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(lost in) a place in the sun

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“Sorry I’m late,” Marti apologizes, dropping his things in the entryway of Nico’s apartment. “I was coming from near Termini... honestly walking might have been faster.” He says the last part under his breath, mostly to himself.

More than he hates not being punctual, he hates missing out on time with his boyfriend.

He’s immediately scooped up in a hug — Nico’s lithe arms around his shoulders — only a second after his shoe slips off. They make a skipping sound against the tile as Marti kicks them into the corner. A kiss follows the embrace, Nico pressing their chests together and Marti’s back to the wall, holding his face in his hands and smiling.

“I’m just glad you’re here,” Nico mumbles over it. That low voice Marti never hears anywhere but this close to him.

He might melt a little, his spine sliding down the wood paneling behind him as his knees forget how to lock.

Marti lets himself be kissed for a moment, all warm and wandering but not too deep or headlong. Nico’s kisses are a new language he’s still learning — the intricacies complex, the rules broken in many spots, the vocabulary vast. But he knows this one. This one says hello, my love and it’s only been since yesterday, but I’ve missed you so much. Marti hopes his replies, spelt on his lips, are just as eloquent.

“I had to wait for five buses,” Marti pops off, letting Nico’s hands slide down to cradle his neck. “Five! They were so packed I couldn’t get on one if I tried.”

“Hmm,” Nico hums, cocking his head and pretending like this bit of information is more interesting than kissing. He pokes his tongue out to rest on his bottom lip. “It’s about to be summertime. The tourists are coming.”

“At least your new place is down here. Less crowded. And closer to me now —”

Before he finishes his sentence, Marti sees Nico’s eyes get wide, an idea flooding his brain and revealing itself in the excited creases of his laugh lines.

“I know what we can do.” Nico takes a step back, grip sliding to Marti’s shoulders. He shakes them eagerly before turning on his heel, rifling through the shoe cabinet just behind him.

It takes him a minute, muttering to himself, before he pops back up with a pair of boots Marti might have assumed he fished out of a dirty lake. But he holds them up proudly, a little wiggle to his head that shakes his curls.

“We can…?” Marti trails, struggling to pick up what Nico is trying to put in front of him. “Clean out your shoe cabinet?”

Nico’s eyes threaten to roll, but he snorts a laugh. “Pfft. Hiking!” He exclaims, like it’s obvious. “I used to go all the time. Surprised I still have these.” He lifts the right one, examining its stiff laces and worn-down heel. They’ve obviously been worn many times. Nico even gives it a sniff, then shrugs his shoulders. “Just us and the trees. No tourists or crowds. I know the perfect trail with a lookout maybe, like, thirty minutes by train.”

Marti nods in consterned agreement, trying to remember the last time he walked up something steeper or longer than Colle del Gianicolo without getting winded. Nothing comes to mind.

“Do you want to?” Nico prods eagerly. “Tomorrow?”

And in all honesty, Marti’s ideal strategy to avoid the summer crowds is to shut himself into Nico’s apartment for three months: inviting the boys over for drinks instead of going out, playing FIFA on the couch, and finally not having to worry about who’s home before they can get horizontal and sweaty in his bed.

But there is effort in Nico’s idea — and while impromptu, Marti thinks it’s sweet that he listens and wants to mix his boredom with one of his own passions to solve a problem. He wants to share with Marti — that’s evident; he wants to keep him interested, and, while Nico rarely has to try for this one, be spontaneous.

He will be the trailblazer avoiding the rut they never fall into, that’s for sure. And Marti will be the navigator, detailing the map, reminding them both to rest every now and again.

“Sounds fun,” Marti smiles, candid and true. He’s not really referring to the event itself, but to spending time with Nico. It doesn’t take a lot of retrospect to remember he always has the most fun when they’re together, whatever they’re doing.

Nico kisses him again, dropping the boots to the floor with a rubbery thwap so he can fling his arms around Marti’s shoulders. Open-mouthed right away, smile on smile so their teeth accidentally knock together. This one says I’m excited and I love you and the bed is about fifteen backward steps that way.

 

• • •

 

Nico is up before him, which is a little surprising.

Marti awakens to the careful sound of the front door latching and the rustle of plastics and wrappers in the reusable bags hanging from the bend in Nico’s elbows.

“Good morning,” Nico whispers, rushing over to the bed through the room door he left open. He kisses Marti’s forehead and empties the contents of his shopping trip on the duvet.

Marti rubs his eyes, confused, and watches Nico study the array of snacks and drinks before him with a thinking finger to his bottom lip, pulling on it slightly. There’s an open backpack on the chair in the corner, and Nico carefully divides everything, sticking one half orderly in the bag and leaving the other half by Marti’s feet.

“Good morning,” Marti replies, his voice raspy. “What time is it?”

Nico checks his phone. “A little after eight. We should leave by nine, at the latest. Are these the only shoes you have?” He bends down to pick up Marti’s sneakers, and throws them on the bed as well.

“Yeah, Ni, I don’t just carry around an extra pair of shoes.”

“We should get you another pair before we go, with better ankle support.”

Marti sits up. “How rigorous is this hike?”

Nico’s shoulders slump, and he lets out a deep breath through his nose and shakes his head. “You’re right. You’re right. I should stop overthinking this.”

That’s not what Marti was trying to say, but now that it’s out there he doesn’t want to disagree.

Still in bed, he stretches his arms out. Marti doesn’t have to say c’mere for Nico to know what it means.

Nico sits by his side on the mattress, leans over, and folds into him. Feeling very very small.

“Everything will be fine,” Marti whispers into his hair, running his fingers through the shorter waves on the back of his head. “I have sturdy ankles.”

That makes Nico laugh. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Marti echoes. “The sturdiest.”

“I want everything to be perfect,” Nico whispers after a moment, still leaned into Marti’s chest like his circled arms are a safe, little cave. “Not just fine.”

Marti nudges him back to look at his face, turned down with regret and redress to make all his hard angles rounded at the edges.

“What’s wrong with fine?” Marti asks.

Nico just shrugs, not looking at him and not giving him much to work with.

Marti doesn’t want to promise him perfect, because that’s a promise no one can keep. And Nico’s mined honesty out of Marti since day one, in all facets. Revealing candor like a diamond. Their sincerity with each other is something they’ve worked on together, and is something Marti holds precious.

“Fine is just perfect to me,” Marti settles for, bumping their noses together as a test.

When Nico doesn’t pull away, Marti takes it as an invitation to kiss him softly. And in this one, right away, he can feel Nico say thank you.

“Come on,” Marti utters over it, breaking away. “I’ll help you pack.”

 

• • •

 

Marti’s gotten better at picking up on the potent energy that thrums inside Nico every now and then. Sometimes stoic and concentrated. Sometimes vibrating straight up. Lots of times barreling downhill at a soft kick.

The key is to remember that most of the time they’re on a soft slope, it’s not always a mountain, and not everything is a warning sign. Another key is not to kick him.

But Marti won’t lie that the two of them — alone on a trip to a place far from home — doesn’t suppress dread rearing from somewhere in his gut to make it uneasy. And it doesn’t help that they’re taking the train, that he’s noticing just now he’s wearing the same jeans he wore to Milan. Has the same backpack on the empty seat next to him. It’s all too eerily familiar.

But Marti’s not one to believe in things like fate or karma, though, so he pushes these worries to the side.

Nico talks a lot on the train ride, his leg bouncing. Nothing grandiose or abnormal, no extra plans or sidetracks. He’s just excited.

Which can be hard for Marti to discern, since nothing about being excited is abnormal. He’s excited too, if he can remove the slight anxiety he feels about how out of shape he is for a proper hike.

“We didn’t eat anything,” Nico notes once they get off the train. He rubs Marti’s upper arm, hand sliding down to tug him by the wrist for a few steps. “Let’s get lunch first.”

This calms Marti, whose stomach settles both at Nico’s thought process staying on task (better than his own, clearly) and at the sandwiches they grab from a corner market by the bus station. Which they end up eating on the curb while they wait for the bus that Nico says will take them to the park, home to the head of the trail.

It’s a short ride, the ascent steep. The little town fades below them and the sun speckles as the road climbs through shady hills and tall cypress trees. They accidentally get off a stop early and have to wait another twenty minutes to hop on the next bus for the remainder of the ride.

Nico apologizes so much Marti has to grab his face and shake it once lightly.

“It’s okay, Ni,” Marti says calmly, tugging his cheek with his thumb in a soothing stroke. “Do you know how many times I get off on the wrong stop? At home? It’s embarrassing. You at least know where we are.” He pauses. “I trust you.”

That pulls a lopsided smile from Nico, the kind he can’t repress. Marti feels his cheek sink into his palm, the weight of his head full and yielding.

Marti’s not selfish with his validation, although he knows it to be an instrument in one light, a weapon in another.

Nico’s spirits are back to normal once they find the trailhead. It’s at the edge of a large, flat park in the valley of the hills, nothing more than a slender metal stake in the ground to mark it with a stencil-painted number. A faded warning sign hangs on a tree above it, stating that in the fall and winter the trail is not maintained for fallen leaves or snow.

Before they start, a mosquito buzzes by Marti’s ear. Startled by the hiss, he swats at it, missing.

“I’ve got some bug spray!” Nico remembers. “I put it in your backpack.”

He turns Marti by the shoulders, unzipping the front pouch and spraying a cloud around them, focusing on their exposed skin. Some of it gets in Marti’s mouth, and he coughs before spitting it out.

“I brought gum, too,” Nico smiles, pulling it from his pocket.

Once settled, Nico takes his hand and they disappear into the thicket of tall, slender trees. Marti looks back a minute in, and the forest seems to have swallowed them whole.

The path is dirt, and tight. Just enough room to walk side by side most times, but narrowing around bends where they have to walk one in front of the other — Nico taking the lead. A few times the trail splits, and Nico stops to look down both directions, a nervous finger on his eyebrow before he nods to himself and heads down one way of the fork.

The trees blot the sun, softened dappled light on the dry, thirsty ground below. It’s quiet — in the way nature is quiet with its rustling leaves and its singing birds, its chirping insects and snapping twigs. And the air is clean. Marti takes it in through his nose, filling his lungs. They don’t speak for a long time. At least half an hour.

The energy Marti felt from the train is gone, that underlying tick of excitement. And maybe, he realizes, what he was feeling was his own doubt and his own restlessness. They’re far from home and Nico is eager, and passionate. But thoughtful and prepared — and maybe his head swam a bit to put this all together. But he just wants to share with Marti, to give him something in return. And to make it nice for him.

To not fuck it up this time.

It hurts Marti to know that’s probably what Nico thinks. He kicks himself mentally for worrying so much, and he squeezes Nico’s hand.

“Have you heard about the witch who lives in these woods?” Nico turns around to ask over his shoulder as he leads Marti up a particularly steep incline, the path at its narrowest part. Flat but unevenly sized rocks are jammed into the dirt to create something resembling a staircase.

“Witches aren’t real,” Marti huffs. It makes him sound exasperated but really he’s just out of breath.

Nico clicks his tongue. “This one is. She only preys on men. Attractive men, so beware.”

Silly as it is, Marti still blushes — thankfully hidden by his already red face. He’s starting to sweat, his legs are starting to burn.

“If that were true, you'd be taken by now.” He’s proud of his witty comeback, especially at the surprised chuckle it pulls from Nico. “Since you said you’ve been here before, no?”

“I was a pretty awkward-looking preteen,” Nico snorts. “But yeah.”

The ascent evens out just when Marti’s legs feel like they might give, wobbling like jelly, and he stops at the top of the climb to put his hands on his hips and catch his breath. It takes a step or two for Nico to realize, and he backtracks with a cheeky grin, giving Marti a once over.

There’s a break through the trees, and up this high, far in the distance, Marti can see the ocean along the horizon through them. They’re walking along the inside ridge of a cliff, still protected by a thin barricade of forest. The sun reaches them better up here, and the air is drier. The density of the foliage lessens further down the trail away from the edge, making way to what looks like tall grass breaking into a meadow.

Nico leans against one of the trees, foot propped up on it behind him with crossed arms. “Do you want to take a break?” He asks, eyebrows raised and looking slightly amused.

“No,” Marti lies. “I’m just… looking at how pretty it is.”

Nico follows his gaze. “It is pretty,” he says, more to himself than anything.

Marti starts walking again, this time grabbing Nico by the hand.

“So when exactly was the last time you’ve done this?”

“Hike?”

“Yeah,” Marti swallows, his throat scratchy. He reaches over to grab the water bottle in the mesh pocket of Nico’s backpack and takes a long drink. “Here.” He gestures around them.

“Probably a few years ago. With my best friend from Virgilio.”

He doesn’t elaborate. Marti knows the gist of that whole story, anyway. And while it’s no longer a particularly painful wound for Nico, it’s still scabbed, not scarred. Picking it open is easy and results in blood.

“Can I say something a bit cheesy?” Nico laughs, nervousness behind it. He swings their hands dramatically.

“When has that ever stopped you before?”

Marti is expecting an equally playful retort, something along the lines of shut up, asshole — but Nico just bites his bottom lip, wearing it red between his teeth. He takes a minute to compose himself, slowing his steps before stopping completely.

They’re at the edge of the meadow now, in the shallow part of the ring of trees and hills. A few puffy clouds have come to say hello to the sun, making the light fleck the same way it did in the forest. Tallgrass and red flowers dot the center. It looks like a painting.

“If someone asked me today who my best friend was, I’d say you.”

Marti wasn’t looking at Nico when he said it — really not expecting something so touching — but his head snaps so fast at the sentiment it takes his eyes a second to catch up. A blur of green and brown and sunlight.

When they meet, Nico grabs Marti’s other hand. It’s trembling slightly.

“I love you a lot.”

It sounds like a confession. With that same low voice Marti never hears him use besides right in his ear.

And somehow, the I love you is less impactful than the thought before it. But maybe that was the intention, because Nico knows this one he’ll return — it’s a phrase they’ve passed back and forth before.

The other, not so much.

“I love you too, Ni.”

Saying it comes easier and stronger and truer, with a bigger smile each time.

Nico kisses him, pulling Marti in by both hands. This one says I’m so glad you’re here with me right now.

“I know you are the definition of strength and stamina,” Nico teases him, three little pecks over his sentence, “but I want to take a break. Also you taste like bug spray and gum.”

Before Marti can object, Nico starts tugging him into the meadow. They shed their backpacks in the grass somewhere along the way.

The pasture prickles Marti’s ankles. The bright sun makes him squint his eyes. Nico picks a wildflower on their way to the center and puts it in Marti’s hair. Another. Another. Tucking them behind his ear and kissing him again.

Normally Marti would object, but it seems nature has cast a spell on him. He feels invisible. In the best way. Like nothing exists outside of Nico, outside of this meadow. That the trees surrounding them go on and on forever.

Like they’re the only two people in the world. But he’ll keep that thought to himself.

It’s been a minute since he’s gotten actual butterflies — the kind he felt on Halloween, the kind he felt in Bracciano. But he feels them now, fluttering his heart and making his head float. It’s very fitting one drifts right by their knees. A swarm of them in his stomach.

Nico lightly pushes his shoulder, making Marti sit in the grass mid-kiss. And he follows right down on top of him, straddling his sides. Laying him down.

The ground below Marti is warm and scratchy, the turf tickles his face when he smiles. Everything smells like earth and flowers and Nico, and when the sun peeks behind a cloud, Marti can feel it on his skin. Can see the dark get brighter behind his closed eyes, a muddied purple. Everything feels like one thing, no distinction between his body on the earth or Nico’s on his. If someone tried to peel him from this spot, they’d bring roots up with it.

Nico opens his mouth to kiss him deep, quickly finding his tongue with his own. The sudden sensation makes Marti’s toes curl against the bottom of his shoes, and the hands limp on Nico’s arms smooth up to rake sticky curls off his forehead. His black hair is hot from the sun, a magnet for the rays.

This kiss clearly says I want you.

“Something tells me this isn’t what normal best friends do,” Marti laughs.

“Pfft,” Nico snorts. “You’re my boyfriend. That’s like, best friend with benefits.” He barely breaks away to say it. Tilts his head to kiss Marti from another angle, making everything feel new again. “Lots and lots of benefits.” He lays his full weight on Marti now. His voice so low and mumbled the combination has him spinning.

Marti’s heart feels too big, pumping too much blood. A cloud blocks the sun again, but he still feels hot all over. Feels a river in him rushing south. His body goes weak with it, ceding at the bliss of Nico’s kiss he can’t quite keep up with. When he breaks away for a moment to catch his breath, Nico just goes for his jaw. For his neck. Gentle lips turn into a gentle bite, and Nico’s hand cradling his face smooths slowly all the way down Marti’s body — over his chest, his stomach — right between his legs. His fingers skim the top of his jeans, thumb paused on the button like a test.

Marti bends his knees to open them before he realizes this will soon tip past the point he can’t return from.

“We are not going to fuck outside,” he murmurs. Everything about his body language — his arched hips into Nico’s hand, his tilted head to expose more of his neck — is contradictory to his words.

“Why not?” Nico asks. Marti feels him smile against his throat. Feels him run his hand up his dick.

He exhales deep at the touch, closed eyes muddling flashes of color on the back of his lids. And really, why not. Once he gives in a little bit, it’s a sharp slide to giving in all the way.

“You’re right. Fuck it.” He turns back to find Nico’s lips with his own, barely finishing the sentence.

I want you too.

Nico smiles over it, undoes his pants and slips his hand in. Touches him.

Just enough pressure to make his exhale loud and his hips stir. Every time Nico does this Marti falls through a trapdoor — a quick moment where all of the air is knocked from his lungs, where he experiences that falling swoop in his stomach — only instead of landing in a pit of lions, he floats softly to a field of flowers. This time literally.

It’s all only for a moment, though, until Marti is fully hard, and then Nico sits up and tugs his jeans down just enough.

Marti feels him push his legs open to get between them. The separation is agony until Nico goes down on him. Somehow too slow (to watch him peek up between the sweaty curls Marti’s made a mess of on his forehead — eyes dark despite the sun and wicked despite sweet intentions — makes everything appear in slow motion). And too fast (he’s never ready for how good it feels).

That same gaze stays locked on him. Nico’s mouth around him and his eyes up on his face, like he doesn’t want to miss a second of Marti’s reaction. Which is something Marti knows he can never hide — he feels his mouth fall into a circle of open lips, his eyelids flutter, his cheeks sear. It’s written all over him how wonderful Nico can make him feel and how quickly he can come undone.

But that gaze — eye to eye — is something Marti can’t fully return. Not if he wants this to last. He can do it only for a second before he has to close his own again, his stomach curling at piercing dark green under thick lashes. His blood rushing at wet red lips on him, the ones he’s just kissed. It’s somehow hot and sentimental. But that’s a pretty good description of Nico in general.

It’s funny: at one point, when Marti feels at the edge — when Nico’s lips have settled into a quicker rhythm with hollow cheeks sliding up and flat tongue sliding down — he props himself on his elbows and looks at Nico. Who is looking at him.

And Marti has to guess, but maybe it’s his own face — his lowered lids over warm brown eyes, his lips parted, flowers in his messy hair — that makes Nico close his eyes.

Silently and transparently, Nico feels like Marti does. Overwhelmed at what he sees — overwhelmed at how he can make someone else feel this way, and how those feelings bloom from the inside to the outside.

But that’s what makes Marti come. When Nico closes his eyes. And Marti feels the breath of a deep exhale through Nico’s nose on his hip.

When it happens — his body giving, his elbows sinking into the earth so that he lays flat with his head pillowed by the toasty, coarse grass — Marti doesn’t try to move Nico away and Nico doesn’t object to staying. He’ll tell himself it’s just less messy this way, but coming uninterrupted in Nico’s mouth has him seeing stars on the back of his eyelids. Has him whining loud, nobody around to hear them. His legs draw up, his hand finds Nico’s face. His other in his own hair.

His whole body is pulsing, blurring the line between coming and coming down. Since his eyes are closed, his body practically stupefied, he doesn’t notice Nico’s removed himself from him until he’s back again, this time in a kiss Marti immediately smiles into. Into an embrace he curls around. Everything is silent, in that rustly, chirpy way nature is, and Marti catches his breath. He doesn’t need as long to come back down to earth as he normally does, he’s been embedded with it this whole time.

He does his pants back up. They lie like that until everything stops buzzing.

“How do you feel?” Nico nuzzles the question into his neck, pulling him close.

Marti has to remember where words come from. “Lucky.” Is the first one he finds. And to it, an appreciative hum against his throat. “And amazing. And hungry. And tired.”

“I’ve got you,” Nico clicks his tongue and sits up. “We have snacks.”

He shuffles his hands around for his backpack, pulling out everything from cookies to apples and water to juice. Marti picks the cookie, of course, but doesn’t let Nico go, tugging him right back down on his chest.

“Share,” Nico playfully demands, dragging it out.

Marti limply hovers the cookie over his face, munching on his own mouthful, and Nico takes a bite of it.

Only with him could Marti do these things one after the other, feel this way so suddenly. Their transitions — from passionate to domestic, from romantic to clowning — are never acute.

It’s pure comfort, Marti realizes. To be with Nico feels like comfort.

They lie there, clouds passing the sun, until most of the snacks are gone and Marti is full and tired. Talking about nothing. Sometimes not talking at all. In one of those stretches, Marti hears Nico softly snoring into his collarbone.

“And in love,” Marti whispers.

 

• • •

 

Marti opens his eyes to the darkening sky, light orange and pink around the edges. Nico’s head is heavy on his shoulder, a flat hand on his stomach.

“Fuck, Ni, we fell asleep.” Marti gently shakes him awake. “It’s getting dark.”

Nico grumbles something unintelligible, rolling over and sitting up with the back of his hand to his forehead. He yawns dramatically, scrunching his eyes to define the crinkles. He doesn’t seem bothered until he opens them.

The meadow is dark — the shadows are black and the highlights are tinted cool. The red flowers, at a distance, seem purple, and glowflies dot the lower grass. It’s pretty until they both realize it will be almost completely black within the hour, and they still have a hike down the cliff to make.

And that they never made it to the lookout.

“Fuck,” Nico rubs his eyes, sinking his face into his open palms. “I wanted to take you to the overlook.”

“It’s okay, we can —”

“We can still make it, come on!”

Nico grabs Marti’s hand and jolts up, tugging him back towards the shady forest.

“Nico, our backpacks,” Marti reminds him.

“Oh yeah.” He stops, arms dropping to his sides, his head following. He pinches his lips and looks at his feet, maybe embarrassed. Or sorry. Or guilty. It’s hard to tell as night creeps in and Marti loses the details of his face. But he can feel the regret nonetheless.

“We’ll make it there next time,” Marti assures him. He grabs Nico’s elbow, sliding his grip down to his wrist — and when that seems okay — his hand. He threads their fingers together. “And next time… I won’t let you distract me.” He winks.

That coaxes a smile out of Nico. He tilts his chin up proudly, and Marti notices the littlest wiggle travel up his neck.

“Next time?” He raises an eyebrow. “Did you have fun?”

“I liked being with you.” Marti says it slowly, honestly. “And now we have a reason to come back.”

Nico squints his eyes, a sly smile following, a small jerk of his head. “I’ll take it. C’mon, let’s go back down. I even brought a flashlight.”

He spins on his heel and leads them back to their bags, where they pick up, zip up, and head through the dusky meadow to the trail. Hand in hand.

Inside the nighttime trees it’s another world. Dark and bawdy with a low drone of paranoia. Like someone is watching them. Marti knows it’s just his imagination — the dramatic beam of Nico’s flashlight acting as their only beacon, every snapped twig like a gun shot — but it makes the meadow feel like another dimension, like a dream. Like if Marti looked back, it wouldn’t be there at all. To keep his peace of mind, he doesn’t.

“You know,” Nico starts. “There was a reason I started hiking.”

His voice is calming. Marti prompts him to go on. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s always been so soothing to me. Even before I started therapy, or before it felt like something wasn’t quite right.”

They start descending around a bend, the trail narrowing and forcing them to walk one in front of the other. It’s rocky and uneven. Marti has to be careful with his footing since he can barely see, sometimes grabbing the back of Nico’s shirt for support, who leads with his flashlight.

“Dad would take me around here when I was younger,” Nico continues. “I just like the trees. And the silence. It’s the only silence that doesn’t make me overthink. But you know, I’ve actually never seen that meadow before, must have always missed it — Marti!”

Marti’s foot catches a root wrong, twisting his ankle in a painful pang of pinched nerves, and the imbalance flings him sideways off the path into the brush. Face first, luckily caught by his hands that scratch against a rock. It burns his palms, bangs his elbows. He spits out a leaf that accidentally got in his mouth.

“Marti!” Nico repeats, rushing over. Marti feels him kneel down by his head, a careful hand on his side. “Are you okay? God, I knew I should have gotten you better shoes, I should have —”

“It was the witch,” Marti whispers, rolling over. Perfectly fine. His ankle stings, but he can roll it okay without any further pain. Just a bad trip. He can barely say it without laughing.

“What?” Nico recoils, confused.

“The witch,” Mari drags out again, interrupted by his own giggles. “She tried to get me. Grabbed me by the ankle.”

The night has completely taken over by now, making Nico’s face practically indiscernible. Marti can make out his eyes, though — wide and wet and worried turning squinty and irked. But paired with a pinched smile, he knows he’s done no harm.

“Fuck you,” Nico scoffs, throwing his head over his shoulder to dramatically roll his eyes. “You asshole! I thought you had snapped your leg in half!”

“I’m fine,” Marti reassures him, still laughing at his own joke. “Help me up.”

Nico does, but not without swatting his shoulder lightly.

“Asshole,” he repeats. Too tenderly to mean it.

Marti just grabs his hand. Kisses the back of it with a loud smack.

 

• • •

 

They make it out okay, only one wrong turn. Nico clicks his flashlight off and puts it back in his bag once they see the glow of the bus stop and the street lamps. It’s late, past nine, but the timetable at the stop says they’ll still be able to catch the last ride back into town. Hopefully in time to catch the last train to Rome, too.

“You’ve still got flowers in your hair,” Nico notes while they wait. He takes a step closer.

Marti watches his face as he picks them out. Slowly and one by one, like he’s saying goodbye to each petal. They fall red by their feet. A reminder that the meadow wasn’t just a mirage. His expression is tired and soft as he focuses, with wistful and weary eyes: not that have seen a hard day, but a long day. And not a taxing day, but a healing day. Sometimes healing takes a lot out of a person. Marti’s noticed it usually takes a lot out of Nico.

But there’s no regret, not a trace of it in any wrinkle. Swinging moods and accidental naps and unfinished plans be damned. It all turned out just fine.

Marti remembers what he said earlier this morning, about fine being perfect.

Maybe Nico can read his mind, because he leans in and kisses Marti one last time before the headlights of the bus round the corner. And Marti feels that conviction echoing in his soft pressed lips: fine is just perfect to me.

Once boarded, they’re the only ones on, so Marti feels safe resting his head on Nico’s shoulder. Even through all the bumps in the road.

“Can I say something cheesy?” Marti smiles, closing his eyes. Knowing that he’s bringing back Nico’s question from before.

Nico chuckles. “I’d never stop you.”

“Yeah, you eat that shit up.”

It earns him another swat. They giggle because it’s true. But he didn’t want to return the sentiment until it felt absolutely genuine. Part of Marti feels guilty for it to take so long. And it’s fair — Nico has good competition. But there’s no one in his life Marti can do everything with the way he can do with Nico. So part of him feels like he just needed a good reminder.

Today was it.

“You’re my best friend too.”