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breathless (we could be reckless)

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Later, Nicky will admit he asks at least a little bit out of desperation.

He will also admit that he’s more than a little bit out of his mind.

Who could blame him? He’s totally strung out, with his wrists tied to the headboard of Joe’s hotel bed, sweat beading along his chest and in the small of his back, his cock a solid line of throbbing heat up his abdomen.

Joe has been alternating between sucking his cock slowly and delightfully and fucking his fingers into Nicky at the same pace.

Nicky is going to die of pleasure.

It had started when Joe said, “You’re such a patient man.” Their waiter had forgotten their order and they’d had to wait an extra half hour for dinner in the hotel restaurant. “I want to ruin you.”

His dark eyes had glittered and his tongue, when he had licked a drop of red wine off his bottom lip, had been pink and distracting.

That is why Nicky said, “I want to be ruined.” That and nothing else.

Joe takes his promises seriously, and now here Nicky is, whimpering and helpless in the bed of a man he’s known for all of fourteen days, trusting Joe to get him there.

If he’s honest, it started much earlier, on day one of their holiday, when a sleep-deprived and jet-lagged Joe had almost ran him down trying to steal his taxi at the airport. When they had gotten over yelling at each other and figured out they were headed to the same hotel anyway and might as well share the hotel, Joe had promised to make it up to Nicky when he was more awake.

The next day, he had turned up by Nicky’s side at the breakfast buffet, and in the full light of day, he had been so gorgeous Nicky had tripped over his own tongue twice, agreeing to let Joe show him around the island in apology.

By the end of the day, Nicky was half in love already, so much so that even after apologizing to Joe twenty times at least for being the first one to yell over the stupid taxi, he insists on taking Joe snorkeling the following day to keep up his end of the apology.

They kissed at sunset on the beach, and ever since, Nicky has known he’s lost.

It’s not something he does, really. He can count on one hand the number of sexual partners he’s had, in total, and all of those, he has known at least a month before he so much as kissed them.

Joe, Nicky knew for less than forty-eight hours before he tumbled him backwards into the starchily pressed sheets of the hotel bed and fucked him in a frenzy that had them both panting and sweaty and whispering praise into each other’s mouths.

Midmorning on the third day, shaking against the shower wall after Joe had finished stroking him off so maddeningly slowly he thought he might melt into the ground, Nicky had laughed. “This is not how I saw this vacation going,” he had said, trying to scrub shampoo through his hair with shaking hands.

“Let me do that,” Joe had said. “How did you imagine it?”

Nicky had shrugged, trying not to melt all over again with Joe’s fingers in his hair. “My boss sent me here,” he had admitted. “She thought I was working too much and forced me to book a vacation.”

“Nice boss.”

“Eh,” Nicky had said. “She’s an unholy terror, according to her students.”

“You’re a professor, then?”

“Of religion,” Nicky had said. “I was going to spend two weeks looking into all the religious buildings on the island. Malta has a fascinating history of--oh, that’s nice.”

“I see what your boss meant,” Joe had said. “I’m going to have to distract you from work, aren’t I? Wouldn’t want you getting back even more stressed than you left.”

“You’re welcome to try,” Nicky had agreed amicably, and let Joe do just that.

Now, here he is, on the last night of his vacation, spread-eagled on the bed and absolutely desperate for this man.

He doesn’t know where Joe lives, or what he eats for breakfast when there’s no buffet table, or what his parents’ names are. He doesn’t know anything about him.

But he does know Joe. He knows Joe is kind to strangers when he’s not utterly sleep-deprived, he knows Joe is wickedly funny and incredibly charming, and he knows Joe is honest, knows he is the gentlest man Nicky has ever met.

So when Joe reaches for the condom at last, when Nicky is panting through what must be his third denied orgasm, he says, “Leave it. If you want.”

Joe’s eyes slide shut for an instant. “Are you sure?” He asks. He had said Nicky was patient, and it’s true. Nicky is patient and calm in almost every situation in life, and Joe is not, so it is all the more impressive that Joe has waited so long; given Nicky so much pleasure and waited for his own.

“Yes,” Nicky says. “Yes, I want you bare, I want my body to feel yours tomorrow.”

Joe groans as he slides in bare, and Nicky loses himself in the slick, hot movement within him.

“Joe,” he moans out, “Joe, yes.”

When Joe hitches his hips up a little further and strikes deep against his prostate, Nicky says a series of much stupider things, including, “I love you” and “I don’t want this to end”.

Above him, Joe’s eyes are wide, his hair is wild, his cheeks are flushed. “You’re beautiful,” Nicky tells him mindlessly, “you’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever met, please, let me keep you, Joe, what have you done to me?”

He comes the instant his cock rubs against the soft skin of Joe’s belly. He’s been strung up and waiting for it, brought to the edge so often, and he yells as he comes. There’s blood buzzing in his ears and come still drooling out of his dick when he becomes aware enough to see Joe’s eyes closed, his mouth open in rapture as he comes deep inside Nicky.

They collapse back against the bed, Joe pressed tight to Nicky, the way he does when they sleep, and Nicky can already tell he won’t sleep as well without it.

“Did you mean it?” Joe rumbles against his ear.

Nicky swallows thickly and presses his face into the pillow, trying to hide his shame at all the things he said, just now, strung out and desperate for more of Joe.

“Nicky,” Joe says, and the line of heat against Nicky’s back shifts.

“Nicky,” Joe says again, and he’s propped up on his elbow, looking at Nicky, and Nicky can’t help himself from looking back. “Please tell me you meant it.”

A dam bursts inside Nicky, and he is so swept away in the tide of his relief he admits everything. “I meant it,” he says. “Of course I meant it, I’ve fallen in love with you. Let me keep you. Let me stay with you. Marry me, Joe.”

“I thought I would spend my nights in darkness,” Joe tells him, and Nicky knows this about him, too, that he will not give a straight answer when a poem would do. “I thought I’d live on a pale shadow of what you’ve made me feel. But you – your smile could light up the darkest night, Nicolò. Your heart is so sweet, my love, you’ve captured mine so easily. I’ll stay with you for as long as you’ll have me.”

Nicky would blame the wine, he would blame the summer breeze, the beautiful view, temporary insanity, anything, but it would be a lie and he’s an honest man. If he’s drunk on anything, it’s Joe. If anything makes him shiver, it’s Joe. If there is any beautiful view, it’s Joe’s eyes, bright with tears and smiling at him. If he’s insane, it’s only love.

-

They look it up on Joe’s phone, laughing and excited and drunk on love. Joe keeps saying it, pressing kisses to Nicky’s shoulder, to his clavicle, to his bellybutton and his knee. “I love you,” first in Italian and then in English and then in other languages that Nicky doesn’t know.

“Hm,” Nicky says, scrolling through Joe’s phone. “We’d have to apply six weeks before the wedding to do it here.”

There goes that plan.

Except Joe looks up from where his head is resting in Nicky’s naked lap. “So we’ll go somewhere else,” he says easily.

“Oh,” Nicky says, and realizes for the first time that if they do this, if they keep each other, they will leave together. They will go somewhere else together. It’s as frightening as it is heady.

“We could just fly straight to Vegas,” Joe suggests. “I don’t have to be back at work until Monday.”

It’s Friday night.

“Me neither,” Nicky says. Then, he considers. “Where are you even flying to? Where are you going? Where do you live?” With me, now? he wants to ask, but doesn’t.

Joe’s eyes widen at the question. “In New York,” he says. “Brooklyn.”

Nicky sits up, almost dislodging Joe’s head in his lap. “You’re kidding,” he says.

“No?” Joe says it like a question, confused. “My gallery’s in Williamsburg.”

“Joe, I’m a professor at Columbia.”

Joe sits up so fast his head collides with Nicky’s.

“You mean—”

“I mean—”

“We can have this?” Joe’s voice is tremulous, wrecked with emotion and with the lingering aftereffects of the truly mind-numbing blowjob he had given Nicky earlier.

“Let’s do it,” Nicky says. “Let’s go to Vegas. Let’s get married and go home together.”

They book the flight on Joe’s phone, fingers shaking. Nicky paypals the money for it to Joe, and then they fall back into bed, kissing desperately for all they’re both too old for a second round.

It turns out they were booked for the same flight out on Saturday, anyway. No surprise in that, since they live in the same place. Maybe, Nicky considers, they would have realized all on their own, when they were the only two idiots who nearly missed the plane out of Valetta. Maybe their eyes would have met over the rows of seats and Nicky would have texted Joe to ask where he was headed, maybe they would have agreed to meet up for coffee in a week, when the sunswept high of their vacation had left, maybe they would have come to this point more slowly.

As it is, Joe smiles charmingly at the flight attendant and asks her, with wide-open, pleading eyes, if there is any way he can sit with his fiancé for the flight.

They trade excited plans on the way to London, still riding last night’s high. If the light fits his needs for painting, Joe will move in; Nicky’s apartment is bigger, and closer to the subway besides. “A three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn?” Joe asks him, aghast. “All by yourself? Are you a millionaire?”

“Just tenured,” Nicky assures him. “And I haven’t been on vacation in about ten years, until now.”

“No, no,” Joe laughs, eyes dancing. “You’ll be my sugar daddy, I can tell.”

Nicky chokes on his tomato juice.

During the layover in London, the lack of sleep catches up with Joe. They eat something the British have erroneously named ‘panini’, and it is deeply dissatisfying in all ways except that it leaves them less hungry than before.

Nicky studies the deep circles under Joe’s eyes and the way he’s sloping back against the plastic seat. “Is this totally crazy?” He asks.

“Definitely,” Joe says.

“Should we call it off?” Nicky asks.

Joe squints at him through tired eyes. He reaches out to run a thumb over Nicky’s bottom lip. “No,” he says.

On the second plane ride, Joe falls asleep on Nicky’s shoulder and Nicky is filled with such a deep, abiding tenderness, he has to breathe steadily through his nose so as not to cry.

By the second layover, Nicky is so tired he can barely stand.

“I hate JFK,” he moans to Joe. He thinks of his bed, only an hour away by train, and is filled with doubt again.

“Everyone hates JFK,” Joe agrees, tangling their fingers together as they pull their suitcases through terminal three towards the airtrain. “It’s the worst airport in the world, objectively speaking.”

A pigeon that somehow got past security and into the terminal pecks at donut crumbs outside of a Hudson News.

“And that,” Nicky adds. “I hate that store, it’s a terrible bookstore.”

“It’s not a bookstore,” Joe says. “It’s a store that sells books. And now donuts, apparently.”

Momentarily satisfied that Joe at least shares the correct opinions about this hell on earth, Nicky settles into a sort of waking doze as they make their way through the airport.

By rights, security should be faster for a transfer, but TSA are strangely insistent on seeing all of Joe’s documents and searching all his luggage thoroughly. By the time Nicky has fought through the haze of his tiredness enough to understand why, exactly, this is happening, Joe is sneaking looks at him that are both ashamed and defiant.

“This is what it will be like,” Joe tells him. “Being with me.”

Nicky swallows thickly, grabbing for his hand. “I’m sorry people are stupid,” he says in Italian, so as not to be overheard. “Including me.”

Joe gives him the ghost of a smile.

“Would it help if I made a fuss?” Nicky asks.

“No,” Joe says instantly. “Or. Well, maybe yes? No one has before?”

“Excuse me?” Nicky says to the TSA agent currently pawing through Joe’s underwear like she has any right. “Excuse me, ma’am, but we really can’t miss our flight.” He gives Joe the most love-struck smile he can muster – he has the feeling he’s alarmingly successful. “We’ll be late to our own wedding.”

Joe presses a smacking kiss to his cheek, and the TSA agent looks so incredibly uncomfortable Nicky almost feels empathy.

“Sorry,” she says. “It’s a random search. Procedure is procedure.”

Almost.

“Worth a try,” Joe murmurs into Nicky’s ear. A shiver winds its way down Nicky’s spine.

They split a cinnabon, sitting at the departure gate, when it’s over. The sugar wakes Nicky enough to briefly point out, “We should probably figure out where we’ll go, in Vegas.”

“Right,” Joe agrees, licking sticky white sauce off his fingers in a frankly distracting fashion. “I’m Muslim. So I’d rather not do it in a chapel. You’re--?”

Nicky makes a face. “Mostly-lapsed Catholic,” he says. “I’d prefer a civil ceremony.”

“Mostly-lapsed?”

“Still believe in God, just not in one who’d be in favor of pedophiles getting off scot-free. Or in denying people in love the right to marriage.”

Joe smiles over at him, then, a slanted little smile that Nicky wants to see every day of his life.

He can.

He will.

“Right, so a civil ceremony,” Joe says, looking away, blushing. “I’ll get airplane wifi and look something up.”

Nicky’s about to answer, but their boarding group is called.

They’re flying Jet Blue, and Nicky groans in relief that he can actually stretch his legs out a bit. “Here,” Joe says, bundling up his sweater as a pillow. “You can lean on me. Get some rest.”

Nicky has never in his life fallen asleep in public transportation.

He’s out like a light as soon as they reach cruising altitude and only wakes up when the plane starts to land.

-

The cab driver gives them both the most bored look when Joe rattles off the address for Clark County Marriage Bureau.

Nicky doesn’t even care.

“Okay, so I applied online already on the flight,” Joe says. “We can just pick up the license and head for a chapel.”

“Chapel after all?” Nicky asks.

“They’re all called chapels,” Joe says in disgust. “No matter what they actually do. There’s a Rocky Horror chapel.”

“Hm,” Nicky says. “Any favorites?”

“I found one that’s LGBT-run,” Joe says. “I thought that would be – best.”

“Yes,” Nicky says. “Yes, that.” His heart’s beating too fast, the reality of this situation catching him up. He leans in to kiss Joe, and that – that clears things up.

It’s all over fast, in the end.

The cab driver waits in front of the marriage bureau and charges an astronomical sum for the whole drive when they reach the chapel. Still, she gives them an encouraging smile even though they spend half the drive making out in her back seat like they’re ten years younger than they actually are.

“Good luck,” she tells them.

Nicky has the license clutched in his hand, standing there in front of the chapel. His own name, date and place of birth stare up at him.

“I took your driver’s license out of your wallet to fill it out while you were asleep,” Joe says. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” Nicky says. “I should just – I should remember yours. Before we do this.”

Joe kisses him all over again, then, smiling so their lips can't quite connect right. “You’ll have plenty of time after.”

“A lifetime,” Nicky reminds himself.

“A lifetime,” Joe says.

Nicky thinks of him in Malta, barefoot by the beach, hair a mess from the wind. “I think I’m the luckiest man alive,” he says.

Joe pulls him into the chapel, laughing.

There’s a line, of course there is, and when it’s their turn, the officiant gives a fairly standard and not very inspiring speech. The witnesses are clearly bored college students who get paid by the hour.

Through it all, Joe smiles at Nicky, excitement clear in every line of his face.

Before Nicky knows it, they’ve both said they do and signed the paperwork.

They booked a room in a hotel by the airport, which was clever and forward-thinking of them at the time, because it means that tomorrow, when they fly back to New York for good, they’ll just have to roll out of bed and not worry about getting anywhere on time, but it was stupid, incredibly stupid, because it means they have to endure another half-hour cab ride back to where they’re staying before they can touch each other again, and Nicky is quickly discovering that touch is imperative, both so that he doesn’t have a panic attack and because Joe is beautiful and his husband.

It seems gauche, to kiss desperately in someone else’s car, now that they’re a married couple.

They hold hands across the middle seat of the cab.

It’s a poor substitute, but it tides them over until the door of the hotel room clicks shut behind them.

Nicky pins Joe to the door instantly.

They both taste like they haven’t brushed their teeth in twenty-four hours – which they haven’t. Nicky’s back hurts from carrying his backpack, and he hasn’t reapplied deodorant since JFK. Joe slumps against the door like it’s the only thing holding him up, and it might well be.

It doesn’t matter.

None of it matters.

What matters is that Nicky has his arms full of the most beautiful man he’s ever met, that Joe is moaning into his mouth, that the touch of skin on skin electrifies Nicky’s entire body.

“I can’t believe we did this,” Joe mumbles into his mouth.

“I can’t believe you would have me,” Nicky tells him, soft against his ear.

“I can’t believe I was lucky enough to find you.”

They jerk each other off just like that, leaning against the door and whispering to each other how right this feels, how happy they are. When he comes, hot in Joe’s fist, Nicky is flying so high he almost forgets that actions have consequences.

When Joe comes, he says Nicky’s name and Nicky thinks he has never been this happy in his life.

Their flight back to New York leaves at 8 AM the following morning.

They’re both still on European time, so waking up is not the hard part. The grogginess in every pore of Nicky’s body is.

He drags himself out of the hotel bed, crinkling the crisp sheets beneath him, and heads for the shower. It helps, a little.

Except then, he gets out, and discovers Joe hasn’t gotten up. Joe has spread out on the bed like a starfish, his chest on full display, his eyes hazy with sleep.

Nicky is physically unable to ignore him and get dressed. Instead, he dives back into bed to wrap his arms around Joe.

“You’re adorable in the morning,” Nicky tell him. “Lethally adorable.”

“’m not,” Joe says, pressing his head into Nicky’s grasp for more head rubs. “I’m rugged and manly.”

“And adorable,” Nicky agrees, stroking his hand through Joe’s hair.

“You smell good,” Joe tells him, muffled against his chest.

“So could you, if you got up and showered.”

Joe pokes him in the side.

Right choice, right choice, right choice, Nicky’s heart beats against his ribcage.

They don’t talk much on the flight back. Joe has a book by an author Nicky’s never heard of (he’s shamefully gotten stuck reading for work so much he barely does in his free time anymore), and he asked if it was alright.

“Of course,” Nicky told him. They had already spent the last forty-eight hours exclusively occupied with each other, and, truth be told, most of the two weeks before that as well. He settles in for a comfortable six hours of airplane TV. Guy Fieri is always good at helping him to ignore reality.

“You know, I was sure you’d hate him,” Joe says gesturing toward the screen as they begin to descend and he bends the edge of the page he was on so he doesn’t lose his place.

“Why?” Nicky asks. “He’s not overburdened with intelligence, but he’s very earnest. It’s good TV to not think to.”

Joe laughs, eyes crinkling. “Just the Italian thing, I guess,” he says. “You were very severe about the panini in London.”

“Ugh,” Nicky shudders just thinking of it, stomach jumping with the plane’s descent. “Don’t remind me. Is Guy Fieri supposed to be Italian?”

Joe squints at the tiny screen. “I was sure he was a moment ago.”

“To spare my sanity, let’s say no,” Nicky says.

They wait for their luggage one final time by the carousel, Joe bouncing on his heels with impatience.

“A real bed,” he says. “Can you imagine? Not a hotel bed. Not a shitty airplane seat. A bed, Nicky.”

“Whose bed?” Nicky blurts out. “I mean, are you coming home with me? To see if the light is good in my apartment? Or, or would you rather—”

“If it’s too much, we could split up for a while,” Joe assures him hurriedly. “I’ll need to go to my apartment anyway, at some point.”

Nicky means to say, it’s not too much for me if it’s not too much for you. What he says instead is, “If that’s what you want, sure.”

They take the subway together as far as Broadway Junction and part ways with an awkward kiss on the cheek.

-

Andy unlocks the door just as Nicky fires up his laptop to check his email.

“Oh, thank fuck,” she says as soon as she sees him sitting on the couch. “Answer your fucking phone, jackass, I thought you drowned in the Mediterranean or something.”

“Why would I have?” Nicky asks absently. One hundred and seventy-seven unread emails. Not bad for a two week absence.

“Because you didn’t answer your phone and tell me you got back okay.” She straddles one of the dining room chairs. “I was worried.”

“Oh,” Nicky says. “Right. My phone died.” His phone had run out of battery in London and the charger had been at the bottom of his suitcase. It hadn’t seemed that important at the time. It’s charging in his bedroom right now, because if he keeps it in sight, Nicky will check it every two seconds for messages from Joe.

“Well, next time, don’t let it. How was Malta?”

Nicky thinks of sunset on the hotel balcony, Joe in nothing but Nicky’s shirt, eating grapes they had bought from a stand by the side of the road after hiking all day. He swallows. “It was good,” he says.

Andy rolls her eyes. “Come on, fess up. Do you have a paper in the works yet about some piece of iconography on one of their churches?”

Nicky blushes to the roots of his hair. “I didn’t go into a single church while I was there,” he admits.

Andy applauds.

“You told me to vacation,” Nicky says. “So I did. Don’t act so surprised. Would you like some tea?”

He’s stretching his legs a bit in the kitchen while the water boils when she appears in the doorway, clutching the marriage license he had stupidly left on the coffee table.

“Nicky,” she says, deathly quiet. “Nicky, what the fuck is this?”

“What does it look like?” He snipes back.

“It looks like you got married in Vegas,” she yells, brandishing the license.

He doesn’t respond. What is there to say?

“No,” she says, “no, this must be a joke. You wouldn’t.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” He asks, almost insulted

“You’re practically celibate!” She yells, throwing her hands up in the air. “And you take about two years to order a sandwich for lunch, how would you end up married after two weeks?”

“I’m not celibate,” Nicky contests hotly; that is a phase of his life he has left very much behind him. “And maybe I just fell in love.”

“Oh, come on.”

“What?”

“No one falls in love in two weeks.”

“You can’t know that,” Nicky argues, thinking of how poorly they left it in the subway.

“I know you, Nicky,” Andy says, and she’s not wrong. She’s seen Nicky through the hardest parts of his life, through bad breakups and his Ph.D. defense, through all of it.

Nicky turns around to look at her. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he admits.

“What do you even know about this guy?” Andy asks, squinting at the license. “Yusuf Al-Kaysani. If that’s even his real name.”

“He’s an artist,” Nicky says. “He’s thirty-three. He’s…” He swallows the end of the sentence. He can’t say, he’s kind, his eyes are lovely, he makes me come harder than anyone I’ve ever been with, he makes me feel like I might have done something right.

Andy stares at him, aghast. “That’s it? Where was he born? What are his parent’s names? Do you have his social security number?”

“I wanted to marry the man, not commit credit card fraud,” Nicky snaps back.

“Oh my god,” Andy moans, “that must be what he’s after.”

“I don’t have anything worth stealing!” Nicky points out.

“What about a greencard?” Andy demands. “Or health insurance?”

“I’m not even a citizen.”

“But you have great health insurance.”

Nicky sighs. “Andy, I refuse to listen to this. Joe is a wonderful man.”

Andy stalks out of his apartment not long after, having threatened to find him a divorce lawyer. Nicky drinks his tea alone, in silence. He’s caught between anger that Andy thinks him so weak and sheltered and “practically celibate” as to be duped, and doubt that maybe, just maybe, she could be right. What does he know of Joe? His last boyfriend, Nicky dated for four weeks before they even kissed.

He’s scrolling blindly through his unread emails – about a third seem to be one incredibly long email chain about whether or not it falls into Stephen Merrick’s job description to actually grade his students’ exams on time. Nicky deletes the thread with extreme prejudice. He hasn’t told Joe about Merrick, yet, or about Andy and Quynh, or about any number of people he sees every day of his working life.

What was he thinking?

The buzzer rings, drawing Nicky out of his misery.

He almost expects it to be Andy, back to apologize, or, more likely, to berate him some more.

He’s already drawing in breath to defend himself even though he’s not sure he actually should as he opens the door, only to find Joe standing there, leaning against the doorframe, dark circles under his eyes.

“Hi,” he says. “I know we said space, but I had to see you. I just – I can’t go back to my life the way it was, not after you. Or, I could, but I don’t want to. I want – I am so excited to have a life with you, Nicky, and I want it to start now. I hope you think this is charming and not creepy.” The last he says sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.

Nicky drags him into the apartment by the lapels of the open flannel shirt he has on over a stupidly tight T-shirt.

“How do you do that,” he whispers against Joe’s lips. “How are you so brave, so honest.”

“Some would say stupid,” Joe points out between heated kisses.

“Charming,” Nicky says. “In case that wasn’t clear.” He dips his head to set his teeth at the sensitive edge of Joe’s neck and Joe throws his head back, gasping.

“I – ah! – I hoped,” Joe gets out.

“I keep getting scared of this, of what we did,” Nicky tells him between harsh bites at his skin, sliding his hands up under Nicky’s shirt. “And then I see your face and I fall in love all over again. How do you do that?”

Joe arches his whole body against Nicky, the sinuous movement of it more than enough to erase all of Nicky’s doubts. “It’s a gift,” Joe tells him.

Nicky makes a noise in the back of his throat he hasn’t heard from himself before. He lifts Joe up by the backs of his thighs, forcing Joe to wrap all his limbs around Nicky or lose his balance, and carries him to the bedroom.

“Okay,” Joe says when Nicky has deposited him on the bed, “okay, that was ridiculously hot.”

“Take off your clothes,” Nicky demands, pulling his own shirt over his head before helping Joe to squirm out of his jeans. He drags off his own pants and then straddles Joe’s hips. “You know I thought about joining the Church, once?” He tells Joe. Joe doesn’t know; Nicky hasn’t told him yet. That’s not the point. “I thought maybe if I devoted my life to God, if I didn’t let myself look too closely at what it was I really wanted, maybe it would go away.”

Joe is sprawled out on Nicky’s dark purple sheets, hands clenched tight on Nicky’s sheets. His eyes are wide and wanting, and Nicky’s lost in him.

“It would have been such a waste,” Nicky finishes. “If I had done that. If I had never had the chance to meet you.”

Joe surges up to kiss him again, thorough, harsh, fingers pulling at the hair at the nape of Nicky’s neck. God, the abs on this man, Nicky thinks hysterically.

“Every moment of my life has led me here, to you,” Joe tells him breathlessly. “Every second of it.”

Of course Joe would understand. Joe has understood him effortlessly since the moment they met, or at least, since a few moments after they met.

Nicky kisses him again, less roughly than before, trying to convey without words how much he loves this impossible man. “I want you inside me,” he mumbles against Joe’s lips.

“Are you—” Joe starts to ask, but Nicky’s nodding already.

“I – took a long shower, when I got home,” Nicky tells him. “I thought – well. I was going to call you if I didn’t hear from you. I hoped I would see you, and that we could–”

“You’re perfect,” Joe says. “So perfect for me.”

Nicky digs blindly for the lube, pressing it into Joe’s hands and tearing off his boxers. “Come on,” he hisses. “I want you now.”

“I won’t hurt you,” Joe says, but he’s quick about it, going as fast as he safely can, hissing each time Nicky’s senseless writhing brushes his thighs against Joe’s cock.

“Have I told you today how beautiful you are?” Joe asks, teeth clenched. “Because you are, and you’re killing me here, Nicolò.”

Utterly breathless, Nicky sinks down on his cock. It aches and stretches and his head is swimming with pleasure and exhaustion, and maybe that’s what makes Joe seem so ethereal, makes the sunset outside reflecting in gleams off of his hair so perfect Nicky can't keep himself quiet to save his life, but Nicky’s pretty sure it’s just Joe.

“My husband,” he sighs, thighs unclenching as he settles fully, sprawled over Joe’s hips, Joe deep inside him.

Joe makes a wordless, garbled noise, hips rocking up.

Nicky gasps.

“Fuck.” Joe’s voice is like gravel and whiskey. “Fuck, fuck, Nicky, my husband.”

Oh. That’s what it feels like to hear that, Nicky realizes, and has to move, has to lift himself up and fuck back down onto Joe, hard.

They both lose themselves to it, after that, Joe’s hands clenching tight on Nicky’s hips to help guide him, his knees bent behind Nicky’s back so he has the leverage to thrust up when Nicky sinks down. Nicky’s nearly sobbing, he distantly realizes, deep breaths punching out of him with each thrust, and they didn’t bother with a condom, why would they, that ship has sailed and they’re married now, but the thought of Joe bursting hot inside him, marking him up with come, it’s—it’s—

“Touch me,” Nicky gets out. “Fuck, Joe, just—”

Joe gets a hand around his cock, strokes him just right, and Nicky curls in on himself when he comes, so hard his balls ache, so hard he can feel himself tighten up all around Joe, so hard there’s nothing but buzzing and white noise in his ears for long moments as he contracts and opens in pulses and pulses and pulses.

Joe, underneath him, is red-faced and panting when Nicky can see again. “Please,” he says, and Nicky tightens up around him one more time just to see him lose it, crying out and rocking up and fucking himself as deep into Nicky as he can go.

They clean up perfunctorily with a damp towel and then collapse together into bed. It’s only eight PM, but jetlag is as jetlag does.

“The light here is perfect,” Joe mumbles into his pillow. “So’s the bed.”

“Mm,” Nicky agrees, pleased. “So you’ll move in?”

“Tomorrow,” Joe tells the pillow.

They’ve just almost sunk into sleep, Joe wrapped tightly around him, when Nicky remembers. “Joe?” He asks.

“Mm?”

“Do you have health insurance?”

“Wha…? Mm, yeah.”

“’s it any good?”

Nicky can feel Joe shrug against his back. “It’s American,” he says. “So, no. Dental’s shit. But I’m healthy, and I don’t have any family history to worry about.”

Andy would absolutely destroy him for it, but the last thing Nicky says before falling asleep is, “You could be on my health insurance. I’ve got great dental.”

-

There are few things as satisfying as bringing one’s husband coffee in bed, Nicky muses on his way to the office.

Joe really is lethally adorable in the morning, blinking hazily and drawing every pillow and blanket in the vicinity into his arms when Nicky isn’t there anymore.

“I wish I could stay,” Nicky had told him. “But I have to show up to the stupid faculty council.”

“That’s alright,” Joe had yawned. “We’ll see each other later, right?”

“I got my spare key back,” Nicky had said, pointedly not thinking of Andy. “So you can go out and come back.”

“Mm.” Joe’s stomach muscles looked truly ridiculous when he stretched. “I could move a few things in?”

“If you wait till afternoon, I can help,” Nicky had offered.

“Mkay. How long’s your meeting?”

“A thousand years,” Nicky groaned. “It should be over by eleven. But, uh, I thought I’d stop by the registrar’s office. Change my paperwork.”

“Oh?” Joe had asked, blinking a little more awake.

“You know,” Nicky had said, blushing. “Update my marriage status. Who to contact in case of emergency. All that.”

After that, they had lost themselves in kissing for so long that Nicky is almost late to the faculty meeting. On reflection it’s probably a good thing. Faculty meetings are the bane of his existence, they’re too big to be productive and too full of assholes to be pleasant. Nicky really, truly does not understand why they have to have them even when there are no students in residence. It’s still August, for fuck’s sake. They should be left in peace until September.

It goes as it usually does – Merrick campaigns for more funding for the biochemistry department and suggests none-too-subtly that the humanities surely don’t need quite as many subjects as they currently have, if the University just stopped paying for one or the other professorship, Merrick’s demands would be very reasonable. This time, Andy nearly punches him in the face, and it’s only Copley’s measured request for order that keeps her in her seat.

At least Copley goes on to tell Merrick that if he really cares that much, he’s free to write more grants.

Quynh texts Nicky a picture of a cat shooting rainbows out of its eyes with the word “pwned” in all-caps underneath.

She catches him up as he leaves the conference room. Andy hangs back, because she drew the short straw and has to be dean for at least two more years, which means longer meetings for her.

“Nicky!” Quynh says, huffing to catch him up. “Nicky, you have to tell me all about it!”

“Pleasant holidays, Professor di Genova?” Merrick sneers from his other side. What a little weasel that man is.

“Very pleasant, thank you,” Nicky says.

“Nicky,” Quynh pleads. “Don’t leave me hanging like this, it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in years.”

Merrick snorts. “I can’t believe di Genova attracts any excitement at all. What did you do, find an old rock in an older Church somewhere in Europe? Going to release a paper that three people will read? At least in my field—”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Nicky interjects smoothly, “but she was referring to developments in my personal life, which I’d rather not discuss at work, thank you.”

He sails off, laughing to himself, Quynh hot on his heels.

“Wow,” she says, once they’ve gotten safely into his office. “You walk very fast. Also, I wish I had recorded that, I’ll have to write it down so I can tell Andy exactly what happened.”

Nicky winces. “I think Andy’s not talking to me. You would know.”

“She’s just worried,” Quynh says. “You must admit, it’s not like you.”

Nicky leans heavily against his desk. “I don’t think that’s true,” he says after a while. “I think it’s more like me than anything I’ve done in a long time.”

Quynh gives him a long, level look. They’ve known each other almost as long as they’ve both known Andy, and where Andy and Quynh love each other with an unrivaled fierceness and Andy’s always been slightly protective of Nicky, he and Quynh are friends. “How did you meet him?” She asks.

Nicky smiles. “We were fighting over the last taxi at the airport,” he admits. “Totally sleep-deprived and angry until we figured out we were headed to the same hotel. He took me out, sight-seeing, the next day to make up for it.”

“And then?”

She knows him too well. “And then I took him out the day after to make up for it from my end. And then…” he sighs.

Her eyebrows shoot up. “On the second date? Nicky!”

“At the time, I thought I’d only get him for two weeks and then we’d never see each other again. I thought I needed to use every moment I had with him.” Nicky sighs. “I know it seems rushed, and insane, but I just…I’ve never felt like this, before, Quynh.”

“Like what?” She asks gently.

“Like I’ve been seen,” he says. “Like I’ve been understood by someone else. I think…I don’t know. When you know something, in your gut, in your spine, why not risk it? It’s what I did when I left seminary. Joe is – I have the same feeling about Joe I did about coming to New York. Like he’s right for me.”

Quynh nods. “I don’t want to patronize you,” she says, and he’s sure there’s more to that sentence, but she just doesn’t complete it.

“But you have nothing to say that wouldn’t be patronizing?” He asks, picking at a fingernail.

“Trusting your gut can be dangerous, because it’s easy to get your gut and your dick mixed up,” she says bluntly. “Tell me you at least signed a pre-nup.”

His guilty look gives him away.

She sighs. “Nicky, even if you get divorced, he could sue you for everything you own.”

Nicky looks away. “I don’t want to get divorced,” he says. What he wants to say is, I don’t care about my stuff, and even if I did, I think everything I own is worth nothing compared to how Joe has made me feel.

“Okay,” Quynh says. “It’s your call. I’d like to meet him, sometime, if that’s okay.”

Nicky looks up at her, surprised.

She shrugs. “I said my bit. You’re a grown-up. You’ll figure it out.”

“I’ll text you when we could meet up,” Nicky promises. “I need to get to the Registrar’s now, though.”

The secretary who hands him the form to change his contact information to include Joe’s phone number and their married status is the first person to congratulate him on getting married.

-

He takes the train back to Brooklyn, after. It’s only the first day back, and he has more than enough to do with class prep and proofreading the grant he and Andy are co-writing and the latest chapter his Ph.D. student sent him, but he has more important concerns right now. Namely, finding Joe’s apartment – Joe’s old apartment – and helping him move.

He’s greeted at the door by an absolute brick wall of a man.

“Hello,” he says. “I’m looking for Joe?”

“Ah,” the man says. “Are you the ‘most beautiful man in the world’ who Joe met in Malta?”

Nicky’s eyebrows shoot up his face. “I am a man who met Joe in Malta,” he allows. “Nicolò di Genova.”

For all he’s only a few inches taller than Nicky, the man’s hand is big and heavy when it lands on Nicky’s shoulder. “Right,” he says. “I’m Booker. Or Sebastien. How did you convince Joe to break the lease on this shithole?”

Nicky blinks. He hadn’t considered that in order to move in with him, Joe would have to move out of wherever he was living and therefor break his lease.

“I asked him?” He says blankly.

Booker shakes his head. “I tried that. Many times. He kept saying the light was too good even if the landlord never took care of the roaches.”

Nicky is intensely glad they settled on his apartment.

“Nicky has better light,” Joe calls down the stairway. “Also, Nicky offered me an alternative, you just told me to move out and sleep in the back room of the gallery.”

“There’s a couch there,” Booker argues. “I’ve slept there plenty, it’s fine.”

“That is because you are too drunk to move when you sleep there,” Joe says, coming down the staircase with a box of painting supplies. “Hi,” he says to Nicky, and presses a sweet kiss to his lips. “You should come upstairs so we can talk about furniture.”

“Alright,” Nicky says, stupidly charmed by Joe’s backwards baseball cap. At least there’s no sports team on it Nicky could object to.

Joe’s apartment is only one bedroom, and the only things there are too much of in it are painting supplies and protein powder. “I moved in as a student,” Joe says when he gets back up. “And I never moved out, it was a good way to cut costs when the gallery was getting off its feet.”

Nicky realizes, awfully, that they will have to talk about money eventually. “We haven’t even talked about rent,” he blurts out. “Or – savings. All that stuff.”

Joe stares at him. “Fuck,” he says.

Nicky backpedals. “I mean, it’s fine, clearly I can already pay my rent by myself, so we can play it by ear –”

“No, you’re right,” Joe says. “We should definitely have talked about that. Before I started loading all my shit into Booker’s car and cancelled my lease.”

“You should absolutely have cancelled your lease, this place is terrible,” Nicky says.

Joe laughs. “Tonight?” He asks. “We’ll get a nice bottle of wine and have the adult conversation.”

“Yes,” Nicky says. “In our apartment.”

“Okay,” Joe says, his grin softening into something sweet. “It’s a deal. Now, look around. What would possibly fit at your place and what of yours might you trade for something of mine?”

“Well,” Nicky says. “I’m very partial to my bed.”

“It’s a nice bed.”

They smile at each other wickedly for just a second.

“I like that divider,” Nicky says. Joe clearly has it because his apartment is so small, to demarcate spaces between things. “I don’t really know where we’d put it.”

“Well, where could I paint?” Joe asks. “I kind of like having it in front of my painting area so the mess is contained.”

“Hm,” Nicky considers. “We could clear out some space in the office, that faces east. You’d get good light in the morning. But we’d have to move some bookshelves to the living room. Or we could make space in the living room. That’s got westward windows.”

“Hm,” Joe considers. “I work best late mornings and at night.”

“So office?”

“I’ll have to look at it. But it sounds like a plan.”

“Right,” Nicky remembers. “You haven’t even seen the office.”

“I took a little peek this morning,” Joe says. “But not really.”

“Well, we can shift things around later in the week however we want,” Nicky says. “Maybe we should just get everything over for now.”

Joe nods in agreement. “How are you on shelf space? Can you fit my books?”

Nicky studies the overstuffed shelf. “No,” he decides. “We’ll have to take your shelf. Maybe get another one, too.”

“Room for more,” Joe surmises. “How about closet space?”

“I have tons,” Nicky says. “The apartment came with a walk-in closet. I really don’t have much by way of clothes.”

“Great,” Joe says. “My closet is falling apart. I’m very attached to the carpet, though, that’s coming with me.”

They meander through the rest of Joe’s furnishings, and then carry it all out to Booker’s van or the trash, respectively.

It’s stiflingly hot in New York, being late August, and Nicky is sweating like crazy by the time they get back to his place. He’s incredibly thankful he has air conditioning.

“Right,” he sighs when they’ve gotten the last box up into the apartment. “I’ve got some beers in the fridge, if you guys want.”

Booker groans in relief. “Please,” he says. “Let me just repark the car somewhere else.”

“And you won’t be driving anywhere else, after, right?” Joe says in a tone that, to Nicky, reads as a threat.

“Yes, boss,” Booker agrees with a roll of his eyes.

“I can’t believe we managed that all in an afternoon,” Joe says when the apartment door is shut behind Booker. “I thought it would take days.”

“You really didn’t have much in that apartment,” Nicky points out.

“True. I guess half my life is in the gallery.” Joe stretches, his back popping. He smiles over at Nicky.

Nicky reaches for his pocket, patting it down to make sure.

He swallows heavily.

“I, uh,” he begins. “I got us something.”

Joe’s eyebrows shoot up.

Nicky pulls the box out of his pocket. “We didn’t really get around to this part,” he says. “Before. But, uh, I thought – well, that is, if you want to wear them, we could.” He offers Joe the rings. “They’re not anything special,” he adds quickly. “I didn’t want to buy anything too gaudy, or a blood diamond or something. And, to be honest, the last few days have been unexpectedly expensive—”

Joe shuts him up with his mouth.

“Yes,” he says, pulling back to rest his forehead against Nicky’s. “Yes, you lovely man, of course I’ll wear the ring, I already married you.”

“What the fuck,” Booker asks from the doorway.

Joe winces, but he still slides the ring onto his finger. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “We got married.”

Booker blinks at him. “What the fuck, Joe.”

Joe shrugs. “Surprise?”

Booker runs a hand over his face. “I thought you were jumping the gun, moving in with him, I was just going along with it to get you out of that damn apartment, but Jesus fucking Christ, Yusuf, have you listened to nothing I told you about the institution of marriage?”

“I listened to everything,” Joe says evenly.

“And yet, you married some guy you met two weeks ago.”

“Almost three, now,” Joe says. He’s remarkably calm, given how he nearly came to blows with Nicky over that taxi.

“Yes, three weeks,” Booker says. “Marvelous. I knew Adele my whole life, and yet, I’m currently sharing a three-bedroom apartment with four college students, all of whom I hate, because she threw me over for someone named Brad. Marriage is a sham, and now you’re trapped. No offense, Nicky, you seem like a nice guy.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, so Nicky lets Joe do it.

“I listened to everything you had to say, Book,” Joe says, not without humor, “Many, many times. And I think you are a sad man who was dealt a shitty hand who drinks far too much instead of dealing with his problems. Also, just because it didn’t work out for you doesn’t mean it won’t for the rest of the world.”

“Hm,” Booker grunts. “I don’t like it. You don’t even really know each other.”

Nicky steals a look over at Joe. He’s heard that phrase several times over the last few days, not least in his own internal monologue.

Joe looks back at him, and his expression is equally lost.

“We have plenty of time to change that,” Nicky offers.

Booker looks between them, scoffs, says, “I’ll see you at work, Joe,” and slams the apartment door shut behind himself again.

“Sorry,” Joe says when he’s gone.

“My friends said the same,” Nicky admits. "Or worse."

They look at each other for a long, terrible moment.

"I think we should go get that bottle of wine," Joe suggests.

-

Nicky uncorks the bottle of wine and he and Joe sit down on the couch, surrounded by Joe’s boxes. He opens an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s do this. I’ll put in what I earn in a month, what I spend on rent and food and so on, and you do the same.”

Joe takes a deep sip of his wine. “Right,” he says. “Let’s do this.”

It ends up taking them most of the night to sort out their finances, because while Nicky’s income is fairly steady in months when he doesn’t get married, Joe, as a business owner, is dependent on business being good.

“I teach some art classes on the side,” he says, scratching his head as he tries to find a reasonable figure. “And we do restorations as well as selling art – that’s Booker’s specialty – so we almost always come out fine, but it’s not always predictable.”

“I’m fine with paying more of the rent,” Nicky offers when Joe triple-checks his online banking before putting in exactly half the rent on his side of the Excel table.

“I’m not,” Joe glares. “That’s no way to start a marriage.

“You clearly can’t afford it—”

“I can afford it fine. And I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“I didn’t have a tone,” Nicky says, insulted. “I was just trying—”

Joe sets down his wine glass, apparently to gesticulate more wildly. “You’re acting like just because I earn less, I’m worth less.”

“I didn’t say that!”

“You were thinking it!”

Nicky’s about to yell back, but he’s so unbearably reminded of Andy that he realizes that more than anything else, he doesn’t want to prove her right. He takes a deep breath.

“I’m sorry it came across like that,” he says. “I was just trying to make things easier.”

“Well, you’re not,” Joe snaps.

Nicky sighs and puts his own wine glass down. “If you’re going to be like that—”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know!”

Nicky gets up and walks to the kitchen. He leans against the counter and breathes deeply. If this were anyone else – any other person he’d known for two and a half weeks, he would ask them to leave until they’d both gotten over themselves. But he can’t do that. This isn’t just his apartment anymore. This is their apartment. Joe has nowhere else to go, and adding to that, they have legally bound themselves together for life. That means something to Nicky. He can only hope it means something to Joe.

He lets out all the breath in his lungs in a hiss and turns around to go back and face this, only to be confronted with Joe, come up behind him, looking wretched.

“I’m sorry,” Joe says.

“That’s what I was going to say,” Nicky says.

Joe smiles, a little twitch of his lips, but better than nothing. “I didn’t mean to jump down your throat like that. I just…I envisioned all of this being a lot more romantic and a lot less paperwork.”

Nicky nods.

“And,” Joe continues, looking away. “Well. I called my parents. This morning. They were…” he sighs.

“It’s like it has to be perfect, between us,” Nicky says. “Or we’ve totally fucked up.”

“Yes!” Joe says, snapping his fingers. “It’s like, if it’s not all just right from the get-go, we’ve made the worst mistake of our lives.”

“I don’t want to believe that,” Nicky admits hoarsely. “I still – I still feel –”

“Me too.” Joe reaches out and clasps their hands together. “Can we start this over?”

“Yes,” Nicky says, holding onto Joe’s hands like a lifeline. “Yes, please.”

“Okay,” Joe says. “I make about 50 000 dollars a year, and if things go well, I’ll eventually earn more, but that’s only by supplementing my income with other sources and it took me years to get here. Even now, there are better months and there are worse months, and I’m sensitive about it, because my parents think art was a stupid career choice and now they just think I’m stupid in general, apparently.”

“I’m sorry,” Nicky says. “That sounds…unpleasant.”

Joe shrugs. “I haven’t gone crawling back to beg for money yet. That’s all my pride demanded, really.”

Nicky pulls him close in a hug anyway.

Joe relaxes into his arms. He’s soft and warm and they both reek of sweat. Nicky thinks of what it would have been like if he had followed his worst impulse and just kicked Joe out and nearly cries.

“Okay,” he says, pulling back. “I make almost 80 000 a year. If I ever get a full professorship, I might earn more, but I also don’t want to move to get one, so my options are limited.” He swallows heavily. “I really admire that you were brave enough to follow your passion in art and to work your way up to making a living off of it. I like my job, but I followed this path at least in part because it’s a set income and retirement plan. I don’t have a lot to fall back on.”

Joe nods seriously.

Nicky does cry, then.

“Nicky,” Joe says. “Nicolò, please, I’m sorry—”

“No, no, it’s not you, I just…it’s been so much.”

Joe wraps his arms around Nicky’s middle again, resting their foreheads together. “You are not a very spontaneous person, are you?” He asks.

“Only when it counts,” Nicky admits.

“I’m honored that I counted, then.” Joe kisses him, slow and sure, and Nicky knows again what he’s known all along.

“I still think we made the right choice,” he whispers in the charged air between them.

“So do I,” Joe agrees.

“Can I make a suggestion?” Nicky asks.

“Sure.”

“We split rent and food and utilities and so on evenly. Everything we need.” Joe nods. “You let me pay for luxuries, for now, though.”

Joe squints at him. “Define luxuries.”

Nicky shrugs. “Going out for dinner. Concert tickets. Movie tickets. The anniversary trip to Malta we will definitely take at some point.” It charms a real smile out of Joe, which is all he wanted. “If we decide it doesn’t work, if either of us is unhappy with that, we talk about it and change things. And then, when you’re a rich and famous artist, you can pay to take me out.”

Joe laughs. “Alright,” he says. “For now. Let’s finish up that Excel table so I can set up direct deposit to your bank, yeah?”

“Alright,” Nicky says. “Can we shower, then? I feel disgusting.”

“As excited as I am to see you wet and naked,” Joe smirks, “I do have one more question. Where do we stand on a joint account?”

Nicky considers. “I don’t really see that we need one,” he admits. “You need to have your own account for your job, anyway, I wouldn’t want to get that mixed up, and if we can just transfer each other funds when we need to, it’s fine by me.”

“I agree,” Joe says. Somewhere in Brooklyn, Andy is laughing in relief. “But maybe for retirement?”

The image hits Nicky suddenly, the two of them as old men, side by side on the comfy sofa, reading books they never got around to before and solving the Monday crossword puzzles in the New York Times because the rest are too much of a pain. Of returning to Malta with Joe’s hair going grey and looking out at the beach they kissed on for the first time. It would be nice, to be comfortable, then, to do whatever they want.

“Yes,” he agrees. “We could set up a joint retirement fund. I’d like that.”

Joe smiles at him. Nicky’s not sure how, but he knows Joe sees the same thing in his mind, the same future.

“I can set up a date and time at my bank,” he offers. “Maybe in a few weeks, when the dust has settled.”

“Yes,” Nicky says, this time in far more immediate relief that they can wait at least a little bit before the next stressful piece of paperwork.

-

Nicky wakes up at seven AM, entirely consumed by Joe’s arms. He reaches for his phone on the bedside table, checks his unread messages, and sighs so loudly he wakes Joe up.

“’s wrong?” Joe slurs.

“Nothing, love, go back to sleep,” Nicky whispers, putting the phone away and closing his eyes.

“Nono, you’re upset,” Joe says, but it’s muffled against the back of Nicky’s neck.

“Just an email from the faculty chair,” Nicky says. “Nothing important.”

“Mm,” Joe says groggily and his breathing evens out for long enough that Nicky thinks he must be asleep again. Then he asks, “Isn’t that, like, your boss?”

“Sort of,” Nicky says.

“What’d he say?”

“He congratulated me on getting married,” Nicky groans into the pillow.

Joe pulls away from him slowly. “Isn’t that good?”

Nicky groans again.

“Nicky?”

Nicky turns around to face Joe, even knowing he’ll be utterly helpless when confronted with Joe’s early morning messy hair and sleepy eyes. “Now the whole faculty knows, even the assholes,” he explains. “And there’s a stupid alumni fundraiser dinner thing on Friday.”

“Ah,” Joe says.

“And if I don’t bring you, not only will my friends think they’re right that you’re trying to scam me out of my health insurance, fucking Stephen Merrick will spend all night asking insidious questions about whether or not my sexuality disqualifies me from teaching about religion.”

“Wait, your friends think what?” Joe asks, alarmed.

Nicky sighs. “My friend Andy. She’s…overprotective. She came storming in here the day we got back, saw the marriage license and said all kinds of things like that. I haven’t talked to her since.”

Joe frowns, sitting up. “I’m not trying to scam you out of anything,” he says. “Just for the record. And you offered me your health insurance the other day.”

“No, I know,” Nicky says. “I offered because I want you to have good health insurance.”

Joe stares at him. “You are too good for this world, Nicky.”

Nicky blushes bright red. “I’m really not. If I were, I wouldn’t have thought about it, even for a second.”

“Of course you thought about it,” Joe argues. “We just met and now we’re always going to be a part of each other’s lives.”

“For better or worse,” Nicky says.

The left side of Joe’s mouth quirks upward. “Richer or poorer.”

Nicky sits up to be on eye level with Joe, cupping his cheek in one hand. “In sickness and in health,” he adds.

Joe presses a kiss to his palm.

“So, what terrible things did you think of me?” Nicky asks. “Just to make me feel better?”

Joe looks away. “Well, my parents were convinced you were some kind of fortune hunter. They’re fairly wealthy, so I guess that’s the kind of thing they worry about.”

“I’ve never heard of your family,” Nicky says. “You’re safe from me.”

“I know that,” Joe says, exasperation writ large in the lines on his forehead. “I wish it weren’t so easy for other people to cause doubts. I was – I am so very sure of you.”

“I don’t know,” Nicky says. “I think it’s comforting, that your family and Booker had the same concerns as my friends. It means they’re all wrong.”

“I suppose it does,” Joe says with a rueful smile. “I suppose it also means our friends care about us.”

There’s not much point in staying in bed, so they get up eventually, and Nicky shows Joe how to work the coffeemaker while Joe makes scrambled eggs.

“Oh,” Joe says, just as they’re finishing breakfast. “So this alumni fundraiser. Am I your arm candy?”

“Would you do that for me?” Nicky asks, a hair’s breadth from begging.

“Darling,” Joe says, almost seriously. “I would do anything for you.”

Nicky giggles.

On Friday, Joe comes out of their room in a dark blue blazer, a white button-up shirt and tan pants. He looks effortlessly, casually perfect.

“Remind me why we’re going to this?” Nicky asks desperately. “I could just suck your cock for two hours instead.”

Joe’s eyes snap up to Nicky’s face – they’d been a little further south, before. “After?” He asks.

“Only if you make me look exceptionally good,” Nicky says. “I was planning on eating my weight in canapés to make up for having to attend.”

Joe laughs weakly. “You do not need my help to look exceptionally good.”

Nicky looks down at himself. He has one pair of good pants for these sorts of things, and two blazers. Quynh bought him a skinny tie for Christmas some years ago and claims it suits him.

“Trust me,” Joe tells him.

They stand on the subway ride over, to not crinkle their dress pants.

“I hate this,” Nicky moans.

“Hmm,” Joe agrees consolingly, but Nicky can tell he’s not listening. He turns to Joe, and finds him inspecting his wedding ring.

“I got paint on it,” Joe says, looking up sheepishly. “I’m so sorry, I must have forgotten to take it off before I started this morning, and now—”

“It’s fine,” Nicky says, laughing.

“But your friends already think the worst of me, and now—”

“Now you’re wearing your ring always, like you should,” Nicky says. “It looks more like you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Have I told you,” Nicky says, “that my favorite part of living with you so far is when I come home and you’re painting? And you have all these paint streaks up and down your hands and brushes behind your ears?”

Joe raises an eyebrow. “That’s your favorite part?”

“Well,” Nicky allows with a half-smile. “I also like how sweet you are in the mornings.”

Joe sighs. “And to think, you called me the romantic.”

Nicky had said it in Malta, when Joe dragged him out of his hotel room (really, their hotel room, by then) to walk along the beach past midnight, because “the stars, Nicolò, look how bright they are”.

He presses a kiss to Joe’s cheek. “You are.”

The fundraiser is about as awful as it always is. Copley gives a long-winded and essentially meaningless speech, with a few Columbia in-jokes thrown in to remind the alumni of all the times they got drunk on campus, presumably. A string quartet of students plays in the background while people mingle. There are canapés. Nicky eats ten.

“As good as you hoped?” Joe murmurs in his ear, having just gotten back from the bathroom.

Nicky shrugs. “I’d have preferred plan A.”

Joe’s laugh is hot on his neck.

Nicky is just debating the merits of skipping out of this function to do as he promised and suck Joe’s cock for as long as either of them can stand in his office when one of the student servers catches their eye.

“Joe?” She asks. “What are you doing here?”

“Nile!” Joe greets her, sounding thrilled. “I’m here with my husband.”

“When did you get married?” She asks, looking suspicious.

“Last weekend,” Joe says proudly, sliding a hand into the crook of Nicky’s elbow.

“Oh,” Nile says blankly, and then looks over. “Oh! Oh, my god, Professor di Genova. Uh. This is awkward. I didn’t know you two knew each other at all. Let alone, uh.”

Joe looks between them, forehead wrinkling. “Nile works part-time in the gallery for spare change and exposure,” he explains. “How do you know her?”

“She was in my ethics seminar,” Nicky says. “I tried to poach her for religious studies, but alas.”

Joe holds a hand to his heart, miming being struck. “How dare you! She’s much too talented.”

Nicky rolls his eyes. “Yes, well, people can be good at more than one thing.”

“Aw, stop, I’m gonna blush,” Nile jokes. “Congratulations on the wedding, you make a really cute couple, if you don’t mind me saying.”

It might be the light, or it might be that Nile is the first person both of them actually know to congratulate them, but Nicky could swear Joe’s eyes go especially bright.

“Thank you,” Nicky says. “That means a lot. We, uh, moved a little fast and haven’t had time for congratulations.”

Joe laughs. It’s more than a little watery. “He means we met three weeks ago.”

“Oh!” Nile says for what must be the fifth time. And then, because she’s a sweetheart, she laughs. “Good for you guys,” she says. “I mean, I would never, I’m too cautious, but when you know, you know, right? My parents did the same thing. I always envied that, a bit. Being that sure of someone else.”

Joe’s smile has always been like the sunrise to Nicky. Feeling like its rays have broken open a new space in his heart is nothing new, it’s just that it usually doesn’t happen in front of all of Nicky’s colleagues and he’s sure his face is doing something spectacularly stupid.

Nile gives them another bright smile. “I gotta keep doing my job, or I won’t get paid,” she says. “But I expect to hear details when I come to work next week, Joe!” With a second glance at Nicky, she adds, “If that’s not too weird for you, Professor.”

“Not at all,” Nicky assures her.

“Oh my,” Joe says. There’s a little tear track down his cheek. “I didn’t think it would feel that good, to have someone be supportive.”

“So,” Andy says from behind Nicky. “This is him, huh?”

Nicky whirls around, startled. “Andy,” he says. He’s been avoiding her all week. He emailed her his updates to the grant proposal yesterday, with no mention of anything else in the email.

“Hi,” Joe says, stretching out a hand. “I’m Joe.”

“I thought it was Yusuf,” Andy says suspiciously, not shaking his hand.

Nicky closes his eyes and prays for patience.

“Well, yeah, but I go by Joe,” Joe says.

“Uh-huh,” Andy says, and stares him down for a long moment.

“Is she always this terrifying?” Joe asks Nicky, when it becomes clear she’s not going to say anything else.

Nicky shrugs. “Not if you’ve seen her running on no sleep, two weeks before she had to hand in her Ph.D. thesis. She was wearing footie pajamas.”

On the ever-growing list of things Nicky loves about Joe are the little crow’s feet around Joe’s eyes when he smiles.

“Nicky!” Andy says, shocked and appalled. Even Quynh didn’t know about the footie pajamas, they didn’t live together yet, then.

Nicky wraps an arm around Joe’s waist smugly.

“So what do you do, Joe?” Andy asks, only slightly less threateningly, but she’s interrupted by her girlfriend’s arrival.

“Joe!” Quynh says, delighted.

“Oh, you know Quynh, too?” Nicky asks Joe in an undertone.

“Yes, he has this great little gallery,” Quynh gushes. “I bought that painting there, you know the one our hallway?”

Andy nods in recognition, but Nicky can’t pay them any mind anymore.

“You painted that?” He asks Joe, voice trembling. He’s seen Joe’s sketches, both in Malta and during the last week. He’s seen the beginnings of his current painting, and he knew Joe was unbelievably talented. He’d kept at least three doodles Joe drew on paper napkins while they waited for dinner because he couldn’t bear to be parted from them, but this –

“I did sell Quynh a painting,” Joe says. “Why?”

“The view on the market?” Nicky asks. “With the man standing in the window, looking out at it?”

“Yes,” Joe says. “Yes, that was one of my first big sales. Quynh still comes by sometimes to see how we’re doing.”

“Oh,” Nicky says, feeling something in his chest that he hadn’t known was tight loosen.

“What is it?” Joe asks. “Nicky, don’t worry me like this.”

Nicky forces a laugh. “No, no, it’s just…Joe, I love that painting.”

Love doesn’t necessarily begin to describe how he feels about that painting. When he’d first seen it in Quynh and Andy’s hall, he’d stared at it for a full five minutes before they dragged him away. Even now, every time he visits, he takes time to look at it, just for a while.

“He does,” Quynh agrees. “I was scared he was going to break in and steal it, once or twice.”

Joe laughs. “Well, that’s very flattering—”

“I don’t think you understand,” Nicky says a little hysterically. “Joe, I didn’t know visual art could make me feel things until I saw that painting.”

“Oh,” Joe says.

They’re all silent for a moment. Nicky realizes he still has his arm around Joe’s waist, but he now has a death grip on Joe’s hip. He forces himself to let go.

“Can I ask what it made you feel?” Joe asks softly.

Nicky swallows, jaw ticking out just a bit. “I felt like someone out there understood how lonely I was,” he admits.

Joe’s eyes soften.

“I never understood it,” Quynh says. “It’s such a vibrant painting.”

It is; the market below is full of bright colors, of life and action and color, and the sea behind is so familiar it hurts. Nicky knows, now, that it is just what he thought, it’s the Mediterranean, because Joe grew up looking at it, too, just from the other side. But the perspective on the painting, the man standing above it all, looking down, smiling – Nicky felt kinship with him, a stirring in his heart right where it hurt.

Joe clears his throat. “No,” he says. “No, Nicky’s right. I was – I was trying to capture what it is to be lonely without being sad.”

“To long for something you don’t understand,” Nicky adds.

“Yes,” Joe says, and smiles over at him.

Nicky could not stop himself from kissing Joe if his life depended on it. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Even more thankfully, when they pull apart, Quynh has organized a new glass of champagne for Andy. She’s already drained half of it, but she looks much less terrifying than she did even ten minutes ago.

“Well,” she says gruffly, clearly not about to say anything more about their marriage. “You seen the weasel yet?”

As if summoned by dark magic, he appears at Nicky’s right, standing half a head shorter than all of them and looking smug. Andy chokes on her drink.

“Professor di Genova,” he simpers, smiling unpleasantly. “May I congratulate you on your marriage?”

“You may,” Nicky says through gritted teeth.

“I must say, though, I am surprised that someone with such a strict ethical code would stoop to putting on such a show in the workplace.” It’s said with his characteristic sneer, and Nicky is just very, very tired of this man. "And doesn't it go against your morals, to marry a Muslim?"

“I’m sorry,” Joe says, to Nicky and to no one else. “Did he just imply it’s somehow immoral to be a Muslim?”

“You know, I think he did,” Nicky agrees. “Professor Merrick has very interesting ideas about morality. Ideas that could get him in trouble with administration.”

“Hm,” Joe says, leaning in to kiss Nicky again purely to be obnoxious. “Maybe he should take your ethics seminar.”

Nicky doesn’t actually see the look on Merrick’s face, or the shade of red he goes, but he’s assured later they were both priceless.

“What exactly is his problem?” Joe asks as Nile stops by to refill their champagne glasses.

“It’s university legend,” Nile says with wide eyes. “It’s why everyone wants to take Professor di Genova’s ethics seminar.”

“That is absolutely not true,” Nicky protests, although he does always get a lot of waitlist entries for that class.

“No, it’s so true,” Nile hisses to Joe. “I had to get up six AM to get a place, and I was second-to-last.”

Nicky rolls his eyes.

“The story has it,” Nile continues, “that a bunch of pre-med students were taking Professor di Genova’s class to fill their humanities requirement, and it made them realize that Professor Merrick was conducting unethical experiments.”

“No IRB,” Andy coughs into her glass.

“Seriously?” Joe asks. “And he still has a job?”

“He has tenure,” Quynh says. “There’s not a lot anyone can do, and as soon as administration started sniffing around, he shut down the whole experiment. Said the funding dried up. It was a private investor, something shady and big pharma related.”

“He’s been trying to get Nicky back for it ever since,” Andy says. “Not that he’ll have any luck.”

Joe frowns in disapproval. “What an unpleasant man.”

Nicky smiles at him – he knew Joe would understand instantly – and Andy sighs deeply. “Fine,” she says. “Fine. If it’s going to be like this. I’m gonna get us more drinks.”

It ends up being a fine night, and even if they are slightly too drunk for Nicky to fulfill his promise from before, he more than makes up for it the next day, when he wakes Joe up with his mouth on Joe’s cock and stays right there for the next half hour.

-

Nicky comes to a party at Joe’s gallery two weeks later. He’s surprised how crowded it is, but then, it is not at all strange that Joe should have so many friends. He’s very likable.

“You shouldn’t serve drinks tonight,” Nicky tells Nile disapprovingly when he spots her with a tray of glasses. “It’s your night.”

Nile smiles a little bashfully. “It’s really stressful, to have all these people staring at my work,” she admits. “I feel better with a prop.”

Nicky sighs. “I can understand that. Just don’t let Joe catch you, he’ll feel so guilty.”

Nile rolls her eyes and heads off to mingle.

She really is very talented, even Nicky can tell that. The bright splashes of hyperreal color in her otherwise very detailed and true-to-life work evoke a dreamlike sense of hope in him. He still finds himself drawn to Joe’s works on the other side of the gallery.

Joe comes up behind him and rests his chin on Nicky’s shoulder. “You really do like them?” He asks.

“I couldn’t even begin to describe it,” Nicky says. “I love seeing how you see the world.”

He doesn’t need to look at Joe to know he’s smiling. “Want me to tell you about them?” He asks.

They walk through the paintings, and Joe tells him about each one – how he was feeling, what he was trying to evoke, where he was. Nicky soaks it up, looking at the paintings and the expression on Joe’s face in equal measure.

“You’re going to stick around, huh?” Booker asks from the back room when they’ve almost made it through the whole room.

“I certainly plan to,” Nicky says, baffled.

Booker grunts a displeased noise, but he hands Nicky some fingerfood and a new glass of wine, and he comes over to watch football with Joe the next day.

-

In October, Joe’s family come to visit, once it’s become clear that Joe isn’t about to divorce Nicky over their concerns.

They share an awkward dinner at Nicky and Joe’s favorite Moroccan restaurant, during which Nicky is almost certain he answers every question wrong, until Joe accidentally eats a bite of shellfish off his sister’s plate and Nicky has to act fast with the EpiPen.

Over hospital coffee, Joe’s mother gives Nicky an itemized list of all of Joe’s food likes, dislikes and intolerances, most of which Nicky had actually already known, but he lets her tell him anyway.

-

At Christmas, they get a scraggly artificial tree and decorate it with too many lights. They take an obnoxious selfie together, even though neither of them celebrates it much, arms around each other, wedding rings on display.

Nicky has it printed as a card and sends it to his parents and siblings by mail. Only his sister calls to congratulate him, but she passes along their mothers’ greetings, at least. It’s the most contact Nicky’s had with them since he left seminary school and came out.

They print another two copies for Andy and Booker, just to mess with them.

-

In April, Nicky comes back from checking the mail with an envelope from the IRS.

“I think we did it,” Nicky says, holding their tax return under Joe’s nose. “I think we finally found the one good piece of marriage-related paperwork.”

-

In August, they go back to Malta.

It turns out that spending an entire two weeks glutted on good wine, pastries and Joe’s cock is even better when there’s no expiration date.

-

For their second anniversary, Joe gives Nicky a painting.

It’s a view out onto the Mediterranean, as seen from a hotel room in Malta. The beach is full of small, faraway people, crowded even, but there’s a peace in the painting. Standing on the balcony together, looking out at the scene, are two figures, smiling slightly at each other as they look down.

Neither seem lonely.

Nicky has to hand it back to Joe so he doesn’t cry on it.

“It will be worth thousands someday,” he insists. “We should protect it.”

He hangs it up over the couch in the living room, so he can see it every day.

-

For their fifth anniversary, they renew their vows.

Andy, as Nicky’s best woman, makes a very gracious speech about how wrong she has been proven without ever actually apologizing.

Booker, as Joe’s best man, promised faithfully that he would not make a speech, and Quynh and Nile hold his arms down so effectively he can’t ding his knife against his glass and try for it anyway.

-

“Do you think it was destiny?” Joe asks Nicky, once, much later, when they are both old men, bare feet dipped into the Mediterranean.

“That we found each other?” Nicky asks. It might be his imagination, but he thinks the ocean makes the ache that he gets in his Achilles tendon sometimes feel better.

Joe nods. His curls are greying, and they’re getting a little longer than they did when they both worked full-time.

Nicky turns to look at him. “I don’t like to think so,” he says.

Joe quirks an eyebrow. “No?”

“I like to think we made an impulsive choice, and we put in the time and effort to make it work.”

Joe laughs, his white teeth showing, all thanks to Nicky’s dental plan. “I can’t decide if that’s more or less romantic,” he says.

“More,” Nicky says. “Definitely more.”

The sun is beginning to set, and they turn to each other for a kiss before they head back to the hotel.

It’s just as perfect as the first time.