Joe’s phone buzzes at precisely five minutes after eleven in the morning on December 28, when he is awake but has not yet persuaded himself to leave the bed, and he knows who it’s going to be before he looks at the screen. There’s no way Booker would be up before noon, Nile’s visiting her family in the US, Andy will never call when she could send a series of bafflingly cryptic texts instead, and Quynh still somehow utterly refuses to use phones at all. Whereas Nicky is in the country, willing to call when appropriate, and, disgusting morning person that he is, has undoubtedly been awake for hours already, but waiting patiently out of respect for Joe’s ‘no calls before eleven on days off unless it’s an absolute emergency’ rule.
“Buongiorno Nicolò,” Joe says.
“Madainn mhath,” Nicky says, because in addition to being a disgusting morning person, he’s a masochist who’s attempting to learn Scottish Gaelic. “Did I wake you?”
“Nope, all good. What’s up?”
“Would you mind if we get together at yours today instead of mine?”
“No problem,” Joe says, sitting up in bed and glancing around the flat. No, it’s still in decent shape from when everyone was over on Boxing Day, no need for frantic tidying.
“And could I use your shower while I’m there?”
“Sure. Something wrong at your place?”
“Thank you. My boiler died last night, and there is apparently no hope of having it replaced before the first week of January,” Nicky sighs.
“Shit. And you still don’t have an electric shower.”
“No. I could heat water on the hob and in the kettle for the bath, but-”
“Your bathroom is freezing when the radiator isn’t out of commission.” Joe shudders, thinking of the exceptionally draughty window in the bathroom of Nicky’s generally draughty Victorian flat. Joe normally doesn’t mind the chill, because it provides an excellent excuse for huddling together under a blanket on Nicky’s couch, but the idea of Nicky shivering there by himself when it’s even colder than usual is unbearable. “Your whole flat must be freezing. Nicky, forget just hanging out today, come stay with me until it’s fixed,” Joe says.
“That’s very kind,” Nicky says, serious and sincere, like he didn’t let Joe stay with him for the better part of a month last year, when Joe had to be out of his old shared flat three weeks before the new place was available.
“But where would I sleep? You still don’t have a couch,” Nicky points out. This is true. Joe has, in the main room of the new place, two very nice armchairs, which are great for sitting in but not really optimal for sleeping in, and a giant bed. The flat is technically a one-bedroom, not a studio, but Joe works from home and decided shortly after moving in that segregating work from not-work was more important than segregating sleep from not-sleep, and then he leaned into that choice by buying an enormous bed that wouldn’t fit into the bedroom. With a bolster and a stack of cushions at one end, the huge bed does double-duty as lounge furniture, so he never bothered buying an actual couch.
“Sleep in the bed with me, it’s not like there isn’t room,” Joe says, because he hasn’t had any coffee yet and apparently his brain is not awake enough to think through the implications of that offer. Because Nicky is a disgusting morning person, and a masochist trying to learn Gaelic, and he’s also Joe’s best friend who Joe is maybe, possibly, slightly secretly hopelessly in love with. And Joe has just invited him to share his bed for probably at least a week. Nicky hesitates, long enough for Joe to realise what he’s done and start panicking a bit.
“…Are you sure you don’t mind?” Nicky says finally. “I don’t want to impose, I have a hot water bottle and plenty of blankets, it’s really just the shower that’s-”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Joe interrupts, because his self-preservation instinct is nothing in the face of the need to make sure Nicky is warm and comfortable. “Mia casa es tua casa, mi amico,” he adds, just to hear Nicky’s adorable snort at the shamelessly incorrect mingling of Italian and Spanish.
“One day you’re going to say something like that to someone who does not know you’re doing it on purpose, and then where will you be, mo ghràidh?” Nicky asks.
Mo ghràidh. Nicky’s been saying that to him a lot lately, and Joe has no idea what it means, because Nicky won’t tell him or spell it and Gaelic orthography is far too opaque for Joe to have any hope of looking it up based on the sounds alone.
“I’ll just claim it’s some transitional dialect no one has ever heard of,” Joe says. “Catalan and Occitan are unholy mashups of French and Spanish, why shouldn’t there be one for Spanish and Italian?”
“Please say that to Booker, but only when I am there to witness it,” Nicky says.
“So you can rescue me from the inevitable murderous Gallic rampage?”
“Of course, but also so I can laugh at you until the last possible moment. Remind me, what did you say about Genoese?”
“A beautiful union of Italian and Portuguese,” Joe says promptly.
“And why is Genoese a ‘beautiful union’ while Catalan and Occitan are ‘unholy mashups’?”
Because Genoese is yours, Joe thinks, and everything that is yours is beautiful.
“I don’t make the rules,” is what Joe says out loud. “So, see you at one? Or you can come earlier if you want, no reason to sit there freezing on my account.”
“No, one is fine, I need to pack a bag if I’m staying for a few days. Is there room in your fridge? I have some leftovers that need to be eaten, and I was going to make minestrone for you for dinner tonight.”
“Alla genovese, with the pesto?”
“Alla genovese, with the pesto,” Nicky confirms, and Joe can hear the smile in his voice.
“So what you’re saying is, you’re bringing food you made before, and promising to make me more food, and somehow you think that could be an imposition and not me getting the better end of the deal?”
Nicky makes the quiet little sound that he always makes when he thinks Joe is being too nice to him but also thinks it would be rude to argue the point, and Joe can picture the corresponding twist of his lips perfectly, and he kind of wants to crawl through the phone and kiss the expression off Nicky’s face.
“There’s plenty of room in the fridge, bring whatever you need,” Joe says instead.
“Okay. I’ll see you soon. Thank you, Joe. Really.”
After they hang up, Joe showers, and gets out extra towels for Nicky, and changes his bedding. He puts on the set that Nicky gave him when he first got this bed, lovely deep blue sheets with pillowcases and a duvet cover in bright swirls of aqua and teal and green that look like the sea, because Nicky knows he doesn’t like boring bedding. While he’s doing it, Joe tries very hard not to think about how Nicky will look against these sheets, all loose limbs and sleep-mussed hair, and fails completely.
So Nicky comes over, with a bag of his clothes and other personal things and a much bigger bag of food, including a jar of the chocolate tahini from the Mediterranean supermarket that he definitely only bought because Joe likes it. They have a normal day of talking and watching television and eating and drinking. And Joe almost forgets about Nicky staying over, until he starts yawning, and asks about the shower instead of checking the weird holiday bus timetable to see about getting home. Joe shows him how to work the shower, and then spends fifteen minutes trying very hard not to think about Nicky wet and naked and running soapy hands all over his body just a few metres away, and then another ten after the water shuts off trying very hard not to think about having a freshly scrubbed Nicky in his bed tonight.
Things stay normal for a little longer after Nicky returns; Joe reads a bit of his book while Nicky does his Gaelic practice on Duolingo, muttering to himself about why the recording sounds like it has a th sound in it when Gaelic isn’t supposed to have dental fricatives.
“Explain to me again why you’re learning this language?” Joe asks him.
“Because it is one of the native tongues of my adopted homeland,” Nicky says.
“We live in Edinburgh,” Joe points out. “No one speaks Gaelic in Edinburgh. If anything you should be learning Scots.”
“Yer bum’s oot the windae,” Nicky says, pronouncing each word carefully and precisely, and grins at Joe’s laughter.
“I like it because it’s hard. Like Arabic was,” Nicky adds, serious again. Joe remembers when he was learning Arabic; remembers how frustrated he got sometimes, but more importantly, how he absolutely glowed with pride when he got something right and Joe told him so. It’s probably a good thing Joe wasn’t, or at least wasn’t aware of being, hopelessly in love with Nicky at that point; right now he definitely wouldn’t survive all those sweet smiles, or Nicky staring intently at his mouth while he demonstrated pronunciations, or the way Nicky latched onto calling him 'habibi' because he liked the sound of the word.
“It feels more meaningful because it is not easy,” Nicky continues. “And I like the idea of going to the places where people do speak it, and don’t expect that anyone else will make the effort, and making the effort.”
Joe smiles at him, and he knows it’s a ridiculously besotted smile but he can’t help himself, especially not when Nicky does his little you’re-being-too-nice mouth-twitch.
“Be honest, you also want to impress sexy tourists by reading the Gaelic signs out to them,” Joe jokes to cover the lump in his throat. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t pronounce it right, Nicky, the tourists won’t know.”
A strange look crosses Nicky’s face then, just for a moment, like Joe’s said something wrong.
“Maybe it’s not the tourists I want to impress,” Nicky says, and Joe should be responding with a line about hot highlanders or something but he can’t bring himself to do it.
“You don’t need someone’s auntie in the western isles to give you her shortbread recipe, your shortbread is already perfect,” Joe says instead, and then flees to the bathroom feeling like an idiot.
Nicky has the news on when he comes back, and they have a normal conversation about that, and then Nicky starts yawning again, eyes shrunk to narrow slits.
“You need to sleep,” Joe says.
“It’s okay, I know it’s still early for you, I don’t want to interfere with your routine,” Nicky says.
“And I don’t want to keep you up. It’s fine, I’m just going to read a bit, I can go in my office if the light bothers you.”
“It doesn’t, and you said you weren’t setting foot in there until January fifth. You even moved the plants out.”
Of course, of course Nicky recognises the house plants that are usually in Joe’s office but currently tucked into temporary homes out here, so he wouldn’t have to go into the office to water them while he’s off work. It’s such a tiny, irrelevant detail, in no way romantic, and it still makes Joe’s heart flutter in his chest, because he’s absolutely hopeless.
“The light doesn’t bother me, I promise,” Nicky says. “I’ll go brush my teeth, then.”
He goes, and while he’s in the bathroom, Joe adjusts the reading lamp by one of the armchairs to make sure it doesn’t hit the bed. The bed that Nicky is going to be sleeping in. With Joe.
Nicky has actually slept on Joe’s giant bed plenty of times before. But Nicky nodding off at the end of a long night, fully dressed, amidst the heap of cushions while the thing is in couch-mode is not at all the same as Nicky, emerging from the bathroom in boxers and an old t-shirt with an obviously hand-sewn patch on one shoulder, slipping between the sheets with a soft ‘good night’. And not just any old t-shirt, Joe realises, heart stuttering again.
It’s the t-shirt Joe brought him back from a holiday with Booker in the French Riviera years ago. It says ‘I’m friends with someone who visited NICE, Côte d'Azur’ but the words ‘I’m’ and ‘NICE’ are in big bold white letters, while the rest of the text is much smaller and in a shade of green with deliberately poor contrast against the blue background, so at a glance it just looks like it says ‘I’m NICE’. Booker had been appalled when Joe bought the thing but Nicky had loved it, as Joe had known he would. He’d worn it all the time for a good two years, and been gutted when it got snagged and ripped on a gorse shrub during a ramble down an unfortunate choice of trail in Holyrood Park. Only he didn’t get rid of it then, like Joe had assumed. No, apparently instead he mended it and started wearing it to sleep. And now he is wearing it to sleep in Joe’s bed. Bloody buggering fuck.
Joe wasn’t always hopelessly in love with Nicky. He’d had a bit of a crush when they first met as post-graduate students at the University of Edinburgh, because the man was funny and sweet and gorgeous and Italian accents have never not been sexy, but it was just a small thing, a shallow stirring of possibility. He’d put it aside without any real difficulty or angst when he found out that Nicky was trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a boyfriend back in Italy. When Nicky eventually broke things off with the guy from home, Joe was seeing a charming Algerian medical student, and by the time they were both single simultaneously, the initial crush had long since faded away, replaced by a much stronger friendship.
They had become best friends, and for years it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might ever want anything else with Nicky. Until the day he was on a lunch date with someone new, with plans to meet Nicky afterwards to watch some film they both wanted to see that had just come out on Netflix. Joe’s date was perfectly pleasant and attractive and saying all the right things, and Joe realised, with a very poorly timed burst of clarity, that he couldn’t wait to get rid of the guy and go see Nicky. He realised, too, that he was disappointed every time his phone buzzed and it wasn’t Nicky calling or texting, that he had kind of hated the last two guys Nicky had dated without being able to articulate a single thing that was wrong with either of them, that more often than not Nicky was the last thing he thought about before falling asleep and the first thing he thought about upon waking up. And, frankly, Nicky was still gorgeous, and his accent was still stupidly sexy, and Joe’s life was never actually going to be complete if he didn’t find out what Nicky’s mouth felt like against his.
But they were friends. Not just friends, he’d always hated how dismissive that sounded, but friends-without-benefits, friends without any romantic or sexual aspect to the relationship, for years by then. Joe had even admitted to his initial crush at one point, when they were both a little tipsy, and Nicky had admitted to having a bit of a crush on Joe right around the time he broke up with the guy back home, and they’d laughed about it, proper easy laughter, no tinge of regret. Nicky had said he was glad they didn’t date back then, because rebounds never lasted and he never managed to stay friends with his exes. And Joe had said he was glad too, because he wouldn’t trade Nicky’s friendship for anything, and that was true then and it’s still true now. So, basically, Joe is fucked, in all ways except the one way he would really like.
Joe stopped attempting to date other people once he realised his heart belongs to Nicky, and Nicky isn’t actually seeing anyone right now either, but if there’s any good way of letting your long-term platonic life partner know that you suddenly want to drop that ‘platonic’ part, Joe has yet to figure out what it is. He wants Nicky, desperately, but the only thing that could be worse than not having Nicky as a lover would be losing him as a friend.
So Joe sits there, trying to read his book like the love of his life isn’t curled up in his bed, breathing softly into his pillows, simultaneously a couple of metres away and infinitely out of reach.
Joe has always liked having something to hold as he sleeps. Since he was small he’s had a toy monkey called Sinbad that he cuddles at home, and when he’s in a hotel room or somewhere else without Sinbad, he’ll substitute a pillow. He usually hides Sinbad when other people come over, but he doesn’t bother when it’s Nicky. Nicky had come round once way back when they were still students, when Joe hadn’t been expecting company, and seen Sinbad on Joe’s bed.
“You hold him and you sleep better, yes?” Nicky had asked, after Joe stumbled through a series of embarrassed excuses.
“Then I am glad you have him,” Nicky had said, perfectly serious. “Why should you be ashamed of something that harms no one and brings you comfort?” (Honestly, in retrospect, Joe’s not really sure how he was ever not hopelessly in love with Nicky.)
So even with Nicky there, when Joe finally gives up on pretending to make any progress with his book, he goes to sleep – on the far side of the mattress, with enough room for probably two more people between them because the bed really is huge and of course Nicky has scrunched himself up at the edge, occupying as little space as possible – clutching Sinbad.
The thing is, when Joe wakes at some point later in the night, it’s not Sinbad he’s holding, it’s Nicky. For all the space they had between them earlier on, they’re now spooned together, Nicky’s back to Joe’s front, and Joe has his arm draped over Nicky’s chest. Joe can smell Nicky’s shampoo and the base of his neck is so close to Joe’s mouth that Joe could lick it. Nicky is warm and solid against him and Joe is pretty sure he has never in all his thirty-odd years woken up to anything that feels half as good as having Nicky in his arms like this.
He should let go. He should absolutely let go and roll over and put some space between them again, because it’s not fair, clinging to Nicky like this while he’s asleep and couldn’t object if he wanted to, while he has no idea that Joe wants to cling to him like this forever. But it feels so right, so lovely and cozy and perfect, and Joe dozes off again before he can talk himself into pulling away.
The next time he wakes up, it’s daylight and Joe’s alone in the bed. Nicky’s sitting in one of the armchairs, reading a book, and across the room Joe can see the makings of coffee and what appears to be French toast laid out on the counter, all ready to go except for the big frying pan that's impossible to get out of the cupboard without making a racket. The big frying pan that Joe pretty much never uses himself and only bought, like the nice knives and just about everything else in the kitchen that isn’t crap Joe’s had since uni, so Nicky wouldn’t have to sigh his despairing sighs every time he cooks at Joe’s place.
Nicky looks up and smiles, one of his rare big, full smiles, which are a lot to handle at the best of times and definitely entirely too much for Joe to cope with when he’s just woken up and trying to decide if he’d dreamt having Nicky in his arms before. Joe waves a hand at him, feeling dazed.
“Sbeh el khir, Yusuf,” Nicky says, soft and subdued, and this is one of the things Joe’s loved about Nicky for much longer than he’s been in love with Nicky: for all that he is very much a morning person himself, he understands completely that not everyone is. He’s never obnoxiously perky while Joe’s still half-asleep, never expects engagement before Joe’s ready, never takes offense at Joe’s tendency towards pre-coffee taciturn grumpiness.
“Buongiorno,” Joe says, and waves again, this time vaguely towards the kitchen counter. “You made things?”
Nicky nods and says, “You bought me a new whisk,” because neither of them bother to pretend that the upgraded kitchen utensils aren’t for him.
“You kept looking at the old one like it insulted your nonna,” Joe says, and Nicky smiles at him again, and Joe is honestly not sure if this is the best morning ever or the most difficult one.
They hadn’t planned to spend today together before Nicky’s boiler broke, but one of the other things that Joe has always loved about Nicky is how easily they can share space without it being an event. After they finish breakfast, Joe doesn’t feel like he has to entertain Nicky like a regular guest, doesn’t have to keep the conversation going at all times or feel weird about screwing around online while Nicky reads his book, or sorting through a pile of neglected mail while Nicky sits at the kitchen table hand-writing a letter. (In Genoese, to his nonna who doesn’t believe in computers or the unification of Italy.) It’s easy and comfortable and, apart from the achy longing that squeezes at Joe’s chest every once in a while, he would happily spend every day like this.
They eat some of Nicky’s leftovers for lunch, and go for a walk when the sun briefly emerges before setting at a quarter to four in the afternoon, and for dinner Nicky offers to cook again.
“You don’t actually have to keep feeding me,” Joe tells him, feeling slightly guilty. “I’m not going to threaten you with my efforts, but take-away exists, we could order from the Indian place you like-”
“You want Indian?” Nicky asks.
“I don’t want you to feel like you always have to cook just because you’re staying over,” Joe says. “You’re on holiday too, you should relax sometimes.”
“I like cooking for you,” Nicky says. “I like – nevermind.”
“Nothing,” Nicky says, looking weirdly anxious all of a sudden, which is just wrong, so Joe doesn’t press, much as he wants to. “Do you want Indian?” Nicky asks again. “I can do Indian.”
“I want anything you want,” Joe says, and he doesn’t mean the food, and Nicky looks at him for a moment like maybe he knows Joe doesn’t mean the food, but then he turns away and starts digging through the cupboard for a pot, and the moment passes, and Joe can’t decide if he’s relieved or disappointed.
They watch a film after dinner.
“Bed or chairs?” Joe asks. They usually use the bed for watching things if they’re not eating at the same time, but he checks anyway, suddenly self-conscious about asking Nicky to spend more time in his bed than he has to. Nicky freezes, just for a second, but then he meets Joe’s eyes and he must see something there that relaxes him because he smiles again and says, firmly, “Bed.”
So they pile on the bolster and the extra cushions, and then climb in under the duvet, because Joe’s heating works but it’s still December in Scotland. Nicky slides in snug against Joe’s side and it’s not like that’s unusual, they’re both tactile people and have been watching films like this for years, whether the size of the furniture requires squishing together or not, but still feels different now, doing it in Joe’s bed where they are going to be sleeping together in a few hours. When Joe shifts at one point, Nicky lifts his arm, offering Joe space to settle under it, tucked even closer against him, and Joe thinks fuck it and goes with it. Despite all the other things he also very much wants to do with Nicky, as long as he can keep having this, Nicky content and comfortable and close, he’ll be okay.
There’s a moment, while the end credits are rolling, when Nicky’s arm tenses just slightly around Joe’s shoulders, and Joe looks at him and he’s staring very intently at the screen, jaw tight.
“Joe,” he says, gaze still locked on the screen, “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” Joe asks, careful, gentle, and Nicky does look at him then, and Joe has no idea what to make of his expression.
“I – I wanted to tell you that I – no, it’s nothing, I’m being silly, I’m sorry. I just wanted to thank you. For letting me stay here.”
“Any time,” Joe says, meaning it but bewildered too, because there’s no way that’s actually what Nicky wanted to say. He’s expressed his gratitude plenty of times already and he’s always solemn and sincere about it, but never weird like this. “Seriously. It’s not – I’m happy to have you here.”
“It’s nice, being warm,” Nicky says.
“It is,” Joe agrees. “What’s ‘warm’ in Gaelic again? It’s something funny-sounding, isn’t it?”
“Blàth,” Nicky says, and Joe has no idea how that’s spelled either, but it sounds like ‘blah’. Nicky pauses a moment, brow crinkling in concentration, and then adds, “‘Tha i blàth, agus tha sin math’. It is warm and that is good.”
“And what’s the other thing you keep saying?”
“Tha mi a’ goid drathais?”
“Not the underwear thing,” Joe says. He recognises that because it apparently means ‘I’m stealing underpants’, and it’s one of Nicky’s favourite sentences from Duolingo.
“It’s a secret,” Nicky says, like he always does, though for some reason this time he sounds less satisfied than usual, almost a little sad.
“Non me gustan los segreti,” Joe huffs, mixing Spanish and Italian again to make Nicky laugh, because even only a little sad is entirely too much sad to be allowed.
That night, Joe goes to sleep hugging Sinbad again, and again wakes up hugging Nicky. This time, it’s not just Joe’s arm over Nicky’s chest. It’s also Nicky’s hand over Joe’s on his chest, their fingers twined together. The other thing, which Joe realises a moment later, is that this time Nicky isn’t asleep. Nicky’s not breathing like he does when he’s asleep, and Nicky’s also rubbing his thumb gently back and forth along the side of Joe’s hand, the strokes much too steady and careful not to be conscious. Joe never wants him to stop, and also has absolutely no idea what to do to make that happen.
“Hi Yusuf,” Nicky says after a while, quiet, not stopping the sweep of his thumb.
“Hi,” Joe says, quiet too. Everything seems a little unreal, cocooned together like this in the dark, like they’re in some other world.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Nicky asks. “And if … if it’s okay, what I tell you, then you can remember it in the morning, and if it is not, then I am just babbling nonsense in my sleep and you should forget it. Yes?”
“Okay,” Joe says, and wonders if Nicky can feel how rapidly his heart is beating.
“I have this problem,” Nicky says. “Other than my boiler, I mean.”
“What kind of problem?”
“I’m in love,” Nicky says, still caressing Joe’s hand with his thumb, and Joe stops breathing. “And I want to talk to my dearest friend about it, as you do. But the person that I love, and the friend that I want to talk to, they are the same person. So I don’t know what to do. I love him so much, and I think sometimes that he might love me too. But we have known each other for so long and it has never been like that between us, and the thought of losing my friend, if I am wrong...”
“What if you’re not wrong, and he’s just afraid too, because he feels the same way?” Joe asks, and feels Nicky’s hand twitch over his, feels Nicky’s heart pound in his chest.
“Can it be so?” Nicky asks, sounding devastatingly hopeful. “After all this time?”
“Nicky, Nicolò, I love you too,” Joe whispers, and then, because the English word is entirely too ambiguous, he adds, “Ti amo, ti amo davvero, ti amo tanto.”
“Is this an obscure transitional dialect where ‘ti amo’ and ‘ti voglio bene’ mean the same thing?” Nicky asks, his voice thick.
“It is not,” Joe tells him fiercely, and Nicky turns under Joe’s arm then, not letting go of Joe’s hand but instead bringing it to his lips, kissing Joe’s fingers before pressing their foreheads together.
“Mo ghràidh means ‘my love’,” Nicky says, and Joe can’t help his surprised laugh.
“You sneaky, underpant-stealing fiend,” Joe says, delighted, and it’s too dark to see Nicky’s mouth properly but he can hear the smile in his voice when he says,
“How do you say ‘you stole my heart’?” Joe asks.
“I don’t know, I haven’t done the past tense yet,” Nicky admits.
“Nothing past about it, tesoro, tesorino mio. Can I kiss you now?”
“Yes please, hayati,” Nicky says, and it turns out that finding out what Nicky’s mouth feels like against his isn’t enough, isn’t nearly enough, it’s only the beginning.
The next time Joe wakes up, it’s daylight, and he is not alone in the bed. He has his face buried in Nicky’s ‘I’m NICE’ t-shirt, Nicky’s heart beating steadily under his ear, Nicky’s arms wrapped tightly around him.
“Buongiorno,” Joe mumbles into Nicky’s chest, and he feels Nicky shift to press a kiss to the top of his head.
“Buonissima mañana,” Nicky says, stealing Joe’s Italian-Spanish mashup thing, laughter warm in his voice, and Joe laughs with him as he snuggles in closer with no intention of letting go, because Nicky’s right, this absolutely is the best morning.