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Nicky meets the most beautiful man in the world in his apartment building lobby at 7:26 on a Thursday morning. They’re both in a rush; Nicky needs to get upstairs and shower off his morning run before his shift and The Most Beautiful Man in the World is presumably also having a late start going off his haste in getting out the door. There’s a collision in the threshold of the one rickety elevator in their building as Nicky tries to get on and the other man tries to get off, sending Nicky sprawling on his ass as his hapless neighbor loses his grip on a stack of brightly colored flyers. They both swear under their breath and Nicky looks up, glaring. It hasn’t been a great morning thus far. Chicago’s taken on a humid heat over the last few days that make his morning run a sweaty and exhausting ordeal, even when though he’s been waking up earlier and earlier to beat the heat, and today he lost track of enough time trying to think about anything but how tired he was that he’s in actual danger of being late. So now he’s disgustingly sweaty, sleep deprived, and vaguely sore from where he hit the tile of the lobby. He’s not feeling particularly forgiving today.

Before he can say anything, or decide if saying anything is even worth it, his fellow resident turns to him and shoots him an apologetic smile. Nicky stops breathing for a split second. The other man has a beautiful smile. The other man has a beautiful face. He’s all cheekbones and eyes like liquid obsidian and that wide, easy grin that he shoots Nicky, bright and beautiful and just a bit sheepish. He’s never met this man in his life but the smile feels instantly familiar, like how Nicky thinks going home might feel for people who didn’t have to rip pieces off of themselves to fit through the front door, and he feels his own lips twitching up in response. Then, as he stares up at the most beautiful man he’s ever seen, Nicky remembers four things: that he really is disgustingly sweaty, that his lack of sleep is definitely not doing the dark circles under his eyes any favors, that he has yet to move from where he landed on his ass, and that liquid obsidian is just lava. He feels a hot rush of shame and scrambles to his feet as the other man spews a litany of apologies at him.

“I am so sorry, just totally not looking where I was going, let me grab these and the elevator’s all yours.” He’s got a nice voice, Nicky thinks, a little higher and raspier than he would have thought.

Nicky ducks into the elevator and presses his floor in an embarrassed rush, and it’s not until he’s unlocking his door does it occur to him that he really should have apologized and helped pick up flyers instead of fleeing like a guilty child. He sighs, irritated with himself, texts Nile to ask if he needs to do anything for youth and young adult program they both volunteer for other than show up for tonight’s meet-up, and throws himself into his shower while the water slowly warms up. The silver lining, he supposes, is that he’s never seen the man before and he’s probably never going to see him again.

The second time he sees The Most Beautiful Man in the World is similarly disastrous.

Nicky’s eating habits have become, to put it kindly, atrocious since moving to America. It’s at least in part because he’s just got so many more new and exciting options for horrible, artery-clogging foods here than he did in Nowhere, Italy where the nearest place to get food of any kind was the little grocery store that could be generously called “quaint” and where he was expected to eat at least one meal a day with his family. He’d had a bit more culinary freedom in seminary, but he’d at some point let his fear and self-recrimination overwhelm his appetite and had taken to eating significantly less than before. Austerity, he’d called it. America, on the other hand, has no compunctions about the glorious, terrifying abominations it deems edible.

Pineapple on pizza is at best a violation of the Geneva convention and an attack on Nicky personally, but it’s somehow become a comfort food he occasionally craves. He thinks it might be because while there’s no excusing the texture, nothing tastes better than spite; with every bite he can almost hear his father’s disgusted muttering. It makes him feel a certain kinship with the pineapple: two fruits alike in his father’s disgust. And because the only way to further insult the noble art of pizza was to buy it frozen instead of getting it hot and fresh out of the oven like God intended, Nicky, who is increasingly content with doing very little that God intends, gets to enjoy shitty, shitty comfort food from the sanctuary of his own shitty, shitty apartment.

Or at least he does when his bags don’t break open in the lobby.

He’s still staring down at his groceries (a frozen Hawaiian pizza, a two pack of Old Spice, a tin of Pepperidge Farms wafers because work has been stressful, a bag of frozen broccoli because he’d felt like he felt vaguely guilty about the wafers, a bag of flour that mercifully did not explode upon impact, and a Diet Coke that he’s honestly a bit afraid to pick up right now) like they’re misbehaving children when The Most Beautiful Man in the World bursts into the room. He’s being tugged along by two intimidatingly pretty women, one with long dark hair and the other with a earful of metal. All three are singing something Nicky thinks he recognizes from a Disney movie. None of them are on key, the song coming out joyously tuneless. The Most Beautiful Man in the World has one wrist in either woman’s grip as they pull him along and he makes a show of digging his heels in, leaning away from them. He tilts his head back to laugh as the long haired woman displays a particularly bold interpretation of what might have been intended as a falsetto and Nicky gets caught up staring in the perfect line of his throat. This is, of course, when the trio notices him.

There’s an awkward standoff where the singing abruptly cuts off and Nicky is looking at the three friends as they look at him, standing over a pile of groceries with his hands on his hips like a disappointed father. The Most Beautiful Man in the World is, unfortunately, still just as beautiful the second time around and Nicky is still a disaster. There’s a split second of silence before Nicky nods once at the trio in acknowledgment and then stoops to begin hastily picking up his groceries, hoping that none of them notice that his ears are going red. He gets it all up in record time, balancing everything precariously in his arms. When he straightens back up, they’re still looking at him and The Most Beautiful Man has his mouth open, just a tad, like he’s about to say something. It fills Nicky with a sudden and inexplicable panic and he nods again before making his escape. He ends up in the stairwell, which is just as well since their building only has the one elevator, and consigns himself to walking up five flights trying not to drop anything. He tries very hard not to think that maybe he won’t have to face the man he’s embarrassed himself in front of twice now because that seems to have jinxed him last time. It ends up not mattering.

The third time happens while Nicky is talking to Loretta.

Loretta is Loretta Lynn Hastings, a ninety-two year old former seamstress who had moved from New Hampshire to Chicago after her sister’s death. She liked whiskey, Blue Öyster Cult, and being single—she had, as she put it “finally left my no-good, lazy, cheating second husband after, and pardon my French, thirty-five years of pure fucking hell” a few years before her sister’s death. She liked to perch in the lobby’s sitting area, flipping through magazines and people watching. She loved it when people stopped to talk to her, so Nicky had made the effort to do so a few times, which had lead to him periodically sitting with her for an hour as she described her life in detail.

He always comes away from the conversations a bit sad. Loretta is an intensely interesting conversationalist—she’s charismatic enough to make even the smallest story an adventure to listen to and she’s lived a fascinating life. It’s just that she always gets a look in her eye when Nicky has to excuse himself and it reminds him that as far as he knows, it’s mostly just him and the Montgomery kids who stop and talk to her regularly with him being the only one who can reliably form complete, coherent sentences. Every so often when she talks about her ex-husband, the horrible second one, her mouth twists and he gets the feeling that she misses him, if only because then she’d have someone, even if it was someone awful. Nicky can…relate. When he’d left his home after the terrifying, enraging screaming match Nicky had gotten into with his father where his father had told him, essentially, that he wasn’t allowed into his childhood home anymore so he couldn’t corrupt his family’s souls and Nicky had yelled back that his father didn’t have a soul worth corrupting, he’d been proud. Even with everything it had lost him, he’d done the right thing for the right reason. And then at some point he realized that the downside to doing something for yourself was that sometimes you ended up without anything but yourself. It wasn’t that he had expected to immediately be swept off his feet by a handsome prince, but sometimes he looked around and wondered what point there was burning bridges only to be alone. Very, very occasionally, he wondered if it had really been so bad pretending he was a son his parents could want, if tamping down on that part of himself to keep the peace had really been so painful. It had, and he had no regrets about leaving, but every so often he sat in his little apartment and wished that there was someone beside him. Perhaps that was why he fixated so much on The Most Beautiful Man in the World, other than the obvious reasons. Nicky thinks if someone smiled at him the way he had that first day by the elevator for the rest of his life, he’d die happy.

Unfortunately, Nicky has catastrophic luck and the next time Nicky sees his crush is while Loretta has a death grip hand, a few tears trickling down her cheeks. She’d been talking about her first husband who had by all appearances been the absolute love of her life who had died tragically young. Every so often she gets emotional when telling Nicky about him, and while Nicky always vaguely panics when people cry next to him, he’s happy to hold her hand until she feels more centered. It’s a rare occurrence, enough so that Nicky doesn’t think anyone else has ever walked in on them even though they’re still just off to one side of the lobby. It makes a certain kind of sense that the person who keeps seeing Nicky at his absolute worst would be the first.

Nicky’s head jerks up automatically when he hears the ding of the elevator doors, he and The Most Beautiful Man noticing each other at the same time. The other man looks good, Nicky distantly notes. He’s always well-dressed; today he’s got on a dark green button down and the sort of stylish sunglasses Nicky would look like a steampunk convention escapee if he ever tried to wear. Nicky, on the other hand, is aware that he looks like he’s shaking down an old lady like a loan shark.

Nicky’s not totally sure what to do, which, story of his life. He’s aware that saying “I swear I’m not extorting this nonagenarian” has never made anyone sound less guilty, and blurting out that someone was grieving their dead husband while that person was in a vulnerable moment seems like what Nile would call a dick move. Instead, he gives the man a small, incredibly awkward wave and then turns back to Loretta, listening to the other man’s footsteps fade and then disappear and desperately praying that the next time they see each other Nicky might look, Heaven forbid, decent.

This does not happen.

Nicky isn’t sure whether The Most Beautiful Man in the World is new to the apartment building or if Nicky is just suddenly catching a lot of bad karma, but suddenly it seems like the other man is constantly in the building’s lobby when Nicky is. He’s there when Nicky chances a quick run to his mailbox after babysitting for the Montgomeries, blue and red finger paint splattered across his cheek and hair and streaked down his shirt from where he’d made the near-fatal mistake of underestimating how much havoc a three year old and a five year old can cause. He’s there when Nicky doesn’t check the weather before going on his morning run and ends up getting caught in a sudden burst of rain and has to trek through the lobby absolutely drenched, hair plastered to his face as he tries not to drip everywhere. He’s there multiple times in the week it takes the ridiculous sunburn Nicky manages to acquire thinking it might be nice to eat lunch outside to fade into something that makes him look less like a poorly-dressed tomato (his youngest sister, Mia, had created an email account behind their parents back and through some form of Gen X wizardry managed to track him down and at one point had written to him that she suspected part of the reason he’d stayed in the closet for so long was that it was dark enough that he wouldn’t burn, which was rich coming from the only other person in his family as beholden to sunscreen as he is). He’s there when Nicky gets roped into taking care of the Montgomery kids again and has to carry the younger one back upstairs while she screams her head off because on the way home from Nicky getting them from after-school care her brother had told her horses weren’t real and Nicky hadn’t been able to convince her otherwise. He still has no idea how the police were never called on that last one.

What makes it even worse is that about three weeks into The Most Beautiful Man in the World miraculously appearing to see Nicky be a constant disaster, Nicky learns his name. There’s a wall near the entrance of the church that the group Nicky volunteers with is housed in where people are allowed to put up flyers for local events. Nicky idly eyes it as he walks in one day, only to stop dead in his tracks when he sees a small black-and-white picture of the other man at the bottom left of one of them. Looking closer, the flyer’s advertising a gallery that features local artists, one of whom is Yusuf al-Kaysani. Nicky’s heart does something dramatic in his chest and for a delirious moment he thinks about going to the exhibit. Then he realizes that if he had a neighbor that was potentially a kidnapping loan shark and definitely a walking mess that started to randomly show up at his workplace, he’d be somewhere on the spectrum of confused and threatened. He settles for looking up the other man’s art on his phone after he’s done for the day. It’s a mistake. Before, Yusuf had been a very beautiful man with an amazing smile who had yet to try and have Nicky arrested. Now Yusuf is a very beautiful man with an amazing smile who creates works of art that Nicky feels like a wound. He’s absolutely projecting and he knows it, but he finds a series Yusuf has done where he’s painted empty bedrooms in monochrome cool colors and Nicky feels like he understands art, really understands it, for the first time in his life. He looks down at the small, pixelated image of “open spaces 3 (gouache on paper)” and thinks this is what I was supposed to feel all those years in seminary. Even more embarrassingly, he feels like maybe the art understands him back. It’s an absurd thought; sometimes the curtain is just blue, and the bedrooms just get painted because the artist is insanely talented and can make anything look heart-wrenchingly poignant. That doesn’t stop him from thinking about open spaces 3 the next time he’s laying in bed, feeling the loneliness seep into him.

*

Nicky meets meets The Most Beautiful Man in the World because he’s feeling slightly indulgent on his morning off and decides overpriced caffeine is in order.

He doesn’t usually go out for coffee, and when he does he usually doesn’t go so close to campus. The invisible convenience tax for exhausted students trying to get caffeine quickly is a pain in the ass, especially when he doesn’t even really like most of the cafes in that area. But once in a blue moon he’s in the area and decides to splurge just a little bit. There’s a specific coffee shop where he’s met the owner, a boisterous example of Chicagoans of Sicilian extract who likes to drag him into conversations where they end up speaking over each other in their respective native languages, and her wife, who has said perhaps ten words to Nicky in the times he’s met her. They’re two of his favorite people in the city.

The store is, unsurprisingly but disappointingly, already has a line that crawls nearly all the way out the door when Nicky walks in, pausing awkwardly under the string of rainbow-painted bells that hang in the doorway and jingle like a Christmas commercial when anyone so much as breathes at them. It’s not the worst thing in the world—there was nothing like the idle boredom of a coffee shop line to remind you that you should check your email at some point this week even though you just want to live in a blissful fantasy world where your bosses don’t contact you when you aren’t on the clock. As he moves forward, he looks behind the counter for Helena or Anya but sees neither. He does, however, vaguely recognize the barista working the cash register. She certainly recognizes him, giving him a smile that shows off her dimple charmingly and saying “the usual?” when he makes it to the front of the line.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” he says, taking out his wallet and handing her a ten dollar bill. He’s debating whether it would be polite or just horrendously awkward to ask her how her summer’s going when he hears his name. For a moment, he’s confused since there’s no way his drink’s already ready, and then he realizes her recognizes the voice. He turns to see Nile sitting at a table, grinning broadly and waving at him.

It shouldn’t actually be surprising to see Nile here; Nicky had mentioned it once or twice as the only place near campus he willingly spends any time. What Nicky feels perfectly justified being shocked by, however, is the fact that the rest of Nile’s table is filled up by The Most Beautiful Man in the World and The Most Beautiful Man in the World’s Similarly Pretty Friends, two of whom he recognizes, squeezed together awkwardly to fit five people at what barely counts as a four person table. He can feel his face freeze into an awkward almost-smile, half happiness at seeing Nile and half sudden existential dread. He takes a moment to consider just turning around and walking out of the store and telling Nile he didn’t see her, and then discards the thought. For one thing, he’d be leaving his coffee, and for another, that’s the sort of plan you enact before making eye contact with someone. Forcing his smile to look less like a frozen grimace and more like he’s actually happy to see her (which he is, under his brain screaming “abort, abort!” at him), he mumbles something about keeping to change to the barista and walks over to Nile’s table.

“Nile,” he says, and is happy to note that he sounds the way someone could reasonably expect a normal person running into a friend to sound, “you look suspiciously happy. Are your classes going that well?”

“Classes are classes,” Nile says dismissively like she knows she’s getting another 4.0 this semester. “I’m just happy to see you in the wild.”

“And I am happy to be seen,” Nicky lies. He figures there’s only so long he can spend pretending not to recognize anyone else at the table, so he turns and looks at Yusuf’s left eyebrow to avoid eye contact without seeming rude (which is very certainly a ship that has sailed, been ambushed in international waters, and sunk with no survivors) and says, “And, ah. I did not realize we had a friend in common.”

“Oh, do you two know each other?” says the only person Nicky hasn’t seen before, an older man with sandy blond hair and a short beard. He’s got a little grin on his face that Nicky thinks is a bit more shit-eating than the situation calls for, but maybe the man’s face just looks like that.

“They live in the same apartment building,” confirms the long-haired woman, “and I think they might have run into each other once or twice. Hi again, by the way.” Her voice is just a hair too innocent to actually be innocent, and Nicky tenses. He gets the distinct feeling that there’s a joke here he doesn’t understand. It would worry him, but Nile is genuinely one of the sweetest people he’s ever met and wouldn’t play into that unless someone really deserved it, so either he’s imagining it or he’s not but he deserves it. Instead, it just makes him feel out of place.

Nile saves him by running a list of introductions. The rest of the table apparently consists of Quỳnh (an art therapist who Nile did some sort of practicum for), her wife Andy (a security consultant), Booker (one of the University of Chicago’s many librarians), and lastly Yusuf, who goes by Joe, and who was apparently a T.A. for one of Nile’s classes last semester.

“And this,” she says, “is my friend Nicky who volunteers at Youth Leadership with me and teaches me how to talk shit in Italian so people can’t tell when we’re talking about them. I think I’ve mentioned him a couple times.”

“You have!” the one who was introduced as Andy says. “What a small world it is we live in.”

“Please ignore my poorly socialized friends,” Yusuf—or, no, Joe—tells Nicky, whose heart gives an embarrassing little leap, “they like to pretend they’ve never met another human before for fun.”

“And profit,” Nile says serenely. Booker entirely fails to hide a snort and turns his head to out the cafe’s window when Joe turns to glare at him.

“It’s more than alright. And it’s nice to finally meet you.” Nicky’s whole I think I managed to fall halfway in love with you through your smile and your art deal is probably not visible from space only because Nicky has never been particularly expressive, which is something he’s never fully appreciated until now.

“You too,” Joe says. “So, you volunteer with Nile? What’s that like?” He leans forward in his chair like he’s actually interested in what Nicky gets up to in his free time. It’s flattering, really.

“It is…rewarding. I enjoy being able to speak with the children we work with. They have the most interesting perspectives.” It’s his usual spiel, and he’s saved from having to deliver the entire “we must help children grow into kind adults so they can in turn raise and nurture kind children” speech by one of the workers swooping by the table to drop off his drink. It’s not standard practice here, which means he must have missed them calling his name. He turns, stumbling over an apology. The person who brought his drink over—the girl who was working the register—just shoots him a finger gun and she shuffles back behind the counter.

“Come here often?” Quỳnh asks, tilting her head slightly.

“I’m friends with the owners, so I stop by on occasion,” Nicky tells her.

“Oh, hey, so are we.” Andy says, then juts her chin up at Joe. “Joe here did a portrait for their wedding.”

“Oh! I’ve seen that one.” He has; it’s a beautiful piece. In a sudden fit of either bravery or insanity, Nicky adds, “I must admit, I have seen some of your art before. I saw a flyer for a gallery you were in and looked it up. You are very talented.”

Joe apparently interprets this in a charitably non-stalkerish way and smiles at him. “Why, thank you kindly. Did you like any pieces in particular?”

Nicky swallows. This feels like a test, even though if Joe’s nice enough to ignore everything he’s seen Nicky do up until this point he’s probably also nice enough to not to hold it against Nicky if he picks the wrong thing. “I liked open spaces best, I think. The bedrooms.” Joe’s eyes widen a fraction and then slip back into pleased half-circles as his smile widens. If there was a wrong answer to be had, Nicky has apparently managed to avoid it.

He’s startled by the loud squeal of a chair being pushed back as Andy stands up. “Alright, Q and I have to get back to work before one or both of our bosses finds out how much time we actually spend here.”

“Oh man, yeah, time really flies.” Nile also rises, patting down her pockets to make sure she has everything and turning to Booker. “You’re still helping me find references for my midterm, right?”

“I most certainly still am,” Booker replies as he pushes himself away from the table. “Hey, Nicky, Joe’s been thinking about getting into volunteering with kids, you guys should talk about that while you finish your drink.”

“I’m always happy to discuss our work?” Nicky says. He didn’t intend for it to come out as a question, but he’s confused enough by the mass exodus that he can’t really help it.

“Thank you for that, Book,” Joe says, smile tightening a fraction. “Your help is always so, so appreciated.”

They leave quickly, Nile bumping shoulders with Nicky and promising to text him tonight about program scheduling, and then Nicky is alone with Joe who, for all the strangeness of his friends, seems genuinely interested in Nicky’s volunteer work. So Nicky steals Nile’s vacated seat and fills him in. This, at least, he can talk about without embarrassing himself.

“We try to promote unity and understanding in children and young adults,” he finishes with. “We want to create a third space, somewhere where the kids can meet people they never would otherwise. If you’re really interested, we’re always happy to have more volunteers.” And also maybe then Joe would see Nicky being more or less competent at something.

Joe nods, chewing on the inside of his cheek, and then puts his elbows on the table and leans in. Nicky mirrors the action without meaning to, bringing them close enough that their foreheads are maybe three inches apart and Nicky can pick out the freckles on Joe’s nose.

“I’m going to say something that’s going to make me sound like an asshole,” Joe tells him in a low voice, “but I’m not really sure how comfortable I’d be volunteering in a Christian organization. You and Nile both seem like you do amazing work, but I’ve had some, ah, unpleasant experiences with it before.”

“That only makes you an asshole if I’m also an asshole for saying I understand completely,” Nicky tells him, “and then either I have no room to judge you or there’s no problem in the first place. I left the church before I moved to America. As much as I think we do good work, and as grateful as I am to be able to be part of it, I realize that the affiliations with Christianity can deter certain people. Most of the children who identify as queer come with friends rather than approaching us themselves, for example. I often wonder if I would feel comfortable turning to them if I needed support, and the answer is not always yes. There are pushes to be more openly interfaith but,” Nicky shrugs, “we meet in a church. We are under a Christian banner, regardless of whether or not we mean to be, but I often think that’s something that not many of the volunteers who are still practicing truly grasp.”

Joe nods, a tension Nicky hadn’t noticed in him draining out of his shoulders. “It can be difficult to make people who have been raised in the ‘normal’ religious groups understand that not everyone sees things the same way they do,” he agrees. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you leave the church?”

Nicky doesn’t mind the question, but that doesn’t mean he has a good answer. There are many things he could say that would be true—I felt like an invader in my own home, I woke up one day and realized that if I spent the rest of my life pretending then the rest of my life was going to be very short, I grew angry at being continually told to hate myself as I am—but those are all a bit…strong. What he says instead is, “I was tired of watching people create scapegoats instead of blaming atrocities on the people who had actually committed them, and I could not stomach the idea of dedicating my life to it. I do not necessarily call myself an atheist, but I also don’t hold with any religion at the moment.”

“At the moment, huh?” Joe asks, eyes shining. “Got a sampler platter of faiths lined up for later?”

Nicky snorts. “No. I am comfortable as I am. But seven years ago I was training to be a priest and now here I am, a faithless sodomite who believes in such Satanic practices as evolution and birth control, so who can say?”

“You were training to be a priest? No, sorry, that’s rude. I shouldn’t sound surprised.”

Nicky leans back slightly and slides his eyes to stare at his hands, folded together on the table. “No, you’re fine. That one tends to shock people. And yes, I was almost ready for ordination when I left. I do not know that I would have made a particularly good priest, but I suppose enough of the instinct remains that I ended up with Youth Foundation.”

“What? You would have been an amazing priest. You’re very…” Joe’s voice trails off and he coughs once. “I’m glad you left if it was making you miserable, but you would have been fantastic.”

He sounds very certain. Nicky wishes he could bottle that surety for when questions like am I actually helping anyone or just indoctrinating vulnerable children to suit my personal sense of morals? pop up as he tries to go to sleep.

“That is exceptionally kind of you. But that is enough about me, I think. Please tell me about yourself.”

Joe, as it turns out, is as interesting as he is beautiful. He also was originally born out of the country, his family moving from the Netherlands to San Antonio when he was five and then to Chicago when he was twelve. He has two sisters, both younger. He likes to focus on Islamic art in the classes he has any degree of control over and Nicky can tell immediately he’s the student’s favorite teacher just from the way he describes his subject matter. He works mostly in charcoal and watercolor but likes just about everything he’s ever tried except welding.

“Burned the shit out of my arm,” he tells Nicky ruefully. “It healed up fine but my family has yet to let me forget about it. I’m not allowed to so much as use the oven without one of them giving me shit for it.”

He’s easy to talk to, even though a mix of desperate attraction and nervousness is twisting through Nicky’s stomach. He doesn’t realize how long they’ve been seated at the little table, heads bent together, until he looks down at his phone and realizes his shift starts in fifteen minutes.

“I am so sorry,” he tells Joe as he hurriedly pushes all the chairs back in and swipes over the table with a napkin. “I should have checked the time sooner.”

“It’s fine, I’m a very distracting man,” Joe says generously and grins when it forces a laugh out of Nicky. “I had fun, though. We should meet up again for coffee sometime, I think you and Quỳnh would get along in truly terrifying fashion.”

“I look forward to your terror, then,” Nicky says. And then, because he’s come this far, “I get off work at seven. You’re free to come over afterwards. I’d like to hear more about your classes. I can make you coffee, if you want, but it won’t be as good as it is here.”

Joe looks slightly stunned for a moment and then, just as Nicky feels icy panic beginning to form in his chest, smiles and says “that sounds great. Let’s swap numbers and you can text me when you’re home.”

Nicky is only sure that he does not actually, literally fly to work because he feels like someone would mention it if he had. His shift passes in a blur of Adobe Acrobat heroically choosing not to crash on his ancient computer as he tries to finish digitizing a batch of theses and then, suddenly, it’s 7:49 and he’s standing in front of his own door, realizing he’s he’s about to text Joe to let him know to come over. He has a brief moment where he thinks about canceling—Hey, sorry about earlier, I was living in a fantasy world where we were in the same league. Embarrassing, right? Let’s just forget the whole thing.—but, well. Nicky didn’t give up just about everything to be able to openly go after the things he wants just to not go after the thing he wants the most. He fires off a text letting Joe know he’s back and giving him his apartment number and then goes inside to shove his dirty clothes hamper into his closet and panic in the safety of his own room.

There’s a knock on the door about two minutes later, and when it swings open Joe’s there, smiling. Nicky smiles back and then steps out of the doorway to let him pass.

“I wasn’t sure if you would actually want coffee or not,” Nicky tells him as Joe slips his shoes off and places them neatly next to Nicky’s, “so I haven’t actually made any yet. I’m happy to get a pot going if you feel deprived, though.”

“If I’m being completely honest here, I mostly came to see you again,” Joe tells him.

“Only mostly?” Nicky asks because it’s the only thing he can think of to say. His heart is pounding and there’s sweat forming on his palms like he’s a teenager again and it would be awful except somehow Joe looks like he might be in the same boat.

“Hey, I’m trying not to come on too strong here.” Joe’s still smiling, but there’s a hesitance to it and Nicky realizes that this is an out. This is the moment where he can back away and turn Joe down gently, if he’s so inclined.

He isn’t. He really, really isn’t. Nicky swallows and thinks about Joe tilting his head back to laugh, about the way he talks with his hands, about open spaces 3. He takes a step forward.

“Come on as strong as you like,” he says, and leans in. Joe meets him half way.

*

It’s hot enough that Nicky almost regrets spending the last hour working up a sweat. Almost, he thinks, tilting his head to look at the steady rise and fall of Joe’s chest, but not quite.

“Do you still want a coffee?” Nicky asks him, low and serious and just loud to be heard over the valiant clacking of his AC unit.

Joe looks over at him, face incredulous for a bare second before breaking out into that perfect smile. “Can I take you up on that one in the morning?” His voice is hoarse and Nicky shudders as he remembers why.

“You’re very forward, Mr. al-Kaysani, to be inviting yourself over for the night. How fortunate that I like you enough to allow it.” Nicky rolls his shoulders. The sheets below him are still marking by cooling sweat and rumpled enough to press folds into Nicky’s back in a vaguely uncomfortable way, but he’s still basking in the glow that seems to surround him and Joe. His bed, with it’s squeaking frame and its mattress slowly caving in on itself, is the only place he ever wants to be again as long as Joe’s there, lying so close to him that if Nicky moves his pinky a millimeter he’ll be brushing the skin of Joe’s wrist.

Nicky moves his pinky a millimeter. Joe grabs Nicky’s hand and brings it up to his mouth to brush his lips along the back of it in retaliation. “Very fortunate indeed. I appear to be a very lucky man.”

“Mm. I think I’m the lucky one.” Nicky lets his eyes slip closed. “I would say I’m surprised you even noticed me, except that I managed to make a fool out of myself in front of you a truly impressive number of times. ”

The bed shakes and it takes Nicky a minute to realize that it’s because Joe’s laughing.

“What?” he asks, propping himself up on an elbow to frown down at his bedmate. “What’s funny?”

“Nicky,” Joe said around a mouthful of mirth, eye glittering like the night sky, “I think anyone would notice the most beautiful man in the world living two floors away from them.”

What? “What?”

Joe laughs again and then gestures up at Nicky with a lazy wave of his hand. “Well, I mean, when you nearly run someone over coming out of an elevator and then you look down at them and you realize he’s a Roman statue brought to life with eyes like glass, you kind of sit up and take note, you know? Beauty demands an audience.” When Nicky continues to just stare dumbly down at him, Joe’s chuckling trails off and he averts his eyes. It’s… shy, almost. “And then you see him a couple more times and he’s got the most interesting facial expressions, and every time you see him from a new angle some new detail about him just pops out and if you’re an artist—which you are in this scenario—you think wow, I could draw him for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. Also, it also turns out he’s a genuinely nice person who carries groceries for people and sits with the old woman in the lobby who just wants to have someone to talk to. And, uh.” Joe worries at his bottom lip with his teeth, sucks in a breath and says, “And then you actually get to talk to him and he’s still gorgeous and kind and every time he smiles all you can do is wonder what it tastes like and you realize that yeah, you’re talking to the most beautiful man in the history of the world.”

Nicky is not the most beautiful man in the world, even if Joe were somehow excluded from the competition. Nicky is a sentient nose with strong opinions on the proper usage of turn signals despite not owning a car. He forms lasting, one-sided feuds with cooking blogs who group their recipes into categories he doesn’t agree with. He has been reliably and lovingly informed that he looks either like a serial killer or a dad awkwardly trying to bond with his teenage children with no in between. Nicky wouldn’t be the most beautiful man in the world if he was the only living human being left in existence. For Joe, with his midnight curls and his ridiculous starlit eyes and his easy smile, to tell him he was? Nicky has to be hallucinating. It’s the only thing that makes sense, because the other option is that Joe just has bad taste, which seems a precarious flaw for an artist. He frowns harder.

“Nicky,” Joe says, face slipping away from mirth and settling into something more serious, “look, if I’m reading this wrong, all you have to do is tell me—”

“I’m not the most beautiful man in the world,” Nicky interrupts, confusion clipping his words so that they come out sharper than he intends. “You are.”

The air conditioning unit continues to click as Joe stares at him for a moment and then bursts out laughing again. "Wait, that was your issue? Shit, Nicky, I thought you were going to tell me you find it unforgivably rude to tell someone that they’re beautiful and that you were throwing me out.”

“It’s not rude, who would think it was rude? It’s just incorrect,” Nicky tells him.

“Look, I don’t know that much about Italy outside of art history trivia, it could have been a cultural thing.” Joe winks at him. “And it’s absolutely correct.”

“It is not.”

“Is so. I should warn you, I’m prepared to keep this argument going at least as long as you are.”

Nicky sniffs. “Unlikely. I’ve been known to argue in my sleep. You may as well concede now and save us both the trouble.”

“Hm. I don’t think I will, actually. But just to double check: you’re not kicking me out over my faultless argument that you are, in fact, the most beautiful man in the world?” Even as he says it, Joe’s settling back into Nicky’s thin, scratchy sheets like he knows the answer, which he probably does. Nicky’s never in his life been this happy before. There’s no way it’s not shining out of him like a beacon. There’s no way Joe doesn’t know what he’s doing to him just by existing.

He sighs and shifts to throw an arm over Joe’s stomach, which Joe immediately grabs to drag Nicky until he’s half sprawled over his chest. It feels a little like destiny, the way they fit together perfectly in Nicky’s narrow bed. “Oh, it’s an incredibly faulty argument, but I did promise you coffee.”