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nel mezzo della notte

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Dinner at Nico’s parents’ house went well. At least Marti thinks. He had to talk Nico into it, because Nico didn’t want to go and listen to his parents patronize him about the apartment, or about the art academy he enrolled at instead of university. But that didn’t happen, save for Anna's subtle poke on when they’re going to be allowed inside the apartment, so Marti thinks it went mostly well. He and Nico have been together for a year now, and they treat Marti like he’s family, although that sometimes means being handed a rose with prickles on the stem.

He knows Nico doesn’t feel as victorious as he does, walking next to him in with his head low, chin tucked in the collar of his jacket. Half of his face is hidden by his hood, but he can see the tension in the tight line of his lips, the tiredness in his eyes and the slope of his brows. He’s already had a couple of not-so-great days, and Marti knows how much pressure comes with interacting with his parents after he tried his hardest to get his independence, or a start of it, in the summer.

Nico’s dad offered them a ride, but Marti caught Nico’s eyes silently asking him to refuse, and insisted they get the bus. It was Marti, then, pulling Nico in for a hug before they stepped out of the gate, who suggested they take a longer route through the center to get the bus to Nico’s place, despite the weather. To decompress, so that when they get home, the bad feelings have had time to be washed off by the light drizzle. And Marti can do the rest.

Walking down the streets of Rome on a rainy Monday night feels like he isn’t even in Rome. There’s almost no one around them: a street vendor with umbrellas hanging from his arms; a group of girls walking far in front of them with their arms linked; a serious-looking man dragging a suitcase on the uneven sidewalk in the opposite direction; a couple lingering under a shared umbrella in front of the luxury shops in Via Condotti, looking inside the extravagant displays of wealth in dreamy contemplation.

Apart from this, it’s eerily empty and quiet around them. No hordes of tourists clogging Via del Corso that you have to zigzag your way through, no people striding around with shopper bags, or families with small children in strollers walking excruciatingly slowly. Moving through this part of Rome is an exercise in patience on most days, but now it feels almost desert, like the city gets to breathe before the sun rises and fills her lungs again. The orange glow of the streetlights and the neon lights of the shop windows reflecting in the puddles and the wet concrete create a warmth that somehow resonates in him, like a nostalgia for something he doesn’t even know, and at the same time, a sense of peace.

By his side, Nico, briefly pressing against him to sidestep a puddle, in front of them, the Spanish steps and Trinità dei Monti standing majestically over an almost empty Piazza di Spagna.

Marti doesn’t come here often, almost never. He guesses it’s that thing where if you are born and raised in a city, you don’t find yourself doing the touristy stuff. The bus stop isn’t even in this direction, they were supposed to walk down Via del Corso to Piazza Venezia, but this is where his feet took him, and Nico hasn’t said anything about it. He’s quiet, and Marti doesn’t dislike comfortable silence, but he’s learned to measure Nico’s.

They step inside the square, Bernini’s fountain welcoming them, and Marti looks at Nico. He’s looking up at the church on top of the steps, the lights of the fountain dancing in his eyes. His hood falls off his head to uncover a nest of dark curls, and Marti smiles and pats down the hair on the back of his head, hand lingering shortly on his nape. Nico turns to him and smiles back, but it looks like an effort.

“You okay?” Marti asks, gentle as he can be.

Nico nods. “Yeah. A bit tired,” he says. He knows this tiredness is not physical but rather emotional, and he doesn’t need to pry, or for Nico to explain that to him. He knows how to decipher him and it’s like he’s always known.

Marti takes off his hood as well, the rain has stopped and left a misty humidity in the air that’s going to make his hair look puffy. Not that he cares about his hair. Nico moves towards the bottom of the steps, hands in his pocket, and suddenly, Marti’s hit by an idea.

“Too tired to walk up to the top?” he says, coming up behind him.

Nico turns and blinks at him. “Are you serious?”

Marti shrugs. “Why not?” he says. He walks up the first steps, then stops and turns, playfully squinting at Nico. “So?”

“Marti,” Nico half-laughs, looking around like he can’t believe him and is checking for hidden cameras. Marti takes a step backwards and wiggles his brows to challenge him, raising his voice in a sweet, mocking tone.

“Come on, Ni. I’ll leave you here, huh.”

Nico huffs and starts catching up to him, shaking his head. Marti grins at him and waits for him at the end of the first block of stairs. He takes his hand because there is no one around and he doesn’t care, and they make their way up the second block. This smile Nico has as he looks down at their laced finger is precious and Marti wants to keep it there.

This is something he hasn’t done in years, and he’s definitely never done it with the place void of people walking up to the top to take souvenir pictures of the view.

“I haven’t done this in years,” Nico says, as if reading his thoughts. His voice is low and he looks pensive, as if he’s trying to remember the last time he was here or how long ago it was.

Once at the top, they walk to the center of the marble fence and lean against it to catch their breaths. And there it is, Rome in all its beauty at night, swathed in the warm lights of the streets and the cool light of the moon. Via Condotti, where they came from, almost splits the city in half, its buildings and its churches, not one the same as the other, all of them containing histories that a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to learn. St. Peter’s dome shines like a lighthouse in the distance on their right, and it fills his heart with something, a pull of guilt for taking his city for granted, but at the same time an overwhelming sense of pride.

His whole life is in this city, and the most important part of it is standing next to him.

And his eyes look sad, like the curve of his lips. His hands grip the marble of the fence like he’s trying to hold onto it. Marti frowns and steps closer to him. He strokes Nico’s cheek with his thumb and Nico lowers his eyes.

Marti recognizes when Nico’s mood spirals down, sometimes it comes with a warning, predictable. Sometimes it surprises him, and he’s learned the ropes, but there will never be one single way to deal with a mood swing. Nico is not a machine, and Marti isn’t there to fix him. He’s just there to comfort him, be as close as he wants him to be, whichever way works best for him, and bring him back into the light.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he whispers. It feels like this has nothing to do with the dinner.

Nico shakes his head, clenching his jaw. “It's stupid.”

Marti wraps his arm around Nico's waist, pulling him closer. The wind is stronger up here and he fixes the collar of Nico's jacket to cover his throat.

“I like stupid,” he says, a teasing but soft smile on his lips.

Being lighthearted is something that comes natural to him now, didn’t use to before Nico. He doesn’t carry the weight of their hardships because they’re nothing compared to the magnitude of each other moment they share, and sometimes cracking a joke is a good way to break through the dark clouds. Nico is still avoiding his eyes, but he sees a corner of his lips twitch, and he waits, hand stroking his side through his jacket.

Patience is the key, and a bit of stubborness. Marti has plenty of both.

Nico takes a deep breath through his nose and exhales. “Seeing the city from here just reminded me of being on the terrace that night and thinking I had lost you.”

Oh, Marti thinks.

“I kept thinking, ‘you scared him away, and he’s not going to forgive you. You hurt him and you don’t even know how much’,” he continues, voice low and heavy with regret, cracking with it. He clears his throat and sniffles. “Sometimes I still do. Wonder how much pain I caused you.”

Marti feels the wave of Nico’s melancholy hit him, and he realizes he’s shaking his head, like he’s automatically rejecting the words. He knows not to dismiss these feelings, but they belong to another time.

He lifts Nico’s chin with his index finger, like he did back then on the school terrace, and Nico looks at him, finally. Marti sighs and smiles.

“You know, when I think about that, I only feel happy,” he says, and finds Nico’s hand to squeeze it. “I remember getting your text and feeling for the first time, maybe for the first time in years, that I was sure about something. That nothing would make me doubt you again. That certainty was the only thing I needed. And the relief when I saw you there…” he trails off, suddenly overwhelmed. He chuckles, a bit embarrassed because he’s not one for speeches, and Nico huffs a laugh too.

Marti purses his lips and looks to his right, at Rome, at the twinkling lights that Nico had imagined him in. He finds Nico’s eyes again and cups his face with both hands.

“That certainty hasn’t changed. I don’t think it’s possible for it to change.”

Nico smiles at him and Marti kisses him, nothing but a long, familiar touch of lips, a confirmation.

“Thank you, Marti,” Nico says.

“For what?” he says, and kisses Nico’s knuckles. They take one last look at the panorama, the unexpected backdrop to an unexpected moment. Marti kisses Nico again, because he can, and Nico plays with his curls, long over the back of his neck.

They walk away from the fence, hand in hand, and look down at the steps.

“Race you to the bottom?” he says.

Nico laughs. “I don’t want you to slip. I like your neck safe and sound.”

“You like my neck, period.”

Nico pushes him and Marti snorts. He thinks he wouldn’t change anything about how they got here.

“Let’s go home.”