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For art's sake

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Oh, for fuck's sake.

Marti looks away, pulling a face.The couple sitting opposite him at the bar can't seem to be able to eat like regular humans. No, apparently they absolutely have to giggle and feed small pieces of sandwich and salad to each other like they're fucking... pigeons, or something.

(Okay, not mouth-to-mouth like actual pigeons. But hand-to-mouth is bad enough, if you ask Marti.

Not that anyone seems to care what Marti thinks.)

He stands up from his chair, dragging it on the floor, making as much noise as possible, and sits down at the other side of the table so he at least doesn't have to see the lovebirds.

“Is everything alright?” the waiter asks, appearing at Marti's table with his burger and frowning slightly at Marti's convoluted manoeuvre.

“Splendid,” Marti replies though gritted teeth.

He's honestly grateful when his phone buzzes in his pocket so he can focus on something that is not everyone else's fulfilling (and cavity-inducing) love life. When he sees it's from work, though, he quickly reconsiders:

Sana, h. 13.43

i need you to review a new art exhibition. the artist's presentation is tonight at 9

i already gave them your name

Marti rolls his eyes.

Practically zero notice, brilliant.

it's good to know things in advance :/

where is it?

Sana texts him the name of the artist and the address and granted, it already sounds way too posh for his liking. Marti groans in his burger, so loudly half the bar turns to look at him – who knows, maybe he even manages to unglue the lovebirds from each other. He won't turn and check, though, that's for sure.

He ignores everyone and types back:

fine but if he tries to explain to me the ontological meaning of the square brush i'm out

that was one time

and you had a lot of fun reviewing that

Marti did. It was therapeutic and and the guy was so full of himself he deserved every ounce of Marti's bitterness anyway. The ontological meaning of the square brush – he scoffs. He hopes tonight will be less unsufferable, but the location promises nothing good.

His phone buzzes in his hands and he looks down at it. It's still Sana. He notices he keeps getting notifications from the grup chat with the guys too, but he opens Sana's text first:

deadline at 4 tomorrow afternoon :)

Marti huffs.

He hopes at least there'll be something to drink at the event. Or to eat. Ideally, both. Marti knows he's far more willing to listen to the artists ranting about their work when he's had a few drinks. And he can't do that on an empty stomach, or he'll get tipsy and start being snarky in his notes for no reason.

So really, it's in the artist's interest to feed him well. Marti hopes the guy is smart.

He checks the notifications from the group chat:

Contrabbandieri di Luchini, h. 13.45

Gio: pizza and derby at my place tonight?

Elia: hell yeah

Luca: i'll bring the beer!

Elia: NOT il peccio's

Luca: whatever. your loss

Gio: @marti? you in?

Marti groans.

Shit, he'll miss the derby. This job is getting worse by the second.

sorry guys. have to review another posh guy's art opening tonight

Elia: shit. how many *are* there?

i know :(

Luca: can't you skip it?

sana would end me. sorry

Gio: oh ok :(

Gio: destroy him, marti

;)

*

Anchovies.

There are anchovies every-fucking-where. In the canapés, in the small omelettes, in those weird squarish pink things Marti couldn't identify but tried anyway because they looked like they might not have anchovies in them (they did).

What's the point of feeding him if all he's fed are fucking anchovies?

Marti is at his fourth glass of prosecco and his hands are already itching for his notebook.

He doesn't have anything to write, though, because the dickhead – sorry, the artist – hasn't shown up yet and the works hanging on the white marble walls of the gallery are still covered in heavy blue cloth. It's five minutes to ten and Marti has already checked how the match is going twelve times.

“Have you ever heard of, like, enjoying yourself? It's fun, you should try it sometimes.”

Marti smiles despite himself.

Eva is splendid in her red dress and heels. She leans on his shoulder with her elbow, a glass of wine in her other hand.

He thinks for a moment how they might look next to each other. Marti purposefully chose the oldest, most worn jeans he owned for the occasion. Apart from that, he's wearing sneakers and a blue button-up.

When he got in, he smiled sweetly at the way the guy who took his name glared at his clothes – but it's not like he could have said anything. They need press coverage at these events, they can't afford to send him away.

Marti was counting on it.

“I might have. At Gio's. Watching the match,” Marti says bitterly. “Instead I'm stuck here with the poshest of the posh.”

“Come on, don't be your usual boring self. The exhibition might be nice.”

“Yeah. Too bad nothing has been exhibited yet. Has the guy arrived at least or...?”

“Don't think so,” Eva offers with a shrug. “Why didn't you bring your guy if this is such a drag?”

Ouch. Marti tries not to flinch, he knows Eva means well.

“Yeah. That's done, actually, so.”

“Oh. Oh, sorry.” Her eyes get wide in sympathy. “Gio didn't say anything, so I didn't-” She makes to lift a hand and stroke his cheek, then seems to reconsider. “I'm sorry, Marti.”

Marti shrugs, like this doesn't hurt. Like he didn't spend a week burrowed away in his flat, eating microwaved food and wondering what's wrong with him until Gio decided an intervention couldn't be put off any longer.

“Why are you even here, by the way?” Marti goes for the first change of subject he can think of. “Are the anchovies that good?”

Eva smiles and downs what's left of her wine in one go.

“Watch,” she says, smug, handing him her empty glass and striding away, in the direction of two well-dressed thirty-somethings in suits. “Gentlemen,” he hears her say with a charming smile. “Can I interest you in a business proposal?”

Marti scoffs.

The ethical fashion start-up again, he should have expected it. Ele and Eva have been looking for investors for months.

It's fun for a while, watching Eva wrap the posh guys around her finger without them even realising it, but it can only be a momentary distraction. It's ten thirty now, the match is over, and Marti may be a bit drunk, but he doesn't think it's too much to be absolutely outraged that nothing has even happened yet.

He huffs, annoyed, and approaches the guy who took his name when he arrived, who is now hovering near the entrance, looking vaguely uneasy.

“Excuse me, can you tell me when is, er...” Marti can't even remember how this guy is called. He checks Sana's text to make sure, his head spinning and making the letters look all blurred together and confusing. “Mr Farès supposed to arrive?”

He pronounces the name like it's Spanish, with the stress on the 'e'. From the look the guy gives him, it's the wrong call.

“Unfortunately, Mr Fares has been held up,” the guy tells him, stressing the first syllable of the name meaningfully so that there can be no doubt that Marti fucked up the pronounciation. “He apologises profusely for that.”

A perfect non-answer – not that Marti was expecting anything different.

“I was told he was supposed to introduce his work to the press?” Marti insists. “Do a brief tour? He's more than an hour late. Is that still going to happen?”

“As I said, Mr Fares has been held up,” the guy repeats, his tone flat. “However, there are refreshments in the main hall and-”

“Yeah, but I can't write my piece about those, can I?” Marti interrupts dryly. He can feel his temples pound painfully to the sound of background music. “I would like to know if I can expect to see more than just anchovies tonight.”

The guy just blinks.

“Again, if it's not clear, Mr Fares has been held up and is very sorry for-”

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Marti interrupts him angrily, his voice going high-pitched in frustration. “Is that all you're programmed to say? Is he coming or not?!”

The guy looks like he has just eaten a lemon.

“That is, at the present time, still unclear,” he admits finally, through gritted teeth.

And that's just it, for Marti.

He didn't get to watch Roma win the derby. He spent his lunch break being grossly reminded that his life sucks. His head feels like it's about to be split in two. And he has now spent one hour and a half in the company of the most obnoxious posh people in Rome. And all of that was for nothing!

He can't get an article out of this. He will get absolutely nothing out of this.

Marti turns on his heels and storms off, fuming. He's so mad he doesn't even remember to say goodbye to Eva.

Fuck everything.

Chapter Text

Marti gets the idea around one am. He's just dropped an aspirin in his chamomile tea and he's starting to wonder if this is what it feels like to be eighty. He can't sleep. It's the guilt, he thinks – well, and the headache, but mostly the guilt. He knows he overreacted and he knows Sana will be mad at him for not having the article about the exhibition.

He sighs as he stares at the mug on the counter, as if wishing for the tablet to dissolve faster.

He shouldn't have left. Eva texted him that the guy showed up around eleven thirty and did the tour and it was all pretty impressive. He doesn't know if he can trust Eva's definition of “impressive”, but regardless, that's two and a half hours later than scheduled. Marti could have been busy at that time.

(He wasn't, but he could have been. That's the point.)

He half-considers asking Eva to tell him what the guy said, to share her impressions of his works, so he can at least write something – but he knows he will never actually do that. He's way too proud. That, and he wouldn't want somebody else's opinions under his own name anyway.

Not that anyone but Giovanni reads his articles regularly enough to know where he stands, but it's the principle of the thing. He always tries to be honest. To write what he thinks and not sugarcoat things just because it's expected of him.

He only ever writes his own impressions, and in this case it's not like he can-

Oh.

It's a bit of an epiphany, really. A full-on wide-eyed open-mouthed epiphany.

Marti abandons his aspirin to its sad destiny of solitary dissolution and runs to his bedroom to grab his laptop. The words come easy and, frankly, it's a relief. Sana will probably shout at him anyway, but at least he'll have something.

And it's honest. No doubt about that.

It starts like this:

The things you can do in an hour and a half.

You could watch the best part of a football match. Have pizza with your friends. Go out for a nice dinner with a significant other. Or even, and here is where it gets really niche, be stood up by a local artist – a certain Niccolò Fares – at his own art opening.

But let's take this in order, shall we?

Imagine showing up at at the poshest art event you can imagine, being served inexplicable amounts of anchovies, and waiting for over an hour for the artist to show up. His work is there, covered in fancy blue cloth, but you can't see any of it yet, because the self-proclaimed artist is supposed to descend from his high horse at 9 and do a tour for the press. Imagine that it's 10.30 and there's still no trace of him.

Sadly enough, I don't have to imagine...

*

It gets published on the actual website, by some miracle.

Marti rereads the whole thing in the morning, fixes the commas, and hits send without thinking too much about what he's doing or he knows he'll chicken out. No accompanying text, just “art exhibition review (kind of...)” as the subject.

He doesn't even bother pretending he's not refreshing his inbox every few minutes, waiting for Sana to reply, while pretending to do his chores. His phone pings with a new e-mail notification around midday and Marti is so startled he almost drops his phone in the sink.

Sana's reply is blunt and to the point, as usual: “You're lucky this is funny. Don't do this EVER AGAIN.”

Marti sighs in relief, holding on to the kitchen counter for dear life. That's Sana's way of saying he's forgiven.

The article goes online at six pm, and Marti smiles when his phone buzzes some time after eight and he's confronted with what seems like an army of screaming emojis. He laughs and opens the chat with Gio:

Gio, h. 20.34

dude

DUDE

the article!!!

i strangled myself with my arrabbiata and i am now deceased

rip. i'll miss you

for, like, a few days. maybe even for a week

bless your kind heart

that posh guy is more dead than me, though

like 150% more dead than me

the deadest

serves him well for the anchovies-only buffet

lol. eva says they were alright

she's a liar

*

Fate works in mysterious ways. Or maybe it's just that action-reaction bullshit Newton went on about, Marti wouldn't know. He was always the humanities type.

Point is, Marti finds a new e-mail in his inbox the next morning.

It was sent to the website's e-mail address but Sana forwarded to him. Dear Mr Rametta, it begins. It takes Marti a few moments to realise that means him, and not, like, his father or something.

Thinking about his father this early in the morning is never a good idea, so Marti pushes the thought aside to focus on the matter at hand. He keeps reading:

Dear Mr Rametta,

I was very amused by your latest art exhibition review. You have a talent for words (and a dislike for anchovies, I take it?). I'm deeply sorry for the other night's inconvenience. I could tell you that patience is a virtue, but I'm not a very patient guy myself, so that would be hypocritical of me.

I would like to invite you again to my exhibition, if you are interested. I'm not looking for good press. I very much subscribe to Wilde's idea that “the only thing worse that being talked about is not being talked about”. But I digress. My point is that I'm not doing this in the hope you'll write another article about my work. However, I would like you to at least SEE my work, as you didn't get the chance previously. I'm fully prepared to descend from my high horse to meet you and hear what you think about it. Is Wednesday at 12 alright for you?

Self-proclaimed artist,
Niccolò Fares

Marti stares at the words for a long time after reading them and finds himself biting back a smile. He wasn't expecting this.

It's not the first he gets invited back to an exhibition “to reconsider”, but those e-mails usually start with “as you clearly lack the formal training required to appreciate my work” and always end up in the trash folder.

This is different. Possibly because he didn't even get to talk about art this time – but also because the guy may be an entitled asshole, but he clearly is a smart one.

“I'm fully prepared to descend from my high horse.” Marti huffs a laugh.

I would love to see you try, he thinks, and starts typing his reply:

Dear Mr Fares,

Thank you for your invitation and the attention you paid to my article. Wednesday at 12 sounds great. I have an appointment at 14, however. Do you think you'll make it?

MR

Marti is at the bar biting into his cornetto and half-heartedly going through work e-mails when he gets a reply. He's half-expecting the guy to tell him to fuck off, so his eyebrows go all the way up when he reads the actual message the guy sent him:

Punctuality is the thief of time :)

No “dear Mr Rametta”, no signature, no nothing. Just what feels like... Marti googles it, though he has little doubt, and sure enough, it's another Oscar Wilde quote. Marti scoffs.

Does the guy have an endless supply of those?

His curiosity is peaked, though, so he tries to look for the guy online. He hopes to find a picture somewhere, though he's not sure what he expects. A Victorian dandy?

He's in no luck. He finds a few articles about the opening – his own comes up too to his amusement – but that's it. Marti sighs, puts his phone back into his pocket, and dips the last of his cornetto into the coffee cup.

He'll just have to wait for Wednesday, he supposes.

Chapter Text

Marti thinks about it for approximately one minute and concludes that the best thing to do is wear the same clothes he wore at the exhibition. Just to make a few things clear from the start.

They should be clear already, but just in case they aren't, Marti wears yet another long-sleeved blue button-up and the worst jeans he owns that he still hasn't washed since the exhibition. He hasn't worn them since, so he reckons they're fine.

And anyway, that's the point.

Marti gets there early, loiters ouside the gallery for a few minutes, and then pushes the heavy door open the second his phone informs him that it's now twelve (just to make another point, while he's at it).

There's no insufferable guy near the entrance staring and taking names, good riddance, just a middle-aged lady mopping the floor, whom Marti greets politely as he walks around the wet tiles, heading into the main hall.

His steps echo strangely against the white marble floor. It couldn't be clearer that the gallery shouldn't be open at this hour, that it was opened especially.

There's something different already, besides the silence. The works on the wall are in full view now and Marti is momentarily taken aback by how vibrant the room feels. It's the colours, mainly reds – and Marti stops in his tracks, surprised.

He was expecting blue for some reason. Maybe because of the cloths he had seen covering the walls the day of the exhibition. Nothing rational about it, just a feeling.

He's dying to walk closer and see better – some of these look like oil paintings, some definitely don't – but there's no time. He feels a hand on his arm and it makes him jump.

“Mr Rametta? Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.”

Marti turns around. He was so surprised by the colours he didn't even notice there was someone there.

Mellow green eyes, a bright smile. Messy black hair curling in all direction. An elegant black suit and a slightly crooked tie. Marti hates that he feels himself blush.

Is this what karma feels like?

Shit.

“Uh, no worries. I was just... er, looking.” Marti gestures vaguely to his right, to the closest framed painting. “Mr Fares, yeah?”

“Niccolò,” the guy smiles and offers him his hand. Marti shakes it.

“Martino,” he says, and Niccolò's smile gets even wider.

“Of course,” he says in a knowing tone that has Marti try not to blush again. Niccolò laughs, almost to himself. “I mean, it couldn't have been anyone else, the gallery is closed at this hour. But also.” He gives Marti a quick once over. “You look exactly the way you write.”

Marti looks down at the frayed hems of his jeans and then up at Niccolò, an eyebrow raised.

“I'm going to pretend that was compliment.”

He says it almost like a challenge, but Niccolò just laughs again.

“It was! Shall we begin our tour then?” Niccolò takes a couple of steps back and makes a wide gesture to take in the whole gallery. He bites his lip and tries not to smile. “As you can see I'm on time and there are no high horses in sight.”

“Yet,” Marti adds. Mostly because he wants to see what Niccolò will do.

He regrets it immediately when Niccolò flashes him a grin that should probably be illegal. It makes Marti feel like his knees might give out without warning.

“Yet,” Niccolò repeats, amused, with an air of mystery. Then he turns on his heels and starts making his way to the first painting.

Marti has to make the conscious effort to follow him at a slower pace, not to appear too keen.

*

Niccolò's art is good.

It is, there's no denying it, and no point in doing so. It's good.

The oil paintings are mostly abstract pieces – Niccolò talks a bit about how he uses colour and texture and looks delighted when Marti asks about the red.

“Oh, yes. The struggle and the ecstasy,” Niccolò says with a smile, his tone wondering – and normally Marti would raise his eyebrows at stuff like that, because really.

But Niccolò is so earnest and enthusiastic that Marti can't help but nod like he gets it, like he agrees – maybe he does? This whole room feels alive because of the shades of red – and wishes for Niccolò to say more.

(If – if! – it doesn't involve Niccolò saying “ecstasy” in that dreamy tone again because Marti is not sure he'll survive that.)

There's other stuff too. A trompe-l'œil of the inside of a piano that leaves Marti feeling dizzy, a couple of charcoal portraits of a pretty lady with long hair Niccolò evidently wishes to spend as little time as possible talking about (Marti thinks “... ah”), and some mixed media stuff – mainly painting and collage.

These are commentaries on current events, with newspaper articles blending into images that seem to be more or less linked to what the article is addressing, from what Marti can tell: he's usually pretty meh about these kind of stuff, but even he can't say anything bad about these, because they work.

There's this piece with two shadows kissing against a red background that Niccolò clearly loves. “Do you want to marry me?”, it's called, and it morphs out of a piece of news about civil unions. (Marti thinks “maybe?”)

The struggle and the ecstasy. Maybe Marti does get it, after all.

But then Niccolò starts explaining this other piece about... Marti doesn't actually know what it is about, because Niccolò gets very excited and pushes his hair back and away from his face – and it's a fraction of a second, right? But Marti swears he sees a silver ring shine on top of Niccolò's right ear.

It's exactly the same as the one Marti has on his left, and Marti feels like this is slightly to much for him to deal with right now. Because yeah, the art is good, but Marti likes to think he's honest enough to admit when it stops being artistic appreciation and it becomes drooling.

It's very much drooling at this point.

Marti sighs and follows Niccolò to the next painting.

*

“So? What did you think?” Niccolò turns to look at him with shining eyes and what is definitely a smug grin.

Marti narrows his eyes. He doesn't think he's making up the unspoken: “Are you impressed yet?”. It annoys him a little bit. Also because it's a good look on Niccolò, this mildly teasing smirking grin.

But then again what isn't.

“All very interesting,” Marti offers diplomatically. “Would have loved to see it on opening night.”

Niccolò rolls his eyes.

“You're never going to let this go, are you?”

“Why should I? You were the one who arrived two hours and a half late!”

“You left before that, though,” Niccolò argues. “It's not like I kept you waiting for two hours and a half.”

“An hour and a half was enough for me, thank you.”

Niccolò looks down and smiles to himself. It's weird, this smile. Private. Like a secret or an inside joke. Marti catches himself wondering what it means but he shakes his head, pushing the thought aside.

“Would you write your article in the same way, after today?” Niccolò asks, and Marti raises his eyebrows at that.

“I thought you weren't looking for good press.”

“I'm not,” Niccolò looks up earnestly. “I just want to know if you still think that I'm an entitled asshole who can't even be bothered to show up on time at his own event.”

Marti doesn't.

Niccolò is certainly aware that his art is good – and he is proud of it, but that's to be expected. Marti got the impression that Niccolò cares very deeply – it's evident in his enthusiasm, in his work, in the fact that he wrote Marti that e-mail in the first place.

He doesn't strike Marti as someone who “can't be bothered”. But the again Niccolò was more than two hours late to his own exhibition – no explanations given – and, well... what was Marti supposed to think?

“You didn't give an explanation for being late,” Marti says. An invitation, clear as day.

“I didn't.”

Niccolò gives him that weird smile again – and damn it, Marti doesn't know what it means.

“That guy at the exhibition said you had been 'held up',” he tries again.

“That's... a way of putting it,” Niccolò says, nodding slowly to himself, and okay. Marti is not going to get anything more than this.

He watches as Niccolò fishes out a phone out of his pocket and checks the time. It's an old Nokia, looks a bit like the first phone Marti ever owned back when he was, like, fourteen?

Rich people, he thinks to himself, rolling his eyes. They really are the weirdest.

“I'm afraid I must go. You can stay and... have another look?” Niccolò offers, and he sounds genuinely disappointed that he has to leave. “I mean, if you want. Your appointment wasn't until two, right?”

“What? Oh, right. Yes.” Marti forgot all about his 'appointment'. “Yes, I'll stay for a bit, thank you.”

“Good.” Niccolò smiles, putting his phone away. “Just let Marisol know when you're done so she can close up. I really must go, sorry.”

And, yeah, Marti could theoretically bite his tongue and say nothing. He has the ability to do it, more like. However, he has zero impulse control and a now even stupid crush he is kind of embarrassed by.

“Yeah, wouldn't wanna be late again,” Marti says mock-casually.

Niccolò rolls his eyes, though he looks amused.

“I know! My daily run awaits me.”

“Your daily run?” Marti snorts. He knows nothing about running apart that the people who do it are a traffic hazard, but even he knows you don't go out for a run at midday. Also... “Dressed like that?

Niccolò looks down at his perfectly tailored suit and pretends to consider Marti's objection.

“Well, you know how it is,” he says, as he starts walking backwards towards the exit of the main hall. “'You can never be overdressed-'”

“'Or overeducated', yes, I know that one.” Marti rolls his eyes at the Wilde quotation. He should have expected that. “Well... have a good run, then.”

I don't believe a word you say, is what he means. Well, that or, please stay you're the most exciting thing that's happened to me this month and I hate that.

One of the two.

Niccolò grins and disappears from view with a quick: “Thank you! Have fun!” and Marti hears the heavy wooden door creak close behind him a few seconds later, plunging the room in an unnatural silence once again.

Marti takes a few steps forward just to hear their strange echo, then looks up. He is taken aback by how close he is standing to the charcoal portrait of the mysterious young lady with the long hair.

Her face is half-hidden by a cascade of messy hair, but she's looking straight ahead. She seems to be smiling at him. Because of him? He recalls that Niccolò was very evasive about this painting and the other one with the same subject, and he can't help but wonder.

“So, what's his deal?” Marti asks the lady on the canvas.

She keeps smiling.

Chapter Text

Marti gets a weird unpleasant feeling in his stomach as soon as he spots the football pitch, still deserted, illuminated by floodlights. The harsh cold lights make him shiver in his hoodie and grip the strap of his messenger bag harder, even though it's warm enough for April.

The last time he was here he was with Leo – well, and the boys. But he remembers being thrilled that Leo came too. He cheered for Marti and even played for a bit, even though it couldn't have been clearer he had no idea what he was doing.

But he did it for Marti.

Well, that's what Marti thought at the time anyway. It was only a couple of weeks after that that Leo broke up with him.

It's been cropping up a lot lately – there's been quite a few "first times after" once Marti finally stopped hiding away in his flat – and Marti feels silly because it's not like he thought they had this grand romance going on or anything: they had only been together for a few months. But it was nice, it felt nice. Comfortable.

Marti wonders how he could have got it so wrong. But then again he shouldn't be this surprised. Getting it wrong is kind of his thing: over and over and over again.

He sighs as he pushes the locker room door open but he barely has time to step inside before he's enveloped in a bear hug that leaves him near breathless.

And yeah, stupidly grateful too.

Marti doesn't even try to fight it. He leans against Gio and lets him hold Marti's full weight, suddenly realising how mentally exhausted he really is – the lack of sleep probably doesn't help. He exhales for what feels like the first time in days and hugs Gio right back.

"Man! You're alive!" Gio ruffles his hair and pats his back with an enthusiasm that will probably leave bruises, but Marti doesn't care. "I thought they had kidnapped you or something after that article you wrote."

"What?! An article got you kidnapped?" Luca asks excitedly, patting the spot on the bench next to him.

Gio finally lets go of Marti and he stumbles in that direction, plopping down gracelessly on the bench.

"It's nothing, Lu, no one got kidnapped. It was just a review of a thing," Marti argues weakly. He finds that he doesn't love being reminded of his article, so he tries to change to subject. "Is il Peccio already here or...?"

"He said he was on his way, like, ten minutes ago, so he's probably still on the sofa." Elia rolls his eyes. He stands up from the bench and jumps a couple of times on the spot to warm up. He's already in his football gear. "Is this the same posh thing you ditched the derby for?"

"It is," Gio says and he sounds incredibly proud. "Marti single-handedly ended the bourgeoisie with that review."

Marti is grateful he's changing into his football jersey so the boys can't see his cheek colour. To be fair, he's not in a rush to inform Gio the bourgeoisie looks like Michelangelo's David in an Armani suit.

The thing is... he has no real reason not to mention meeting Niccolò on Wednesday. If not that the boys will want to know about it and Marti barely knows what's going on himself.

Not that there's anything going on. He met a hot artist guy who talked back to him and he got all weak in the knees.

Story of Marti's life.

He's saved from the need to offer any sort of comment by the locker room door opening again and il Peccio making an surprisingly early appearance.

"You were actually on your way!" Luca shouts, gleeful. He turns to look at Elia with a smug grin and makes grabby hands at him. "I knew it! Pay up, man."

Marti greets il Peccio with their usual fist bump but then only half-listens to Luca and Elia bicker and recriminate about bets long past that still haven't been honoured. He leans down to tie his shoelaces and can feel Gio's eyes on the back of his neck like laser beams.

"What?" Marti asks, without looking up. He's learnt by now that playing dumb never works with Gio.

"You're weird," Gio says.

Marti jumps at the chance. He looks up at Gio through his lashes, an exaggerated pout on his face.

"I thought you liked that about me?" Marti offers in a fake pitiful tone, and Gio rolls his eyes.

"Moron." He shoves Marti's head down, making him giggle. "See if I pick you for my team."

*

Gio does pick him for his team, but they lose anyway.

Elia is too good and il Peccio's friends from the Ancient History department prove not to be especially well-versed in such newfangled sport activities as five-a-side football.

"I'm too fucking old for this," Marti complains after the match, collapsing in the passenger seat's of Gio's beat-up Panda.

Like Hell he's walking home tonight. He leans down to massage his calves through his jeans, groaning.

"'Old age has in it an authority that is more valuable than all the pleasures of youth'," Gio offers distractedly, as he looks in the rear-view mirror before merging into traffic. "Or something like that."

"Fuck. Not you too."

"What?"

"Nothing." Marti rolls his eyes. "What was that?"

"Cicero. De Senectute."

Marti snorts.

"God, what a dick."

"Yeah. That's the gist of a student's essay I had to grade last week," Gio says and Marti laughs.

"That's something you would have done." Marti punches Gio's shoulder and watches his face open up slowly in a half-proud smile, his eyes still on the road. "What did you give him?"

"Nine." Gio turns to look a Marti with a grin. "I mean, obviously."

Marti grins back and slumps even further into his seat, hugging his bag to his chest. He pushes random buttons on the ancient radio until he finds something vaguely decent and gets comfortable. He's half-thinking of asking Gio to take the long way around so he can enjoy this a little longer, when his phone buzzes in his pocket with a notification.

As soon as Marti unlocks the screen he notices it's an e-mail. Then he notices who the sender is and his heart... well, it doesn't skip a beat exactly, as that is probably medically dangerous, but it starts beating faster for sure.

Also, and Marti will deny it ever happened, his fingers are shaking in anticipation as he taps on Niccolò's e-mail to open it.

The subject, in all caps, is HELP NEEDED and the e-mail itself consists of a single line:

I have a feeling you argue well?

Marti reads it to himself, then reads it again.

And again.

He has no idea what it's supposed to mean, but he finds himself grinning at it anyway. He's torn between wanting to claw his eyes out in shame for being so affected by a single line that doesn't even mean anything and wanting to claw his eyes out in excitement because Niccolò reached out to him again.

All of this when really, he should be clawing his eyes out in despair because this is how it starts every single time.

He should know better. He should.

Before he manages to go through with his eye-clawing plan, however, Gio cuts in and interrupts his silent (but apparently not very subtle) freak out session.

"What's that?"

Marti doesn't look up. He knows it's a lost cause, but he still tries to keep his voice as level as possible when he replies.

"Nothing. Work stuff."

Gio says nothing but he doesn't need to. They've known each other long enough that Marti can hear the fond, exasperated "Liar" anyway.

Chapter Text

Niccolò sends him the address and Marti shows up at 6 pm on the dot on Monday because of course he does.

The place is a bookshop – one of those small independent ones, with pretty second-hand books and kind near-omniscent owners. Marti is familiar enough with the type of place, but he's never been here before. The glass door opens with an overly cheerful chime when Marti pushes it, but Marti has no time to be annoyed.

There is a small crowd already gathered: no more than twenty people, some sitting on the plastic chairs that have been peppered rather haphazardly around the shop, but most still standing, chatting among themselves.

Niccolò is already there ("Ah! So you can be on time when you want to," Marti thinks, rather fondly to be completely honest, which Marti has no interest in being). He's half-leaning against the long table parallel to the far wall, talking to an older lady who might be the owner of the shop, smiling and gesticulating. His smile only gets wider when he turns to look who just arrived and his eyes meet Marti's.

Marti doesn't even want to think of what his face is doing as he watches Niccolò quickly excuse himself from the conversation and walk towards him. He's in a suit again. Burgundy this time.

Marti is not sure how on Earth that doesn't look tacky, especially in a random bookshop at six o' clock in the evening, but it doesn't. He looks like a dream. A really expensive unattainable one.

"Marti! You came!" Niccolò says, gleeful – and, well, yes, technically most of the people in Marti's life call him that, there's nothing especially unusual about it. But still he can't help the butterflies in his stomach throwing a party when he hears the nickname.

"Well, you sounded really desperate," Marti says with a smile, offering Niccolò his hand to shake.

There's a moment of surprise on Niccolò's part, like he wasn't expecting it. It lasts a fraction of a second, then Niccolò's million-watt smile is back and he shakes Marti's hand with enthusiasm. But Marti can't let go of the feeling that he made a terrible faux pas.

Was this wrong? Was Niccolò going to go for... what? A hand on his shoulder? A hug? A kiss on both cheeks? He did call Marti by his nickname not even ten seconds ago.

Marti has no time to linger on this, though, because Niccolò turns the handshake into a chance to grab Marti's wrist and drag him towards the table – "so I can brief you on everything", he says. He says it half in English, like business people do – così ti brieffo su tutto – then turns back to grin at Marti, like this is hilarious.

(It kind of is too: it's so out of character Marti has to roll his eyes as he smiles back.)

Niccolò introduces him to the elderly lady who owns the shop, Lidia, who declares herself "delighted to meet any friends of Niccolò's" – which has Martino wonder if that's what they are now. Friends? It sounds... wrong, somehow. Then Niccolò sits him down at the table to "brief" him.

(Marti tells himself it most definitely does not sound like a euphemism.)

There's already a little paper sign on the table with "RAMETTA M." written on it and below it "journalist, Il Cavaliere Azzurro", the name of the online magazine – which makes Marti smile. Also cringe slightly, as he can't help but think back of his article. It feels like a million years have passed since he wrote that when it's barely been two weeks.

Niccolò does not appear to be bothered. His explanation involves a lot of dramatic gesturing and long excursus that lead absolutely nowhere, but Marti pieces it together like this: an acquaintance of Niccolò's has a book coming out, there was a presentation planned to promote it, but they came down with the flu and can't go. As the thing had been promoted by the bookshop for weeks, it seemed rude to cancel, but Niccolò didn't want to do the thing on his own.

"So I thought: who's the most qualified person for the job?" Niccolò waves his hands in Marti's direction like the answer is obvious, and Marti scoffs.

"I don't know: someone who's actually read the book, maybe?"

"That doesn't matter. I haven't read it either."

"YOU HAVEN'T READ IT EITHER?!" Marti repeats, his voice going high-pitched in shock, and Niccolò shushes him, giggling, as he looks around to check if someone has noticed their exchange.

"Listen," he whispers conspiratorially. "We're not even going to talk about the book. We're going to talk about..." Niccolò grabs the copy of the book that is on display on the table and checks. "'The Role of Art in Contemporary Life', take some questions, argue with a couple of people, and then say: 'You know what else talks about art and contemporary life? Mirko's book! Buy it!' Problem solved."

"Honestly, I don't know why you're not in advertising, you're a natural," Marti deadpans, though Niccolò's enthusiasm is contagious and Marti has to bite his lip to stop himself from smiling. "So... I'm here to argue with people, right?"

Niccolò smiles in a way that reminds Marti suspiciously of the Cheshire Cat and leans forward to squeeze Marti's shoulder.

"Don't worry, you're a natural."

*

The presentation goes... well, okay, Marti supposes, considering they end up winging the whole thing.

Niccolò expertly derails questions about specific chapters in the book ("Honestly... it came out two weeks ago and they've already read it?" Niccolò later complains. "Like, no offense to Mirko, but... why?!") and Marti ends up almost fighting some old guy in the front row who "did not have a question, exactly, more of a consideration".

A consideration that lasts roughly fifteen minutes and could be best summarised as: "Art died with the Impressionists and hasn't been seen since".

Needless to say, Marti sees red.

He still gets annoyed thinking about it now everyone has either left or is about to leave. Taking their jackets, shaking Marti's and Niccolò's hands, promising to come back and buy the book on a different day never to be seen again.

"Could one of you boys be so kind and help me with the chairs?" Lidia interrupts Marti's musings, smiling apologetically. "They go in the back. You know how it is, with my hip-"

"Sure," Marti replies quickly. Partly because he's not super interested in Lidia's hip issues, but mainly so he won't have time to linger on stupid people who think they know everything and their stupid non-questions.

Marti collects six or seven chairs in a pile and, following Lidia's directions, gets to "the back".

It's a small, rather dingy storage room. Half-opened boxes, cleaning supplies, broken shelves, dust. The kind of place you don't want to spend too much time in unless you're okay with finding cobwebs in your hair for a week.

Or worse.

Marti is just about to take his own advice and get the hell out of there... but he stops abruptly near the door instead.

Niccolò has just peeked in, an inquisitive look on his face. Carrying some more chairs in a pile.

"Are you alright?" he asks gently, as Marti walks backwards, the butterflies in his stomach making a surprise comeback, to make room for him. Niccolò places the chairs down carefully and looks up at Marti. "You looked... upset."

"I'm fine." Marti shrugs. He feels silly for getting so worked up over nothing now, but he also feels like he has to explain. "I just hate it when people say things without really knowing... well, anything, you know? Like, you like realistic art? There's tons of artists who do just that and, surprise surprise, they are alive right now."

Niccolò smiles.

It's a beautiful smile, this one. Makes even the storage room look less depressing.

In truth, all of Niccolò smiles are beautiful – but this one is so kind and warm and full of feeling and understanding Marti wishes he could take those two steps that separate them and go for a hug, cobwebs be damned.

Which is, of course, a ridiculous notion. He barely knows the guy.

"You did good," Niccolò says. He takes a small step forward and touches Marti's forearm briefly, in a comforting way. Marti keeps very very still. "You told him something that was clearly news to him and... who knows? Maybe tonight he'll google some names and learn a couple of things."

"Yeah. Or maybe he'll ignore me completely and go to the next book presentation or whatever and ask the same stupid question – which wasn't even a question, by the way!"

"Maybe." Niccolò shrugs. "But maybe at that presentation someone else will mention the same people you mentioned today. And maybe that's when the guy will go 'mmm.... maybe I was a bit rash in my judgement'."

That pulls a smile out of Marti. If nothing else for the persistence with which Niccolò is trying to cheer him up. Or maybe that's just how Niccolò is as a person, he doesn't really know.

"You're really invested in... second chances and stuff," Marti offers, an eyebrow raised in amusement. He means it as a compliment, so he doesn't really get why Niccolò's face falls at that. Marti feels sappy and a bit ridiculous picturing a passing cloud obscuring the sun, but that's all he can think of.

Especially as Niccolò goes back to smiling a moment later, like nothing ever happened.

He seems to be doing that a lot.

"Well, I try," Niccolò says in a casual tone that Marti would be fully convinced by if he hadn't just seen Niccolò's smile disappear abruptly right in the middle of conversation. "What do you want to do now?"

That, instead, works like a wonder to divert Marti's attention.

"We're... we're doing something now?" Marti is not particularly proud of how hopeful he ends up sounding.

"If you want," Niccolò offers with a grin. He sounds genuinely excited, and that makes Marti a tiny bit hopeful, despite himself. "You like Mexican food?"