“You know what I need?” Joe says to Andy, one afternoon. “I need an arranged marriage.”
Andy throws back her head and laughs, full-throated. “You? I don’t think so.”
“Do they even do arranged marriages for gay men?” Booker wants to know.
“Who’s ‘they’?” Joe challenges him.
“Well, whoever,” Booker says. “Whoever does that sort of thing.”
“Uh, honestly, I have absolutely no idea,” says Joe, who wouldn’t know where to begin. He tries to imagine asking his mother to arrange a marriage for him. She would laugh, and then she would lecture him on knowing what he wants, and then probably three days later she would send him an email of suggestions, trying to do her best for him as always, but his parents don’t live in London, so it wouldn’t be very helpful. “But maybe not.”
“Is this about Toby?” Andy wants to know.
Joe grimaces. “No. It’s not about Toby. It’s about the rest of my Toby-free life, which I am looking forward to.”
“Uh-huh.” Andy grimaces back, sympathetically.
“Why did we let you date him, again?” Booker wants to know. “He was such a piece of shit.”
“You and Adèle had just had Luc,” Joe ticks off the reasons on his fingers, “and Quỳnh had just got back from a six-month contract in the middle of the Atlantic so Andy was distracted,” Andy shrugs as if to concede that point, “and Nile had a big exhibition.”
“That was very badly organised of us,” says Booker. “We should never let it happen again.”
“Inshallah,” agrees Joe.
The thing is, Joe reflects, Toby had unfortunately been one of those pieces of shit who had learned how to disguise it. He had been handsome; that had helped. He had been competent and had a good job as an engineer; that had helped too. He had been charming; no, this is turning into a list of his good qualities, and Joe needs to focus on the bad ones.
Are you sure? Toby’s voice says in his head. Joe visualises locking it in a box. That had been Toby’s thing, his fatal flaw. He had always wanted to know if Joe was sure about everything and anything. About what to have for dinner; about whether to buy a houseplant; about his new idea for a set of drawings.
Slowly, slowly, he taught Joe not to trust himself, and Joe hates that some of that still lingers. Toby’s opinions, on the other hand, had never been offered with uncertainty. Toby had never questioned his own choices. Toby had created a world where he was always right and Joe could never quite be sure. Joe’s therapist reminds him, constantly, that abuse doesn’t have to involve violence to be awful or to leave scars, that he is allowed to need time to get over it. But the hard thing is that Joe still has trouble accepting the problem isn’t with him, deep down, even though he knows, and all his friends tell him when asked, that it isn’t.
The break had come when Toby had tried to persuade Joe to give up his art career and get what he had called “an adult job”. He had even had the nerve to cite Joe’s mother, who is a woman of business, but has never begrudged Joe his cobbled-together career of art and teaching art and cartooning and whatever else comes his way. She reminds him frequently that it is down to her that he has learned to handle all the invoices and tax statements that kind of life requires. Joe always agrees. His father’s love of teaching, his mother’s head for business; they have given him the tools to pursue his love of art. Toby had tried to say Joe’s mother would agree with him. The incredulous laughter that had broken out of Joe at that had also broken the spell, and given him the strength to tell Toby to get out.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but everybody is so glad,” his sister Noor had told him, afterwards. “He made you all…quiet, and closed-in. It was horrible. But he wasn’t doing anything that we could put our fingers on.”
In the present, Andy is saying, slowly, “Look, I’m not even going to touch what you actually said, but…what if I set you up on a date?”
“Oh-oh,” Booker says. “I want to hear this.”
“Andy,” Joe says. “Are you telling me you have friends who aren’t at this table? And aren’t Nile.”
“Shut up,” Andy says. “And yeah, actually, I do. But – you know, never mind, forget I said anything.”
“Come on,” says Booker. “You can’t leave Joe hanging like that.”
“I can and I will.” Joe does his best pleading face; Andy sighs. Joe knows his best pleading face is very good. “Fine, look, I need to find out whether he’d even be interested, and whether Nile thinks it’s a good idea.”
“Does she know him too?”
“Maybe.” Andy scowls. “I’m telling you nothing.”
Joe laughs. “I appreciate the thought either way.”
Then the conversation shifts to other things, and by the time Joe has left the pub, he has almost entirely forgotten what Andy said. Which is why it’s such a surprise when she calls him three weeks later.
“Were you still interested in that arranged marriage?” is how she opens. Joe makes an openly sceptical face to his audience, which consists of Nile and the chaos left behind by the after-school art class they teach together at a local community centre. Actually it’s not all that much chaos. They’re half-way through the term and this batch of kids knows how to put their things away. But today was charcoal, which creates a certain amount of mess and chaos no matter what you do, when combined with twelve excited ten-year-olds.
“Would you care to elaborate on that?” Joe returns, holding the phone against his ear with his shoulder while he washes his hands.
“The guy I was thinking of. To get you back on the dating horse,” Andy says. “He’s interested. Still want to give it a shot?”
“I can always go back to dating apps,” Joe says. He doesn’t mean it. He’s not really looking for sex – or, fine, he isn’t only looking for that – and the hit rate when you’re a Dutch-Maghrebi Muslim bisexual man in London is…not as good as it could be.
Andy makes a rude noise. “Come on. Give it a go. I think you’ll like him.” Joe can hear her thinking. “Ask Nile, okay? I know you’ll still be cleaning up from your class. Tell her I told you to tell her to tell you about Nicky, and why you’re definitely going to fall in love with him. Oh, and tell her to mention the thing with your sister. The lawyer.”
“You heard me,” says Andy, and hangs up.
“I have no idea what that call was about,” Nile says, when he pockets his phone, “but let me tell you, it was very funny when all I had was your half.”
“Andy,” Joe explains. “I was complaining on the weekend about wanting to try dating again, after…” he waves a hand, and Nile nods; she knows about the Toby Thing. “And she said she had a friend she thought might be interested. I’m supposed to tell you to tell me about, and I quote, “Nicky, and why you’re definitely going to fall in love with him, and the thing with your sister.””
“Nicky?” Nile seems taken aback by that.
“Oh, you don’t think so?”
“Actually…” Nile studies him critically. “No, you know what, Andy might be onto something there. I just didn’t know he was in London these days.”
“So, tell me more.”
“Well, okay,” Nile says. “Uh, he’s a journalist – a writer. He and Andy used to do war reporting together, and I think they burned out on it about the same time.” Andy is a journalist too, but she’s a photojournalist; Joe saw some of her most famous shots before he ever met her in person. “He’s Italian. He does a lot more environmental justice reporting now, how climate change is affecting people, that sort of thing. Remember that big piece on your sister’s work, a couple of years ago? He wrote it.”
“Oh, huh,” Joe says, trying to remember if Noor had said anything at the time about the team who’d worked on that piece, profiling her human rights work at The Hague. Right now she’s on maternity leave, less than a month from giving birth, all going well. Her husband is Italian, as a matter of fact; a translator, who she met through her job. “But that’s all about what he does. What do you think about who he is?”
“I only met him once. He seemed nice. He was kind to a waitress who got his drink order wrong. Really kind, not, like, you know.” That had been one of the things about Toby Joe had hated, that should have been a big red warning sign; how fucking condescending he’d always been to waitstaff, under the guise of having high standards. Nile shrugged. “I’m sorry; that’s all I’ve got.”
Joe chews his lip. It’s not a bad start. It’s not…all that much. “Do you think I should go for it?”
“Yeah.” Nile nods, as they move around, putting away the last pieces of paper. “Yeah, I do. What’s the worst case?”
Joe presses his lips together.
“That’s not going to happen again,” Nile says firmly. “We’re all here for you.”
“I’m not worried about you. I’m worried about me. I’m worried about whether I’ll just…ignore the warning signs. Again.”
“If you’re not ready, you’re not ready.”
He doesn’t want to be not ready. He doesn’t want to keep on being afraid of screwing up his own life. He wants to give it a shot.
“I’ll tell her coffee,” Joe says. “Something really low-pressure. We like each other, or we don’t.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Nile swipes at his face. “You got some charcoal on your nose.”
“I’ll wash my face extra before the date,” Joe says, and they both laugh.
If Andy had set up a true blind date, Joe would have cancelled; had a headache or a flat bike tyre or – something. He knows that and he hates it. The him before Toby wouldn’t have. He would have given it a go, and walked away if it wasn’t meant to be.
Andy knows him, though, so it isn’t a date at all, really; it’s coffee with her and Quỳnh and the mysterious Nicky. Joe had almost Googled him, having got his full name from the byline on the article about Noor, and then decided not to. He thinks that was an actual, intentional decision; a choice to get to know him as a person first.
When he gets to the café, he can’t see either Andy or Quỳnh, and his phone buzzes almost immediately, Quỳnh saying they’re running late – Andy hates texting. He doesn’t want to lurk awkwardly in the doorway, so he does a quick scan to see if he can spot anybody who might be Nicky, planning to duck back out. There’s three men by themselves. One is clearly in his sixties, or older; one has a pram, and a toddler in a highchair; the other – looks right at Joe. He’s Joe’s age. He’s beautiful in a strong-nosed, striking way that even his mediocre haircut can’t disguise. He’s wearing a leather jacket that might once have been fashionable but doesn’t deserve any better adjectives now that “comfortably battered”. He has lovely light-coloured eyes and he is giving Joe a flattering once-over that ends in eye contact, which doesn’t stop, and shit; shit; he’s committed now.
Joe lets the door swing shut behind him and goes over. If this isn’t Nicky, it’s about to be incredibly awkward. Or he’s about to ruin all Andy’s carefully-laid plans. Joe doesn’t think of himself as shallow, but, well…this guy is good-looking enough to get a chance to ruin that by speaking, and Joe does know what a once-over looks like when it’s aimed at him.
“Hi,” he says. “Uh. Nicky?”
“Yes,” the man says in discreet but evident relief. “Joe?”
“That’s, yeah, that’s me.” Joe shuffles, not wanting to sit uninvited but – “I’m just going to order a coffee.”
He waits to be contradicted, unable to not anticipate it. Instead the man – Nicky – says “Yes, yes, of course. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, that’s a good start,” Joe says before he thinks better of it, and wins a crooked smile.
The café isn’t busy and he’s back in under a minute. He takes the seat opposite Nicky.
“Andy texted to say they’re running late,” is the first thing Nicky says. He has a strong Italian accent; definitely from the north, but Joe couldn’t place it beyond that.
“Andy texts you?”
That gets him an actual laugh. It’s a nice laugh. Joe puts that tentatively in the plus column. “Only under immense pressure, and very slowly. I assume Quỳnh was otherwise occupied.”
“Well, she texted me, so I’m just gonna assume you’re special and Andy likes you a lot.”
“She likes you a lot,” Nicky says, casually. “Judging by how hard she advocated for you.”
Joe laughs politely, and looks down at the table. They’re interrupted by their drinks arriving. Joe has a New Zealand-style flat white. Nicky has a macchiato, apparently embracing cultural stereotype. Joe can respect that.
“You know Andy,” he says, once the server has left. “She gets an idea in her head, and…”
“Oh, I do,” Nicky says, like he’s remembering something he’s not sure he regrets or not; they met on the job, Nile had said, back when Andy was still doing war stories. “Ah, how did you meet her?”
“We had exhibitions at the same gallery,” Joe says.
“Ah, you are also a photographer?”
“Drawing and mixed media, mostly.” Joe can do this spiel in his sleep; any artist can. He starts with the brief version, but Nicky asks good questions, and by the time Andy and Quỳnh finally show up ten minutes later he’s deep into the story of his first, semi-disastrous exhibition. When he’d told Toby that story, Toby had said sympathetic things, and somehow turned it into a clinical dissection of everything Joe had done wrong. He doesn’t mean it to be a test, exactly, but Nicky only makes noises of sympathy, at all the right moments. It’s good, but Joe can still feel himself tensing for the criticism that doesn’t come.
“Oh, good, you found each other,” says Quỳnh. “Sorry; there was a delay on the Northern line.”
“Are we necessary here? I really don’t feel like we’re necessary,” says Andy, eyes flicking critically between them. “Quỳnh, how about we get a table –”
“No, no,” Joe says, at the same time as Nicky is saying “Please, there’s plenty of room,” and pulling a chair out for Andy. After that, Joe lets himself have the luxury of letting the others drive the conversation. He’s not quiet, he has never been quiet in his life, any of his family members would insist, but he wants to see how Nicky interacts with Andy and Quỳnh, who Joe knows and trusts. It seems like he shares a sense of humour with Quỳnh, and a deep-banked intensity with Andy. Joe can see why they’re friends.
He’s surprised at how quickly the time goes; in what feels like five or ten minutes, it’s an hour later, and the women are standing up, saying they need to get going.
“Don’t feel rushed!” Andy says, and drags her wife out of the café by the arm.
“I love Andy,” Joe says. “She’s so subtle.”
“Delicate,” agrees Nicky.
“As a battleaxe,” Nicky says, and they both crack up.
“Joe, ah,” Nicky continues, once they’re done, “I don’t think – we didn’t talk about why I agreed to come here today. The thing is, I am very new in London, and I don’t know a lot of people. I – get the sense that you are a little, how would Andy say it…gun-shy. Is that wrong?”
“No,” Joe says. “Uh, no offence, I don’t really want to talk about it. But no.” He makes himself keep going. “But – I had a nice time.”
“Me too.” Nicky catches his eye again. Closer-up, Joe can see that his eyes are a cool shade of green-grey, but he’s more caught by Nicky’s broad shoulders, and the way he cradles his empty coffee cup. He’d love to draw his hands. “So, could we…do something like this again? But nothing, ah…no pressure. Just to be friends. I need that more than anything else.”
Joe wants to tell Nicky how handsome he thinks he is, how he wouldn’t mind – but there’s a sense of relief clawing at his gut, too, and his therapist would tell him that that’s the signal he should be paying attention to.
“Yeah,” he says instead. “I’d like that.”
Nicky smiles, and Joe wants to draw that, too. The contradiction of feelings, hope and relief and tension and a low burn of attraction somewhere deep down, is…a lot. It’s a lot. More than Nicky deserves to have put on him right now, that’s for sure.
They swap phone numbers, and Nicky texts him a couple of days later asking if he’d be interested in going to an outdoor performance of Shakespeare that Saturday.
No offense taken if it’s not something you would enjoy.
I’m in, Joe tells him, I like the comedies. Some of the tragedies are a bit much. At least for a date, he thinks to himself, but then again Nicky hasn’t called it a date and Joe isn’t sure he wants to, either.
I have a strict rule of knowing someone for at least five years before I invite them to King Lear, Nicky replies. Joe laughs to himself.
I’m safe for another four years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days, then.
Nicky sends back a winky-face emoticon, the old style Kids These Days don’t use anymore. Joe isn’t sure when he became older than the Kids These Days but isn’t sure he likes it.
They arrange to meet half an hour before it starts, and Joe leaves his flat in plenty of time, but almost the worst thing possible happens: he gets a flat bike tyre when he’s almost there, and has to wheel the bike the rest of the way, cursing under his breath. He locks it up and jogs to get to where Nicky’s sitting; Nicky stands up and waves at him.
“How’s the bike?” is the first thing Nicky asks him. “And you?”
“I’m fine,” Joe says. “It was the kind where you feel it coming before it’s bad enough to throw you off. And I can fix it after the performance.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Nicky says. “I got you a drink, if you want?” It’s a blood orange fizzy drink, non-alcoholic, the same thing Nicky is drinking.
“Thank you,” Joe says, touched – it’s a warm day and the stress of the flat tyre hasn’t helped. He arranges himself more comfortably on the grass as the performance begins, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s very good; they’ve cast a woman as Don Juan, the whole play is set in early twentieth century Mexico, and it does some very interesting things to the text. Nicky laughs at most of the bits that Joe thinks are particularly funny, and asks Joe at the interval to explain a couple of the ones he hadn’t. Joe can tell that there’s a little bit of professional journalist skill going into it, establishing a rapport by making him feel knowledgeable, but that doesn’t stop it working.
It’s a matinee, so it’s only late afternoon when the play finishes. Nicky ends up walking back to Joe’s bike with him, talking animatedly about the performance and the one other each they have both seen. Once they’re back, without the stress of trying to make the show, Joe goes over the tyre and finds the culprit in about thirty seconds: some sort of heavy staple.
“Where did this even come from?” he says, holding it up.
“That is the kind of mystery that you will break your brain trying to answer,” says Nicky, taking it and disposing of it in a nearby rubbish bin. “Can I help you with this, or will I only make it take longer? My repair skills are strictly limited to modes of transport with internal combustion engines.”
“There is one very specific thing it’s easier to do with two people,” Joe says, and gets Nicky to steady the upside-down bike as he does the repair. It’s not difficult, Joe has been doing this his entire life, just fiddly and tedious. Nicky apparently possesses God-granted patience, because he holds the bike rock-solid the entire time.
“There we go,” he says when the tyre is pumped up again and the whole thing is done. “I feel bad; you’ve invited me to a play, bought me a drink, and now you’ve been my bike repair stand for twenty minutes. Can I interest you in an early dinner?”
He hadn’t been meaning to do that at all; had been meaning to enjoy the good bits of the afternoon and let it stand there. But there’s been something so relaxing about it, the way Nicky has just…been there, been friendly, been gracious.
Still, he reminds himself, he’d thought the same thing about Toby once upon a time.
“You can interest me, but I have an interview scheduled for this evening with someone who has a very busy schedule,” Nicky says, with evident regret. “Can I take you up on that next weekend?”
“Of course you can,” Joe says, and finds that he’s actually disappointed. He…wasn’t expecting that.
Nicky smiles at him, and, fuck. He wants to draw that, too.
The fifth time they meet up is at Nile’s new exhibition – well, it’s not her exhibition alone, but it’s about a third her work and Joe is so pleased for her. She’s mostly a sculptor, working in clay, and her biggest talent is her ability to reinterpret famous pieces as something entirely new. Also her use of colour; Joe loves colour, even though he does a lot in shades of grey.
“You’re looking good,” Nicky greets him. He’s in the same battered leather jacket, nondescript trousers, and a slightly wrinkled linen shirt. Joe supposes that’s a side-effect of spending a lot of time in war zones and is trying not to judge. He’s wearing his second-best suit.
“Nile deserves to have the opening night look fancy,” he says. “Also, she specifically told me to wear the blue one.”
“You’re implying that you own multiple suits.”
“I do own multiple suits,” Joe says. Nicky is staring at him with fascination that seems partially intellectual and partially – not. He feels that carefully banked, deep-down prickle of arousal, packed away after their first meeting, starting to flare up again. This isn’t a date; he has been carefully thinking of none of these meetings as dates, because it prevents him from starting to panic. They’ve been to a play and a movie and dinner and lunch, twice, and Nicky also now has a standing invitation as a replacement player on Joe’s five-a-side team. But none of those things have been dates, in the sense of anybody declaring them so.
“I am sure someone has told you this, but you make them look very good,” Nicky says, an open compliment. Joe waits for the follow-up are you sure you’re not overdressed? Most people here are a bit more casual. But of course it doesn’t come, because Nicky isn’t a terrible person.
“That’s not the sort of thing I mind hearing twice,” he says to Nicky. “Or however many times you want to say it.” He scrambles for something nice to say about Nicky’s outfit, and comes up dry.
Nicky laughs. “Don’t worry – you don’t have to return the compliment. And trust me, being friends with Quỳnh provides all the criticism of my clothing choices I could ever need.”
“I wouldn’t criticize,” Joe says. “Wear what makes you comfortable, that’s my motto.”
“Being comfortable in suits is a talent, then.”
“I’m a very talented man,” Joe says, grinning, and Nicky laughs again, but in a way that means he’s agreeing, and Joe has missed this so much, he realises, flirting without being slowly stuffed down into the shape of someone else’s preferences. “Can I show you around? Or I can see if we can get Nile –”
“She looks busy,” Nicky says, and she does; she’s talking to three people, and there’s a fourth person waiting to hone in. Joe hopes for Nile’s sake that they’re all buyers, or useful contacts. “And I would love that.”
They walk around the exhibition, ruthlessly take advantage of the finger-food (one of the first things you learn as a journalist, Nicky murmurs to him, and of course that’s true for artists as well). By the time they’ve done the rounds and congratulated Nile it’s after eight, and they end up in a late-night café, the kind that are much harder to find here than Joe really feels they should be. British pub culture is all very well but it’s not a lot of fun when you don’t drink alcohol.
“How’s your mission to make more friends going?” Joe asks Nicky.
“Better than I had thought it would,” Nicky says. “I’ve spent a lot of time moving around. It’s an adjustment, to mostly be in one city. I wake up and wonder where I am.”
Alone? Joe wants to ask, but: not a date. “You think it’s going to get to you, long-term?”
“I don’t know,” Nicky says, straight-forward. “I don’t think so. It’s happening less. But it hasn’t been all that long yet.”
They’re at a small table, the only one left outside – it’s a lovely summer evening like you don’t get that often, worth it – and they’re neither of them short men, so one of Nicky’s feet is sort of resting against Joe’s, and their elbows are practically bumping together on the table. Joe keeps considering moving his foot, and then…not. And Nicky hasn’t moved his, either. It’s very much like being a teenager again. He’s weirdly enjoying it.
“I’ve only ever lived in two places,” Joe offers. “Amsterdam, and then here.”
“I’ve probably only lived in two places, really, and that’s counting London now,” Nicky says. “Everywhere else, I always knew I was passing through.”
Is it Joe’s imagination, or is Nicky’s foot pressing a little more firmly against his? Okay, this is ridiculous. This is actually ridiculous. He’s thirty-three.
“Are you seeing anyone?” he blurts out, as awkwardly as if he was thirteen instead.
The corner of Nicky’s mouth curves up. “I’m seeing you, right now, sitting here.”
Joe narrows his eyes. “If you make me make this any more awkward –”
“No,” Nicky says. “But I’d like to be seeing you. If that’s what you’re offering.” He pauses. “Or, if you aren’t, I have been having a lovely time and we can forget –”
The table is, truly, too small, and they’re tucked into a corner of the café courtyard, so it’s almost no effort at all for Joe to lean forward and brush his mouth against Nicky’s. It barely even qualifies as a kiss. Joe is left with the faintest memory of warmth and the taste of Nicky’s espresso. He licks his lip, reflexively. Nicky hasn’t moved, but his eyes are tracking Joe’s mouth. And, okay, they’re definitely playing footsie under this table. Nicky drags his eyes back up to Joe’s, and Joe can barely resist whooping. He does grin.
“Or,” Nicky says, “we can not forget I mentioned it.”
“I’m still kinda good with…how this is going,” Joe says. “I’m just in favour of changing the destination.”
“Okay,” Nicky says, no contradiction, and Joe could kiss him again just for that. Nicky moves his hand so it’s resting against Joe’s, on the table, and yes, this is exactly like being thirteen again, if Joe at thirteen had had his act together enough to do this with a boy. That took a while longer.
Nicky kisses him properly against the bike rack nearest to the gallery, a hand against Joe’s jaw, and yes, yes, yes; Joe wants this. He wants this to work out. He wants it so much.
They go on precisely one actual official date, which consists of dinner at Joe’s place, followed by watching football while creeping closer and closer together on the couch, followed by ten minutes of making out in the front hallway, insomuch as Joe’s place has a front hallway, given that it’s a London-size studio flat. In the vicinity of the door, anyway. Nicky doesn’t ask to go back to the couch and Joe doesn’t ask him to; he’s enjoying the sensation of anticipation, of feeling like every step of this is a deliberate choice.
They make plans for dinner at Nicky’s place next time, which Nicky promises has a slightly more spacious kitchen than Joe’s place. Nicky is apparently house-sitting for a colleague who’s on assignment. This reminds Joe of their conversation about whether Nicky is intending to stay, but the London rental market is horrific, so yeah, Joe understands taking advantage of that while you can.
“Are you going to cook?” Joe asks. Nicky’s mouth is still wet; he’s looking at it more than listening to the answer, until he spots the challenging gleam in Nicky’s eye.
“I am certainly going to cook,” says Nicky.
“Sure.” Then he blinks, like he’s remembered something. “No pork and no alcohol, right?”
“I’m not actually too worried about alcohol in food unless it’s like…trifle,” Joe says, having had a very big and slightly unpleasant surprise at a work Christmas (‘holiday’) party two years ago. “But yeah, those are the main items. Vegetarian is usually easiest, unless you know where to get halal meat.”
“I can work with that,” Nicky says, confidently. Joe has an abrupt flashback to Toby saying no offence, but that must be limiting sometimes. Joe had ignored that because Toby had always respected Joe keeping halal, he’d just – well, it was like everything else, wasn’t it. Made Joe feel like it was an imposition.
“I can, really,” says Nicky, and Joe realises his thoughts must be showing on his face.
“I’m sure you can,” he says hastily. “Uh, thanks.”
He kisses Nicky one more time to cover up the awkwardness, and then it takes another five minutes for Nicky to actually get out the door, but who’s counting?
They message each other a few times over the intervening week, but then Joe checks his phone after the end of his Thursday after-school class – this week it was paint, so there’s a lot of clean-up – and there’s a voicemail.
“Joe,” says Nicky’s voice. It’s a bit noisy, like he’s standing outside. “I’ve had a last minute assignment leaving for Geneva tomorrow morning, and tonight…I have a lot of things to get done tonight. I’m really sorry. Give me a call?”
“Who died?” Nile asks, seeing his face. When he doesn’t answer immediately, she looks guilty. “Nobody really –”
“No, nobody died.” Joe sighs. “Nicky was going to make me dinner tonight, and work has happened.”
“So that’s working out, huh?”
“Maybe,” Joe says. “If I tell you, how smug is Andy gonna be?”
Nile crosses her heart. “It will stay between you and me.”
“Yeah, then. I think it’s working out.”
“Nice.” They grin at each other.
None of that stops Joe feeling restless that evening, thwarted in a way that he can’t even fairly complain about. He scavenges leftovers from his fridge rather than cooking a proper meal, starts three sketches he doesn’t even halfway finish, can’t find anything he wants to watch, and ends up going to take a shower before bed. No surprise, really, that he finds himself leaning against the shower wall, thinking about Nicky. He remembers what it felt like, kissing him when he’d come over here. He’s ready, he’s so ready, to do that again. More than that. He reaches down, starts to rub himself, just the circle of his finger and thumb at first, a tease. He wants to be teased, be drawn out. He wants to peel off Nicky’s unremarkable clothes. He wants to lick all over those broad shoulders. He wants Nicky on his knees, wants Nicky to push him up against a wall, doesn’t matter, just wants Nicky –
Joe has gone from zero to sixty in a shockingly short space of time, so much so that his orgasm surprises him, spurting all over his hand before the shower washes it away. He stands there for another five minutes, catching his breath, surprised by the scope and shape of his wants. He can’t let himself get carried away –
– no, he can. He can want anything he likes. The thrill is going to be in finding out what the intersection is between Nicky’s wants and his; Joe hopes so, so badly that it’s wide, an ocean, not the narrow channel that he’d turned out to have with Toby.
He drifts off to sleep easily enough, relaxed by the shower and what he’d done. How many times he does that again while Nicky is away is his own affair. He doesn’t hear from him very much; Nicky had said on their phone call not to expect to, that he got caught up when he was traveling. There’s one brief video call on the last night, Nicky looking tired in a hotel room.
“Productive,” Nicky allows. “But I’m remembering why I decided I didn’t want to travel so much. It’s not as fun as it was ten years ago. Hotels are like this awful alternate dimension. And it’s all the same awful alternate dimension.”
“Of course,” Joe says, lying on his front on his couch so he won’t be tempted to – anything, “The problem with your hotel room is that I’m not in it.”
He surprises himself by saying it; and is then more surprised when Nicky grins. “That is, of course, a very significant problem. Are we still on for tomorrow?”
“Oh, yeah,” Joe says, and the way Nicky’s smile goes wicked at that should, frankly, be illegal. “If you still think you’ll have the energy. We very much are.”
Joe shows up at Nicky’s place five minutes early, having for once been not optimistic enough about London traffic – the bike infrastructure is really improving – locks his bike to the railing, and then stands on the doorstep wondering if he should walk around the block, until Nicky opens it.
“Joe!” He says, beaming. He’s got huge circles under his eyes but he looks so genuinely pleased it warms Joe like a sunbeam. “Come in. Don’t be too impressed – I’m just staying here.”
It’s a huge space for one person, three bedrooms, and an enormous sectional couch you could fit Joe’s entire after-school art class on (admittedly they are all under ten). Nicky takes him through into the very modern kitchen/dining room, offers him a selection of things to drink that aren’t alcohol, and feeds him a meal which is terrifyingly complicated given that Nicky literally got back into the country this morning. Joe is genuinely impressed. And the thought that Nicky has gone to this effort relaxes him enough that it’s easy, it’s simple, to stand up after they’ve finished, to step behind Nicky where he’s putting leftovers in the fridge, to put his hands on Nicky’s waist, lightly, to kiss the shell of his ear and say “I spent all week thinking about you.”
“And what were you doing,” Nicky says, shuffling backwards a little so they’re closer, “while you thought about me?”
Joe lets himself rest his hands on Nicky properly. “Oh, you know. Showering. Waking up and not being ready to get out of bed yet. That sort of thing.”
“Funny,” Nicky says. “Those are the exact same sort of times I found myself thinking about you.”
“Oh, is that so,” Joe says, and when Nicky turns around in his arms he can’t really call what happens next a kiss because they’re both smiling too wide for it to work, but they get there in the end.
Joe is, if he’s being honest, pretty much ready to have Nicky on the kitchen floor if Nicky’s into that, but Nicky kisses him close-mouthed, sucking on his lower lip for a second, before starting to walk him back towards the living room. That almost works but Nicky’s mouth opens under Joe’s just as they’re at the doorway and Joe walks straight into the only-partially open door, banging his leg.
“Ow,” he says, breaking away.
Nicky winces. “Sorry.”
“Ten out of ten for intent,” Joe says, “seven out of ten for execution,” and Nicky laughs and drags him over to the wide sectional, which has a back set so far away from the front edge that even Joe, who is reasonably tall, couldn’t sit down and lean back against it. If they were going to sit on it this would annoy him a great deal, but they are immediately horizontal, and they have space to be horizontal without falling off. So really he can’t complain.
Once they’re on the couch Nicky kisses with intent, getting bolder as Joe kisses back, wet and a little messy and the kind of kiss that makes Joe think about what Nicky’s mouth might feel like on his body, on his cock, eating him out, it’s a million times better than all those nights alone this last week. Nicky has ended up on top. Joe spreads his legs, half-intentional and half because of the way Nicky has just dug his hand under Joe’s shirt. He can feel Nicky half-hard and getting harder against his inner thigh; there’s delicious but still not quite enough friction against his cock; Nicky is sucking on his tongue and literally the only regret Joe has right this second is that he’d worn jeans, which are proving much too restrictive.
“Can I, uh,” Joe says, when they take a second to breathe. “I want to take your shirt off.”
Nicky actually props himself up on one elbow to start pulling at the edge of his t-shirt, eyes as hazy with lust as Joe feels, before he blinks, stops, leans down to rest his forehead against Joe’s, and says “I really want to take your shirt off, but we should talk.”
“Fuck,” Joe says. “Do we have to?”
“We don’t have to,” Nicky says. He’s still hard, so is Joe, but his hand on Joe’s flank is soothing. “But when we started this you weren’t even sure you wanted to date at all, and Andy – gave me a lot of vague but dire warnings, so, yes, I think we should.”
Joe swears under his breath, in a highly idiomatic Tounsi phrase he knows Nicky won’t understand. “Okay, okay. What – I need to know what Andy told you.”
He shifts so his forehead is resting in the crook of Nicky’s neck, instead. He should have expected this – Andy isn’t the kind of person who sends people in unprepared – but he was hoping to avoid it for longer.
“Not very much,” Nicky says. He’s switched to winding a hand into Joe’s hair. It’s nice. “Just that your last ex was, and I quote, the absolute worst, and that you were having trouble getting back on the horse, I also quote, and that I should go gently. Not an exact quote, but something like that.”
Joe sighs into Nicky’s shoulder. That’s better than he was fearing; Andy knows all the gory details, such as they are. He should have trusted her. “So…what are you asking, exactly?”
“I want to know what you like,” Nicky says, very low, and suddenly this conversation is no longer a turn-off for Joe; entirely the opposite. “I want to know what you want. I want to know what you don’t want. I want to know everything, but that’s a lot, so I think right now I’m just asking what you want, right now.”
“Hnngh,” Joe says, his hips shifting without his brain’s involvement. Nicky grinds down against him, for one glorious second, before kneeling up; it is an effort for Joe not to whine. “This is – this is going to sound very stupid – the thing is, all those things? I like that you want to know them. I like it a lot. But it’s hard for me to tell you them, because – shit, I did not want to talk about him – look, let’s just say my ex was very good at asking those questions and very good at making me feel like there were wrong answers.”
“I’m surprised,” Nicky says, “that Andy limited herself to ‘the absolute worst’ when describing him.”
“So am I,” says Joe. “Fuck. Come here.” He moves his head backwards and Nicky tugs on his hair a little as he goes, which has a lot to do with how Joe kisses him. Nicky sinks back down against him and it’s good, it’s so good, even the heavy denim and his zip grinding into his erection can’t make it not be good, forget questions and forget everything else.
“Joe,” Nicky mumbles against his lips. “I’m still asking. Or – I can ask, and you can say yes or no.”
“Yes,” Joe says, concentrating on how much he wants to come and how much he wants to see what Nicky looks like when he comes, not on the old voice saying that there are wrong answers and he’s going to give them. It’s still easier than articulating whole thoughts.
“Can I take your shirt off?”
“Yes,” Joe says immediately. Nicky knees up fully and strips off his own t-shirt before he encourages Joe up and starts working on his buttons. His shoulders are just as broad as Joe had imagined, his body narrows down to his waist in a swimmer’s physique, and Joe wants to touch him all over. He says that.
“I’m in favour,” Nicky says, helping Joe get rid of his shirt. Joe runs his hands all over Nicky’s torso, drinking in the acres of warm skin. Nicky lowers himself back down.
“Do you want to go into the bedroom?” he asks, quiet and intense.
“No,” Joe says, not sure of his answer until he says it. He runs his hands all the way down Nicky’s back, onto his trousers, pressing him down against Joe. “Here is good.”
“Can I touch your cock, please,” Nicky says, and Joe likes him asking confident questions, but begging? Also very good.
“Only if I get to touch yours.”
It’s hard to undo someone’s belt when they’ve got their tongue in your mouth and they’re trying to do the same thing to you, but they manage it. Nicky makes a fabulous moaning sound into Joe’s mouth when Joe eases his cock out that Joe strokes him again, just to hear. When Nicky gets a hand on his cock, thumbing over the already-slick tip, spreading the moisture around, Joe tips his head back and grits his teeth trying not to come right then. He feels like he’s been waiting forever for this.
Nicky jerks them both off just like that, hand cupping the back of Joe’s head, kissing him like what he’s doing with his hand isn’t even the main attraction. It’s so, so good, considering how it’s the sort of thing Joe first did when he was a fumbling teenager, that it should probably be illegal. Then again, like anything, technique definitely counts. They lie together on the couch for a long while after – Joe is fully reconciled to its stupid design – before Joe cycles home, fizzing to his fingertips. Nicky had offered to let him stay the night; Joe had said no thank you, and Nicky had said alright, and sent him home with leftovers.
Joe wakes up the next morning still feeling great about it. That’s when he really starts to think that, maybe, this is going to work.
“I was thinking,” Nile says to him one day as they’re waiting for the kids to arrive at their other after-school class. This one they only get to offer for one term a year: it’s for kids whose parents can’t afford after-school activities, as opposed to their usual class, which is for kids whose parents have them doing too many after-school activities and are convinced their offspring are all undiscovered artistic geniuses. The kids are okay, for the most part, in both classes; the parents are wildly different. Joe wishes they could do this one all the time, but…the funding isn’t there, and that’s with him and Nile practically donating their time, not to mention a lot of the materials.
“Dangerous habit,” Joe tells her, automatically.
“Ha-ha. There’s another spot at the gallery opening up later this year. I was thinking, we should try doing an exhibition together.”
They’ve never done that; Nile works in three dimensions and Joe in two. He points this out.
“Yeah, that’s the idea,” she says, sitting back against one of the low kid-level tables, and sketching it out with her hands as she talks. Calligraphy turning into shapes turning into sculpture; Joe gets what she’s going for right away, and they’re really getting into it when the first student shows up and they have to hastily pack it away and turn on teacher mode. Not because having artistic ideas is inappropriate, just because their attention needs to be on the kids.
They end up going for an early meal together afterwards, to keep talking it through. Joe’s a little bit in love, the way you get with a vision, more so because there’s the feedback loop of Nile being a little bit in love with it too.
“The timeline’s tight,” Nile concedes. “Four months.”
“We can do it.” Joe leans back in his chair. “As long as we don’t get distracted.”
“I’m not the one with a new boyfriend,” Nile points out. “Not for lack of trying, either.”
“Get Andy to set you up,” Joe suggests. “Turns out she’s good at it. Do not tell her I said that.”
Nile laughs, and he’s still high on their art plans, but there’s a thread of worry at the back of his mind now and he can’t tease out why.
The tinge of worry is entirely absent from Joe’s mind the next time Nicky comes over to his place, because this time they make it to the bedroom. The more things Joe tells him, about what he wants, the more he likes it, because Nicky is listening, and telling him things right back. It starts with Joe sitting on the edge of his bed while Nicky teases him with his mouth, only playing with the head at first, pulling off to ask him questions; that part ends when Joe groans out “I don’t know, fuck, Nicky – “ and Nicky laughs and swallows him down. Then it’s Joe’s turn. He lays Nicky out on the bed so he can lie down himself, rub his face against Nicky’s thighs.
“Ah, ow – no, don’t stop,” Nicky says breathlessly. “I like it.”
Joe kisses the tender, reddened skin, before licking his way up Nicky’s cock. Nicky did the boring, responsible, thing and asked about testing before Joe even had a chance to bring it up; the benefits, apparently, of dating someone who considers other people.
Anyway, the important part about that is it means Joe can run his tongue under the edge of Nicky’s foreskin. Nicky makes a low sort of punched-out noise. Joe would like to hear it a lot more. He’s already thinking about ways he can do that.
“Would you like me to go find the lube?” he asks, teasing under Nicky’s balls with just the tips of his fingers, not yet touching his hole but definitely in the general vicinity.
“Ummm, no,” Nicky says. Joe feels momentarily wrong-footed – he wasn’t expecting that – but then Nicky says “Please do that thing with your tongue again,” still sounding strung-out, and Joe can work with that. He concentrates on every noise Nicky makes; Joe has always found there to be something extremely hot about learning what someone likes, taking them apart on purpose as much as on instinct. It’s instinct, though, that has him encouraging Nicky to wrap his legs around Joe, pin him in place as he takes him in and earns the privilege of having Nicky fall apart under him, in his mouth, around him. When Joe pulls off, he’s gripping the sheets, white-knuckled. That, Joe thinks hazily, licking his lips, is another thing to talk about. Later, maybe.
Nicky unwinds his legs from around Joe, stiffly, like he’s forgotten how to move them. “Ummm. Give me a minute.”
“Mmmmhmm,” Joe says, smugly pleased with himself, crawling back up the bed to sprawl next to and on Nicky.
“That was,” Nicky says, turning his face into the side of Joe’s neck, “very nice.”
“Nice? Nice is what I get?”
“I’m still remembering how to use words. Is that better?”
“I’ll accept it.” Joe grins against his forehead. “Can I take it you’re not really into anal?” He wouldn’t be the first man Joe’s slept with who isn’t; he just wasn’t expecting it.
“It’s a little complicated,” Nicky says. “I don’t mean like – when I was a teenager and at university, I was still…figuring a few things out. And then when I was working as a journalist in the field…let’s just say the conditions weren’t normally conducive to it, and the times I did try it were disappointing.”
“Huh, okay,” Joe says, not disappointed exactly, but maybe revising a couple of his fantasies.
“You like it, I am getting the impression.”
“Well…” Joe says, and – actually, fuck it, yeah, he feels good about this. He kisses Nicky’s forehead, gets up, ignoring the sweat cooling on his skin, and pulls out a box from under the bed. “I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression.”
The box is Joe’s collection of dildos and vibrators, which isn’t excessive but is not insubstantial. A couple of them are, specifically, not insubstantial. One Joe has never really used because he’s never set aside enough time to work up to it. But one day.
In two years, he never felt safe showing it to Toby. He hates knowing that was a good call, and loves knowing that he didn’t let Toby ruin Joe’s sex life with himself as well.
Nicky laughs when he sees it, but it’s a good laugh, a laugh that says oh, I see what’s going on here, and his mouth curves when he looks at Joe. “I see, I see. I would, so we are clear, very much enjoy the chance to use some of those on you.”
“You say the sweetest things,” Joe says, grinning, and moves the box hastily off the bed so he can climb on top of Nicky again and kiss him. It’s lazy fun and then – gradually – it’s something more.
“Can I show you something,” Nicky murmurs, eyes dark, “that I do enjoy very much,” and he makes Joe smear lube on the tender skin of his inner thighs, which is still red with beard burn. He hisses a little, but he continues to harden. Joe reaches up and pinches one of his nipples, only a little too hard. Nicky bites his lip. “Yes, yes.”
This is something Joe would never have suggested left to his own devices, but it’s so hot, thrusting into the tight slick space between Nicky’s thighs, feeling Nicky twitch, the edge of pain doing something for him as well as Joe’s slick hand on his cock.
“You like that it hurts a little bit,” Joe says, low in Nicky’s ear, “I can feel it, and I love it, I want to make you feel good, I want you to tell me all the things that do that, yeah, Nicky, c’mon, get my hand wet, I can feel how much you want it –”
He comes first, a slow build that he almost doesn’t notice cresting until it’s too late to stop it, not that he wants to. He loses a bit of coordination, but Nicky thrusts enthusiastically into his hand and is coming before Joe’s even regained all his senses. They’re a complete mess, Joe’s hand is dripping with both of them, and it’s insanely hot. He’d like to do that about ten more times, in a theoretical world where either of them had the energy for it.
“You like to talk,” Nicky says, after a quiet minute or two.
Joe is feeling so good about everything he doesn’t even have to consciously swallow an apology. “Yeah. That was working for you, huh?”
“How could you tell.” Nicky rolls over and grins at him. Everything is a mess now and Joe really does not care.
“You’ve been very busy lately. Work?” Nicky says two weeks later, as he is preparing to leave the house; today is one of Joe’s days where he doesn’t have any classes to teach or events or meetings to attend, and he is planning on doing a lot of preliminary sketches. Which means that he is still lying in bed – what’s the point in being a freelance artist if you don’t get to lie in occasionally?
“Mmm, yeah,” Joe says, stretching out to his full length on the bed, and doesn’t say anything else. They’ve had a very enjoyable two-week honeymoon period of spending almost every minute they’re together having sex; he didn’t even realise how much that was true until just now. But they haven’t really talked as much as they had before that.
“You don’t have to tell me about it,” Nicky says, after a beat, “but I would enjoy it, if you did.”
“Yeah, it’s…” Joe trails off when it hits him: this is what the thread of worry was from two weeks ago, the one that hasn’t gone away. He doesn’t want to tell Nicky because he knows exactly how this conversation would have gone with Toby, the way several other conversations had gone: Joe being talked out of doing something he really, really wanted. Of all the regrets he has about that relationship, that one is highest on the list.
“I’m not going to lie, now I’m worried,” Nicky says, sitting down on the bed next to Joe’s head. Joe is momentarily paralyzed with indecision. He rolls over and presses his face into Nicky’s thigh. Nicky puts a hand on his head, but so lightly Joe can barely feel it.
“I’m doing an exhibition with Nile,” Joe says into Nicky’s leg, and holds his breath. “A big one. We’ve got four months.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
Joe works up the courage to roll back and look up at Nicky. Nicky has a faint crease between his eyes, like he’s not sure what the right thing to say is.
“It’s great, it’s amazing, we’ve never done something together before and I’m feeling so good about it,” Joe says, all in a rush, “but it’s going to be a lot of work.”
Nicky moves the hand to his cheek. “Joe, that’s wonderful, please don’t – I feel like you’re waiting for me to be upset about it.”
“Kinda.” Joe closes his eyes for a second, then opens them, makes himself focus on Nicky. “But it’s not actually – about you? It’s a long story.”
“Well,” Nicky says, “I could get called away on an assignment at any minute, although I have asked – I’m not due for anything that would take me away for more than a few days, any time soon. I don’t begrudge you your work.”
That’s close enough to things that Toby would say, always followed by but, that Joe tenses for a second, but what Nicky actually goes on to say is “Anyway, what I want is for you to tell me all about it, what you and Nile are going to do, but I am going to be late if I do not leave, so will you tell me this evening?” He strokes Joe’s forehead. “Or not, if it is a secret and you are not ready to talk about it yet.”
Joe takes his hand and kisses it, first the knuckles and then the palm. “It isn’t a secret and I am going to tell you all about it. This evening.”
“Good,” Nicky says, with his stupidly beautiful smile, and leans over to kiss Joe lightly on the lips. “Have a good day, love.”
“You are the best thing that has happened to me for a very long time,” Joe says, which is a totally disproportionate response to his boyfriend kissing him goodbye before he goes to work, but he means it: he means it so very much.
“Likewise,” Nicky says, kissing him again, longer this time, and then ducking and rolling to get off the bed and away from Joe’s hands, holding him there. He laughs as he escapes, and Joe has to lie there for another five minutes before he gets up, every part of him feeling so light he could float away.
The day goes on just as well: he’s way more productive than he’d hoped, sending Nile a dozen photos of sketches he’s really happy with, and mid-afternoon there’s a message from his father saying that his sister Noor has gone into labour and he will keep Joe updated. This is a very big moment for his parents, Joe knows: a first grandchild. Noor has been pregnant for what seems like about three years but, realistically, has been about six months, because she didn’t tell any of them until after twelve weeks. He’s back at his flat that evening, but he calls Nicky to tell him that he’ll be out of town on the weekend.
“First grandchild for your parents?” Nicky asks. “They must be over the moon.”
“They’re trying not to be,” Joe laughs, “because they spent so long telling my sisters it was okay, they supported them having careers and putting off having kids, and very deliberately not being sad about how I wasn’t just going to get married and have babies, but yes. They really are. And I’m excited too. I’m totally ready to be a cool uncle.”
“You’re going to be a very cool uncle,” Nicky says. “My oldest niece is only five years younger than me, so I was more like an annoying older brother. But the younger ones think I’m pretty cool. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“How many nieces and nephews do you have?” Nicky hasn’t really talked about his family, beyond mentioning that his mother is alive, his father is dead, he is the youngest of five, and his other siblings all still live in Genoa. Joe isn’t entirely clear on how good his relationships with them are, and hasn’t wanted to push.
“Seven,” Nicky says. “So not so many. Franco – my oldest brother – his kids I know very well because as I said, Giulia is only five years younger than me, so I grew up with them, really, even though Franco and I…we don’t get on so much. Giovanna and Marco’s kids, not so well, I went away to university when Giovanna’s children were still very young and then I have never lived in Genoa since Marco got married. And Bernadetta and her wife do not have any children.”
“I…am not promising to immediately remember all of those details,” Joe says. “But I’ll try.”
“I will draw you a diagram,” Nicky says, laughing, “or you will never remember,” and then they talk about the flights Joe has booked and when he expects to be back.
“Send me photos,” Nicky says. “If your sister is okay with that.”
“They’re not going to be Andy-quality,” Joe warns, “but I’ll try.”
“Babies look cute no matter who the photographer is.”
“Thank you for that overwhelming endorsement.”
“I’ll tell you the great secret Andy once told me,” Nicky says, very seriously. “Just take a truly ridiculous number of photos and then delete them all except the good ones. The trick is…you have to know which the good ones are.”
“Andy’s told me that. I’m not a photographer but that doesn’t mean I don’t know that trick takes about twenty years to perfect.”
“No time like the present to start, then.”
Joe sails (or rather flies) off to the Netherlands feeling completely unconflicted; it’s amazing. Really, it’s the thing that is surprising him most about this. Nicky. He’d known his last relationship had been bad, worse than he could tell until he was out of it. He hadn’t remembered how good, how light, a good one felt. Or – it felt light because of all the weight he kept expecting, that wasn’t there.
The second most common topic of conversation at his parents’ house that weekend, apart from Noor’s new baby (three point five kilos, all fingers and toes, not yet named), is Nicky. That’s definitely Joe’s fault, but he can’t help himself.
“Wow,” Noor says. She is sitting on the couch feeding the baby; she has circles under her eyes and is the least-put-together Joe has seen her since she finished her law degree, but otherwise seems to have bounced back much more quickly than the blow-by-blow description Pietro had given of her labour would have suggested. “This Nicky sounds just about perfect.”
“He just about is,” Joe agrees happily. Noor doesn’t say anything. “What?”
“Nothing!” she says hastily. “Nothing. It’s just…is anybody perfect?”
“Look,” Joe says, “I know about the whole limerence thing. Ask me again in six months. But for now, yes.”
“When you meet someone,” Joe says. “And you’re in that happy sort of new relationship haze. One of those funny English words. I heard it from Andy’s wife Quỳnh. She was excited because she’d managed to use it in a legal filing.”
“Ooh, it’s always fun doing that,” says Noor. “Getting weird words in. But yes. Limerence. I’m very happy for you, but it sounds like…there’s a lot of it.”
“I’m not going to make the same mistake twice, Noor,” Joe says.
“I know,” she says. “I know.” Then the baby starts crying, and Joe has to be a helpful cool uncle and change it (Pietro is out at the shops). Compared to some art clean-up he’s had to do, it honestly could be worse.
“Where’s Nicky?” Nile wants to know when they meet at the pub next Sunday afternoon, her and Joe and Andy and Booker and Quỳnh.
“We’re not joined at the hip,” Joe says. “And he sends his apologies; he has a deadline.”
“I knew this was going to work out,” Andy says, looking extremely smug.
“No you didn’t,” her wife says brutally. “We came home from that café and you spent the rest of the day saying ‘but what if it goes wrong’ and ‘what if I’ve scared Joe off dating for another year’ and you started texting one or the other of them and then deleting it five separate times.”
“I did not. That is outright libel.”
“No it isn’t – I didn’t write it down.”
“She was pretty sure it was going to work out,” says Booker. “Or she wouldn’t have tried at all.”
“Why are you making that face?” Nile asks Joe, because unfortunately she’s been paying attention to him and not Andy and Quỳnh.
“No reason,” says Joe. There are immediate dissenting noises from the rest of the table. “It’s not – it’s really stupid.”
“Come on,” Andy says. “This is a matter of my matchmaking honour. What is it?”
“It’s going,” Joe says moodily into his drink, “too well.”
“Joe,” Booker says, “I am the pessimist at this table, you are not allowed to steal the honour. How do you mean, it’s going ‘too well’?”
“Honeymoon period.” Nile swirls the remnants of her beer in its pint glass. “Is that what you mean? That you’re waiting to see what happens when you disagree about something?”
“Yes. No.” Joe sighs. “We have disagreed about things. And it was fine. I just keep waiting for him to – it took a while, with Toby, you know? For him to start…pushing. And I know that was him, but I just keep expecting there will be something serious, and there isn’t. Everything’s great. He’s good-looking, he’s considerate, we have interests in common, he has been understanding about my work –”
“Bed?” Andy asks, almost clinically. Nile rolls her eyes.
“Great, thank you for asking,” Joe says, looking Andy dead in the eye; Quỳnh cackles. “This is it! There must be something wrong with him. If I knew what it was I’d feel happier.”
Booker scratches his chin. “I…might have an idea.”
Joe narrows his eyes. “What is it?”
Booker wrinkles his nose. “I’m not sure – it feels like the sort of thing he should tell you himself.”
“How do you even know something?” Nile interjects. “I thought you guys weren’t really friends.”
“It was on social media,” Booker explains. “And you wouldn’t have noticed because you are a heathen American who would not know it was important.”
“I am a heathen? At this table?” says Nile, raising her eyebrows. This is fair, because she’s come to the pub from her church. Joe is the next most religiously observant of all of them, Andy is a professed atheist, and as far as Joe knows Booker hasn’t darkened the door of a church since his marriage.
“About some things, yes,” Booker says loftily.
“Enough,” says Quỳnh. “You have to tell us now.”
“The thing is,” Booker says, and tells them.
Nicky had told Joe to come over after the pub, that he might still be working but if everything went well he would be finished. He’s only staying in the house for another month; he hasn’t said what he’s planning to do after that and Joe hasn’t asked. He’s aware, having spent enough time around Nicky by now, that he could probably do his job from any major city in Europe – and considering political conditions now, another city might be easier. Joe doesn’t want him to go.
Or, well, that might depend on how he responds to finding out that Joe knows his secret.
“Are you serious?” Nile had said. “That’s a dark secret?”
“Yes!” Joe had said. “It’s very important information!”
“And I’m telling you because I am a good friend,” Booker had said.
“Guys?” Nile had said, turning to Andy and Quỳnh.
“Don’t ask me.” Quỳnh had rolled her eyes.
“No, Booker’s right,” Andy had said. “It’s definitely at least a bit shady. If you’re Joe, anyway.”
“We’ll see what he has to say,” Joe had muttered.
“Well, fine, then,” Nile had said. “If that’s it, then you can stop worrying that he’s not perfect. You’ve found his feet of clay, or whatever.”
When Joe gets – he wants to think home, and isn’t sure he should – when Joe gets to Nicky’s place, Nicky is in the kitchen, apron on, alternating between dicing vegetables and conducting music with his knife. Joe wasn’t aware that Europop needed conducting, but apparently it’s part of the process.
“Is it safe for me to approach?” Joe calls. Nicky is waving his knife around with a little too much enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes,” Nicky says. “In fact you can come and cut this onion for me.” Nicky loathes dicing onions. Joe finds it just charming enough to save him from them by taking over the task when asked. “I got the article submitted to my editor an hour ago. Did you have a good afternoon?”
“Yes, and everybody says hi,” says Joe, taking the knife from Nicky, who is holding it out to him handle-first. “But we need to talk.”
“Oh?” Nicky says, washing his hands off in the sink.
“About that,” Joe says, pointedly, as he begins to peel the onion. “Booker told me this afternoon…you don’t really like watching football?”
From the shifty look on Nicky’s face, it isn’t a coincidence that Joe had to find that out from Booker. “Oh, had I not mentioned that?”
“You had not,” Joe says. “You let me put it on! And then you distract me with sex!”
“I’m pretty sure that’s a two-person endeavour.”
“But you like playing it!”
“Playing is totally different!” Nicky says, throwing up his hands. “Look, it’s fine, I don’t object to having it on or anything –”
“You don’t object,” Joe says, putting his free (onion-y, oh well) hand to his heart. “You don’t object!”
“I think it’s very healthy for couples to have different interests,” Nicky says earnestly.
“I can’t believe you would conceal something like this from me.” Joe grabs a bowl out of the cupboard to sweep the onion into.
“I know what this is about. This is about the fact that there’s a much bigger TV in this house and now you’re going to feel bad about putting the football on.”
“Incorrect,” Joe says. “I am going to put it on with malice aforethought and you’re going to live with it.”
Nicky laughs and kisses him before they swap places, Nicky going back to the bench.
“Hey, I was wondering,” Joe says. “When are your friends getting back?”
“Next month,” Nicky says.
“Have you found a new place yet?”
“No, not yet.”
Joe waits, and apparently that’s all Nicky has to say.
“Anyway, I meant to ask,” Nicky says over the top of him. “Is Quỳnh’s big case finished yet?”
Joe can recognise a deflection when he sees one. He lets it go, but it plants a little seed of doubt that the rest of the conversation (for all that Joe is, genuinely, a bit upset that Nicky hadn’t said anything) hadn’t. What if Nicky decides he doesn’t want to stay in London? What if he just…moves on? Joe wants to ask, but he’s not sure what worries him more: the idea that the answer will be yes, or the idea that the answer will be no and he won’t believe it.
That night, Joe sits Nicky on the edge of the bed, gets down on his knees, and goes down on him with one hand on his own cock and one grasping his thigh, until Nicky is hard and leaking and making really hot little noises from deep in his throat. His hips aren’t even twitching, though, because – as Joe has learned in the last while – if there’s one thing Nicky is possessed of, it’s incredible self-control and patience.
Joe pulls off just enough to look up at Nicky, whose chest is heaving and eyes are glittering lines through his lashes, and say “I want you to fuck my mouth.”
Nicky cups a hand around his cheek, resting his thumb on Joe’s lips; Joe sucks it in. “One condition.”
“Mmmm,” Joe says, nuzzling Nicky’s cock, licking off a salty dribble of pre-come. He rocks up gently into his own fist. “What?”
“Don’t touch yourself. I want to see what this does for you.”
“Okay,” Joe breathes, and lets go.
“Good,” Nicky says, and uses his fingertips to guide Joe back onto his cock. He keeps him there with his fingertips, barely even touching; it’s somehow hotter than gripping his hair would be, like Nicky has complete confidence that Joe is going to stay there and let Nicky fuck his mouth. Which he absolutely is, taking every short insistent stroke, drooling around the weight in his mouth. It lasts for far too short a time before Nicky is coming down his throat, murmuring in Italian that Joe is way too sex-fuzzed right now to understand properly, but thinks he gets the gist of all the same.
Nicky pulls him up onto the bed and hisses when he gets a hand on Joe and feels how hard he is.
“Tell me what you want,” he says into Joe’s mouth, kissing him like he’s chasing his own taste; Joe is so glad they got testing out of the way ages ago.
“If we were at my place,” he says, “I’d ask you to use a toy on me –”
“Why aren’t we at your place, then?”
“Bad planning on my part.” Joe kisses him again; he’s going to just come all over both of them, with much more of this. “Just hold me down and use your hand.”
“Like this?” Nicky asks, leaning over Joe and pinning his wrists with one hand, just above his head.
“Exactly like that,” Joe mumbles, hips already moving, and Nicky takes the hint. Joe does come all over himself and Nicky’s hand and Nicky, above him and holding him, only far enough away to give himself room to work. He keeps working Joe through it, pulling every last drop and twitch out of him, until Joe whimpers.
Joe lies there, catching his breath, feeling great. He got so used to not asking for things in bed. He hadn’t been sure that this would be Nicky’s thing, but –
“You like it like that,” Nicky observes, almost unnecessarily, petting Joe’s flank with his clean hand.
“Sometimes, yeah,” Joe says.
“Well, I’m always up for trying new things.” Nicky is smiling, a smug curve. “Especially things that work so well for you.”
Joe usually prefers to clean up right away, but screw it; he burrows into Nicky, kissing him on his eyebrow, his ear, the hinge of his jaw. Nicky laughs. It’s beautiful.
The two weeks before the exhibition opens, Joe pretty much doesn’t see Nicky at all; every time he thinks about going to Nicky’s, it’s always too late or the wrong time for Nicky’s schedule, and twice in two days Nicky texts him asking if he could come over that evening, offering to bring dinner, and Joe doesn’t even see it until five or six hours later. He’s usually not at home, anyway – he’s at Nile’s studio. Most people are going to see the exhibition and assume that Joe did all his work and Nile created her sculptures based on it; that’s not untrue, but sometimes what comes out of the kiln requires changes to the starting point, to really uncover the organic transition from page to sculpture. He’s only had to start again from scratch with one piece.
He calls Nicky at nine o’clock the second day, having just caught up with his messages.
“Pronto,” Nicky answers the phone. “Joe, I hope you are calling because your day was going very well.”
“Uh, more or less.” Joe feels the instinct to dive into a detailed apology and holds it back: success. “When it’s this stage of a project I start to get a bit unreliable about checking my phone. I probably should have told you that before now.”
“The situation is not exactly comparable,” Nicky says, “but my mother once didn’t know if I was alive or dead for three days because Andy and I couldn’t charge our phones in West Papua. So believe me when I say, I am not going to judge because you did not answer my message for a few hours.”
“I am almost, almost,” Joe says, “prepared to forgive you about the football thing for that.”
“How about,” Nicky says, “you let me know when you have time, and if not, I will see you at the opening night.”
“That…would be great, you’re the best,” Joe says fervently. “Not to descend into cliché but this is, very much, me and not you.”
The conversation is a weight off his shoulders that he hadn’t realised was there. In the end he only sees Nicky once before the exhibition, which consists of cuddling for half an hour before Joe falls asleep. Instead he starts texting him pictures; small parts of the work he’s doing, the dubious meals he’s eating, once or twice, hand-written notes for Nicky, instead of typing them out. Nicky always responds, and he loves the hand-written notes so much he uses the heart emoji, which is so not-Nicky that Joe texts back are you sure nobody stole your phone just now? and laughs to himself while he does it.
“I don’t know how you’re in this good a mood when we’re forty-eight hours before everything has to be ready,” Nile says. “Oh – is it Nicky?”
“Maybe,” Joe says. “Could be more baby pictures from Noor.”
“It’s definitely Nicky,” Nile says, rolling her eyes, but she still looks pleased for him. “Come on. Let’s lay it out and double-check. We have to give the gallery the really final layout today.”
“I’m all yours,” Joe says, putting his phone in his pocket. “Is your brother going to make it after all?”
“He is!” Nile is clearly thrilled by this, but playing it down. “Not the opening, but his flight gets in while we’re still going. He’s never seen any of my exhibitions over here.”
“Then we better make sure this is your best yet.”
“Our best yet,” Nile says, staunchly, and they bump fists.
Nicky shows up to the exhibition opening night in black tie. Joe whistles, because he deserves it. Nicky grins at him, not at all shy despite the fact that Joe is pretty sure – after all this time – that this is not his natural state of dress. He has seen Nicky in too many identical t-shirts (and they’re not just the same t-shirt; Joe knows, because he’s also seen Nicky folding his laundry) to believe that.
“You look very good,” Joe says, kissing him. “Thank you.”
“Aren’t I supposed to be thanking you for the compliment?”
“I promise the pleasure is all mine.”
“I promise you it’s not,” Nicky says, looking Joe up and down. The only problem with this extremely flattering reaction is that Joe can’t just drag him off.
“Hey, Nicky,” says Nile, coming up. “Looking good.” They exchange a hug and kiss on the cheek.
“And yourself,” Nicky tells her, which is also true; Nile has broken out a beautiful backless gold lame dress, and has her braids in a towering updo. She looks incredible. Joe normally sees her in jeans and t-shirts with permanent clay stains, so it’s a bit of a change – but then she’d say the same thing about him.
Booker, Adèle, Andy, and Quỳnh show up early on. They’ve all risen to the occasion as well, with one exception – Adèle says that it’s her first chance to dress up and go out since they had Luc, so she’s taking advantage of it.
“Am I taking advantage of it?” her husband asks.
“I’m taking advantage of it for both of us,” she says.
The exception is Andy, who is wearing skinny jeans, a black t-shirt, and a leather jacket. It’s just about cool enough to pass, but Joe’s going to give her crap anyway; she would do the same.
“Andy,” he says. “I see you really dressed up for the occasion! I’m touched.”
“You should be,” Andy says. “These are the nicest clothes I own.”
“That isn’t even true,” says her wife.
“It is by my definition of ‘nice’,” Andy says. She turns to Nicky. “Nicky, I’m ashamed. You’ve let settled life bring you down to everybody else’s level.”
“Sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be someone else for a little while,” Nicky says. “It isn’t like Joe and Nile aren’t doing the same thing.”
“I like being myself,” Andy says. “Quỳnh likes it, too.”
“I just don’t expect anything else,” Quỳnh says, but fondly.
“Speaking of not being yourself, you want to pretend to be an art critic?” Nile asks. “And say vague but impressed-sounding things?”
“I do,” Andy says at once, and spends the next hour doing just that, as much with meaningful looks as actual words. It makes it a real struggle for Joe, talking to people who are actually here to review, inspect, or consider purchasing his work, to not laugh at inappropriate moments. Once he makes eye contact with Nile while Andy is looking particularly gravely at one piece, and they both nearly lose it.
He loses track of his friends quickly, though; the evening is going really well, and Joe is already confident that they’re going to get some commissions and exhibition invitations out of this. He checks in on Nicky once, but Nicky is absorbed in conversation with a parent from Joe and Nile’s after-school art class (the posh one) and shoos him back to his work.
It’s going so well, in fact, that when Booker snags him about an hour in, the news he’s carrying hits Joe like a freight train.
“Listen,” Booker says, rapidly and quietly. “Firstly, Adèle and I have to go very soon; our neighbors took the kids but we can’t impose on them for that long. Second…Toby’s here.”
“I know, I know,” Booker says. He’s got them so they’re facing a wall; Joe appreciates that, in the moment. He doesn’t know what his face is saying. “But we can take care of it – just say the word. I only wanted to ask what you wanted us to do.”
“Is something wrong?” Nicky has appeared at Joe’s other elbow, as if by magic. “You…look like you got some bad news.”
“There’s someone here I don’t want to talk to,” Joe says, shortly.
“Can I help?”
“Yes,” Booker says. “We –”
“No,” Joe says. “No. I’m going to take care of this. Please.” He looks at Nicky. “We’ll talk about it later, okay? But I need to do this.”
“Alright,” Nicky says, after a second. He squeezes Joe’s elbow. “But I’ll be right here.”
“I know you will,” Joe says, inexpressibly grateful.
Booker opens his mouth, then closes it. “Alright.”
Toby isn’t very hard to find. He’s cornered Nile, because of course he has. She looks about ready to punch him. The only surprise is that Andy or Quỳnh or both haven’t got there already.
“– he’ll just have to tell me that himself,” Toby is saying to Nile, sounding exactly like the smug git he is.
“Toby,” Joe greets him, very flatly.
Toby smiles. “Joe! It’s been so –”
“In case it wasn’t obvious,” Joe says, “from the fact that I have blocked you on every form of social media known to man, and avoided everywhere I know you go, and the fact that the last contact we had more than a year ago was me telling you I never wanted to speak to you again – you aren’t welcome here. This is my night and Nile’s. Get out.”
“The gallery is open to the public.” Toby hasn’t lost the smile. Joe hates that so much.
“Are you sure you want to start a scene like this? I’m just here to –”
Joe takes a step closer. “Leave. Now. Or I will have Andy and my other friends escort you out. I’m sure you remember Andy.”
Finally, Toby looks a little nervous. Joe would be insulted that’s what it’s taken, but Andy has a certain presence all of her own. “Don’t you think that’s cheap, hiding behind a w –”
Joe laughs, he can’t help it, because Toby thinks he’s so clever and that he knows all the right buttons to push. But with the benefit of all this time, he doesn’t, he doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t even know who Joe is, really. He only knows who Joe was when they were dating, which is someone Joe never wants to be again, and is increasingly certain he won’t be.
Toby looks angry now.
“You’re very pathetic,” Joe tells him. “And you’re causing a scene at my exhibition, so. For the last time. Go.”
“Just this way,” Nile says, bright and threatening, pointing to the main exit. Toby turns to look and everybody’s there, just out of reach; Booker and Adèle and Andy and Quỳnh and Nicky, all of them looking unimpressed. Nicky, in particular, is somehow managing to look calm but overbearing, larger than he really is; he’s learned that trick somewhere and Joe would like to know that story very much. One day.
Toby goes quietly, because, in the end, he’s the kind of person who is willing to use the threat of causing a scene to control other people, but can’t stand the thought of being seen to be responsible for one. Most of the other people present don’t notice anything.
“Hey,” Nile says, getting his attention. “Do you want to…do you need to go early?”
“Not a chance,” Joe says. “I’m not letting him take this away from me.”
“That’s the spirit,” Nile says gently. “Come on; there’s someone else who wants to talk to you.”
Joe sticks with Nile for the rest of the evening. It feels easier. At the end of it Nicky asks if Joe would like him to come home with him, and Joe says yes, very quickly. He doesn’t want anything else.
Nicky makes them both chamomile tea and they sit in Joe’s kitchen and sip it slowly, still mostly dressed in their frivolous best. Joe feels much more tired than the night, or even the last two weeks, can rationally explain. The post-stress crash; he knows it well from other events, but it’s usually not this intense.
“So,” Nicky says. “Booker filled me in a little. That was…the guy who was the absolute worst?”
“Yeah.” Joe sighs. “I honestly didn’t think he – he never tried to get in touch, after I threw him out. I made it pretty difficult, to be fair, I blocked him everywhere on the internet I could think of and I changed my phone number, but he knew where I lived. He could have tried to show up here and he didn’t. So tonight was…a surprise.” He grimaces. “I should have expected it, maybe. I don’t know.”
“You shouldn’t have to spend your life managing someone you don’t even ever want to see again,” Nicky says. “You don’t have to tell me tonight. Or ever, if you don’t want. But I am curious exactly why…he seemed very…insignificant.”
Joe rubs his forehead. “To me too. Tonight. But – I’m terrible at explaining this – he just…got in my head. It was always are you sure and have you considered, and he was always right and I was always wrong. It worked because he was funny and charming enough to pull it off. He’s probably doing it to someone else right now. It would be easy if he was obviously scary, or terrible. But he isn’t.”
Nicky takes Joe’s free hand. “That does explain a lot about why…about a lot of the things you need.”
“Unfortunately.” Joe shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore. Or ever.”
“Okay,” Nicky says. “There’s something else we should talk about, though.”
Joe frowns at him. “What?”
“You know I’m done with house-sitting in two weeks.”
“I…did know that.” In point of fact Joe has deliberately not thought about that, because he’s been so focused on the exhibition and because he hadn’t wanted to face the question of what happens next. “Have to say, I’m going to miss it. I’ve never had that much space in this city and I don’t think I ever will again.”
Nicky laughs. “No. Well, the thing is, after that, I’ve been offered an assignment that would take me to Iceland. For a month.”
Joe feels it first in the pit of his stomach; an awful sinking feeling. “I see.”
“I don’t think –”
“Because I don’t want you to,” Joe says, all in a rush. “I want you to stay here. Uh, with me, if that – if you wanted to do that. I mean, I’m not saying, going to Iceland for a month sounds pretty great but – I want you to come back. I want to have you here all the time, all the time you can be. Forever. You make everything in my life better. I never want to let that go.”
Weirdly, he knows that it was telling Toby to get lost tonight that gave him the confidence to say all that; he’s been so cautious this whole time, keeping Nicky at arm’s-length, that he wouldn’t have felt he had the right to ask him to stay. But now he’s asking anyway.
“No, no,” Nicky says just as urgently, clutching his mug. “That’s what I’m saying – that is, asking – when I get back. I am coming back. To London. To you. When I get back…what should I do? Should I look for somewhere to live, or…”
“I, uh.” Joe is overwhelmed, temporarily, the prospect of having exactly the thing he wanted somehow too much. “Yeah. Wait, that’s not an answer. Uh, yeah, let’s…look for somewhere a little bigger than here. Unless you like it here – I’m just thinking, you may have noticed, there’s a lot of art…stuff –”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Nicky says, grinning wider and wider, “yes.”
“Seriously,” Joe says, “you are going to have to get used to paintbrushes in places you weren’t expecting them.”
“Sounds very uncomfortable.” Nicky keeps a straight face when he says this; Joe doesn’t.
“I like all your stuff, Joe,” Nicky continues, reaching for his hand. “Even the uncomfortable bits.”
It is, unquestionably and probably forever, Joe thinks, the best thing anybody has ever said to him in his life.
“I like you,” he says, like he’s twelve.
Nicky smiles, and holds his hand a little tighter. “I love you too.”