, my mother doesn’t exaggerate when she says I fled to the UK.” Realizing he was getting off track and too existential, he said: “I’ve run the London marathon every year since I moved there.”

“I ran it in 2017.”

“Yeah?”

Yusuf nodded. “Hated every single mile except the first and the last.”

“Yeah that sounds about right.”

“And still you did it more than once.”

“Five times. I really love that last mile,” Nicky emphasized.

“You’d have to.”

“So you don’t like running. What do you like?”

Yusuf pondered for a second. “If we’re talking about physical stuff: weight training,”

Obviously.

“But I like cooking too – and eating. Drawing. Painting. I like going to museums,” he said with his lips twitching into a smile. “I play the guitar and the piano. Been taking hip hop dance classes to the amusement of the rest of class; bunch of teenagers who think I’m ancient. I like learning new languages, I’m on my seventh right now: sign language. I have a little plot in a communal garden. So far my sole successful crop was two cucumbers. Don’t judge. Snails are an enemy of the state. Uhm…”

Nicky raised his eyebrows. “There’s more? Wow… you… have a lot of hobbies.”

“Gotta do something to pass the time.”

“Yeah, I guess so. With there being thirty-seven hours in a day and whatnot,” Nicky deadpanned. “Sign language? What are the other six?”

“I had a head start because I grew up bilingual: Arabic and Dutch. Then English, French, Spanish, and Italian.”

“Well, that’ll come in handy.”

“I’ve actually been told there is a very important difference between Italian and Ligurian and the Zeneize dialect.” He grinned at him.

He really was paying attention. “Show-off.”

“What else? Besides running.”

“Uhm…” Nicky felt wholly inadequate now, pretend-dating the eighth Wonder of the World over there. “Spending time with friends?”

Yusuf narrowed his eyes at him. “Why do you say that like it’s embarrassing?”

“Because it’s not the piano and sign language and cucumbers!”

Yusuf let out a laugh, loud enough to startle the snoring man across the aisle. “Nicky, the reason I have time for all those things, is because I don’t spend a lot of time with friends. I don’t have a lot of friends. Only one actually.”

“The French professor Nile is shagging?” Nicky surmised.     

Another laugh. “Shagging? Wow, congratulations, Sir. You are British now. But, yeah that’s the one.”

There was something about the way Yusuf was looking at him, his gaze unwavering and steadfast, that made Nicky blush.

“What do you and your friends do together?”

“Make bad decisions.” Nicky’s face went redder still when that elicited another rumbling laugh from the man.

“Like bringing fake boyfriends to meet your parents?”

“And other ill-advised endeavors of that caliber, yes.”

He gave him a closed-lipped smirk. “I can get on board with that.”

“Well, yeah, you already did,” Nicky pointed out and gestured around himself. He literally got “on board” – a plane – with it.

“And no regrets.”


It wasn’t until the taxi was driving through familiar streets when it hit Nicky: “Shit. Shit!”

“What?”

“We didn’t come up with how we met. It’s the first thing she’s gonna ask.”

“I assumed she already had and that you’d have a story ready.”

“I don’t!” He exclaimed in a panic that only seemed to bemuse the other.

“Ok, calm down. Curb that Italian temperament. Remember: you are British now. Cool as a cucumber.” He winked. “We’ll just tell an approximation of the truth: that a mutual friend set us up on a blind date and we got on like a house on fire.”

Nicky frowned, unfamiliar with the figure of speech.

Understanding the confusion, Joe explained: “Just that we instantly got along very, very well.”

Was that the real truth or a version of the truth? Nicky asked himself. After only knowing him for a few hours, Nicky already liked him a lot and he liked to think that they really did “get on like a house on fire”. But maybe Yusuf was mostly just humoring him, in exchange for the free trip to Italy.

“Ok, yeah, sounds good,” Nicky agreed.

“Ten months, right?”

“Yeah, I told my mom at Christmas that I’d been dating someone since my exams in October.”

“Ok. So more like eleven, then. I need to start planning something special for our anniversary,” Yusuf said, without anything on his features betraying that it was part of a ruse.

Oh, he’s good.

That gave Nicky hope, but at the same time made him wonder if the connection he felt with the man was genuine.

The cab stopped at the end of the streets. Dust flew up around the vehicle. Nicky didn’t actually lay eyes on his childhood home until he got out of the car and the dust was settling around him.

Before him, at the end of a driveaway nestled between two other homes, was the terracotta house, overgrown with bougainvillea. It was a modest house in every way except the way that mattered most in a seaside city: the view. The second floor balcony – which was actually the floor with the living room and the kitchen, the bedrooms were downstairs – had an unobstructed view of the marina and the Mediterranean beyond.

Yusuf got his duffel bag and Nicky’s suitcase out of the trunk while Nicky stood distracted, flooded by memories, both good and bad.

They would be spending the night at his parent’s house and then tomorrow the entire family would head up to Turin, where Michele was from and where the wedding would be held.

He startled at the touch of a hand at the small of his back.

“Ready?” Yusuf asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” That wasn’t true. He could be better prepared. Much better. And he’d much prefer to have a few more days to study with Yusuf, get their stories straight and learn more about each other. If he was caught in this lie, it wouldn’t only be mortifying, it would be the worst case of I-told-you-so.

I told you you would never find a man to love you and to be with you the way a woman would.”

“Oh, one more thing,” he told Yusuf.

The man waited expectantly, with patient eyes.

“Before I came out, before I moved to London, before I studied Psychology… I was studying to become a priest.”

Yusuf looked like he was about to have a nosebleed. “What?” He hissed. “That’s- Bit of a bomb- Wha-?“

Nicky shrugged, he took his suitcase from his “boyfriend” and started up the driveway, taking some pleasure in being able to make the eloquent man stumble on words.

It was unbearably hot outside - courtesy of global warming – but inside the house it was cool. They took the side door, which was unlocked and they left their luggage in the narrow hallway. The bedrooms were on either side. Ahead was the staircase up to the living space.

“Mamma?” He didn’t bother calling out for his father.

Yusuf trailed after him, probably still mulling over his confession. It wasn’t uncommon for that tidbit of information to leave quite the impression on people.

Upstairs the balcony doors were open and the curtains moved in the refreshing breeze. The sea was impossibly blue. Most of the interior was white, except for the lounge chair that had belonged to his grandfather. Ever since Nicky was a little boy, it was an unspoken rule that only his father, and his grandfather whenever he came to visit, were allowed to sit in it.

A figure shifted on a patio chair. “Nico?”

In spite of everything, the sound of his mother’s voice made him tear up. He was halfway across the living room by the time she had gotten up and walked through the doors and they both paused for a second before pulling each other into an embrace.

She was a thin and short woman, but strong as a leonessa, she’d always say. She was dressed in a flowy, white frock. Her skin was wrinkled and tanned, much more so than it had been at Christmas and her blonde hair had whitened.

She pulled back and cupped his face in her bony hands and he could feel that strength of the leonessa as she squeezed him with joy. “Topolino mio,” she cooed.

Right. She was a lioness and he was a little mouse. Although, it wasn’t even the worst of her nicknames for him.

“Let me look at you. Dio mio, you lost all the weight I put on you over your Christmas visit.” She touched his silver earrings and almost managed to hide her discontent at that accessory.

“Mamma,” he straightened up and stepped aside so he was no longer blocking her view of her guest. “I’d like you to meet Yusuf.”

Her brows furrowed. “Yusuf? What happened to Joe?”

Nicky’s stomach twisted. Shit, did he literally already screw up?

But Yusuf stepped in to rescue him. He shook her hand. “Yusuf Al-Kaysani, officially, but you’d honor me by calling me Joe, Francesca.”

Nicky was impressed by his smooth way of handling that and the fact that he had remembered her name, given the amount of information Nicky had dumped on him. It was almost perfect. Almost. Joe’s Italian was impeccable, but it was not…

“Joe, it is a pleasure, but we don’t speak that tongue in our house.” At least she was a little playful about it, rather than berating him. That had something to do with the fact that she had often admitted to being sick of getting called out for slipping into Sicilian amidst the Genoese.

“I’m sorry,” He said in English and his gaze flicked towards Nicky.

His Italian would still come in handy. He’d be able to follow conversation reasonably well, the languages had enough in common that he should be able to decipher key root words. But he wouldn’t score any points speaking central Italian in the Di Genova household. Nicky probably should have done a better job warning him against that.

His mother invited them to take a seat on the balcony and she poured them all refreshing drinks while informing both that Domenico – Nicky’s father – had gone fishing and Laura was at a friend’s house. The rest of the family was busy packing for the three-day wedding and they wouldn’t meet up with most of them until the hotel in Turin tomorrow. Although they were expected at Nonna’s for dinner. She fetched a light snack for them as well, not willing to ruin their appetite, and then finally sat down with them.

Nicky took a moment to watch Yusuf, as the man enjoyed the view of the sea, marveling at the yachts in the marina and the colorful houses on the cliffs.

“Did you have a good flight, Patatino?” She spoke in English, but of course she had to slip in one of her nicknames for him.

Yusuf drew his gaze away from the view then and pressed his lips together in an attempt not to laugh. He may not speak Genoese but he knew damn well that meant little potato.

“It was fine. Quick.”

“Always when you come you say the flight was fine,” she mused, pausing to take a sip, “makes a mother think it would be hardly any trouble at all to fly home more often.”

Wow, she came out swinging. “It’s a little more complicated, Mamma. I have classes and my job.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Tell me, how did you two meet?”

Nicky and Yusuf exchanged a look and then Yusuf said what they had rehearsed in the cab.

“Oh.”

“Did you expect us to meet on a Pride float?” Nicky bit reactively.

“Mind your tone,” Francesca snapped. “And, no, of course not. It’s just a little mundane, is all. The way Domenico and I met was a fairytale,” she spoke to Yusuf, her eyes sparkling. “Truly. It involved him returning one of my lost shoes and everything.”

Yusuf smiled. “We still have time for our own fairytale.” And he reached out and briefly held onto Nicky’s hand.

Nicky’s heart skipped a beat.

He’s really good.

The conversation soon steered towards the wedding, how busy Francesca had been with preparations, how nervous Vittoria was, how excited Laura was to be a flower girl, how proud Domenico was to walk his daughter down the aisle. Then she went on and on about how wonderful Michele was and what a great family he came from.

Nicky supposed it was easier this way and that he ought to be grateful. There was less chance of them being caught in their lie with her not showing much of any interest in Nicky’s and Joe’s relationship or in Joe as a person. But he didn’t feel grateful. He felt annoyed and hurt. At the same time he didn’t feel comfortable expressing that, so he kept a smile plastered on his face and listened and he swallowed down what he wanted to ask her: “You spent so much time nagging me that I never tell you about my life and now you’re not even interested when it’s right in front of you?”

His body went rigid when his father suddenly stepped out onto the balcony. Even in the open air he caught the stench of fish and beer. The man didn’t say anything.

“Domenico, this is Joe,” Francesca said, gesturing at the man.

His father didn’t even spare him a look. In Genoese he said: “I’m going to clean the fish and then take a shower.”

“Your mother is expecting us at seven,” she reminded him.

He glanced down at his watch and then mumbled something incoherent and disappeared again.

Francesca forced on a smile when she faced the two younger man. “You two might want to use the bathroom to freshen up first. And you can put your suitcase in your old bedroom, Nico. You still remember how to find it?”

He ignored the jab at how rarely he came to visit and invited “Joe” to follow him. He led him back downstairs and they fetched their luggage and stepped into Nicky’s childhood bedroom.

It was exactly the way he had left it. Bright blue walls, a small desk under the window, a big bookcase next to it, and a big cross over the twin bed. The only thing different was the made-up air mattress, on the far side of the room from his bed.

“I take that to mean they won’t appreciate any semblance of intimacy while we are under their roof?”

“… Yep. At least that’s one thing that won’t be a problem for us.”

“Hm.”

What did that mean? “Hm?”

They took turns freshening up in the bathroom before Domenico would commandeer it and changed into clean, airy clothes as well.

When Nicky finished up in the bathroom and rejoined Yusuf in the bedroom, he caught him looking at the cross over his bed. He stood with his hands on his hips and a pensive frown shaping his brows. Nicky closed the door behind him, so they would have a moment of privacy before dinner.

“Almost became a priest, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” There was no judgment in his tone, only curiosity.

“Becoming celibate seemed like a better idea than coming out to my parents.”

Yusuf’s expression turned sympathetic. “Didn’t work out that well though.”

“Clearly.” He leaned back against the door. “Lots of cute guys at the monastery.”

Yusuf grinned.

“I got expelled for- Well… you know…”

“I’m taking the liberty of picturing certain things, yeah.” His suggestive grin was absolutely filthy.

“So I had to bite the bullet. Came out and basically fled the country. Didn’t even call the first year.”

“That must have been hard,” Yusuf said, voice soft.

“Not on my father, but it really broke my mom and Laura-“

Yusuf smiled. “I meant hard for you, Nicky.”

“Oh.” He swallowed. “Yeah, that too. Anyway, mom’s been trying to reintegrate me bit by bit since then. I’m not sure if it’s working out. We have, what I call, Selective Love, for one another and I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“Selective Love?”

“She loves me,” Nicky explained, pushing off the door and moving to sit on the edge of his bed. His hands became clammy when Yusuf sat down next to him, close enough for their shoulders to touch, so he wiped his palms on his slacks. “But she doesn’t love all of me. She loves that I’m smart, and kind, and good with kids, and helped take care of my grandparents, and that I’m fluent in Genoese and Sicilian.”

Yusuf nudged him. “Ok, Mister Humble Brag.”

His lips curved into a smile, only momentarily. “But she doesn’t love the earrings, and the hair, and that I don’t go to Church anymore – not even at Christmas – and that I don’t like fishing or soccer, and that all my friends are women but I’m… gay.” He took a deep breath and then looked up from his hands to meet Yusuf’s gaze, seeing nothing but understanding and empathy there.

But then those eyes crinkled in the corners and he put on a mock expression of disgust and asked: “You don’t like soccer?”

He let out a wet laugh. Then he continued in all seriousness: “And I’m no better than her. I love how caring she is, how protective she is, her loyalty to the family, her cooking, how she dances when she’s tipsy… But I don’t love that she’s still trying to set me up with women, and that she doesn’t celebrate my love the way she does her own, or Vittoria’s, and that she sets up my boyfriend’s bed on the far side of the room, and… that she prays for me every night because she believes I’ll burn in Hell.” He let out a grunt like he’d been punched in the gut and he doubled over, burying his face in his hands.

He breathed deeply through his nose in an effort to stay in control of his emotions.

This was his fake boyfriend sitting next to him. Not a real boyfriend. He shouldn’t get vulnerable with him like this. A big hand landed on his back but he flinched involuntarily in response and just like that the touch was gone. He got up from the bed and shook out his arms to rid himself of the tension in his body. He purposefully kept his back turned towards Yusuf until he was certain his control over his emotions wouldn’t crack.

He scrubbed his face with his hands, assuring himself he hadn’t cried and turned around. With defeat he let his arms fall down to his sides. “It’s a big deal that they’re trying. I mean, my boyfriend is invited to dinner at my grandparents. It’s a big deal. I should just be grateful that they’re trying and I should try too.”

Yusuf held his gaze and Nicky wished he could tell what he was thinking.

He chuckled bitterly. “Shit. Sorry. I’m ruining your free vacation.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he was quick to assure him and that was nice of him. Even though he was only there to settle a debt he owed Nile.

Francesca barged in without knocking and announced it was time for dinner.

It was only a five-minute drive to his grandparents but it was excruciating, sitting behind his father while the man didn’t say a single word or even acknowledged him. Francesca valiantly kept the conversation going, but she had an uphill battle ahead of her tomorrow, during the two hour drive to Turin.

Nonna was waiting at the door to greet them. “Piccolo Nicolò!” She exclaimed, reaching grabby hands out for him, causing him to smile. She squeezed his face like his mother had and peppered kisses on him.

“Nonna, it’s good to see you.”

“Mamma, this is Joe,” Francesca cut in and she didn’t introduce him any further. The entire family knew what his relationship with Joe was – what they thought they knew it was – but it would hung unspoken in the air. It was the only way the family could be expected to deal with it.

Nonna gave him a polite smile and a nod in greeting, but did not shake his hand.

Yusuf took it all in stride, seemingly unbothered.

Laura came running across the yard. “Nico! Nico! Nico!” She collided with him and he lifted her off the ground and hugged her to his chest.

They all gathered around the table in the back yard and ate pasta with the home-made sauce that Nicky had thought about last week. His Nonna would die of a heart attack if he’d mention the canned sauce.

His grandparents didn’t speak English and his father refused to, so the conversation meandered from here to there in Genoese. As predicted, it appeared Yusuf could understand the general gist of things. He listened, ate his pasta and soaked up every last bit of sauce with bread, stuffing his mouth less than gentlemanly, which suddenly drew everyone’s attention and made them laugh.

Everyone except Domenico.

Yusuf grinned around a mouthful of sauce and bread.

Nicky was overwhelmed with an inexplicable fondness and when he caught sight of a glob of red in his beard, he reached out his napkin and dabbed him clean without thought.

Laura, who was sitting at their end of the table and was losing interest in the grown-up talk, fixed her gaze on her brother and remarked in English: “Your hair is even longer than last time.”

“Uh, yeah.” He couldn’t tell if she liked it or not. His mother had told him repeatedly to cut it, during practically every phone call between Christmas and now. He supposed it was an act of defiance that he hadn’t even had it trimmed in the months in between. It was almost down to his shoulders, half of it was up in a messy bun, so it was out of his face. He liked how longer hair looked on him, but in warm weather he couldn’t be bothered with having it in his face and stick to forehead.  

She cocked her head and with a mischievous grin she wondered: “Aren’t man-buns a little too 2011 though?”

Yusuf snorted a laugh but deliberately avoided Nicky’s betrayed stare and drank his wine.

He shot back: “Your shirt is 1990.”

She was all teeth when she said: “Your face is 1990.”

“She’s not wrong,” Yusuf muttered and then quickly put his wine glass to his lips again.

Nicky swatted him with his napkin and the man sputtered into his wine.

Laura continued bantering back and forth with Nicky for the rest of the evening and Yusuf kept siding with her. Later she was sandwiched between them as they drove back home and kept pinching him in the ribs. At home she showed him the mural she was painting on her bedroom wall.

He had missed her, he realized with a twang in his heart.

When Francesca ordered Laura to go to bed, Nicky retreated to his bedroom, where Yusuf lay on his back on the air mattress, on top of the sheets, in nothing but a shirt and boxers. He was reading one of the books he had picked out of the bookcase. Something Nicky once had to read for school.

Yusuf lay the open book down on his chest, giving him his undivided attention. “Hey.”

“Hey.” He fought not to let his gaze travel down those muscular legs, crossed at the ankle.

“She’s a smart mouth.”

“Yeah.” He lowered himself onto his bed, leaning his weight back on his hands.

“For what it’s worth, I like the man-bun.”

Nicky rolled his eyes at him.

“The face too.”

“Sure, sure. ‘Perfect Roman nose’, I remember.”

“Mmm. And that’s about the only thing you got from your dad.”

He sighed. “Let’s hope so.” He felt incredibly exposed as Yusuf studied him with that thoughtful expression that characterized him as equally as did his kindness and understanding.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I’m-…” He stopped because he knew he wouldn’t be able to put it into words anyway. “Thank you, for doing this. I was thinking at dinner how much this would suck without you here. My mother would have paraded me by every eligible bachelorette this side of the harbor. Telling me the same thing she always tells me. That if I’d just find ‘the right girl’…”

Yusuf offered his a smile.

“What about your family?”

The question caught him off guard. “Oh…” He put aside the book and propped himself up on his elbows. “Well, I suppose I don’t really have a family. Only child. My dad I never knew. Didn’t have any aunts or uncles or grandparents around, they were in Tunisia and my mom and I were living in the Netherlands. She cut ties with them. She died ten years ago. It’s been just me since then.”

Nicky blanched. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. To answer what I think you were actually asking: my mom was fine with me being gay. Heck, I think she liked it, even. She liked anything that went against tradition, against the norm.”

He smiled at that and was relieved Yusuf mirrored it. “She sounds like an interesting woman.”

“She was. Very much so.” He flashed teeth with a wily smile. “She would have liked you.”

For no logical reason whatsoever, that warmed Nicky’s heart.


A restless night, an awkward breakfast, and a two hour drive later, they arrived in Turin and pretty much the entire Di Genova family was in the lobby of the Turin Palace Hotel.

Laura, Francesca, and Domenico were hugged and kissed by everyone. Nicky wasn’t all that popular with the extended family anymore, but most were at least willing to shake his and “Joe’s” hand.

“The beautiful bride!” Domenico said, coming alive with enthusiasm and admiration. “And my son-in-law!” He grabbed Michele’s face and kissed him.

“Nico,” Vittoria acknowledged as she approached him and she gave him an embrace that felt like an ice water bath.

“Vittoria, congratulations again.” He didn’t have much else to say to her, other than: “You look radiant.”

Yusuf stepped forward and held out his hands. “Vittoria, hello. I’m Joe. Congratulations.”

She shook his hand as she looked him up and down and then fixed her gaze on Nicky to scrutinize him once more. “Are you planning on getting a haircut before the wedding?”

“No.” His voice was even but still he couldn’t stop himself from self-consciously tucking a lock of hair that had escaped the bun behind his ear.

She pursed her lips. “Will you at least take out the earrings?”

“I can do that,” he conceded. It didn’t seem like an unfair request.

She nodded and then walked off without another word.

“Huh.”

Nicky looked over his shoulder at Yusuf.

“She, too, has your dad’s nose.” He pulled one corner of his mouth up in a smile. “Looks better on you.”

Nicky laughed but quickly silenced when Laura bounced over to ask him what was so funny.

They checked into their room. Michele’s parents were paying for everything, thankfully. Everyone was told to go to their rooms, get changed and rest. The families would meet for lunch in the Grand Hall of the hotel, which they had rented for all three days.

When they walked into the hotel room, Nicky realized his twin bed and the air mattress separated by three meters wasn’t so bad after all. There was one queen-sized bed that they would be sharing for the next two nights and he was reminded once again that they were not boyfriends – they barely knew each other.

Yusuf strutted into the room unfazed. He put his duffel bag down in one of two lounge chairs by the balcony doors and unpacked. Nicky followed his lead.

The suits they had been instructed to bring, had gotten very wrinkled during travel, but Yusuf brought them both down to reception to ask the concierge to have them dry cleaned and pressed.

In his absence Nicky stepped out onto the balcony and took in the unobstructed view of the city. His dad had to hate that his little girl was getting married in Turin as opposed to his beloved Genoa. And yet he had been all smiles since they arrived.

Jealousy was an ugly thing.

He startled when the door behind him slid open.

“Sorry.” Yusuf came to stand beside him, leaning on the railing as Nicky did. “Our suits will be ready later today. A maid will bring them up to our room. Benefits of such a fancy hotel. This Michele guy must really be quite the heir. How many Di Genova’s and Fortarezza’s were downstairs? Must have been at least fifty. Putting everyone up in a room in a hotel like this…” He whistled.

“You’re impressed.” He couldn’t help his dejected tone. Everyone just loved this damn Michele.

Yusuf turned to face him, leaning his hip against the railing. “What I’m saying is: any old-fashioned dad would proud of his daughter marrying a guy like that, no matter what.” After a pause he added: “Especially a daughter with a nose like that.”

“Hey!” But he laughed too hard to pull off indignation.

“It looks good on you,” he reiterated. “On her tiny face? Not so much.”

“That’s my sister you’re talking about.”

“I don’t want you to be jealous of her. Of your dad being proud of her.”

Nicky straightened up and stared at him wide-eyed. “Is one of your hobbies mindreading, or…?”

Yusuf chuckled, but he was being serious when he said: “You deserve for your dad to be proud of you. He should be.” Then his inflection changed again and with mirthful eyes he said: “I mean, sure, she snared a millionaire, but you landed a guy like me.”

He snorted and dropped his head, hiding his smile. “Jesus Christ.” But he didn’t though. Not really. He didn’t have a guy like Yusuf – a guy like “Joe”.

“Blasphemy!” He pinched Nicky in his side, just like Laura had. To make him laugh, just like Laura had.

It worked.

They took turns taking a shower and changed into more presentable clothes and went down to the Grand Hall for the family lunch. Right before the elevator doors opened on the ground level, Yusuf took hold of Nicky’s hand, lacing their fingers together. He didn’t think the family would appreciate any show of affection, but he didn’t want to let go. He squeezed Yusuf’s hand and let him guide him to the Grand Hall.

There were round tables with white table cloths, flower arrangements and name cards. It didn’t surprise Nicky that they didn’t exactly have the “best seats in the house”. They were a few tables removed from the table where his sisters, his parents and Michele and his parents were seated.

Nicolò Gabriela Matteo Luca Di Genova, his table card read in gold-leaf script.

Yusuf’s just said “Joe” but he showed it off with pride and then made fun of Nicky’s mouthful of a name.

Before lunch was served, Michele’s father and grandfather made a speech. It was dreadfully boring and suddenly their seats weren’t so bad anymore as Nicky and Yusuf made exaggerated, exhausted faces at each other.

The actual lunch didn’t make up for much. Several courses of tiny culinary experiments, more than one involving caviar.

Yusuf caught him sniffing some fish mousse on a cracker and scrunching up his nose and leaned in to whisper: “We have some time to ourselves after this, right?”

Nicky nodded.

“Wanna go get real food?”

He nodded again, eagerly.

Between courses, his aunt Giulia made small talk with them, willing to switch to the Florentine dialect for Joe’s benefit when it became clear to her he was fluent in that tongue. She was kind and showed interest in them as individuals, but didn’t ask a single question about their relationship.

Near the end of the lunch, Laura was tasked to hand out itineraries for the coming days. The events were color coded to indicate which family members were invited to which events. Nicky and Joe were only expected at every dinner, lunch, and breakfast, a photo session, the rehearsal dinner and the party afterwards, and the wedding ceremony and the reception.

The happy couple and both sets of parents and grandparents were going to the church this afternoon. Laura would be spending most of the days with cousins her own age, at the pool and trips into town, chaperoned by aunts from both families.

“Come on, let’s go.” Yusuf took hold of his hand again and Nicky followed him out of the hotel and onto the streets.

Using directions on their phones they found a bustling market, where you could find everything under the sun. They zigzagged through the market, buying finger foods at several stands until long after they were both stuffed and rifling through everything from second-hand trinkets to knock-off designer handbags to electronics.

Yusuf bought a pair of sunglasses, that looked unfairly flattering on him, a silver ring with a seafoam colored crystal to add to the collection he wore on his hands, a poetry book, and a Fidora. Because “when in Rome” he’d said, with complete, blatant, and unapologetic disregard for the fact that they were in Turin and only douche bags and mobsters wore Fidora’s.

Of course… Yusuf managed to make it look good.

Everything seemed to delight Yusuf. He enthusiastically made his way from one stand to the next, inspecting every worthless trinket like treasure and testing every gadget.

It was infectious and Nicky happily trotted along.

He stood by, sipping from the bottle of water they’d gotten midway through the market while Yusuf nosed around and conversed with the woman manning the stand.

“Nicky.” With a touch to his bicep, Yusuf urged him to face him.

“Hm?” He blinked when Yusuf reached out and clasped a necklace closed behind his neck. His fingers and rings brushing his skin in a way that made him feel heated. He looked down but the chain was too short for him to see the pendant, so he reached up to inspect it with his fingertips.

Yusuf confirmed the price with the women, didn’t haggle - even though he probably should have – and handed her some cash.

“Yusuf, no. I can’t accept this.”

“Let me buy this for you. I want to.”

“But-“

“It’ll look good, to your family. As your boyfriend, I’m supposed to buy you something nice.”

Oh. Even though Yusuf was showing him a very attractive smile, Nicky struggled not to grimace. He distracted himself by figuring out what the pendant was. It was a small, crescent moon. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Yusuf looked very pleased. He touched the pendant, adjusting it, fingers dipping into the hollow of his collarbone. “Looks good on you.”

It felt silly thanking him again, so Nicky said nothing.

They kept walking until they found a fountain breaking up the rows of stands and they took a seat on the edge to rest and drink their water.

“Enjoying your free vacation?”

Yusuf flashed him a grin. “So far so good.”

“You know, you don’t have to spend all day with me. You can go off on your own, if you want.”

The man stared at him, eyes unreadable behind his fashionable sunglasses. “But I’m having fun. With you.”

“Ok.” Then he braved: “Me too.” Just because they weren’t real boyfriends, didn’t mean they couldn’t be real friends.

There was enough time left for some sight seeing and they ruined their appetite with a slice of pizza but they justified it by reasoning dinner would be just as pretentious and unsatisfying as lunch. Then they went back to their hotel room to freshen up.

Their suits for the wedding were hanging off the closet door.


Dinner was a dull affair and the portions meager, as predicted. But matters took a turn for the better when that same aunt and uncle they had been seated next to for lunch left the table for their early bedtime and Laura was quick to claim the seat closest to Nicky and started telling him and “Joe” about her day. Her story was laced with the enthusiasm only a child – and Yusuf – could have, for the menial, little things in life.

She was even more excited about tomorrow, because her and the other kids would be going to the aquarium and it would be good inspiration for the mural in her bedroom, which depicted a colorful coral reef, fishes to match, and the silhouettes of whales in the distance.

“Joe” expressed his regret that he hadn’t taken a look at her mural himself. In response, Laura pulled her phone out of the pocket of her dress – “my dress has pockets, isn’t that great?” – and she must have shown him a hundred pictures of the progress and the little details and Yusuf, bless his heart, never ran out of patience. His admiration of her creativity was sincere and Nicky loved the way Laura’s face lit up at his lavish compliments.

“Joe would know,” Nicky chimed in, admittedly feeling a little left out of the conversation. “He’s a painter too.” He remembered that was one of Yusuf’s many, many hobbies.

“Show me!” Laura prodded, putting her phone away. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

With a shy smile Yusuf opened a photo album on his phone and then handed it to her.

Nicky leaned over her shoulder as she swiped through the images and he was amazed at the art that was on display. One beautiful painting after another. Vibrant, skillful, with a touch of dreamy surrealism and raw honesty in the sketched style of outlining. He struggled to hide how impressed he was. After all, Joe was his boyfriend of ten months, this shouldn’t be the first time he was seeing his art. He shot him a look which he hoped wordlessly communicated how much he was in awe of his art.

Laura was vocal with her praise and Yusuf said a single, soft “thank you”, looking at Nicky all the while.

A cousin came to fetch Laura. Five of them were going upstairs to watch a movie and she eagerly ran off with them.

“You’re incredible,” Nicky said.

Yusuf shrugged. “I told you: I’m a catch.”

“You most certainly are.” He wished he could be sarcastic about that.

“Wanna go out for a drink?”

Nicky frowned. “Here the drinks are free.”

“I know. But I’d rather for us to be able to talk freely.”

“Uhm… alright.”

They were already halfway through the lobby towards the exit when Francesca came chasing after them, her heels making delicate clicks and clacks on the marble floor. She called out: “Topolino!”

Nicky spun around. “Mamma!” He hissed and he caught the receptionist chuckling.

“Nico, where are you going?”

“Joe and I are going out for drinks.”

She pursed her lips. “Why are you running off? I was hoping we could actually spend some time together.”

“Ahuh. Is that why Joe and I are seated three tables over?”

“I’m not in charge of the seating arrangements, Nico. And don’t strike that tone with me,” she scolded him, fierce like the leonessa she was. “Pascal and Emma are retiring for the night, you two can come join us at our table.”

“Your table? With Vittoria and Pappa?” That prospect did not entice him. Both could hardly tolerate the sight of him.

She sighed but mercifully she did not turn it into a discussion. “Fine. But I’d like you to come with me tomorrow. I need a new dress for the photo session and rehearsal dinner. Emma just told me she’s wearing something blue. I can’t be wearing something blue as well! It’s ridiculous for the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom to show up in practically the same dress.” She made big gestures with her hands as she spoke.

“You want me to come dress shopping with you?”

“Isn’t that one of the benefits of having a gay son?” Francesca asked innocently.

He clenched his jaw shut, choosing to take that as an olive branch as opposed to one of her many, unwittingly harmful prejudices. He conceded: “I’ll go shopping with you.” After that she was all smiles and she pressed a kiss to his cheek. The she wished them both good night and went back to the dining hall.

Yusuf was giggling and reached out a hand for Nicky face. Before he knew what was happening, his fake boyfriend was rubbing his cheek with his thumb, while holding his chin in his other hand. “Lipstick,” he explained.

“Ah. Thanks.”

“Let’s go.”

Yusuf wasn’t joking when he said he wanted them to be able to talk freely. As they waited for a cab out front, he scrolled through his phone in search of something, ignoring Nicky’s inquiries, and then gave the cab driver an address that made the man shoot them both a look through the rear view mirror.

Twenty minutes later they were dropped off at a bar that turned out to be very much a gay bar.

Nicky laughed as he was led inside, stepping into the smell of cologne and the good beat of an eighties track. God, how could he fault his mother for her stereotypes when some of them were so true?

Yusuf found them two empty stools at the far end of the bar, away from the bulk of the crowd and the speakers. As soon as they sat down they were each served a pink concoction with an umbrella and fruits floating in the drink.

“First drink, on the house,” said the barkeep routinely and as fast as he had appeared, he was gone again.

Yusuf took an experimental sip. His expression was pleased. “Mmm. Triple berry martini. Also known as ‘Love Potion’.” He winked. “A fruity Love Potion.” He used the umbrella to skewer one of the strawberries to eat.

“Love Potion? How do you know that?” He took a drink himself and it was good. Sweet but strong.

“Took a bartending class a few years back.”

Nicky rolled his eyes. Another one of Yusuf’s hobbies. “Is there anything you haven’t taken a class in?”

“Oh plenty. Many things I’m just naturally gifted at.” He looked at him suggestively and wiggled his eyebrows, drawing a laugh from Nicky.

“Seriously, are there even things left for you to do? Is there anything on your bucket list you haven’t tried yet?”

“Plenty,” he said again with a grin, but he didn’t elaborate and Nicky thought he saw a longing in his eyes.

But that might just be the Love Potion goggles.

“What about you? What are the things you want to do?”

Nicky first finished his drink and then started picking out the pieces of fruit to eat. He knew he was supposed to say something interesting, like: travel the world, do volunteer work, learn to play an instrument, learn a new language – or seven. But he didn’t particularly want any of that. Sure, it was nice. Would be nice. But what he really wanted was to not have a fake boyfriend. He wanted to share his life with someone. To get married and start a family of his own. It was so… heteronormative. It was embarrassing. All the more so because he was thirty years old now and hadn’t even come close to finding something like that.

He’d spent a lot of time in gay bars just like this one, looking for that fairytale that his mother always told him about. Looking for the right guy – not “the right girl”. But every time it devolved to meaningless sex or the spark fizzled out after a few dates.

And admittedly gay bars and Grindr weren’t the best places to go look for what he was looking for. But he didn’t know where else to look. When he’d see a cute guy at a coffee house, at the supermarket, or at the train station, the math was simple.

What were the odds the guy was gay?

And if he was, what were then the odds that he’d be interested in Nicky? Interested in his big nose, and his big mole, and his 2011 man-bun, and his traditional desires to marry in a church and have babies?

Through adoption, of course. He wasn’t insane.

The odds were… negligible. Not worth the risk of total and utter humiliation or even physical violence. He wouldn’t be the first gay guy to get smacked around for accidentally hitting on a straight man.

He felt like he couldn’t answer Yusuf’s question. It was too vulnerable. So he shrugged instead and chewed on a slice of apple soaked in alcohol.

Yusuf didn’t pry. Instead he said: “This drink was really good.”

“Yeah.”

“Another one?”

“Sure.”

Yusuf signaled at the bartender for two more and soon their glasses were replaced.

Nicky sipped on his drink diligently as he watched Yusuf loosen the collar of his dress shirt and roll the sleeves up over his elbows. He took note of the hairs and veins on his arms, the shadow licking between his pecs and a long silver chain that disappeared into his shirt. Nicky very much wanted to follow that necklace into his shirt.

Into his pants.

With his tongue.

Wow, this is a strong drink.

He averted his gaze although he was certain he had long been caught staring with hazy eyes. When he did manage to look anywhere other than at his hot, fake boyfriend, he noticed he wasn’t the only one enjoying the sight of him. He shrank in his seat and stuffed his cheeks full of fruits like a hamster.

Yusuf was on vacation. He probably wanted to flirt and get laid.

“Careful, don’t choke yourself,” Yusuf chided mildly.

“Hn.” He managed to chew and swallow.

“Another one?”

“I shouldn’t.”

Yusuf nodded. “It’s strong.”

“Yep.”

Yusuf wasn’t even halfway through his second glass. “How did you meet Nile?”

Nicky frowned. This delectable man had really brought him to a gay bar to talk about Nile? “Uhm… On campus. We literally collided. There was like an explosion of papers. We’d both been rushing to hand in our assignments, but then we spent the next forty minutes on our knees on the floor, separating my term paper from hers.”

Yusuf was grinning. “That’s quite the meet-cute.”

“Hm. At some point, I thought she was getting a little flirty and I panicked because I didn’t want her to get the wrong impression. So I blurted out: ‘I’m gay’. And she looked at me for like a solid minute, face unreadable and she said with this devastating deadpan: ‘dude, you’re way too old for me.’”

That made Yusuf laugh. “And now she’s shagging her French professor.”

“Right?!”

“Book’s a good guy though. Well, in the mornings… when he’s still somewhat sober.”

Nicky surmised “Book” was Yusuf’s nickname for his friend. Nile only ever referred to him as “Professor Le Livre” with the most devilish grin.

“Any other friends?”

“Yeah. Lots of girls from classes. But my best friends are Nile and Andy and Quynh. They’re a couple who own a lesbian bar.”

He chuckled richly. “How did you end up at a lesbian bar?”

“Nile and I go there every weekend.”

“Why?”

“Cheapest beer in the borough. It’s not like they make you eat pussy at the door.”

Yusuf’s chest shook as he laughed.

Nicky allowed himself to laugh at his own ridiculousness as well.

They exchanged more stories and laughter while Yusuf worked on his drink. As soon as he had taken the last sip, a shirtless, buff figure appeared next to them. Sudden enough to startle a tipsy Nicky.

With a drawl and bedroom eyes he offered to buy Yusuf a drink.

“No, thank you. I’m here with my boyfriend.” Yusuf clasped a big, warm hand over Nicky’s knee and Nicky was ashamed to realize the touch and the fact that Yusuf was blowing off a hot guy to talk with him, made him half-hard.

The man left without a fuss and Yusuf continued his story like nothing had happened.

He kept his hand on Nicky’s knee.

It became difficult for Nicky to listen to him, as he had to keep reminding himself that it was all just part of their game of pretend.


They couldn’t make it too late, since they were expected at breakfast, early in the morning. Yusuf covered their tab, insisting on it, as well as the fare back to the hotel.

Once in their room, Nicky was confronted with the single, queen-sized bed again.

Yusuf must have noticed his pause. “I can sleep on the floor, if you-“

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he hissed. But then thought, insecurity clawing at his chest: “Unless you don’t want-“

“I’m ok with sharing if you are.”

He nodded curtly.

“Mind if I take my turn in the bathroom first?”

“No.”

Yusuf went to brush his teeth, change, and take a leak before bed, while Nicky sauntered out onto the balcony to take in the lights of Turin and the crescent moon that hung over the city. He touched his fingers to his chest, feeling the shape of the pendant there, nestled in the dip of his collarbone. Nobody had even seen it yet, so it had been a waste of Yusuf’s money.

Yusuf’s voice carried outside. “Bathroom’s all yours.”

Nicky grabbed the things he needed and got ready for bed in the privacy of the bathroom. Brushing his teeth, combing through his hair, and altogether taking much too long to study the necklace on his bare chest in the mirror. A heat spread throughout him, making him resent the mere idea of putting on even a shirt and the fit of his underwear was suddenly uncomfortable.

You can’t spend two days with a man as hot as Yusuf and expect to remain unaffected, he told himself. He fondled himself through his briefs and bit back a moan. He knew he would have to take care of this before he could crawl into bed with him.

He cracked the door open, just enough to poke his head out, but he couldn’t see the bed from there. “You mind if I take a shower?” The room was dark expert for the glow of one orange light, right by the bed.

“Not at all, take your time.” Although Yusuf did sound tired.

“Thanks.” He closed the door again, kicked off his underwear and stepped into the shower. He let the hot water beat on his shoulders and back for a minute, ignoring his cock which hung heavily between his legs, already swelling. 

He pictured Yusuf, although he was aware that was a violation of sorts. His crush on him was shameless. He had so few memories of the man, having only know him since yesterday, but every single one of those memories aroused him. Even – or perhaps most so – the memory of his many kind smiles.

Finally, he took himself in his hand and his cock firmed up instantly. He leaned his forehead and the elbow of his other arm against the wall and inched his feet further apart to steady himself as his knees were going weak and his head became foggy. He opened his mouth and sucked in shallow, needy breaths. Some exhales came close to a whimper, but not quite. He had to remember to be quiet.

With a little bit of imagination, his hand became Yusuf’s. Having held it in his own, he knew how big it was, how thick his fingers were, how coarse his palm was. He imaged the feel of his silver rings on his most sensitive skin.

He let out a sound that was definitely a whimper.

It was a godsend that he knew exactly what Yusuf’s voice sounded like, saying things like “pretty” and “looks good”. It was a farce to think Yusuf would ever whisper such things in his ear while touching him the way he desired, but he was just the right amount of drunk to indulge himself. Drunk enough to be bold in his fantasies, but not so drunk as to get weepy and bemoaning his inevitable fate of dying alone and unloved.

He shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit down hard enough to break the skin and taste his own blood when his orgasm crashed into him like a wave. It was a miracle he managed to keep himself standing upright in the shower.

His cock pulsed and spurted come onto the tiles. The last of it weakly leaked out onto his hand and was washed away by the spray of hot water.

He allowed himself a moment to regain composure. His cheeks were starting to burn. Not from the water, but from shame. Yusuf was right on the other side of that wall!

Nicky shook his head at himself and blinked his eyes until his vision cleared. He rinsed off the wall, dried himself off – poorly – and dressed for bed. It took a couple of deep breaths before he dared to step out of the bathroom, flicking off the light as he went.

Yusuf lay in bed, under a thin sheet. He was reading the poetry book he bought at the market that day.

It was the second time since knowing him that Nicky had caught him reading to pass the time, as opposed to scrolling through social media on his phone. “Reading.”

“Hm?” He put the book away on the night stand.

“Reading is another one of your hobbies, that you forgot to list.”

“It’s such an unoriginal hobby. Hardly worth mentioning.”

The dry remark made Nicky feel a little more normal. With a smile he crawled into bed and settled in with his back facing Yusuf.

“I hope you don’t mind I took the left side.”

“Not at all.”

“Which side do you usually prefer?”

Nicky twisted his neck to look over his shoulder. “The middle.”

Yusuf chuckled. “You’re welcome to it. Or we could share it.”

“I’m fine on the right side, thanks.” He turned back around and got comfortable. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight… Topolino.”

Nicky groaned and Yusuf laughed.


The next day, all throughout breakfast, he begged Yusuf to accompany him and his mother to go dress-shopping, but Yusuf declined with a grin and wouldn’t budge. Yusuf had “other plans” and he was very mysterious about it and enjoyed maddening Nicky with curiosity, until Laura spoiled his amusement. Yusuf would be tagging along with her, her cousins, and three aunts, to the aquarium.

Nicky grabbed his arm before Laura could pull him away. “… Joe, you don’t have to do this.”

“You just want me to go shopping with your and your mother,” he fired back.

He shook his head. “You’re on vacation, you don’t have to-“

He chuckled. “I want to go to the aquarium, ok? Aquariums are cool.” He said that last part loud enough for Laura to overhear.

“Yeah they are!”

A five-year old cousin Nicky hadn’t seen since he was a baby, was running circles around them chanting: “Fish are friends, not food! Fish are friends, not food! Fish are friends, not food!”

The movie the kids had watched the night before was Finding Nemo.

Nicky quirked an eyebrow at Yusuf and challenged: “You really want to go to the aquarium with that?”

Yusuf didn’t answer, instead he started chasing after the boy, making grabby hands at him and calling: “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!”

Alessandro was squealing with delight.

Damn. Nicky really wanted to go to the aquarium too.

But his mother was waiting for him in the lobby.

Because God forbid both mothers would wear blue in the photographs…

Laura came running over to him from where the three aunts were herding all the children together. She tugged at his shirt to make him bend forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Ciao!’

“Ciao.” He watched her sprint back to the group. For a twelve year old, she remained remarkably boisterous and disinterested in her phone and social media, still preferring real kid-things. Which was surely thanks to the traditional upbringing in the family. He dreaded when she’d hit puberty.

Nicky blinked as while Laura ran away from him, Yusuf jogged towards him, mischief in his eyes. The man stopped in front of him, grabbed his shirt, much like Laura had done, and also planted a kiss on Nicky’s cheek. His lips lingers long enough for Nicky to enjoy the tickle of his beard against his own, clean-shaven skin.

Yusuf pulled back. “Ciao,” he purred and then he was off again, responding to Laura beckoning him to hurry up, bounding over to her.

“… Ciao…”

It’s just for show.

It’s just for show.

Ugh, but what a show it was. He’d buy season tickets if he could. No, lifetime seats.

Is that still the Love Potion talking? He wondered and went to find his mother in the lobby.

For the occasion, they went to a nice store. Not the kind that served customers champagne, but also not the kind with a bargain bin. Even though, under normal circumstances, his mom was all about the bargain bins. 

He followed her through the store as she rifled through the racks, really not being of any help at all, other than pointing at a mannequin once in a while, muttering: “What about this one?”

She shot everything down. Skirt too short. Neckline too low. No sleeves. Too much sleeve. Pants? What do you mean, pants, Nico? Don’t be ridiculous.

His retort was the same every time. “Well, it’s not blue.”

Thankfully, a sales person came to assist and presented a selection of dresses for Francesca to take to the dressing rooms with her.

Nicky wished he was at the aquarium with Yusuf and Laura, not on a bench outside the dressing rooms, waiting for his mom to find the perfect dress for the stupid photoshoot in the afternoon. “Why even have a photoshoot? Everyone’s going to be posing for pictures on the wedding day as well.”

“It’s an important occasion, Patatino! You can never have too many pictures. Vittoria will want to remember these days for the rest of her life. Share it with her children, her grandchildren. Her great grandchildren, if she is as blessed.” She squealed then. “I can’t wait to be a grandmother!”

“Vittoria is only twenty years old. Isn’t she a little young for… any of this?” He didn’t dare bring up that she barely knew Michele for more than a year and the two of them had been engaged for most of that time.

“Why would she wait to get married? Wait to start a family? It’s the most wonderful thing. And the sooner you start, the greater the chance you get to hold those great grandbabies one day. If only I had been so lucky.”

He puffed out his cheeks and sat back.

Right. If only Nicky had been straight. Her grandchildren could have been as old as ten by now, if he’d gotten his start as early as Vittoria.

She ripped the curtain open and struck a pose. “What do you think?”

“Orange, Mamma? Really?”

“What’s wrong with orange?”

“With your complexion? Everything.”

She appraised her reflection and smoothed over the fabric. “I suppose you’re right. I knew it was a good thing to bring you along.”

“I’m sure Vittoria would have loved to help,” he pointed out as she disappeared into the changing room again. “She’s had an opinion about everything when it comes to this wedding. She would have been happy to pick a dress for you.”

“She’s busy enough with the final preparations and entertaining the guests.”

Really, you want to call that dinner last night “entertaining”? He didn’t say that, she’d storm out in her bra and stockings to smack him upside the head for striking such a tone with her.

Francesca popped out again, in a lilac dress. “Better?”

“Yes. I like it.”

“I do too.” She nodded decisively, but then: “What if it photographs more blue?”

“If that lilac dress photographs blue, Emma’s blue dress will look green and you’ll both be fine.”

She turned to face the mirror but wasn’t paying much attention to how the dress looked on her, instead meeting Nicky’s gaze in the reflection.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She shook her head. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

She walked over to him and took a seat on the bench next to her son. “I know coming home for you isn’t easy… But it’s been getting better, right? Christmas was nice, wasn’t it?”

Not really.

“Your father just needs more time to adjust.”

It’s already been five years, he doesn’t say. And it’s not just Pappa, it’s you too, he doesn’t say. He does say: “He’d adjust better and quicker if he’d talk to me, at least.”

“It’s not easy for him either.” She cradled his hands in hers and she radiated frailty in that moment. “Oh, Nicky, he’s always been so proud of you, from the day you were born. You are his son. When you spoke your first word, he told everyone you’d be a great philosopher. When you made your first goal at soccer, he was convinced you’d be playing in arena’s.” Her eyes were shimmering, her hands trembling.

“He’s had great dreams for you, your entire life. Many dreams. But the one, constant dream he – we – had for you, was that you’d wed, become a father, pass on the Di Genova name to a son of your own. It’s such a beautiful dream. We wanted that for you. Not for selfish reasons. But so you would be happy.”

He squeezed her hands. “I can still have those things, Mamma. I can still have a family.” Right? Sure. Theoretically.

“Do you even want that?” She sounded surprised.

“Of course I do.”

“I assumed-“

“I want that!”

“Then have that!” She shot back, then lowered her voice. “But if a family is what you truly want, have a family the right way.”

“Two men can be the right way, Mamma.”

“It’s not the same,” she mewled miserably. “It’s not a family in the eyes of God. It’s not a family that you can bring into the kingdom of heaven with you.” Her voice cracked. “It’s painful for your father and I to see that dream turn into sin.” She pulled free one hand to wipe at her face as she had started to spill tears.

Nicky fought against the trembling in his lower lip.

“When you went to the monastery, we had to let go of that dream too. But we were proud and we knew you would be alright, because you would devote yourself to God and God’s love would fulfill you. But now?” Her voice pitched to a shrill squeak. “Does Joe love you the way God would? Does he love you the way a wife would?”

No, Joe didn’t love him at all, because Joe wasn’t real! But that wasn’t the point! “He could!” He burst and he slipped his hands out of hers and got up. He wrapped his arms around himself and screwed his eyes shut. He really wished he could have gone to the aquarium…

When he opened his eyes again, confident enough that he wouldn’t cry, he saw that she looked miserable and heartbroken, but not guilty.

“I want to believe that,” she said. “Trust me when I say how hard I have been trying to believe that, since you mentioned Joe at Christmas. I thought… maybe I could… believe. If this man loved you the way you deserve to be loved and makes you happy, it would be a comfort and I would pray for everything else. Pray that your father would come around. Pray that God would be forgiving. Joe is a wonderful man, but you don’t look happy, Nico. You laugh and you smile, but you look scared and insecure. You look like you are afraid he’s going to break your heart.”

With a small voice he asked: “Did you really bring me shopping with you to tell me I’ll never be happy?”

“I want you to be happy. I love you.” She clutched her hand over her heart. “I love you so much,” she sobbed.

Nicky blinked away tears of his own. “Mamma…”

“You’re my boy. I want the best for you, in this life and the afterlife. But this life you’ve chosen is driving a wedge between you and the family that I can’t stop.” She wept, her small body shaking with the force of it. “I don’t want you to walk away from this family, knowing I’ll never see you again… not even in heaven…”

Even though she had hurt him more than he had ever been hurt – even more than his father had ever hurt him – he couldn’t stand watching her like this without offering comfort. In a way, he did feel responsible, guilty, for making her feel this way. He told himself that she didn’t know any better. It didn’t make it alright, but it meant that he needed to be forgiving. So he knelt down in front of her and pulled her into an embrace.


He skipped the family lunch to rest in the hotel room. It had been an emotionally wracking morning.

The kids and Yusuf weren’t back from the aquarium yet, but according to the holy itinerary, they would be back long in time for the photoshoot.

Nicky lay stretched out on the left side of the bed  - Yusuf’s side - on his stomach. The balcony doors were wide open and the wind was tugging at the curtains, but the air in the room had been suffocating with the doors closed. He stared at the motion of the curtains, rolling like the sea. It was calming. Finally.

He tensed up when the door opened, but didn’t move.

Yusuf strode in, then froze. “Are you sleeping?” He whispered.

Nicky considered pretending, but he didn’t even have the emotional energy to fake being asleep. “No,” he muttered.

The man walked around the bed and knelt down in his line of sight, showing him a big smile and a dolphin plushie.

Nicky wondered if he could tell how red his eyes were from all the crying. If he did, he didn’t give it away.

“Don’t worry, they didn’t actually have any dolphins at the aquarium. But all the kids wanted a dolphin plushie anyway, and… well, I didn’t want to be left out.” He softly touched the dolphin nose to Nicky’s cheek, like the kiss he’d pressed there before he left that morning.

Nicky blinked and a tear rolled down over the bridge of his nose. He bit back a whimper, because he didn’t want to cry again. And none of this should be Yusuf’s problem anyway. He was on vacation. He was already doing him a huge favor without having to deal with any of this.

One thing his mother should be applauded for: she was very observant. Yusuf put on the perfect show, but she could still tell the truth, that it wasn’t real. She couldn’t tell the full extent of that, but she could tell there was no genuine happiness there. It was all too bittersweet for Nicky, having this perfect man pretend to love him, knowing it was hollow. Knowing that when he went home, Yusuf would be gone from his life again.

Francesca was right. Nicky was scared. Scared that he would never have the things he wanted because he was gay, just like she always said. And maybe it was time for him to fully accept that – to let go of hope. Maybe that was the only way for him to find a different kind of happiness.

“Nicky…” The corners of Yusuf’s kind eyes creased with concern. “… you can talk to me if you want.”

He shook his head, minutely. He whispered: “If I talk, I’ll cry.”

“That’s ok. I don’t mind.”

He shook his head again, stronger this time. “I don’t want to cry.”

“Alright.” He brushed his hand through Nicky’s hair once, smoothing wayward strands back and out of his face. “Do you want to be left alone?”

Another small shake of his head.

“Good. Because I don’t want to leave you alone.” He shifted to make himself comfortable on the floor. He just sat with him for a minute, saying nothing, keeping the soft dolphin pressed to Nicky’s bare arm and looking into Nicky’s eyes. Two little things, but there was so much comfort to be found in them.

When he trusted his voice again, Nicky asked: “How was the aquarium?” He welcomed the distraction and the semblance of normalcy.

Yusuf smiled and told him all about it.


He made himself presentable for the photoshoot. Right after would be the rehearsal dinner and after that the party. He felt less raw and exposed after talking with Yusuf about the aquarium. Other things were pushed to the back of his mind and he fought to keep them there, even as he made eye contact with his mother, across the hall.

The Grand Hall of the Palace Hotel had been reconfigured. The curtains partitioning the space into a smaller area had been pushed aside. There were three times as many tables and still room for an expansive dance floor and stage for a band. But first the two families were rounded up on that stage for pictures. Every variation of group photo was taken. Both families together. The Di Genova’s and the Fortarezza’s separately. All the grandparents. All the aunts and uncles. All the children – mixed, then just the boys, then just the girls. Each individual family unit.

Nicky dreaded it, content being shuffled off to the side in the larger group photo’s. But eventually it was only him, his father, his mother, and his two sisters up there. With everybody else watching them. Laura was the only one capable of mustering up a genuine, photogenic smile. His father was stoic. His mother looked like she was about to cry again. Vittoria was in distress because the bakery had called to let her know one of the tiers of her wedding cake had collapsed during transport and it was an absolute disaster, according to her.

The photographer gave up on them and ushered them off the stage.

Nicky returned to Yusuf’s side immediately, trailed by Laura.

“I haven’t seen anybody get this upset about cake since kindergarten,” she said and that, finally, made Nicky smile.

The crowd grew for the rehearsal dinner. Friends and colleagues were invited as well. Even more would be joining for the party afterwards.

Before dinner, Domenico gave a speech that seemed tailor made to rub salt in Nicky’s wounds; stressing the importance of family. How Vittoria and Michele starting their own family, brought their two extended families together as well. “A tapestry woven by God.”

“I’ve not only gained one son,” Domenico spoke proudly, “I’ve gained three.” He raised his glass at Michele’s brothers. He patted Pascal, Michele’s father on the shoulder. “I’ve gained a brother. Sisters. I have twice as many cousins, aunts and uncles, parents, and grandparents. And I can’t wait for us all to gain grandchildren.” He dotingly looked down at his daughter. “Vittoria, Michele. Congratulations. May God forever bless you both and this grand family.”

Nicky drank his entire glass of champagne in one go.

Yusuf’s hand appeared on the back of his chair and his thumb rubbed soothing circles between his shoulder blades.

It helped.

So did the champagne.

Even though any champagne, no matter how expensive, always tasted like cat piss to Nicky. Or, what he imagined cat piss to taste like.

After dinner the band started to play and soon Yusuf and Nicky were left alone at the table. It was endearing to see his elderly aunts and uncles get up to dance with each other. Doing nothing more than shuffling around each other and bouncing from the knees a little bit. But it was cute. Nicky would like to dance with somebody like that, fifty years from now.

“I’ve been thinking,” Yusuf started, causing Nicky to turn back in his seat to face him. “We need cute nicknames for each other.”

“Is that so?” He took a swig of his red wine.

“All couples share cute nicknames.”

“We only have to make it twenty-four more hours. No need to make this any more complicated than it already is.” His tone was so bitter it left an actual aftertaste in his mouth.

“Oh, I thought you’d be using Joe for an extended period. You can mention him when your mom calls. And, if you ask nicely, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to accompany you for Christmas. Pass-over. And any other big, church-ie holidays.”

“He would, huh?”

“Joe is exceptionally helpful. And what would really help sell a long-term relationship is-“

“Cute nicknames,” Nicky supplied.

“Yes.” Yusuf beamed a smile. “Any ideas?”

Nicky shrugged, not particularly invested. He brought his wine glass to his lips again.

“I was thinking something like… Sugar Lips, or Hot Cock.”

He sprayed his mouthful of wine all the way into the flower arrangement, staining the white roses pink. He laughed heartedly at Yusuf’s teasing and he was prompted to play along. While wiping his chin dry with his napkin, he said: “I’ve always been more partial to the classics.”

“What would those be?”

“Baby. Honey.” He felt a hint of arousal blossoming at the idea of Yusuf calling him baby while covering Nicky’s body with his own.

“Pumpkin?”

Nicky made a so-so gesture but a face that said more: no-no.

“See, you lack imagination,” Yusuf mock-chastised him. “That’s what led you to coming up with an imaginary boyfriend called ‘Joe’.”

Ignoring the jab at his (lack of) creativity – which was indefensible anyway, he stated: “I really don’t think Hot Cock competes with the classics.”

“Fine. Alright. We’ll stick to the classics.” He dramatically put his finger to his lips, miming deep thought. But his voice became soft and his expression tender. He whispered: “Tesoro?”

Nicky stared at him dreamily. “… I like that.”

“Yeah?”

He nodded.

Yusuf got up from his seat, straightened his jacket and held a hand out to him. “Would you like to dance, Tesoro?” He said loud enough for nearby people to hear.

He shouldn’t. It was a categorically bad idea. This fake boyfriend thing was a delicate balance: they needed to be just visible enough to nip any thoughts of hetero-matchmaking in the butt, without “flaunting their homosexual sexual lifestyle”.

But he accepted anyway. He took the hand that was offered and let himself be pulled up and led to the dance floor, in between the elderly couples.

“Would you like to lead?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Ok.” Effortlessly, Yusuf took the lead, directing Nicky’s hands to where they should be and then slowly turning them with small steps. It was barely dancing, really. The old aunts and uncles were moving more than they were and better keeping rhythm with the music, but it was wonderful nonetheless. “What’s this song called?”

La Costruzione di un Amore.” It was about love sometimes coming at a high price, but always worth it.

“I like it.”

He scoffed. “It’s one of the most cliché Italian love songs. Like that Céline Dion song about the Titanic.”

“I’s not about the Titanic.” Yusuf chuckled. “Anyway, I still like it,” he said defiantly.

“… Me too.” He ducked his head.

“Tesoro…” He whispered, for no one’s benefit but theirs.

Nicky blinked up at him, in time to see Yusuf lean in. He closed his eyes, held his breath, and waited. Soon he felt his soft lips against his and his beard against his upper lip and chin. When Nicky was pulled close to Yusuf’s chest, he sighed. The kiss was nothing more than their lips pressing together but it was enough to make Nicky’s heart flutter.

But that heart turned to lead and dropped into his stomach when he remembered that Yusuf was just doing a good job at pretending to be “Joe”, his boyfriend of ten months. Yusuf was enjoying the game. And why shouldn’t he? He was on vacation. He should have fun with it.

Yusuf placed a second kiss on his jaw, right on his mole, which made Nicky self-conscious and Yusuf must have sensed it. He tilted his head, bringing his mouth close to Nicky’s ear, close enough for the curls of his beard to tickle the shell. He whispered: “It’s not a mole, it’s a beauty mark.”

“Mind reader.”

“You wanna know something else?”. He nosed along Nicky’s ear and into his hair. “There are about three hundred people in this room right now. The odds of us two being the only gay people here, are astronomical. The truth of the matter is: we’re the only two here with the balls to be out.”

“Hn.”

“Your parents should be proud of you for many reasons, but most of all for that. No matter what other feelings they have about that. They’ve raised a brave son.”

“Brave? I’ve been too chicken-shit to admit to them that I’m still single. My friend had to con a stranger into pretending to be my boyfriend.”

“There’s nothing chicken-shit about needing a little back-up. You shouldn’t have to face this alone. I’m happy to be here. No regrets.

“Thank you, Yusuf.”

“Tsk tsk tsk.”

“Sorry… Thank you, Cuore mio.”

Yusuf groaned for effect. “I like that one.”

“Darling?”

Nicky whipped his head around to see his mother had come to stand by them.

She offered a small smile and then looked up at “Joe”. “Do you mind if I cut in?”

Yusuf looked at Nicky with a question in his eyes and he didn’t let go of him until Nicky nodded that it was ok.

He took his mother’s hand and put his other hand on her waist, the same way Yusuf had held him at the start of their dance. His mother’s free hand she placed on his shoulder. He was much more rigid and uncomfortable, dancing with her. He didn’t know what to say to her, after that morning.

“You look so handsome tonight,” she said. She touched his hair. “You’d look even more handsome if-“ She stopped herself, pressing her lips into a taut line and then smiled at him. “You look very handsome.” Full stop, no buts this time.

“I know what you’re doing, Mamma. You cut in because we were causing a scene.”

“I wanted to dance with my son. And apologize for this morning. I said things that I shouldn’t have.”

“But you meant them,” Nicky surmised.

“I shouldn’t have said those things,” she reiterated, not contradicting him.

“You said on the phone that you wanted to know about my life. But every little bit of my life that I tell you about, or show you, isn’t good enough for you.”

“Maybe that’s because I still don’t know much about your life. Nico, I’d love for you to prove me wrong. Show me that you are creating a full life for yourself. Don’t pull away.”

“I’m not pulling,” he hissed. “You’re pushing. When you tell me I’m either gonna die alone and burn in Hell, or condemn another man to burn in Hell with me for loving him and for him loving me, of course that makes me not want to let you into my life.”

Nicky searched the crowd for Yusuf, wondering where he’d gone off to. He’d much rather dance with him.

He spotted him across the hall, standing to the side of the dance floor. His body was tense, his hands balled into fists, and his gaze was cold – all warmth had left those kind eyes.

Nicky frowned and froze and then he saw who Yusuf was looking at: Domenico, red-faced, and pointing an accusing finger at Yusuf.

“Nico?” His mother asks as he walked away and she followed him.

He weaved through the dancing couples with large strides, rushing over to Yusuf and his father. He could already hear his father’s raised voice.

“- with that deplorable display! Putting your mouth on him for everyone to see. I have no say over the filthy things you two do together in privacy, but I do have a say here. You do not sin in front of my family, on the eve of my daughter’s wedding.”

Yusuf was taking the onslaught in silence.

“Pappa, please,” Nicky interjected with a placating tone as soon as he reached them. He didn’t want the situation to get out of hand, as his father was clearly drunk and enraged, so he tried to appease him. “I’m sorry. We will behave. I promise.”

Domenico’s nostrils flared and he redirected his anger at his son. “Do not interrupt me, you little faggot. What were you even thinking? In front of everyone! Letting this sand n-“

“Father!” He cut him off before he could say the word in full. His blood heated to a boil instantly. “You do not speak to him like that!” He was abhorred that his father would use a slur like that.

“Nico, please don’t raise your voice,” Francesca said.

He needed to get Yusuf away from here immediately. He couldn’t stand the sight of his own father and could only imagine what Yusuf must be feeling. Nicky felt terribly responsible for putting him in this situation. He linked his arm around Yusuf’s and guided him out of the dining hall, leaving his mother to deal with her husband.

By the time they reached the lobby, Nicky was trembling, distressed by too many emotions to put into words. It was anger on the surface, but underneath a deep and dark sadness, and disappointment, and confusion, and guilt. It was too much. His pace slowed to a stop. If he kept walking he would trip over his own feet and make even more of a fool of himself.

He knew Yusuf was looking at him, but he couldn’t meet his gaze. To the floor, he said: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He repeated it over and over again, in a way he hadn’t since the last time he was in a confessional. Fingers touched his shoulders, meant to be comforting, but he shrugged away from them because he didn’t deserve it. He forced himself to look up at Yusuf, because the thing he needed most right now was for this man to understand that he did not deserve to be spoken to like that.

“I would have never brought you here if I knew my father would say something so…” Horrifying? Vile? Unforgivable? He couldn’t possibly find a word that wholly encompassed the seriousness of the offense. “I would never knowingly subject you to that. Or anybody! He’s never said something like that before. If I had known- Yusuf, I am so sorry.” He was near tears but he fought them back, because this wasn’t about him, this was about Yusuf and about how he had been mistreated. It shouldn’t be about Nicky’s pain at knowing his father was a racist.

Yusuf grabbed his arms and wouldn’t let Nicky shake him off that time, only gripping him tighter. “Shh… It’s ok.”

He made a pathetic little noise. “It’s not ok! It’s so, so not ok! It’s so far removed from ok!”

Yusuf hushed him. “I meant that it’s not your fault. I don’t blame you for what happened.” He brought his face closer to Nicky’s and then their foreheads and noses touched and Nicky stopped squirming and took his first deep breath. With soft tone, inexplicably not laced with accusation or judgment or contempt, Yusuf asked: “Why didn’t you stop him sooner?”

Nicky could have crumpled to the floor right there and maybe would have if Yusuf hadn’t still been holding onto him. He remembered just standing there, watching his father yell at Yusuf. He should have intervened long before he did. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I should have stood up for you right away.”

Yusuf pulled away and Nicky’s heart broke because he never wanted Yusuf to pull away, ever. He wanted him closer and closer every single time. That was when tears started to pour and he was mortified.

“No, Nicky.” His voice was so warm and kind. “That’s not what I meant. Why didn’t you stop him when he called you a-?”

Faggot? Nicky blinked up at him.

“Why did you let him call you that, but stopped him from calling me that name?”

“… Because it’s different.”

“No it’s not. It’s not,” he stressed. “He shouldn’t have called you that and you shouldn’t have let him. I would have stopped him if I had known that you were going to let him do that to you.”

The urge to chuckle bitterly was strong but he suppressed it. He’d been called a faggot a number of times. It wasn’t a big deal. It was the first time he had heard his father use that slur against him, but he had long suspected that was the word his father used when he thought of him, or talked about him when he wasn’t around. Yusuf shouldn’t worry about this; shouldn’t have to feel bad about it. Nicky could take it. “Yusuf… It’s not a big deal.”

“Nicky, I know you’re trying with your family and that you think of it as Selective Love… But there was no love there, only hate.”

Nicky cast his gaze down. Yusuf let go of his arms and grabbed his hands instead, enveloping them with his own and holding them against his chest. He looked at their bundle of hands first, at his own, pale wrists disappearing into Yusuf’s tanned palms. He was holding his hands so tightly that some of his rings hurt, digging into the knuckles of Nicky’s fingers. He realized how distraught Yusuf was and he met his gaze.

“I’m not saying any of this to hurt you. I would never want to hurt you. But you need to stop this Selective Love you have for yourself. You need to love yourself wholly,” he urged. “This goes deeper than you making fun of your own nose. Love yourself. Love all of yourself. And realize that you don’t deserve to be treated like that.” He disentangled their hands to cup Nicky’s face and easily swiped away the trails of tears on his cheeks with his thumbs.

Then Yusuf kissed him, his mouth firm against his own. One hand slipped to the back of Nicky’s neck, the other dropped down to his waist where the fingers twisted into his shirt and held onto him.

It was wonderful, all of it. The hands. The feel of his beard. The touch of his nose. His smell.

It was wonderful because it wasn’t for show. They were alone in the lobby, no nosy family members around.

Nicky leaned into him. Moved his lips, coaxing him to follow his lead. His hands slid up the hard chest, all the way up until his fingers threaded into his thick curls. A chuckle bubbled out of him. He couldn’t help it. He tilted his head away, feeling his face burn. Yusuf’s lips found the corner of his jaw. He shifted his arms to pull him into an embrace.

“Nico?”

He stilled. All of him. Including his heart. He pulled away from Joe and spotted Laura standing a few meters away. Her little face pale, her little hands fidgeting with the layer of tule over her skirt. She must have seen the whole ordeal back at the hall, for her to be so visibly distressed. She was a sweet girl, hearing her Pappa talk to people like that wouldn’t leave her unaffected. She was old enough to understand how bad his words were and all the implications of him using them.

Nicky shouldn’t pity himself for the realization that the kiss was part of the game of pretend after all. He shouldn’t wallow in his humiliation that Yusuf merely went to press a kiss to his lips because he knew Laura was there and that Nicky had nearly tongued a guy in front of his baby sister.

He had to take care of Laura and put her feelings first.

“Are you ok?” Her voice was tiny, barely carried through the lobby.

He rushed over to her. “Of course, cucciolo.” He flicked her nose – delicate and upturned, like his mother’s.

“Are you coming back to the party?”

“Have I danced with you yet?” He countered.

“No.”

“Then I can’t leave, can I?”

She smiled. “No.”

“Let’s go back and dance.” He looked back at Yusuf over his shoulder. The man was still standing where he’d left him. “You can go up to the room and rest.”

“… I’m not tired.” He crossed the distance between them and put his hand on the small of Nicky’s back.

“You shouldn’t have to go back in there.”

“I’m not going anywhere without you.”

Nicky took a deep breath. The lines were so blurred. Yusuf was saying all the right things, but were his words for his benefit or for Laura’s? To make Nicky feel better, or to make sure Laura would tell her aunties how cute Nico and his boyfriend were?

The three of them headed back into the hall and rejoined the party.

Dancing with Laura was just him standing there, holding one of her hands over her head and making her twirl, but he had fun with it and so did she.

Many times he caught himself sneaking glances at Yusuf, seated at a table at the edge of the dance floor. Each time, their eyes met.

When it was bedtime for the kids and Laura was dragged upstairs by the aunts in charge of chaperoning the kids, Nicky should have gone up to the hotel room too and called it a night.

Instead, he made the ill-advised decision to get the most out of the “open bar situation”.

Yusuf sat by him and never judged him, not even once. Not even when the waiter was starting to, as he came by to clear away the empty wine glasses.

They talked, the way they had talked at the gay bar the night before. Yusuf was easy to talk to, Nicky felt like sharing with him, because he never judged. But this evening, he didn’t want to talk about himself, so he asked Yusuf a million questions instead. Questions you wouldn’t ask your boyfriend of ten months.

But they were not too concerned with anybody overhearing as they sat alone at the table and no one paid them any attention – or rather: everyone was actively avoiding them, after word of Domenico’s outburst had spread.

Yusuf told him about even more of his hobbies, that he forgot to mention earlier. Reading, of course. Writing too. Traveling, obviously, he was a travel agent after all. For some clients he wasn’t so much planning their dream vacation as he was his own. He traveled as much as he could, at any given opportunity and was a smooth enough talker to convince his supervisor that it helped his job performance. Which was how he had managed to convince the man to give him the extra time off to come to Italy, when he had only just returned from a two week trip to Japan. That explained why they hadn’t been able to meet in the time between Nile’s crazy suggestion and Nicky coming to pick him up. Yusuf had literally flown back in from Tokyo the night before.

He liked watching movies and “Titanic” was actually a guilty pleasure flick of his. Drunk Nicky found that altogether too amusing. He confessed he’d never seen the movie. This started a conversation about all the block-buster, must-see movies that Nicky hadn’t seen, shocking Yusuf without fail.

Nicky defended himself by pointing out that they didn’t exactly have “movie-night” at the monastery and since moving to London… well, going to the movies was something you did with boyfriends and stuff.

“Nile doesn’t take you to the movies?”

“Nile takes her boyfriends to the movies. She takes me to lesbian bars.”

This brought the conversation to “Professor Le Livre”. Nicky had never met him and Nile didn’t talk about him much because he was her “dirty little secret” and she was enjoying that aspect of it very much.

Yusuf didn’t hear much about their relationship either, from Booker, as he called him. They used to be good friends, but lately not so much. The man’s alcohol habit getting in the way of that. He'd met Booker something like ten years ago, he couldn’t remember exactly. When they met, Booker wasn’t a university professor yet, he was studying for his PhD and tutoring French to pay the bills – that so happened to be the fourth language Yusuf had been looking to learn.

Other than Booker, Yusuf didn’t have any friends, as mentioned before. His colleagues were nice people, but Yusuf never really felt like sharing about his personal life with them. Something sad flashed in his eyes then, but Nicky was too drunk to deal with that adequately and all Nicky could do was apologize and feel very, very guilty about it. Because Yusuf had just told him his friendship with Booker was on the rocks because of his excessive drinking.

And there Nicky sat, absolutely pissed.

Yusuf laughed it off. “You being drunk for one night isn’t the same. Don’t worry.”

“Two nights,” Nicky pointed out, digging his own grave. Although yesterday hadn’t been that bad, just two too-strong “Love Potions”.

He was really going down the rabbit hole this time…


Nicky shifted his weight from one foot to another as they waited for the elevator. The grip of Yusuf’s big hand on his shoulder tightened, ready to steady him or catch him if he threatened to keel over.

He dreaded the hangover he was going to have tomorrow.

Nicky mused aloud: “You know which animal should go extinct? Pigeons.”

Yusuf looked at him absurdly. “Wha-?” He interrupted himself with a chuckle. “Why? What do they do?”

“Well, nothing!” Nicky whined. “They’re just flying rats. They don’t pollenate the crops or keep the deer population in check, or anything!”

Yusuf laughed harder, even though Nicky was being dead serious. “What even made you think of that?”

He groaned. “I was thinking about the mother of a hangover I’m going to have tomorrow and that I’ll want to sleep in. And then I started thinking about all the hangovers I’ve tried to sleep off at my apartment in London, but then there’d be these damn pigeons at the crack of dawn, cooing their asses off.”

“You can sleep in tomorrow. No pigeons, don’t worry.”

“They could land on the balcony.” He pointed out with shifting eyes.

“They won’t. They weren’t there this morning either.”

“But they could!”

More laughter erupted out of the man. When the elevator doors opened, Yusuf ushered Nicky in, physically maneuvering him to lean against the wall and then only taking his hand off him long enough to reach back for the control panel and push the button for their floor. “If the pigeons come, I’ll shoo them away. I promise.”

He blinked up at him, realizing how pathetic he was being and at the same time powerless to stop himself. “You would chase away pigeons for me?... That’s so romantic.”

Yusuf scoffed, his smile was bright to the point of blinding. “I will gladly chase them away. Pigeons are the worst.”

Right?” He stared at him, too drunk to know it was inappropriate. “You are such a wonderful man.”

“Thank you.”

“You are like… perfect. My father, my mother, they ought to should to would know that.” He scrunched up his face and rubbed at his tired eyes. “Was that… was that a sentence? Was that an English?”

A giggle was the first response. “Yeah, that was ‘an English’. Close enough anyway.” Yusuf sighed. “Nicky, don’t take this the wrong way – this is a really unhealthy observation – but… you’re very cute when you’re drunk.”

Nicky pouted at him. “It won’t last. I’ll get weepy later.”

“Then we’ll deal with that later. Make no mistake though, you’re always very cute; sweet-cute. But this is… funny-cute.” He waved his hand. “I’m not entirely sober myself.”

Nicky looked around the elevator. Even though he knew damn well they were the only people who got on, he looked around to check that Laura, Giulia, or his Nonna, or anybody else, really wasn’t there.

They were alone. But still Yusuf was flirting with him.

Wait, that was flirting right?

He didn’t have answers, only needs and desires and not enough sense to think twice. He lunged forward, grabbed the collar of Yusuf’s shirt and pulled him in. Their mouths crashed together. It was a sharp pain, drowned out by a throbbing pleasure. He licked into Yusuf’s mouth, finding him pliant and eager to return the favor. Big hands were on Nicky’s sides but were quick to slide down to cup his ass cheeks, creating more pressure between their pelvises.

They both stumbled backwards. Likely: Nicky stumbled and Yusuf was dragged along. His back slammed against the wall, but Nicky was perfectly content being pinned between the wall and Yusuf’s body.

Yusuf pulled his mouth away the way you’d pull your hand away from a pot of boiling water, but he didn’t go far. He nosed into the crook of Nicky’s neck and went so still the only movement left was the heaving of his chest.

The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. “We can get out of the oven.”  Yet neither moved. Nicky felt more than he heard the rumble of Yusuf’s laugh. “… Yusuf?”

The man grunted, a hot puff of air against Nicky’s skin. Then he was yanked off the wall and down the hallway to their room. Yusuf held him by his elbow, efficiently steering him and rushing him. Nicky grabbed at him with his free hand, kneading the muscles of his shoulder, his side, his ass.

Inside their room, Nicky slammed Yusuf back against the door, hard enough to knock the air out of him and he gave him only a second to suck in a breath before kissing him again.

Yusuf pawed at his ass, fingers pressed into the cleft, through his slacks. He slipped his hand deeper between Nicky’s legs.

Nicky bucked his hips against Yusuf’s until he couldn’t; until Yusuf yanked him away from the door and towards the bed where he was pushed down. From his position, seated on the edge of the bed, he reached out for Yusuf, standing in front of him. His fingers made quick work the man’s belt buckle – a kind of coordination normally reserved for when he wasn’t drunk out of his mind. He had just popped the button of the pants when Yusuf said roughly:

“Stop.”

Nicky froze.

“Stop. We can’t do this.” Yusuf took a step back, out of Nicky’s reach.

The darkness was overwhelming then. Without Yusuf’s touch grounding him, Nicky felt like he was floating in a void. And that was all that was needed to ring in the weepy-phase of his drunkenness. He swallowed his heart back down. He wiped his palms on his pantlegs and then scrubbed his face.

There was only sound.

Blood rushing in Nicky’s ears.

Yusuf’s breaths.

Yusuf’s footsteps towards the door.

Suddenly: light.

He squinted at Yusuf, who came walking back to him, but stopped short of being within arm’s length.

Yusuf wasn’t leaving, but he didn’t want this either. He didn’t want Nicky. “We can’t do this.”

“Yeah, you said that already,” Nicky croaked out.

Yusuf knelt at his feet. “Nicky… You’re drunk. We’re drunk. We’re not going to do anything while we’re drunk.”

Nicky blinked at him. “But you do want to?”

Yusuf groaned. “Ohh, Nicky. So badly.” He put his hands on the tops of Nicky’s thighs and he bit down on his lower lip. “I want you. I want you so much.”

“But you think that’s just the alcohol?”

“No.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I’ve wanted you from the moment I saw you.” He admitted it like it was a natural thing. Like there was nothing weird about this exquisite man wanting an ordinary guy like Nicky. Yusuf chuckled at himself. “I thought it was obvious how much I like you.”

Like me? Nicky stared. Not just “want” for sex, but “like”?

The question must have been apparent in his eyes. Yusuf showed him the ring he had bought at the market the day before. He wore it on the thumb of his right hand. “Do you know why I got this ring?”

Nicky shook his head.

“The stone is the exact same color as your eyes. I didn’t know how this whole situation would pan out, but I knew I would never want to forget your eyes. So that, if I were never to see you again and years from now I’d start to wonder ‘were they green or were they blue?’ I could just look at this stone and remember you.”

Ok, this is way more romantic than shooing pigeons…

“And that necklace I got you…”

Nicky reactively touched the pendant through his shirt and it made Yusuf smile. Like he wasn’t even sure if Nicky was still wearing it and that he liked that he was.

Yusuf unbuttoned his dress shirt, down to his midriff and he held out the necklace he wore for Nicky to see. It was a longer chain, with a pendant in the shape of the sun at the end. “It complements mine. The sun and the moon. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic…”

“You really like me,” Nicky breathed out.

“I really do.” He smirked.

“You barely know me.”

“I know enough to know that I really like you,” Yusuf quipped.

Nicky blurted: “I want to have babies.” As if that wasn’t the craziest thing he could possibly say.

Yusuf was stunned into silence.

“You asked me yesterday what interests me, things I want to do with my life?”

“… Yeah.”

“I’m not an interesting guy,” he admitted miserably. “I’m not like you. I don’t want to play the guitar. I don’t want to speak seven languages. I don’t even like cucumbers. I want to make a family; make a home.” The gates were off and he rambled on and on and if Yusuf had any mercy he would stop him from humiliating himself like this, but he didn’t, he just listened.

“I want to get married. In a church. I want wedding vows, and bridesmaids, and a cake topper, and for friends and family to be there and to give their blessing. I want a house, with a yard and dog. I want to be a dad.” At that point the tears came.

“I want to walk my kids to school, and read them bedtime stories, and teach them how to ride a bike, and fingerpaint… and I want to protect them, and love them wholly and unconditionally…” He would have said more if he could, if he could speak through his sobs.

Yusuf let him cry and it was a kindness; a kindness of him to give Nicky time to let it out, in front of a person who still, even while seeing him in his most embarrassing state, would not judge him.

It was minutes before wiping at his own face finally made a difference and the tears stopped coming. “Fuck… Sorry… I told you I get weepy.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“You can’t like me,” he argued. “I don’t want worldly, educated things like you do. I want boring, old-fashioned things.”

“They’re not boring,” Yusuf said, “and I want them too.”

Nicky frowned at him.

“Nicky, I told you: I fill my days with these hobbies because I have nothing else. These things I do don’t make me feel accomplished, or fulfilled. It’s not what I want to do with my life. It’s what I do while I wait for my life. Making a family feel safe and loved is the kind of purpose I want.”

“Really?”

“I don’t need to speak an eighth language.” Yusuf scoffed. “I’m already insufferably perfect as it is.”

“You are… You really are.” He curled forward. His lips parted.

The man raised himself up, mouth meeting Nicky’s for a tender kiss.

No more settling for Selective Love.


A stab of pain was what roused Nicky from his sleep. For a moment a splitting headache was all he could feel. But then he felt warm breath against his neck, a chest against his back, and arms around him. Suddenly, the headache wasn’t so bad anymore.

Well, until he opened his eyes and groaned at the sight of sunlight.

“Mmm… Good morning,” Yusuf murmured.

“Is it? Good?” Nicky challenged, screwing his eyes shut. Yusuf pressed a kiss to the back of his neck and, yeah, maybe it was a good morning.

“No pigeons…”

Nicky’s chuckle evolved into a groan and he rubbed at his forehead. “Don’t make me laugh.” Big hands roamed over his chest and stomach and if it hadn’t felt so good, Nicky might have felt self-conscious about his little “pasta-pouch”, as Nile called it. Yusuf rocked his hips against his, drawing attention to his erection.

Nicky regretted that he didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. His own dick halfheartedly twitched in his underwear.

Yusuf wasn’t demanding. Probably too tired too. He rolled his hips a few more times, then melted – for lack of better words. His body going boneless and still.

They dozed in bed for a long time. With neither of them having had the sense last night to turn on the air-conditioning or close the curtains, the rising temperature was unforgiving. But they remained locked in the embrace long past the point of comfortably toasty. Yusuf rucked up Nicky’s shirt, up to his midriff and drew patterns on his side and abdomen with such a feather light touch that he created goosebumps and the illusion of a chill.

When his arms felt a little more sturdy than jello, Nicky reached for his phone on the night stand. “If we get up now, we can still catch the last of the breakfast buffet.” The breakfast spread was very good, they had discovered yesterday, even though lunch and dinner had not set high expectations.

“Ok. Let’s get up.”

Neither of them moved.

“I thought we were gonna get up,” Nicky teased minutes later, more testing to see if Yusuf had fallen asleep again.

“You first.”

“I can’t.” He covered his face with his hands since his eyelids were doing a disappointing job at protecting him from the glaring light. “My head will explode.”

“Messy…” Yusuf remarked. “We can’t have that.” He detached himself from Nicky and sat upright, with his back against the headboard and he helped Nicky sit up as well.

With squinted eyes Nicky watched Yusuf fetch a glass and pills from his nightstand and hand them both to him. Water and aspirin. Nicky accepted them gratefully. He swallowed the pills and drank half of the water and handed the glass to Yusuf so he could drink the rest.

“Well prepared,” he admired. Although he wished that Yusuf had taken a moment to close the curtains if he’d had the sense last night to prepare a glass of water and medicine.

“You have no idea.” Yusuf stretched out and picked up the empty trash can that was supposed to be in the bathroom, but it had been by their bed all night.

“Oh God…” Nicky groaned. “Please tell me I didn’t need that.” He wasn’t typically the pukey kind of drunk but it would be just his luck that tonight would be the first time.

“No, you didn’t.”

“You?

“No. We got lucky.”

“Hmm…”

Yusuf took hold of Nicky’s hand. He laced their fingers together and lightly stroked his knuckles with the fingers of his other hand. “What do you remember from last night?”

“That you wouldn’t fuck me,” he groused miserably for show.

“Jesus, Nicky.” Yusuf groaned. He brought their hands up and kissed Nicky’s wrist.

“And I remember all of the wonderful things you said.”

“Good.” He smiled at him.

“… What happens now?”

“Now, we get out of bed,” he said decisively. “We can take turns jerking off in the shower and then we’ll go have breakfast.” He winked at him.

Nicky’s jaw dropped. With the way he said it… “You knew!”

Yusuf’s laugh was delicious albeit a little too loud for Nicky’s hangover. “Yeah.”

“You heard me?”

“No. No, if I had been able to hear you, you wouldn’t have found me lying here all composed reading my book. I would have been a mess. I just… knew.”

“Oh my God, this is so embarrassing.”

“Not at all.” Yusuf smirked. “Come on, let’s get ready.”

Nicky didn’t know about Yusuf, but he definitely jerked off in the shower before they made their way downstairs to enjoy the last of the breakfast banquet.

Most of the family had already eaten, but some of the cousins of their age were in the Grand Hall, nursing coffees and struggling to eat their eggs.

They gathered their own platefuls and found themselves seats away from the others. Nicky gladly sipped from his coffee first, helping him kickstart his body. Yusuf drank a minty tea, because the genuine Italian coffee was too bitter for his sweet tooth.

“The wedding is not until four,” Yusuf said around a mouthful of fresh fruit, the least gentlemanly he had been since Nicky met him, but at this point Nicky just found it all the more charming. “What do you want to do until then?”

“Actually… I’m not sure if I still want to go to the wedding.” Nicky studied Yusuf’s expression. “Would that make me awful?”

His answer was instant: “Of course not. When people don’t make you feel welcome, you don’t have to stay.”

“Our flight’s not until tomorrow. I thought we could rent a car and drive to Milan. Do some sight-seeing, stay the night.”

Yusuf grinned. “You’ve given it some thought.”

“A little. It’ll be good research, you know, for your job.”

“Sure. Sure.” He chuckled and stuffed his mouth full of fruit again but he was barely able to chew with how much he was smirking.

“You think it’s a bad idea.” He had to wait until Yusuf managed to swallow.

“No. Just a tiny bit disappointed.”

“Oh?”

“I was really looking forward to seeing you in your suit. It’s been hanging on the closet door all this time and I keep picturing you in it.”

Nicky chewed on his bottom lip.

Yusuf held his stare, his playful thoughts readily apparent on his features. “Before we get any ideas, we should talk about the wedding though. You need to be sure.”

Well, that was like an ice-cold shower… But he nodded. “Last night, when you kissed me…”

“Which time?” Yusuf asked slyly.

“The last time.” Before Yusuf had eased him back onto the bed and undressed him, only to redress him for bed, his touches nothing but efficient and polite. The perfect gentleman. Yet, Nicky’s voice had been a little bitter – no, childishly petulant. Because even though it would have been wrong for anything to have happened between them that night, it would have felt so right. But Yusuf had slapped his hand out of the cookie jar and screwed it shut.

“Ok, sorry, go on.” He flashed a smile.

“I felt… really… silly…” Nicky nodded at himself, satisfied with his choice of words.

Yusuf’s eyebrows furrowed. “Silly?”

“I mean: hot and horny too, of course.”

“Of course.” He chuckled in a way that made him sputter into his glass of orange juice.

“But also really silly. Because earlier that day I thought about giving up on having a family of my own. Because this family,” he inconspicuously gestured around himself, even though there weren’t many family members present for the late breakfast, “made me believe that I can’t do it; I can’t have a real family because I’m a gay man.” He made a face at that. “All this time I’ve been trying to convince them that I can have a loving relationship and a family, but what actually happened was they nearly convinced me that I couldn’t.”

“That is pretty silly,” Yusuf agreed.

“Right? But I got to thinking: instead of letting go of having a family of my own, maybe I should let go of this one. It’s a decision I’ve been postponing for a long time. But I can’t be around people who make me feel like the way I love isn’t good enough – isn’t even real. Not when they-… When they-…”

“When their love isn’t good enough and you deserve better.”

Nicky heaved a sigh. That was a difficult thing to say, that “I deserved better”. Because that felt selfish and entitled. But… “… Yes.”

Yusuf stared into his eyes. “All of that from a kiss, huh?”

“I was a good kiss. Well, that and… everything else you’ve given me.” Hope. Support. Kindness.

Black eyes feigned confusion. “… The dolphin?”

A laugh erupted out of him, startling the hungover cousins a few tables over. “Yes, the dolphin.”

The man took gentle hold of his chin, holding his face and leaning in. He pressed a kiss to his cheek. Sitting back, he asked with a neutral expression: “So, are you really sure you want to walk away? And today of all days?”

“Yes. It’s a statement.”

Yusuf snorted. “Uh, yeah, it’s quite the statement.”

“If we go to that wedding, it’s a show of support. Something they would never do for me. They want me to sit there and pretend that what they’re doing is better than anything I will ever have and make a big deal about it… I can’t do that. Not after yesterday.”

Yusuf smiled at him tenderly. “You don’t have to convince me, Nicky. Whatever you do, will be the right thing to do. And I will show my support for you anyway you need it.” In his eyes it was apparent that he meant every word.

“Yusuf?”

“Hm?”

“Let’s go to Milan.”

“Ok.”


They were upstairs packing their belongings, with an unspoken determination to be quick and efficient, to make the most of the time they had left in Italy before their flight back to London, tomorrow, late afternoon.

However, a thought popped into Nicky’s head when Yusuf hooked his suit off the closet door and was about to unceremoniously stuff it back into his duffel bag. He called “Stop!” before he’d really considered it.

Yusuf froze, giving nothing but a quizzical expression.

“Put it on,” Nicky said, unsure where he wanted this to lead. All he knew was that Yusuf had wanted to see him in his suit and, well, the feeling was mutual. “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.”

The other man grinned with realization, but he teased nonetheless: “We’re talking about our suits, right?”

He had the urge to fling something at Yusuf. Himself, perhaps. “Yes, the suits.” He grabbed his own, still wrapped in plastic after the hotel staff had taken it to the drycleaners for them. It would be a waste to not even wear it and just let it get wrinkled in their luggage anew. Without saying another word, he headed into the bathroom and locked the door behind himself. As soon as he did, he heard Yusuf tear into the protective plastic that covered his own suit, clearly up for whatever challenge or game Nicky had in mind.

He wasn’t sure. It seemed a waste of time to leave it at a little fashion show. Stripping each other out of their suits would be fun, but for the first time since his disenchanted early-twenties, he wanted sex to be something more special than a quickie before the receptionist would call upstairs to inform them that their rental car had arrived.

Another example of how helpful a hotel concierge could be, if the price tag of your room warranted any special treatment.

Still, he didn’t put on any underwear when he slipped into the trousers.

Nicky stood bare-chested in front of the mirror, appraising himself. He wondered if he looked different, now that he felt different. He didn’t even notice until it was gone, but there had been this constricting pressure around his throat for years. It was gone, now that the decision was made.

Would anybody ever understand how a person could choose an as-of-yet non-existent family, over his actual family?

Before the question could cause self-doubt to claw at him, the glint of silver supplied the answer.

Yusuf understood.

Nicky touched his fingers to the crescent moon that rested in the hollow of his collarbone.

He had no way of knowing if Yusuf was part of that future family. It was too soon for that, no matter how quickly his feelings for the man had developed, like a flower blossoming overnight. The point was: someone understood. Someone supported him. Someone wanted him. Someone wanted the same things he did.

His dreams weren’t hopeless. He wasn’t asking for too much.

“Nicky?” Yusuf’s voice was hesitant, laced with concern.

Right, he was supposed to be “suiting-up”. He shook his head and chuckled at himself. “Sorry, got distracted.” He rushed to put on his shirt and button it up.

Having been put at ease, Yusuf joked: “You weren’t jerking off in the shower again, were you?”

“Not without you.” His face went hot at that.

It was an absolute nightmare to do his tie properly, overwhelmed with anticipation of something unknown. He had no idea what he wanted, but he knew that Yusuf, somehow, would give him exactly what he wanted anyway.

Finally he slipped into his jacket. He checked his reflection again. The suit was impeccable, his hair a mess. He was barefoot as it hadn’t occurred to him to bring shoes and socks into the bathroom with him. But he realized it didn’t matter.

He found Yusuf standing on the far end of the room, looking out the window. The man turned slowly at hearing Nicky come out of the bathroom.

Yusuf’s expression was stoic and Nicky recognized it was an act he was putting on. His gaze was smoldering, but in that fragrance-ad kind of way. He didn’t manage to keep up pretenses long. Within a few seconds, the façade cracked and he beamed a smile at Nicky. His gaze leisurely traveled up and down his body. The sight of Nicky’s bare feet brightened his smile. “This was a very good idea,” he said, his tone warm and yet eliciting a shiver.

Nicky could only agree, although that felt a bit arrogant, considering it had been his idea. But Yusuf in his suit was a sight to behold. Unlike Nicky’s fully black outfit, Yusuf wore color: a dark, olive green suit, pinstriped white shirt, and burgundy tie with an eye-catching shimmer.

It didn’t fit him perfectly, but that made it all the more mouth-watering for Nicky. The jacket was pulling a little at the shoulders and the fabric of his shirt was too taut across his chest. The tie undoubtedly hid the shirt being pulled apart at the buttons a little.

Yusuf looked down at himself, fretting over the fit. Sheepishly, he admitted: “I bought it in Rome last summer, but I guess this year’s work-out regimen was a little more effective than I thought.”

“Oh, yes, it’s… worked very well for you.” Nicky was still staring, unaware that he was biting his bottom lip until Yusuf pointed it out to him by way of pleading him to stop with a velvet tone. Nicky was certain his face turned a bright red, with how hot it felt. Not quite as hot as what he felt between his legs though.

He held Yusuf’s stare as the man stalked towards him, the fabric of his trousers pulling over his muscular thighs with each step. It wouldn’t be long until Nicky’s own suit would fit him too tightly in certain places.

Big hands were placed on his shoulders and then trailed down the length of his arms. Fingertips grazed his palms and Nicky tried to reach for Yusuf’s hands but he was too slow, too enthralled, too entranced. The hands reappeared in front of his chest and they adjusted the tie, even though Nicky knew for certain it had been perfectly straight.

He’d been so busy watching the movement of muscle underneath the olive green fabric that he didn’t even realize the warm, brown eyes had been fixated on his lips the entire time, until he tried to search out Yusuf’s gaze.

“You want to kiss me.” Not a question. It was the most smug and confident he had ever sounded. It made him feel proud of himself.

It made Yusuf feel some type of way too. Still not looking into his eyes, he easily admitted: “I want to do much more than that.”

Nicky’s body swayed forward, close enough to smell traces of laundry detergent in the suit and the scent that was purely Yusuf; it comforted him the same way pressing his nose into Yusuf’s pillow had, when he was feeling his absolutely worst, only yesterday. Now, he was feeling his absolute best.

Yusuf touched his nose to Nicky’s. Their lips brushed together. Not quite a kiss.

“I love you,” Nicky wanted to say. But he didn’t. It was silly. It was too soon. He felt it, true and deep. But knew he shouldn’t say it yet. Someday. Soon.

Suddenly Yusuf took hold of the black tie and yanked Nicky against him. His big nose crashed into his cheekbone and it would have hurt them both if not for the pleasure of the kiss drowning out all other sensation. Yusuf wasted no time, cradling Nicky’s face in his hands and licking into his mouth.

Nicky grabbed fistfuls of Yusuf’s jacket and held on until he was confident his knees wouldn’t buckle under his own weight. Then he started to explore, slipping into the open jacket and caressing over the silk shirt. The hard muscles underneath flexed as Yusuf steered them towards the bed. It was all a bit too clumsy and uncoordinated and Nicky flinched when Yusuf nearly stepped on his toes.

“Sorry,” Yusuf muttered into his mouth.

The solution startled Nicky.

Fingers dug into the flesh of his ass and he was hoisted up against Yusuf’s chest. Being almost as tall as Yusuf and probably not weighing much less than him, it was an impressive feat. Impressive, but not surprising, given the musculature he had been admiring with greedy fingertips.

Nicky helped by wrapping his arms around Yusuf’s neck and supporting some of his weight on his shoulders.

Before long he was dropped onto the mattress with a bounce that made him giggle and the way Yusuf smiled back at him as he crawled over him made those words appear on his tongue again.

I love you.

Nicky pulled him down and kissed him instead of saying anything and obliged when Yusuf directed him to move further up the bed so his legs were no longer dangling over the edge.

Yusuf’s weight on top of him grounded him, when all of his other sense were implying to his brain that he was floating off somewhere.

There wasn’t a single moment when Yusuf wasn’t wholly in charge of the kiss, or anything else going on for that matter, but Nicky was never left wanting.

As predicted, Yusuf knew better what he wanted than he did himself. When the urgency of the kiss had quieted, languid, wet movements of tongues and lips remained. Yusuf’s mouth never strayed from his and as much as Nicky wanted him to kiss his jaw, or his neck – lick his Adam’s apple, unbutton his shirt, and tongue down his chest, he wanted none of it more than the simple yet satisfying intimacy of his mouth on his, his breath on his face, the scratch of his beard on his chin.

He moaned when his tie was loosened and when Yusuf starting undoing the buttons at the top, Nicky helped out by starting at the bottom. Their fumbling hands met over his midriff and they chuckled in unison before sharing a moan as they both pushed Nicky’s short open.

Yusuf’s hands were coarse. The hands of a painter, a sculptor, a guitarist, a wood-whittler, a gardener, and whatever else he was in his spare time.

He’s not going to have much spare time left with me, Nicky thought greedily. As romantic the thought was of watching Yusuf paint or play him a song, he wanted those hands on him. Always.

Together they made quick work of Yusuf’s tie and shirt as well.

Yusuf momentarily reared his body up to rid himself of his jacket, which constricted the movement of his shoulders.

Nicky moaned at the sight of him. His shirt falling open and to the sides. The warm skin of his chest and abdomen contrasting with the white silk. When Yusuf leaned over again, supporting his weight on big arms on either side of Nicky, the sun-necklace dangled down and Nicky reached for it.

The metal was warm to the touch. He stroked the pad of his thumb over the shape of the sun.

Love is not selective. Just as the light of the sun is not selective. (1)

Something he read in a spiritual self-help book that Nile had “mistakenly” left in his apartment one day.

(“Oh gee, I’ve been looking for that. Can’t believe I left it at your place.”)

He lightly tugged on the necklace and Yusuf sank down on top of him, settling between Nicky’s legs, which he didn’t remember spreading, but the way they fit together left him with now regrets.

Well… Maybe one regret.

“We don’t have condoms,” he said and if he had any dignity he wouldn’t have whined the words the way he had, but he felt impossibly needy.

Yusuf only reacted with a quirk of his lips. His gaze was calm. With each steady breath his chest expanded against Nicky’s.

Yusuf wasn’t kissing him, just looking at him. He supported himself on one elbow and with the fingers of his right hand he delicately traced Nicky’s features; swiping a thumb over an eyebrow and dragging his index finger over the arch of his nose.

“You are exquisite,” he whispered reverently. “My moon when I’m lost in darkness.”

Nicky blushed. Here he was, Captain Obvious, saying silly things about them not having any condoms to fulfill this teenage-esque lust. And here was Yusuf, saying the most romantic things.

“Nicky, I don’t want to be presumptuous,” he started, never raising his voice above a whisper, “we’ve only known each other for a long weekend after all. But I need you to know that I think I would be a very happy and lucky man to spend the rest of my life….”

Nicky swallowed.

“… Shooing pigeons for you.”

He let out a wet laugh.

I love you.

He didn’t say that. Neither did Yusuf. But in that moment, it didn’t need to be said to be true and to be obvious.

Those kinds of commitments and promises would come later.

Nicky was sure of it.

And he was looking forward to it.

He pulled Yusuf down by his curls and their resumed their kiss, quickly unearthing that intensity from before again. Yusuf rolled his hips against Nicky’s and each movement caused a surge of pleasure that crashed onto him like a wave. With a steady rhythm like the tide, Yusuf got him to just short of coming in his pants.

“Want to feel you,” he grunted against his lips.

In my mouth. In my body.

In his hands would have to do.

They each tackled their own button and zipper and Nicky smirked when he spotted Yusuf had had the same idea of foregoing underwear as he had.

His cock was big and heavy and wet at the head.

Nicky licked his lips, overcome with a thirst that could not be quenched. Not right now. He had to bottle the desire to taste him and feel the weight of him on his tongue and feel him pulse in his throat.

Frotting wasn’t entirely risk-free, but a mere exchange of hand jobs wouldn’t satisfy either of them with how riled up they had let themselves become.

“Can I-…? Do you want-…?” It was possibly still the Catholic near-priest in him that made it difficult for him to voice his wants. His gaze flitted back up at Yusuf’s, open desperation in his eyes.

“I want us to rub our cocks together and come on each other,” Yusuf said. “Are you ok with that? Do you want that?”

He nodded eagerly. “Yes. Yusuf, yes, please.”

Yusuf aligned their cocks and wrapped a hand around them, as much as he could. Nicky reached down and thumbed at both their slits, spreading twin beads of precome. With the way their arousals were pressed together, he could feel Yusuf’s cock throb and it was thrilling to imagine feeling that inside him soon.

Nicky’s other hand disappeared into Yusuf’s hair, making him lower his face down to his so he could kiss him again.

Once Yusuf restarted the movement of his hips, there was little attention left for their kiss. It was no more than their parted lips brushing together as they panted and moaned into each other’s mouths.

The easy slide of his foreskin over the head of his dick quickly brought him close to the edge. The friction must have been a little rougher on Yusuf’s cock, only aided by precome. Nicky didn’t have the time to fret, or feel guilty, or selfish. His orgasm caught him by surprise. He didn’t catch much of it with his hand, most of his spend landed on his quivering stomach. It didn’t stay there for long. Yusuf let go of them both to wipe his big palm over Nicky’s skin, gathering the slick there. He used it to swiftly stroke himself towards completion, being careful not to touch Nicky’s oversensitive penis in the aftermath of his orgasm.

The way Yusuf’s gaze never strayed from his was the most intimate and erotic thing Nicky had ever experienced. Most of his sexual encounters included dark alleys or being taken from behind, or taking someone else from behind.

Yusuf looked gorgeous. Enraptured. Not until the very end did he screw his dark eyes shut.

He spilled on Nicky’s stomach and softening cock, which livened up with one last twitch in response.

With their wits returning to them, they kissed again and it was a certainty in Nicky’s mind that he would never tire of receiving Yusuf’s kisses.

Yusuf’s movements were stiff as he maneuvered himself to lay at Nicky’s side. He sported a silly grin that Nicky matched.

They barely had time to catch their breath when the hotel room phone rang.

For a moment neither of them moved to answer, they laughed instead, at the luck of their timing. If that phone had rang only a minute earlier, it would have been terrible.


In disheveled suits they made their way downstairs, too loose-limbed and comfortable – “lazy” Nicky had admonished – to change outfits again. Besides, Yusuf stressed how much he enjoyed seeing Nicky in his all-black suit and he wouldn’t want to deny him the pleasure.

It was in the elevator where Yusuf asked him one more time: “You’re sure?”

“Yes. I finally am.” He wasn’t going to sit through a full day of festivities, celebrating this family when this family had disappointed him so much. His sister didn’t want to be seen with her own brother – didn’t even include him in the wedding party. His mother tried to convince him that his way of loving and living was invalid and meaningless. His father treated Yusuf – the best man Nicky had ever met – like dirt. Most aunts, uncles, and cousins ignored the both of them like it was an embarrassment to be related.

“What about Laura?”

“I sent her a text, asked her to come meet us in the lobby. I would never leave without saying goodbye to her.” It wasn’t a farewell, but a goodbye for now. He knew she’d be upset and possibly wouldn’t understand, but he knew she would when she’d get older. She was a good kid. And the only one who ever loved him for who he was. No exceptions.

Before the elevator doors opened, Yusuf reached for his hand and they walked across the lobby hand in hand, making Nicky feel invincible. Because it was real. No more faking it.

Laura popped up from one of the oversized and overstuffed lounge chairs in the lobby and darted towards him, looking more worried than she should. Nicky felt bad for having been so cryptic with his text.

Her hair was already done for the wedding; an intricate, braided updo, adorned with little white flowers. But she was in jeans and a zip-up sweatshirt. She held her hands awkwardly, away from her sides, fingers splayed, clearly having had her nails done.

Yusuf kissed him on the cheek and left to check out and get the car keys from the receptionist.

Without a greeting or any sort of preamble, Laura skidded to a stop in front of Nicky and complained: “Vittoria wouldn’t let me get any glitters.” She showed him her hands, her short nails were a light pink.

“It’s very pretty.”

“I wanted blue. And glitter. And dolphins. And flowers. The nail-lady, she can paint really tiny. She showed me a picture of a geisha she’d painted on a nail.”

He smiled at her. She was rambling because she was nervous.

“Are we going to do something secret?” She asked, wonder sparkling in her eyes at the possibility that she would be set on an elaborate mission.

Oh, puberty, please be merciful to her, Nicky thought. “Joe-…” He sighed. “Yusuf and I are going to Milan.”

“Can I come?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “No, we won’t be back for the wedding.”

“I don’t mind.”

Nicky knelt down in front of her. “You love Vittoria, right?”

She shrugged. “When she’s not being a priss.”

“You are her flower girl. You’re very important today. And you want to be flower girl, right? And see the decorated church and see Vittoria in her dress?”

Laura nodded along. She’d been excited about the wedding and her role in it for months.

“You’re going to have a great day. And I will too, just not at the wedding.”

“Why?”

“… Because… Because I’m not very important today, to anyone. I don’t feel welcome.”

“You’re important to me.”

He smiled. “Thank you, cucciolo. You are important to me too. Every single day. Even when I’m far away. Ok?”

“When will you come visit again?”

“I don’t know. Probably not for a long time,” he answered honestly. He wouldn’t say he would never come back. If his mother would have a change of heart, he would give her a chance and give it another try, but he wouldn’t be meeting her halfway anymore. No more compromises to be accepted. Never again would he be willing to listen to anyone say the things she said to him in that dress shop, veiled with selective love. “But if it’s ok with Mamma, you can come visit me whenever you want. I’ll show you around London, take you to the museum of Natural history and the London aquarium.”

She brightened up at that.

He grinned and tweaked her nose, wincing when she returned the favor. He shot a look over his shoulder to see Yusuf idling by reception, long done but simply waiting and giving Nicky and Laura a moment alone. “Do you want to say goodbye to Yusuf?” at her nod, he waved the man over. He loved how wide his smile was when he walked up to the two of them.

Yusuf and Laura were talking about her sea life mural in her bedroom that she was working on and Yusuf was reminding her to add the octopus that they’d seen at the aquarium the day before, when Francesca called across the lobby: “Laura! There you are!” She crossed the lobby with hurried little steps. Her hair was in rollers and she was holding her hands much like Laura had been. “Nico, why are you already in your suit? The wedding isn’t until four, you’re going to crease it.”

“I’m not going to the wedding, Mamma.”

She blinked at him incredulously and then shot a look at Yusuf as if this was all his fault. “Why?”

“You know why.”

“Because of what your father said to Joe? Nico, please, don’t let one, little thing-“

He interjected: “It’s not a little thing. And it’s not one thing either. You want to spend three days celebrating heterosexual love while pretending my kind of love is hollow, that is your right, I suppose. But I’ve listened to it long enough.”

“Nico, I told you, I’m trying to do better. Just give us time.”

“I am giving you time. I’m giving you all the time you need. I’m just not sticking around and waiting. If you reach a point where you’d want to celebrate my relationships the same way you celebrate Vittoria’s – or your own – we can talk. But not until then. And tell Pappa I never want to see him again. He should be relieved.”

She was staring, shellshocked and it was almost a comical sight to behold, with her stiff, splayed hands and her hair in rollers. If it was a scene from a sitcom, there would be a laugh track playing.

It wasn’t funny, in reality. But also, not as sad as Nicky thought it would be.

He held her gaze for a moment longer, unwavering. He appreciated that Yusuf had stayed by his side as a show of support and he had a hand on Laura’s shoulder as she’d been watching with big eyes.

“Goodbye, Mamma.” He released a sigh and turned away. He picked Laura up – she was very nearly too heavy and too old for that sort of stuff. He hugged her tightly and told her he loved her.

Once he put her down, he walked away and Yusuf grabbed his hand again, slotting their fingers together easily.

The rental car was parked at the curb. Bellboys had already put their luggage in the trunk. It was a bit of an outdated, understated convertible. Nice enough while being within the budget of a student/part-time museum tour guide and a travel agent.

“You better drive,” Yusuf said, tossing him the keys. “I’ve lived in London for so long by now, I’m afraid I’m going to steer into oncoming traffic.”

Nicky welcomed the task of driving. He was a good driver, on both sides of the road. Before they pulled away from the hotel, he lowered the roof.

Sunglasses on, wind in his hair, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the gearshift, Yusuf’s warm palm on top of that… It was an idyllic drive, cutting through the Northern Italian countryside towards Milan.

Yusuf turned on the radio, but didn’t say a thing. Nicky soaked up the silence between them; it was peaceful and comfortable. He thought about the past few days. About how little had happened, but how much he had felt and experienced and grown. He had come here so desperate for his mother’s approval that he’d brought a fake boyfriend. Now he left empowered and, hopefully, with a real boyfriend.

“You’re ok?” Yusuf asked, catching the smile on Nicky’s lips.

He shot him a quick look. He looked so great in his white button-up and the sunglasses he bought at the market. Thankfully he never put on that damn fidora again. “I’m great.”

“You really are,” Yusuf agreed.

Silence reigned once more until they crossed the bridge over the mostly dried out riverbed of the Sesia, about the halfway-point between Turin and Milan. Yusuf let out what could only be described as a squeak. With a silly grin he turned up the radio.

“What are the odds?”

Nicky hadn’t even recognized the tune until Yusuf had turned up the volume. It was the song they had danced to last night. He smiled. He wasn’t much of a fan of the song, too melodramatic and riddled with cliché’s for his taste, but Yusuf’s excitement was infectious.

“What’s it called again?”

La Costruzione di un Amore.”

Yusuf twisted a little in his seat to get his phone out of the pocket of his trousers.

Nicky frowned, sneaking glimpses at what he was doing without letting his gaze drift away from the road for too long. “Adding it to the Spotify playlist, are you?” He teased.

“No,” Yusuf drawled, as if that was preposterous. “I’m making a note. So I don’t forget.”

“Why?”

Yusuf extended his arm over the back of Nicky’s seat, turning his body to face him. He waited for Nicky to look over and catch his grin, before he said: “It’s gonna be really fucking cute if we dance to this song at our own wedding someday.”

Nicky’s jaw dropped, but he quickly recovered with a laugh. “Let’s hold off on the wedding plans for now. When we get back to London, you might find that you’d rather learn an eighth language than ‘shoo pigeons’.” He loved how that had somehow become a euphemism for them spending the rest of their lives together.

Yusuf didn’t say anything, just maintained this absolutely ridiculous, knowing smirk.

As cautious and realistic as he wanted to be, the thought did pop into Nicky’s head that how they met would be a great story to tell their children and grandchildren. Their own fairytale.

Silly little lovestruck boy, Nicky chastised himself, but not too harshly. Haven’t even properly dated yet and already entertaining the thought of grandchildren.

Yusuf had that effect on him, making him feel full of hope and secure enough to be uncharacteristically optimistic.

He was the moon to Yusuf’s sun. Without the light of the sun, the moon was dark and invisible.

“Thank you, Yusuf.”

Yusuf’s smile was warm, but he quirked an eyebrow.

Nicky rolled his eyes. Right, cute nicknames. “Grazie, caro mio,” he purred.

“Prego, vita mia.”