Joe’s first thought, when he gets jumped in the street while stumbling home from a club late one night, and bound and gagged, and stuffed into the boot of a car, is that he’s going to die. The family have decided that a dead respectable son they can pretend to mourn is better than a live gay one who might disgrace them any day now, so they’ve hired someone to kill him, and the only reason he’s bumping along in this musty boot instead of dead already is that the thugs doing the job figure it’ll be less hassle to do it when they’re closer to wherever they plan to dump his body. He wonders, vaguely, if they’ve been instructed to leave him someplace where he’ll be found, so things can be tied up all nice and neat, or if they’ve been instructed to really make him disappear, so the family can quietly carry on like he never existed at all, without the inconvenience of acting as though they’re upset by his loss. How pathetic, he thinks through the fog of alcohol and fear and despair, that he still wants his mother right now, even though there’s a good chance it was her idea, she always was a ruthlessly efficient problem-solver. But then, it’s not like there’s really anyone else in his life these days who would be a better choice for imaginary comfort. Is anyone even going to miss him? Fuck.
It is, therefore, something of a surprise when the boot opens and someone throws some kind of fabric over his face, and he hears voices around him that are definitely talking, in Italian, about ransom payments. Ransom. The family hasn’t hired these guys to kill him. These guys think the family is going to pay them in order to get him back. It’s all he can do to keep from laughing hysterically. So, basically, he was right: he is going to die, once they figure out the truth. Just maybe not right away.
Someone pulls the fabric off his face for a moment, long enough to drop a newspaper on his chest and snap a couple of polaroids, and then the fabric – which turns out to be a bag – gets shoved over his head, and they haul him out of the boot.
“You don’t make trouble, we don’t hurt you, understand?” someone says to him, in heavily accented English, and he says yes and sì, because he might be doomed, but pissing them off isn’t going to do anything but make this shitty situation even more unpleasant.
Joe thinks he dozed off for a while in the boot, because despite the terror it was late and he was pretty drunk when they grabbed him. He got a glimpse of trees and daylight, before the bag went over his head, so they drove long enough for it to at least be morning now, though that doesn’t tell him much. The point at which they grabbed him could have been pretty much anywhere between one in the morning and dawn, he doesn’t know, and it’s not like he has any sense of how fast they were driving or in what direction. They could be halfway to Switzerland, or Sicily, or barely outside Rome.
They untie his legs but not his hands and put what is presumably a gun to his back make him walk, mostly uphill. Lacking any better ideas, he cooperates as best he can. It’s okay for a while but it gets harder and harder to find his footing blind as the path gets steeper and increasingly less path-like. After the third time he stumbles, there’s a brief exchange between two of the guys that he doesn’t understand; his Italian is okay but whatever they’re speaking is probably some local dialect, not what they put in phrase books for foreigners. Someone pulls the bag off his head and he blinks against the sudden brightness, taking in trees, lots of trees, and two guys in ski masks. There were more than two voices when they took him out of the car, he’s pretty sure; a hand-off, maybe, maybe these two aren’t the same ones who grabbed him in Rome. One of them says something he doesn’t understand, impatient, and then Avanti, avanti, andiamo, which he does get, and they start moving again.
There’s not a lot to distinguish the guys, they’re of similar heights and builds, but the one who doesn’t have the gun seems generally more nervous about the whole thing, jumping at any little sound that isn’t obviously caused by them, so Joe dubs him Twitchy in his head. The other one’s wearing plaid trousers and a paisley shirt that would both be a bit much on their own and are eye-searingly awful together, so Joe labels him Tacky.
They put the bag back on him a couple of times, presumably when they’re going to pass some sort of landmark they don’t want him to see. He doesn’t object; unless whatever they’re worried about is a flashing neon sign with an arrow pointing to Rome or the nearest police station, it wouldn’t do him any good anyway. They start following a cliff face after a while, and eventually stop at a spot where a crack in the stone opens into a small, shallow cave, not much of a cavern but enough to provide a bit of shelter at least. There’s a little stream nearby. Otherwise, as far as Joe can tell, it’s just more trees and rocks in every direction.
Tacky pulls a length of chain out of his bag, with a shackle on one end. He loops the loose end of the chain around the trunk of a tree near the cave opening and secures it to itself with a padlock. The shackle, predictably, goes around Joe’s ankle.
“What now?” Joe asks. The guys look at each other; Twitchy shrugs, Tacky does an annoyed hand gesture.
“Topolino comes soon,” Twitchy says. “He explains.”
“Right,” Joe says, and they settle in to wait.
After a while, they hear someone else approaching. Topolino, presumably. The new guy isn’t wearing a mask, and Joe catches a fleeting glimpse of a strong Roman nose before there’s a lot of incomprehensible not-exactly-Italian shouting and Tacky hastily shoves the bag over his head again. The shouting continues for a bit; Joe can’t really follow any of it but Topolino doesn’t seem to be happy, and the other two don’t seem to be happy that he’s making a fuss.
Finally the bag is removed again, more gently this time, and it’s the new guy standing in front of Joe, now with a bit of fabric tied over the lower half of his face. His eyes, Joe can’t help noticing, are a very striking blue-green, and they’re peering at him with what seems, bizarrely, to be concern.
“Are you all right?” is the first thing he says, in English. Pretty eyes or not, Joe stares into them with a look that, he hopes, conveys exactly how ridiculous of a question that is under the circumstances.
Topolino seems to realise it himself and mutters “Porca Madonna,” under his breath, which Joe does understand, and adds, “I mean, are you hurt? Injured? Feeling ill?”
“No,” Joe says, though his head is throbbing and his mouth feels like a flock of sheep died in it. “I could use some water, if you’re offering.”
Topolino nods. He pulls a canteen out of his bag and offers it to Joe. Joe, hands still tied, gives him another unimpressed look. Topolino mutters some more profanity and goes to untie him, but Twitchy objects, which leads to some more shouting, with Topolino gesturing emphatically to the chain and the shackle around Joe’s ankle. Eventually he throws his free hand up in frustration and then turns back to Joe, carefully holding the canteen to Joe’s mouth.
“What have they told you?” Topolino asks, after Joe is done with the water.
“Not much. I assume there’s going to be a ransom demand.”
“Yes. If you cooperate, your people pay, then you go home, everyone is happy. If you cause trouble, try to run away, or they do not pay…”
“Then we’re not so happy.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I’m supposed to ask you if you will be missed. In Rome, I mean. We know – well, I don’t, I don’t even know who you are, but they say your family is in Tunisia?” Joe nods. “Is there anyone in Rome who is likely to go to the police over your disappearance?”
Joe considers lying, but there doesn’t seem to be much point.
“No. Not for a while, anyway. I have a few friends who’ll wonder, but they’ll probably just figure I took off for a while and forgot to tell them or they didn’t get the message. My landlady will notice when I don’t turn up with the rent, but I don’t think she’d go to the cops either.”
“Okay. And what is the best way to get in touch with your family?”
Joe bites back the urge to say it’s pointless, that any threat they might make would be received as a favour, and thinks about it. If this had happened a few years ago, he would have given them the house phone number and address, because the last thing the family would want is for this to hit the papers or the gossip circuit. Now, though, keeping it private means he’s definitely doomed because they can easily ignore the demands entirely; none of the household staff likely to be answering the phone or dealing with mail these days know or like him enough to leak the news for his sake, and anyone indiscreet enough to do it for any other reason wouldn’t last five minutes in the job. The same goes for his father’s private phone line at work. Instead, Joe gives them the number for the general inquiries line at the office, and the generic mail room address. Maybe, maybe if the communications get filtered through enough low-level minions at the office, word will get out and the family will feel like they have to pay up to save face.
“Is there anyone here in Italy who could act as an intermediary for them?” Topolino asks. “A relative, or a family friend, something like that?”
“No,” Joe answers immediately. It’s one of the reasons he picked Rome, after it all went to shit and he couldn’t stand to be in London anymore, over Berlin where he’s got an uncle and Paris which is full of relatives and his father’s friends.
“I suppose they will have to send someone, then,” Topolino says.
“I suppose,” Joe allows. No, they won’t, they can refuse to pay perfectly well over the phone, but Joe’s not about to tell these guys that.
There’s a bit more back and forth between Topolino and the other two that Joe can’t follow, and then Tacky and Twitchy make like they’re going to leave. Topolino says something to them which sets off another round of shouting. This time, it’s clear it’s not so much everyone shouting as Twitchy and Tacky shouting while Topolino talks over them calmly and glares absolute daggers. They don’t seem to be afraid of him exactly, but they do both seem aware that they’re not going to win whatever the argument is. Eventually Twitchy shrugs off his jacket and grudgingly hands it to Topolino, and Tacky pulls a cap out of his pocket and hands that over too, and then Topolino gives them a nod and they take off. Joe isn’t exactly sorry to see them go; at least Topolino speaks good English and hasn’t pointed a gun at him. Yet.
Topolino turns and hands the cap and jacket to Joe.
“It gets cold up here at night,” he explains. “I’m sorry, when they told me to come, I was not expecting – well, you. I’ll have to go back to the town tomorrow evening, I will try to get some better things for you then.”
“What were you expecting?” Joe asks.
“Usually it means waiting a while, but not with… company that isn’t prepared to do the same.”
“Waiting for what?” Someone else to show up for a hand-off of drugs, probably, or smuggled cigarettes or weapons, whatever the goons around here deal in.
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Topolino says, not sharp but definitely very final. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah,” Joe says. He hasn’t eaten since yesterday and it must be getting onto midday now; Twitchy and Tacky had shared a sandwich while they were waiting for Topolino, but didn’t offer anything to Joe. His hands are still tied, though, and also full of the jacket and cap. “But, uh,” Joe adds, proffering his arms.
“Right, yes, sorry,” Topolino says, sounding annoyed, though Joe doesn’t think the annoyance is directed at him. Topolino takes the jacket and cap back and sets them aside, then unpicks the knots, grimacing at the abrasions on Joe’s wrists when the rope falls away.
“I’m sorry,” Topolino says again.
“You keep saying that,” Joe says. “Don’t suppose you’re sorry enough to just, you know, let me go?”
“No,” Topolino says, and then his eyes crinkle just a little, like he’s amused. “Sorry,” he adds, and Joe can’t help himself, he laughs a little in surprise.
“I can’t let you go,” Topolino goes on, “but I will do whatever I can to make sure all this is not any worse for you than it has to be.”
Which sounds nice, but all it does is remind Joe of exactly how bad this is going to become once they figure out he’s not the gold mine they think he is.
“You know you’re not going to see any of that ransom money,” Joe says, suddenly desperate. “It’s all going to line the bosses’ pockets, they’re not going to give it to you or your family.”
“Don – the boss is the closest thing I have to family,” Topolino says. “My parents are dead. My nonna is dead. He took me in, when I had no one else. I am not here because I think it will make me rich, I am here because he wants me to be here.”
“You always do what other people tell you?”
“Making a habit of not doing what the boss tells you is a good way to get yourself killed around here.”
“That what happened to your parents?” Joe asks, decidedly unkindly. He knows he’s being an asshole, and pissing off the guy who seems like the closest thing to a decent human being in the lot isn’t a clever move, but he’s doomed and scared and he can’t be bothered controlling the urge to lash out.
“My parents died because a tree fell on our house during a storm,” Topolino says mildly, not sounding offended. He takes a thermos out of his bag. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Fine,” Joe says, petulant because a part of him still wants to pick a fight.
“I sweetened it to my taste already, sorry,” Topolino says, pouring some into the cup that comes with the thermos and passing it to Joe. “I’ll bring it plain next time.”
“It’s fine,” Joe says, the urge to be a dick fading away with the taste of something other than fear and bile on his tongue. “This is… it’s good. Thanks.”
Topolino nods, and starts pulling other things out of his bag: a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, a container of some kind of pasta salad, a chunk of cured sausage and one of hard cheese, a couple of apples, a packet of biscuits, another of potato chips, a bag of nuts.
“How long were you planning on being here?” Joe asks, impressed. Topolino shrugs.
“It varies, and I like to be prepared.”
They share the sandwich and Joe has to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at the sight of Topolino trying to eat with the cloth tied around his face, and obviously feeling very put out by the inconvenience. He switches to the biscuits after, which go a little easier, while Joe digs into the pasta salad.
“Where are we?” Joe asks eventually, when his hunger is sated enough that he’s pausing between bites and his thoughts are starting to drift in morbid directions he’d rather avoid.
“I’m not supposed to tell you, I’m sorry,” Topolino says.
“Right,” Joe says, and casts around for a safer topic. “So, uh, you a football fan?”
“Right. Um.” Joe doesn’t normally struggle with small talk, but then, he doesn’t normally have to avoid anything personal or related to the local area. He tries to think of a film or TV show they could talk about, but he hasn’t had a television or been to the cinema since moving to Italy last year, and the last film he saw before leaving London was Blazing Saddles. Has that even come out in Italy yet? Is there any chance Topolino would have seen it if it has? He has no idea.
“Have you seen Blazing Saddles? The film?” he asks. Topolino’s blank look says it all, and Joe despairs, but then Topolino seems to realise that he just wants to talk about something, anything that will do for a distraction.
“Do you watch Eurovision?” Topolino asks, and Joe could kiss him, because he did see that at a friend’s place.
“Yes! That Ding-dong song this year was catchy, but-”
“But it could not compare to last year’s winner. Waterloo was brilliant.”
“I know a guy who was in Stockholm a few months ago, and he said every other shop window in the old town has two pictures in it: one of the Swedish royal family, and one of Abba.”
“As well they should,” Topolino says seriously. “National treasures.”
“I thought Italy was robbed this year,” Joe adds. “The Brits who came in second were fine but what’s-her-name-”
“Dori Ghezzi, and Wess, yes. I am perhaps biased but I thought they were much better too…”
Eurovision, and then music in general, keeps the conversation going for a good while. Joe puts on Twitchy’s jacket eventually, because Topolino’s right, it does get chilly as the evening sets in. He wonders if that’s because they’re somewhere in the north or just because they’re at a higher altitude than Rome. Finally, the very minimal shut-eye Joe got last night catches up with him.
“Do you need some sleep?” Topolino asks when Joe fails to supress a yawn.
“Yeah, last night was … not exactly restful.”
“Of course. We should have something here, let me look.”
Topolino goes to kneel at one side of the little cave opening and leans in, reaching for something inside, ass sticking out. It’s a nice ass. Joe admires it, then feels slightly guilty for objectifying him, then decides that all things considered, he is not the one who should be feeling guilty about anything right now, and goes back to enjoying the view.
Topolino emerges, muttering to himself, with what looks like a sleeping bag rolled up in its sack, and two buckets stacked one inside the other. He separates the buckets, sniffs one, and grimaces in a way that’s obvious even with half his face hidden behind the cloth. Then, looking suspicious, he also sniffs the other one, but seems relieved by the result.
“Toilet,” he says, holding up the first bucket, and then, holding up the other, “Clean water. Every time I tell him, keep them separate, leave the wash rag in the clean one and a rock in the dirty one so there is no doubt, and every time, I come back and find this…”
Joe chuckles. “Is ‘he’ one of the guys who was here before?”
“Oh, no, those two are not usually here much. ‘He’ is not involved in … this sort of thing. He just spends a lot of time in the woods, hunting and gathering herbs, mushrooms, berries. And he often camps here when I am not using it, so we have an understanding. Well. I try to have an understanding.”
“Some people are just so inconsiderate of other people’s secret crime lairs,” Joe says brightly. It occurs to him as the words are leaving his mouth that maybe making that sort of remark isn’t the best idea, but Topolino snorts, and Joe is fairly sure there’s a grin under the cloth concealing his mouth.
“Exactly,” Topolino agrees. “Crimes against the laws of men are one thing, crimes against basic sanitation standards are another thing entirely.”
Topolino puts the toilet bucket behind the tree Joe’s chained to, and leaves the other one by the cave entrance, then opens up and shakes out the sleeping bag.
“You take this tonight, I told – I told the man who will be coming back tomorrow to bring another, and some more blankets.”
Joe stifles the automatic urge to be chivalrous and offer to let Topolino have the sleeping bag instead, and just nods. You’re a kidnapping victim here, not an unexpected houseguest, he reminds himself, you don’t have to be nice to him. Joe uses the toilet bucket, then lays down in the sleeping bag, and he’s exhausted enough that he falls asleep almost instantly.
Joe wakes up briefly when it must be not long before sunrise, everything washed in weak grey predawn light. He doesn’t remember immediately where he is or why, just notices the sound of birdsong and the fresh air, and less charmingly, the various kinks and cramps in his muscles from spending the night huddled up in a sleeping bag on the hard ground. He sees Topolino, asleep but sitting upright against a tree, arms hugging himself, face tucked in against his shoulder. He looks so innocent like that, vulnerable and sweet, even with the cloth still tied over the lower half of his face. Joe feels a brief twinge of something like affection, and then the reality of yesterday’s events and his situation comes rushing back, and it’s all he can do to keep from sobbing aloud as the despair overwhelms him.
Joe turns his back to Topolino, not wanting to see him or be seen if he should wake up, feeling queasy with hopeless frustration and fear. His eyes sting with tears and he doesn’t fight them, what’s the point? He’s fucked. It’s not like his life has been that amazing lately but he doesn’t want to lose it, and he’s going to, all because some mob boss thinks his family values him a whole lot more than they actually do. Joe huddles there and cries into his arm, as quietly as possible, until the balance between his misery and his lingering exhaustion tips far enough to let him fall asleep again.
Topolino is up the next time Joe wakes, sitting in a different spot, reading a book. He glances up when he notices Joe stirring, but doesn’t say anything until Joe comes back from relieving himself in the bucket.
“There is a little coffee left in the thermos,” Topolino says, nodding to it, “And take whatever you like of the food, I have eaten already.”
Joe eats quietly while Topolino reads. When he’s done, Topolino packs his book and the now-empty thermos away in his bag. While Topolino is arranging things inside the bag, both hands occupied, the cloth hiding his face comes loose and slips down to his neck. Joe, who has seen enough crime films to know how this goes, throws his hands over his eyes and says,
“I didn’t see anything, I swear.”
“It’s fine,” Topolino says. “Don’t worry.”
“Rather not get shot for seeing your face, thanks,” Joe says, not budging. Topolino tugs gently at his sleeve.
“Really, it’s fine,” he repeats. “No one is going to shoot you for seeing my face.”
“Are you chill because you don’t think I’m going to rat you out, or because you were going to kill me anyway?” Joe asks, tentatively lowering his hands.
“Neither?” Topolino says. “If this goes as we hope, once your family pays, the others will take you back to Rome, and you will never know who we are or where we are. And then what, you go to the police, and say ‘One of them had a nose like this?’” He mimes an exaggerated version of his own profile. “And the police say, ‘Oh yes, we know precisely who you mean, there is only one man in all of Italy with a nose like that and we have his name and address.”
“Okay, fair,” Joe admits. “And if it doesn’t go as you hope?”
Topolino shrugs. “If you find out enough about us for my face to make a difference, then I do not think my face will make much difference anymore.”
Adorable, how he apparently thinks this going bad means Joe learning enough about his captors to get them in trouble with the police after they release him, and not them killing him once it becomes obvious that his family isn’t going to pay. It might be heartening, if Joe could believe it meant they’re not willing to kill him, rather than that it just hasn’t occurred to Topolino that Joe’s family wouldn’t pay. It must have been nice, to have had the kind of family where that doesn’t seem like an option.
“Right,” Joe says, and then changes the subject. “Why do they call you a mouse?” he asks.
“The other guys called you Topolino, but that isn’t actually your name, right? Doesn’t it mean mouse? Little mouse?”
“Oh. Yes. But it is not – topo di biblioteca. It is…worm, I think, in English? Library worm?”
“Oh! Book worm. Because you read a lot?”
“Yes. Well. More than they do, at least. So you do speak Italian?”
Topolino gives an amused huff. “All the important things, yes.”
“Don’t worry, though, you guys talking amongst yourselves, that’s all Greek to me,” Joe adds.
“Don’t feel bad, plenty of Italians who are not from around here would say the same,” Topolino tells him, the corner of his mouth turning up ever so slightly.
Twitchy comes back late in the afternoon, wearing his ski mask again, and flips out when he sees Topolino with his face exposed. Joe can’t follow what Twitchy is saying but he makes out Topolino telling him it was an accident, that it doesn’t matter, and to calm down repeatedly. Finally the guy subsides, and hands the sack he has with him over to Topolino. Topolino looks through it and says something to Twitchy that Joe doesn’t catch, which sets off another one of those weird arguments where Twitchy shouts and Topolino speaks calmly but with a homicidal glare.
“He is useless,” Topolino tells Joe apologetically. “He brought food and another sleeping bag, but none of the other things I told him to get. And he wants his jacket back. I’ll leave you mine,” Topolino says, shrugging it off, “And bring back proper supplies tomorrow.”
Joe takes off Twitchy’s jacket and holds it out to him; Twitchy snatches it out of his hands and darts away, out of the range of movement that the chain allows Joe. Topolino rolls his eyes and mutters something that Joe is pretty sure is disparaging under his breath.
“I’ll bring you some clean clothes. What size do you wear?” Topolino asks. Joe tells him. “Okay. Is there anything else you need? Cigarettes? Anything you don’t eat?”
“I don’t smoke,” Joe says, and considers the food question. He hasn’t kept halal since his parents stopped being in control of his diet and he’s certainly not going to start again now. Those revolting gelatine dishes both the Americans and the English are alarmingly fond of thankfully don’t seem to be so popular in Italy, and he can’t really imagine anyone carting one of those up here anyway. “Not a big fan of sardines?”
“Noted,” Topolino says. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”
Topolino returns as promised the next day, carrying a big backpack and another large sack.
“We called the telephone number you gave us,” Topolino says to Joe, after Twitchy has scuttled away.
“You called?” Joe asks.
“No. I’m not the only one who speaks English, just the only one who speaks English and…”
“Doesn’t have anything better to do than babysit me?”
The corner of Topolino’s mouth twitches upward. “Something like that. They said it was some sort of secretary at your father’s company who answered?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think any of your guys would speak Arabic, right? There’s no way an unexpected call would get put straight through to my father, and all of the staff don’t speak English, but anyone handling that line does.” That is technically true, even if it’s not the actual reason he picked that approach. “Figured it was the best bet for getting the message through.”
“Right,” Topolino says, though it’s obvious he still thinks it’s a little strange, that he’s wondering why Joe didn’t just give them a home phone number and times when someone was likely to be around to answer it. But he doesn’t press. “Anyway, they gave the message, and they have mailed the photos for proof, but I imagine it will take some time for the arrangements to be made.”
“Sure,” Joe says. It’s just as well; if they’re not expecting this to proceed quickly, it means he’s got more time to try to figure a way out.
“I brought some things for you,” Topolino says, handing over the sack. “The socks and underwear are new from the shop, the rest of the clothes are mine. I think they should fit you well enough, but tell me if anything is too big or small and I’ll try to find something else next time.”
Apart from the clothes, there’s also a nice thick blanket, a new toothbrush and toothpaste, which Joe didn’t think to ask for but is very glad to see, a washcloth and bar of soap, deodorant, and another tube of some sort that Joe doesn’t recognise. He peers at it, trying to figure out the tiny Italian writing, and Topolino says,
“For your wrists, where the rope…”
“Oh. Thank you,” Joe says.
Twitchy barely spoke to him while Topolino was away, which gave Joe plenty of opportunity to work himself up into a good fuck all these guys funk, and Topolino’s consideration catches him off guard.
Topolino unpacks some of the things in his backpack too. He’s got a little camp stove, a coffee pot, a cooking pot and small pan, some dishes, and an assortment of food.
“Nothing too fancy, but at least we can have something warm to eat,” he explains, setting up the stove. Joe can’t quite decide if he wants to be annoyed by this brazen assault on his plans to be difficult and contrary, or just grateful that at least his captivity isn’t going to be quite as uncomfortable as it could be. Topolino gives Joe a little smile, and Joe gives up and lets his ire drain away.
“How did they even know to grab me?” Joe asks Topolino later, because this question has been bothering him since it first occurred to him last night.
“What do you mean?”
“Your guys in Rome. My family’s got money, yeah, but we’re not famous. Not like that Getty kid.”
“No one is going to cut your ear off,” Topolino says quickly. “I know this is all – but I won’t let anyone hurt you.” He sounds like he means it, too, which is sweet, even if Joe’s not particularly convinced it will make any difference since the others can just do it while he’s not around if they want to.
“Thanks,” Joe says. “But what I mean is, I can’t imagine your guys just saw my face or heard my name and went ‘Oh, yeah, rich Tunisian businessman’s son.’ And it’s not like I was frequenting the kinds of places where everyone’s loaded, I hate that sort of thing. So how did they know?”
“I don’t know. But if I had to guess, I would say that there was someone in your life who did know about your family’s money, and also knew one of our people, and shared that information. Perhaps someone with a debt they could not pay, or someone hoping to call in the favour later.”
Joe wants to object, wants to say that the only people in Italy who know about his family are friends who wouldn’t sell him out like that, but then he thinks: Booker. Booker definitely knows shady people; Joe met him in the first place because a mutual acquaintance said he could get good pot but Joe knows he deals in harder stuff too. And he’s seemed off lately. Money problems had occurred to Joe already, he’d even offered to help the guy out if he needed it, but Booker had insisted everything was fine. Maybe it wasn’t fine. Maybe he needed more than he thought Joe’s personal finances could stretch to, and he’d decided he could get out of it by pointing the people he owed at the al-Kaysani family fortune instead. Booker never believed that Joe’s parents wouldn’t come around and welcome him home eventually, kept insisting that a father would never willingly abandon his child like that; maybe in his own twisted way he even thought he was helping to hasten the reunion. Brilliant plan, Book, Joe thinks bitterly. Now they’re going to kill me, and probably come after you too for the bad tip.
“Fucking piece of shit,” Joe mutters. Topolino flinches, and Joe adds, “Not you. Sorry. I think you’re right, and I think I know who it was. I thought he was my friend.”
“I’m sorry. People make… unfortunate choices, sometimes, when they are desperate. I’m sure he did not wish you any harm.”
“Sure,” Joe says, though it doesn’t make him feel any better.
“Oh, I just remembered, I brought something else for you,” Topolino says. He reaches into his bag and takes something out, handing it over to Joe.
“I thought you might like something to read, to pass the time,” he explains.
It’s a book, a battered old travel guide to Malta, in English, and a stack of Italian comic books, a few issues of Diabolik and a couple of others.
“You planning a trip?” Joe asks, holding up the travel guide.
“Sorry,” Topolino says. “It was the only thing I had in English. I thought, the fumetti, even if you do not know all the words…”
“Thank you,” Joe says, torn between feeling touched, and suspicious that one of his goddamn kidnappers is seemingly more thoughtful and considerate than some of the people he used to think of as friends. Would fucking Booker the traitor bring him comics and an English book and ointment for the abrasions on his wrists if he were here?
It could all be an act, of course, a ploy to gain and exploit his trust, but Joe would think if that were the case, the guy would have better props than a random travel guide that was apparently published in 1953. Why does Topolino even have this? He looks to be about Joe’s age, maybe a little younger, definitely not very much older, so he would have just been a kid in the mid-fifties, and if it had been a family trip they would have presumably gotten something in Italian, not English.
“Have you been to Malta?” Joe asks.
“No,” Topolino says. “There was an American backpacker who passed through the town when I was a child, and stayed with us. He did not need that book anymore, he had been to Malta already, so he left it for me when he found out I was learning English. My parents would tell me, study well and one day you will go and see it for yourself. I always thought that would be nice. The fantasies of children, hmm?”
He says it as though the idea of him ever going to Malta is as far-fetched and ridiculous as other kids’ plans to grow up and become dinosaurs or superheroes, and the thought makes Joe feel unaccountably sad.
“Maybe when you get the ransom money,” Joe says. Topolino’s brow wrinkles, like he’s not sure if Joe means the comment as a sincere ‘maybe one day’ or a sarcastic call-back to what he said yesterday about how no one but the bosses was going to see any of that money, and Joe’s honestly not sure himself, caught uncomfortably between the instinct to like this man and the more logical inclination to remain wary if not outright hostile towards all of his captors.
“Maybe,” Topolino says, carefully blank, and moves away, pulling another book out of his bag. Joe doesn’t get a look at the cover but going by the thickness of the book and the dense block of tiny text on the back, it’s some novel that’s definitely way beyond Joe’s Italian reading level. He kind of wants to ask about it but everything about the set of Topolino’s shoulders makes it clear he’s done with the conversation.
“Why did you learn English?” Joe asks later, when Topolino sets his book aside and offers Joe some chocolate biscuits from his bag.
“My mother spoke it,” Topolino says. “She was working in the city during the war. She knew a little already, I think, but learned much more from the American soldiers after they moved in. So she taught me.” He shrugs. “My parents thought it would be useful. They wanted me to leave here, go to university, see the world. That did not happen, but it is still useful, sometimes. And you? Do most people in Tunisia speak English?”
“No, it’s mostly French, after Arabic. But my father thought it would be useful too. For business. He’s got an office in London, and a lot of contacts in America.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“Yeah, I lived in London before I came to Rome,” Joe says, and then, because he absolutely does not want to get on to the topic of why he left London, quickly adds, “And I went to university in America. Berkeley, just across the bay from San Francisco, and I stayed in the city for a few years after. There are a lot of Italians in San Francisco; I had a roommate for a while whose parents were from Sicily, I first learned a little bit of Italian from them. His mom would always give me an extra cannoli – sorry, cannolo – if I smiled at her and said ‘buongiorno’ or ‘per favore’.”
The correction – it’s been years now but Joe still remembers exactly how Mrs. Vitale would cringe when people used the plural form for a single pastry – gets him a little twitch of Topolino’s mouth that feels like a smile.
“I can imagine,” Topolino says, and looks for a moment like he wants to add something else, but thinks better of it. Instead, he asks, “What did you study, at university?”
“Anthropology. Well, my degree was anthropology. Really I didn’t know what I actually wanted to do, kind of still don’t, but I had to pick a major and anthropology was a good excuse to take a lot of different classes that seemed interesting. History, archaeology, sociology, religion, kind of a bit of everything, you know?”
“That sounds wonderful,” Topolino agrees.
“Was there something you wanted to study, if you had gone?”
“No, when I talked about it with my parents, it was always just … going, becoming educated, without a particular topic in mind. But I think I would have liked to do history, or philosophy. Or perhaps the classics, Latin and Greek?”
“All good choices,” Joe says. “I thought about classics too, but I realised it was going to be a lot of declension tables and lists of emperors, and I mostly just wanted to look at cool ruins and find out how the people who weren’t famous lived, so…”
“You have some ‘cool ruins’ in Tunisia, yes? Cartagine, how do you call it in English…”
“Cartagine… Oh, Qartaj! It’s, ah… Carthage in English, I think?”
“Ah, yes, that’s it.”
“Yeah, Carthage is very cool, and the amphitheatre in El Jem is pretty spectacular too. That was one of the weird things about being in America, people would talk about how some building was ‘really’ old, and it would turn out that it was built a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago. And it’s not like there weren’t people living there, having their own civilizations at the same time as the Romans or the Fatimids or whoever you like. But it’s so much rarer to see any physical remains of that world. I mean, maybe some arrowheads or pottery in a museum, but you don’t turn a street corner or wander to the right field and find a thousand-year-old mosque or a two-thousand-year-old theatre. And a lot of people act like their history only started in 1492 when the white people showed up… Sorry, I’m rambling,” Joe says, feeling slightly self-conscious about his tendency to get carried away talking about things no one else cares about. But Topolino doesn’t look bored, he actually looks engaged.
“No, no, please go on,” Topolino urges, sounding like he really does mean it. “This is very interesting. I know little about American history, other than Cristoforo Colombo and cowboys.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Okay,” Joe agrees, more pleased than he probably should be under the circumstances. “Now, are you going to be offended if I tell you Columbus was kind of an asshole?”
“Oh yes,” says Topolino, so seriously that Joe almost believes him, until he adds, “You mean to say that it is possible for someone to be Italian and not be the epitome of kindness and decency? Unbelievable.”
Joe barks out a laugh, and Topolino’s lips twitch again into something that is definitely a smile, and Joe decides that he absolutely needs to elicit more of those.
They quickly establish a routine of sorts. Joe is never left alone; apart from the few minutes when whoever is on guard steps away to empty the toilet bucket or get clean water from the spring, one of them is always there. It’s mostly Topolino that stays with Joe, but he leaves twice a week. On Saturday afternoons, Twitchy turns up and takes over until Topolino comes back Sunday evening. Joe finds out eventually that this is because Topolino always minds the salumeria in town on Sunday mornings and afternoons so the older woman who normally runs the place can go to church and visit her daughter’s family in the next town without missing out on weekend sales. Joe gets Twitchy then because, according to Topolino, Tacky claims fervent religious devotion but really just has a thing for a woman that he only ever sees at Sunday mass.
But Tacky comes on Tuesday afternoons and stays until Topolino returns the next day. Joe’s not sure what Topolino does on Wednesday mornings, whether he has a commitment of some sort then too or if it’s just another chance to shower and sleep in an actual bed. (God, Joe misses showers and actual beds. Especially showers. Topolino warms some water on the camp stove so Joe can wash every couple of days, but it is absolutely not the same. The first time, Joe had started to take his jeans off, only to realise he wouldn’t be able to get out of them with the shackle around his ankle.
“I will take it off while you bathe, if you promise not to run,” Topolino had said. Joe had agreed. He had briefly considered making a break for it anyway, when he shed his boxers and Topolino turned away to give him some privacy, but concluded that he wasn’t going to get far naked and barefoot with Topolino right behind him, and the extremely remote possibility of success wasn’t worth the much more probable outcome of losing future clean underwear privileges, if not worse.)
Twitchy is terrible company. Joe speaks enough Italian that they should theoretically be able to have a half-way decent simple conversation, but his initial choice of nickname for the guy was apt; he’s constantly on edge and seems to interpret every question Joe thinks to ask as an attempt to trick him into revealing some sort of incriminating information. Even Joe’s efforts to engage him on completely impersonal topics like food or the weather never get far before Twitchy shuts down and refuses to say anything else. So when he’s there, Joe mostly reads what Topolino has left for him, and Twitchy sits there not doing much other than, well, twitching, and Joe can never really relax until he’s gone.
Twitchy won’t come anywhere near Joe, either. One day it rains while he’s there, so Joe goes into the cave with his things as he usually does when it’s wet or unpleasantly windy. The cave isn’t big enough to be especially comfortable, but there is room for two, probably even three people to sit up next to each other and be sheltered from the weather. Joe settles in, while Twitchy stands outside, eyeing him and getting increasingly damp.
“Puoi entrare, io non mordo,” Joe tells him. Twitchy says nothing, just glares at him like he’s being rude somehow. Maybe he thinks Joe ought to come out so he can go in? Well, that’s not happening.
Twitchy’s hand moves jerkily towards his back, where Joe knows he has a gun tucked into his waistband. Is he seriously going to force Joe out at gunpoint? Joe glares back, too disgusted to even be frightened, and Twitchy drops his hand and goes to sulk under a tree.
When Topolino comes back the next day, after the rain has stopped, he seems surprised to see Twitchy soaked while Joe is dry. He asks Twitchy about it, and Joe’s pretty sure he says something about how Joe wouldn’t come out of the cave, and Topolino just snorts and calls him an idiot.
Tacky – he’s not always as badly dressed as he was that first day, but the moniker is stuck in Joe’s head now and he can’t be bothered changing it – is only slightly better as far as conversation goes. They occasionally talk about football a little, and he shows a bit of interest in Joe’s stories about the time he spent in San Francisco, where Tacky apparently has some cousins. They hit the limits of Joe’s Italian vocabulary a lot, though, and Tacky doesn’t speak any English at all or put any effort into helping things along when Joe runs out of words or struggles to understand him. Instead he just gets annoyed and condescending when Joe falters, which is a bit rich considering Italian is Joe’s fourth language while Tacky seems to find it a chore to use standard Italian rather than his dialect. If they’d met under other circumstances, Joe would absolutely start rattling off poetry in Arabic – both Derja and Fusha, thank you very much – and French just to wind him up, but that doesn’t seem like a great idea all things considered. Once Tacky gets bored, he starts drinking whatever he always brings in his flask, and he’s even less fun to deal with drunk than he is sober, so Joe learns quickly to leave him alone after the flask comes out.
And then there’s Topolino. His fluency in English helps, of course, but that’s far from the only reason he’s Joe’s favourite. Topolino will happily talk to Joe about all sorts of things in English; if they hit a topic he doesn’t feel he can discuss, he will just gently redirect the conversation without making it weird. He’s patient and encouraging when Joe wants to practice his Italian, too, and he’s funny and interesting and pleasant in either language. He also picks up on the fact that while Joe is happy to talk about London and his life there, he does not want to talk about why he left both the city and his well-paid if boring job with his father’s company in order to do nothing much in Rome, and doesn’t press. (“What did you do, in your father’s business?” Topolino asks at one point. “I was management,” Joe says, pulling a face that makes Topolino do his little mouth-twitch. “Which meant I mostly sat in my office getting paid a lot more than most of the staff, to make a few phone calls, do some paperwork, and try not to be a huge asshole about telling the people who did the real work what to do.” There are things he does miss about his life before the incident, but the particulars of his job are not among them.)
Topolino brings newspapers and magazines each time he comes back from town, and he’ll translate articles he thinks Joe will find interesting, but Joe also develops a game where he’ll read as much as he can himself and then invent stories, the weirder the better, to fill in the gaps in his understanding. The first time Joe sees Topolino laugh, a proper, full-body laugh that shakes his belly and lights up his whole face, is when Joe recounts the elaborate, intensely dramatic love-triangle plot that he’s concocted out of an article that’s actually about some thoroughly tedious municipal dispute over bus stop placement.
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, when the weather is good and it’s just Joe and Topolino, that he’s a doomed captive. Aside from the basic creature comforts of indoor plumbing and soft mattresses, he can’t say he misses his life in Rome all that much. He had plenty of savings at the time of the incident that simultaneously drove him out of both London and the family business, and no real idea of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, so he hadn’t gotten around to seeking out new steady employment in Rome. He took a few odd jobs here and there to keep from depleting his savings too quickly, stuff like helping restaurants with the English translations of their menus and acting as a museum guide for French-speaking tourists.
But the combination of lots of free time, not especially limited funds, and an urgent desire for distraction from what he’d left behind meant that he’d burned through the excitement of discovering a new city within a few months. Lately, for lack of better ideas, he’d mostly been alternating between drinking too much and smoking weed too much with people who were fine enough company for those activities but not anyone he especially misses. (Booker was one of his favourites, which just makes it all even more depressing in retrospect.) It’s honestly kind of nice being here, breathing in the fresh air and listening to the birds and not feeling vaguely guilty for his failure to do something more productive with his time.
Apart from the shackle around Joe’s ankle, spending time here with Topolino feels more like camping with a friend than being a hostage. A real friend, a friend he will miss. They could have been good friends, Joe thinks, if they had met some other way. If Joe had passed through here as a visitor, or if Topolino had come to Rome and they got to talking over their morning coffee at the neighbourhood bar, or lingered over the same display at a museum, or bumped into each other by chance in a park. He knows he shouldn’t get attached, shouldn’t let his guard down, but it’s very hard to think of Topolino as any sort of adversary when the man is consistently nicer to Joe than most of Joe’s actual family members were even before they cut him off.
It makes Joe sadder than it probably should that there’s no plausible conclusion to all this where he and Topolino ever see each other again. Like Topolino said, best case scenario, Joe’s family actually pays up by some miracle, and he gets stuffed back in that trunk and returned to Rome, and that’s that. The other options pretty much all involve at least one of them being dead or on the run or in prison.
Sure, theoretically Topolino could decide to free Joe and run away with him, or promise to meet him at some appointed time and place in the future. But why would he do that? Joe doesn’t get the impression that Topolino is all that happy about being involved in any of his boss’s business, kidnapping or otherwise, but it’s obvious that going against Don whatever-his-name-is really isn’t an option for people around here, not if they want to keep their lives intact, and this is Topolino’s home. However enthralled he seems when they talk about Malta, or Paris, or London, he hasn’t left before, and there’s no reason why he should blow up his life for Joe’s sake now.
Topolino is also, if Joe allows himself to think about it – which he mostly doesn’t – a very attractive man, all lovely large hands and broad shoulders and those big, bright eyes. If he were a man Joe met in a certain sort of club or bar, Joe would be angling to take him home – or at least to a suitably dark corner – without hesitation. If he were a man Joe met in the neighbourhood bar, or a museum, or a park, Joe would be trying, as subtly as possible, to ascertain if he is someone who would also visit that certain sort of club, and hoping very much that he is. But Joe didn’t meet him in a bar of any kind or in a park or a museum, and he’s had years of training himself not to notice attractive men in situations where it is not appropriate or safe to notice them like that. So he mostly doesn’t think about Topolino’s shoulders or his hands or his eyes. Mostly.
Several weeks in, when there’s been no response from Joe’s family after two more phone calls, Tacky shows up with the polaroid camera, a newspaper, a notebook, and a pencil.
“They want to send another photo, to prove we still have you, and they want you to write a letter,” Topolino explains after talking to Tacky.
“To your family. Or, rather, they want you to copy out a letter someone prepared.” He looks away, obviously uncomfortable. “To try to make them feel guilty for leaving you here.”
If that were actually possible, Joe would be all for it. It’s certainly not any difficulty in securing funds that’s holding them back, and he can’t imagine that the message hasn’t gotten through, they just don’t care. He reads through the draft Tacky gives him, and can’t help his bark of laughter. Even apart from the stilted awkward English, it’s so full of syrupy sentimental platitudes about their loving family and how shocked he is that they haven’t responded sooner that it would be ridiculously over the top even if Joe were on the best possible terms with the intendent recipients.
“There is absolutely no chance they’ll believe this is coming from me,” Joe tells Topolino. “I wouldn’t write to them in English, for one, and if I did I would not say … this.”
“You can change it,” Topolino says. “But I am supposed to check it, to make sure you are not saying … things you should not say. And none of us can read Arabic.”
“French?” Joe asks. It’s not like he really thinks it will help, but if nothing else, some pointed childhood references that actually sound like they’re coming from him might at least make his parents a little uneasy about abandoning him to be murdered. And if he’s going to die because they care more about who he wants to fuck than about him, he’s damn well going to take any opportunity to make them feel bad about it.
Topolino considers this. “I don’t really know anything beyond bonjour, merci, parlez-vous italien ou anglais, but I think I can understand a little more when it is written down than when it is spoken. And … you’re supposed to do it now, so I can mail the letter and pictures in the morning. I don’t think he,” he nods to Tacky, “will notice if you are writing in French and not English.”
“And you’re going to trust me?” Joe asks.
“Yes,” Topolino says firmly. “I trust you. Tell them what you need to tell them.”
So Joe writes the letter. He makes no mention of the incident in London or his estrangement from the family, both because Topolino might understand enough of it to ask uncomfortable questions if he did, and because tapping into his parents’ desire to maintain the façade of a picture-perfect family is his best hope. Instead he focusses on how much he misses their happier times together, which is true enough even if those happier times are considerably more remote than he’s implying, and how much their silence pains him. He finishes with a few lines from a French lullaby that his mother used to sing to him.
When he’s done, Topolino makes a show of reading it, and gives his approval without challenging any of it. Then Joe poses with the newspaper, doing his best sad soulful eyes, while Tacky snaps a few photos. The eyes have always worked better on friends’ parents, teachers, even random strangers than on anyone in Joe’s immediate family, but it can’t hurt to try. Maybe his father’s secretary will be overcome with sympathy and persuade him to pay. Maybe pigs will fly by any minute and the next time Joe takes a leak, he’ll piss rainbows and champagne. You never know.
“What do you think, do I look pathetic enough?” Joe asks Topolino when the photos have developed.
“I don’t know how anyone could resist that face,” Topolino says, and then he coughs and turns away to talk to Tacky.
“Do you like mushrooms?” Topolino asks one day. “I found these on my way from town. I do not know what the English name is, if there is one, but they go very nicely in an omelette.”
“No offense,” Joe says, eyeing his proffered handful sceptically, “but exactly how confident are you that those won’t kill us? Or make us so sick we wish they’d killed us?”
“Very,” Topolino assures him, with one of his crooked little smiles. “My nonna taught me to forage in these woods. We did it all the time when I was young and money was tight, and I still go looking when I have a chance, for the things that are nice and not merely edible. But if you would rather not-”
“No, it’s fine, I believe you know what you’re doing. It’s just, I knew a guy in San Francisco who thought he knew how to find magic mushrooms in the wild and…”
“Oh dear,” Topolino says, eyes going wide.
“No one died, luckily, but watching a guy pretend to be tripping when he’s actually just trying to keep from puking his guts out… very sad. These aren’t…”
“That sort of mushroom? No. If we have those here, they were not part of Nonna’s lessons. And…” he grins again. “I think if she knew where to find such things, she would have told me. She used to grow her own grass. The first time I ever got high, it was on her stuff.”
“No way,” Joe says. He knows Topolino’s parents died when he was almost twelve, and his nonna less than two years later, which seems a bit young for family-sanctioned smoking.
“Not intentionally,” Topolino explains. “I was about ten, I think? My mother was away, I don’t remember why, so I went instead to bring Nonna some things from the market. I asked if I could have some of the biscuits that were out on the table, and she was busy with the bread she was making, so she just said yes, and only realised when it was too late which biscuits were out on the table.”
“Oh yes. Once she realised, she shrugged, and she finished what she was doing with the bread, and then she sat down and ate some too. We had a lovely afternoon, but my father worried when I was so late getting home, so he came to see if something was wrong, and he was not well pleased. But Nonna was my mother’s mother, not his, so he did not feel he could tell her off about it, and it was an accident so he could not really be angry at me either, so instead he went out to the yard and shouted at one of the goats until he felt better.”
“That poor goat,” Joe snickers, though he’s also trying to imagine what it would have been like to have a father who was not willing to blame him for things that were not his fault.
“It’s all right, Diavolo was a very mean goat, he deserved it even if not for that,” Topolino assures him.
“Your nonna sounds great, I wish I could have met her.”
“Me too,” Topolino says. “She would have liked you, I think.”
It probably shouldn’t make Joe feel warm and fuzzy inside to think of his captor’s long-dead grandmother liking him, but what the hell, these are weird times.
“What are – were? – your grandparents like?” Topolino asks. He has also recognised the fact that Joe is not very keen to talk about his parents.
“Were,” Joe confirms. “I didn’t really know any of them, they all died before I was born or while I was very young. There was this woman who worked for us for a while when I was a kid, though, her name was – well, we called her Amina, but I’m sure that wasn’t her real name. I’m pretty sure she was a spy for the Allies during the war. She never actually admitted to anything, but she had all these stories… Honestly I kind of think she might still have been a spy and we were just a cover or something. She offered to teach me to use a sword once.”
“Yeah, I was about thirteen, maybe? I thought she was messing around, and she just said, dead serious, ‘You never know when a sword might come in handy, Yusuf.’ When she left even my father didn’t really seem to know why, and that never happened.”
“Did you take her up on the sword lessons?”
“I wish I had! I was convinced it was a gag so I just laughed it off, and then one night when I couldn’t sleep, I swear I saw her sneaking into the house with a scimitar strapped to her back. And then she left before I could work up the nerve to ask her about it again.”
“A scimitar is… scimitarra, yes, the curved sword?” Topolino asks, and Joe nods. “I could picture you with one of those. Like a pirate perhaps, with one of those hats? No, not the hat, it would flatten your hair too much. A parrot.”
“And a big gold earring? I feel like I could pull that off. Maybe for Halloween. I know that’s not really a thing here but everyone likes an excuse to dress up, right? That reminds me, did I tell you about the first time I was invited to a costume party in London?”
“I don’t think so?”
“Well, the thing is, the Brits don’t call it a costume party, they call it ‘fancy dress’. Someone said come to this party we’re having, it’s fancy dress, and I said sure, thinking I knew what that meant. There was an American guy there who had the same problem, so there’s the two of us, standing in a corner in our best suits, I’d even managed to borrow a top hat for the occasion, while everyone else is dressed like cowboys and vampires and sexy nurses and what have you. So we tried to play it off like he was James Bond and I was that guy with the hat from Goldfinger, but-”
“Wasn’t that a different sort of hat? I don’t know what it’s called in English. A bombetta, rounded?”
“Yes, it was, as I swear every single person at that party pointed out,” Joe says, and Topolino’s cheek tics like he’s trying very hard to keep a straight face.
“It’s fine, go ahead, you’re allowed to laugh,” Joe tells him, and he does, this little snort-giggle that has no right to be as adorable as it is. Joe files it away, along with Topolino’s hands and his shoulders, as something else Joe should not be thinking about.
Another thing that Joe tries very hard not to think about too much is the fact that he’s wearing Topolino’s clothes. When Topolino leaves, he takes Joe’s dirty laundry with him, and washes it and brings it back the next time, so Joe always has something clean to change into after he does the bucket bath routine. The stuff Joe was wearing when he was taken is in the rotation, but honestly Topolino’s plain jeans, basic t-shirts, and loose button-downs are rather more comfortable than the fitted slacks and clinging top Joe had had on for a night out, so his own things aren’t his first choice. And even then, he’s usually wearing the socks or underwear Topolino bought for him, and Topolino’s jacket, and as it gets colder, one of Topolino’s sweaters. And in between, Topolino’s washing it all and drying it and folding it neatly to bring back to him.
Joe hasn’t had anyone else doing his laundry or bringing him clothes since he first left home for university. Even back when he was a kid, it was mostly just someone on the household payroll doing it because it was part of their job, not because they personally gave a shit about whether he had fresh boxers or shirts that still fit after a growth spurt. Although babysitting Joe is effectively Topolino’s job at the moment, Joe is confident that the laundry service – like the reading material, and the conversation, and Joe’s favourite biscuits that Topolino started bringing after Joe mentioned them once – is not part of the boss’s orders.
He’s pretty sure the blanket he has is Topolino’s, too. It’s obviously not brand-new, but it’s been taken care of; when he’s looking closely one day while Twitchy’s there and he has nothing better to do, Joe spots a couple of places where it’s clearly been repaired by hand. This isn’t some old bit of junk dug out of a car boot or a shed, it’s something someone valued enough to fix. He supposes it could have just been lying around somewhere after the previous owner died or otherwise didn’t need it anymore, but when Topolino brought it that first time he came back from the town, it smelled faintly of the same laundry detergent as his clothes. And it’s thick, there’s no way it would have dried in time if he’d dragged it out of some neglected storage space and just washed it that night. It seems more likely that it’s something he was using in his own home before he brought it up here to keep Joe warm.
Joe mostly tries not to think about these things. But sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly low – especially on the nights when Twitchy or Tacky is there instead of Topolino, leaving Joe to ruminate on how fucked and unloved he is – he does think about it. He’ll clutch at a corner of the blanket, or rub the hem of a shirt between his fingers, and take comfort in the reminder that someone does actually care, in this small but intimate way. In the light of day, when he’s being more rational, he feels foolish for getting sentimental about such things, but when he’s alone in the dark, it helps.
Joe reads the Malta book from cover to cover, even if it is two decades out of date and half the recommended restaurants and places of accommodation probably don’t even exist anymore. He’s never really given Malta much thought before, but after reading up on the history and the sights he’s genuinely keen to go see it, and hear what Maltese actually sounds like. (The book includes a miniature phrasebook section, which is enough to pique Joe’s interest, but the American-English-oriented pronunciation guide is not especially helpful.) If, of course, he ever gets to see anything other than these woods again.
“Does Malta still belong to the British?” Joe asks Topolino one day.
“No, it became independent sometime in the sixties. They had kept the British queen as the head of state for a while, but they became a republic last year, there is a president now.”
“Nice, good for them.”
“I think they still drive on the wrong side, though.”
“Ugh,” Joe says. “You know, that’s not as bad when you’re in London, you don’t notice so much when you’re just taking buses or taxis, but I hired a car once to go out to the countryside and I swear, every damn time I pulled out of a parking lot onto an empty road, I’d start going along on the wrong side until I saw someone coming straight at me.”
Topolino laughs. “We had some English tourists in the town once who had exactly the same problem. They said it was fine on the autostrade where the road is divided, and near the cities where there were always other cars to show the way, but on the quiet little roads…”
“Well, Malta’s not that big, maybe they don’t have room for any quiet little roads to send you astray?”
“I don’t think that is quite how it works,” Topolino says, grinning.
“Or we can just take the bus when we go, they have cool buses apparently,” Joe says, and Topolino’s grin fades into a very strange look, and Joe doesn’t immediately register why so he ploughs on, “Apparently a lot of the buses are owned individually by the drivers, and they decorate them personally, so they’re all a little different, and some of them get really into it?”
“Yes,” Topolino says, still looking at him very oddly, “so I have read.”
And then Joe’s brain catches up to what his mouth has been doing. When we go, he said. Like he’s reading this twenty-year-old travel guide to Malta while chained to a tree out in the woods because Topolino is his pal and they’re planning a trip together. Joe’s been doing this in his head for a while without really noticing, he realises now; wondering vaguely if Topolino will prefer beaches with facilities or the quieter less developed ones, if he’ll want to go see this museum or those ruins, if he’s the sort of traveller who likes to have a solid plan for each day or if he’s content to wander and see what catches their fancy.
The thing is, Topolino doesn’t look like he finds the idea of them going together presumptuous or absurd. He looks, if anything, wistful, and Joe abruptly feels like an asshole, remembering what he’d said when he first brought the book. He obviously doesn’t think going to Malta is a thing he’s ever going to get to do, which makes more sense now than it did when they first discussed it. Joe has gathered that being in the boss’s employ means Topolino is in a somewhat less precarious financial situation than most people around here, but that isn’t saying much, and it’s not exactly the sort of job that comes with vacation days or a generous retirement package. Apart from one childhood family trip to an unspecified seaside a few hours’ drive away, Joe doesn’t think he’s been anywhere further than the nearest major city, never mind out of the country. Why wouldn’t he be wistful about travelling to a place he’s been dreaming about since he was a kid? But he hasn’t looked quite like this other times when they’ve talked about Malta, or any of the other places he’s expressed an interest in visiting –
“It would be nice, to see them with you,” Topolino says quietly, and his cheeks go just the littlest bit pink. And Joe thinks, Oh, and feels his own face heat too.
“I’d like that,” Joe says, and smiles, because he doesn’t trust himself to say anything more right now. Topolino smiles back, something sweet and fragile about it like spun sugar, and then he clears his throat and starts fussing with the coffee pot.
When he’s not reading about Malta, Joe does try to figure out a way to escape, but other than legging it naked when he’s supposed to be changing his underwear, he doesn’t see any opportunities. The tree he’s chained to is tall and broad, there’s no hope of breaking the trunk or working the loop of chain off of it. The shackle around his ankle is solid. Whoever is on guard – Topolino subtly, the other two not so much – will always move wine bottles, the camp stove, anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon out of Joe’s reach before turning in for the night. He’s doubtful that he would be capable of using the chain itself against them; Twitchy and Tacky bed down of reach anyway, and Joe knows he wouldn’t have the stomach for attacking gentle, considerate Topolino in his sleep and threatening the man into releasing him.
In his more cynical moods, when he’s not imagining their Maltese dream vacation, Joe figures that’s deliberate, that Topolino isn’t actually any nicer than the others, doesn’t actually care for Joe at all, he’s just better at manipulating people to his advantage. What’s as depressing as the thought that Topolino isn’t really the kind, lovely person he seems to be is the fact that, if not for the incident in London and then Booker’s betrayal here, Joe is sure this wouldn’t even occur to him. He’s not suspicious by nature, and it’s not like everyone who gets involved in the lower levels of organized crime is an evil soulless mastermind. Some of the peons are just ordinary people with limited options doing what they feel they have to in order to get by, and there’s no reason to think that isn’t Topolino’s deal. He’s certainly not secretly the boss, there’s no way he’d be sitting out here with Joe five days a week, even while the weather’s shitty, and routinely bickering with Twitchy and Tacky when they don’t do what he asks if he had any kind of real power in this operation.
Joe alternates between hating that he no longer feels like he can just trust people, and thinking bitterly that if he had learned to be more cautious sooner, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He’d still be in London, with a job and a family that – well, in fairness, they weren’t exactly close and warm and supportive before, but at least they didn’t think he was a disgusting deviant. He could have gone on living the lie indefinitely, instead of being doomed to die here, wherever ‘here’ is.
Joe still doesn’t know where they are. Topolino is always careful to avoid any specific names when talking about the local area, it’s always just ‘our town’, ‘the next town’, ‘the city’, and the newspapers he brings are all big widely available publications like the Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, nothing local. Joe has managed to work out, on the basis of Tacky’s football loyalties and a few comments Topolino has made about the waterfront and other things, that when Topolino refers to ‘the city’ it’s most likely Naples that he means. Which presumably puts them somewhere in the south of Italy, but he hasn’t been able to figure out anything more specific than that.
Not that it really matters; Joe doesn’t know enough about Italian geography for the names of a few small towns to do him any good if he did somehow manage to escape, and whatever Twitchy obviously thinks, he’s not really interested in trying to get his guards arrested if he does somehow survive this. The police aren’t likely to care much when he has no information to lead them to the bigger players, and it’s not like getting Topolino and maybe Twitchy and Tacky thrown in prison is going to stop their boss from doing this again to someone else, with a different set of expendable lackeys to do the babysitting.
Joe can’t quite tell, from the way Topolino talks about him, whether the boss does actually care about Topolino at all or if he only took him in after his family’s deaths in expectation of his later loyalty. Joe gets the impression that the guy has read his Machiavelli and maintains his power not only by instilling fear but also by demonstrating the benefits of toeing the line; taking in an orphan to show everyone what a generous patriarch he is, and getting a duty-bound future underling in the bargain, must have seemed like a golden opportunity.
For his part, Topolino certainly seems to feel considerably more obligation than fondness towards the boss. It’s obvious that he’s not comfortable with the business, and while he never goes so far as to explicitly speak ill of the man, when he does mention him there’s none of the warmth in his eyes that Joe notices when he talks about the salumeria lady, or the neighbour with the cat that’s always sneaking into Topolino’s kitchen, or the pharmacist that he practices his English with.
“Your English is really good,” Joe tells Topolino when he mentions the pharmacist, and Joe could swear that’s a hint of a blush colouring his cheeks again.
“Thank you. I – thank you.”
“I really should be better at Italian by now, I’ve been here for more than a year,” Joe muses. “But there were enough other foreigners in the group I hung out with in Rome that we’d mostly speak English amongst ourselves, and at the same time if I ever needed to have a more complicated conversation there was always a local around whose English was better than my Italian who could help, so…”
Topolino nods. “And the locals probably all wanted to practice their English with you.”
“There was another tourist who stayed in the town with us a few years ago, a woman from Australia who had been studying Italian and wanted very much to improve. We would have conversations where she spoke only in Italian and I spoke only in English, so we could both practice.”
“Dovremmo, uh, provarlo?” Joe says, and Topolino beams at him.
The next time Topolino comes back from town, in addition to the usual newspapers, he also brings Joe some Italian kids’ books and school materials.
“I can’t leave these with you,” he says, “I promised to return them to the school when I go back, and if I don’t then Signora – then the teacher won’t let me have any more for next time. But I thought – as much as I enjoy your tales from the newspapers, I thought you might also like something to read that you can understand more easily.”
“Naturally,” Topolino tells him. “But I won’t tell if you don’t finish them. We may blame the dog.”
“Or the goat. Diavolo is no longer with us but his descendants are no better behaved…”
“We still haven’t heard anything from your family,” Topolino says, one day when he comes back from town. It’s late November now, a little over two months since they took Joe. It is in no way a surprise to him that the family hasn’t responded, but what is a surprise is how much it hurts all the same. Apparently some part of Joe was still labouring under the delusion that when it came down to it, they wouldn’t really leave him to die, enough so to be devastated by the reminder that no, they absolutely will.
“Right,” he says, around the lump forming in his throat.
“Is there – is there any other way we can reach out?” Topolino asks. “Perhaps the messages are not getting through? Or they don’t believe it’s real?”
“Oh, I’m sure they believe it, they just don’t care,” Joe blurts out before he can stop himself.
“Surely not…?” Topolino asks, face creasing with concern, and Joe knows he shouldn’t, knows that as lovely as Topolino seems, he’s still one of them and Joe absolutely should not trust him with this information. But then again, what difference does it actually make? They’re going to kill him sooner or later anyway, does it matter if it’s a little sooner because he’s weak and wants some solace from the one who acts like a friend, even if he isn’t really, before it’s all over?
“My family and I are… not on good terms,” Joe admits. “A bit more than a year ago my father learned something about me that makes me, in his mind, irredeemable and unforgivable. He made it extremely clear that he never wants to see me again, in his country not to mention his house. They’re not going to pay, they never were going to pay. They didn’t want me coming home when it wasn’t going to cost them anything, they’re sure as hell not going to give you money to get me back.”
“Dio cane infame, I’m so sorry,” Topolino says softly, looking devastated. “Joe-”
Joe thinks for a moment that he’s going to ask what it was that his father found out, and wishes he’d said something else because he is absolutely not up for that conversation right now. But Topolino doesn’t ask that. Instead, he says,
“If not your father, is there anyone else who might be able to help? I think they will be willing to negotiate the amount if necessary, better to get something than nothing. Your mother? Other relatives?”
Joe shakes his head. “I tried writing to my mother a couple of times after the … incident with my father. Never got a word back, no reason to believe she feels any differently than he does. There are not a lot of people in my family who would go against my father even if they did disagree with him, which they mostly don’t. I’m still in touch with my aunt in Cairo but she’s a widow with three kids to look after, I used to send her money to keep them afloat. She’d probably try if you asked her but she’d have to go to some loan shark just to get enough to even fly over here, I can’t do that to her. I’ve got my own money in the bank, nothing like my father’s but … but there’s no way to get it to her while I’m here, or to your people for that matter. Unless they’d take a cheque?”
“I don’t think so,” Topolino says. “Too risky.”
“I don’t have my chequebook on me anyway,” Joe says, with a giggle bordering on hysterical. “There’s no one,” he concludes, the panic that he’s somehow been keeping contained all these weeks suddenly bursting out and clawing its way up his throat. “No one who could afford to help that gives enough of a shit about me to be willing to do it.”
He becomes aware, distantly, that he’s shaking. Topolino starts to move towards him and then freezes and says,
“May I touch you?”
Joe’s not sure what he’s asking exactly but nods anyway. Topolino comes closer and wraps Joe in a tight hug, and Joe lets it happen, lets himself be held, lets the tears gathering in his eyes spill over and soak into Topolino’s shirt while Topolino rubs soothing circles into his back and murmurs gentle nonsense into his ear. It occurs to Joe that, apart from some brief incidental contact when they pass a wine bottle back and forth or Topolino takes the shackle off so he can bathe, this is the first time anyone has really touched him since the day they brought him here. Maybe this is the last time anyone will touch him like this.
“I don’t want to die,” Joe says in a small voice. “Not here, not like this.”
Topolino makes a soft, pained sound and tightens his arms, and keeps holding Joe until he finishes crying, and for a while after. Everything is still awful, but Topolino’s embrace and his warmth and his voice make it a little more bearable somehow, and the part of Joe that doesn’t care about his pride or how things look just wants to stay there in his arms as long as he can.
“Joe. Look at me,” Topolino says, finally, when Joe starts stirring and thinking he really should pull away, however little he wants to.
Joe lifts his head and leans back enough to meet Topolino’s gaze, though Topolino doesn’t actually let go of him either.
“You are not going to die here,” Topolino says firmly. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but please believe me when I tell you that I will not let anyone hurt you. I won’t tell the others what you’ve told me. I will figure something out, and I will keep you safe, I swear it.”
“Okay,” Joe says, and he doesn’t really believe it; there’s no way Topolino can help Joe without putting himself in danger and there’s no reason why he should do that. But Joe lets himself pretend, just for now, that he does believe it, that Topolino does actually care enough to risk his own safety for Joe’s sake. That it is really going to be okay, that he’s not going to die here, alone and unmourned.
It’s not so hard, to imagine that that is true when Topolino is still holding him, big hands strong and steady on Joe’s back, bright eyes shining with something that seems very much like determination.
After they do eventually separate, they don’t discuss it again. Topolino takes out the latest kids’ books and newspapers, and they get to talking about food and news and all the usual sorts of things, and for a while Joe even forgets that anything has changed. He remembers, when he lays down to sleep that night, but he remembers Topolino’s promise too, and the feeling of being wrapped up in his arms, and clings to them both like a lifeline.
“I know you don’t smoke,” Topolino says, the next time he comes back from the town, holding up a little plastic bag of neatly rolled joints, “But I got some stuff last night, and I didn’t have time to bake…”
“I don’t smoke tobacco,” Joe corrects, maybe a little too eagerly. Is getting stoned with the enemy really a good idea? The sensible thing, probably, would be to go along with it but keep his own head as clear as possible, and then pump Topolino for useful information while he’s high, or rummage through his things for something he could use to help him escape. But stupid as it may be under the circumstances, Joe hates the idea of trying to take advantage of him like that. In his heart, he really wants to believe that Topolino meant everything he said the other day, that he’s going to get Joe out of this alive and Joe just needs to wait for him to put his plan in motion. In his head, Joe also knows Topolino is not an idiot, he presumably wouldn’t be offering this at all if he had the key to the shackle in his pocket or a tendency to blurt out incriminating details while under the influence. And the opportunity to properly relax a little, and find out what Topolino is like when he’s stoned, is too enticing to pass up.
They chat normally at first, and then just pass the joint back and forth in comfortable silence for a while. Then, when Joe’s beginning to feel the high hit him, Topolino starts telling a long, rambling story about the childhood misadventures of his friend Giuseppino. Joe listens raptly, not clocking the fact that he’s using a lot of actual names and he never uses actual names for any of the people or places he talks about, until he gets to a part about Giuseppino turning into a donkey and joining the circus.
“Wait wait wait. No,” Joe interrupts. “That is – that’s not your friend! That’s not your friend, that’s – that’s Pinocchio! Wait. Topolino. Are you – are you friends with Pinocchio?”
And Topolino looks at him very, very seriously, and nods once, and then breaks out into a fit of helpless giggles.
“Your face!” he wheezes, “Joe, your face, you – your face.” He stops laughing then, instead reaching out with a wobbly hand to pet at Joe’s, at this point extremely scruffy and overgrown, beard. “I love your face,” Topolino adds. “It’s so beautiful. Your face is so beautiful. I love your, your, your barba, la tua barba è meravigliosa, I love it, e i tuoi occhi, i tuoi begli occhi lucenti, your eyes, your eyes-”
“I like your eyes,” Joe says, because he’s too far gone himself at this point to remember why he shouldn’t.
Topolino beams at him, delighted, but then his face crumples into the most adorable little frown.
“Wait. I’m not supposed to say that. Not supposed to say you’re pretty.”
“Why not?” Joe asks, pouting, unable to remember any of the many obvious reasons for that either.
“Don’t remember,” Topolino says. “Just – just don’t tell anyone else, okay?”
“Promise,” Joe agrees. “Our secret.” And Topolino beams at him again. Joe grins back and they sit there, smiling stupidly at each other, for… a while. Joe doesn’t know how long. It’s not important. This was a great idea.
Joe wakes up in the morning with his face mashed against something soft and warm that isn’t his own arm, which is weird. He’s on his side, and there’s something soft but firm and warm in his arms, too, and… it’s Topolino, he realises. His head is tucked in against Topolino’s stomach and what he’s holding is one of Topolino’s thighs, and Topolino’s upper body is sort of curved over him, and he’s pretty sure that’s Topolino’s arm across his shoulders. Well. It’s nice, it’s very nice, even though one of Joe’s arms is slightly asleep and the parts of him that aren’t touching Topolino are cold because they forgot the blanket.
While Joe is debating between trying to untangle them or just going back to sleep, Topolino stirs.
“Joe?” he asks, sounding a little confused.
“Hi,” Joe tells his stomach, and then lets go and rolls back enough to look up at him. “Sorry, I get pretty cuddly when I’m high,” he adds. Hopefully Topolino is not the sort to see, or feel obliged to act like he sees, stoned snuggling with another man as a threat to his masculinity. Topolino blinks at him a few times, and then his face clears with the recollection of what they were doing last night.
“Don’t worry, I don’t mind,” Topolino says. He pats Joe’s shoulder in a way that feels more like a caress than a macho brush-off, and then Joe remembers vaguely what he was saying last night, about Joe’s beard and eyes and how he wasn’t supposed to say Joe was pretty.
Joe had an inkling already that Topolino could be interested in men. Until last night he’d never said or done anything obvious that a straight guy would be likely to take any notice of, but Joe’s well-used to looking for the little hints. There was something about the way he said no when Joe asked if he has a girlfriend, something in the way he talked about David Bowie when they were discussing music once, other random little somethings that would, if things were different, be enough to embolden Joe to take the chance and make his move. Things being as they are, though, it doesn’t matter, not really. But it is going to make it that much harder not to fixate on his hands and his shoulders and his ass.
When Topolino comes back on Wednesday, and leans in to kiss Tacky’s cheeks in greeting, Joe could swear he sees Topolino’s hand dip into the pocket of the other man’s coat, emerging with a flash of silver that promptly disappears inside Topolino’s own jacket.
“Did you take something off him?” Joe asks, after Tacky has left.
“Why would I do that?” Topolino asks, perfectly blank, which is not actually a no, but then he launches into a story about a goat that somehow got into the town’s tabacchi shop and ate all the lottery tickets, most of the postage stamps, and several packets of cigarettes before being found and removed, and by the time he’s done Joe has forgotten all about the mysterious flash of silver.
The next week passes without news or incident. But when Tacky turns up the next Tuesday, Topolino takes something out of his bag and hands it to him. A familiar-looking flash of silver. His flask. Tacky exclaims in excitement, and Joe catches Topolino saying something about having found it by the path when he was leaving on Saturday.
“I filled it up for you,” Topolino tells Tacky in Italian, and apart from all the other reasons Joe always wishes Topolino weren’t leaving, he also wishes he weren’t leaving so he could ask what’s going on. Why would he take Tacky’s flask off him just to return it a week later? But Joe’s not about to say anything in front of Tacky; if it’s some kind of prank he’s certainly not going to take Tacky’s side.
“If he offers you a drink from that flask tonight, don’t take it,” Topolino whispers to Joe, compounding the mystery, and then he’s gone before Joe can ask what the fuck he’s talking about or point out that Tacky never offers him anything.
“What the fuck,” Joe hisses, when Topolino reappears a few hours later, carrying two large backpacks, much bigger than the shoulder bag he normally brings. It’s barely after dark, but Tacky has been passed out for a while already, after downing most of whatever was in that flask.
“Quiet,” Topolino hisses back, pushing one of the backpacks into Joe’s hands. “Unless you want to die here.”
Topolino gets something out of his pocket and works it into the lock on Joe’s shackle. It’s not the key, he doesn’t think, maybe a lock-pick, but it only takes a moment for it to fall open. Topolino takes it off him. Being around Tacky always puts Joe into a rotten mood, so the first thought that pops into his head is that by some miracle the family has indicated they’re willing to pay after all, and the whole nice guy routine was in fact just an act, and now Topolino has decided to screw over his buddies and try and get the ransom money all for himself. What else could it be? The guy can’t actually be letting him go, can he?
“Get your things, anything you’ll want for a long journey and can carry,” Topolino whispers. Joe, bewildered, gathers up his toiletries, extra clothes, and his blanket, and, because it seems important for some reason, no matter what hell is going on, the Malta travel guide. He rolls up the blanket and puts the rest into the backpack Topolino gave him; it’s too dark to make out what else is inside.
Topolino, for some reason, pulls a pair of bolt cutters out of his bag, sets them on one of the links of the chain near the shackle, wraps a towel over the whole thing to muffle the sound, and cuts the chain. He rolls the cut link and the shackle in the towel and stuffs that back into the bag, along with the bolt cutters, then works a different link of the same sort of chain – not cut, this one, but wrenched apart just enough, like the weld gave out and it was forced open – onto the end of the chain. Then he hoists the bag back onto his shoulder, and takes Joe by the arm and drags him away from the clearing.
Once they’re far enough away to be out of earshot even if Tacky should wake up, Joe stops and repeats, “What. The. Fuck.”
“They’re going to kill you. They’ve given your family one more week to make contact and then they won’t wait anymore. This was our best chance before time runs out. Okay? Now move, we have to get as far away as possible before they discover you’re gone.”
“What was all that with the chain?” Joe asks, letting himself be towed along again, because he can’t really process anything else yet. Can this actually be happening? Topolino is not just helping him escape, but coming with him?
“To make it look like you escaped on your own,” Topolino says. “They will figure it out soon enough, when they realise I did not go to Potenza with Daniele tonight as I said I was doing, but it should buy us a bit more time at least.”
“How? What difference does it make?”
“If you had escaped on your own, where would you go?”
“I don’t know. Back the way they brought me, I guess, try to find the road?”
“Exactly. They will look first where they think you would go, not where they think I would take you.”
“Why are you doing this? Won’t they kill you too if they catch us?” Joe asks.
“I would be lucky if all they did was kill me.”
“You want to talk me out of it?”
“Of course not, I’m just trying to understand what’s happening here.”
“Look,” Topolino says, though he’s not looking at Joe himself, instead focussed intently on picking out their pathway in the dark. “I’m not going to try to convince you that I am a decent person, I know I am not. But I have never killed anyone, and I do not mean to start now.”
“They were going to make you do it?”
“I would not have been pulling the trigger myself, but I might as well have been, if I left you there knowing what was coming. I promised that I would figure something out, that I would not let anyone hurt you, didn’t I?”
“I thought you were just, you know, trying to calm me down. Easier to deal with a hostage who isn’t freaking out.”
“I have never lied to you, Joe. By omission, perhaps, but I have never told you anything I did not believe to be true. I said I would keep you safe, and I meant it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me what you were planning, then?”
“I did not want to take the chance that you might give something away.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Not on purpose, but you have a tendency to talk in your sleep. And… a very expressive face,” Topolino says, and Joe isn’t sure if he should be offended or warmed by that observation.
“Then why mention the flask?”
“It was not just liquor, I put something in it to make sure he would sleep quickly and soundly. If you drank it too…”
“You didn’t have to bother, he never offered me anything,” Joe says.
“A tree never fell on my parents’ bedroom, until it did,” Topolino says, shrugging. “You never know.”
“Why didn’t we just go when you got back on Sunday? We could’ve left then and no one would’ve even known until Tacky turned up today.”
“That was the original plan, but the boss came to see me when I was getting ready to leave, and then he offered me a ride as far as the road goes. I had the bags with our supplies hidden, I couldn’t get them with him there, and I couldn’t refuse the offer without making him suspicious. The flask was the back-up plan, I had that packed in my regular bag already.”
“My real name is Nicolò. Nicolò di Genova.”
“You’re telling me your real name?” Joe asks.
Joe stops again, forgetting what else he was going to say, too stunned by that revelation. By all of this, really. It feels like a dream, like he’s going to wake up any minute back at the clearing, still shackled to that tree, still doomed.
“Joe, come on, we need to keep moving,” Topolino says.
They walk through the night and into the early morning, pausing only briefly to drink the coffee and eat some of the cheese and sausage that Topolino brought in his bag. Most of what is in Joe’s bag turns out to be food too, bags of nuts and uncooked pasta and polenta, dried fruit and tomatoes and soup packets, a canteen for water, and a light aluminium pot to cook in. There are also extra clothes, a lighter and a big box of matches carefully wrapped in two layers of plastic bags, some first-aid supplies, and spare batteries for the torch Topolino has in his own bag, but doesn’t want to use until they’re further away. Looking at all of it, Joe realises abruptly just how fucked he would be if he had actually managed to take off on his own, with no food or water, no other supplies, and no idea of where to go.
They finally stop for a real break when Joe is barely able to take a few steps without stumbling from exhaustion; it’s been a long night and all these weeks of idleness have done nothing for his stamina. Topolino – no, Nicolò, Joe reminds himself – finds a washed-out hollow under the root bed of a big tree, and has Joe tuck himself in there to sleep for a while.
“Don’t you need to rest too?” Joe asks.
“I’m fine for now. I’ll keep watch.”
“Nicolò,” Joe says. “Thank you. For – everything. Thank you.”
“Sleep now,” Nicolò says, his face unreadable, and Joe does, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.
Nicolò is sitting beside him when Joe wakes up. He looks pale and tired, dark shadows under his eyes, but he’s clearly alert, his unfocussed gaze sharpening and shifting to Joe as soon as he stirs.
“Feel better?” Nicolò asks.
“Yeah,” Joe says. “Do you want to-?”
“I’m fine,” Nicolò insists. “I’ll sleep tonight. There’s a little coffee left, if you need it?”
“I think you need it more than I do,” Joe says, rolling out of the hollow so he can sit up, trying to ignore how sore everything feels. Nicolò gives him a look he can’t decipher, and then passes him the canteen of water instead. Joe drinks a little, passes it back, watches Nicolò take a drink too, watches his hands as he screws the stopper back in and returns it to his bag. Joe’s still a bit out of it and keeps fixating on Nicolò’s hands, his lovely, big hands, for a long moment before he notices what he’s doing and makes himself stop. Nicolò pulls something else out of his bag, with some dull metallic clanking. The bolt cutters, Joe realises, and the shackle.
“You carried those all this way?” Joe asks. He’d forgotten about them until now, but in retrospect would have expected Nicolò to have dumped the extra weight hours ago.
“I didn’t want to leave anything where it might lead to us. But I think we have come far enough for it not to make a difference anymore,” he says. Still, he slides into the space under the tree, and tucks the items in amongst the roots, well out of sight. “If they come this far with dogs, this place would smell like us anyway,” he reasons. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah. You think they’ll come with dogs?”
“I think they will try anything they can.” He stands up, and offers Joe a hand to pull him up too. Joe accepts it, finding himself surprised by the strength of Nicolò’s grip even though he really shouldn’t be. Joe doesn’t let go right away, feeling a ridiculous urge to keep holding Nicolò’s hand. Nicolò doesn’t withdraw either, just looks at Joe’s hand in his, and then looks at Joe’s face, and squeezes Joe’s fingers briefly.
“I think we will be okay,” Nicolò says. “We have a good head start, we have been avoiding the obvious paths, and there is a great deal of forest for them to search. We will stay away from roads and towns as long as we can. I cannot promise that they will not get lucky, but… there is hope.”
“Yeah,” Joe agrees. He wouldn’t claim he isn’t scared, but at the same time, he feels a lot more hopeful about his future now that it’s in Nicolò’s hands than he has at any point since they first grabbed him in Rome.
They keep going until Joe’s exhausted again, and frankly astonished that Nicolò is still on his feet at all. When Nicolò trips and Joe just barely manages to catch him and keep him from face-planting on the ground, Joe puts his foot down.
“You need sleep,” he says firmly.
“I’m fine,” Nicolò insists, which might be more convincing if he weren’t still hanging on Joe’s arm like it’s the only thing keeping him upright, which it probably is.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Joe points out. “You really think bumbling around in the dark when you can barely keep your eyes open is a good idea?”
Nicolò trails off, swaying a little, and Joe slides his arm around to grip him more firmly at the waist. Joe doesn’t say anything, just stares him in the eye, eyebrows raised, and Nicolò sighs and sags against him.
“Ok, yes, we can stop for the night,” he relents.
“Bravo ragazzo,” Joe tells him, and Nicolò rolls his eyes and swats weakly at Joe’s chest, but doesn’t resist as Joe tows him to a spot that looks decent enough for bedding down and then deposits him on the ground.
“Do you want me to keep watch?” Joe asks, swallowing a yawn.
“No, I think it’s all right. You need to rest too.”
The nights were getting chilly enough back in the clearing and it’s even colder here, maybe because of the altitude or because they’re more exposed to the wind, so they don’t hesitate to share Joe’s blanket and the one Nicolò had strapped to his bag. They lay awkwardly side by side for a moment, and then make almost simultaneous disgruntled noises, laugh, and shuffle around until they end up spooned together, Nicolò’s back to Joe’s front.
“This okay?” Joe asks, draping his arm hesitantly over Nicolò’s.
“Sì, benissimo,” Nicolò murmurs, sounding half-asleep already, but his hand creeps up to take Joe’s and tuck it in closer against his chest. Even with all the layers of clothing – they’re still fully dressed, sweaters and jackets and all – his body fits against Joe’s like they were made to slot together this way.
If Joe had ever seriously contemplated the prospect of Nicolò freeing him and fleeing with him, he would have expected Nicolò to be less guarded now that it’s just the two of them on the run, but oddly that isn’t quite the case. He is much less cagey about details; in addition to learning Nicolò’s real name, Joe now knows that Twitchy is actually called Silvio and Tacky is Giancarlo, and he knows the name of their town, though unsurprisingly it’s nowhere he’d ever heard of before, and that he was right about ‘the city’ being Naples and it being Booker who sold him out to cover a debt he couldn’t otherwise pay off. (Well, technically Nicolò didn’t have the traitor’s name, but there’s only one drug-dealing Frenchman in Rome who knows about Joe’s family’s wealth.)
But on the whole Nicolò talks less now, tells fewer stories and asks fewer questions, and Joe can’t figure out why. Joe worries sometimes that it’s resentment, that Nicolò is regretting this already, but he doesn’t think that’s it. Nicolò never comes off as bitter or angry, never snaps at him or says anything to suggest that he’s having second thoughts. He doesn’t seem upset exactly, just … oddly careful, like he’s afraid of getting too close.
When they do talk, Nicolò is as warm as he ever was, a softness in his eyes and a sweetness in his little smiles that set off bright bursts of affection in Joe’s chest. He likes Nicolò. More than just likes him. All the reasons he had for trying to avoid getting attached have crumbled away. Nicolò is not one of his captors any more, has no reason to be putting on any sort of act at this point, so Joe has no reason to think the person he seems to be is not in fact the person he is. The notion that this can only end with them never seeing each other again is no longer the certainty that it once was. Nicolò’s comments when they got high together suggest that he does not exactly find Joe unattractive. When they settle down to sleep, Joe now lets himself indulge in fantasies of what they’ll do when they get to safety, of bringing Nicolò to nice restaurants and showing him the places in Rome that they talked about, of taking the plunge and kissing him, holding him even when they aren’t stoned or huddling for warmth during the increasingly frigid nights.
But Nicolò seems almost self-conscious about closing the distance between them in a way he wasn’t before, even when the others were around. He’ll be smiling or laughing or even just sitting close, watching Joe talk, and then suddenly it’s like someone flipped a switch and he closes down, retreats into himself. Joe wants to ask, but it’s always a little too subtle to reasonably call out. It’s not like they are actually friends, Joe reminds himself reluctantly, not like Joe has the right to know what’s going on in his head, much as he would like to. Much as he would like to know everything, what Nicolò is thinking and what he’s feeling and how he likes to be touched. It bothers Joe, Nicolò’s odd new reticence, a niggling, unresolvable discomfort like the blisters on his feet and the persistent aches in his muscles from the endless walking.
The plan, Nicolò tells him, is to reach Naples, where Joe can get on a train and go home to Rome. There are plenty of closer towns with train and bus stations but Nicolò worries that such places could be watched, that anything less than the anonymity of the big city is too much of a risk.
“And what about Rome? Can’t the guys who jumped me in the first place just come after me again?” Joe asks.
“I don’t think they will,” Nicolò says. “Canio and Giacomo do not live in Rome, and it’s quite far beyond Don Raffaè’s area of influence. I don’t really know how your friend-”
“Ex-friend,” Joe corrects bitterly.
“Ex-friend,” Nicolò agrees, “-got mixed up with them in the first place-”
“He lived in Naples for a while before he moved to Rome.”
“Ah, that would explain it. Anyway, they were in Rome that day for a meeting, and it sounded like they just ran into him by chance, and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. This has not been in the news, the Roman families do not know that we ever had you. If they cannot reclaim you in our territory amongst our people, I think they would rather pretend none of it ever happened than risk drawing attention to the embarrassment by pursuing you outside of our – their – domain.”
“And what about you?” Joe asks. “You’re coming with me to Rome, right?”
Nicolò shakes his head and looks away.
“Once we get to Napoli, you won’t need me anymore,” he says. “You will be safer without me then – there are only a few people that might be looking who would recognise your face in a busy city, many more who would recognise mine.”
This makes sense, Joe can understand the logic, but it still feels like a punch to the gut. It was stupid, maybe, to imagine that just because Nicolò wasn’t willing to let him be killed, he’d also want to stay with Joe after the danger passed. Just because he’s considerate and friendly and thinks Joe’s beard is marvellous and holds Joe’s hand over his heart when they sleep doesn’t actually mean that he feels anything like what Joe does. But the prospect of boarding a train after all this and then never seeing Nicolò again is horrible.
“So what are you going to do?” Joe presses, trying to swallow his sorrow.
“I don’t know,” Nicolò says, still not looking at him. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!” Joe objects. “You gave up your entire life to help me, I’m not going to just ditch you in a train station without knowing you’re going to be okay.”
Nicolò glances at him briefly, eyes wide, something almost fragile about the set of his jaw, but then it’s like that door closes again.
“You don’t owe me anything, Joe,” Nicolò says, looking away again.
“You saved my life. And even before that, you… I don’t know how I would have kept it together all this time if I’d been stuck up there with just Twitchy and Tacky for company.” The corner of Nicolò’s mouth twists ever so slightly at the nicknames, and Joe counts it as a small victory. “You didn’t owe me anything and you still… I need to know you’re going to be okay after this.”
Nicolò’s brow creases and Joe knows, he just knows he’s thinking that he’s probably not going to be okay. He can’t go home and he doesn’t have the money or connections to easily start a new life someplace else where he’d be safe. Joe knows he brought all the savings he had with him, and it’s not much. Apparently Don Raffaè does reimburse his people for their services, but most of it takes the form of credit at the local businesses and rent payments that go straight to the landlord, rather than cash in hand, so although Nicolò could live comfortably enough at home, he never had very much actual money, which is one of the reasons he never left before. Wherever he goes after Naples, there’s a good chance he’s going to end up destitute if he can’t quickly find a job and a cheap place to stay, and it’s not like he can provide references from his previous employer. But he doesn’t want to say that, because he doesn’t want to upset Joe. And it breaks Joe’s heart.
“I’ll figure something out,” Nicolò says quietly. “It isn’t important now. I’ll figure it out after I know you’re safe. Can you keep going a little longer today? There should be a stream not too far from here, it would be good to find it before we stop for the night.”
“Yeah,” Joe says, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “Sure.”
They travel during the day for the most part, though Nicolò insists that they wait until after dark when they have to cross open country between wooded areas, or skirt too close to a town or a busier road. He has a compass and a map, the kind hikers use, all topographic contours and colour-coding for different sorts of terrain, with water sources marked and a few different routes to Naples carefully pencilled in. None of them are the straightest way to the city, instead they’re all intended to pass water regularly, and avoid roads and populated areas as much as possible without straying too far into the more difficult terrain of the mountains. There are extensive notes on the back, too, places to go or not to go for various reasons, bus routes, train schedules.
“You really planned this out,” Joe says, awed, the first time he gets a good look at the map.
“I like to be prepared,” Nicolò says with a shrug. “Not much point in running off at night only to stumble into the village where Don Raffaè’s sister lives the next day, or having to choose between capture and dying of thirst because we don’t know where to find water.”
“Still, this is impressive.”
“Even before they took you, I had considered that I may one day need to leave and ensure that I would not be found,” Nicolò admits. “That I would have to flee because something went wrong, or because there came a line that I was not willing to cross. I have had this map for several years now. The only reason we did not leave sooner was that I needed time to gather provisions without arousing suspicion.”
He shows Joe where they are, where he intends to take them next, and adds more notes to the back, adamant that if anything should happen to him, Joe should still be able to find his way.
“I’m not going to abandon you if you fall off a cliff and break your leg or something,” Joe insists.
“And if I fall off a cliff and break my neck? I hope it will not be necessary too, but you must be ready just in case.”
“How is it that you planned all this out and worried about every possibility along the way, but you didn’t plan what you would do after we get to Naples?”
“When we get to the city, we don’t have to go straight to the train station, right? Let me get a hold of my bank, I can give you some money at least, make things easier?”
“No!” Nicolò says, looking appalled. “I did not do all of this just to – to ransom you myself!”
“It’s not a ransom if I’m offering.”
“Please let me do something for you. Nicolò, you’ve done all of this for me and you haven’t asked me for anything. You haven’t even asked me why my family wouldn’t pay, you just…”
“It’s not my business. You told me as much as you wanted to tell me, you don’t owe me any more than that.”
“Do you want to know why?” Joe asks. He really didn’t want to talk about it before, but he finds that he wants to get it out now, wants Nicolò to know everything.
“Only if you want to tell me.”
“They disowned me before I came to Italy. Because they found out that I’m gay.”
Nicolò flinches. “Porco Dio.” He sets the map aside, and lays a hand on Joe’s arm instead, squeezing gently.
“You told them?” Nicolò asks.
“Fuck no, I’m not that stupid. Your people, they’re not the first to want to use me to get at the family’s money. It was while I was living in London. Met this guy at a club, went home with him, did… Well, the sorts of things you do when you go home with someone you met at a club. Only it turned out he didn’t run into me by chance, and that nice flat with the nice big windows wasn’t really his. They’d hired it or borrowed it or, I don’t know, broken in while the people who lived there were away for the weekend. They wanted that place, so the guy’s buddy in the flat across the road could use those nice big windows to take pictures of us together. And then they sent the pictures to my father, and said he could pay, or they’d send them to the newspapers next. In Tunisia, where what we were doing is not just frowned upon but actually illegal.”
Nicolò hisses something else that Joe doesn’t recognise but is, presumably, more profanity. His hand tightens on Joe’s arm and Joe, feeling emboldened, lays his own hand over Nicolò’s.
“Did he pay?” Nicolò asks.
“Oh yes. He sent them a briefcase full of cash, and he sent me a note informing me that I was a disgusting deviant who was no longer his son or an employee of his company. And if I ever set foot in Tunisia again, he would sooner arrange for me to meet with a nasty accident than let me disgrace the family.”
“Dio scalzo nella valle dei chiodi arrugginiti,” Nicolò mutters. “Joe, I’m so sorry.”
“You know the worst thing? It wasn’t even a surprise. I’ve known I’m gay since I was fifteen, and I’ve known just as long what would happen if they ever found out, so you’d think I’d be ready, right? I mean, I was in some ways, I’d been putting money away in my personal account since I first started working after university so I wouldn’t be broke if – when – they cut me off. But it still hurt so goddamn much when it actually happened. And then again, when they wouldn’t pay your guys to save me. I knew they wouldn’t but it didn’t matter, still felt like getting kicked in the nuts all over again.”
Joe sighs, raises his hand briefly to scrub it over his face, and then sets it back on Nicolò’s, twining their fingers together. “And then there was you, Nicolò,” Joe says. “I was nobody to you, and right from the start you were nothing but kind to me, and since then you’ve been better to me than my own family. So don’t tell me it doesn’t matter what happens to you, and don’t tell me I can’t do something for you in return.”
Nicolò looks like he’s torn between being touched and still wanting to argue, but he doesn’t, just gives a small nod and then stares down at their joined hands with a haunted expression that Joe can’t figure out. They sit like that long enough that Joe’s almost ready to suggest that they don’t part ways in Naples at all, but then Nicolò shakes himself and gets up, starts gathering twigs and dry leaves for starting a fire and asking Joe which soup packet he wants for dinner, and Joe makes himself answer instead of fixating on the ghost of Nicolò’s hand in his.
With every day that passes, as Joe’s feet get sorer and his blisters get bigger and his muscles get achier, he also gets more and more sure of one thing: he doesn’t actually want to get to Naples. Because it might mean an end to the various physical discomforts plaguing him, and to the fear of capture, but it also means the end of his time with Nicolò. And there’s no doubt in his mind that that’s going to hurt so much more than his feet ever could.
Nicolò still seems to be trying to keep himself at a distance, but it also becomes clearer and clearer that it’s something he thinks he has to do for some reason, not what he actually wants to do. Whenever he’s tired or distracted or more focussed on Joe than on whatever’s going on in his own head, he leans easily into Joe’s touch, smiles readily, radiates fondness and affection in a way that’s utterly addictive. It’s when they run into the subject of what comes after this journey to Naples that Nicolò shuts down, retreating into a brittle shell that Joe doesn’t know how to try to crack. Maybe Nicolò is afraid of getting too attached in the face of their looming separation, but it’s only looming because he himself keeps insisting that it’s inevitable; there’s no surer way of prompting him to close himself off than suggesting that Napoli Centrale doesn’t have to be the end of the road.
So Joe tries not to bring it up any more than necessary, tries to soak up as much of Nicolò’s tenderness as possible and make him smile or laugh or roll his eyes indulgently whenever he can. He tries to ignore what’s coming whenever Nicolò isn’t paying attention to it either, and tries to figure out how to fix it when he is. There has to be a solution to this impasse, and as long as they’re not in the city yet, Joe still has time to find it. But every day, the city gets a little closer, and Joe falls a little more in love, and grows a little more scared that he won’t find the answer before it’s too late and this is all he’s ever going to have.
One evening, Nicolò stops them much closer to a town than normal; Joe can hear the sounds of occasional cars passing on the road nearby.
“I am going into the town tonight, when it’s late enough,” Nicolò says. “You will stay here, and if I am not back in an hour, you will keep heading for Napoli without me.”
“What the fuck, I am doing no such thing, and why...?”
“We need more supplies,” Nicolò says.
He’s not wrong; the food he packed might have been enough to get them to Naples under ideal circumstances, but they’ve had to double back and go a different way more than once because the map doesn’t tell them where a ravine will be steeper than expected, or someone’s built a busy farm right in the middle of the clearing they need to cross, or rain will make it too slick and muddy to manage a certain path up the hill. They are also, Joe suspects though Nicolò never says anything, going slower than Nicolò would on his own because Joe wasn’t exactly an avid hiker even before he spent two months sitting around chained to a tree. And they’ve had very little luck with foraging, so they’re almost out of provisions and it’s still going to be another three or four days, at least, before they reach the city.
“Sure, but what does that have to do with you going alone in the middle of the night?” Joe asks.
“It is too dangerous for either of us to be seen in a place like this during the day, and if it goes wrong there is no reason why we should both get caught.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“I’m going to break into the grocery shop. I’m not going to rob them exactly, I’ll leave money for what I take, but I doubt that will make much difference if I’m found.”
“Okay, I know I don’t exactly look or sound like I’m from around here, but do you really think some random shop clerk in this random little town would recognise you if you just went in and bought stuff in the morning?” Joe asks.
“Everyone has a cousin here and an uncle there and a sister-in-law in this village and a nephew in that one. Once when I was coming home from Napoli with Daniele, we stopped for lunch in a town neither of us had ever been to before, and got our meal for free because the waitress’s mother was an old friend of Daniele’s mother and she recognised him from the photos his mother always sends to hers. It’s not worth taking the chance.”
“Then let me do it,” Joe says. “Let’s be real, if it goes to shit you can make it out here on your own a lot more easily than I can, and I don’t stick out that much. If the clerk gets chatty I’ll pretend to be a French tourist who doesn’t speak English-”
“No,” Nicolò says. “It is not just the clerk, if anyone who knows about you sees you – Don Raffaè wants you dead, Joe. If anyone loyal to him is here… They will not ask questions, they will not wait for someone to get here who can identify you for certain, they will shoot you in the head. There are too many people who would rather kill the wrong stranger than have to tell the Don they let you get away because they were not sure. When we reach the city, the odds will be in our favour, but not in a place like this. No. I will not let you risk yourself like that.”
“Then I’ll do the breaking-in,” Joe says, trying not to think about what they’d do to Nicolò if they caught him instead. He’s already made it clear that for a betrayal like his, being killed quickly would be a best-case scenario. Getting arrested for the burglary, Joe knows, wouldn’t save him; if there isn’t someone in the Don’s pocket who could take him out before he even got to trial, there would certainly be someone in prison who would resolve the matter. The thought of it makes Joe’s stomach turn.
“Do you know how to pick a lock?” Nicolò asks.
“I didn’t think so. This is our best chance. An hour, Joe. Wait an hour, and then go. If I’m caught I’ll say I left you at the train station in Battipaglia but they will look around here regardless, and it will take some time to organise a search but not that long.”
Joe gives up arguing; much as he loathes this plan, Nicolò has a point, he wouldn’t know where to begin with the lock-picking and his amateur attempts are a lot more likely to get him caught than Nicolò’s expertise. (Which is not, as Joe initially assumed, a skill he acquired in Don Raffaè’s employ, but rather something his mother taught him, because apparently English wasn’t the only thing the future Signora di Genova learned in the city during the war.) They transfer everything in Nicolò’s backpack that might be useful to Joe, if Nicolò doesn’t make it back, to Joe’s, and then take turns trying and failing to sleep for a while, and then Nicolò deems it late enough.
Before he leaves, Nicolò takes Joe’s hand, clutching it between both of his like he hates this as much as Joe does.
“You know where to go,” Nicolò says, sounding like he’s trying to reassure himself as much as Joe. “You have the map and the compass, and the food we have left will last longer for you alone than it would for both of us-”
“But it doesn’t matter because you’re going to be careful and you’re going to come back to me,” Joe tells him. “Nicolò-”
Nicolò looks at him, jaw clenched, eyes wide, and Joe swears he can feel his rapid heartbeat through his hands, and Joe is about to give in to the instinct to lean in and kiss him when Nicolò pulls away and says,
“One hour, Joe,” and then he’s gone.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the hour that follows is the worst of Joe’s life so far. Fifty-five minutes in, a dog starts barking, loud and agitated, and there’s still no sign of Nicolò, and Joe’s already leaden stomach drops into his feet. At least, he thinks it’s fifty-five minutes; there are tears in his eyes and his hands are shaking so hard that he can barely make out the face of his watch when he shoves his arm into his backpack and switches on their torch inside so he can check without flashing the light around. He should go, Nicolò would want him to go, but he couldn’t move his legs even if he wanted to. The barking stops. Is that good? Or does that mean they’ve got him and Fido’s been given a treat for doing his job? Is this how it’s going to end? After everything, that’s going to be their goodbye, and Nicolò’s going to be brutally murdered by the people he saved Joe from, and –
Maybe fifteen minutes later, there’s a clamouring in the trees and Joe still can’t make himself move, and then Nicolò is there, grabbing his arm and dragging him along and they’re running until one of them trips in the dark, Joe couldn’t say later who it was, and they collapse together in a heap on the ground. They both freeze for an instant but there are no sounds of pursuit, and then it’s Nicolò who rolls over and pulls Joe properly into his arms, squeezing him tightly.
“It was more than an hour,” Nicolò whispers, breathing hard in Joe’s ear.
“I’m glad you waited,” he says, and Joe shudders and squeezes him back.
“What happened?” Joe asks, when they’ve both settled a little.
“There was a dog, in the garden of one of the houses near the shop. He was sleeping at first and I managed to pass without waking him, but then the lock on the shop door was more difficult than I’d hoped, and it was very dark inside so it took longer than I expected to find what we need. Coming back I was worried about the time and I must have gotten too close to the garden, or moved too fast, and – I hid under a car until he calmed down. It’s okay, I have the food.”
“It’s not the food I was worried about,” Joe informs him, and he shivers and presses closer.
“We are going to run out of wilderness very soon,” Nicolò says, studying the map a few days later. “We could get closer to the central station by continuing here and then circling Vesuvio, but it will be more difficult to avoid people than it has been so far, and anyway this area in between that we would have to cross is quite developed. If we are not on the road we will be on someone’s property. It will be better, I think, to come down this way tomorrow, and get on the train here. It is a busy line and we are close enough to the city that if we go during the morning rush, the odds of anyone recognising us and being able to reach us through the crowd should be small enough…”
“And then?” Joe asks, miserable. After the way Nicolò had clung to him the night of the store break-in, Joe had hoped something would change, that he would finally admit he didn’t want to part ways in the city either. But after extricating himself from Joe’s arms in the morning – with no small amount of reluctance, Joe wants to think – he was as distant as ever. And now they’re almost out of time.
“Then, we go to Napoli Centrale, and buy you a ticket to Rome, and…”
“And that’s it?”
“What do you mean?” Nicolò asks, setting the map aside.
“I get on the train, and you do you-don’t-know-what?”
“That is the plan, yes,” Nicolò says. His face is a blank mask. There is, Joe thinks, a slight tremor in his voice, but maybe it’s just what he wants to believe.
“And that’s it,” Joe says again.
“I don’t understand what you are asking,” Nicolò says, standing up and starting to fiddle with their bags. Joe moves around in front of him, trying to catch his eye.
“I’m asking… I’m asking why you’re doing this.”
“We discussed it, once we reach the city you will not need me, you will be safer-”
“I mean, why are you doing this? All of this, everything since we left?” Joe demands, feeling frantic.
“I told you why-”
“You took the chain off me because you didn’t want to let me be killed, sure, but what about all the rest? We never talked about that. You could have cut me loose, pointed me to the hills, and gone home to bed, you didn’t have to give up everything to come with me, to stay with me and keep helping me all this time.”
“What do you want me to say, Joe?” Nicolò asks, meeting his gaze finally. He hasn’t shut down this time, not like he usually does, but he looks and sounds so, so tired.
“I want you to tell me you did it because I mean something to you!” Joe snaps. “That I’m not just some – some victim you feel responsible for. I want you to tell me that you care about me. Because I care about you.”
“No you don’t,” Nicolò says, eyes wide and pained.
“Yes I do! I think I may very well fucking love you,” Joe says, and shit, he didn’t actually intend to admit that, not like this, but it’s true and he’s not taking it back now.
“No, you don’t,” Nicolò repeats, dropping his gaze again, and it’s like Joe can see his stupid goddamn walls going up. “I was one of your captors, remember? Maybe you think you feel something for me now, because I talked to you more than the others did, because I tried to be kind to you while you were in a terrible situation, but once you get away from all this, away from me-”
“What? What do you think is going to change?”
“You will go back to your life, in Rome and Paris and San Francisco, your real life with your real friends, and I will go back to being nothing and no one. Maybe when you tell this story over French champagne and – and whatever else they serve in places that serve French champagne, I don’t know – maybe you will tell this story and say, oh yes, the one they called a mouse was not quite as bad as all the rest, but that will be all. You probably won’t even remember my real name.” Walls or not, his voice is definitely shaking now, jaw clenching tightly as soon as he stops talking, and he won’t meet Joe’s eyes.
“Bullshit,” Joe informs him. “Merda. Stronzata. I am never going to forget your name, Nicolò di Genova, I am never going to forget what you did for me, and I am never going to forget you. If you don’t want me then just fucking well say so, don’t try to turn it around like I don’t know what I want.”
Suddenly Nicolò looks like he wants to cry and also like he wants to punch Joe in the face, and the former makes Joe want to cry too and the latter, well. It might be a start, at least it’s not the damn detached mask.
“Of course I want you, you ridiculous man, how could I not? Of course I care about you, of course I lo-” He cuts himself off abruptly and shakes his head. “But I can’t-”
“You know why Don Raffaè always wanted me handling the drug deliveries?”
“What does that have to do with-?”
“Because I’ve never done that stuff. Grass, yes, but not anything else. So I was never tempted to take any for myself. You haven’t done it, it’s just white powder, who gives a shit? But then you do it, you get a taste, and you need more, and you can’t stop, and it destroys you. As long as I haven’t had a taste of you, maybe, maybe one day I can move on. But you give me a taste of you and I know, I know I’ll be hooked, and then when you come to your senses and leave, it will destroy me.”
“Why are you so sure I’m going to leave?”
“Because I am not a child who still believes in fairy tales! You are the most wonderful person I’ve ever met and I am nobody. A mafioso’s errand boy with a target on his head and absolutely nothing to offer you.”
Joe reaches out and grabs Nicolò’s hand, clutching it between both of his, and Nicolò makes a wounded sound but doesn’t pull away.
“This is all I want. You, with me. You say you have nothing to offer? You have this hand that I’m holding, and you have that big beautiful heart that you’ve been showing me since the first day we met. Give me that and I’ll be the luckiest man alive. I don’t need anything else.”
“Tell me you don’t want this and I’ll drop it but please, please don’t push me away because-”
And then Nicolò’s mouth is on his, sudden and desperate, and Joe stops talking. Nicolò backs Joe up against a tree, one hand on his neck and the other at his waist, and kisses Joe like he’s been wandering a desert and Joe’s lips and tongue are the first water he’s seen in days. It’s overwhelming and glorious and Joe just clings to his shoulders and gives him everything he has, elated.
Nicolò’s cheeks and eyelashes are wet when they part for air, and Joe gently wipes a fresh tear away with his thumb.
“Is my breath really that bad?” Joe jokes, though his voice cracks a bit as he says it and his own eyes might be a little damp too. Nicolò laughs wetly and buries his face against Joe’s shoulder.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to kiss me again so I can decide,” Nicolò says into Joe’s collarbone, and Joe strokes his hair and says,
“I can do that. As many times as you want, for as long as you’ll let me.”
Joe presses his lips to Nicolò’s temple, and then to his lips again when he raises his head, and it’s a little less frenzied this time but no less intense, no less intoxicating.
It’s been a long time since Joe kissed someone as anything other than a warm-up for more goal-oriented carnal activities. He never pursued real relationships in London, believing – quite foolishly, in retrospect – that one-off encounters when he had an itch to scratch were less likely to come to the attention of his colleagues or family, and he hadn’t met anyone in Rome that he wanted to do more than get off with. But Nicolò, he feels like he could kiss Nicolò forever. It’s not like he doesn’t want to do everything else with Nicolò too, given the opportunity, but in this moment the lust simmering under his skin is unimportant beside the need to make Nicolò understand that Joe wants him, not just his help or his body, and quite possibly for the rest of their lives, not just for the space of an orgasm.
“I’m not leaving you in Naples,” Joe informs him, when they break off again. “I’m not leaving you, full stop, understood?”
“I never wanted you to leave me,” Nicolò says, quiet and serious. He slides his hand from Joe’s neck into his hair and pushes gently so their foreheads tip together. “I was dreading it already long before we left. I just wanted – want – you to be safe.”
“What if I don’t go back to Rome?” Joe asks, bringing one of his hands up to cup Nicolò’s head too.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not like I had much there. Odds are good my landlady threw my stuff out weeks ago and on the off chance she didn’t, I can write and get her to send it on. Rome’s where I was living but I don’t have a life there, not really. What if I go somewhere else instead, somewhere you’ll be safe too? What if…” He didn’t have another destination in mind when he started talking, but it occurs to him as he’s watching Nicolò watch him with something that seems an awful lot like hope, and it’s perfect. “What if I go to Malta, and you come with me?”
“I don’t have a passport,” Nicolò says, but his eyes are wide and shining and Joe knows this plan is a winner.
“Mine’s probably in the trash, or been sold off to someone who wants to pretend to be Tunisian. But I bet I’ve got enough savings for that not to be an insurmountable problem. Naples has a port, we can get a ferry to Palermo and sort out the paperwork there, and then take the train to Catania for the ferry to Valletta. And if we don’t want to stay there after we’ve seen the sights, we can go somewhere else, wherever you want, we’ll figure that out later. But now, come to Malta with me, Nicolò. Please.”
“Yes,” Nicolò says, and somehow manages to wrap himself around Joe even more tightly than before, peppering kisses along his nose and cheekbone and neck, punctuating each one with another “Yes, yes, yes,” and Joe clings to him, giddy with equal parts relief and excitement.
They eventually part enough to make a fire, cook some food, and eat, but as soon as they lay down for the night Nicolò presses in close again, with no more pretence of it being solely for warmth.
“You know, from the beginning it made me terribly sad, that we met the way we did,” Nicolò says, his fingers tracing idly along Joe’s shoulder while Joe lets his sneak under Nicolò’s layers to caress the soft skin of his side. “You were so lovely, and I thought, if we had just run into each other in the city, or you had come to the town as a visitor, then we could have been friends. I couldn’t tell you everything of course, but I could tell you enough, and when you went home to Rome we could write, I could visit you, perhaps you would even want to come back to visit me. But instead, I thought, you would leave when your family paid, and I would never see you again.”
“I thought the same thing,” Joe tells him. “I mean, I knew they weren’t going to pay, but it gutted me that if I did manage to get out of it somehow I wouldn’t even know your name, wouldn’t have any way to find you again. I had this fantasy that you’d decide to run away with me, or promise to meet me somewhere we agreed on. But I thought it was just a stupid fantasy. Why would you leave everything behind for me?”
“Nothing that I left behind is worth a fraction of you,” Nicolò says, completely serious, and Joe has to kiss him for that, light and quick but no less tender for it.
“I thought about it, even before you told me about your father,” Nicolò says after. “But I thought it would be safer for you, to wait for the money and let them release you than to take the chance of fleeing. And I could not imagine that you would want to have anything to do with me, after all this.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Joe says. “I worried sometimes that it was all an act, that you were playing me somehow and not really as sweet as you seemed, but I never doubted that the man I saw was someone I wanted to be with.”
“It really doesn’t bother you? What I am, the things I have had a part in?”
“I mean, look, obviously I’d rather you didn’t have a history of involvement in organised crime, but it’s not like you were personally, I don’t know, murdering your rivals’ kids or beating up grannies who couldn’t make their protection payments.”
“You don’t actually know that I wasn’t doing those things,” Nicolò points out. “Not exactly a topic I would bring up over coffee.”
“Myself, no. I have never killed anyone, and it was not me that was sent if someone could not or would not pay. But I’m not innocent either, Joe. I collected payments from people who could barely afford them, I drove the others where I was told to take them and did not ask what they would be doing there, I moved drugs that almost certainly helped to end or destroy many people’s lives one way or another.”
“Because the boss told you to.”
“The boss who took you in when you were, what, thirteen?”
“I haven’t been thirteen for a long time.”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly the kind of job you can quit amicably. If I thought you were doing those things because you cared about money or power more than you cared about hurting people, that would bother me, but I know that’s not who you are.”
Nicolò leans in to kiss him, this time, and then says, “I don’t know that I am worthy of your faith, but I swear I will try every day to become someone who is.”
“See, that,” Joe says. “If you didn’t care, that would be different too, but you do care. You never make excuses, you just want to be better. I don’t need you to be a saint who never did anything wrong, I just need you to be you.”
If Nicolò’s eyes get a little wet again, Joe doesn’t say anything about it, just holds him and dreams of their future, together.
Joe wakes before sunrise, to find Nicolò already awake. He’s still in Joe’s arms but turned around to face him, and staring at him in the weak pre-dawn light with an expression that is a mix of awe and such sorrow that it makes Joe want to weep. Nicolò forces a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Good morning,” he says, his voice brittle with false cheer, and Joe knows immediately what the problem is.
“You still think I’m going to leave you, don’t you?” Joe asks, trying to keep the hurt out of his voice.
“I-” Nicolò falters, and that’s answer enough.
“Nicolò, what can I do to convince you that I mean it when I say I love you and I’m not going anywhere without you?”
“I don’t – Joe, I don’t doubt your sincerity, I believe that you mean every word you say. Please never think that I don’t trust you.” He takes Joe’s hand and kisses his knuckles. “I just – for so many years, I knew what the rest of my life was going to be. Maybe I would have to flee and then, who knows, but probably I would just work for Don Raffaè until he retired or died, and then I would work for his nephew, or whoever took his place. I thought the best, the most I could hope for in terms of the things I wanted for myself would be a man in the city that I could see every once in a while without anyone finding out, and maybe one day I would have a chance to go and visit, I don’t know, Venezia, or Genova, or Palermo. And now all of this, Malta, you – it is so much more, so much better, than I could have imagined, and so … it is difficult to believe. That it is real, that I am not going to wake up to find the dream slipping away. That you will not wake up and realise this was a mistake.”
“It feels like a dream to me too, you know,” Joe says softly. “I know I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways, I’ve gotten to see a lot of places and do a lot of things, but ever since it all went to shit in London, I’ve just been… lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself, didn’t know what I wanted. And then you… I can’t remember the last time I felt as sure about anything as I do about wanting to keep you in my life.”
Nicolò leans in to kiss him, and it quickly turns from sweet and reassuring to something more heated, but then Nicolò pulls back.
“We should – we should get ready to go,” he says, though he’s flushed and definitely staring at Joe’s lips. “There will be time later, yes? Perhaps even in a bed?”
“Yes,” Joe tells him. “Tonight, we’ll be on the ferry, or in a hotel if there isn’t one today, and then…”
“Tonight,” Nicolò agrees, eyes blazing with promise.
They come down from the hills while it’s still early, timing it to reach the train station Nicolò has picked in the midst of the commuter rush into the city, and pile into a busy train along with everyone else. Over the last few months Joe has gotten used to his company being limited to one, at most two other people when the guards switched over, so being surrounded by such a mass now feels deeply weird and more than a little unsettling. Nicolò manoeuvres them into a spot against the carriage wall, between the doors and the windows, so they’re not clearly visible from the outside, and arranges them with Joe facing the wall and Nicolò pressed in behind him, so most people on the train will just see their backs or profiles rather than their faces. Joe knows Nicolò is doing it in case someone who would recognise them happens to be on this train or in one of the stations they pass through, but he’s not complaining, he feels a lot more comfortable this way, most of his awareness occupied by Nicolò and the wall, than he did out in the middle of the crowd on the platform. As the train gets more and more packed, Nicolò squeezes in tighter against him, and Joe risks reaching back to touch his hand, just for a moment. Nicolò catches his fingers and squeezes back immediately.
When they reach the central station in Naples and disembark, Joe’s head is spinning, but Nicolò just takes him by the elbow and steers them expertly through the throngs of people to the tourist information kiosk in the main hall, where he enquires politely about the ferry schedule, then out to the square in front of the station and off into a quieter side-street.
“What now?” Joe asks.
“There is a ferry for Palermo today, but it leaves in the evening and arrives there in the morning, so we have most of the day. We should see to your bank of course, but perhaps we can have breakfast, get some clean clothes, and go to a hostel to shower and change first?” Nicolò suggests.
“Yes please,” Joe says, knees going slightly weak at the prospect of hot running water.
Somewhat to Joe’s surprise, for breakfast Nicolò picks out a café near the train station, a place with a prominently displayed English menu which a couple are bickering over in German when they approach.
“Isn’t this place kind of for tourists?” Joe asks.
“Very much so,” Nicolò agrees. “So it is highly unlikely that anyone who knows me would come here.”
His paranoia proves not to be entirely unfounded. After they eat, and buy some new clothes in a shop, Nicolò leads them to a hostel where they bathe and dress. The water pressure in the shower is terrible and it’s more warm than hot and Joe doesn’t care in the slightest, it’s still amazing. He briefly considers shaving off his overgrown beard, but Nicolò looks so charmingly stricken at the prospect that instead he just trims it back as best he can with scissors he borrows from a cheerful Swedish backpacker. Nicolò doesn’t shave either.
“Better to leave this until we are on the boat,” he says, rubbing at his own somewhat unkempt facial hair. “Most people here who know me have never seen me with a beard, so it should help, even if it is a bit…” he trails off, grimacing slightly at his reflection. On a purely aesthetic level, Joe would if pressed agree that he’s perhaps starting to tip towards the wrong side of the line between deeply sexy stubble and the awkward scraggly stage, but Joe’s pretty sure he could grow the world’s worst beard and Joe would still find him ridiculously alluring.
“You’re beautiful, with or without it,” Joe tells him quietly, mindful of the other guests in the large communal bathroom, and it’s absolutely worth it for the faint flush that colours Nicolò’s cheeks.
They get the guy working at the hostel to phone the ferry company and book passage for them. A private cabin – Nicolò suggests half-heartedly that one of the cheaper options might be more prudent, but Joe looks at him, drags his eyes brazenly up and down Nicolò’s body, and licks his lips, and Nicolò swallows and makes no further objection. Then they head for the local branch of Joe’s bank. Partway there, Nicolò swears under his breath and abruptly drags Joe into the nearest side street and pulls him down to crouch behind a dumpster.
“I saw Daniele,” Nicolò whispers.
“Shit. He’s your friend, isn’t he? Do you think he’d give you up?”
“I would like to believe that he would not, but for his sake I would rather not force him to make that choice, and for ours I am not going to take the chance.”
“Do you think he’s here looking for us?”
“No, he doesn’t work for Don Raffaè, and it’s not unusual for him to come to the city for himself or to run errands for his father, but we must be more careful. After the bank, we should-”
“Don’t say split up,” Joe warns. “I’m not-”
“No,” Nicolò says, taking Joe’s hand and squeezing it. “No. I was going to say, we should stay off the streets, find somewhere to go where he would not. I suppose we could return to the hostel, it’s not where Daniele would go if he is staying the night, or…”
“Is he a museum kind of guy? There’s the archaeological museum, or one of the art galleries…?”
“The archaeological museum would be perfect,” Nicolò says. “History was his worst subject at school and his eyes would always glaze over if I tried to talk about anything that happened before the war.”
“I used to imagine meeting you in a museum,” Joe admits. “I dreamt up this whole scenario where we were looking at the same thing and got to talking, and then we’d go for dinner, and then…”
“I would love you,” Nicolò says, not like he’s joining in on the fantasy but like he’s stating a fact, as undeniable as gravity. “No matter how we met, I would love you.”
Kissing him like Joe wants to kiss him here and now is a bad idea, but he leans in anyway, knocking their foreheads together.
“I would love you too,” Joe says. “Let’s go to the museum, and after we get on that ferry tonight, I’ll show you just how much I love you, how much I want you.”
They spend another twenty minutes hiding behind the dumpster, and then circle around to the bank by a less direct route that avoids the main streets as much as possible. Once inside the bank, Joe busts out his most disarming smile for the teller, while Nicolò does his best to watch the door without looking too shady himself. When the guys first grabbed Joe in Rome, they took all the cash out of his wallet, but didn’t bother with anything else. He still has his driving licence for ID and the slip of paper with his bank account number hidden in a list of phone numbers, so there’s no problem gaining access to his account. (One of the real phone numbers on the slip is Booker’s, and seeing it stirs up a mess of feelings that Joe isn’t prepared to deal with right now. On the one hand: selfish traitorous bastard. On the other, if not for his selfish bastard betrayal, Joe would never have met Nicolò. But these are difficult thoughts for another time.) Joe withdraws a hefty stack of cash, enough to tide them over until he can set up a new account in Malta, or wherever else they might end up settling. He makes Nicolò take half of the money and they spend a few minutes hiding the excess away in various pockets and different parts of their backpacks before heading back outside.
“Is Malta still on the British pound?” Joe asks while they weave their way towards the museum through the alleys and side streets – or, more accurately, Nicolò weaves, and Joe follows blindly like the thread following the shuttle through a loom.
“I don’t know, probably not?” Nicolò says, and ducks his head, grinning shyly. “We should probably look for some information in a book that is not twenty years old.”
“Maybe, but we’re keeping your book too,” Joe says firmly.
“It’s in my backpack. I grabbed it the night we left.”
“It seemed important,” Joe says, and Nicolò stops and stares at him, eyes shining.
“I was right, wasn’t I? Come on, we should keep going.”
They pass the afternoon wandering the halls of the museum without incident, eating a late lunch in the café and staying as long as they can. Nicolò knows quite a bit about the Farnese marbles and the objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and Joe is constantly torn between paying proper attention to his many interesting stories, and getting distracted by his lips and his hands and the air of lightness that comes over him when he gets caught up in the history and forgets to eye every person they pass with suspicion. Joe knows more about the Egyptian collection, and is delighted to find Nicolò having the same problem when he keeps catching him staring at Joe’s mouth while he talks.
Nicolò is wary of hanging around the port any longer than necessary for fear of being recognised by former associates, so after the museum closes, they ensconce themselves in a corner of another tourist-oriented restaurant. Joe does most of the talking to the waiter, and only just keeps from bursting out laughing when Nicolò puts on a terrible English accent to say grazie and per favore. Then they take a taxi to the ferry terminal – Nicolò is wary of that too, until they spot one with an AC Milano sticker in the window, reassuring him that the driver probably isn’t a local. At the terminal, Joe collects their tickets from the desk while Nicolò picks up a discarded newspaper to hide behind.
The sun’s gone down already but the area is well lit, so Nicolò continues to pretend to be fascinated with the paper while they wait to board. He just peeks over the top every once in a while, scanning quickly over the other people in the waiting area, the workers moving through, the group of kids kicking a football around who just shift over by a couple of metres every time someone yells at them to leave. He does one such peek when they’re a few places in line from the guy checking tickets, and freezes.
“Dio bastardo,” he hisses quietly. “The man emptying the trash bins over there, I know him, he’s not one of ours but his boss is an ally.”
“Ally like he’ll give you up, or ally like your guys won’t have told his guys about this because it’ll make them look bad?”
“It could go either way,” Nicolò says, ducking behind his paper again, and Joe’s heart starts racing. And of course, of course the people at the front of the line now are a family of American tourists who don’t speak Italian and have some kind of problem with their tickets, so it’s taking them forever to get through. The bin guy hasn’t looked over here yet but he is moving gradually towards them, not away. If he gets to the bin in the waiting area for this ferry before they get on the boat…
“Maybe I should offer to help?” Joe whispers to Nicolò. “Move things along?”
“No, we don’t want to draw attention, what if they make a fuss? I don’t know him well, I don’t know if he would recognise me in passing…”
Finally the Americans’ problem is sorted out and they move along, and the others in between proceed without issue, but then, of course, Nicolò has to drop the newspaper in order to deal with the ticket guy without making him suspicious. Just as he does, the bin guy reaches the waiting area, and the ticket guy calls out a greeting to him so he looks over, and Joe’s heart stops. He forces himself to keep smiling at the ticket guy and not turn. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the bin guy glancing at Nicolò, eyes narrowing just slightly –
And then the kids’ football whizzes past the bin guy, bouncing off the bin and almost hitting him, and he’s whirling around to shout at them, and the ticket guy is saying Buon viaggio, and then they’re through, Joe and Nicolò both, dashing up the ramp onto the ferry.
They stay on the side of the deck facing out onto the water until the ferry pulls away from the dock and gets far enough that anyone on land wouldn’t be able to make out their faces anymore. Then they circle back around to watch the city recede into the distance.
“We made it,” Joe says quietly, when all they can see is the city lights twinkling in the darkness.
“We did,” Nicolò agrees. There are other people on the deck too, so they’re standing side by side without touching; Nicolò shifts his weight, ever so slightly, making their shoulders bump.
“I don’t think I ever said – I’m sorry, Nicolò, that you’ve had to leave your home because of all this.”
“Don’t be,” Nicolò says. “I am not. My home is wherever you are, now, and I regret nothing.”
“Nicolò,” Joe says, voice cracking a little with emotion.
“Now,” Nicolò adds, turning to him. “I seem to recall that we have a private cabin, and that certain promises were made regarding what would happen once we got inside…”
Joe swallows, and Nicolò’s eyes track the bob of his throat, and all of a sudden every moment that passes without their hands on each other is excruciating.
“Let’s go,” Joe manages, and they do.
The cabin is nothing fancy, just a set of bunkbeds and a tiny desk with a chair, but they have their own bathroom, and no roommates, and after weeks of sleeping on the ground even the single mattress seems like luxury. They drop their bags and Nicolò locks the door and then they’re on each other, kissing frantically and tearing each other’s clothes off – quite literally, in a few instances, Nicolò’s button-down definitely loses at least one button in their haste and Joe’s distantly aware of a seam in his undershirt giving out when it gets stuck while Nicolò’s dragging it off him – and then they’re landing on the bed naked, Joe on his back and Nicolò looming over him, as exquisite as any of the marble gods they admired in the museum this afternoon.
“How could you ever think that I could not want you?” Nicolò asks, tracing his thumb delicately over Joe’s kiss-swollen lips. Joe nips at it, delighting in the way it makes his eyes darken and his breath catch.
“How could you ever think I’d just leave you at the train station?” Joe counters. “All your planning was so good, you had it all figured out so well, except for that part. That part was so dumb, Nicolò.”
Nicolò laughs at that, bright and happy in a way that makes Joe’s heart swell, makes him feel like he’s flying even as he’s pinned to the bed by the delicious weight of Nicolò’s body. Nicolò ducks in for another kiss, and Joe curls his arms and legs around him, pulling him in closer so they’re pressed together from chest to groin. As nice as it was to hold Nicolò while they slept before, it’s so much better like this, without their jackets and jeans and everything else in the way, and with no need to worry about inappropriate erections. Joe’s hard now and it is absolutely appropriate; he moans shamelessly into Nicolò’s mouth when Nicolò shifts a little so the jut of his hip presses against Joe’s cock.
“Advance warning, it’s, uh, been a while, so I’m probably not going to last long,” Joe says when Nicolò breaks off to mouth at his neck. He can tell he’s close to the edge already, just from kissing and grinding up against Nicolò’s hip, and he can’t be bothered with being at all embarrassed by it.
“I haven’t since we left, but before – I would think about you,” Nicolò says, pulling back just enough to look at Joe, his flush deepening. “Not while I was with you, but the nights I was in town, alone in my bed – I would touch myself and imagine it was your hand on me, or your mouth.”
“I always felt guilty afterwards but I could not make myself stop, I’d close my eyes and all I could picture was you, in my clothes – or out of them –”
“God, your clothes… Sorry to go all sappy while we’re naked but… when I’d get really depressed about everything, I’d think about how you took care of me, with the clothes and the food and all of it, and it helped. I’d be lying there feeling like no one gave a fuck and then remember I was wearing your shirt, that you gave me and washed for me and-”
Nicolò makes a quiet surprised noise, and kisses Joe again, slower and softer this time.
“I’ll always take care of you, as long as you’ll let me,” Nicolò murmurs.
“Careful now, that might just be a lifetime commitment,” Joe warns, grinning at him.
“Good,” Nicolò says firmly.
Joe tugs at him, chasing his lips and palming at his splendid ass, and then Nicolò rolls his hips deliberately against Joe’s, and Joe groans, needy and guttural, jerking back against him without conscious thought.
“Let me take care of you now?” Nicolò asks, voice gone low and rough in Joe’s ear, and the sound Joe makes in response could not remotely pass for an actual word but thankfully Nicolò takes it for the enthusiastic agreement that it is. He drops another kiss on Joe’s cheek and then sits up and scoots back on the bed, settling on his knees between Joe’s legs, which he proceeds to hoist over his shoulders – dear sweet God, if his broad shoulders were appealing before, they’re even better with Joe’s thighs draped over them – as he moves in to get his mouth on Joe’s cock.
Joe swears, probably, though he couldn’t say in what language, or maybe he just grunts and whines, he doesn’t know, what his own mouth is doing is really not what’s important when Nicolò’s tongue is doing that, when he’s peering up at Joe along the length of his body, eyes bright and pleased, lips wrapped obscenely around Joe’s dick. He keeps one hand on the base of Joe’s shaft and puts the other on Joe’s thigh to help hold him in place as he shudders, Nicolò’s lovely big hand a solid anchor on Joe’s spasming muscles, and his mouth, his mouth–
Joe flaps his hand rather uselessly over Nicolò’s hair in an attempt at a warning but Nicolò doesn’t pull back, just grips Joe’s leg more tightly and sucks hard around the head of his cock and lets him spill on his tongue.
He swallows and keeps mouthing gently at Joe’s cock until it finishes twitching, and then he carefully lowers Joe’s legs back to the bed, and then hesitates, uncertain for an instant before Joe manages to make his arms work well enough to reel him in and kiss him again.
“Your turn,” Joe growls in his ear once he feels somewhat able to function again. He cups Nicolò’s cheek and stares into his eyes. “What do you want? Anything, just tell me.”
To Joe’s surprise, Nicolò drops his gaze, like he’s suddenly gone shy despite the lingering traces of Joe’s spend in his mouth and his very firm erection digging into Joe’s hip.
“Would you – would you hold me, and use your hand?” he asks, and bites at his own lip like he’s nervous, and it makes Joe’s heart stutter in his chest, to see him so apprehensive about asking for something so simple and sweet.
“Of course,” Joe assures him quickly. “I am never going to say no to holding you, naked or otherwise. You’d better prepare for being cuddled until you’re completely sick of me.”
“Never going to happen,” Nicolò says, breaking into a grin.
They rearrange themselves so Joe’s sitting up at the head of the bed, back to the wall, with Nicolò in his lap, his back to Joe’s front. Joe slides one arm across his chest, holding him snugly while he takes his cock in the other hand, and Nicolò tilts his head back against Joe’s shoulder with a contented hum. He rests both his arms over Joe’s, hugging it to himself, the fingers of one hand curling around Joe’s wrist, and the intimacy of it is incredible; Joe can feel Nicolò’s heartbeat under his palm, every little hitch in his breathing and twitch in his fingers, hear the tiny keening noises he’s probably not even aware of making as Joe strokes him.
“Does this feel good?” Joe asks quietly, twisting his hand over Nicolò’s cock, and Nicolò shudders in his arms.
“So good,” he sighs. “Joe-”
“I love you,” Joe tells him, and repeats it in Arabic and French and Italian, punctuating every iteration with a swipe of his thumb over the head of Nicolò’s cock and thrilling in the way he gasps, hips kicking involuntarily. Joe shifts the hand on his chest a little, fingers catching against a stiff nipple, and that earns him another beautifully desperate sound so he does it again, rubbing and tugging and muttering whatever endearments come to mind until Nicolò’s fingers clench hard around his wrist.
“Dio,” Nicolò grits out, his voice rough as gravel, his whole body tensing, “Dio affogato nella merda – Joe-” and then he comes, spilling hot over Joe’s fingers, and Joe keeps holding him, revelling in his pleasure.
“Dio affogato nella merda,” Joe repeats thoughtfully when Nicolò opens his eyes again and blinks up at him. “Does that mean what I think it does?”
“Hmm? Oh. God drowned in shit? Yes.” The line of his mouth turns a little rueful. “I should, ah, perhaps begin watching my language, if I am to pass for a more respectable member of society.”
“Nah, I like it. Can’t really see you going all prim and proper, anyway.”
“I could be proper if I wanted to. Probably.”
“You can be anything you want, now,” Joe says, and Nicolò twists around to kiss him, and that’s the end of talking for a while.
Later, after they’ve cleaned up and settled back into the bed to sleep, Nicolò held in Joe’s embrace again, Nicolò says,
“I wanted to say – thank you, Joe.”
“For pushing back. Not going along with the, how did you put it? The ‘so dumb’ part of my plan. Suggesting this instead.”
Joe presses his grin into Nicolò’s shoulder and hugs him closer.
“I’m not just a pretty face, I have some rather good ideas, if I do say so myself. I’ve got a few others you might like, too, you’ll see.”
“I can’t wait,” Nicolò tells him.
Joe’s first thought, when he wakes up in the morning to find Nicolò looking at him like Joe’s some sort of treasure that he’s so, so lucky he gets to keep, is that everything is going to be okay. The second is that there’s a pillow wrinkle on Nicolò’s cheek that Joe absolutely has to lick. The third, when Joe bangs his elbow on the wall while trying to roll on top of Nicolò without anyone falling off the narrow bunk, is that they’ll have to get a bigger bed when they get to Malta. He turns out to be right about all three.
Several months later
Joe eventually writes to his aunt in Cairo, and gets one letter back from her, full of joy and warmth, and another a couple of weeks later from his mother, in her usual rather brusque style. The second one informs him that in the end, the family did decide to pay. Two days before the deadline, one of Joe’s nephews turned up in Rome with a briefcase full of cash, and met with the designated intermediary, only to find out that the exchange wasn’t going ahead because the other side couldn’t hold up their end of the deal. This was, apparently, a source of not insubstantial disquiet to both of his parents, as well as a considerable inconvenience to the nephew, who made it home with the briefcase intact but lost his wallet to a pickpocket in the airport. There’s no overt acceptance in the letter, certainly no explicit apology, but the stated relief that he is alive and well after all, and the suggestion that both his mother and his father would at some point like to see him in person again, is probably the most he can realistically expect.
“Do you want to go home, then?” Nicolò asks, when Joe tells him as much over dinner in their apartment in Valletta. There is no weight to the question; he asks it like he would ask if Joe wants to take the ferry over to Gozo tomorrow, or open another bottle of wine, or go for a walk after they finish eating. As though it’s any ordinary activity Joe might like to do. Not at all as though he’s afraid Joe actually wants to move back to Tunisia and his old life, not at all as though he still fears Joe is going to leave him. And that makes Joe even happier than the letter did. He pretends to consider the question.
“Hmm, maybe,” Joe says, and then he gets up, walks around to Nicolò’s side of the table, tugs Nicolò out of his chair, and arranges Nicolò’s arms over Joe’s shoulders while Nicolò lets himself be manhandled with a bemused little half smile. Satisfied, Joe winds his own arms around Nicolò’s waist, and rests his head against Nicolò’s chest, and says,
“There. I’m home.”
Nicolò makes a soft, surprised noise, and tightens his arms, hugging Joe close.
“Always,” Nicolò agrees. “Inħobbok ħafna,” he adds, and presses a kiss to Joe’s hair.
Almost everyone here speaks English and many speak Italian too, so they don’t strictly need to learn Maltese, but they’ve been picking up the odd phrase anyway, the greetings and basic niceties and, most importantly, new endearments. Maltese is a curious beast; the Arabic base and heavy Italian and Sicilian influences mean that often they can both understand bits of a sentence, but not the same ones. They make a game of it sometimes, studying a segment of a sign or newspaper, and fitting together their separate broken pieces into something a little more whole. Which they’ve gotten pretty good at doing in all sorts of ways, Joe thinks, raising his head to fit his mouth to Nicolò’s tender smile, while Nicolò, ever-prepared, expertly shifts them away from the dinner table and slides a steadying arm around Joe’s waist before doing the thing with his tongue that always makes Joe’s knees buckle.