Rami sends I have fourteen hours over an early morning text message and there’s no context, no follow-up, no official or unofficial invite to actually do anything about it, but still Joe nearly trips getting into his shoes. Days off are hard to come by now but they’d promised, perhaps drunkenly late one night, that they’d take advantage of them, that their friendship wouldn’t lapse into a bi-monthly miss you, man, that they’d actually make it work. It’s a gratifying sort of feeling, to know that Rami’s upholding his side of the agreement. That he could’ve texted anyone, but he didn’t. He’d texted Joe.
See you soon, Joe sends back. He’s already halfway out the door.
Rami’s had a haircut, back to his Mr. Robot roots, edges sharp and camera-fresh, but otherwise he looks wrecked; that’s Joe’s first thought when he sees him. He’s standing in the doorway with bags under his eyes, exhaustion rolling off him in waves, an oversized sweater swallowing him whole. Still, though, he smiles, and pulls Joe into a hug, full-bodied and squeezing tight, like it’d been years since he’d seen him, rather than a few weeks. “You are a sight for sore eyes,” Rami tells him, and Joe believes it. “Thanks for coming over.”
“You sure you want company on your day off?” Joe asks, letting himself in and tipping a paper bag onto the nearest countertop. He’d stopped for bagels along the way, extra cream cheese, the way Rami’s always liked. “Wouldn’t you rather, you know, sleep for fourteen hours?”
Rami looks at him, puzzled.
“No,” he says. That easily. Like of course he’d choose to hang out with Joe. Like he hadn’t even considered an alternative.
Joe grins back at him, because he’s not going to be mushy. Not this early in the day. “Okay then,” he says. “Let the festivities commence. What are the festivities, anyway? Tell me you have a to-do list. I love to-do lists.”
“I don’t have a to-do list.” Rami reaches out and pats Joe’s arm. “Sorry. But I do have vague goals. Eating good food, for one. Getting outside. Doing something that’ll enrich my mind. And my body. Eating more food. Relaxing.”
“Okay, wow,” Joe says, having heard more than enough. “Lofty.”
Meanwhile, Joe’s days off currently look like: creating stupid videos for the Internet, dicking around on Instagram, and marathoning bad TV shows in his boxers. Leave it to Rami to want something enriching. Joe gestures towards the food he’d brought. “Well, I can at least help with the eating part.”
Rami’s already tearing open the bag before he’s even done speaking. “God bless you, Joe Mazzello,” he says, splitting a bagel in two and breathing in the scent. “Technically not supposed to be eating carbs right now. I need to look gaunt and sickly tomorrow. But fuck it. I deserve this bagel.”
“You do look gaunt and sickly,” Joe points out. “One bagel’s not gonna change that. And also, are you sickly? Should I be worried?”
Rami smiles wryly. “Big departure from Freddie, huh?”
“Then I guess I’ve done my job.”
Rami’s got a little nook in his kitchen, with a long bench and glass windows that overlook the city below. They settle in with their food, close enough to bump shoulders, and pass the cream cheese back and forth between them. Outside the sky is bursting into color and Joe loves, has always loved, the way the streets come to life with the morning sun. “I’m glad you’re in New York,” he says, without even really meaning to. Ben probably would’ve mocked him for it, but not Rami. Rami thrives on sincerity.
“Me too,” he says, contemplating the view outside. “We live very strange lives, Joe. It’s nice to have you around to keep me sane.”
It’s funny, Joe thinks, how true that is. How different their lives are than they were a decade ago, when they were less sure of themselves and carried the enormous weight of a war on their shoulders, when they’d spend hours not sleeping, not talking, unable to navigate any sense of normalcy. They’d made it out alive, but changed. More importantly, they’d made it out together. And now here they are.
He doesn’t say any of this out loud. What he says instead is, “Sane? You sure about that?”
Rami laughs, rests his head against Joe’s bicep in a fond sort of way. “Good point. Sane-ish. Can I say that, at least?”
Joe shoves the rest of his bagel in his mouth and nods. “Sane-ish,” he agrees. “Okay, sure. I’ll allow it.”
“Let’s go get coffee,” Rami says, pushing up off the couch. They’d retreated to the living room post-bagels, where Joe was currently spooning a remarkably plush throw pillow and not in any hurry to move.
“You don’t have coffee here?”
“I do have coffee here. What I don’t have is fresh air.”
“You could open a window.”
“Missing the point,” Rami says.
“Besides, you’re in New York. Nothing about the air here is fresh.”
“Up,” Rami says, tugging the pillow out of his arms, which is incredibly unfair. “Up, up, up.”
Joe goes reluctantly. When he’d received the text that morning, he’d assumed they’d be out and about doing stuff, and that had sounded fine, at the time. Now, though, all he wants to do is lay around for a few more hours. Rami’s couch was somehow a million times more comfortable than his own.
Rami throws on a beanie and a pair of sunglasses before they go, even though it’s still misty outside. Joe hadn’t thought to do the same but then, next to Academy Award Winner Rami Malek, he figures he’ll probably be okay. “How many times a day do you get mobbed?” he asks, following him out the door.
“Three, maybe four times? For the most part, everyone’s great. The guy at my favorite bodega calls me Queenie now, but I think it’s supposed to be a compliment.”
Joe nods. “Better than when I was a kid, and strangers used to point behind me and yell ‘watch out, there’s a T-Rex!’”
“Aw.” Rami pats him on the shoulder consolingly. “One of these days, there really is going to be a T-Rex, and you’re not going to believe them. You’ll get eaten alive. Classic boy who cried wolf situation.”
“Huh. At least I’ll go out with a bang.”
There’s a coffeeshop on the corner that Rami directs them towards, a handful of morning commuters already on line. It’s a no-frills sort of place, which Joe’s glad about; one girl does a slight double-take, but otherwise no one seems to give a shit. They order Americanos and take them outside, letting the cups warm their hands. It’s chilly, in early March, but the sun is starting to peek out in earnest now, casting a soft glow all around. Rami sits in a rickety chair with his back to a brightly-graffitied wall, the wind tugging at his jacket, and Joe pulls his phone out and snaps a picture.
Rami catches him at the last minute and makes a face. “For posterity,” he asks, “or for social media?”
“Why not both?”
For a moment, Rami doesn’t say anything. Then he shrugs. “Better wait to post it, at least. This place’ll be swamped in seconds. They might be glad for the business, though. Think they’ll start giving me free coffee?”
“I don’t think you need free coffee.”
“It’s the principle, Joseph,” Rami says, in faux-indignation. “Why is it that free stuff always seems to taste better?”
“Because we’re greedy, consumption-driven Americans?” Joe suggests, which makes Rami laugh.
“Good point. On second thought, you’re right. I don’t need free coffee.”
Joe slips his phone back into his pocket. Posting the picture feels wrong now, so he won’t. Even if it does look like a piece of modern art, all sharp contrast and Rami’s face shrouded in shadow. There are a lot of pictures he keeps just for himself. This is just one more.
Rami was right about the fresh air; Joe could give him that. He feels more alive, more alert. The espresso has kicked in, too, and there’s a slight buzzing in his veins, the day stretched out before them, an endless sea of opportunity, and all of it theirs. Joe rubs his hands together, back at the apartment. “So, now what?”
“There is something I have to do,” Rami says.
“Okay,” says Joe.
“You’re not going to like it,” Rami says.
“Okay,” says Joe.
“I need to work out.”
Rami’s right again; Joe doesn’t like it. He has energy, but not for that. He’s just getting to the point where the bagels have digested and he’s starting to think about his next meal. Ideally, they would’ve gone for Thai. Or Chinese, maybe. Rami knows some really killer Chinese spots.
He would’ve settled for a cookie.
That is where his brain is.
He does not want to exercise.
“You have one day off,” Joe protests. “You can’t sit out one day?”
“I can’t. I’ve tried. They’ll know. They always know. C’mon. Work out with me. We’ll feel better afterwards.”
“I don’t have any workout clothes,” Joe says, even though he knows it’s futile. Rami’s already moving towards his bedroom.
“You can borrow something of mine.”
“We are not the same size, Rami,” he calls at Rami’s back.
Rami ignores him.
A minute later Rami reemerges with a pair of shorts and a plain cotton tee, tosses them at Joe’s face. Joe catches them reluctantly and glowers before heading to the bathroom to change. He is not exercise-averse, as a rule; he’s logged hundreds of hours at the gym, either for a role or so that he could guiltlessly eat donuts whenever he wanted. But those hours were premeditated. He’d had time to prepare for them. Surprising a workout on someone is damn near cruel and unusual.
The clothes Rami had leant him fit just fine, which just adds more fuel to his annoyance fire. He emerges from the bathroom, still grumbling, but stops short when he sees Rami in the living room, shirtless, shrugging into a t-shirt. He doesn’t mean to look twice, but he does.
Joe has seen Rami shirtless countless times. For fuck’s sake, he’d watched him struggle in and out of a skintight leotard for days on end, once with an enormously unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, so this is—this is nothing new. And yet. For one brief, unexpected second, Joe looks twice. He clears his throat and looks away resolutely, bemused by himself, but Rami just calls him over like he hadn’t noticed a thing.
“See? Aren’t you already feeling motivated?”
“No,” Joe says, because he’s nothing if not stubborn.
He has, thankfully, fixed his shirt now, so that’s at least out of the way. It must’ve been the coffee, Joe thinks. Or the lack of sleep. Maybe he’d had an infinitesimal stroke? This was Rami, after all. His friend Rami. He was losing his mind.
“Well, you will,” Rami says, and claps Joe lightly on the shoulder.
Joe doesn’t say anything. He really hopes that Rami’s right about that too.
Joe is drenched. He’d taken some time off after award season had ended, except that some time off had definitely been too long because he can barely catch his breath and he is, from head to toe, completely dripping with sweat. Rami’s not faring much better but at least he isn’t doubled over at the waist. “I think,” Rami says, through labored breaths, “we should—work out together—all the time. You kicked my ass.”
“Me?” Joe returns in disbelief. “I thought I—was going—to die.”
Rami laughs, but then stops laughing abruptly, like he’d run out of steam. “Look, we’re done. Now we can—be as lazy as we want for the rest of the day.”
“Good, because I—plan on being—so lazy.” Joe draws in one long breath through his nose, exhales slowly, waits for his heart rate to return to normal. “But first. Shower?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Rami says, batting his eyelashes at him, and Joe’s mouth goes dry. Because he didn’t—he hadn’t— Rami sees his hesitation and rolls his eyes. “I’m kidding, Joe, don’t look so repulsed. You can go first. Towels are in the hall closet. Try and save some hot water for me, yeah?”
Joe nods and returns to the bathroom, strips naked, blasts the shower as hot as he can tolerate before stepping in. He closes his eyes, letting the water pound at his body, and trying, ineffectively, to make his brain turn off. There is something wrong with him. He doesn’t know where this is coming from. His jokes with the guys, spiraling out of control? He feels like he’s known Rami a lifetime, they’d done everything together (everything except that), so why this, why now? He’s being stupid, he’s decided.
Rami has a good body. Joe can appreciate a good body. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.
He’s convinced himself, by the time he’s rinsing off, that it was just a minor blip in an otherwise uneventful day. He can return to normalcy as soon as he steps out of the shower, and again: Rami was right. He does feel better.
He’s just reaching for a towel when Rami starts pounding on the door. “Joe, you asshole,” he calls, but like he doesn’t really mean it, “you’ve been in there for ages.”
Joe grins. “Oops,” he calls back, and opens up to let Rami in. Rami’s already stripped off his workout attire, too, just a towel wrapped low around his waist, but Joe doesn’t even blink twice. He slides past him, pats him on the shoulder, and says good-naturedly, “I might’ve used the last of your shampoo, enjoy your cold shower!”
Joe had ditched his boxers (felt weird rewearing them, after getting clean) but pulled the rest of his own clothes back on, and was now laying on top of the blankets in Rami’s bedroom, scrolling through his Instagram feed. His pals have been really slacking lately, and he reminds himself to give them shit about that. He’s in the middle of typing out a hilarious comment when Rami appears in the doorway, in faded sweatpants with wet, tousled hair. “I’ve had an epiphany,” he announces.
Joe puts his phone down. “Hit me.”
“Next on today’s agenda… we nap.”
“We nap,” Rami confirms. He crosses the room, climbs up on the mattress, and collapses on the pillows beside Joe. “I am a notoriously bad napper. But I am also so fucking tired. So I propose we set an alarm for exactly one hour, no more, no less… and we nap.”
Joe’d stayed up a little too late last night messing around on his computer. It’s not the worst idea in the world. “Okay then. Do you want me to go to the living room?”
Rami looks at him like he’s crazy. “Why would you go to the living room when you’re already in the world’s most comfortable bed?”
They’d slept in closer quarters before, that was true. But Joe still feels a little unsettled by his brain short circuiting a little while ago, and Rami was so close, and smelled so clean, and he must’ve also brushed his teeth because Joe’s getting faint whiffs of peppermint, too. He can’t vocalize any of that, though. So he just shrugs. “I dunno if it’s the most comfortable bed,” he says, turning on his side and burying his head into a pillow. Away from Rami. Trying to make it look unplanned. “Top five, maybe.”
It works, because Rami’s eyes are already closed. “Not going to dignify that with a response. No more talking now. See you in sixty minutes.”
“No more, no less,” Joe echoes, and lets his own eyes fall shut.
He’d dozed off almost instantly, which was a surprise. Maybe Rami does have the most comfortable bed in the world. He didn’t even realize he’d fallen asleep, though, until a phone starts buzzing under his elbow, and he groans and bats at it ineffectively, and then Rami gives him a little shake. Joe is profoundly aware of how close their bodies are. “That was the fastest hour of my life,” Rami says, his voice a little rough. Once the alarm is off, his hand comes to rest flat against Joe’s chest. “And if time wasn’t dwindling, I’d say we do it again.”
Joe rubs blearily at his eyes. Ignores the way Rami’s thumb is rubbing idly against his ribcage. “Not an impossibility.”
“No. But I don’t want to waste the day.”
Joe stretches out on the mattress and, innocently, shrugs Rami’s hand away in the process. “Remember our last day off together? In Tokyo? When we nearly got thrown out of that bar?”
Rami grins. “We probably would’ve, if Gwil wasn’t so damn tall.”
“He is a giant, isn’t he?” Talking about Gwil—and Ben, of course, even though he’d missed that trip, even though Joe’d had no choice but to lug around a cardboard cutout for three days—makes Joe’s heart ache a little, as pathetic as it was. He’d never thought it was weird, how quickly they’d all bonded. He just wished two of his best friends didn’t live halfway around the world. “When’s the last time you talked to them, anyway?”
Rami rolls on his back, raking a hand through his hair—dry now, but sticking up in every direction—and considers. There’s a pillow imprint on his right cheek. “Other than Ben’s drunk video messages last weekend? Mm, must’ve been a few weeks ago. Are you going to yell at me for not contributing to the group text more?”
“I gave everyone emojis,” Joe says, which is an argument he has made more than once.
“I don’t like emojis,” Rami says back. “Nobody’s face looks like that.”
“I don’t know, yours kind of looks like the constipated-thinking face one right now.” Joe scrunches his forehead and purses his lips in a grumpy mock-imitation of Rami, who laughs and punches him in the arm, more pleased than offended. “Anyway,” Joe adds, “we should probably Facetime them.”
“What, right now?”
“Yep. It’s, what, four o’clock there? Perfect timing. Here, I’ll do Ben first.”
Joe has Facetime pulled up before Rami has time to make a counterargument, and it’s ringing, and ringing, and then a minute later, the picture slightly fuzzy, Ben picks up. “Joe, mate, haven’t I told you—oh shit, is that Rami too?”
Rami pokes his head further in screen, so that his chin is practically resting on Joe’s shoulder. “Hi Ben.”
“Where are you both? Hold on, are you in bed together? Are you calling to tell me something? Is this how I’m finding out? Can’t believe it wasn’t on your Youtube channel first, now that that’s a thing.”
“Ben,” Joe says, “shut up, would you?”
Rami and Ben laugh, in sync, and Joe hates them both. His Youtube channel is a gem. Dozens of fangirls have already told him so. “All right, hang on, I’m gonna loop Gwil in.”
“Okay, great,” Ben says, except that he actually looks slightly conflicted, for whatever reason. “Only he might be—you know, maybe he’s not home, or—” There’s a loud tsk from somewhere off-camera, and Joe looks at Rami with his eyebrows raised. “Oh, fuck it,” Ben sighs, and pulls the phone back a little, so that all of a sudden Gwilym’s beardy face slides in the frame.
“Surprise,” Gwil says, smirking. “We were gonna mess with you, get you to talk shit about me behind my back, but Ben here obviously can’t keep a straight face.”
Joe opens his mouth to comment—a straight face, of course he couldn’t—but Rami cuts him off with a stern look and says, “Nope. Access revoked. Too easy.”
He deflates, a little, but accepts it. This is how comedic geniuses fine tune their craft, after all. Everyone needs a critic.
“What are you boys up to?” Rami asks them. Joe can feel his breath on the back of his neck but ignores it. Mostly ignores it. Tries to ignore it.
“About to grab a beer,” Ben answers, just as Gwil says, “Turning on the rugby match,” and then they pause and meet eyes and Ben amends, “Grabbing a beer so we can watch the rugby match,” and they are acting incredibly weird but Joe chooses not to comment. Just seeing their dumb faces together fills his heart with joy.
“We have sports in America too, you know,” he says instead. “Better sports, even. Some might say the best sports in the world. You know baseball? We invented it.”
“Never heard of it,” Gwil says, shaking his head. “You sure you’re not just making it up?”
“What are you lads doing?” Ben asks. “Besides rolling around in bed together.”
Rami leans in. “I don’t have anywhere to be all day. Joey’s indulging my every whim and fancy.”
Rami thinks he can call him Joey because he’d heard Steven Spielberg call him that once, a million years ago, despite the fact that Joe has informed him repeatedly that he is no Spielberg and that Joe reserves every right to punch him for it. He doesn’t, though. He is far too kind and forgiving.
“Why don’t you ever indulge my whims and fancies, Joe?” Ben says. “I wanna be indulged.”
“Again,” Joe says. “America. There are even these new inventions called planes that will bring you here. I will indulge you so hard. I’ll—”
“Okay, okay, this is getting filthy,” Gwil interrupts. “Can we all just agree that we need to reunite?”
“Cosigned,” Rami says. “Let’s figure out a date.”
Joe gives him a very subtle side-eye. “First step would be actually responding to the group text…”
Rami groans and tips his forehead against Joe’s back. “He’s only this mean to me when you two are around,” he informs the camera, but Gwil and Ben shoot back immediately that no, actually, he’s that much of an asshole pretty much constantly.
“Look at the time!” Joe practically shouts over them. “Gotta go! This was super fun, though, let’s never do it again!” He reaches up and hits the ‘end call’ button before either of them have a chance to protest. He’d feel bad about it, except that he knows he’ll inevitably end up calling them back sometime in the next twenty-four hours. If Joe has taken one thing away from the Bohemian Rhapsody experience, it’s this: he is possibly, potentially, almost definitely, freakishly codependent.
“Look at that smile,” Rami says, pinching Joe’s cheek between his fingers. “Aw. You love them.”
“Of course I do,” Joe says, shoving him away. “I love all my fans.”
“Ready to face the outside world again?”
Joe looks over at Rami. They hadn’t left the bed, had barely moved since hanging up the phone, and yet. Time was ticking. “I could be convinced,” he says. “What do you have in mind?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just go for a walk and see where our feet take us.”
“Fine. But only if there’s food involved. And I don’t mean kale salad and sparkling water. I want something real. I burned way too many calories to not stuff my face.”
There’s a halal food cart with a line six deep not far from Rami’s place. Joe doesn’t give it a second thought; he’d grown up in New York. He knows good street food when he sees it. “You’re like a toddler,” Rami says, amused, when he’s got a bowl of chicken and rice a mere ten minutes after leaving the apartment. “All I have to do is feed you to keep you happy, huh?”
“Says the man that just asked for a nap.”
They wander down the street in no real direction. Joe offers Rami a bite but he waves it away, even though he looks like he regrets it. Joe’s secretly glad he’s not filming anything right now. “So after this,” Joe says, chewing on his plastic fork. “When’s your next break?”
Rami scrubs a hand across his forehead. “God, I don’t know. The next few weeks are really heavy. And then I fly out to LA at the end of the month, for some benefit.”
“Maybe you should stop being in such high demand.”
“I keep telling everyone I’m really not that special.”
“Yeah, your little gold figurine begs to differ.”
Rami cuts a corner and Joe follows him, towards a quiet path along the waterfront. The wind picks up and Joe watches the way Rami wraps his jacket around him tighter, his eyes lit on the skyline, looking more relaxed than Joe has seen him in a long time. He has the strangest, flickering impulse to grab his hand.
“What’s going on in that brain of yours?” Rami asks, like he has a sixth sense for the mental wrestling match Joe’s embattling.
Joe’s quiet. Weird stuff, he wants to say. Confusing stuff. He dumps the empty rice bowl into a trashcan and shoves his hands deep in his pockets, for lack of better options. “I think,” he says, trying for levity, “this is the most romantic date I’ve been on in a long, long time.”
Rami laughs, deep and untethered. Joe loves his laugh. He likes making Rami laugh. This is not helping matters. “Wait until later,” he says. “I’ve got wine. I’ve got enough candles to burn the whole building down. I’m going to woo the hell out of you.”
Joe’s insides constrict. He doesn’t respond, but only because he doesn’t have to. A girl in a puffy coat, cheeks flushed in excitement, has just spotted them, jogs up to them breathlessly. “I’m so sorry,” she says, “but you’re—”
“Am I?” Rami says, his eyebrows raised playfully.
“You are. You totally are. Can I have a picture? I’m a huge fan.”
It’s not the first time this has happened when they were out together, and it won’t be the last. Rami smiles, ever gracious, and nods. “Of course you can.”
The girl hands her phone out to Joe, who is immediately insulted. “Would you mind?”
“That’s Joe Mazzello, you know,” Rami tells the girl. She can’t be more than eighteen, nineteen, and her expression doesn’t change. “He was in Jurassic Park.”
That gets her, at least. Her eyes light up and she says, “Oh my god, really? I love Chris Pratt.”
Rami sucks his bottom lip into his mouth to stop himself from laughing. Joe takes her phone and sulks. “Smile,” he says flatly. Rami slides his arm around the girl’s back, Joe takes the picture, and she thanks them profusely in a high-pitched voice.
“I’ll look for you in the next Jurassic Park!” she tells Joe, like she’s doing him a favor, and Joe waits until she’s out of earshot before turning to Rami.
“It’s official,” he says. “I’m old. I’m officially out of touch with the younger generation. I’m a relic.”
“You’re younger than me,” Rami points out. “And don’t feel bad. She was clearly failed by her parents. Chris Pratt, I tell you…”
At least, Joe thinks, he’s moved past the itch to hold Rami’s hand.
They stumble upon a small botanical garden, bursting with lush greenery, and Rami wastes no time in dragging Joe inside. “See?” he says, and breathes in deeply. “This is so good for our souls.”
Joe doesn’t want to inflate Rami’s ego any more than he already has, but once again, damn it: the guy is right. “It’s okay,” he lies, and Rami rolls his eyes.
They follow a winding path, arms brushing, in mostly companionable silence, the air around them warm and familiar, stopping periodically to admire the vibrancy of life. “Today I sniff flowers,” Rami says, squatting down, “and tonight I get the shit beat out of me on camera.”
Joe reaches down and grazes his fingers along Rami’s too-sharp cheekbone, like an instinct, but then realizes what he’s doing and starts to pull away. “Is that why we’re going for the near-death look?”
“Makes the bruises stand out more,” Rami nods. He captures Joe’s hand with his own and uses it to draw himself back up. But then he doesn’t let go.
Joe locks eyes with him, for a brief second, but Rami’s expression doesn’t give anything away. Joe knows him, has known him for so long, thinks he maybe knows Rami more intimately than most people in his life—they’d have entire conversations without saying a single word, back on set, the other guys would laugh about their secret language—but now, right now, Joe can’t read him at all. He tugs his hand out of Rami’s grip and points towards the nearest tree. “Look,” he says, aware that his voice is higher than normal. He clears his throat and tries again. “There it is. That’s my favorite I’ve seen.”
Rami follows his gaze and laughs. “Joe,” he says, “that’s just an oak tree.”
“What, oak trees don’t deserve love too?”
“They do,” Rami says, and smiles. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
They continue on. There is a little greenhouse with beautiful, blooming orchids, and Joe digs in his pocket for his phone again. “For posterity,” he tells Rami, with a mild eyeroll, before he has time to ask. He frames it so that Rami’s silhouette is in the background, enshrouded by vivid pinks and purples, and then he snaps the picture.
“Your turn,” Rami says, and he takes Joe’s phone from him, but he doesn’t get as artistic with his angles: he squares it so that it’s a close-up of Joe’s face, like he’s standing in front of a backdrop, or wearing a flower crown. He hands it back with pride. “Now that is worthy of the Internet.”
Joe pretends to look shocked. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“I have an Instagram, you know.”
“Ten dollars says you can’t remember the password.”
Rami is silent.
Joe smirks and knocks him with his shoulder. “Thought so.”
A few minutes later Rami says he has to go to the bathroom and wanders off, so Joe sits on a bench and calculates how much more time they have together. Six hours, he’s pretty sure. Time is slipping away so fast. How normal it feels, to spend so much time with Rami. To do everything together. Like he could get used to it again. Like he maybe already has.
Rami reappears, not long after, but with a paper envelope in his hands.
“Does the bathroom give out goodie bags now?” Joe asks, but Rami ignores him and slips onto the bench beside him.
“I lied,” he says excitedly. “I didn’t have to pee. I went to the gift shop. I got you something.”
“And it’s not even my birthday,” Joe says, but he takes the envelope and shakes it open. A piece of cardstock tumbles out. It’s an art print, a beautiful one, of a tree with twisting branches, green textured leaves, casting a long shadow along the ground. Quercus rubra, it says at the bottom. Below that: oak tree.
“Your favorite,” Rami says, and his eyes are glowing with mischief, but something else, too, something Joe can’t name. There is an inexplicable lump in his throat. He shakes his head, like maybe that’ll make it go away.
“This... is amazing.” He sounds strange, he knows he does. He can’t do anything about it. “Thank you. I’ll hang it above my bed so it’s the last thing I see at night.” He slips it back into the envelope. “Rami,” he says, before he can stop himself, “I have to go.”
Rami blinks at him. “You do? Where?”
“Nowhere. I mean. I just… I have to go.”
Joe stands up. Rami doesn’t. The air between them is thick, thicker than it has ever been, and Joe doesn’t even know why. “Thank you,” he says, again. Clutches the print against his jacket. “For this. And everything. Uh. I’ll text you later, okay?”
“Okay,” Rami says, but he still looks confused. Put out. Hurt, maybe. Joe has to turn away.
“I’ll text you,” he repeats, and then he’s walking back the way they came, but alone this time. For a reason he can't even name. Alone.
He makes it about thirty feet outside the gardens before he’s grappling for his phone. Ben’s number four on his speed dial, which he should be grateful for, given that he’d bumped his next door neighbor down a notch. Like a good friend, Ben picks up on the second ring.
“My god, man,” he says, in lieu of a greeting. “It’s been two hours, you can’t miss me that much already.”
“I never stop missing you, Ben,” he says, but he must sound as off as he feels, because Ben doesn’t laugh.
“You okay, mate?”
“Um. No? Maybe? I don’t know?”
There is a rustle on Ben’s side of the phone, like he’s getting comfortable. Like he’s ready for whatever Joe’s about to throw his way. “What’s going on?”
“I think I’m being stupid,” Joe says. Weird how easily he can talk to Ben about this. Ben will give him shit over just about anything, but he knows, knows, Ben won’t give him shit about this.
“Not exactly shocking,” Ben says back. “What is it that you’re being stupid about, exactly?”
There’s a beat. “Ah?” Joe questions. “What do you mean, ah?”
“I mean… ah. Stop jumping down my throat and tell me what’s happened.”
“Do you ever…” Joe scuffs his foot along the ground, trying to choose his words carefully. It’s easier said than done. “Look. Our friendship. Yours and mine, I mean. It’s not exactly a typical friendship, right? How many times do we get told that? And I don’t care, I think it’s funny, keeping everyone guessing. But with Rami…”
“You don’t find it so funny,” Ben says succinctly, and Joe lets out a sigh.
“I didn’t even realize that I don’t find it funny,” he says, “until I kept trying to force myself to laugh.”
“Because it’s maybe not a joke.”
“Maybe?” Ben says, and Joe is silent for a moment.
“It’s not a joke,” he says, at last, and curses the entire world for this idiotic realization. “But I mean. Ben. It’s Rami.”
“So… it’s Rami.”
“I’ve seen you two,” Ben says. “We all have. Trust me, Joe. That is not a strong enough argument. What you’ve got going on, whatever it is… I don’t think it’s just you that might not find it funny.”
A gentle thrum starts up in Joe’s chest. He thinks that Ben can’t possibly be right—it’s been so long, he’d know by now, wouldn’t he?—but then again. Maybe he is.
“I think,” Ben goes on, “you should just be honest with him. Like you said, it’s Rami. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Joe chews at his lower lip. The thrum picks up, a shiver ghosting its way down Joe’s spine that has nothing to do with the chilly March air. “Are you really not surprised?” he asks, just to be sure.
“You kidding?” Ben says, and then, slightly muffled, as though he’s covering the phone with his palm, he calls out, “Oi, Gwil! You owe me twenty quid!”
hour nine, part two.
Joe retraces his steps to the botanic gardens. He has to pay admission again, which is a joke, but he barely even notices when he passes over a fifty instead of a ten. He’s not even sure Rami’s still there. If he were Rami, he definitely would have left. He hopes he hasn’t.
He passes the oak tree. The greenhouse, with the orchids. The gift shop. He turns a corner, towards the bench he’d practically run away from, and holds his breath and looks.
Rami is not there.
Of course he’s not.
The air blows out of him slowly, and he heads back towards the gates. He’ll call Rami once he gets home, he decides. Pretend he’d fallen ill. Wish him luck with the rest of filming. Try to nail down a date they can get together next, because by then, maybe this will have dissipated. Weeks, or months from now. Whenever they can.
Joe pauses. Turns around.
Rami is looking at him from across a flowerbed. Joe’s stomach clenches unexpectedly. “You’re still here,” Rami says, like a question.
“I’m still here,” Joe answers.
“Are you… okay?”
They are in one of the most stunning, awe-worthy pockets of the city. Surrounded by beauty. Joe can’t look away from Rami’s face. “Can we talk?” he says.
Rami nods. “Of course.”
“Maybe… not here. Let’s walk?”
They gravitate towards each other, fall in step. Pass back through the exit—that was the most expensive four minutes of his life, Joe thinks—and onto the street. The neighborhood is alive, bustling. No one looks at them twice.
“I was just hit with the realization,” Joe says, and he's either incredibly brave or incredibly foolish, he’s not sure which, “and I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it—that I might not want to be friends with you.”
Rami looks wounded, which was not his intention. He clarifies quickly, “I mean... just friends.”
There is silence between them, and Joe wonders if he was wrong, if Ben was wrong, if he’s about to fuck everything up beyond repair. “You are maybe more important to me than I realized,” Joe goes on. He buries his hands in his pockets and stares off towards the water, to the world that exists beyond it. Beyond them. He takes in a steely breath. “And you maybe always have been.”
“That’s a lot of maybes,” Rami says. He’s stopped walking, so Joe stops too.
“Defense mechanism,” Joe says, lifting his shoulders in a helpless sort of way.
Rami nods. He is always so careful with his words, careful in a way Joe never is. He licks his lips and meets Joe’s eyes. He doesn’t look unsure. He is the opposite of maybe. “I definitely,” he says, “do not want to be just friends with you.”
There is a swoop in Joe’s stomach, a glorious, dizzying swoop. “Really?”
Rami reaches forward, tugs Joe’s sleeve out of his pocket. Holds his hand, gently at first, then winds their fingers together. Looks to Joe to see if it’s okay. “I don’t think we have been just friends for a very, very long time.”
Joe grins. Relief floods through every inch of his body. “How did I miss that?”
Rami shoots him a secretive smile, the kind, he realizes, that he reserves just for Joe. “I don’t think you did.”
Once again. Rami is always fucking right.
They walk back to Rami’s apartment, together. They find some subtle way to touch the entire way there. Joe’s arm draped over his shoulders. Rami’s fingers, snaking along the bones in Joe’s wrist. Joe’s hip bumping against Rami’s while they’re waiting for a light to change. Otherwise, they behave themselves.
And then they get inside.
The door, closed safely behind them. The rest of the world tucked away. Rami looks at Joe. “I had another vague goal for today,” he admits, pressing back against the wall.
“Well, let’s leave no stone unturned,” Joe says. “What was it? Maybe I can help.”
Rami reaches out and snatches the fabric of Joe’s jacket. Reels him in close, so close their feet are touching. Slips a thumb through his belt loop, for good measure. “You already have.”
This is the glory of being honest with yourself, Joe thinks. One minute they’re two guys eating bagels on a couch. The next they’re kissing in the foyer.
And Rami’s an incredibly good kisser.
His free hand cups the back of Joe’s neck, pulls him in close, nuzzles his nose against Joe’s before capturing his lips and kissing him properly, sweet and slow and deep. Joe circles his arms around waist and kisses him back, and it’s—it’s exactly how he thought it’d be, his every nerve on fire. Rami kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, and then slips a hand up Joe’s shirt and Joe breathes out hard against his mouth and feels his stomach roll over with need.
“We have four hours,” Rami murmurs, “if you want—”
“I want,” Joe answers at once, “I want, I want—” and practically drags Rami towards his bedroom. They pause a handful of times, to kiss heatedly in the hallway, for Rami to push Joe against the bathroom door and lick a stripe along his jaw, for hands to wander, north and south and everywhere, and by the time they make it to his bed Joe’s skin is flushed and he’s breathing heavy, and Rami crawls over top of him and presses against him and kisses him again, tongue and teeth and nipping lightly at Joe’s bottom lip.
Rami’s fingers dip under Joe’s waistband and then he looks at Joe with raised eyebrows. “Going commando?” he questions slyly, and Joe responds by rolling his hips up into Rami’s hand.
“Had to,” he pants. “Didn’t know it’d be obvious.”
Rami looks down and curls his hand around him, suddenly enough that Joe makes a little choking sound. Rami grins and presses open-mouthed kisses along his neck. “It’s obvious,” he informs him, voice low, twisting his wrist in a way that coaxes a gasp from the back of his throat.
He works Joe’s pants off the rest of the way, and then he plants kisses along his body as he makes his way down: his shoulder, his collarbone, his ribs and the curve of his hips, over and over again, and then he looks up and locks eyes with Joe, close enough that Joe can feel his breath everywhere, all over. “Can I?” he asks, and Joe doesn’t waste a second before breathing out, “God, yes, please.”
Rami wraps his mouth around him and Joe groans, cards his fingers through Rami’s hair. Thinks they should’ve done this ages ago. Thinks they’d let a lot of Freddie outfits go unappreciated. He tugs at Rami’s hair again and Rami moans around him, sending skin-tingling vibrations right up his spine. Luckily, he thinks, they have time to make it right.
Rami flops on the pillow beside him, sweaty and pink-cheeked. Just like this morning, he looks wrecked.
Joe likes this version so much better.
“I don’t know what we do now,” Rami says, reaching out and tracing his finger along Joe’s ribcage. “Shower again? Nap again? If I show up to set like this, they’re going to know.”
Joe checks the clock. “We have time,” he says, “for all of that. But first, uh, I’m pretty sure it’s my turn.”
“Your turn?” Rami says, but Joe is already tossing the blankets aside, crawling down Rami’s body. He rakes his fingernails along Rami’s thigh just to see his skin flare with goosebumps, and then he soothes the area with a kiss.
“My turn,” he confirms and Rami’s eyes shutter closed.
They do end up in the shower together. It takes them a long, long time to get clean.
Rami’s chest is rising and falling in a slow, measured pattern. He’d passed out almost immediately after setting his alarm (thirty minutes, this time; “no more, no less”) but Joe couldn’t bring himself to fall asleep. Instead he stretches out against Rami’s side and listens to him breathing, wonders what could possibly come next.
He has lived a lifetime for the inevitability of this moment, he thinks. He was too dumb to realize it, for so long, but still: none of this feels unexpected. Ben was right. Rami was right. Everyone around Joe is smarter than him, and it only sort of pisses him off.
They are both so busy. Rami is fresh off the tail of an Oscar-winning journey, fresh on the wing of just-as-big projects to come. He has a schedule marked down to the minute. Time didn’t belong to him, not really. How, Joe thinks, could they ever make something work?
But then Rami’s alarm goes off, and he rolls over and blinks up at Joe, a smile blooming across his face, slow and sweet, one of the ones he’d kept reserved, and Joe feels better.
They’ll find a way. They always do.
They kiss goodbye in the foyer, long and lingering and faintly bittersweet. They make promises: Rami, to answer his texts in a timely fashion. Joe, to refrain from posting any shirtless pictures on Instagram. (He might’ve taken one or two. For posterity.) Joe takes the train home, alone, the oak tree print tucked safely against his chest.
His phone buzzes before he makes it to his door. It’s Rami, in their shared group text with Ben and Gwil. Joe opens the text and laughs out loud. He’d sent an emoji, his first ever, with the closed-eye smile and a pink blush on its cheeks. That’s it. The entire message.
Me too, Joe writes back.
At the exact same time, less than a minute later, Gwil and Ben send identical texts. The barfing-face emoji. Times two.
God, Joe really hates his friends.