“Be right back,” Joe says, rolling out of the bed with an easy grin. He leans in to drop another kiss on Nicky’s cheek and then he’s gone, taking Nicky’s soft, syrupy post-sex satisfaction with him. He is, Nicky knows intellectually, only leaving for a moment, probably to get a damp washcloth or something to clean them up. But that knowledge does nothing to stop the echoing, aching hollowness that immediately begins clawing into Nicky’s gut at the loss of contact.
Nicky never had any substantial inner turmoil over being gay, but this, this he has always hated about himself. The way even a brief interlude of intimate connection tears down all his defensive walls and leaves him raw and needy, desperate to be held, petted, cuddled close. Most people, he assumes, can have sex and then roll over and sleep, or get up and get dressed, without feeling like they’ve had a limb ripped off. Nicky isn’t most people. It happens every time, though it tends to be worse when he was feeling lonely to begin with, or when he really likes the person. It’s been a while since he wasn’t lonely. And ‘like’ is not a strong enough word for what he already feels for Joe.
The last time Nicky went to bed with someone, a Romanian tourist he met in a bar, afterwards the guy stayed in his arms for maybe five minutes and then got up to look for his clothes, making apologetic noises about his early flight in the morning. Which was perfectly reasonable, and though it had been a nice enough experience Nicky really wasn’t bothered about it being a one-time thing, but, still, after the man was gone, Nicky felt so bereft he cried. And then was furious with himself for being so pathetic, and then cried again, still, more, because being angry did nothing to change the fact that he was alone and yearning to be held so much it hurt.
He had stopped trying, after that. The truth is, he craves the intimacy more than the sex anyway. A toy or his own hand can get him off just fine, but they can’t cuddle him, can’t make him feel sweet and warm and cherished after. But while he didn’t let anyone touch him in the first place, then at least he could more or less keep his walls up, could convince himself that he was fine and normal and not a desperate ridiculous thing craving closeness. And then there was Joe.
Joe, who started chatting to him in a bus shelter while they were both waiting for a delayed bus two weeks ago, who he was thoroughly infatuated with after one date last weekend and is at least two-thirds of the way to in love with after their second one tonight. Joe, with his bright sunny smiles and his beautiful hands, his sharp mind and wry humour and gentle, optimistic disposition. Joe, with his intoxicating kisses and clever fingers. Joe who had asked, almost shyly, if Nicky would like to come home with him tonight after they spent forty-five minutes at another bus stop after dinner, letting bus after bus go by because neither wanted the night to end, and looked so thrilled when Nicky said yes that Nicky had to kiss him right there, ignoring the shrieks and cheers from the group of drunk young women waiting with them at the bus stop.
Joe who is going to find out, very soon, that Nicky is utterly incapable of getting laid and then getting on with his night like a regular person.
As bad as the need itself is the crushing sense of humiliation that comes with it, the shame at being so helpless and weak. Objectively, Nicky knows Joe wouldn’t mock him for this. Joe is sweet and kind and, when it comes to anything other than the proper care and handling of quality paint brushes, he is one of the least judgemental people Nicky has ever known. Nicky knows that he is liable to tear up at any nature documentary that involves hunting regardless of the outcome – if the predator is successful, he’s upset for the prey, and if the prey gets away he’s upset for the predator left hungry. He regularly catches big, harmless spiders for one of his neighbours who is deathly afraid of them, and has spent two years doing his best to show an interest in train makes and models for the sake of another neighbour’s very single-minded kid who doesn’t have many people willing to listen to him. Nicky knows Joe won’t be cruel, but that knowledge does nothing to ease the dreadful knot in his gut.
Joe comes back into the bedroom, still naked but with their mess gone from his belly, two glasses in his hands and a damp washcloth draped over his arm.
“Water?” he asks, proffering one of the glasses, and Nicky accepts it with a nod, and forces himself to drink instead of immediately wrestling Joe into his embrace. Joe downs some of his too, and then settles on the bed and wipes Nicky clean, his touch unbearably tender. It takes all of Nicky’s restraint to wait until Joe’s finished and both of their glasses are on the nightstand before he gives in to the terrible need to burrow into Joe’s arms. Joe makes a small noise of surprise, but before the embarrassment can even begin to overwhelm Nicky, Joe’s arms tighten around him and he shifts, not away but to tangle their legs closer together, and Nicky barely manages to supress a whimper of relief.
“Oh thank god,” Joe murmurs into Nicky’s hair.
“Hmm?” Nicky asks, half-drunk on how good it feels to be held again, to have the awful emptiness filled with Joe’s warmth.
“You are a cuddler,” Joe breathes, like it’s some sort of small miracle. “I hate it so much when people don’t want to do this after, you have no idea.”
“Trust me, I do,” Nicky confesses to Joe’s collarbone, a bubble of hope forming beneath his ribs. Is it possible that Joe is so lovely in every other way and needs this just like Nicky does?
“Yeah?” Joe asks. “Up until you kissed me you seemed kind of hands-off, I thought maybe…”
“I was only afraid that once I let myself touch you I would not be able to make myself let go,” Nicky says, too happy to think about the possibility of coming on too strong before he speaks.
“Is that too much? I’m sorry, I-”
“No, I just – how are you so perfect?”
“Perfect?” Nicky repeats, bewildered even in the haze of pleasure at being close again. Joe is idly petting at Nicky’s hair; if anything is perfect here it’s Joe and his wonderful, wonderful touch.
“Let’s just say that severely unbalanced levels of interest in snuggling have been a factor in the end of more than one of my past relationships,” Joe says. His tone is light but there’s an undercurrent there that makes Nicky slightly want to murder all of his exes. “So if you’re not going to tell me to get off you in five minutes-”
“Barring unavoidable necessity, I cannot imagine ever telling you to get off me,” Nicky says. Perhaps that’s too much for a second date, but he’s still too content to censor himself.
Joe makes a soft, delightful little growly sound that Nicky feels in his chest as much as he hears, and hugs Nicky even tighter for a moment.
“Perfect,” Joe says again. “You know, a guy asked me once if I was really sure I’m gay? Said maybe I’d be happier with a woman who was as clingy as I am.”
“Would you like him killed? I know someone,” Nicky offers, so appalled on several different levels that he’s only half-kidding. Andy wouldn’t actually kill anyone, probably, but maybe a nice light maiming… Joe chuckles.
“That’s sweet, but not necessary,” he says. Nicky is tempted to argue, but it occurs to him that it’s perhaps a little hypocritical to be so angry about someone else deriding Joe for the same thing he despises in himself. But it’s not the thing, really, it’s Joe; no one should be permitted to make Joe feel bad about anything. Still.
“I need this, after. I cannot stand it when people just leave,” Nicky admits. “Even when you got up for the water, I…”
“Oh, sweetheart, you should have said,” Joe tells him. His voice is full of regret, but none of the judgement that Nicky couldn’t help automatically bracing for, even after what Joe already said. “We’ll be better prepared, next time, so no one has to get up right away,” Joe adds. “That is – I mean, assuming you want-”
“Joe,” Nicky says, raising his head to look Joe in the eyes. His big, beautiful, bright eyes, shining with hope and just enough of a hint of uncertainty that Nicky feels an urge to dismember everyone who has ever made him doubt himself. Nicky is not generally inclined to violence, but there’s just something about Joe that makes him want to treat Joe with the greatest care and gentleness in the world, and also wreak bloody vengeance on anyone who has ever hurt him. It’s his eyes, probably. Or his smile. Or his – just his everything, really.
“Of course I want a next time,” Nicky says. “I don’t want this time to end.”
Joe beams at him and it feels like sunshine. Not just any sunshine, either; like the sunshine on one of those days when it’s just a little too cool to be pleasant in the shade, but absolutely ideal when the sun comes out. Sunshine that makes everything better.
“Me either,” Joe says. “Can you stay the night? I would really like to have you for breakfast, and the café up the road does a nice brunch menu for when we get out of bed.”
“Yes,” Nicky says, and then blinks, briefly confused by the offer of both breakfast and brunch, and then grins when Joe winks at him and he realises what he meant by have you for breakfast. “Yes,” he says again. “Yes, please, all of that.”
The first thing Nicky notices upon waking is that he’s warm. Warm, and well-rested in a way he doesn’t remember being since – well, since longer ago than he can recall. He knows he has a tendency to thrash around in his sleep, kicking the covers partly or entirely off in the process regardless of the temperature, and so outside of the summer months he’s used to waking up with cold feet at best, if not chilled all over. He isn’t chilly, now. He’s warm everywhere, with the pleasant weight of a blanket on his legs and torso and a warmer, more solid weight at his back, across his side and chest – Joe. Joe is curled around him like an octopus, limbs tangled everywhere, holding Nicky snug against his body in a way Nicky never realised could let him sleep so much more peacefully than he has been accustomed to.
“Hi,” Joe murmurs quietly when he stirs a few minutes later.
“Hi,” Nicky says, a little choked up at how wonderful everything feels. Is it too soon to ask Joe to hold him like this every night?
“Is this okay?” Joe asks, his beard brushing the base of Nicky’s neck. “As you may have noticed, I, uh, really wasn’t exaggerating, about the clinginess.”
“I was not exaggerating about needing it,” Nicky says. He finds Joe’s hand where it rests near his heart and squeezes it. “I can’t remember the last time I slept so well.”
“Me either,” Joe says. “Nicky, I am so glad that bus was late.”
“I am so glad I didn’t pretend not to hear you talking over my music,” Nicky says, and Joe laughs against his shoulder.
“Sometimes I keep my earphones in even when I am not listening to anything, just in case,” Nicky says. “It’s not that I never want to talk to anyone, but I like having the option, you know?”
“I get it, yeah. I have been known to pretend not to speak English, when I’m really not in the mood,” Joe says. He adds something else, a string of phrases in Dutch and French and what Nicky assumes is Arabic, his tone an excellent imitation of a baffled tourist, and Nicky snickers.
“I tried that once when someone started speaking to me in English on the street in Prague, only it turned out that he was from the Italian part of Switzerland.”
“Oh yes, but it was all right, he was just lost and not trying to sell me something as I’d thought at first.”
“Why didn’t you use one of those excuses on me, that day?” Joe asks. His breath is warm and humid on Nicky’s skin and Nicky never wants to move. Except maybe to eventually roll over and hold him too, kiss him again, trace his dear face with lips and tongue…
“I had noticed you before you said anything, and you looked… I don’t know,” Nicky says. “I had the feeling that I wouldn’t regret speaking to you.”
“You know, the place I was coming out of, it’s kind of halfway between that bus stop and the next one? I started heading for the other one, but then I saw this dick from work that I didn’t feel like dealing with, so I turned around and went the other way. And met you instead.”
“It was meant to be,” Nicky says. The thought had crossed his mind before and he is certain of it now. “I would probably have caught the previous bus, but this man whose phone had died stopped me to ask for help finding the place where he was meeting his friends. Did you know there are three different Brass Monkey pubs in this city?”
“Seriously? I knew about two of them.”
“As did he. Naturally his friends were at the third one.”
“We should send them a thank-you card,” Joe says.
“Your work person as well.”
“I’d say Steven the asshole could never merit gratitude, but in this one case...” He nuzzles against Nicky’s neck, sighing happily, and Nicky squeezes his hand again, heart full.
“This feels so good, Joe,” Nicky says. “You make me feel so good. I have always felt… ashamed, of being so needy, but you just… It is all so much better, with you.”
“Nicky,” Joe says, voice suddenly thick. Worried, Nicky twists around in his arms to look at him, and finds his eyes wide and shining.
“Did I tell you already that you’re perfect?” Joe asks, with a slightly watery grin.
“You may have mentioned it,” Nicky says, grinning back at him.
“Can I keep telling you? Indefinitely?”
“I’ll allow it,” Nicky says, “if I can keep telling you the same.”
“You have yourself a deal,” Joe says, and Nicky has to kiss him then.
The sex for breakfast is good. So is the brunch at the café. What is even better is the way Joe holds Nicky’s hand while they walk to the café, and sits next to him at the little table instead of across so they can touch elbows and knees while they eat. When they finally, reluctantly, say goodbye because they both have errands and obligations to deal with, Joe hugs him so close and hard it’s as though they are parting for months or years rather than the few days until their next planned date.
Nicky misses him as soon as they separate. That isn’t unusual. While Nicky walks home, he feels the phantom of Joe’s embrace around him, and that isn’t unusual either. What is wonderfully unusual is that he feels it not as a terrible absence, but as a warm, soothing memory clinging to his skin. Instead of the regular ache, it is a comfort, a balm for his senses until he can have the real thing again. Perfect, just like Joe said. He smiles to himself, and hopes Joe feels it too.