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From Crema to Pemberley

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July 2015

Crema, Italy

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that summers should be enjoyed out in the sunshine, not inside, nose buried in books.

That's what Elio Perlman’s mother kept telling him, but Elio could not have cared less. He relished immersing himself in the worlds between pages and at most, sharing them with his best friend Marzia or the dearest of his many cousins, Jane.

While the other young people in the tiny Italian town of Crema preferred to spend their days swimming, dancing, and generally soaking up the summer, Marzia and Jane didn’t require Elio to be around people if he wasn’t up for it. The three of them had been inseparable since they were kids, and the girls were perfectly content just reading alongside Elio on his bed or listening to him play.

Yes, Elio also played the piano. He loved to play, took lessons with a teacher in Crema while dreaming of going to Juilliard, and wanted to do it professionally one day.

His parents greatly encouraged him, because it drew him out of his room. Unlike reading, playing piano could be done in company, for an audience like his aunts and uncles and cousins who were always happy to hear him play the grand piano in the living room of the Perlman villa.

Elio knew his mother only meant well when she tried to persuade him to socialize more. Since he was an only child, she did not want him to be a lonely eighteen-year-old when there were so many people his age in town during the summers.

In the winter, Crema was quiet with only local families around, but at the beginning of every summer season, Elio’s cousins arrived from London and Sicily to stay with them. Jane always came with her two younger sisters Kitty and Mary and their parents to escape the stress of London, whereas Lucia came on her own. Her parents, who were grew lemons and other fruit in a small town in Sicily, could not leave the farm, but they wanted their only daughter to enjoy her summers. Thus, Lucia was sent to the Perlman villa to spend her vacation in the company of her cousins.

Similarly, the other villas in Crema became populated with their summer guests, and to complete the busy atmosphere, a group of American exchange students descended to the tiny town every July.

 

 

On the first Saturday of July, Elio and his mother once again had the same conversation.

“Jane is going out too, why don’t you go with her,” Annella Perlman encouraged her son, lovingly raking her fingers through his hair while he slouched on the couch.

Elio had just finished reading the biography of the composer Bach and he decided it might be easier to just humor his mother, so he went upstairs to change his faded t-shirt into a nicer polo shirt, yelling to Jane that he’d meet her outside in five minutes.

When Elio was ready, his dark curls seemingly arranged but just as wild and unruly as ever, he found Jane by the gate as agreed. She stood there with their bikes, fiddling with her long blond braid while she waited for Elio. Jane was always on time, ready to please everyone, but she was also shy, so she was especially happy that Elio was coming with her tonight.

 

 

Of the few bars in Crema, Sotto Campo was the one that everyone went to. It was the nicest, by local standards at least, and had the biggest outdoor patio, perfect for summer nights and dancing. Little string lights were hung on the wooden pillars and beams, which made the scene quite charming, especially after the sun had set and the evening got darker.

When Elio and Jane arrived at Sotto Campo, most of the outdoor tables were already populated, as usual. It was a warm night of an even warmer day, and no one wanted to be inside.

Luckily Marzia noticed them and waved her best friend and his cousin over to the table where she was already sitting with a couple of other girls.

Marzia also proceeded to promptly inform Elio and Jane that the first group of this year’s exchange students had supposedly arrived in Crema that morning and that she had heard that they might be coming to Sotto Campo tonight.

“I wonder what kind of people they turn out to be this year. Or if there are any boys in the group,” Jane said.  She knew they would have a boring summer ahead of them if there weren’t any.

It had long been the pastime of the girls of Crema to enjoy flirting with the young Americans during the sun-drenched weeks of July. And ever since it had become clear that Elio, too, was more interested in the American boys than the American girls, he had been more than welcome to join in on their giggling conversations.

Thus far however, both Elio and Jane had mostly settled for admiring the handsome foreigners from afar. Jane because of her reserved nature, and Elio because he had simply not found anyone to be interesting enough. No one had cared to discuss Ovid with him or wanted to hear about the elements that Busoni’s compositions had in common with Sibelius’ style.

It was a pity, really, since Elio and Jane were some of the few in Crema who actually spoke fluent English. Their Italian mothers were sisters who had both married men from abroad; Elio’s mother an American and Jane’s mother a Briton.

“If there are any boys this year, I’m sure they will all fall in love with you, Jane,” Elio said and warmly kissed his cousin on her cheek.

Ever since Jane had been a child, she had been considered the beauty of the family with her flaxen hair and creamy complexion, but instead of letting it get to her head, she rather needed the extra boost of confidence every now and then. Elio, who considered her more a sister than a cousin, was happy to give her that.

“And if they don’t, then I know nothing about beauty,” Elio added.

“Or those boys,” Jane laughed.

“Oh, boys can be stupid, for sure,” Elio smirked.

“You know, you say stuff like that now, Elio, but just wait. One day someone interesting will actually show up, and then you’ll have to watch your comments,” Jane warned.

Elio had a quick tongue and even quicker wit, which under the right circumstances could make him quite charming, but Jane knew that he was also easily misunderstood by people who didn’t get his sarcasm.

 

 

It took about an hour and a half, but then two American-looking boys and one girl, all in their early twenties, weaved through the crowd at the gate. Two with auburn hair and one with a golden swoop that almost fell on his forehead, they stopped to look around and marvel at this little local gathering.

It was certainly different from their usual nights out on the East Coast in the States. The patio was not paved, leaving them to get their shoes all dusty, and the bar was barely more than just a stand outside, manned by one bartender who seemed to occasionally take on other duties as well. Whenever the breaks in the lively music allowed, loud Italian shouts and chatter filled the air.

Oliver Darcy had his best friend Charlie Bingley and Charlie’s twin sister Caroline with him, but he still felt a little like a fish out of water here. He was more used to the upscale nightclubs in Manhattan and in the Hamptons, with VIP rooms and bottle service. Places where everyone eyed each other on the basis of who they knew and how they could benefit from them were the norm for him. Whereas here, people seemed to fetch their own beers from the bar and no one seemed to care how they were perceived and instead, were simply having fun.

All eyes were on Oliver and the Bingley twins when they arrived, and Oliver heard the whispers around them but only understood the words studenti di scambio, exchange students.

“I had my reservations about whether I was going to enjoy this summer and I must say, this scene doesn’t necessarily reassure me,” Oliver commented.

At least these weeks in Europe would result in him getting the required course credits for his class back in Columbia University, but that might be the only upside of this trip. This tiny town wasn’t quite what he had expected when Charlie had suggested the idea of coming to Italy for the exchange portion of their classes.

Charlie, on the other hand, was delighted. “Just wait Darcy, this will be fun.”

Hailing from upstate New York, Charlie always flourished in small town atmospheres even if they were less affluent than what he was used to. Even now, he was excitedly looking around in the crowd.

Oliver was looking around, too, but with far less enthusiasm. At least up until he noticed a boy with dark, curly hair standing by the bar, in a cerulean blue polo shirt and loose-fitting jeans. The boy glanced back at Oliver, but it wasn’t the kind of look Oliver was used to. The boy’s eyes bore inside him, not caring for one moment about Oliver’s face or clothes that he usually was judged on, or more often, appreciated for.

The stare made Oliver uncomfortable.

Thankfully the boy got his drinks from the bar quickly and left before Oliver, Charlie, and Caroline got close enough to order theirs.

How had the boy been so skinny, even? Weren’t Italians supposed to be subsisting on pasta and bread and olive oil, basically? The curls, on the other hand; those Oliver could understand. It was so humid that his own carefully arranged golden head of hair was at constant risk of getting frizzy. Luckily it was nothing an extra dose of hair gel hadn’t solved.

While they waited for their beers, Charlie was leaning with his back against the counter and kept eyeing the local people. He nodded towards the table that was nearest to the open space acting as a dance floor.

”That girl is really pretty.”

Oliver handed the bartender his euro bills furrowing his brow – he was still trying to get the hang of which color was which denomination – and turned around to take a look. A girl with long blond hair in a braid hanging over her shoulder, kind eyes, a sweet smile.

“Yes, the prettiest one I’ve seen here so far,” Oliver agreed.

”I need to go talk to her,” Charlie decided.

Oliver handed Charlie one of the three beers and knew that this was typical of his friend. With his sunny outlook, Charlie would be at home anywhere, making friends instantly.

”Good luck,” Oliver said and clinked his beer against Charlie’s. ”Caroline and I will stay here and see how that goes for you.”

As Charlie approached the table, Oliver saw that the girl was sitting next to that skinny dark-haired boy from earlier, and the boy was now eyeing Charlie with suspicion. The girl seemed delighted, however, when Charlie sat down; her entire face beaming. Charlie was at a beginner’s level when it came to speaking Italian, so Oliver only hoped the girl knew some English. Not that Charlie’s winning smile wouldn’t have done the trick if needed.

 

 

A little while later, the dance floor filled with what must have been the top Italian hit of the week blaring from the speakers. Oliver and Caroline were deep in discussion about comparing this scene to the summer clubs in East Hampton, when Charlie came back to ask for a favor.

”I really want to dance with that girl, Jane – that’s her name – but I think she doesn’t want to leave her friend alone. Will you come and keep him company? He seems nice, and not too shabby-looking, either,” Charlie winked at Oliver.

Oliver groaned. Always the social butterfly himself, Charlie had been trying to pair Oliver off, too, with girls ever since they were in high school. When Oliver had finally told him that he was also into boys, Charlie had just been delighted that his reserve of people to fix Oliver up with had doubled.

Oliver didn’t have to turn to take another look at that boy to know that he would not enjoy his company.

”Sorry Charlie, but I don’t want to. That boy is so not my type. Too skinny, not cute enough to do anything for me, really.”

 

 

At the same time, Elio had gone with Marzia to refill their water jugs at the bar and he noticed that the tall one of the Americans was standing close by with his back turned to them. His friend Charlie had been to their table earlier, and Jane had been instantly charmed by him. Elio had found him nice but a bit naïve.

The tall American, whom he and Marzia had stealthily kept an eye on, intrigued Elio more.

Not like that, of course, just out of human curiosity. Not that he wasn’t gorgeous – even Elio had to admit that.

But he seemed reserved, and judgmental of everyone around him. He had a Greek god-like form as if he had been directly lifted from the stories of Olympos, but he looked miserable to be in Sotto Campo to begin with. He acted cold towards everyone, and Elio and Marzia had come to the conclusion that he must be exhausting to be around.

When Elio heard the tall American and Charlie now talking about Jane, and subsequently about a skinny boy at her table who wasn’t “cute enough to do anything” for the tall American, his demeanor steeled nevertheless.

It was one thing for Elio to think the foreigner was arrogant, but to hear himself being judged and dismissed by him like that?

Fine. At least the American had proved their suspicions of his character correct.

Marzia looked at Elio sympathetically.

“Look at the bright side. If he liked you, you’d have to talk to him.”

Elio laughed and agreed that he wouldn’t talk to him if they paid him.

“Okay, let’s get back to our table,” he hurried Marzia along, wanting to get away from the bar before the Americans would notice that he had heard them.

 

 

Soon, Charlie came back to their table to continue to flirt with Jane. Elio noted reluctantly that it warmed his heart to see how smitten they both looked already, despite having met each other no more than half an hour ago.

The other two Americans came over a little bit later, prompting Charlie to introduce them.

“Elio, Oliver. Oliver, Elio. And this is my sister, Caroline.”

Elio shook the tall American’s hand with the minimum amount of politeness he could get away with.

Oliver wasted no time making it clear he and Caroline were not going to sit down, they were only there to ask Charlie if they could leave soon.

“You should still reconsider,” Marzia commented. “Evenings like this are the best opportunities to get a feel for the town, as everyone is here.”

She had a point. During the days people were scattered around, all lounging at their respective villas or cooling off at the different swimming spots by the river.

“I don’t think I need to get a better feel for the town,” Oliver said dryly, “This evening has been plenty.”

“Usually the exchange students have felt more at home after they have made connections with the locals,” Elio interjected.

“So what would you recommend?” Oliver asked.

“Just trying to get to know them. Even if they aren’t cute enough to talk to.”

Elio saw Oliver’s eyes flash with a moment of recognition, and that was all he had wanted.

He had been bored anyway, so he left the table and never looked back, only texting Jane from outside the gate that he was going home.

 

Chapter Text

Next Saturday, Annella Perlman was pleased. It seemed to take a little less of an effort to get his son to go out with the other young people. She didn’t know what had caused the change, but didn’t care as long as it meant that Elio would be out spending time with his peers instead of reading alone in his room.

Ever since the previous week’s outing, Jane had gushed about the Americans, especially about the nice and sensible Charlie. First Elio had gotten an earful when Jane had gotten home that night as he was already about to go to bed, and it had continued at the family breakfast the next morning.

Both Jane’s mother and her little sisters Kitty and Mary, who had run into the exchange students at the grocery store, joined in on her praise of Charlie. The Bingleys and their friend were already the talk of the town and by now everyone was aware that they were far richer than the average summer students in Crema.

“And he was sooo cute and so nice! Did he really hang out with you all evening, Jane?”

“Yes, he did,” Elio affirmed for Jane, laughing while the girl herself blushed, shy but pleased.

The younger girls sighed with envy.

“We want to come next weekend, too,” whined the sixteen-year old Lucia.

Lucia had been sent to Crema to spend the summer with her cousins, because her parents could not leave their family farm in Sicily. Yet, she, Kitty, and Mary often felt left out at the villa. The five cousins had been close when they were kids, but at eighteen, Elio and Jane were not as interested in the younger ones’ activities anymore.

After much begging, Mrs Perlman and Jane’s mother agreed that the younger girls could go out with Elio and Jane, if they promised to be careful and be home by their curfew.

 

 

Thus, that evening Elio arrived at Sotto Campo with Marzia and his four cousins. They were all in high spirits, and even more excited when the Americans arrived again. Elio refused to admit it even to himself, but seeing the tall American – Oliver, was it? – did something to him. Too bad he was so rude.

The younger girls were overjoyed for the chance to be joining the others, and they took over the dance floor almost immediately. Especially the lively Lucia made the most of her opportunity to be out of the villa and talking to cute boys instead of having to settle for the company of her old aunts and uncles. In the process, she cared very little about what anyone might have thought of her.

Jane’s elation, however, mixed with anxiety when Charlie came over again to talk to her. As she was shy and not used to that kind of attention, she got nervous.

“I’m sure I’ll end up saying something stupid and he never wants to talk to me again,” she worried to Elio.

Elio tried his best to convince her. “You have nothing to worry about, just be yourself. He was pretty enchanted last week already.”

Still, to calm her nerves, Jane inadvertently ended up drinking more than necessary over the course of the evening. She looked like she was having fun, though, so Elio only kept an eye on her but mainly entertained himself for the rest of the evening.

Some of said entertainment included dancing, and if he happened to be closer to the side of the dance floor where the tall American was sitting, drinking his beer, it was only a coincidence. Elio honestly couldn’t have cared less, what a miserable entitled guy, probably sitting there just judging everyone, with his tanned, perfect muscles and shiny golden hair.

 

 

Caroline saw Oliver sitting next to the dance floor, eyes fixed on the dancers. He must have been bored out of his mind, she thought. She couldn’t believe Charlie had managed to persuade Oliver to come to Sotto Campo again after last week. This was such an understatement compared to their usual haunts, but maybe it was still better to be here than to be sitting alone at their apartment on a Saturday night.

Caroline slipped into the chair next to Oliver and with her voice dripping sarcasm commented that she could very well imagine what was going on in his head right now.

“I don’t think you can,” Oliver replied, barely taking his eyes off of Elio who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself on the dance floor.

“Let me guess. You are probably thinking how horrible it would be to spend your whole life here, having to do this every single Saturday night,” Caroline guessed with a laugh.

Oliver took a sip of his beer. “No, not really. I’ve been thinking how attractive it can be when someone knows how to dance.”

 

 

Elio left for home when he couldn’t locate Marzia anymore. She as well as Elio’s cousins must have left when he had been preoccupied with the ‘80s medley the DJ had been playing, he thought. He was still humming the tunes for the entire bike ride home.

Elio was just about to open the gate to the villa and drag his bike inside, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. A text from Jane.

I think I had too much to drink. Not feeling too good. I’m at Charlie’s place on Via Largo, the red building next to the ice cream place.”

Elio sighed.

He knew he should’ve paid closer attention to her. He also knew his mother – or Jane’s mother, for that matter – wouldn’t be happy in the morning if they found out that he had left her unattended with virtual strangers, so he pocketed his phone, closed the gate and hopped back on his bike.

 

 

Elio rode back to town as fast as he could, getting even sweatier in the process than he already had been after having spent most of the warm night on the dance floor. Based on Jane’s text it didn’t sound like she was in trouble, but better safe than sorry. Charlie had seemed nice, but you could never be certain and they hardly knew him, after all.

When he arrived in front of the red building on Via Largo, Elio heard noises from above.

The windows on the second floor were open and he thought he recognized one of the speaking voices as Charlie’s. He laid his bike against the wall and climbed upstairs. Swiping his sweaty forehead on his sleeve, Elio rang the doorbell.

Caroline came to the door. Elio could see over her shoulder into the apartment; it seemed very nice, upscale.

”Hi, is Jane here?”

”Hey Elio, yes, she is. Charlie thought she’d be safer here than trying to get home in the shape that she’s in.” Caroline’s words were friendly, but they were delivered in a cool tone.

Elio pushed past her and saw Jane lying on the couch, Charlie sitting next to her, perched on the edge of the coffee table.

There was a glass of water and a cup of coffee on the table, and Charlie’s kind eyes looked worried.

”Hi, Eeeeliooooo.” Jane extended her arms towards him and Elio bent down to hug her. She was clearly inebriated, but other than that, she seemed to be in one piece.

”Hey. I got your text. How are you doing?”

”I’m feeling awful, but thankfully these lovely gentlemen took me here.”

Jane patted Charlie’s knee and he looked at Elio apologetically. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that she was not that used to drinking.”

”What were you guys having?” Elio sighed. He hadn’t been in a situation like this with Jane before. They did drink when they went out, but always more responsibly than this.

”Just vodka shots, but maybe there were more of those than what would’ve been wise.”

”Yeah, hard liquor isn’t really her thing. But I’m sure she’ll be fine. I doubt she’ll be able to ride her bike home right now, though. So just give me a second and I’ll call a taxi and take her home with me.”

”With you?”

”Yeah, she and all my cousins are staying at our villa for the summer.”

Charlie thought for a moment. ”You know, why don’t you both stay here for the night. We have extra beds, this apartment was meant for a bigger group but now it’s just us. She can sober up and you can take her home tomorrow.”

Elio pondered the offer for a moment. Charlie and even Caroline seemed nice enough, and maybe this would be a better alternative than paying for a taxi all the way back to the villa, not to mention trying to then haul Jane up to her room without waking up the whole house.

”Okay, thanks. If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”

”Of course. It’s kind of my fault, anyway, so whatever I can do to help, you know. She can stay here on the couch so we don’t have to move her, and you can take my room. I can bunk with Oliver.”

Oliver?

As if on cue, the tall American appeared from the kitchen in nothing but sweatpants, holding a glass of water.

”Hi.”

”Hi.”

”Elio came to take Jane home,” Charlie explained. “But it’s probably best if they both stay here overnight so that she can sober up.”

”Sure.” Oliver took a gulp of his water and disappeared to his room.

 

 

After Oliver had realized that being around Elio could spell trouble for himself, he had tried his best to avoid him. And now that skinny boy had turned up at their apartment in the middle of the night, all disheveled and in soaking wet clothing, like someone had run their hands through his hair all night while giving him reasons to sweat.

Elio had bitten his lip when he had said hi to Oliver, and Oliver had seen the tip of his tongue quickly flick out and then back in. Elio’s shirt had been clinging to his back and Oliver would have gladly freed him from it. His damp curls had been plastered to his forehead and Oliver had wanted to reach and push them aside, but all of these were weird urges, weren’t they?

Oliver wondered how he was going to sleep, knowing that the boy was in the next room.

When Charlie came to take the spare bed in Oliver’s room, Oliver bid him goodnight quickly and turned towards the wall, bunching up the covers over his front. He didn’t want Charlie to get the wrong idea and think that his predicament had anything to do with him. He wanted to admit even less that the local skinny boy had any effect on him. Oliver dated boys from Ivy League schools in sport coats or girls with trust funds; not borderline rude, too-witty-for-their-own-good Italian boys.

 

 

In the morning, it turned out that Jane was still slightly drunk and only entering the worst phase of her hangover. Therefore, it was not an option for her and Elio to leave home as soon as the sun had come up as Elio had planned. Instead, they would have to stay longer at the apartment with Charlie, Caroline, and Oliver.

Elio had come there straight from their night out, so he didn’t have any entertainment with him. Luckily the place that the Americans had rented belonged to someone with an interest in literature and there were wall-to-wall bookshelves in more than one room of the apartment. Elio had already scanned them for possible pastime, since it looked like it would take the better part of the day to get Jane into a shape where she would not throw up every time she tried to get up.

The Americans hung out in the living room and they had moved Jane to Caroline’s room so that she could sleep and recuperate without the others bothering her. Elio had talked to Jane for a bit, and she seemed embarrassed that she had caused so much trouble, but Elio assured her it was fine.

“Thanks again for taking care of her last night and letting us stay here,” Elio said to Charlie as he walked back to the living room.

“No, it’s my pleasure. I mean, not that she’s feeling like that, of course, but that she’s here, feeling like that. I mean…”

Elio smiled to let Charlie know he understood him despite his babbling, and went to take a closer look at the largest bookshelf in the living room. He picked one book and curled up in the corner of the couch.

Oliver sat in an armchair across the room and pretended to scroll through his phone but observed Elio from the corner of his eye. Elio seemed weirdly at ease in their apartment and carried himself in a manner that looked much more mature compared to his eighteen-year-old peers, or even compared to himself or Charlie.

Caroline was painting her nails bright red next to Elio on the couch, and while she waited for the first coat to dry, she noticed Oliver glancing at their guest. It made her uneasy, and took attention away from her, which she especially didn’t appreciate.

Caroline liked having Oliver around and to an extent, had grown to consider him hers.

Her feelings towards his twin brother’s childhood friend had inevitably changed around the time they had grown into their teens, and as the kid who used to pull her hair had turned into a handsome young man. Caroline was in no rush though, and she kept waiting for Oliver to get through his dating phase and realize that what he truly wanted, was to become Charlie’s brother-in-law.

She had been patient, and so far it had been easy to be nonchalant when Oliver had brought girls around, or boys, for that matter. He hadn’t seemed serious about any of them, so Caroline had never really had to worry. However, there was something in the way Oliver kept looking at Elio that made her wonder.

“Why are you on your phone, Oliver, we have guests,” she started, flipping her curly auburn locks.

“I’m taking care of my emails,” Oliver replied.

“You always have emails. Are they for the business stuff?”

“Yes.“

“How boring! Come on, it’s Sunday.”

“If one is in training to take over the family company, one can’t really ever take a day off. Besides, these are from Saturday, it’s barely midnight in New York.”

Charlie watched the typical back-and-forth with his sister and his friend, and then commented to Elio how nice it was to see people actually read books.

Elio agreed. He said he liked it to begin with, but also wanted to make a conscious effort to keep reading them. Everyone was always on their phone, which shortened people’s concentration spans, making it even harder to keep at reading long novels.

Oliver interjected with a remark that it was possible to do both. Those two things didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“Yes, maybe it’s possible for you, Oliver, but that’s only because you’re perfect,” Caroline laughed.

“Perfect, is that so? A man without fault?” Elio tilted his head.

“No one’s perfect. I try my best, though, to avoid some of the common traps people fall into these days, or complain about.”

“Like pride and judgment?” Elio asked pointedly.

Oliver sensed the condescending tone and didn’t like it. “Pride is not a flaw, if you can control it.”

Elio’s lips curved slightly in a sarcastic smile, which made Oliver continue equally pointedly: “I have flaws, but they are not in my comprehension skills. I have been called resentful, though. If I once find that someone isn’t worth my time, I’m hardly going to change my mind later.”

In an effort to defuse the suddenly charged situation, Caroline prodded Elio about what it was that he was reading, then, and asked if he had seen the current top New York Times bestseller in the shelf. Elio patiently explained that he had, but that he liked to read all genres, starting from poetry by Ovid.

”Is that what you’re reading now?” Caroline asked sharply. Elio sensed her prickliness but wasn’t quite sure what the reason for it was.

”No, this is poetry too, but this is by Celan.”

He showed Caroline the cover of the book.

“Huh. Interesting.” Her voice indicated that she thought it was anything but. “Can you read us something?”

Elio really wouldn’t have been in the mood, but thought it best to humor her for a few lines.

“Umm, sure. Let me see… Okay. If I were like you. If you were like me. Did we not stand under one trade wind? We are strangers. The flagstones.”

”Can you believe that, Oliver? Despite all the books that were on offer here, Elio would rather read poetry like that?” Caroline sounded sarcastic.

On them, close to each other, the two heart-grey puddles: two mouthsfull of silence,” Oliver commented.

”What?” Caroline was puzzled.

Elio bit on his tongue to suppress a smile. He had begun to get a clue what Caroline was trying to do, and her plan had just backfired.

”That’s how it continues. It’s from Celan’sSprachgitter,” Oliver explained. ”It’s my favorite poem of his.”

Caroline squinted, looking at Oliver. ”You read this...Celan, Oliver?”

”Sure. He’s a classic. It’s refreshing to see that at least someone is still interested in more than just the hottest novel of the month,” Oliver added.

Elio glanced at Oliver and felt that for the first time, Oliver looked back without the blank disinterest that Elio had already gotten accustomed to.

Caroline looked from Oliver to Elio and then back to Oliver, and she wasn’t pleased.

She felt, however, that she wasn’t in a secure enough position to continue this conversation, so she let it go and returned to her primping. She started adding a second coat of paint to her nails in silence as Elio went back to his book and Oliver to his phone.

Oliver continued scrolling his inbox of emails, but found it hard to concentrate and accidentally almost forwarded an internal board member email to one of their biggest customers.

 

 

It took till early evening until Jane started to feel well enough to think about getting home. Oliver and Charlie came downstairs to see them off. While Charlie and Jane went to get her bike from the backyard where they had walked it to on the previous night, Elio waited for them in front of the building.

Elio fiddled with the handlebar of his bike and Oliver kicked the pebbles on the sidewalk to the wall. The sound of the rocks hitting the wall echoed in the empty street.

Elio didn’t really know why Oliver had come down in the first place.

”Cool bike. What’s that inscription?” Oliver asked and pointed to a rough engraving on the crossbar of Elio’s bike.

”My initials, EBP. Elio Bennet Perlman. I did that when I got this bike. I mean, like years ago. When I was a kid.”

Oliver nodded, looking like he stored that information somewhere even though Elio had no idea what he would ever need it for. But he didn’t get a chance to ask, either, because Oliver suddenly decided to go back upstairs.

“Later!”

Elio was left standing there with his bike, baffled by this man who looked like a movie star, read Celan, and had the most peculiar social manners.

 

 

Elio had texted his mother about his and Jane’s whereabouts that morning so that the family wouldn’t be worried. Nevertheless, everyone at the villa came to meet them in the hall when they got home.

Jane was still embarrassed about having caused all the trouble, but was also beaming when she explained to everyone how Charlie had taken care of her like such a gentleman, and how lovely his sister had been. Jane’s mother got quickly over the fact that her daughter had been so careless with her drinking and only marveled at how she was now such close friends with the rich Americans.

No one paid any attention to Elio, and he used the opportunity to sneak off upstairs to his room.

Finally some peace and quiet.

He went to his bookshelf and pulled out his own copy of Celan’s Sprachgitter and searched for the page with the poem on it.

”Two heart-grey puddles,” he said quietly to himself as he ran his finger over the words on the page.

Chapter Text

The next morning Elio’s father came to breakfast with an announcement.

”I just heard from your cousin Colin, he is coming for a visit,” Samuel Perlman said to Elio as he sat down at the table in the garden. “He’s been in Rome for work but will have a week off and he’ll arrive here in Crema tomorrow.”

“Oh, great.” Elio groaned on the inside, barely able to hide his annoyance and cracking his boiled egg more forcefully than intended.

Whereas Jane, Kitty, Mary, and Lucia were Elio’s cousins from his mother’s side and very dear to him, Colin was Elio’s father’s nephew and anything but. Elio found Colin in turns exhausting and ridiculous, and him arriving at the villa was not particularly good news.

Elio knew his parents would have wanted him to be better friends with Colin, though. Slightly older than Elio, Colin lived in New York and worked as an assistant for Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a British patron of the arts come New Yorker. As Colin accompanied her to all the most important classical music and opera events and several board meetings, he had connections that might prove useful if Elio ever wanted to try his luck in the music circles there.

And Elio always did want to try and be nice to Colin, but it never lasted long. By the second day of his visit Elio usually found himself exasperated with him and coming up with excuses to stay far away from him.

 

 

Colin arrived on Tuesday with the same sugary flattery as usual. He was most delighted that his uncle’s family had been ever so kind to offer him a place to stay in the darling countryside to relax for a bit, in between his and Lady de Bourgh’s important activities in Rome.

In the evening, Elio, his parents, and all the cousins and aunts and uncles were gathered around the same table for dinner for once. Having people from four families living under the same roof for the summer did not always result in joint dinners when people had friends to visit or day trips to be made.

“These are such excellent fettuccini. Which one of you made these?” Colin enthused at his first bite of the pasta.

“We do have a cook, Colin, and yes, Mafalda’s cooking is excellent,” Elio commented dryly.

The Perlmans were a well-to-do family by local standards and enough so to have hired help in the house, but it was obviously nothing compared to the people Colin worked with in New York. His tone sometimes seemed to intentionally highlight the difference, and while his parents seemed to mostly take it in stride, it irritated Elio.

Over dinner, Colin continued to explain enthusiastically how amazing and respected Lady de Bourgh was and how wonderful opportunities she had provided for him. This year alone, he had been able to see such incredible performances with her at the Metropolitan Opera or Carnegie Hall, and now at the Teatro dell’Opera while she was summering in Rome.

“Lady de Bourgh’s daughter is with her in Rome, too, and she’s very elegant. I always tell Lady de Bourgh that her daughter would be fit to marry into any royal family,” Colin said proudly, and added: “I know this is the kind of stuff that women like to hear, and I am pretty good at paying them these kinds of compliments.”

Elio noted to himself that just as he had expected, nothing had changed. Colin seemed as insufferable as always.

“Oh really? And are these compliments spontaneous or do you think of them in advance?” Elio’s father asked with a straight face. Just because Colin was his nephew did not mean he wasn’t aware of his, well, peculiarities.

“I would say spontaneous mostly, but,” Colin dabbed his mouth with a napkin, “–sometimes I amuse myself by crafting some alternatives ahead of time. I always try to present them casually, though.”

Elio and Jane rolled their eyes at each other.

The same level of self-importance and pomposity continued throughout the evening. Elio had to bite his tongue to stop himself from laughing when, after Colin had gone on and on about Lady de Bourgh’s dress for the premiere gala of the symphony orchestra season, Lucia purposefully asked him whether her dresses for the opera were magnificent too.

Colin, naïve as he was, didn’t see it for the joke that it was and started enthusiastically gushing about her bespoke dresses and velvet coats.

Mrs Perlman gave Elio and Lucia a scolding look, and Elio felt a bit bad, but not enough to make an effort to be nicer.

 

 

By Saturday, Elio had had enough of Colin’s praise for the wonders of New York and Lady de Bourgh’s greatness. He was actually grateful to have an excuse to go out and to Sotto Campo, except his mother made them take Colin with them. She made Elio promise he would make sure Colin had a nice time, since he didn’t know anyone else in town.

Annella Perlman would have denied it if asked, but she was also thankful to get Colin out of the house for one evening. The young man was impossibly polite, and one couldn’t exactly complain about that, but he was exhausting nevertheless.

Among other things, Colin had described every single detail of Lady de Bourgh’s Upper East Side townhouse to her and stated matter-of-factly that even though the Perlman villa was simply charming, it obviously never could have quite compared. He had added that Annella should not feel bad about that of course, since Lady de Bourgh simply was in her own class.

And so by the time Saturday evening rolled along, Elio’s mother stood by the window watching him and all his five cousins leave the house and with a deep sigh of relief, poured herself a glass of wine.

 

 

Marzia, dependable as ever, had been holding a table for Elio and his cousins on the patio at Sotto Campo. However, soon after they had arrived, Elio made a run for it and left Colin at the table. It was a rotten thing to do, but Marzia had not been over to the villa for a few days and thus, she was the only one who had not gotten tired of Colin yet. Besides, she had always dreamed of leaving Crema and moving to America, so she likely had the required patience to listen to all of Colin’s stories from New York.

Elio was standing at the bar, waiting to get them all beers as usual, when someone nudged his shoulder.

”So what do you recommend, what should I get here?”

Elio turned around and saw a nice-looking boy, not much older than himself, leaning against the bar. The boy continued in his American accent: ”I’m George, by the way. George Wickham. I’m here on the exchange program.”

Elio liked the way the boy smiled at him and offered him a handshake.

”Um, I’m Elio. I live here, in Crema.”

”Nice to meet you, Elio. So what did you order?”

”We usually just get beers. The girls sometimes get the Sotto Voce drink, but that’s basically just vodka and lemon juice.”

”Okay, I’ll have one of each,” George decided and waved the bartender to come over. There had been other people who had been waiting longer, but he seemed to have a natural charm that worked on the bartender too.

George followed Elio to their table and smoothly introduced himself to Elio’s cousins, Colin included. George sat down between Elio and Lucia and over the course of the evening, Elio felt that he was equally flirting with them both.

He didn’t mind, it was about time that he had at least some company besides his cousins, let alone a cute boy. And Lucia was of course ecstatic to have one of the foreigners pay attention to her and kept trying to keep George’s attention on herself, giggling and pretending to understand George’s stories with her poor English.

 

 

Elio could see from Jane’s face when Charlie Bingley arrived at the bar, as her eyes lit up and she sat up straighter, running her hand through her hair. She had worn it loose today, which she rarely did.

Elio was right. Charlie appeared at their table shortly, and Oliver was with him.

Despite being intellectually intrigued, Elio had still not warmed up to Oliver as he hadn’t been able to fully figure out what to make of him. Still, Elio knew that after the day he had spent at Oliver and the Bingleys’ apartment, they would at least be able to be civil with each other.

That whole day had proven quite confounding, and as a result Elio had felt a tiny pull – no more than a glint, really – towards him, but he didn’t quite know why. Sure, Oliver was objectively gorgeous and shared some of his taste in literature, but he was still dismissive and not particularly warm towards him. He was not someone Elio would naturally gravitate to, but he didn’t feel like staying away either.

”Hi Jane, Elio, girls. And who’s this?” Charlie extended his hand jovially to Colin.

”This is my cousin Colin,” Elio introduced. ”And this is–”

”George Wickham,” Oliver interjected and his blue eyes turned to ice.

”You two know each other?” Elio was too surprised to pretend not to care.

”Darcy. Long time no see.” George got up to shake Oliver’s hand and they both did so politely, but it was not a warm reunion. Elio wondered what it was that he was missing here.

Oliver and Charlie left soon after and Jane went with them. Elio watched them go until George turned his attention to him again. He had just arrived in Crema and wanted to learn the best places to swim or eat or go out.

He looked Elio straight into his eyes when he talked, and after he was done with his lemon juice and vodka, he continued seamlessly to his beer. He leaned closer to Elio, occasionally touching his arm when Elio said something funny, and Elio was glad to finally have someone who wasn’t rude and short-worded to talk to.

At some point in their discussion George brought up Oliver, asking if he’d been in Crema for long.

”For a couple of weeks, I think,” Elio replied. ”They have started to come to Sotto Campo on the weekend nights, even though we’ve gotten the impression that he and the Bingleys are used to moving in quite different circles compared to what we have in Crema.”

”Yes, his family is very well connected in New York. I should know.”

“Oh really?”

”It may surprise you, if you noticed that our reunion wasn’t the warmest,” George confided in him. ”Have you gotten to know him well?”

”Not really, and I wouldn’t mind keeping it that way,” Elio sighed. ”He seems to consider himself to be above everyone else.”

”And that’s his attitude back home, too. My background is nothing like the Darcys’, but I interned at their family company and Oliver’s father promised to give me a full-time job when I graduated. But then he died, may he rest in peace, and Oliver has blocked me from being hired. He’s probably talked to the board or something.”

 “But why?” Elio asked, even though George didn’t seem to need any encouragement to tell his story.

“My guess is, he was jealous of me. His father treated me almost like a son while I was working there, and perhaps I resembled the son he would have wanted to have, more than Oliver.”

”I have to say, based on what I’ve seen of him so far, I am not surprised to hear that.”

”So now I’m back to square one, trying to find out what to do with my life after I’m done with my studies,” George shrugged. “But I shouldn’t be too harsh on Oliver, after all he’s a very good brother to his sister. He’s taking care of her now that their parents have both passed. She’s very proud, though, too.”

”She is?” Elio was surprised to learn Oliver had a sister.

”Yes, I used to spend a lot of time with her during my internship, and she was very sweet when she was younger, but she has later become very much like her brother.”

George then asked whether Colin was close with that Lady de Bourgh that he had kept bringing in the conversation at their table.

Elio groaned. Now Colin was boring others too with his bragging.

Elio explained that Colin worked for the lady back in New York.

”I’m just asking because Lady de Bourgh and Oliver’s late mother were sisters.”

Elio shook his head in disbelief. Of course. Such small circles, especially among the so-called one percenters, apparently.

George continued: ”From the time their kids were little, they had actually planned that the kids would get married one day, keeping the family fortunes intact. Oliver and Lady de Bourgh’s daughter, I mean.”

Elio thought of Caroline. Oliver seemed the type that would honor those types of arrangements for the sake of the family, so if he was basically spoken for, Caroline would only be wasting her time, no matter how much she would flip her hair.

George interrupted his thoughts. ”Do you think he will be in town for much longer?”

”I don’t know. I think some of the students in the program spend part of their time in other cities, too, but I don’t know about him. I hope him being here won’t stop you from enjoying your time in Crema, though, or from coming to these things,” Elio gestured around the bar.

”Oh, no, no. If he wants to avoid me that’s fine, but I will not be going anywhere,” George smiled and Elio realized he would be looking forward to seeing George around.

Marzia had kept the chatty Colin entertained up until then at the other end of the table, but when she needed to go to the ladies’ room, Colin started once again to persuade Elio to come to New York. There would be so many opportunities for him, and Lady de Bourgh could, if Elio impressed her enough, help him get his foot in the door in so many places, like his beloved Juilliard.

Elio listened to Colin’s sales pitch for a while, letting it go in one ear and out the other, and then with a tight smile made an exit himself, too, to the men’s room inside the main building of the bar.

When he came back outside, he lingered longer than necessary to avoid going back to the table and tried to come up with an alternative solution.

Oliver found him hiding behind the corner, bumping his head to the music.

”Would you maybe like to come and dance on the actual dance floor, instead?” Oliver smiled, but Elio bristled at the invitation.

Now that he knew, based on his talk with George, that his first impression of Oliver had been correct, Elio was even less inclined to spend time with him. However, Elio didn’t have a good explanation for hiding in the back and he didn’t want to talk about his exhausting cousin to Oliver, of all people.

Elio took a peek around the corner again and saw his younger cousins on the dance floor with George. That meant that Colin was probably still alone at the table. He weighed his options and decided that going to the dance floor with Oliver was the lesser evil of the two.

”Okay, fine.”

They joined the crowd of dancers seamlessly, and Elio tried not to look at Oliver but every time his eyes happened to glance that way, he caught Oliver already looking. He also noticed Oliver looking at Lucia and Kitty who were, in turn, either draped all over George or jumping around like kids, completely oblivious to anyone else.

Elio felt uncomfortable when he saw Oliver clearly disapproving of the girls’ behavior. Certainly one wouldn’t see a scene like that in the nightclubs in New York. Elio wanted to draw Oliver’s attention away from them.

”It’s a nice night and more people have turned up than usual,” he said leaning in, raising his voice so that Oliver could hear him over the music.

”Yes.”

After a moment of silence, Elio continued: ”And now it’s your turn to say something.”

”Do you always talk when you dance?”

”Sometimes. At least a bit. It would be unsociable not to talk at all, I guess. Although I think people sometimes try to get away with the least amount of talking possible,” Elio said.

”Do you mean yourself or was that supposed to be about me?”

”Both. I think we both have a tendency to save our words for when we think they will be impressive enough, and keep quiet otherwise.”

”Do you have the exchange students here every year?” Oliver asked after a beat.

”Yes, some arrive at the beginning of the month like you, and then there are some who come later in the summer, like George. They have more catching up to do because others have already made themselves at home. But George seems to be doing fine.”

Oliver’s demeanor changed immediately. ”He definitely makes friends quickly. It’s another thing whether he proves worthy of those friendships.”

”He’s clearly been unlucky enough to lose yours. And that can’t be fixed, I assume?”

“No, it can’t. Why do you ask?”

“I’m trying to figure you out. I keep hearing such different things about you that it’s difficult to keep up.”

“Well, I hope to be clearer in the future.”

They danced without talking from then on, and Elio was thankful of the song finally ending, but quickly realized that he had rejoiced too soon.

The next one was a slow ballad and when Elio turned to leave, he felt Oliver’s hand briefly brush his shoulder.

He glanced back and for a second Oliver looked at him as if he was waiting for a sign that he could also be allowed to pull Elio into his arms similarly to the other dancers that were pairing up around them.

Elio was taken by surprise, so he did the only thing that came to his mind in that moment: he inhaled sharply, turned around, and returned to his table, leaving Oliver behind.

He took a sip of his beer and wondered whether Oliver had really gone through with it had Elio stayed.

Elio had always felt pretty confident in his radar of men, and he had observed Oliver enough by now. Thus, he was certain that whether Oliver was or wasn’t interested in him, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a boy. But they hardly knew each other, and the amount that they did, was laced with sharpness. So why would Oliver have looked at him like that?

Staring at the dance floor, Elio found himself thinking what might have happened had he not left. Would Oliver have looped his arms around his waist? And would he have then nested his hands at the back of Oliver’s neck, fingers brushing against the hair at the nape? Would they have looked each other in the eyes, or would Elio have stared at his chest, or better yet, leaned against it? What did Oliver smell like at such close proximity?

Elio felt his jeans getting tighter and he decided to leave home, his beer still half-full, before things got too uncomfortable for him.

He rode fast, trying to clear his head, but the mental images of Oliver’s strong, toned and tanned arms would not go away. What was worse, they kept mixing with the memories of Oliver’s bare chest from the previous weekend, when Elio had spent the night at the Americans’ apartment and run into him wearing his grey sweatpants low on his hips and nothing else.

The thoughts were persistent, and Elio found that the only way to get rid of them was to lock his bedroom door, flop on the bed, and slide his hand inside his boxers.

It only took him a few minutes and he came with a reluctant euphoria, almost spilling on the Sprachgitter that was still on his bed.

He didn’t go back to Sotto Campo for two weeks.

 

Chapter Text

As July drew to a close, the first batch of the exchange students left Crema. The program required them to spend another month somewhere in Europe attending classes related to their curriculum, and so they each took off to their chosen city.

One morning, Caroline texted Jane that the Bingley twins were already at the airport in Milan, on their way to London where they would attend business classes before their return to the States.

Jane was heartbroken.

“Why did they leave so abruptly, and to London, of all places? I could very well be there, too.”

She tried to ask Caroline if she should cut her vacation in Crema short and travel home to London to join them. However, Caroline promptly and succinctly texted back that they had such full days ahead with their classes and other events that it would hardly make sense.

Charlie had left Jane without any promise of continuing their communication, even though they had spent every Saturday night at Sotto Campo together. There had been only vague talk about calling her from London, but a couple of days after they had left, that hadn’t happened yet and his few replies to Jane’s texts had been very brief. Caroline’s original message had also hinted that she and especially Charlie couldn’t wait to get together with Oliver’s sister, who had been spending her summer in London.

Jane was inconsolable. She rarely let herself fall for anyone, and Charlie had seemed like a decent guy, not just out to toy with her emotions.  Elio felt sorry for her and they spent days rehashing what had gone wrong.

“Or maybe I just imagined things that weren’t there?” she sighed.

Elio tried to rationalize the situation to Jane by explaining that Oliver seemed to have a family-chosen fiancée waiting for him, so why wouldn’t Charlie.

“Maybe it’s just something like that. I mean, it’s probably how things are done in their circles. Maneuvers, deals and protecting the money. Any real feelings be damned.”

That was the scenario that Elio dissected with Jane, but on his own, he suspected that there might have been even more to the situation than that.

During their final night at Sotto Campo, Colin had finally found out that Oliver was Lady de Bourgh’s nephew and had insisted on going to talk to him. Elio’s efforts to stop him had been futile, and thus, he had rambled endlessly and enthusiastically to Oliver about his own connection to his aunt.

Elio had stood next to Caroline, watching the conversation unfold and Elio wishing the ground would have opened up and swallowed either himself or Colin.

“What interesting relatives you and Jane have,” Caroline had commented to Elio with a pointed look.

Combining that with her disapproving looks of Lucia and Kitty behaving like the sixteen-year-olds let loose without adult supervision that they inarguably were, made Elio certain that Caroline’s opinion of their family wasn’t particularly flattering. He was sure that if she got to choose, her twin brother would find a much better match in Oliver’s sister than in Jane: a girl they randomly met on a summer vacation in a European village and who had a colorful and embarrassing family.

Elio had discussed this with Marzia on the same night.

She had been of the opinion that rather than Jane’s family’s ridiculousness, her natural reservedness might become somewhat of an obstacle. Charlie seemed to be enchanted with her, but if his feelings didn’t get any reciprocation, they would die down.

Elio had argued that Jane was just shy, and that Charlie would see through that. However, now that didn’t seem to be a problem anymore either.

 

 

Along with the Bingley siblings, Oliver had left Crema too. Someone had mentioned that since he was a Classics major, he had, unlike Charlie and Caroline, traveled to the ancient city of Rome for the second part of his exchange program.

Either way, it meant that Elio no longer had to try and steer clear of him. While Oliver’s proximity had awakened certain involuntary feelings in Elio, his intellectual side was not nearly as enamored.

Elio had discussed with both Jane and Marzia what George had told him about Oliver and his ability to heartlessly abandon a loyal employee just because he had been resentful of his own father’s attention.

The girls, however, warned Elio to take George’s words with a grain of salt. After all, they didn’t really know either of them that well, let alone the entirety of the circumstances. Jane also pointed out that Charlie had gotten the impression that something was off about George, but Elio reminded her that whatever Charlie knew, he had obviously heard from Oliver, so again, it would be just word against word.

 

 

As far as Colin was concerned, there had been one awkward conversation where he had tried his best to convince Elio to move to New York. Colin was adamant that he could help Elio meet the right people there to advance his aspirations of becoming a professional musician.

“You wouldn’t believe the kind of people I can get access to, Elio!”

They had been in the living room and Elio knew that with the window open, his mother could hear them to the garden, so he tried to be as polite as he could manage.

But Elio had no intention of accepting Colin’s offer. There was no way he would be able to stand Colin’s company for that long. Additionally, he had strong suspicions that rather than altruistically wanting to help him, Colin would have rather wanted to bring Elio there just to boast to his middle-class cousin how much further he had come in life than the Perlman family.

Colin had stormed off to the garden when it had finally become clear to him that Elio was not going to take him up on the offer. Elio’s mother had stormed inside in turn, and the rustle had woken up Elio’s father from his afternoon nap. Mr Perlman came out of his study, asking what was going on.

“Your son has just rejected an offer of a lifetime, that’s what’s going on,” Elio’s mother had said and explained what Colin had suggested. “Elio, you’re making a mistake. Tell him, Samuel.”

Elio’s father cleared his throat.

“Well, Elio, it looks like one of your parents will be strongly disappointed in you because of this offer and your decision.” Elio felt bad, his intention was not to let his parents down. But his father continued: “Because your mother thinks it’s a mistake not to go, and I think it’s a huge mistake if you do go.”

Elio hugged his father, relieved. “Thanks, papa.”

After the stressful morning, Elio wanted to escape to read at his spot by the berm, and on his way out he met Marzia just outside the villa. He explained what had happened and that he just wanted to have some time on his own now.

“Should I go and keep Colin company, then?” Marzia suggested.

“By all means, he’s all yours if you want. I just saw him sitting at the garden table, sulking,” Elio replied, thankful for his best friend’s offer.

 

 

After that, Elio managed to mostly avoid Colin, and he and Jane often got away on their own, to read in Elio’s spot or just hang out in town, and thus Elio’s late summer days were pleasant.

He also went swimming with George a few times. Elio’s mother was happy to see them spend time together, as George was very nice to her whenever he came to pick Elio up.

Elio felt that George might have been easily persuaded to cross the line from friendship to something more, but as Elio simply enjoyed his company as friends, he didn’t bring it up and nothing ended up happening between them.

George had also continued to spend time with Lucia. To the surface it seemed like they were having harmless fun, but she seemed blinded by the attention and the fact that she wasn’t under the supervision of her religious parents like she was at home. Thus, Elio wouldn’t have been surprised if she had encouraged George more than he had himself, but he hoped Lucia would still have her wits about her and know what she was doing.

 

 

When Marzia texted Elio one day to go and get ice cream with her, Elio didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary. Everything was as usual, until instead of walking back home with their ice creams like they always did, she sat him down at the piazza, and said that she wanted to talk.

”Sure. What’s going on?” Elio asked, concentrating more on licking his ice cream that was spilling over and dripping down the side of the cone.

”I don’t know how to tell you this.”

Elio took his eyes away from his ice cream. ”You know you can tell me anything.”

”I know, but I fear that you’re going to think less of me. Even though I know this is what I want.”

Elio assured her that he could never think less of her, but he was starting to get worried. What had she done?

”Colin and I have started dating.”

Of all the things going through Elio’s mind, this was the last thing he was expecting to hear.

“What? When?” And then: “Why?”

”With you and Jane always taking off who knows where, I’ve spent a lot of time with him and yes, he’s a bit naïve, but he has a good heart. He has invited me to come and spend the rest of the summer with him in New York.”

Elio tried to process Marzia’s words. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His smart, lovely friend? And Colin? The most exhausting, pompous person he could think of? She must have been out of her mind.

”And, I’ve already said yes to his invitation. I know you think he’s a bore, but I don’t mind him, his enthusiasm is sort of endearing, actually. And this way I get to go and see New York for myself.”

Elio rubbed his eyes and Marzia reached over the table to touch his elbow.

”Elio, please say something.”

“Are you being serious? What happened to all those conversations we’ve always had about finding someone who makes your heart swell and knees go weak?”

“That kind of stuff is nice and all to dream about, but that’s not real life, Elio. He’s nice enough and seems to like me.”

“Nice enough? I’m sure he can’t wait to parade you around and brag to you about everything he’s supposedly accomplished, but Marzia, you don’t have to do this.”

Marzia tried to be patient. “It’s not just him benefiting from this, Elio. You know how I’ve been saying that I need to get out of here, get out of Crema. This may be my only chance. You have your music that can open doors for you, but I have nothing.”

Elio sighed. He hadn’t realized Marzia had felt so trapped.

”Well. He’s ridiculous, and I definitely think you deserve something better. But I can’t tell you what to do, either. So if you want to do that, then I sincerely hope you’ll have a nice time there and that all goes well. I’ll miss you, though.”

Marzia got up and threw her arms around Elio from behind, relieved. ”Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Elio patted her arm. ”There’s no need to thank me. It’s your life.”

”Thank you for not making fun of me. I know people will think I’m crazy, but I really think I’m doing the right thing. Besides, we will first go to Rome where Lady de Bourgh will still be for a while. We leave tomorrow.” At that point Marzia’s eyes suddenly lit up. “You know what, you should totally come with us. Oh, please Elio, it would be so much fun!”

Elio promised to Marzia that he would think about it. But what was more, he vowed to himself to never settle, and to wait for someone who would make his knees go weak.

 

 

In the early days of August, the second group of exchange students left Crema, too. Elio said goodbye to George, who was going to Athens for the rest of his time in Europe before returning to New York.

With Jane wanting time alone to mourn her heartbreak and George also gone, Elio surprisingly found himself missing the company. And so he decided that a week in Rome couldn’t be too bad, Colin would probably be mostly tied up with his work and at least Elio would get to spend time with Marzia.

After telling his parents about his plan – his mother was happy to see him socializing more while his father said he’d miss him while he’d be gone – Elio texted Marzia that he would be on the Sunday morning train to Rome.

Chapter Text

As soon as Elio’s train screeched to a halt at the Termini station in Rome on Sunday afternoon, Marzia was there, running to the platform in her summer dress, ecstatic to have her best friend keep his promise and visit her.

As Elio had expected, they got to spend the better part of the day by themselves while Colin was running errands for Lady de Bourgh. He asked how their time together had been so far and Marzia seemed content with how things were going.

“Are you sure? You’re not bored out of your mind?”

“I’m not romantic like you, Elio. He’s a decent guy and treats me nicely – sometimes that’s enough.”

“Has he taken you to all of the sights and concerts and things like that?”

“Not really. To be honest, I have encouraged Colin to spend as much time as possible with Lady de Bourgh. That’s what he’s here for, after all,” Marzia said. “And it also means that… well, I get some quality time with myself and get to enjoy the city as I please. I’m quite happy on my own, too.”

Elio nodded as he read between the lines. He hoped the concessions Marzia had made to be able to see the world were worth it.

 

 

In the evening, Colin had been scheduled to accompany Lady de Bourgh to the opera, as Aida was playing at the Teatro dell’Opera. However, when he came back to his and Marzia’s hotel room to change into his theater outfit after his work day, he proudly announced that Lady de Bourgh had also invited Marzia and Elio to join them.

Marzia had already met her obviously, but Colin was thrilled to be able to introduce Elio to his employer, letting his cousin see what a remarkable woman he had the honor of working for.

Marzia advised Elio to just wear whatever was the best that he had brought, and Colin added that Lady de Bourgh always had great respect for the humble people, and therefore she would not mind his clothing. And even though Lady de Bourgh had invited others from her circles to join them too, Colin assured that her acquaintances were always nice to the normal people.

Elio rolled his eyes thinking of those instructions when he walked the few blocks back to his own hotel to find something suitable to wear.

 

 

Elio changed into a fresh button-up and put on the only suit jacket he had with him before returning to Colin and Marzia’s five-star hotel. Even during the short walk, the humid Roman evening had made him sweat in his jacket and Marzia gave him a tissue to dab the drops of sweat on his forehead and neck.

When they took the elevator to the penthouse floor where Lady de Bourgh’s suite was, Colin was bursting with pride to make the introduction and to finally show Elio what kind of people he socialized with and what could have also waited for Elio if he had only listened to Colin’s advice and joined him in New York.

”Lady Catherine, this is my cousin, Elio Perlman. He is very proficient with the piano.”

Lady de Bourgh was an impressive woman in her early seventies, dressed in dark green silk and dripping in jewels. Her authority easily commanded the room and she looked Elio up and down and seemed to notice each drop of sweat that Elio had missed with his tissue. She made no effort to shake his hand.

”Very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Elio nodded politely, having no idea if that was adequate as a greeting. He also suspected that whatever he had done – whether he had dropped to his knees or curtsied or bowed and kissed her hand – Lady de Bourgh was the type who would have still deemed it inadequate.

Their introduction was cut short by Lady de Bourgh’s daughter Anne who was not feeling well, and came to kiss her mother goodnight before retiring to bed instead of joining them. She was rail-thin and reticent, and Elio would later hear from Marzia that she kept mostly to herself.

So that was Oliver’s fiancée-to-be one day, Elio thought after the daughter was gone.

At least if Lady de Bourgh had any say in the matter, that is.

 

 

At the opera, Colin helped Lady de Bourgh up the stairs, set up her binoculars, and attended to her every detail and request. Marzia and Elio were left to fend for themselves.

There were six seats in their box on the first level of the Teatro dell’Opera. Lady de Bourgh, Colin, and Marzia took the front row seats and Elio sat in the back with the two empty seats, like the poor cousin that had been allowed to tag along and who would surely be happy with any seat he could get. He didn’t really mind, but sarcastically noted the undertone of the arrangement.

However, the seats next to Elio didn’t stay empty for long.

A little before the start of the performance, the velvet curtain shielding the box opened behind them and Elio heard a familiar voice, first thanking the usher and then greeting Lady de Bourgh.

”Aunt Catherine, how are you! So nice of you to invite me and cousin Fitz to join you.”

It was Oliver, standing in the opening in a dashing suit, with another man who was about his age and wearing a uniform.

Elio couldn’t believe his eyes, but then again, he should have known this was a possibility. Oliver was Lady de Bourgh’s nephew after all.

Oliver kissed Lady de Bourgh on the cheek and introduced Colin and Marzia to his cousin Fitz who, as he himself explained, was working for the navy and was currently training troops on the Mediterranean.

Colin asked what Oliver himself was then doing in Rome and he explained that as a Classics major, he was in the city attending classes on the Roman Empire as part of his exchange program before his return to New York.

If Elio was stunned to see Oliver, Oliver did not look nearly as surprised when he noticed Elio in the far corner.

“Elio,” he nodded.

“Hi.”

“My aunt invited me here,” Oliver offered as a way of explanation.

“You know my nephew?” Lady de Bourgh interjected.

“Yes, we met when he and the other students were in Crema last month,” Elio answered, eyes still on Oliver. 

At that point the first strings of Aida started to echo in the opera hall, and everyone settled in their seats. As the lights went down, Oliver asked quietly: “So how is everyone in Crema? Your cousins?”

“They’re fine. Jane briefly thought about going back home to London but ended up staying in Crema,” Elio said coolly and turned his eyes to the stage.

Surely Oliver knew where Charlie and Caroline were, especially if they were spending time with Oliver’s sister, and thus he probably also knew about how coldly they had brushed off Jane with their nonexistent contact.

 

 

“So, I hear from Colin that you aspire to get into Juilliard, Elio,” Lady de Bourgh started at intermission, after a bottle of champagne and a plate of canapés had been brought to their box. Oliver watched Elio swallow his first sip and discreetly wipe canapé crumbs from his mouth before answering.

“Yes, ma’am. I play piano, have been playing since I was five.”

Elio felt everyone’s eyes, including Oliver’s, on him.

“And do you play anything else?”

“No, we only have ever had a piano in the house.”

“That’s too bad. Your parents really should have kept your music education varied. If you want to make it professionally, you need to gain perspective on more than one instrument,” Lady de Bourgh sighed and shook her head, looking like a most pitiful mistake had been made by Elio’s parents. “Do you take lessons at least?”

“Yes, with a teacher in town.”

“In town? In…what did you call it… in Crema?”

“Yes, in Crema. My teacher is a former concert pianist who gives lessons now that she’s retired.”

“But she doesn’t have appropriate pedagogic training?”

“No, I don’t think so. She’s a friend of my parents.”

“A friend of your parents? Your parents really should have cared more and sent you to at least Milan, or Rome, to get lessons from actual professionals. Can’t they afford it?”

Oliver suspected Elio bristling on the inside at that, but surprisingly enough, Elio kept his cool and didn’t let it show.

“I believe they care very much and that’s why they prefer to have me to live at home and not send me anywhere alone. And there’s still education to be had after I graduate from my school in Crema.”

Lady de Bourgh gave a pause and then huffed, turning to talk to Colin again.

Oliver tried to decide whether he was amused, impressed, or surprised the most. He had seen his aunt carry her privileged attitude like this more times than he cared to remember, but this kid was really something, holding his own, not being intimidated by her. Considering Oliver was used to people treating each other according to their status, this was new and oddly refreshing.

 

 

“So, tell me the truth because I’ll never get it out of him: were the Americans wreaking a lot of havoc in your little town?” Oliver’s cousin, Fitz, asked Elio with a mischievous smile. “Especially my cousin?”

Elio barked a dry laugh. “Hardly. You should have seen Oliver on their first night out. He refused to be social at all, and everyone talked about how he surely thought we were all just worthless country hillbillies.”

Oliver felt the need to defend himself. “I didn’t know anyone there besides Charlie and Caroline.”

“And no one ever meets new people at bars, right?” Elio said sarcastically.

“Fitz, what was the name of your mother’s gallerist,” Lady de Bourgh interrupted them demandingly from the row in front of them and Fitz turned to talk to his aunt.

Elio glanced at Oliver before bending down to pick up his opera program from the floor. When he straightened himself back up, Oliver leaned in.

“I just don’t feel very comfortable talking to people I don’t know,” he explained. “I’ve always been like that. Especially in an environment that is not familiar to me.”

“Maybe you should listen to your aunt’s advice then, and gain perspective on more than one environment,” Elio said without looking up, examining the cover of the program in great detail.

Oliver watched Elio’s long, slender fingers then leaf through the program, page by page.

Those must be perfect for playing piano, he thought. Delicate, but strong. Oliver could think of other uses for them, too. He wondered how it would feel if they were to grab a fistful of Oliver’s hair. Or if they wrapped firmly around his–

Oliver was shaken out of his thoughts by the first notes of the second act of Aida. He was thankful for the darkness that descended upon them and hid the fact that his cheeks were burning hot.

Chapter Text

The week Elio spent in Rome could not be described as bland. In fact, the events that took place got more and more incredulous by the day.

On Monday afternoon, Elio sat in one of the armchairs in the lobby of Colin and Marzia’s hotel, waiting for Marzia to come back from shopping. He was texting with Jane, when he heard someone clearing his throat next to him.

“Oliver!”

“Hey.”

Oliver looked at him and then at his hands that were holding the phone.

“Do you…want to sit down?” Elio asked nodding to the chair next to him.

Oliver grabbed a hold of the velvet-covered armchair next to him, but then let it go and kept standing, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Elio watched him and wondered what was going on.

“If you’ve come to see your aunt, Colin took her to the hairdresser’s,” he tried to be helpful.

Oliver didn’t say anything, just drew a nervous breath and looked around in the lobby, eyeing the gold-framed paintings on the walls.

“This is a nice hotel.”

“Yes.” Elio was lost. Why was he here?

“My aunt probably chose it, right?”

“Yes, I’m pretty sure. I’m also sure Colin and Marzia very much appreciate staying here.” Like anyone staying at a five-star hotel would, he added in his mind.

Oliver looked at Elio but didn’t continue the conversation, so after a moment of silence Elio asked: “There’s a bar at the back if you wanted to get a drink?”

He waved in the direction of the bartender at the other end of the lobby.

“No. I mean, thanks, but no.”

More silence. Okay. Elio started to run out of ideas.

Oliver opened his mouth as if to say something but at that exact moment Marzia barged in, carrying shopping bags on both arms.

“Hi guys,” she chirped and plopped down on the chair next to Elio, exhausted.

Oliver glanced at her, startled, and quickly said goodbye.

“Later!”

Marzia watched him walk out of the hotel entrance in long strides.

“Did he come here to see you?” she asked Elio, baffled. “What did you do to him?”

Elio couldn’t have meant it more when he stared at the door that closed after Oliver and said: “I have absolutely no idea.”

 

 

On Tuesday, Elio was wandering in the neighborhood near his hotel, looking for a quiet place to read in the shade and settling for a terrace of the café around the corner.

With his book and a cup of coffee, he sat at a table facing the sidewalk, when he noticed Oliver walking by.

Oliver noticed him likewise, and before Elio had a chance to object, Oliver had gone inside to get himself a coffee, too.

“There goes my quiet morning with my book,” Elio sighed to himself.

Oliver came back out and, of course, sat down next to Elio. He drank his coffee quietly at first, but just when Elio had deduced from the silence that it would be acceptable for him to get back to his book, Oliver asked what he was reading.

Dead Souls,” Elio lifted the book briefly, giving Oliver a glimpse of the cover.

“Ah, Gogol. Apt choice. You fall in love with Rome very slowly, gradually, and then for life, right?"

“Yeah, I've been imagining him, writing this here.”

“Doesn't it bother you that it ends mid-sentence?”

“Not necessarily. Neat closures are not always realistic.”

“Shouldn’t one aim for one? Not leaving things hanging in the air?”

“Hey, by the way, how are you so sure I know how it ends?” Elio asked, irritated. “You could have just spoiled the whole ending for me.”

“There's no way you haven't read that before. Have you?”

Elio said nothing which spoke volumes.

“There you go,” Oliver shrugged and smiled victoriously into his coffee before falling silent.

Elio had barely gotten a hold of the next sentence on the page, when Oliver spoke again, asking about his plans for the future.

“I remember there was a mention about Juilliard, so I guess you’re not just planning to stay in Crema?”

“No, I’m open to moving somewhere else. And Juilliard would be a dream of course, but obviously very hard to get into.”

“Obviously, although I’m sure you would have the chops for it. Not that I’ve actually heard you play, but still,” Oliver smiled.

Elio didn’t know how to reply. What was this sudden flattery?

Oliver continued: “Or have you thought about any other schools, or universities outside Italy? There are other great schools, too, in New York besides Juilliard. I’m going to Columbia myself. Ivy League.”

The conversation continued in the same vein – seemingly casual, but fragmented and just on this side of baffling to Elio – until they were both done with their coffees. Elio had hardly made two pages of progress on his Gogol.

After, Oliver walked with Elio back to his hotel and then took off saying he had the classes to attend. Elio had assumed Oliver had walked with him because his classes were also that way, but no. Oliver turned around and went back in the direction where they had just come from.

Elio shook his head and even though it seemed weird considering what had happened the day before too, he still just chalked it up to coincidence.

 

 

On Wednesday, Oliver’s cousin Fitz came to Lady de Bourgh’s hotel to have breakfast with his aunt in the great dining room. Colin, Marzia, and Elio were invited too, and while the others entertained Lady de Bourgh, Elio asked Fitz how long he was staying in Rome.

“We’re stationed actually further along the coast, but I like coming up here when I can as long as Oliver’s here. Not that he needs the company, though. He would hardly be lonely here for long.”

“I can imagine.” Elio thought how that movie star look, golden blond hair and those eyes, would have half of Rome falling for him if he so chose. ”I’m surprised he’s still single.”

“Oh, whoever he ends up with will be lucky,” Fitz said.

Elio wasn’t too convinced. “Really?”

“He’s a great guy, not to mention he would be very loyal as a partner. Looks after his friends, too. Just recently he told me that he had stopped one close friend from getting caught up in a less than desirable relationship,” Fitz added conspiratorially.

Elio’s voice got sharp. “Oh is that so?"

"Yeah. Apparently Oliver didn't see any future for that relationship."

"Who was the friend?” Elio asked. He had quickly began to have a bad feeling about this.

“I’m not sure, he didn't say. But he's just been traveling with his best friend from childhood, so I'm pretty sure it was him. Charlie Bingley.”

Elio swallowed. “Right. And why was that? What was wrong with the girl?”

“I think Oliver thought that the situation wasn’t too promising or something.”

“So he told him to stop seeing her, or..?”

“Yes, something like that. I don’t know exactly what happened because he didn’t really tell me any details, but…yeah.”

Elio was furious, thinking of Jane. “Huh. I wonder why would he consider himself fit to be judging anything like that?”

“Yeah, I don’t know any specifics, sorry. And hey, I’m not sure it was Charlie even, I only said that because I knew they had just spent a month together, and Charlie seems the kind of guy who would easily get caught up in something that was less than wise,” Fitz added but Elio had already heard enough.

Poor heartbroken Jane, who had thought she had done something wrong or completely misread Charlie’s actions, when all along it had been due to Oliver getting involved. Oliver thinking she and her family weren’t good enough for his friend, even though he hadn't even bothered to get to know them – just judged them based on his preconceptions.

Elio couldn't believe someone seemingly polite could act so dreadfully behind the scenes. He had known Oliver to be arrogant, but that kind of meddling was downright cruel to the people involved. Then again, adding this to everything he had heard from George, Elio came to the conclusion that Oliver was probably a product of his environment with no regard to anyone who wasn't from his circles.

 

 

On Thursday, Elio was still reeling from the revelation he had heard from Fitz. To take his mind off the whole thing, Elio had suggested to Marzia a visit to the nearest art museum.

They had gone early to avoid the lines, but the scorching sun blared at them while they waited for the doors to open. The lack of any breeze in the ancient city had them sweating enough that even after an airconditioned tour through the museum, a change of clothing was needed before they could continue their day with lunch.

Thus, Elio was in his room trying to find a fresh shirt, when the hotel phone on the desk rang. Elio thought it must have been Marzia and he picked up the phone, wondering why she didn’t just text him. It turned out to be the concierge.

“I have a visitor for you, Mr Perlman. Shall I send him up?”

Him?

“Yes, please. Thank you.”

Elio found another polo shirt from his suitcase to wear and was straightening its collar in front of the mirror when there was a knock on the door.

Elio sighed when he opened the door and saw Oliver standing in the hallway. What now?

After everything Fitz had told him – and George, too, for that matter – Elio had had enough and had no intention of being nicer to Oliver than what the minimum human decency required.

“Hello, Oliver. I’m kind of in a hurry, I’m meeting Marzia for lunch.”

“Hi.”

Oliver didn’t wait to be invited in and just stepped into Elio’s room, looking upset.

“Umm, ever since I left Crema…I don’t know how to say this. But I haven’t stopped thinking about you. I’ve been coming here just because I knew you were probably around.”

The words gave Elio pause. He wasn’t sure if he understood Oliver correctly or if this was some kind of a joke. If it was, it wasn’t funny.

“I’ve tried to tell myself that this isn’t a good idea,” Oliver continued, “I mean, you’re just a local boy from a small Italian town whom I just met, and I really shouldn’t even be thinking this, but I can’t help it. I really, really like you, Elio. Can I take you out to dinner tonight?”

Elio was stunned. He couldn’t have been more stunned if Oliver had told him he’d just won a million dollars in a lottery he hadn’t even taken part of. Or the opposite of that, since this did not feel like a jackpot of any kind.

Oliver’s suggestion was ridiculous. Like Elio would ever be interested in him? And go out with him? Elio felt color rising to his cheeks.

“Um, I’m sorry you’ve had a hard time struggling with that…problem, but no,” he said harshly.

“Is that your answer?” Oliver seemed unsure.

“Yes.”

“Are you making fun of me? Or…rejecting me?”

“I’m sure you’ll get over it, after all I’m just a little country boy, right?”

“Okay.” Oliver sighed. “Can I ask why you’re actually being sort of rude right now? You could’ve just said no thanks and leave it at that.”

“And you could have just asked me, instead of first telling me how I’m not actually even worthy of you. You don’t think hearing something like that might annoy a person? Besides, I don’t have any interest in dating anyone who would block other people’s relationships just because they are coming from a place of privilege themselves.”

“What do you mean block… Oh. Jane?”

“Yes. Or am I wrong?”

“You’re not… I mean, I did discourage Charlie from staying in touch with her.”

“But why?”

“Because from what I could tell, she didn’t seem to care for Charlie that much. He falls for people way too easily, I was trying to protect him.”

“Jane is just shy! She rarely takes chances with anyone, for fear of getting hurt. We’ve always been close and yet even I don’t always know what’s going on in her head.”

Oliver became frustrated. “Even so, it hardly would’ve been based on just genuine feelings. You have to admit that no one around her would’ve discouraged her from getting together with someone who had Charlie’s kind of money.”

“Jane wouldn’t have cared about his money. She was falling in love with him.”

“Yes, probably not her, but I mean, her – your – entire family was kind of encouraging her. Whenever we ran into one of your aunts at the piazza or in the grocery store, they weren’t shy about letting us know that they would’ve been very happy if Jane nabbed one of the rich Americans. It hardly seemed like it would’ve purely been based on true love.”

Elio rubbed his face and groaned. Unfortunately, he could very well imagine his aunts doing exactly that.

“I didn’t think Jane cared about the money or status, and I don’t mean that you would either,” Oliver hurried to add. “Just your family. But anyway, I just didn’t see any real affection between them, so I thought I’d better do something now before Charlie gets hurt.”

Oliver started pacing the room, anxious, not knowing what else to do or say. This had not gone according to plan at all.

“And how about George?” Elio pointed out, speaking to Oliver’s back.

Oliver turned around in an instant. “What about George?” His eyes flashed with anger.

“What you did to him. He had a good career planned, but you totally pulled the rug out from under him.”

“Good career indeed… Okay, so this is your opinion of me? Thanks, really, for being clear. Although, I dare say that George’s career woes aren’t the real deal breaker here.”

“What?”

“I’m willing to bet that it’s more about the fact that I hurt your pride, when I openly admitted that dating someone like you was not what I had in my plans.”

Elio drew a breath and just stared at him.

Oliver ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. “I mean, I could have flattered you instead, I guess, but it’s just that I’m so tired of all pretension. And come on, you have to know that my position in our family requires me to act a certain way, date certain types of people.”

That made Elio raise his voice. “You’re wrong, it wasn’t like that. I was never going to say yes, but by acting the way you did, you just made it easier for me to say no. But either way, ever since the first night I saw you in Crema, it’s been very clear to me that with all your arrogance and selfishness, you’re the last man I could ever want!”

Stung by Elio’s words, Oliver took two steps towards him and they stared at each other in silence. Oliver stricken, Elio hurt and furious, and their quickened breathing the only sound in the room.

The emerald fire in Elio’s eyes somehow made him even more irresistible and Oliver’s first urge was to push him against the nearest wall and kiss him to shut him up. Kiss him into oblivion until he would gladly take all of those words back.

But now that would never happen.

Despite being deeply hurt by Elio’s obviously low opinion of him, Oliver didn’t want to let him see how much it affected him.

“Okay, I see,“ he swallowed. “Well, I’ll go now and let you get to your lunch.”

 

 

After Oliver left, Elio closed his eyes and remembered the images of Lucia and Kitty, draped all over George, or screaming and jumping on the dance floor at Sotto Campo. Those must not have been the kind of relatives that people who ran in Oliver’s circles appreciated.

And he could only imagine his aunts eagerly chattering in town with Oliver and Charlie, hinting at Jane being interested and how she was such a fine girl.

Elio sank into the couch and buried his face in his hands with a deep sigh. Why did his family have to behave like that and give Oliver more reasons to look down on them? And furthermore, why did Elio care?

 

 

As soon as Oliver got back to the apartment he was staying at, he sat down with his laptop and started typing an email.

He hated the idea that Elio would think those awful things about him, and Oliver hoped that maybe this way he would get a chance to explain himself. He might not be able to change Elio’s perception of him, but he had to try.

 

Chapter Text

While Elio’s physical body went out to lunch with Marzia, his mind stayed at the hotel room where Oliver had just left and left turmoil in his wake.

Elio had a hard time concentrating on anything Marzia was talking about, and it didn’t take long for her to notice that something was amiss. Elio blamed it on the scorching sun and said he’d go and take a nap at the hotel afterwards.

“I hope you don’t have a sunstroke,” Marzia worried and walked with him up to his room.

“You can go, I’ll be fine,” Elio insisted, and promised to call her in the evening.

After Marzia was gone, Elio really tried to lay down for awhile, but sleep didn’t come. Eventually he pulled out his phone and started absent-mindedly checking his messages and emails.

On the top of his inbox there was an email from Oliver, sent fifteen minutes earlier. Elio stared at the screen, wondering if reading that would make matters better or worse, but then clicked the icon to open the email.

 

Hi Elio,

 

First things first: Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you out again or try to persuade you in any way, you made it very clear where you stand regarding that suggestion. But I just wanted to give you an explanation on something.

 

You mentioned about my treatment of George. Here’s what happened with him: When he first started interning at our family company, my father quickly saw his talents and started to treat him like a son, training him for a position at the company. My father valued him, and initially, I had no reason to disagree.

However, things changed after my father died. George still stayed with the company as he always had, but his contributions started lacking, and the manager at his department noticed that increasing sums of money were missing from some of the accounts that George had been working with. I wanted to trust him as my father had, and gave him a chance to explain himself, but he refused to, which pretty much confirmed his complicity.

He was fired after that, obviously. We didn’t press charges; I just hoped he would get his life in order. I thought that that’s what my father would have done.  

Still, a little while later George showed up again, dating my sister Georgiana and claiming he was in love with her. Georgiana was seventeen, crazy about him as he can be quite charming when he wants to, and I guess George thought she would be able to use her influence in the family business and get him re-hired.

After I confronted him and told him Georgiana did not have any leverage in the company yet, he left her. It became clear at that point that he had only planned to use her to weasel his way back to the company, probably to continue his embezzlements.

Georgiana was, understandably, heartbroken and felt betrayed and used. Neither of us had heard from George since, until I ran into him in Crema. Maybe you understand why I could hardly show any warm feelings toward him, even if I didn’t want to bring everything up publicly.

 

And as for Charlie and Jane, I do realize now, after what you told me, that I had misinterpreted that situation. I was acting on unfounded doubts. But still, I hope you believe me when I say that I only did what I thought would be best for my friend, in order to save him from heartbreak yet again. He has a tendency to be too trusting and kind-hearted and I didn’t want to see him get hurt.

 

Sincerely,

Oliver

 

Elio immediately scrolled back up and read the email again. He was almost at the end of it the second time, when his phone rang and a call came up on the screen, startling him. Marzia.

“Hi, Marz.”

“Hi. Just wanted to check in on how you were doing.”

“Yeah. Well…”

“Elio? Are you okay?”

Elio closed his eyes and rubbed his face. “I’m not sure anymore.” Then he realized he did not want to get into it with Marzia and that’s what she would have insisted, if she thought something was wrong with him. “No, yeah, I guess I am. Just tired. I think I’ll stay in for the evening. I’m sure it’ll pass.”

 

 

Elio left Rome the next day as planned and arrived in Crema just in time for a dinner with an excited family asking about his week. He didn’t get any time alone with Jane until after dessert, when they went to enjoy their after-dinner sorbets in the garden, away from the others.

They sat at the edge of the pool and Jane took off her shoes, dipping her feet into the water.

“I think I’m pretty okay now,” she said wading her feet in the water. “I just needed some time, but now, Charlie could walk in right now and I wouldn’t even bother to get up.”

Elio watched her lean back on the grass. She probably had convinced herself that all that was true.

“But more importantly, tell me, how was Rome?” Jane nudged Elio on his shoulder. “Did anything exciting happen?”

Elio told her about Oliver asking him out and him subsequently rejecting him.

“You understand why I said no, right? But when I told him I knew what he had done to George, he actually sent me an email after, explaining that George had, basically, lied about the whole thing.“

Jane was surprised to hear that George, who everyone had liked, was actually capable of not only deceiving and flat-out lying to people but actually stealing money.

Together they wondered whether they should tell everyone else, but Elio did not feel comfortable spreading a story that Oliver had told him in, as he assumed, confidence. And it involved Oliver’s sister, too, so they decided to keep it to themselves for now.

“I’m mostly just disappointed that apparently I can’t read people at all,” Elio sighed. “I misjudged both Oliver and George completely.”

He regretted having been so harsh on Oliver, especially since he had turned out to be a rather upstanding friend and a brother. Oliver had acted only out of loyalty, wanting to protect his loved ones; not out of spite.

Elio briefly entertained the thought of how different things might have been now, if he had not been so quick to presume things about Oliver. If only he had cared to follow his own advice from earlier in the summer and give Oliver a chance before judging him. If only.

Elio knew he should probably reply to Oliver’s mail, but he was too embarrassed about the things he had said to his face.

He decided he would try and forget the whole thing; yes, that’s what he would do. Oliver would be returning home soon too, and his busy, fancy life in New York would most likely make him forget the summer in Europe in no time.

“Well, was there anything else in Rome that I should know about?” Jane asked waking Elio up from his thoughts.

Elio had intentionally left out the part about Oliver’s involvement with Charlie, because, well, what good would that do. They would never see them again. Now he fixed his eyes on the treetops swaying in the mild breeze, knowing he wouldn’t be able to lie to Jane if he looked at her in the eye. “No, that was about it.”

 

 

The last weeks of the summer flew by, and Jane and her family returned home to London when the season was over. Similarly, Lucia returned home to Sicily to her parents.

The days got shorter, school took over and the leaves started turning yellow. Piano lessons kept Elio busy in his free time, and before he knew it, it was already time to start planning for fall vacations.

In the cousins’ group chat, Lucia was bitter that she hadn’t been able to follow George to Athens in the summer and was now determined to make up for it. She had stayed in touch with him and found out that he was flying to the Greek Islands for his vacation, and she was now asking her cousins to help her find a way to get there without her parents knowing. While they happily sent her to Crema to spend the summers with her cousins, going off to vacation with a strange boy would have been unacceptable. She was from a good Catholic family, after all.

Lucia finally came up with a plan, getting one of the girls from her school in Sicily to go with her as a cover. That way she could hopefully keep her parents in the dark about her real reason for going to Greece.

Remembering what he had heard from Oliver, Elio tried to slow down her plans, and questioned whether it would even make sense, knowing Lucia’s English skills or George’s Italian, for that matter. Lucia, however, had an answer ready for him.

“Body language will fill in for the words that we don’t know,“ she typed with wink emojis.

Next, Elio tried to thwart her plans by asking his father to invite Lucia to Crema again instead, but to no avail. Still, he didn’t want to betray Lucia nor reveal what he had discussed with Oliver, so he just hoped things would work out, this time.

 

 

As for his own vacation, Elio got a call from his uncle Mr Giardiniere, asking whether he would like to join him and Elio’s aunt on their annual theater trip to New York. They had after all spent the entire summer at the villa, so this would be the least they could do to return the favor to the Perlman family. Elio could come and see the shows with them, or just explore the city on his own, however he preferred.

“I heard your cousin Lucia is going to Greece, and it’s obviously not going to be that warm In New York, but it’s still New York, after all. The Big Apple. Lots of things to do and see, maybe even some of those music things of yours.”

Elio thought it might be a good distraction from everything and he could definitely use a change of scenery, so in the end, he said yes. And maybe he really could even go check out Juilliard while he was there.

 

 

Paradoxically, Elio felt the most free he had ever felt when they arrived on the American soil and he walked along the avenues lined with steely New York skyscrapers towering over him.

The streets crowded with pushy, busy office workers and wandering tourists did not bother him and instead, he could see himself living there, getting lost in the stream of people who each were there to make their dreams come true. The artists singing, dancing, or playing their music in parks or on the subway enthralled him. The city was full of life and opportunities and his heart was beating a little faster.

For the mornings, Elio usually wandered off on his own, and met with his aunt and uncle for a late lunch. For the Saturday half-way into their trip, they had chosen a deli on the Upper West Side.

“We could go and take a look at the Columbia University after this,” his uncle suggested, taking a messy bite out of his pastrami sandwich. “It’s the oldest university in New York and the campus is beautiful. It’s not on our way exactly, but it’s not a long detour, only about a twenty-minute walk away.”

Elio made a face. “I’m sure it would be nice. But one of the American exchange students from this summer, Oliver Darcy, goes there.” The last thing Elio wanted was to run into Oliver at his university. What would he think? That Elio was now stalking him across the globe, months later?

“So?” his uncle asked, not understanding what the problem was.

“I don’t want to run into him. He’s…filthy rich,” Elio said, lacking a better explanation.

“That’s what you’re holding against him? And come on, it’s Saturday. Surely there aren’t many students around.”

Elio had to admit that his uncle was most likely right, and he actually wascurious to see Columbia, so he agreed to the plan.

 

 

It was a beautiful fall day. Crispy and cool, with a mostly clear, blue sky. The rain clouds forecast for that afternoon had not yet reached Manhattan. Elio was appropriately impressed when they arrived at the South Lawn of the Columbia campus, surrounded by the university buildings from the late 1800s.

At first he kept looking around in search of tall, blond men, just in case, but it was so quiet everywhere that he soon relaxed and let himself enjoy the beautiful architecture and manicured lawns and foot paths.

Mr and Mrs Giardiniere had to remind their nephew to keep up with them, as Elio stopped often to look around at the red and white brick buildings, fascinated by the history. After all, several American Founding Fathers and presidents had gotten their higher education here.

In the end, Elio’s uncle suggested it might be best if Elio took a look around on his own, at his own pace, and met them afterwards by the gate.

Elio headed for The Pemberley Hall building first, as it housed the Classics department and Elio wanted to see their library. He wandered in the hall and stopped to look at a wall that displayed about a dozen headshots.

He suspected them to be of students or alumni, and was strangely pleased to see Oliver’s photo among them.

He looked like himself, Elio thought. The same steady look in his eyes, chiseled jaw, golden hair arranged just so that it looked like it naturally fell that way.

“He’s handsome, isn’t he?”

Elio startled and turned around to see an elderly woman carrying a pile of folders smiling at him. Maybe she was a librarian or a secretary.

Elio stepped further away from the pictures, feeling like he had been caught.

“Oliver Darcy,” the woman nodded towards the photo. “He’s the favorite of all of us librarians, always so polite when he comes here to do his research. Rather shy but very nice once you get to know him more.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, do you know Mr Darcy?”

“Just a little.”

“Did you know that last year he donated a lot of money to help one librarian’s daughter who didn’t have insurance? He paid for all her medical bills. And of course he’s a brilliant student, he wouldn’t be up there otherwise.”

She waved at the wall of pictures and Elio now noticed the plaque above them, “Most accomplished theses, 2014-2015”.

 

 

When Elio arrived in the actual library, he wandered between the shelves and ran his fingertips along the backs of the books, mesmerized. The smell of old books wasn’t for everyone but for Elio it was intoxicating, as the history that the library had. Elio was certain he could have sat there for weeks on end, reading and admiring rare editions.

He was still in awe of the vastness of the literature collection when he stepped out of the building and noticed that the stairs were wet. It must have rained while he had been inside and he had just been so immersed in the atmosphere inside that he hadn’t heard it.

Elio descended the stairs looking carefully at his feet, making sure not to fall on the wet, slippery steps. Thus, he didn’t pay attention to the person approaching along the foot path and was taken by surprise when he lifted his gaze and saw that the person he almost collided into was none other than Oliver.

“Oliver,” he gasped.

Oliver looked just as stunned. “Elio.”

“I…”

They were both taken by surprise and neither knew what to do. For Elio, the surprise mixed with nervousness and oddly enough, a tinge of happiness.

Oliver’s hair was soaking wet and Elio looked at his white t-shirt that was practically see-through and plastered to his chest, showing the skin underneath. Well, that confirmed the rain shower, too.

Oliver noticed his eyes wandering on his body and got flustered.

“So, umm…”

“I thought all the students would be out on a Saturday,” Elio said quickly. He didn’t want Oliver to think he had stalked him the first chance he could get.

“We are, technically. Are you here alone?”

“No, I’m with my aunt and uncle.”

Elio started to explain that he was just visiting New York for his fall vacation, and Oliver simultaneously blubbered that he had just needed to get something from the library and that’s why he was there.

“We are here just for the week,” Elio said.

“Oh.”

Silence.

“Are you staying on the Upper West Side?” Oliver asked.

“No, Theater District. They like to go and see shows.”

“And who are you traveling with?”

Amused, Elio noted that Oliver had asked him that once already. Maybe he was just as nervous as Elio was. “My aunt and uncle.”

“Oh.”

More silence, and Elio didn’t know where to look.

“It was a beautiful library, I was just browsing in there, at the end of the building.” Elio waved in the direction of the library and immediately cringed internally. Why did he have to do that? Like Oliver wouldn’t have known where it was.

“It is. Beautiful.”

Silence again.

“So how do you like New York?”

“Oh, I think it’s amazing. But who wouldn’t, right?”

“Well, your praise is rare from what I’ve learned, so I’m glad our city has made an impression on you.” Oliver sounded sincere, without a single hint of his usual sarcasm.

Elio drew a breath. This was somehow getting too overwhelming. “Okay, so I better go meet my aunt and uncle, they are waiting for me by the entrance.”

“I’ll walk with you?”

“I think I can find it on my own.”

“No, let me help you, there’s a handy shortcut through this one corridor that I can show you.”

 

 

When they reached the gate, Oliver introduced himself to Mr and Mrs Giardiniere and they talked about the history of the campus and the general area around it.

Elio didn’t quite know how it happened, but by the end of their conversation, Oliver had invited them all to dinner at a new restaurant that had just opened in West Village.

“We are going there tonight with Charlie and Caroline. It just got a great review in New York Times and therefore will probably be super busy, but I know the owner, so we’ve managed to get a table.”

“We would be happy to join you,” Elio’s aunt thanked Oliver when Elio had no words left.

“And my sister will actually be coming too, and I know she would like to meet you, Elio,” Oliver said cautiously, wondering what Elio would think of the idea.

Elio was surprised to hear Oliver wanting to introduce Elio to his family members. It seemed rather personal, especially coming from Oliver. But he had nothing against it, and was intrigued even, to meet Georgiana whom he had only heard about from both Oliver and George. Not that the latter’s description held much weight anymore.

“Oh, sure. I mean...that would be great.”

“Great.” Oliver beamed. “We will see you tonight, then.”

 

 

After they had agreed on the dinner, Oliver returned to the campus, and Elio and his aunt and uncle continued walking towards Midtown.

Mrs Giardiniere was impressed.

“He was very nice, not at all a snob like you implied, Elio. He seemed very friendly and was lovely to speak with.”

“I know. I am just as surprised as you,” Elio shook his head, perplexed.

“I wonder why he’s different now, then?” his aunt said before she was distracted by the window display of a china store.

Watching her ooh and aah over the teacups in the window, Elio wondered the same thing. Their argument in Rome had been explosive enough; surely Oliver couldn’t be interested in him anymore, still trying to impress him?

And if Oliver’s sister wanted to meet him, it must have been only because of things Oliver had told her. Elio found himself happy that despite the horrible things he had said to Oliver in Rome, Oliver still apparently hadn’t started to hate him.

He also realized that he was rather looking forward to the dinner.

Chapter Text

In the evening, Elio‘s aunt and uncle wanted to take a cab to the restaurant and Elio watched through the window as the scenery outside changed from the high-rises of Midtown to the idyllic streets and townhouses of West Village. When the cab turned the corner, he could already spot Oliver in front of the restaurant, standing tall and talking with a young woman with long, cascading hair. Elio figured that that must have been his sister.

Elio’s first impression of Georgiana was that she seemed reserved like her brother, but instead of cold, she came off kind. Her hair was the same golden blond as Oliver’s and her greeting of Elio was warm.

“It’s great to meet you, my brother has spoken so much about you,” she said, quickly glancing back at her brother.

Elio was surprised but pleased to hear that.

“Oh sorry, I think hit you with my shopping bag,” Georgiana apologized after she hugged Elio. “Oliver and I are just coming back from the bookstore, he bought me these two books of poems that I’ve long wanted. I told him he shouldn’t have but he insisted that I deserved a treat. He always does that,” Georgiana patted her brother’s arm, smiling at him.

“You know, your poor brother once had to hear me read poetry out loud,” Elio said conspiratorially.

“No, no,” Georgiana exclaimed, “–he must have enjoyed it, he said you had such an excellent taste in literature.”

Elio blushed faintly and Oliver stood beside them looking sheepish.

“He must have been exaggerating a bit,” Elio suggested.

“No, I’m pretty sure I was just talking about your taste in poetry,” Oliver smiled and bit his lip.

“Well, that much I can accept,” Elio laughed.

He felt a weird, swirling feeling in his stomach. Were they flirting?

Oliver seemed to suddenly remember that they weren’t alone. “Oh, Mr and Mrs Giardiniere, how great that you were able to come. Shall we all go inside now? I think the Bingleys are there already.”

 

 

The dinner could not have been more enjoyable. The walls of the restaurant were all windows and interior décor was intentionally sparse, but the wall lights cast a golden glow and the lively crowd created a warm ambiance that was supplemented with live piano music.

The place was packed full as it always happens when a new establishment arrives in New York’s restaurant scene. However, since Oliver knew the owner, they had not only managed to get a table but their party of seven had been seated at the best one of the house.

Oliver sat at the end of the table and acted as the perfect host, and more than once Elio wondered if this was even the same person that he had met in Italy. Oliver gave Mr and Mrs Giardiniere tips on what exhibitions to see in the museums this week, and what were the best days to dine at the nicest restaurants without the crowds, even offering to help them secure tables wherever they wanted.

Charlie sat across from Elio at the other end of the table and mused to him about how the weeks in Crema had been some of the best of his life.

“Americans could learn a thing or two from Italians when it comes to food and relaxation,” he added taking a crunchy bite out of his appetizer crostino.

Whereas Charlie was happy to see Elio again, Charlie’s twin sister was less so.

Caroline couldn’t understand how this boy just kept reappearing in their lives, right by Oliver’s side again. What did it take to get rid of him?

Elio understood now that Caroline’s attitude towards him had stemmed from jealousy, and even if it wasn’t easy, he was thus determined not to let her get to him too much.

She first enquired seemingly innocently how the rest of the summer had been in Crema but sneakily ended up bringing up George Wickham. Her clear intention was to remind Oliver how Elio and his friends had been so infatuated with someone who had caused nothing but trouble for Oliver and his sister.

Predictably so, Georgiana visibly froze at hearing George’s name.

Elio calmly confirmed that the rest of the summer had gone well and that after all the summer guests had left, life in Crema had returned to normal just like every fall. Then he turned to Georgiana and suggested that maybe they should ask about the piano now.

Earlier in the evening the piano in the corner of the restaurant had been played by a professional, and Mr Giardiniere had suggested that Elio should ask if he could play something for them.

Elio had demurred, saying that one can’t just do something like that in a restaurant. In small towns that might have been different, but this was a big city.

At that point Oliver had joined in.

“No, that’s a great idea, Mr Giardiniere. I would, too, like to finally hear Elio play. I’m sure it can be arranged if I talk to my friend.”

Elio still wasn’t too convinced – and to be honest, he suddenly felt shy thinking about playing in front of Oliver – but Georgiana who had immediately been taken with all things Elio, had also insisted that he should definitely do it. She had taken up piano lessons not long ago and would be excited to hear a more advanced musician play something.

“Okay, in that case, we have to play something together,” Elio had said. “That’s the only way you’ll get me near that piano. But let’s eat first and see about that later.”

Now that Elio had brought up the subject again voluntarily after Caroline’s malicious comment, Oliver sent him a grateful look. He had interpreted Elio’s plan of distracting Georgiana from the subject of George correctly and stepped away from the table to go and find his friend in the back of the restaurant.

The warm look exchanged between Oliver and Elio did not go unnoticed by Caroline and she realized that her plans had once again backfired. Poorly hiding her disappointment, she proceeded to pour herself more wine.

Oliver returned in no time, and behind him trailed the owner of the restaurant.

“I hear from Oliver that we have musicians in the crowd today. Absolutely you should have a go at the piano,” he insisted enthusiastically. “And right now would be a perfect time since our resident guy is in the back, having his break.”

Oliver watched Elio and Georgiana walk to the other end of the room and settle on the piano stool side by side, laughing, making room for each other. The entire clientele at the restaurant stopped their dinners at the sound of the first notes and Oliver could not look away.

He was proud of his sister, too, but it was Elio whom he couldn’t take his eyes off of.

What had initially started as an inexplicable physical attraction, had found more layers when he had learned how smart, irreverent, and admirable the boy was, and it felt like each note Elio played traveled across the dining room straight to Oliver’s heart.

If only he could somehow show to Elio that he wasn’t at all the kind of person Elio had thought. The email Oliver had sent had not been brought up since, but it had to mean something that Elio was even here, right?

Elio had let Georgiana choose the piece and while she played the melody on the right hand side, Elio accompanied her with the left hand chords. Elio’s part obviously required less attention especially since he was more experienced than her, and it allowed him to keep glancing back at Oliver. Maybe it was everything he had learned from the email, or the new surroundings in a new city, but he had started to see Oliver in a different light and he didn’t want to stop looking.

Noticing the two of them seeing practically nothing but each other in the room annoyed Caroline. She leaned closer to Oliver and tried yet another tactic.

Whispering, she asked whether Oliver agreed with her about Elio looking kind of tired, not at all lively like in the summer. Like he was a completely different person.

“Maybe he’s a little paler now than in the summer, which I’m sure we all are, but other than that I don’t really see any difference,” Oliver said.

“I remember you once looked at him like he was the best dancer you had ever seen.”

“I did. But we had only just met him back then. Now I think he’s the best person I’ve ever known in my life,” Oliver replied, his eyes never leaving Elio’s and effectively shutting Caroline up for good.

 

 

When they were saying their goodbyes at the end of the evening, Georgiana insisted that they should get together again before Elio left the city. She had made fast friends with Elio and was sad that like the Bingley twins, she lived so close to the restaurant that they couldn’t join the guests for their evening walk back to the hotel.

Oliver, on the other hand, said he would walk with Elio and his aunt and uncle to their Midtown hotel as he was going uptown anyway.

 

 

Mr and Mrs Giardiniere walked ahead, and Elio and Oliver trailed slower behind them, talking. At one point, a woman in a hurry huffed passing them by and pushed Elio aside, causing him to bump against Oliver. His knuckles brushed against Oliver’s, and neither of them rushed to pull their hands away.

Oliver asked if they had a lot of plans for the rest of their stay, and Elio said he wanted to go see the New York Philharmonic in concert, although he had just missed a rare performance of the original version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto by two weeks.

“The revised version is the most popular concerto of the last century, but the original was long hidden, and still doesn’t get performed often. It would have been awesome to hear it performed live. But we probably wouldn’t have been able to find tickets anyway.”

“Oh, I could have probably helped you with that?”

“Thanks,” Elio smiled. “But they are not performing it anymore this fall season. And many actually prefer the updated version, but the original just has this cadenza in the style of Bach that I like at the end of the 1stmovement. It isn’t there in the revised version anymore.”

Oliver didn’t understand half of what that meant, but he could have listened to Elio speak forever. He was in awe of the seemingly endless amount of information that lived in that head under those dark, enticing curls.

“How do you know so much?”

Elio shook his head. “Oh, I know nothing, Oliver.”

“You seem to know more than most people your age.”

“If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.”

“What things that matter?”

Elio looked at him, thinking whether he should say something about how embarrassed he was about having totally misjudged Oliver and how he regretted turning him down in Rome, but they were interrupted by the loud beep of Elio’s phone.

The text message was from Jane: “Lucia is in trouble, it’s George. Call me as soon as you can.”

 

 

Jane was near hysterical on the phone, and the Midtown traffic made it hard to hear what she was saying, but slowly Elio started to get a clue about what was going on.

Lucia had followed through on her plan to fly to the Greek Islands to vacation with George and she had indeed managed to arrange for her friend to come with her as a cover.

Apparently, they had been joined by a group of George’s friends, one of which was a son of a known stockbroker. And not just any stockbroker – one that had famously been convicted for a pyramid scheme. The son had also been charged for his involvement in the scheme, but had been released in court on a technicality.

The son owned the yacht that Lucia, George, and the whole group had all been on, and Jane said that they knew this because pictures of them had been all over tabloids. 

“Tabloids?” Elio asked.

“Yes, paparazzi pictures all over the front pages.”

Jane explained that obviously the photographers hadn’t been after Lucia or even George, but that the group they had hung out with also included a troubled actress that the paparazzi hounded on a daily basis. Getting pictures of her with the fallen Wall Street heir had been a field day for them and the tabloids.

When all the news had gotten back to Lucia’s parents they had been livid. Devoutly religious and well-respected in their little village in Sicily, they were devastated thinking that their friends and neighbors would hear about this. Their only daughter having no sense of decency, frolicking with strangers with a criminal past. Lucia’s mother had been doing nothing but crying for the past 24 hours.

The parents had demanded their daughter return home to Sicily immediately and they would not allow her to travel anywhere on her own anymore, since her judgement clearly could not be trusted.

The thing was, however, that no one had been able to contact Lucia since the pictures had come out.

Oliver listened to Elio’s phone call, only hearing his brief interjections which hardly made any sense out of context. Thus, Elio needed to explain the whole thing to him when he got off the call.

“It’s my fault,” Oliver said immediately. “I should’ve exposed George for what he is, already in the summer.”

“No, if anyone’s to blame it’s me. I didn’t say anything about it to my cousins. I should have.”

Elio hurried up to catch up with his aunt and uncle; he had promised Jane he would talk to them and see if there was anything they could do. Either to get Lucia home safely or at least calm down her parents.

“I wish there was some way I could help,” Oliver said, looking at Elio distraught, not knowing what to do. As a comforting gesture, he laid his hand on Elio’s shoulder as they walked.

“I’m afraid what’s done is done already,” Elio sighed, drawing no pleasure from the touch that otherwise might have felt electric between them after everything that had happened that night. “We’ll see if the family can get her home before this gets any worse.”

“Yes, you’re right, this is definitely a family matter. Look, your aunt and uncle are now here, so I will go. I would only be in your way.”

Oliver bid them all goodnight and disappeared into the late night foot traffic of Seventh Avenue.

 

 

Elio and Mr and Mrs Giardiniere changed their flights and flew back to Italy the next day.

Elio was miserable on the plane, watching from his window seat how the clouds crawled by at their 6000-mile altitude. He leaned his temple against the cool glass of the small cabin window and thought how Oliver must have thought that his family was nothing but a mess.

A mess that he would be best staying away from. Elio would most likely never see or hear from Oliver again – a thought that made him sad.

 

 

While Elio was on the plane over the Atlantic, Oliver, Georgiana, and the Bingley twins were gathered at Oliver’s Upper West Side apartment for Sunday brunch. Oliver had ordered in the food from Georgiana’s favorite place.

As they ate around the dining room table straight from the cartons, their host was there in body but not in mind. Oliver kept tapping on his phone and Caroline finally made a remark on it.

“You are so different from last night, Oliver. It can’t be just because Elio isn’t here now, can it?”

“What?” Oliver didn’t seem to have heard anything the others had said and excused himself from the table, leaving his phone behind on the table. Caroline took a peek at it and managed to catch a glimpse of what Oliver had been looking at before the phone went to lock screen. The browser page had showed a list of flights to Europe.

Chapter Text

Elio didn’t get home to Crema until midnight, but his parents were still up at the villa. No one had been able to get a hold of Lucia, not even Kitty who had been her co-conspirator and somewhat aware of her whereabouts at the beginning of her trip.

But now, nothing.

Even though they had left her messages urging her to come home or to at least talk to her parents so that they would not worry about anything worse. But maybe the cell reception was bad on the Mediterranean and who knew where the yacht was sailing at that point.

While Elio had returned home, his aunt and uncle had continued their journey directly to Sicily, to Lucia’s parents. Their plan was to have Mrs Giardiniere stay with Lucia’s parents and for Mr Giardiniere to fly to Greek Islands to look for her.

The problem was, no one knew where to start looking. She had no money with her, either. Her parents had contacted their bank and found out that the credit card she had taken with her had reached its limit, and as far as Kitty knew, Lucia had not even bought her return ticket yet.

 

 

When Elio got a chance to call Jane in London the next morning, it turned out that just like Elio and Oliver had blamed themselves, she also felt responsible for what happened since she had not told anyone what she had learned about George from Elio.

“It’s been a madhouse,” Jane sighed. “Your parents have been constantly on the phone with mine, and trying to talk to Lucia’s parents. I heard Marzia’s parents had dropped by your villa too, to see if there was anything they could do.”

“Ha, I’m sure they are glad their daughter only latched on to a naïve fool, and not to a leach with connections to criminals,“ Elio said peevishly.

“Come on Elio, I’m sure they just tried to be helpful.”

“I know,” Elio sighed apologetically. “I’m just irritated by this whole thing. Because it’s not just Lucia’s family that this whole thing has consequences for. There’s no way people who have reputations to uphold will want anything to do with this kind of a mess. Even Oliver left when he heard.”

“Oliver? Oliver Darcy? How does he know about this?”

“I was with him when I called you from New York. He was very nice about it, but clearly wanted to just leave me and aunt and uncle to take care of our own problems. There’s no way he’ll ever be asking me out again. Or Charlie you, for that matter.”

“I wasn’t really even expecting Charlie to.” Jane sounded puzzled. “And you can’t be wanting Oliver to, either, right?”

“No, I guess not.” Elio was glad that Jane couldn’t see his face over the phone.

“Did you think he was going to, though?”

“I don’t know what he thought two days ago. But now something like that couldn’t be further from his mind, I’m sure of that.”

 

 

In the evening, Elio got a call from Colin. He could hear silverware clinking against dishes in the background of the call and food orders being shouted out.

“Hi, I’m at lunch now, but just wanted to call and say that I heard about what’s going on with Lucia. I have to say, this is very devastating. I’m so sorry, but I guess this is what happens when you leave young women unsupervised when they are not used to the ways of the world.”

Elio rolled his eyes, but tried to listen patiently. Colin hardly deserved a reply, nor did he expect one. He had clearly called just to gloat.

“Lady de Bourgh thinks so too, and doesn’t see how being connected to this kind of reputation could help anyone, in career aspirations or personal relationships,” Colin continued. “Anyone worth knowing won’t want any closer acquaintance with someone connected to that creep who stole the lifesavings of honest hardworking people.”

Elio cleared his throat. “Yes, exactly. And when you think about it, it may not be wise for you to talk to us too often, either. After all, someone at the café or wherever you are now, may overhear you.”

Colin sounded like it was a revelation to him in that moment. “Oh yes, you may be right.”

“You can never be too careful, especially considering who you’re working for,” Elio continued hoping his plan would work and he would get Colin to end the call. “You wouldn’t want Lady de Bourgh’s friends to know that her employee is in anyway connected to people like that.”

“Yes, absolutely. Very good thinking, Elio. Well, I just wanted to say how sorry I was when I heard. Bye now.”

Elio hung up the phone at the end of their call and rubbed his eyes. There didn’t seem to be a limit to how insufferable his cousin could get.

 

 

For the next days, wherever Elio went in Crema, people commented on what they had heard about George. Elio never knew so many people in town paid attention to gossip, but then again, it was a small town and nothing rarely happened. When something did, news traveled fast.

The tone which people spoke of George with had taken a complete 180-degree turn. The same ladies who in the summer had marveled at how he had been such a lovely and polite young man, now claimed to have always known there was something off about him. Something that they quite hadn’t been able to put their finger on, but at least it was now clear.

Everyone suddenly also had supposedly heard of new, suspicious people connected to him and the general consensus was that they hoped that such a crook would never set his foot in Crema again.

 

 

Two days later, Elio’s father came to tell his son that Lucia’s mother had called. Lucia had finally gotten in touch with them, calling from an airport that she was coming home. She was safe, but she had dropped her phone into the sea and had only gotten a new one on the way to the airport.

Elio could not believe what he was hearing. How had she gotten the money for her ticket? Or the phone? As far as they had heard, uncle Giardiniere had not been able to locate her.

Elio told his father they needed to call Jane immediately, and he put the phone on speaker mode.

“Your uncle must have somehow found a way to get in touch with her and wire the money to her, I guess,” Mr Perlman said as he explained the same news to Jane again, and Elio agreed. He couldn’t imagine how their uncle could have found Lucia in such a short time, though. There were hundreds of islands their yacht could have been anchored at, not to mention the vastness of the Aegean Sea.

“Maybe George isn’t as bad as we thought. Maybe he gave her money and helped her get in touch with her parents after he saw that she had been included in the pictures?” Jane suggested.

“You keep thinking that, Jane, if it makes you feel better,” Mr Perlman said as he got up to go and tell his wife the relatively good news. “I do keep wondering how on earth your uncle found her? It must have cost a small fortune to dart around the islands and ports with what I’m assuming has been a private plane or a boat.”

With his father gone, Elio confessed to Jane that he regretted ever telling Oliver about this.

“I’m sure he won’t tell anyone,” she reassured him.

“Yeah, I know. That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“What is it then?”

“I don’t know. But he must be congratulating himself on not ending up tangled with our family.”

“But you never tried to impress him, and rejected him when he tried to take you on a date. Why would you care about his opinion?”

“I don’t know!” Elio exclaimed. “I can’t explain it. And I’ll probably never see him again, but I just hate the idea that he’s out there somewhere, thinking badly of us. Of me.”

 

 

After he ended the call with Jane, Elio gave himself permission to consider the possibilities that he had not wanted to tell Jane about. He was beginning to realize that he and Oliver might have been able to make each other happy. That they might have been perfectly suited for each other, in all their opposite characteristics. His liveliness could have perhaps softened Oliver’s aloofness and demeanor given the chance, and Oliver’s knowledge of the world could have given Elio a wider perspective of life. Was it this missed opportunity, their friendship cut too short, that he was grieving now?

 

 

Lucia called Elio herself a few days later, excited. She didn’t sound too concerned about the worry she had caused. In her eyes, it had been a fabulous adventure.

“Can you believe it, I got to party on a yacht with George and all these rich people!”

“I’m not sure I care to hear too much.”

“Oh right, I remember you being quite taken with him too in the summer. It’s okay, I get it if you’re jealous.”

“Oh, Lucia, I am a lot of things, but I can assure you that I am not jealous.”

“Anyway, he was so great, and we had such fun. He took care of me in Greece and arranged for the whole journey from the islands to the mainland. Except I think Oliver arranged the flight to Sicily, though. And paid for all the tickets. And for my new phone.”

“Oliver?” Elio blurted out.

“Oh. Damn. I shouldn’t have said that, I promised him!”

“Oliver was in Greece?”

“Yes, he was the one who convinced George that it would be best if I just went back home after those paparazzi pictures came out,” Lucia admitted reluctantly, knowing she shouldn’t have said anything.

Elio couldn’t get a single word out.

“But Elio, don’t tell anyone, he made me promise I wouldn’t say anything about him being there.”

“Oliver? Oliver Darcy?” Elio was still surprised.

“Elio, promise me? By the way, Oliver’s actually quite nice. Not snooty at all like we thought.”

 

 

The next week, Elio received an email from uncle Giardiniere.

 

“Dear Elio,

 

I got your text last night. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this, but since you obviously already know something and demanded to hear the rest, here it is. But this information is for you only, okay?

Yes, Oliver got in touch with me when I had landed in Greece and insisted that I would let him help me with finding Lucia and bringing her home. He ended up taking over the whole search, to be honest, because I did not have any connections or any idea where to even start.

To my understanding, Oliver knew people that knew George, and that was how he managed to find out where they group and the yacht were. He also arranged a boat to take Lucia from the islands to Athens, and from there he booked her on the flight to Sicily. Paying for everything, mind you. I believe he also bought her a new phone to replace the one she had lost, so that she could call home.

But Oliver insisted that no one should say anything about his involvement. That I should take all the credit. I of course couldn’t have allowed that, but he insisted, saying that it was his fault to begin with for not exposing George’s past earlier. That if he hadn’t been too proud to talk about his private life, everyone would have been aware of what George had done and the circles that he ran in to begin with.

Again, don’t mention this to anyone else in the family, Oliver made both me and Lucia promise not to tell anyone about his involvement and it seemed to be important for him, so I haven’t shared this with anyone except your aunt, of course.

And she continues to agree with me that Oliver is a fine young man. Every bit as nice as when we were in New York. But if you ask me, he wasn’t doing this just to be nice; he hardly knows Lucia, after all. I think he must have had some other motive to do all this and we just have to be grateful that he did.

 

Give my love to everyone at the villa,

Your Uncle Luca”

 

 

After reading the email, Elio was overcome with mixed emotions. He was equally pleased and embarrassed thinking of Oliver having gone through all that trouble.

Elio thought about all the things that Oliver must have had to resort to. He likely had had to talk to people whom he despised, people associated with George. And then to talk to George and persuade him to tell him where they were. He must have had to bribe him somehow, George never would have done him a favor. George must have enjoyed the power he had had over Oliver, and probably had extorted him for a fairly large sum of money. How else would he have agreed to tell Oliver their location and let him escort Lucia away?

And Oliver had done all that just to find a girl he hardly liked or respected?

Oliver hadn’t been in touch with Elio since that dinner in New York and now if he wanted his involvement kept secret, Elio wondered if he’d ever find out what had really happened and why.

 

Chapter Text

In December, Jane and her sisters and parents joined Elio’s family at the Perlman villa for the holidays. Three days before New Year’s Eve, Elio and Jane were sitting in the living room, both reading their respective books in silence as usual, when Elio’s phone beeped with a text. He glimpsed at the screen.

“Huh, it’s my piano teacher.” Elio read the text and put the phone back on the table. “She wanted me to let you know that Charlie has supposedly rented the apartment again.”

“What? When? How does she know that?” Jane asked. Elio explained that his teacher was friends with the professor who had rented his apartment to the Bingleys and Oliver in the summer. During the breaks of their piano lessons in the fall she had learned about the short-lived affair that had happened between Elio’s cousin and one of the Americans.

“Apparently Charlie has rented it again for New Year’s.”

”What does this mean?” Jane asked with wide eyes.

Elio smiled. ”It means Charlie will be in Crema again. Might be here already.”

“Fine. Okay. But I don’t really care whether he’s coming or not. I just wish people, like your teacher, wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it,” Jane groaned. “But I know they will. And oh, my mother will be insufferable. Anyway, I’ll be so happy when the week is over and he’ll be gone again and I never have to think about him again.”

As much as Jane pretended not to care, the thoughts bouncing inside her head were clearly visible to someone like Elio who knew her well. It would be interesting to see how well she would keep her calm when they would inevitably run into Charlie in town, sooner or later.

 

 

It turned out to be sooner rather than later. The next day, Elio and Jane were in town, running errands with Elio’s mother and stopping for ice cream to celebrate the successful submission of Elio’s application to Juilliard, just before the deadline.

They emerged from the grocery store carrying bags full of items for Mrs Perlman’s New Year’s dinner and stopped outside to wait for Elio’s mother who was still paying inside, when they saw Charlie across the piazza, browsing at the newspaper stand.

And that wasn’t all; next to him was a tall man in a dark blue winter parka.

Oliver.

Elio and Jane froze in their spots, not knowing if they should go and say hi, or leave and hope to escape undetected.

The latter option wasn’t an option for long, as Charlie spotted them and practically ran to them. Oliver stood back instead, continuing to leaf through the newspaper selection at the stand.

“Hi, Jane, Elio. Good to see you. Oh, and hello Mrs Perlman.”

At that exact moment, Elio’s mother came out of the store stuffing her wallet into her purse and joined them, making the reunion even more awkward.

Elio watched Jane and Charlie make cautious small talk, Jane slowly warming up to Charlie’s questions as he seemed genuinely delighted to see her again and talk to her.

All the while, however, Elio kept one eye on Oliver, who seemed to be doing the same while making his purchase at the stand. The young man selling the papers smiled at Oliver as he handed him his change, and Elio was instantly jealous; he would’ve been jealous of anyone getting to talk to Oliver.

Oliver walked over to the rest of them with the newspaper under his arm.

“How are you, Elio? Hello, Mrs Perlman.” Very polite, but distant; there were no signs of the light-hearted demeanor that had been there in New York.

“I’m good. And you?”

“I’m good too. It’s good to be back here.”

“It’s quite a surprise to see you here. Have you come for New Year’s?”

“Yes, we’ll be here for a week. What do people do here for New Year’s?”

“Oh, I think there might be some festivities in town,” Elio’s mother interjected. “But our family just spends it at the villa, we have an annual New Year’s Eve dinner tradition.”

Elio kept wondering why throughout the conversation, Oliver seemed brooding rather than happy to see him. Was it because his mother and the others were there instead of them being alone?

Elio found himself disappointed that they had reverted back to their earlier ways of keeping each other at arm’s length. But could he have expected anything else, really, after the whole Lucia thing? He couldn’t blame Oliver for wanting to keep his distance.

“We have the whole family visiting for the holidays, just like we had for the summer,” Elio’s mother continued. “Except Lucia is not here. Her parents wanted to, umm, keep her home for a while.”

Elio did not dare to look up at the mention of Lucia, so he did not see whether Oliver let anything show on his face.

Had they been alone, Elio would have at least wanted to ask him about his involvement in getting her back home safely. Yet, this was not the time nor place, since his mother had no idea Oliver even knew about it, let alone had been secretly instrumental in her rescue.

 

 

Back at the villa, Elio and Jane headed directly to the kitchen to unpack the groceries and to get a chance to talk in private. Jane admitted that it had been nice to see Charlie.

“But I’m glad that it’s now taken care of and over with. I won’t have to keep wondering when or where I will suddenly run into him. It won’t be like there’s a danger lurking whenever we go to town,” she said as she kept handing items from the shopping bags to Elio.

“Based on what I saw, I think there’s a great danger of him falling in love with you,” Elio said, smiling while he placed the milk cartons in the fridge.

“Don’t be stupid,” Jane replied, but her cheeks flushed. “It’s just too bad he had to bring that stuffy boring Oliver with him.”

Elio took the bag of oranges she was handing to him and shook his head. “Please don’t call him that.”

“Why not?” Jane was flummoxed.

“Oh Jane, I’ve been so blind,” Elio sighed, but he didn’t have time to elaborate as Mafalda rushed in, eager to take over and to make sure the kids weren’t messing up the intricate order in her kitchen cabinets.

 

 

Meanwhile, Oliver and Charlie were having coffee at their favorite place in Crema.

“So, what do you think?” Charlie asked.

“I definitely think it’s worth a shot,” Oliver smiled.

“You don’t think that she’s over the whole thing?”

Oliver’s phone rang at that moment, so he only mouthed “absolutely not”as he picked up the call.

“Aunt Catherine, how are you? You’ve actually reached me in Crema now. Yes, I’m here again, with Charlie Bingley.”

While Oliver talked to Lady de Bourgh, Charlie texted Jane asking her to dinner with him that evening.

As the text arrived, Elio made sure it only took her one minute to reply and say that she would be happy to.

 

 

Returning to the villa from said dinner late that night, Jane was happier than Elio had ever seen her. It seemed like Charlie had not revealed his friend’s involvement in thwarting their budding relationship – most likely out of loyalty to Oliver, Elio guessed – but over three courses and as many glasses of wine, they had finally talked about everything else and neither of them had no more confusion about the other’s feelings.

“Oh, I only wish you could be as happy as I am, Elio!” Jane sighed happily, twirling around in Elio’s room.

Elio was not jealous of Jane’s happiness, he really wasn’t, but as he got ready for bed, he did wonder why Oliver had come to Crema. He didn’t seem to have any intention of similarly reuniting with Elio or even spending time with him. But Oliver hardly could have wanted to just see the town or meet up with anyone else there. After all, it was not like he had enjoyed his stay in Crema that much or made that many friends during it.

 

 

The day before New Year’s Eve went quietly, up until the moment Elio’s phone rang early in the evening. He groaned when he saw Colin’s number on the screen of his phone. He knew he’d better answer now or he would only end up in a long text chain with him, whatever the subject was.

He tapped the answer button reluctantly. “Hello?”

“Elio?”

“Yes. Hi Colin.”

“It’s me, yes, but I have Lady de Bourgh here for you.”

Elio stopped in his tracks. Why would Lady de Bourgh call him?

“Okay, sure?”

For a little while Elio heard nothing but rustling, but then: “Elio, this is Catherine de Bourgh. How are you?”

“I’m very well, ma’am. And how are you?”

“I’m sure you know why I’m calling, Elio.”

“I…I don’t think that I do.”

“Oh please. Don’t pretend to be so innocent. I can see right through you and I’m going to go straight into business here. I heard you visited New York last month.”

“Yes, with my aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Giardiniere.”

“And my nephew, Oliver Darcy, hosted your visit?”

“He wasn’t exactly hosting, but yes, he was very nice and took us to dinner one evening.”

“I heard that he’s in Crema now and that he’s dating you, which cannot possibly be true. I will absolutely not allow my nephew to get into a relationship with a nobody like you.”

Elio was flabbergasted. The call had taken a peculiar turn very quickly. Where was all this coming from?

Lady de Bourgh continued: “You may think that you apply to Juilliard, and then sneak your way into the society in New York and into my nephew’s life, but that’s not going to happen. You are just a small town talent. You may think you have what it takes, but you cannot possibly be at the level that they require at Juilliard.”

Elio grew icy.

“I believe the application board of Juilliard can make their own assessments of my talents when they hear me play. And as for your nephew, I’m sure Oliver can make his own decisions as well.”

“I still need your answer. Are you two dating? You and Oliver?”

“I believe you just told me a minute ago that it couldn’t possibly be true.”

“Yes, but you may have somehow tricked him into it.”

“In that case, would I admit to that?”

“Just tell me once and for all, are you dating him?”

Elio felt quite sad when he had to admit that he wasn’t.

“Good. You do know he’s meant to marry my daughter when the time comes, right? So I need you to promise you will not date him in the future, either.”

“I will not make any such promises to you, ma’am.” Elio started getting anxious. “And you have insulted me in every possible way by now. Has this been all?”

Lady de Bourgh was stunned that her influence did not work on this boy. Usually her intimidation tactics paid off and she always got her way. This poor cousin of Colin’s was really something.

“Yes, that was all. I will know what to do now.” Her voice as glacial as Elio’s, she hung up the phone without a further goodbye.

Elio sat at his desk, watching the candle that Mafalda had brought to his room. He had no idea what had just happened, but it surely had been weird. He stared at the fluttering flame thinking what might have prompted Lady de Bourgh to make that call.

Finally the dinner bell rang and he blew out the candle and joined the others downstairs.

 

 

On New Year’s Eve, Mafalda was cleaning the kitchen after yet another delicious lunch at the villa. Everyone else was resting, when Jane’s younger sister Kitty yelled from downstairs that Charlie was trudging through the snow in the driveway.

Jane and Elio were reading upstairs and they both put their books down. She glanced at Elio from the other end of the bed and Elio watched her barely contained excitement, amused. She was like a 18thcentury woman, excited about a suitor who was going to call on her at her manor.

“And he’s not alone! That tall, proud American is with him!“ Kitty continued her reporting.

As Kitty’s words registered with Elio, Jane’s excitement suddenly caught on to him as well.

Soon there was a knock on their front door and Elio watched from the upstairs landing when Jane answered the door and Charlie, looking even happier than her, greeted her with a warm hug and a kiss. Jane invited him in, helped him take off his coat, and led him to the living room to meet her parents.

After they were out of sight, Elio noticed Oliver still standing in the doorway looking like he was waiting for something or someone until he glanced up and saw Elio at the top of the stairs and clearly relaxed. They both smiled and Elio descended the stairs.

”Hi.”

”Hello.”

Oliver’s smile finally bore similarity to the one that had been on his face in New York, and it made Elio grasp for words. He was grateful that Oliver spoke first.

”Would you like to go for a walk? We might want to give those two lovebirds some privacy,” Oliver grinned and nodded towards Jane and Charlie who were by now already sitting on the couch, Charlie’s arm tightly wrapped around Jane.

Elio nodded. He grabbed his coat from the knob on the wall and followed Oliver out the door.

 

 

They had walked well past all the villas, along the snowy road towards the countryside before Elio brought it up. He just had to, despite his promises to his uncle.

”I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t say anything, but I have to thank you for what you did with the whole Lucia thing. When you bribed George to tell where they were, or whatever it was that you had to do to get her home safely. I really appreciate it.”

Elio didn’t get any further than that before Oliver grew uncomfortable, so he hastened to add:

“And please don’t blame my uncle for telling me, Lucia let it slip first that you had been there, and then I demanded to know the rest. But you don’t have to worry, no one else in the family knows. So anyway, ever since that I’ve wanted to thank you. If the family knew, I’m sure they’d thank you too.”

Oliver rubbed his face, still looking uneasy. ”They don’t have to thank me for anything. I mean– I didn’t do anything for them. I… I only wanted to ease your worry about your cousin. So, your family doesn’t really owe me anything. I only did it for you.”

For Elio. Only for Elio.

Elio tried to hide his excitement. “Okay. Well, thank you on my behalf, then, at least.”

They walked a bit further in silence, but Oliver must have noticed a change in Elio after that confession, because Oliver cleared his throat and dared himself to similarly bring up a subject he wasn’t sure he was supposed to.

”I asked you something back in August in Rome, remember?”

Elio didn’t answer as that had to be a rhetorical question. In what world would Elio not remember that?

Oliver continued: “Would you still give me the same answer? My feelings for you haven’t changed, but just let me know if you don’t want me to ever bring them up again.”

His feelings hadn’t changed. Oliver’s feelings hadn’t changed.

Elio’s heart swelled, and pure joy started bubbling inside him. He didn’t know where to start but told Oliver how he was embarrassed to remember how he had behaved back then, based on completely false information and shyly admitted how much his own feelings for Oliver had changed since then.

“So much so that they are, in fact, the complete opposite right now.”

A smile spread on Oliver’s face as they kept walking, but Elio didn’t see it because he did not dare to look at Oliver for fear that the happiness he felt himself would make him burst.

”How did you know? I mean, what made you ask again?” Elio managed to get out.

”My aunt called me last night, and I think her call had the exact opposite effect that she had intended,” Oliver laughed. “She told me she had called you and mentioned what you two had discussed. I knew you enough to know that you would’ve had no problem telling her you wanted nothing to do with me, if that was the case. So, when you didn’t tell her that, it gave me hope that I might still have a chance.”

”You do know me,” Elio chuckled. “I already told you off back then and would have had no problem saying said the same things to your aunt. If I still felt them, that is. Which I don’t.”

“But you were right to tell me those things back then. I have felt horrible and ashamed thinking how I acted.“

Elio was surprised. “I had no idea that what I thought or said could affect you that much.”

“Yes, you probably thought I was incapable of any real emotion. But you have no idea how many times I’ve thought about those words of yours: with your arrogance and selfishness, you’re the last man I could ever want.”

“Please don’t repeat what I said that day. I was an idiot,” Elio groaned.

“No, you were right. Our parents taught Georgiana and me good values, but I have more often than not followed them with pride or judgment instead of compassion. I would probably still be that way if I hadn’t met you.”

Elio didn’t know how to react to the unexpected praise and so he changed the subject back to the phone call with Lady de Bourgh.

”So anyway, you were right, I totally would have told your aunt there was no chance of you and me happening. I mean, had I not been interested in you.”

At that point Oliver couldn’t take the dancing around anymore and he stopped in the middle of the empty country road, grabbing Elio by the arm. ”So you’re interested in me, huh?” he teased.

Elio blushed and looked at their feet. ”Well, what does it look like?”

Oliver slid his forefinger under Elio’s chin and tilted his face up, making him look into his eyes. ”It looks like you might finally let me do this.”

The kiss was gentle and tender, as if they were careful not to spook away what they had finally found after having chased it for so long, every time having it slip through their fingers just when they were about to catch it.

With all its sweetness, the kiss still stirred things in both of them deep under their thick winter clothing and Elio groaned when Oliver wrapped him in his arms. There were way too many layers between them to his liking.

Elio brushed his gloved fingers against Oliver’s when they finally broke away from each other and kept walking. “And when did you know that you were interested?”

Oliver didn’t let Elio’s fingers get away and instead laced them with his. ”I can’t tell what the exact moment was. I think I was in the middle of it before I even realized I had begun.”

Elio sighed. ”Oh Oliver, we have wasted so many days. If only I hadn’t been so cruel to you that final day in Rome.”

”I wasn’t any better. It’s not my proudest moment; I don’t know what came over me.”

Now it was Elio’s turn to stop them.

”Well, let’s not dwell on that, there’s no need to compete in who was more horrible that day. I would like to believe that we both have learned and improved since Rome, right?”

“Right.”

After a short silent stretch where Oliver brought Elio’s hand to his lips, Elio mentioned: “Gogol’s most important love affair took place in Rome. Count Vielhorsky.”

“I remember reading about that. Are you Gogol in this scenario?”

“That would make you the Count.”

“Sure, I can be the Count. I’d prefer not to die of tuberculosis like Vielhorsky, though.”

“You won’t. I will take better care of you than Gogol did. Or, contract it from you and we can die together.”

“Wow, that escalated fast,” Oliver laughed. “But for now, can we decide that no one is dying? And that there’s a lot of life ahead of us and I’d like to see it together with you?”

“I’d like that,” Elio smiled.

As they were standing in the middle of the long, empty country road with the barren field covered in light dusting of snow expanding next to them, the world seemed nothing but open to them.

The affection Elio saw in Oliver’s eyes reflected the one in his own when Oliver cradled his face, cool from the frosty air. He closed his eyes when Oliver’s lips touched his again, this time more fervently and their bodies molded to each other as closely as they could in the cool winter afternoon.

Oliver’s warm breath pooled between them when he pulled away enough to be able to ask:

“So. I still haven’t actually gotten an answer to my question. Will you let me take you to dinner tonight?”

“Well, actually… I already had plans. But let me see what I can do about them,” Elio smiled against his lips.

 

 

When Elio returned to the villa he could hardly contain himself. Oliver had returned to town after their walk, to change into something more festive as Elio had invited him and Charlie to the New Year’s Eve dinner at the villa.

Now Elio just had to convince his parents to let Oliver join them for the dinner.

Yes, Oliver, the one he had complained about in the summer, the one who everyone considered – to quote Jane – a stuffy bore, the one who they had thought disregarded everyone. But that’s not at all who he was, now that Elio had actually gotten to know him. He might actually be the best person he had known his entire life.

Elio’s father who was able to read people much better than his quiet, observing nature sometimes let on, was easy. He had always suspected there was more to that young man than met the eye; that he was just shy and once he would let people in they would see him for who he really was.

Mrs Perlman, on the other hand, took more convincing, but eventually she, too, believed that his son knew what he was doing.

Jane was surprised, to say the least.

“But I thought you hated him!”

“Maybe I didn’t always like him as much as I do now,” Elio agreed. “But let’s not think about any of that anymore, okay?”

Jane was still in disbelief and Elio had to tell her everything that had happened, including the details from Rome and New York and Oliver’s involvement in helping with the Lucia debacle.

“So what you’re saying is that in fact, we, and I, owe him for so much more than I knew,” Jane said, realizing how much she had been kept in the dark. Partly because Elio had wanted to protect her feelings, partly because he had not been able to make sense of his own.

“Oh Elio, all I wanted was for you to find someone who made you as happy as Charlie makes me. Oliver does that, doesn’t he?”

“Happier, if possible,” Elio smiled.

And so when the Americans arrived, you would never have guessed that any apprehension had taken place only a few hours earlier, for everyone at the Perlman villa welcomed both Oliver and Charlie with warmth to their annual New Year’s Eve dinner table.

 

 

The last ones of the cousins were still finishing their desserts when someone yelled that it was already getting close to midnight. If they wanted to usher in 2016 with fireworks when the clock struck twelve, now was the time to get into positions.

The fireworks were carried to the open space in the backyard and Elio’s father and the uncles took charge of the lighting.

Elio and Oliver stood back near the porch, just the two of them, watching the others scream and clap at the fireworks that wheezed and whistled as they shot above the trees before glittering down like gold confetti.

Elio leaned against Oliver and Oliver wrapped his arm around him.

Oliver watched the lively, warm Perlman family in front of them, a family who he knew must have been apprehensive about letting him into their house after everything they had initially heard about him. But they had welcomed him into their home with open arms, and Oliver knew the change in attitude had been all Elio’s doing.

Oliver couldn’t believe he deserved this, deserved him.

“Do you really like me that much?” he asked, voice breaking a little as he turned his eyes towards the starry sky.

“Do I like you, Oliver? I worship you,” the voice leaning on his shoulder replied.

 

 

 

March 2016

New York

 

Elio walked out of the audition hall, hurried out of the building and almost ran the block and a half to the nearest café on West 67thstreet. When he entered, a table of three erupted in cheers and they all came over to hug him.

“How did it go? How did it go?”

“I think I did okay, but you never know until you hear back from them,” Elio said, nevertheless looking relieved that his Juilliard audition was over.

He had practiced and been anxious for weeks in advance. His nervousness about the audition had only been pushed aside during the flight from Milan to New York, when his anxiety about flying had taken over. Luckily his travel companion, Jane, had tried her best to keep her cousin distracted and had entertained him with tales of how much fun they were going to have in the city with Oliver and Charlie.

After Charlie, Jane, and Oliver had all congratulated Elio on making it out of the audition in one piece, they sat back down at the table, but Oliver’s arm stayed firmly wrapped around his shoulders. He couldn’t have been prouder of his boyfriend, whether he would get into the school or not.

“So, what are the plans for the rest of the day?” Elio asked.

“I have a dinner reservation and show tickets for me and Jane, but I don’t know what the special thing is that Oliver has planned for you guys,” Charlie said with a wink.

Oliver smiled and shrugged, pretending not to have any idea what Charlie was talking about.

 

 

It turned out to be a New York Philharmonic concert at the Lincoln Center, a performance of the original version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor. When Elio marveled at how Oliver had managed to secure the tickets, he had to admit to having used Lady de Bourgh’s connections. He obviously had had to use a cover story to get her to help him; his aunt had still not warmed up to Elio.

“It’s been described as this dark but unbelievably beautiful, surprising, complex piece,“ Elio gushed when they were at their seats.

Oliver watched him closely, pleased by the fact that by all appearances, he had managed to make the correct choice. “It’s perfectly fitting then,” he said.

“What?” Elio lifted his eyes from the program leaflet, confused, but one look at Oliver let him know what Oliver had implied. “Oh. Come on.”

He nudged Oliver on the shoulder bashfully, but slipped his hand into Oliver’s. Oliver secured it there with his other hand, smiling, and when the lights went down, he pressed a kiss to those fingers he had admired in a similar situation at the opera in Rome so many months earlier. As the violinist began the piece with his solo and Elio leaned his head lightly against Oliver’s shoulder, Oliver thought about all the ways life can surprise a person when you’re open to it.

 

 

After the concert, they walked the few blocks through Upper West Side to Oliver’s penthouse apartment, only stopping to kiss in front of the Juilliard building for good luck on their way.

Once inside, Elio walked from room to room, marveling at the size and tasteful decoration of the apartment that took up the whole penthouse floor.

Oliver was slightly embarrassed. He didn’t really need all that space, but the apartment had belonged to their family for ages and he had forgotten how it grandiose it must look like to someone who didn’t come from their background.

Secretly, Oliver was also happy about all the space, because if Elio ended up moving to New York, there would be plenty of room for them both in this place. Certainly for Elio’s piano, too.

Oliver disappeared into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine and to find two glasses, while Elio checked out the magnificent view from Oliver’s living room – Hudson River to his right, Central Park to the left, and all the lights of Manhattan in between.

Oliver came up behind him and after placing the wine glasses to a side table, pressed a kiss on the side of his neck.

“I love this, Oliver.”

“The view, you mean?” Oliver quipped, wrapping his arms around Elio.

“No, you silly. Us.” Elio corrected him and turned around within Oliver’s embrace. “Except now the view, too,” he said looking up at Oliver through his thick lashes.

Oliver leaned his forehead against Elio’s and suggested, rather shyly, that since Charlie and Jane were planning to go back to Charlie's place after their show, Jane would not be missing Elio at the cousins' hotel. He could easily stay with Oliver that night.

Unless Elio minded, of course. They wouldn’t have to do anything because after all, the days they had actually spent together up until then could be counted with one hand. Despite the hours spent on the FaceTime calls, they hadn’t seen each other in person after New Year's and hadn’t even spent the night alone yet. Some of their calls had gotten pretty heated, yes, but Oliver did not want to presume anything just because they were now face-to-face. Especially since he knew that Elio had not been with anyone yet.

“I don’t want you to think I’m trying to take advantage of you or anything. I just thought it would be nice to wake up next to you,” Oliver blushed faintly and hid his face in Elio’s hair.

He couldn’t believe talking about this was so nerve-racking. It was not like he hadn’t asked the same question before; he had had phases in his life where he probably had asked it too often. But maybe it was because now for the first time, he actually cared what the answer would be.

While Oliver was uncertain, Elio was beaming. He also couldn’t believe he had ever thought Oliver to be aloof or selfish, when he was so vulnerable now.

Later that night Elio would also see Oliver’s passionate side, when he hungrily kissed Elio when they stumbled towards his bedroom, getting rid of Oliver’s shirt along the way. And Oliver’s tender side, when he slowly undressed Elio and placed caressing kisses on every bit of his creamy skin that was revealed. And Oliver deliriously happy, when Elio, in turn, unzipped Oliver’s dress pants and swirled his tongue along the hard length that was waiting for him inside. Oliver in love, when he laid his head on Elio’s shoulder for sleep when they were spent and consumed by the feverish and, especially on Elio’s part, curious exploration of each other’s bodies.

And yes, Oliver’s vulnerable side too, when he in the morning searched Elio’s face for a confirmation that Elio still felt the same, that their night together had not changed his feelings for Oliver.

But now the night was still ahead of them and Elio pulled Oliver’s face towards his for a deep, languid kiss. Oliver’s lips were soft but the way his hands held Elio by the waist was firm and for once, Elio did not mind feeling like Oliver had the upper hand.

“What’s all this talk about you not wanting to take advantage?” Elio murmured against Oliver’s lips. “Forget the audition; my whole trip to New York will have gone to waste if you don’t take advantage of me, Mr. Darcy.”