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Better Than Never

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Once you'd seen one Ivy League campus, Elio suspected, you had seen them all. There might be differences in the architecture, Georgian or neoclassical or gothic revival, but inside, the buildings housed the same rooms, and the same kinds of students filled the libraries to cram for finals or lounged in small gaggles on the quads. To a casual observer, Elio was probably indistinguishable from them, even as he gazed around with the eyes of a stranger.

He quite liked that thought, that he could take a seat on one of the benches and pull out a book and no-one would ever believe he was out of place. It was perhaps true of the rest of the city as well, not just this tiny slice of almost-tranquillity within it; the world moved too quickly here for people to pay much mind to someone who didn't belong. He wasn't sure there was anyone who truly belonged in New York, and didn't just carve out a small piece of it to make their own. Maybe that was the beauty of the place.

It couldn't have been further from home, where everyone knew everyone, doors open for anybody who might drop by for a visit, an extra place setting at the table each night, just in case. Yet in the few years Elio had been living in the States, he hadn't often felt the pang of homesickness. There was too much to explore to dwell on thoughts of Italy.

Besides, in some ways, it didn't feel much different.

Elio pulled a battered paperback from his bag and fanned himself with it while he walked. The air was still hot on his face, but at least it offered some small respite from the suffocating heat, some semblance of a breeze in the humid city. He watched as the students on the South Lawn lay flat on their backs, shirts off, or with hats and books covering their faces, enjoying the glorious mid-afternoon sunshine with the kind of easy, relaxed air that only came at this point of the semester, with finals almost over and nothing to do but decompress.

There was something infectious to the sense of relief permeating the grounds, and Elio smiled as he tilted his face up towards the warm rays of sunshine bearing down. Though he had completed his own exams days ago now, and at a different college in a different state, Elio felt a sense of kinship with the students sprawled out all around him, like they had gone through a war together and survived to reach the other side.

And now the summer was stretched out in wait for them, beckoning with sunny arms.

"Elio?"

The voice was deep, and smooth despite the surprise in its tone. Even after so long, Elio would have known it anywhere. He had kept the memory of it tucked away inside his chest, hidden and protected, along with so many others from that summer, as if the experience was and always would be his most treasured possession.

He had anticipated this — or perhaps just hoped so desperately for it that the thought had taken on life in his mind as a real possibility, even as another part of him had almost dreaded it. Yet despite playing out this scenario in all its possible iterations so many times in his mind, Elio now found himself utterly unprepared.

He paused to pull off his sunglasses, and, praying the sudden, dizzying fluttering in his stomach wouldn't be reflected in his features, he turned in the voice's direction.

Oliver beamed when Elio faced him. He looked different than he had the last time Elio had seen him: his hair darker, skin paler, neither touched yet by the summer sun; the loose button-downs and tiny shorts replaced by a crisp white dress shirt and slacks, more befitting a respectable professor; the last few traces of boyish youth that had still clung to his features back then now matured into something rather more striking. But he was still Oliver, and Elio still felt a powerful surge of emotion threatening to fill his chest and drown him from the inside at the sight of him.

He smiled back at Oliver.

"I thought you were studying at Yale," Oliver said. There was a shred of disbelief in his tone that he wasn't able to fully wrangle into submission. He seemed to remember himself a little after he spoke, and stepped forward to shorten the distance between them, blinking away his surprise.

"I am. I'm just here visiting a friend."

He didn't mention that Oliver hadn't been far from his thoughts all day, so fully embedded in Elio's subconscious that even the mere thought of Columbia brought him to mind, let alone walking through its campus, following paths Oliver must have taken, wondering if he'd see a blond head towering above the others any time he looked at a crowd. Elio might have felt cheated had he spent the day exploring the campus and not found some evidence of him here, a confirmation that he did still exist outside of Elio's thoughts.

Oliver glanced beyond Elio's shoulders, his smile taking on a playful quality that Elio hadn't realised just how much he had missed until now. "Have you misplaced them?"

"Funny," said Elio, even as he tried and failed to cling on to his practised air of aloofness, warmth blossoming through his chest. Take away the hum of a hundred conversations unfolding all around them, the sounds and smells of the city lurking beyond the campus, and they could have almost been back in Italy, five years earlier, as if no time had passed between them. "She's sitting an exam this afternoon."

Oliver nodded, and his eyes flicked back up to meet Elio's, something hopeful gleaming within them. "So you have time to take a walk?"

"Shouldn't you be working?" Elio said, as he eyed the papers tucked under Oliver's arm with a raised eyebrow.

"It's the last day of the semester," replied Oliver. He looked about as relieved as the students, like at any moment he might throw his papers to the side and sprawl himself in the sun with the others all around them, the way he had spent so many lazy afternoons once upon a time. "I'm as free as the rest of you."

He took another step closer, but before they could turn to wander away from the bustle of the quad, Oliver frowned, and brought his hand up to the top of Elio's head. It didn't fall quite so far short of Oliver's own as it used to.

"When did this happen?"

"I think about two weeks after the last time we saw each other," Elio said. He could still remember with painful clarity the morning he had awoken inches taller, his first thought that he'd no longer need to stretch as high to reach Oliver's lips, before the realisation had come that he'd not be touching Oliver's lips again.

Oliver smiled down at him, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and Elio forced himself to take a step back. If he didn't, he might have thrown himself into Oliver's arms, regardless of who was watching, regardless of the fact that Oliver was no longer his to take comfort in. The yearning that he had felt for Oliver, the pain that had threatened to tear his chest in two, to drown him in tears, to leave him unable to love another the way he'd loved Oliver — they were sensations Elio hadn't felt for years now. But at the sight of him stood there so close to Elio again, looking back at him with the same warmth in his eyes that had once made Elio fall in love with him all over again each time he saw it, long-dormant desire sparked inside him. It was like some part of him had come back to life, reanimated by Oliver.

"Are you coming, or what?" he said, glancing over his shoulder at Oliver and leaving him to catch up while Elio set off without him. He wondered if Oliver's gaze would fall to his ass as he walked away. Probably not, but the thought warmed Elio all the same.

Two strides of his impossibly long legs, and Oliver was at Elio's side again. They walked in silence for a moment. There were so many things Elio wanted to say that they tangled together in his mind and left him fumbling for words. It was safer to start with boring small-talk before diving in to the heavier topics, the 'do you still think of me's and 'did it kill you to walk away as well's, but those were the more pressing questions, the ones that had lived on inside of Elio all this time. Perhaps it would be for the best to leave those questions unasked for the time being. Elio needed to time to steel himself before hearing the answers.

In the end, Oliver was the first to know where to start.

"How long are you staying in New York?" he said.

A nice, harmless place to begin. Better to talk about the present, before they were bogged down in their past. And even though Elio usually hated the mundanity of those questions that told you everything about where a person had been and nothing about who they were, he couldn't deny the curiosity gnawing at him, the desire to know every tiny, inconsequential detail of Oliver's life during the last five years. He wondered if Oliver felt the same about him.

"A few days, probably." He glanced between the buildings casting merciful shadows across the ground, towards the trees that hid much of the wider city from view. He had been to New York a handful of times before, but always with his parents; it was hard not to feel as a boy without supervision, free to do anything and everything he wanted. "I want to see a concert or two before I head back to Connecticut."

"They don't meet your high standards in New Haven?" Oliver said, amusement rife in his tone. He shot Elio a conspiratorial look, and Elio grinned back at him.

"I'm better than they are."

"You know, I don't doubt it."

The doors to the building on their left scraped open and students filtered out, chattering with the relief of being allowed to talk again after hours of silence, some laughing and shouting, dashing down the steps and past Elio and Oliver without paying the pair any notice, while others hurried towards other buildings and their next exams, too haggard to stop and appreciate the beautiful day like those who were already free for the summer were able to. He and Oliver watched the students disperse, taking the noise with them as they headed off in all directions, and Oliver turned back to face Elio.

"How was your senior year?"

"Easy," Elio replied, and Oliver laughed. It brought the same swell of warmth and comfort to Elio's chest as it always had. Elio eyed him while they resumed their languid stroll, to watch the mirth touch every corner of his face, and the fondness in Oliver's eyes as he stared back at Elio was heart-stopping. No-one else had ever managed to look at him quite like that.

"Of course it was," said Oliver. He spoke as if he'd expected nothing less than for Elio to breeze through college. The professor's son. "So what's next for you?"

"I start my masters in the fall. Then maybe a doctorate after that, if I feel like it."

Oliver's smile broadened. It was almost as if he knew how deprived Elio had been of those bright, easy smiles, and sought to make up for each and every one Elio had missed. Elio felt heat creep to his cheeks under the attention.

He swatted Oliver's arm, and bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to try and force the bashful grin from his face. "Don't look at me like that," he said.

"Like what?"

"The way my father looks at me when he's so proud he can't bear it."

"Well, I am proud of you," Oliver said. "You could do anything and I don't think I would be surprised by it. You've got the whole world at your feet."

"I don't want the world," said Elio.

Oliver looked at him again, then; really looked at him, like Elio was a riddle he was desperate to solve. It was a look Elio had seen before, always followed by Oliver quickly averting his eyes the moment he realised Elio had noticed.

This time, his gaze stayed in place.

"What do you want?"

The air between them was impossibly charged, every particle humming and vibrating until Elio felt it all the way through him. He wasn't sure if Oliver was daring him to step forward and kiss him, or if it was just Elio's own desire to do so burning so badly he saw it in Oliver's face as if it was his own.

That face had been his to kiss once. He felt a pang that hadn't torn at his chest for some time at the thought that it now wasn't.

"I haven't decided yet," said Elio. He shrugged his shoulders and took a step back from Oliver, a step towards safety, before he could sink into the quicksand of their shared history. He and Oliver had been friends, once, and only friends, their desire for one another buried down deep; they could do it again now. It should be even easier this time, so far removed from old emotion. "But I wouldn't say no to a cup of coffee. So we can catch up."

His stomach clenched waiting for Oliver's reaction, a callous 'later' that really meant 'never', letting Elio down easy yet leaving no room for misunderstanding his meaning: 'it was nice to see you, but now that I have, you have nothing more that could interest me.'

But it didn't come.

"I'd like that," Oliver said instead, and his voice was genuine, the warmth of the sun in each soft word. "I know a nice place. It isn't far from here."

Elio nodded, grazing his bottom lip with his teeth as a warning to the triumphant smile that wanted to spread across it not to dare being so audacious, and he and Oliver strolled beyond the campus, out into the organised chaos of the city. As they walked, Oliver pointed out this and that, buildings where friends of his lived, a bookstore he had worked at when he had first come to the city for school, a club he favoured for its great live music. Elio drank it all in with wonder, like the whole city was Oliver's and Elio was an honoured guest. He could have walked with him through the streets forever.

Only a few blocks away, Oliver slowed to a stop outside a tiny coffee shop and gestured for Elio to follow him inside. There wasn't room for more than a few small tables along one wall, each already occupied, so they took a seat at the counter that ran the length of the room. The smell of coffee and fresh pastries was thick in the room, the hum of the other patrons chatting away to each other bringing to mind the cicadas and their constant buzzing back home.

"You hungry?" Oliver said. "It's on me."

"Why, because I'm a penniless college student now?" Elio nudged his shoulder against Oliver's, and they shared a laugh.

"I remember how it goes."

"I'm not hungry," Elio replied. "Thanks."

He and Oliver ordered a coffee each, and, more openly than he would have once dared, Elio regarded Oliver: the straight line of his nose, the curve of his lips, the way his cheek dimpled slightly with his smile.

"Are you still happy here," Elio said, "in New York?" He didn't say what part of him — however small that part may be — wanted to: 'are you happier here than you were with me?' He knew already that he wouldn't like either answer that Oliver could give him, be it a confirmation that he was better off keeping Elio in his past, waiting to be forgotten, or the revelation that no, he wasn't happy, and he hadn't been happy since that summer.

Oliver shrugged. "It's home," he said simply.

It wasn't quite an answer to Elio's question. Elio was about to point out as much when, sensing, perhaps, that Elio had made that observation, Oliver changed the subject.

"Are you going back to Italy for the summer?"

"Only for a couple of weeks," replied Elio, as the waitress set a cup of steaming coffee in front of them both, along with a croissant for Oliver. "You could come. My parents would love to see you."

Elio could almost see the memories playing behind Oliver's eyes while he considered Elio's words, a small, fond smile spreading across his lips. "I'm not sure I could ever bear to leave again if I went back."

'Then don't,' Elio wanted to say. He didn't. "You never thought about it?"

"Oh, I thought about it," Oliver said, as if Elio couldn't imagine just how much he had thought about returning to Italy over the years. "I always imagined it would be too painful."

Elio wondered if he meant it would be too painful for himself or for Elio. Both were true, perhaps. Certainly, as much as Elio had ached with the strange emptiness he'd felt that first summer without Oliver, part of him had been glad not to see him again, to be spared the pain of knowing he was in the next room yet this time Elio would be unable to slip inside to join him each night, to be spared the pain of watching him leave again.

He stayed silent, and instead reached between them, the inches separating them now somehow just as unnatural as the span of thousands of miles. He tore a piece off of Oliver's croissant.

Oliver looked back at him in amusement. "I thought you weren't hungry."

"I'm not," replied Elio as he popped the morsel into his mouth.

Oliver laughed, and slid his plate into the hesitant space between their elbows for Elio to pick at as he liked.

"I, uh," Elio said, staring down at the crumbs he had made on the wooden countertop as if they were the most eye-catching thing in the room, unable to meet Oliver's gaze while he voiced his admission, "I read your book."

"You didn't," said Oliver. He looked back at Elio with a horror-stricken expression as he set his cup back down, as if Elio had just confessed to discovering his most shameful secret. He hesitated before speaking again. "What did you think?"

What did he think? If only Oliver knew, how Elio had consumed it in one dizzying sitting and immediately turned back to the first page, how he had read it until the edges were foxed and the spine broken. It was like living inside Oliver's head, reading it; experiencing his thoughts and perspectives in a way Elio had always wanted to. It was like being with him again.

He shrugged. "It wasn't bad."

Oliver laughed again, deep and warm and infectious, and Elio grinned back at him. "Well," he said, "that's what I was aiming for."

A loud scrape from across the room as someone pushed their chair back on the stone floor, and Elio's head snapped up in his surprise. He wouldn't have thought he could so easily forget that he and Oliver weren't alone in the room, or indeed the world beyond. Oliver had looked up at the noise as well, as if he too had been jolted back into the present by it.

His face was serious when he returned his gaze to Elio. "Really," he said, his brows drawn and eyes searching, pleading, like he had written his book for Elio alone, and his was the one opinion Oliver cared about, "did you like it?"

Elio smiled back at him. He reached out between them, and, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he covered Oliver's hand with his own. Oliver's gaze flicked downwards, but he said nothing, and made no move to pull away. "I loved it, Oliver."

It took him longer than it should have to find the strength to withdraw his hand, itching for the touch of Oliver's skin against his own the moment that tiny physical connection between them had ended. Oliver didn't move his hand back closer to himself afterwards. Was it an invitation, perhaps, for Elio to touch him again? He didn't dare test that theory.

"The coffee is terrible over here," said Elio, forcing his mind, and the conversation, to safer ground. He set his cup back down and pushed it away from him. One of the few things he did miss, aside from his parents and his friends back home, of course, was a good cup of freshly brewed Italian coffee.

"Yes," Oliver replied. "I rarely drink it these days. But it could be worse," he added, and shot Elio a sly glance. "I can't even look at a peach anymore."

Heat prickled beneath Elio's skin as he fought the urge to smile back at Oliver, to let him know that he too remembered everything, and always would. So much for safer ground. Perhaps such a thing did not, could not, exist between them.

"I thought you would have forgotten all about me by now," said Oliver.

"What?"

"Come on, what's a summer fling to a 17-year-old who could have had anyone he wanted?"

"Everything," Elio said, and Oliver looked back at him with a hopeful kind of smile that reignited a spark inside Elio, a need to cup Oliver's face in his hands and kiss him until they were both breathless, and then kiss him some more, that burned bright and hot and consumed all of Elio in its wake. "It's you I thought would forget the dumb kid you screwed around with for a few weeks. I was just a distraction to you."

"You weren't," said Oliver, firmly. "Well, you did have a habit of distracting me from the work I was supposed to be doing," he corrected, and Elio grinned.

They were quiet for a moment as Oliver spooned another sugar into his coffee and grimaced after taking a sip. They were building to the bigger questions now, Elio could tell, and his stomach twisted with tension. He'd managed to tuck Oliver into a corner of his mind and his heart just far enough from the surface that he could look back on what they'd had with more affection than hurt, but this conversation carried the risk of reopening those old wounds, of digging the knife in farther and destroying Elio for good. Perhaps they should have stuck with the idle chit-chat and pretended there had never been anything deeper between them.

Elio finally braved to glance down at Oliver's hand. He wasn't wearing a ring on his finger. "Did you get married?"

He could have found out from his father years ago. Oliver certainly would have shared the happy news, maybe even told him if things hadn't worked out, and even if he hadn't, Elio's father would have been sure to ask, still clinging on to that same paternal instinct towards Oliver he had always displayed. But Elio had never raised the subject, and his father had known better than to mention it himself. He had thought it was better that way, but he couldn't deny that there was a tiny ember of hope inside him trying to burst into life now he was here face to face with Oliver again. If he had had all this time to make his peace with the news, he wouldn't have to stamp out that spark now.

"No," Oliver said.

"Why?"

Oliver was silent for a moment, unwilling or unable to meet Elio's eyes. When he finally spoke his voice was quiet. "You know why."

Maybe he did, but he hadn't dared to listen to that part of himself. He looked down at his own cup, toying it between his fingertips. "What did your parents have to say about it?"

"Nothing good," Oliver replied, raising his eyebrows in a way that suggested nothing Elio's imagination could conjure would come close to the truth of their reaction.

"I'm sorry."

Oliver shrugged to dismiss the subject. "Are you—" he started, and abruptly stopped himself. He shook his head, like he couldn't believe the words that had almost fallen from his mouth.

"Seeing anyone?" Elio finished for him.

"I shouldn't have asked."

"I'm not," he said anyway.

Oliver was still gazing intently into his coffee cup, his expression unreadable. It was times like this that part of Elio wanted to shake him, to plead with him, not to lock himself away in his private world. If he'd just crack the door a little, let Elio peek inside...

"Last time I spoke to your father," Oliver started, "he told me you had someone." His tone wasn't accusatory, or hurt; it was an unavoidable truth between them, this span of years. Elio had had others, women and men both, and some of them he had even loved, perhaps longer and more deeply than his love for Oliver had lasted, and it was no doubt the same for Oliver. Still, Oliver had been the first to make Elio feel, and that was something that could never be replaced.

"It wasn't anything, really," said Elio, and Oliver nodded, but he said nothing further. "You two talk about me?

"Your father talks about you," Oliver corrected.

"And you don't ask him to stop."

Oliver looked back at him, an almost-smile on his lips. An admission of guilt. It warmed Elio to his core.

They dragged it out as long as possible, tiny sips of coffee, then nursing the empty cups in their hands until the waitress began to huff and glare each time she passed their seats, but eventually the time came that they could no longer delay the inevitable. A dull, heavy weight settled in Elio's stomach, slowing his steps as they headed out of the door and onto the street.

They stood by the door, watching each other. What could they say to one another? 'Great to see you; let's do this again in another five years, if ever'?

If you had asked Elio that morning, he wouldn't have minded the prospect of never seeing Oliver again, content to leave him a happy memory, to look back on their time together fondly and perhaps wonder with only a passing interest what path his life had taken, but now that Elio had seen him, and had smiled and laughed with him and found they still had so much in common, the thought that this might be the last time was as painful now as it had been back then.

He gave Oliver a tight smile, and the one Oliver returned was as uncomfortable as Elio's had been, the joy of their meeting marred by the pain of parting again. But a smile was all either of them could muster. Perhaps this was why Oliver preferred to depart with a simple 'later,' so much easier than a goodbye, none of the finality attached to the word. Elio couldn't bring himself to say it, though. It was too cruel to let that shred of hope take root.

Elio curled his fingers into what could have almost been a wave — and even as he did so, it felt embarrassingly inadequate — and he turned, every ounce of his willpower focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

Had it been this hard last time? All he had had to do then was stand there and watch Oliver go, he supposed. If he had been the one to have to move away, like he was now, he wouldn't have been able to do it.

"Elio," Oliver called, before Elio could take more than a few steps. Elio could have collapsed with relief at the sound. Say anything, Oliver, just make this moment last a little longer. Elio turned, and for long seconds the two just stared at each other again, as if, now that he had Elio's attention, Oliver wasn't sure of what he had for a moment felt compelled to say.

"There's still something here, isn't there?" he said in the end. His voice was quiet, like if he said the words too loudly he might really start to believe them.

Of all the things Oliver could have said, Elio wouldn't have wanted to hear any of them as much as that.

Elio stepped back towards him. Each step was so much lighter than the ones that had led him away. "I think so."

He didn't think anything. He could feel it as sure as the ground beneath him, the sunlight warm on his skin; every fibre of his being screaming for him to take Oliver's face in his hands and kiss him, just once more at the very least. If he could have nothing else in this life, let him have just one more kiss.

Oliver's face lit up, unbridled joy and relief flooding to his features, before he schooled his expression back into something close to control. His eyes flicked down to Elio's lips, and didn't leave them again. "My apartment's close by."

Elio nodded. He was too eager, but he didn't care. What was there to care about? Oliver wanted this as much as Elio did, and they both knew what was going to happen when they reached Oliver's home. The weight of it was on both of their minds, it seemed, as they walked through the streets in silence this time, exchanging shy smiles every time they caught each other's eye, until they slowed part-way along a row of narrow townhouses, and Oliver said, "This is it."

Elio gazed up at the building Oliver had gestured towards, studying it more closely than he would have had anyone but Oliver lived inside. He took in the iron railings that lined the steps, imagining Oliver sat leaning against them with a well-thumbed book in his hand on fine summer days like today; the trinkets lining the windowsills on each floor, wondering which rooms belonged to Oliver. Oliver had seen everything of Elio's world, had drunk it all in as if it was the life he would build for himself given the choice; it was Elio's turn to do the same now.

"I should warn you," Oliver said once they had stepped inside and starting climbing the stairs to his apartment, "I don't have air conditioning."

"I like the heat. Feels like home."

Oliver smiled back at him. He reached into his pocket for a key, stopped outside his door, the barrier to his own life that Elio was about to step through. "Do you miss it?" he said as he unlocked the door. "Italy?"

"Sometimes." Elio's eyes flicked from the door and the possibilities that lurked beyond it, back to Oliver's face. "Do you?"

The smile on his face almost invisible now, marked by fondness and melancholy in equal measure, Oliver said, quietly, "Every day."

Elio wasn't sure they were talking about the same thing anymore.

Before he could put pressure on that weak spot, though, Oliver pushed the door open and stood back for Elio to take that first tentative step inside. It wasn't what Elio had pictured, but at the same time, somehow, was perfectly fitting. It was Oliver, as if his entire essence had been condensed and converted into something tangible. Elio wandered from the hall through the open door into the living room, while Oliver busied himself switching on the fans scattered throughout the stifling apartment. His eyes caught an acoustic guitar propped up against one of the bookcases which took up most of one wall.

"You play?" He brushed his thumb over the strings, light enough to draw only a whisper of sound from them, and looked back at Oliver stood in the doorway, watching him.

"I fumble," Oliver said, self-deprecating and, unless Elio was mistaking it and the pink dusting his cheekbones was from the heat and nothing more, a little abashed. "I don't think you can really call it playing."

"You never told me before."

"I didn't back then." The look in his eyes was enough to answer the next question that would have fallen from Elio's lips, and part of Elio wanted to blush as well.

It was a heady thing, to have an impact on someone's life even when you are no longer a part of it. To exist in somebody's thoughts, their actions, a parallel you sprouting to life in someone's mind. He wondered if Oliver felt it too, if he even had any idea of the way he'd lived on inside Elio.

Elio looked away, his eyes spanning the room around him again, safer than sinking deep into Oliver's gaze, where he might never resurface, and his eyes fell to Oliver's desk pushed up below the window. Sitting on top of it, nestled among neat stacks of papers and books, was a small photo frame. Elio stepped closer. He picked it up, and smiled.

"You kept it," Elio said. He wondered if Oliver sat there sometimes with his gaze upon the berm, and would picture the two of them back there, lounging by the water, limbs entwined, mouths on each other's skin. Every time Elio had gone back to the spot — which he hadn't even been able to face, that first summer without Oliver, not until the last few days before he had been due to fly out to the States — he had felt the echoes of Oliver's presence permeating the water, the grass, the sky itself above him.

"I kept it." His voice was soft, and when Elio gazed back at him, Oliver was watching him with a tender expression.

Setting the picture back in its rightful place with a kind of reverence, Elio turned and joined Oliver in the doorway, stepping into his personal space and gazing back up at him. They stayed like that for one quiet moment, eyes on each other, until Oliver wrapped his arms around Elio and pulled him into an embrace. Elio smiled against Oliver's chest as he tightened his grip around Oliver's broad back. He smelled of sweat and cologne — not the same one he had worn before, when Elio would press his nose against Oliver's skin and breathe deep — but beneath it, there were hints of the scent Elio remembered, the scent that had taken up a permanent place in Elio's mind the first night he had slept with Oliver's naked body curled against him.

"Did you want to—"

"Yes," Elio said without hesitation, raising his head to meet Oliver's gaze, and Oliver grinned back down at him, before he dipped his head for Elio to reach his lips.

It was a soft kiss, at first, the way they always started out. A brush of lips, a playful flick of a tongue, and, when they could deny themselves no longer, sealing their mouths together and tasting each other in earnest. Elio tightened his grip in Oliver's shirt, rumpling the once neatly pressed cotton beneath his fingers, his other hand sliding upwards to similarly muss Oliver's hair, a tangible sign that Elio had left his mark. Oliver was doing the same to him, fingers tangling in Elio's curls, his hand sliding beneath the hem of his t-shirt to splay against the skin of Elio's hips, and Elio was hard in his jeans already, pushing his hips against Oliver's thigh to let him feel it. He moaned into Elio's mouth, and abruptly ended the kiss.

"Let me take a shower first," said Oliver. There was a hint of breathlessness to his voice already, and Elio's cock gave an impatient throb. But he had waited five years to be here with Oliver again; he could survive another few minutes.

Elio nodded and forced himself out from the beguiling circle of Oliver's embrace. "Hey," he called after Oliver as he headed across the hall to the bathroom, "do you mind if I use your phone quickly?"

"It's beside the couch." He disappeared into the bathroom without bothering to close the door behind him. The sound of the water running quickly followed, and it was all Elio could do to keep from following Oliver into the bathroom and joining him.

Instead he turned to head back across the living room towards the phone, and dialled his friend's number. She wouldn't be home yet, but hopefully she had an answering machine. Sure enough, it clicked on after a few rings.

Elio had never talked about his and Oliver's relationship with his friends in the States. To those who had never met Oliver, never spent time basking in his presence that summer, it would perhaps be difficult to understand how in only six weeks he could have had such a profound effect on Elio. Certainly it was more than he could explain to an answering machine, so Elio kept things brief. He'd be bombarded with questions later, he was sure, but hopefully he would know what to say by then.

He hung up and turned back to inspect Oliver's bookcases, making note of which books he had also read and which he had never even heard of, and after a few minutes Oliver returned, still rubbing at his hair with a towel. He had changed into some shorts and a t-shirt. Elio looked him up and down appreciatively.

"Now you look more like you."

"The tan needs a little work."

"I like it."

As if half the length of Oliver's modest living room was too great a distance to be parted, Elio stepped back towards Oliver and they fell easily into another kiss, a lazy familiarity to it like he imagined couples who had been together for decades experienced, and the thought thrilled him almost as much as the taste of Oliver on his tongue. Before Elio could even catch his breath once they had reluctantly untangled themselves from one another, Oliver was taking him by the hand and leading him out into the hallway, towards the only closed door leading off from it.

It was dark in Oliver's bedroom, the curtains drawn to keep out the heat, and as Oliver crossed the room to switch on the bedside lamp and cast the space in soft light, Elio took a seat on the edge of the bed. The sheets were soft beneath his palms.

"Are you sure about this?" Oliver said. His voice was barely more than a whisper. He was staring down at Elio, eyes gentle but serious, his hand sliding a soothing touch through Elio's hair. Elio wanted nothing more than to bury his face against Oliver's warm skin and lap up the touch.

"I've never been so sure of anything."

He pressed his lips to Oliver's stomach, flat and firm beneath the fabric of his t-shirt, and his hands brushed over Oliver's thighs, his crotch — not as hard as Elio was, but well on his way — before pulling Oliver's shorts down over the swell of his ass.

The noise Oliver made when Elio rubbed at his cock through his boxer shorts would have been enough to make Elio come, had he ever been fortunate enough to hear it during one of those anguished nights where he'd laid wide awake and achingly hard, imagining the face Oliver made when he came, what his cum would taste like on Elio's tongue. As it was, his body throbbed with renewed pleasure at the sweet sound. He needed to hear it again.

Before he could lean forward and act on that desire, though, Oliver caught his shoulders, guiding Elio back onto the mattress as he moved to lie at Elio's side. They kissed again, a soft brush of Oliver's lips against his that melted into another kiss, and another, as if they had all the time in the world to relearn one another's bodies.

And as they lay there entwined, Elio was glad for it. Now that the initial, heady rush of arousal had settled a little, the desire to feel Oliver against him, inside him, however Oliver would have him, had dampened from its fever pitch, replaced by the urge to glide his fingers over every inch of Oliver's skin, to feel it beneath his lips, to study all of him as if Elio never had seen him before. His fingers worked at the hem of Oliver's shirt, steering it up and off, and he ran his hand down Oliver's chest.

Oliver covered Elio's hand with his own. He was smiling when Elio looked up at his face.

"I never thought it would be this easy," Oliver said, his fingers stroking Elio's skin as if they had never left it. "It feels right, being here with you again."

Elio propped his chin on Oliver's chest, curls of soft hair tickling the sensitive underside of his jaw. As soon as Oliver met his eyes Elio saw it, the knowledge dawning that they both felt the same, a current passing between them where their bodies touched.

"It's like you still have a piece of me," agreed Elio. Perhaps Oliver always would. And perhaps Elio had held on to a piece of Oliver all these years in exchange, keeping it warm and protected inside him, nourishing it as if it was a part of him. Like they had each plugged the gap inside themselves with one another, and now that they were together again they had found that missing piece they had given away. But if this was to be the only time they would have this, just once more for old times' sake before going back to their own lives again, no space for one another within them, Elio would still hold that scrap of Oliver with him, and let Oliver keep him in turn.

Oliver hummed, and curled his arm tighter around Elio's shoulders. It was like embracing the sun, being wrapped in Oliver's arms, pressed against his warm, strong chest, his touch healing and nourishing and constant. His fingers tightened in the fabric of Elio's t-shirt, as if remembering that Elio was still fully dressed, and, with a brief press of his lips against Elio's, Oliver steered Elio onto his knees and slid Elio's t-shirt up his torso. He left Elio to pull it over his head, distracted by the appearance of Elio's stomach above him. His hands were so soft on Elio's skin it almost tickled, so reverential that part of Elio wanted to shy away from the touch, overwhelmed by the thought that Oliver could still feel so strongly for him.

"You're so beautiful," he said. He sounded more like he was musing to himself than speaking to Elio. Elio wasn't sure he could find the words to fully convey his depth of feeling in response anyway.

Instead he stroked his fingers through Oliver's hair while Oliver busied himself pushing Elio's jeans down for him to wriggle out of, and he lay back down over Oliver, their chests pressed together as they wound their arms around one another again. Elio's heart was beating so fast Oliver could probably feel it against his own chest. He buried his face in the crook of Oliver's neck and kissed the smooth skin there, but despite the arousal still coursing through him, he was content to remain as they were for a while, letting his lust thrum in the background, holding Oliver and being held in turn. He was going to commit every moment of this to memory. He dragged his hand gently down Oliver's neck, along his collarbone, like he needed to touch every inch of him to make sure he was still his Oliver.

"Have you ever called someone else Elio?"

The question was sudden, but somehow it didn't come as a surprise.

"No," Elio said against Oliver's skin.

How could he? That was his and Oliver's; no-one else's. Whatever other parts of their relationship had become public knowledge, that one thing would always be something only the two of them had shared. No-one else could be called Elio because no-one but Oliver was; no-one else had shaped him the way Oliver had.

"I have."

Elio straightened. It was harder to breathe suddenly, like the air had fled the room, or Elio had been pulled deep underwater without his noticing. The sharp edges of betrayal tore at his insides. If Oliver had shared that with somebody else, surely it couldn't have meant anything to him, not like it meant the world to Elio. He swallowed, and forced himself to breathe through the tension gripping him. "You called someone Oliver?"

"No. I called him Elio. It didn't go down well."

And just like that, it was gone. Oliver grinned back at him, perhaps not quite as abashed as he was trying to look, and Elio laughed. He laughed at the thought, and laughed with relief, and laughed as a swell of satisfaction blossomed in his chest because Oliver had been thinking of him, only him, even when somebody else had taken the place Elio had once filled underneath the canvas of Oliver's naked body.

They kissed again, deeper than before, and Elio nudged at the waistband of Oliver's boxer shorts, teasing them down. The flutter of anticipation that had settled into a quiet comfort in his belly returned as they worked each other's underwear down their legs. It was a slow process, neither of them eager to pull away from one another to simply remove the offending articles in one swift tug, but that was okay. It was worth the wait to feel the press of Oliver's cock against his skin again.

But they didn't do anything more than kiss yet, and when they drifted from each other's lips Elio resumed his position curled against Oliver's side, his eyes travelling down newly exposed skin. There was nowhere for them to hide from one another now, and only one place this was going. Elio's body thrummed and began to harden once again at the prospect.

"I haven't been with another Jewish man since you," said Elio.

His hand grazed over the planes of Oliver's stomach to reach his cock. The pad of his thumb stroked along the scar that matched Elio's own, a sign of the bond between them that could never be broken, like the Star of David that hung around each of their necks. Elio eyed the delicate golden amulet resting among Oliver's chest hair, and wondered if it was the same one he'd worn back then, the one Elio had spent so many hours gazing at; the one he'd held between his teeth with his body pressed naked to Oliver's; the one he'd clutched tight until it had left sharp indents in his palm when Oliver would fuck into him so deeply, so beautifully, that Elio had needed something tangible besides the weight of Oliver's cock inside him to keep him tethered to reality.

"You haven't?" Oliver said. The words drew Elio's mind back to the present.

Elio looked back up at him. "Does that surprise you?"

"I suppose I always expected you'd go off and travel the world, have passionate love affairs with every type of person one could imagine." Oliver was gazing up at the ceiling in contemplation as he spoke, brows gently furrowed, and after a moment met Elio's eyes again. "Do all the things I was too afraid to ever do."

It was hard to imagine Oliver ever being afraid of anything, so confident, so self-aware. But being aware of your own limits doesn't mean you don't have any, Elio supposed. And as he looked up at Oliver, looked into him, he could see a shadow of that doubt in his eyes. Perhaps he worried that this was too good to be true, like part of Elio did, that they'd open old wounds with no way of patching them up again. He stretched up and kissed Oliver, as if Elio could erase every spectre of fear within him with just the press of his lips.

It seemed to be working, at least. As Elio's tongue slipped into Oliver's mouth, Oliver wrapped his arm around Elio's waist and pulled him on top of Oliver's torso again, bodies pressed together from collarbone to thighs, their hard cocks brushing against one another.

"I want you," Oliver said. As if to make his meaning clear, he spread his thighs beneath Elio.

The way Oliver looked up at him, eyes wide and his expression so, so open, it was all Elio could do to keep his hips from snapping forward right then.

He nodded, eagerly — too eagerly, maybe; this was hardly a new experience for him, after all, yet he felt perhaps even more excited for it this time than he had the first — and moved back to let Oliver gather what they needed.

Oliver leant over the edge of the bed to reach for something underneath it, and Elio ran his hand up the length of one strong, warm, perfect thigh, and over the swell of his ass. The thought of being buried between those round cheeks threatened to overwhelm Elio before they even got started. He squeezed the base of his cock to keep himself in check. But the draw of Oliver's ass right there to enjoy sucked him back, and again his hand fell to it, rubbing over it before landing a playful slap.

Oliver's entire body shook with laughter. Elio wanted to drape himself over Oliver, to feel it vibrate through his own body as if it was one with Oliver's. "Impatient?" Oliver said, raising his head to peer back over his shoulder at Elio.

"Yes." He'd been waiting years for this.

But if Elio was burning with the need to feel Oliver against his skin, Oliver was just as eager. With a huff he slid onto the floor to get a better look under the bed, ass in the air. Elio craned his neck to peer into the mirror in the opposite corner for a better view.

"Stop staring," Oliver said without looking up. Elio could hear the smile in his voice. "Pervert."

"Then hurry up."

"I would love to."

"How much junk do you have under there?" said Elio. The rest of Oliver's apartment, from what Elio had seen, was the kind of meticulously tidy that suggested either the place was barely lived in, only Oliver's books seeming to be disturbed with any frequency, or that Oliver was even more scrupulous when it came to cleaning than Mafalda; perhaps this was where his cleanliness reached its limits, where the things he couldn't find a specific place for ended up thrown and forgotten. It seemed Oliver's romantic life had been one of those forgotten things lately.

"Are you criticising my housekeeping skills, Perlman?"

"I am criticising your housekeeping skills." Another few seconds of frustrated rummaging and Elio gave a long, melodramatic groan. "You're doing this on purpose."

"I promise you, I'm not."

He made a triumphant noise with his head still under the bed, and finally returned with a small box in his hand. There was a thin layer of dust covering the top. A sudden thought had Elio pushing up onto his elbows, heart racing.

"You don't have anything, do you?"

Oliver looked up at him, understanding in his eyes. "It's okay," he said. The smile on his face was as tender as his voice.

Elio nodded, and let himself breathe again. "Me too."

From the box Oliver pulled a pot of petroleum jelly, and Elio peered over the lid to try and see what else was inside. He wasn't sure what he was expecting; toys, perhaps, a glimpse into Oliver's private desires, ones he had never even shared with Elio during those giddy nights whispering their thoughts and fantasies against one another's naked skin. Oliver closed the box before Elio could sneak a glimpse. He slid it back under the bed, climbing up to rejoin Elio. That was enough to dislodge those thoughts from Elio's mind.

He let himself be pulled back against Oliver, hands falling to one another's bodies with a heady inevitability as Elio pressed his hips to Oliver's like a promise. Elio slipped his hand between them, but before he could graze his fingers over Oliver's entrance, Oliver caught him by the wrist.

"I haven't done this with anybody else," he said, circling the delicate skin of Elio's inner wrist with his thumb while he spoke. "Not since you and I..." He trailed off, as if there were no words to accurately convey what they had been to one another.

Elio didn't know if it was a simple admission, or Oliver's way of saying 'please, Elio; please be gentle with me.' "Why?" he said, as he removed his hand and pressed it to Oliver's flat belly, a soothing touch. His lips brushed along the side of Oliver's neck, and he lifted his head again to meet Oliver's gaze.

His face was thoughtful beneath Elio's. "I don't know. Maybe I thought it would feel like I was replacing you."

"I'm not the first man who's fucked you," said Elio.

"No. But you were the first who really meant something."

Those words went through Elio like wildfire. He pressed forward and kissed Oliver again; his lips first, flicking his tongue into Oliver's mouth and already thinking of being inside him elsewhere, then his jawbone, his neck, his chest, his stomach. If he had a lifetime to spare he would devote it wholly to worshipping every inch of Oliver's body with his lips.

Elio slipped lower, and finally paused. He was nestled between Oliver's thighs, his cock hard and enticing mere inches from Elio's face. Oliver would love it if Elio took it into his mouth, and Elio wanted to; he wanted to feel its weight and its heat on his tongue once more, wanted to taste when Oliver climaxed inside him, greater than any other intimacy that they could share. But an idea was forming in Elio's mind, something they had never done to one another before, something he would have never dared to do back then. He dipped his head.

At the first smooth glide of Elio's tongue, Oliver's body tensed all around him, a gasp shuddering into the still air of the bedroom. "Where did you learn to do that?" said Oliver, pushing himself up onto his elbows to gaze down at Elio. There was something akin to awe on his face.

"Did you like it?"

Oliver stared back at him for a moment, then: "Do it again."

In that moment, Elio could think of nothing in this life or any other that he would rather do. He added more pressure this time, working his way inside slowly just as he would with his fingers, breathing in the fresh, clean scent of Oliver's skin as Oliver quaked under the attention. He let out a huff of nervous laughter, and another.

"Stop squirming," Elio said against Oliver's thigh, one hand pressed against his stomach to try to keep him in place. "I'm trying to concentrate."

"I can't help it." But he clapped a hand over his mouth to try and keep his laughter under control, and Elio dipped his head back between Oliver's legs. By the time Elio had slid a wet finger inside, the only sounds creeping unchecked from Oliver's lips were moans.

He wasn't sure how long he spent buried in the press of Oliver's legs. Somehow it felt like forever and not nearly enough time all at once. "Are you ready?" Elio gasped finally, his chest rising and falling almost as fast as Oliver's while he sucked down great mouthfuls of the air he had forsaken between Oliver's thighs, and he withdrew his fingers from Oliver's clenching body.

"God," said Oliver, eyes still closed in ecstasy, "yes."

The need to press inside with all the eagerness of long absence pulsed within every cell of Elio's being, but he forced himself to pause, to breathe, to let the true weight of this moment sink in. The fantasies of reuniting with Oliver that had spilled aching and wet from Elio during those nights consumed by fevered loneliness had not prepared him for the real thing. His heart beat a desperate rhythm in his chest as he knelt back and allowed Oliver to slowly, meticulously coat him with lubricant, the first touch of his hands on Elio's cock in a lifetime, and when Oliver sank back against the mattress he pulled Elio down with him. Curled together, each other's darkened, hungry eyes all they could see, as if there was nothing beyond this perfect universe they had created between their bodies, Elio took a shaking hand to his cock and steered himself inside.

Not even breath passed between them as Elio sank with cautious thrusts deeper into the heat of Oliver's body, until finally, as if whatever strength to weather the moment Oliver had possessed had fled, he let his eyes fall closed and dropped his head back to the pillow. Elio had to bite his lip to hold back a groan himself. Even with ample preparation, Oliver was tight around Elio as he eased all the way into him, the way Oliver had never let anyone else in all this time. He wondered if Oliver had felt a similar sense of responsibility the first time he and Elio had slept together.

"You've grown," Oliver said. His fingertips brushed gently along the backs of Elio's arms as they both took a moment to grow used to the sensation of being so intimately entwined.

"Maybe you're just misremembering."

"Never."

"Are you sure? No-one's mind is as it used to be in their old age."

"You know what? For that remark—" Oliver said, and his hands grabbed at Elio's sides, fingers scrabbling against his skin. A laugh bubbled up from Elio's chest as he wormed away from them.

"No, don't tickle me!"

"That's what you get." He followed Elio as he tried and failed to wriggle out of his grasp, until Elio was on his back beneath Oliver, breathless from laughing, Oliver's hands clasped over his own and pinning them to the mattress. Elio's heart thudded insistently against his ribs. He wasn't sure it was from the sudden burst of movement.

"Well, how about that?" Oliver said, eyeing Elio's hands held down beneath him with a grin, and the look on his face, one of a cat about to toy with the mouse in its clutches, made Elio's heart rate quicken further still. Only Oliver could make the prospect of being devoured so appealing. If Oliver could use Elio up completely, have him sink into Oliver's body and empty himself until there was nothing left, Elio would consider it a good way to go.

Oliver settled himself back down on Elio's cock and leant forward, draping himself over Elio's body. They kissed deeply, and slowly, and Oliver's movements matched their kiss, the tentative kind of almost-thrusts one made when acquainting themselves with another's body. But they were both old friends with this feeling, and soon Oliver was pushing back against Elio's cock as if their bodies had never been parted. His fingers threaded with Elio's, and despite his desire to watch every moment unfold across Oliver's face, Elio closed his eyes before the myriad sensations could overwhelm him. There was something about holding hands while making love, something somehow more intimate than entering someone else's body. He'd never done it with anyone but Oliver.

"Don't pull back," Oliver said after a few moments, when Elio thrust deep into him. He reached back to grip Elio's thigh, holding him in place, and Elio's muscles tensed as Oliver smiled down at him. He squeezed around Elio, just a little, and slowly, barely even moving, circled his hips against Elio's still pressed tight against his, Elio's name on his tongue as if he couldn't quite believe it was him beneath him.

"Oliver," Elio gasped, an exhale more than a word, like Oliver had become Elio's breath, filled every part of him. He could come like this, not even moving, just luxuriating in the feel of Oliver encircling him. He dragged his fingertips up and down Oliver's back, and they breathed together, foreheads touching, stretching out this moment of transcendence for as long as they could before their more urgent needs could reclaim them.

It didn't take long, the grinding of their hips picking up speed as Elio's blood ran as liquid fire once again. His mouth wandering across Oliver's damp skin, they rolled over in one smooth movement, Oliver's thighs pressing firm and warm against Elio's flanks. Oliver groaned, deep and brazen and perfect, when Elio's fingernails pressed into the meat of them.

Like taking a match to gasoline, that sound sparked something within Elio, his aching yearning for Oliver's body consuming upper thought and pushing him to move faster, deeper, angling himself to send electric pleasure rippling through Oliver's body with each desperate thrust. Oliver had done the same to him too many times to count. With an abrupt, searing intensity, Elio prayed he would do it again one day.

"I've missed you so much," said Oliver. The words were a whisper against Elio's skin, so quiet Elio wasn't sure he was meant to have heard them, and he pushed himself back from the heat of Oliver's embrace just enough to peer down at him. Oliver was trying to retain his composure but failing, his head thrust back among the pillows, neck bared, and his chest heaving. His thighs tensed and shook on either side of Elio's body as they continued to roll their hips in tandem, the noises slipping from his mouth growing louder; a symphony of moans, to which Elio was both conductor and enraptured audience.

"I missed you, too."

Elio didn't know whose name he was moaning into the charged air between them as they curled around each other once again, his own or Oliver's. He was lost in the noises Oliver was making beneath him, the soft keens, whispered praise, the pleas for more. Elio would have done anything Oliver asked of him in that moment, and perhaps every other since the very minute he had watched Oliver step out of the car outside his parents' house. Nothing would be too much trouble, in exchange for everything Oliver had given to Elio. He wanted to make Oliver feel as good as Oliver was making him feel.

He slid his hand along Oliver's thigh locked against Elio's hip, his thumb digging in to Oliver's hipbone as if to say 'yes, it's me here with you and you here with me, and all is right again for as long as this moment lasts.' A small smile flitted across Oliver's lips, and he reached down to brush the back of Elio's hand on him with his fingers, before Elio moved from Oliver's hip to his cock, sliding warm and wet and rigid with his need against Elio's stomach with their every movement. Oliver cursed when Elio started stroking him in earnest.

"Are you close?" Elio gasped against Oliver's skin, and Oliver opened his eyes to look up at him.

"Do you need to come?"

Elio nodded, as if he was too lost to the sensation now to form any words beside Oliver's name.

"Do it."

He pressed his hands against Elio's ass, holding him close and leaving no room for doubt as to his meaning. Elio's body throbbed with the thought, hips moving faster, spurred on by the prospect of marking Oliver so intimately.

His orgasm came soon after, pulsing hot through him as he dropped his head to Oliver's chest and let Oliver cradle him through it. He made no move to unwind his arms from Elio's shoulders even as Elio caught his breath and returned his attentions to bringing Oliver to his own climax. Elio was hardly about to dislodge himself, though. He could think of nothing better than the two of them coming in each other's arms.

It was only after Oliver had spilled between them with a soft sound that Elio would cherish in the deepest parts of himself forever that the two of them peeled free of one another, but even then they remained close enough to touch, to glide their palms over each other's sweat-soaked bodies, heedless to the heat of the room. Elio slid his hand along the inside of Oliver's thigh, and grinned at the feel of himself between Oliver's legs. Before Oliver could get up to clean himself off — perhaps even to keep him from doing so for a little longer, reluctant to see the evidence of their lovemaking disappear — Elio curled against Oliver's side again. He pressed a tender kiss to Oliver's chest, felt his fingers thread into Elio's hair as Elio clutched at him.

"You trying to crush me?"

"Just making sure you're really here," Elio said. He gave Oliver one more tight squeeze for good measure, and gazed up at his face. "How are you?"

"I'm okay."

"You don't sound sure." He didn't look sure either, staring up at the ceiling, his brow furrowed.

He gave a surprised hum and snapped out of his apparent reverie to meet Elio's eyes. "It's nothing," he said, and he looked back up at the ceiling. "I'd always assumed that if I was ever with you again, it would just make me feel like I was back in that summer in Italy. I can't think back to that time in my life without being reminded of you. I didn't know if the reverse would be true as well."

Elio nodded. Part of him had wondered if it would feel like a trip down memory lane and nothing more, and he hadn't been certain if he would feel comforted or terrified by that. But there'd been no nostalgia, no sense that he was reliving a past he'd outgrown. It had felt like coming home.

"I still feel like myself," Elio agreed. But a better version of himself, perhaps; the person he was now, just with Oliver at his side.

"I'm glad."

"I don't want this to be just a one-time thing, Oliver." It seemed an impossible desire, to have Oliver again, to be free of the constraints of one too-short summer, but why should it be? They were both here, only a train ride between them once Elio returned to college. Maybe it wouldn't be so difficult.

"Neither do I," said Oliver. "But you know we can't just pick up right where we left off."

Elio raised his eyebrows. Their naked bodies were still pressed tight against one another, covered in sweat and each other's release. Oliver laughed in response.

"Starting now," he said.

"I know," said Elio. Five years was a long time to be parted, to build someone up into a rose-tinted ideal to which the reality could never hope to compare, but if he tried hard enough, maybe he could forget the dream Oliver that lived on in a summer that never ended in his mind, and get to know the one lying there beside him. "So what happens now?"

Oliver glanced towards the window, the bright, early evening sunshine still seeping in through the tiny gap in the curtains. He met Elio's eyes again. "Do you have plans for dinner?"

Elio smiled, and, as if on cue, or perhaps just the post-coital haze was beginning to fade away enough for him to feel his own body again, he noticed the hollow feeling in his stomach, the kind that would soon give way to deep rumbles that would no doubt make Oliver cackle with delight. He shook his head, and stretched upwards to dance his tongue over Oliver's lips and taste him.

They made no attempt to move just yet, though, still enjoying the tranquillity encompassing them. There seemed to be a kind of lightness in the air, a sense of a future, that they had not shared back then when their time had been so painfully limited. Elio smiled at the thought that they could do things properly this time.

"It'll never be like it was," he said after a long, comfortable moment, and Oliver's fingers squeezed at his shoulder, in reassurance, perhaps, or lamentation.

"Is that what you want? For it to be how it was?"

Elio thought back, to the dizzying highs and the crushing lows, the joy and the uncertainty, the two of them living in their own little private bubble in the Italian countryside, away from everything but each other. "No," he said. "I want something real."

"Something real," repeated Oliver, like he was mulling the concept over.

"Do you think we can do it?"

Oliver looked back at him. His eyes were as warm and as deep as the waters in which they had gone swimming together so many times that summer a lifetime ago. A soft smile spread across his face.

"I think we can do it."