This is my family. I found it all on my own.
—Lilo & Stitch
There’s the screech of tires on asphalt, the sound of metal folding.
And Sébastien, screaming.
The rush of blood fills Niccolò’s ears like an old friend.
Honorine Lesoyeux was born in a French town called Saint-Dié-Des-Vosges in December of 1984, to a family that had been mostly content to remain in or close to ‘Saint-Dié’ for the previous six generations. Well, there was that one great uncle who’d gone and settled down in Vittel nearly a hundred kilometers away, but that was before she was born and her parents had almost never bothered with the drive down there, so he almost didn’t count. Nevertheless, Honorine grew up feeling more kinship with that old man she’d never met than she did with the rest of her family, who neither shared nor understood her wanderlust...which, in turn, may have explained why she never quite got along with them, and why she made a decision that would later change three lives in the most unexpected way.
Before she made that decision, though, she did exactly what she’d always said she would without her family believing her: she traveled. To Paris, first. The French capital wasn’t quite as far to her as it always seemed to her parents, but even in 2002 her family treated it like foreign land. She took to life there, worked hard for her studies, and set money aside to travel as soon and as much as possible. Two years later, after several trips to Eastern Europe and an elective language class that she’d loved far more than she could have expected, Honorine made her way to Cairo for the last year of her international commerce licence. During her first week in Egypt, Honorine made two very important encounters. The first was Maël Le Livre, a young man from Marseille who was here for the same reasons she was, and whom she would later marry and have a son with.
The second man Honorine met in this first week was Yusuf Al-Kaysani, a second-generation Tunisian who’d spent his whole life in Cairo and was now studying Arabic and French-language literature. They met at some kind of mixer, destined to help foreigners make new friends among the local students, and spent the better part of an hour exchanging thoughts about the second Shrek movie, which had only come to Egypt in early August. He also told her, after another student had politely inquired whether they were an item, that she was lovely but he was not interested—the way his gaze lingered over a waiter did the rest. Yusuf and Honorine bonded fast and hard: for that one year of studying, they were seldom seen without the other, convincing more than one person that they would marry before they got their Masters’ degrees.
After that year, Honorine and Maël returned to France. Her friendship with Yusuf mellowed into a regular exchange of email and text messages about their daily lives and, later on, the little inconveniences of their jobs. Yusuf was invited to Honorine and Maël’s wedding in 2012 and they remained good friends, but not the sort who confessed their deep secrets to one another. Definitely, or so Yusuf would have said up until the fateful day, not the sort of friends whose will entrusted a five years old child to the care of the other in the event of a terrible car crash leaving him an orphan.
La millière (Marseille), France, 2020
When Yusuf called to tell him the news about Honorine and Maël, Niccolò’s ringtone was a pop song from that year’s top hits in Egypt, on the sole basis that Yusuf disliked it immensely. It’d been half a joke, half petty retribution for one too many teases about his—admittedly impressive—lack of pop culture knowledge, and Niccolò had been rather proud of himself for the idea. After that day, he hadn’t been able to even think about that song for a while, and he’d exchanged it for one of the default ringtones.
He changed it again last year when Sébastien came to live with them. They’d watched Moana together for Sébastien’s first movie night with them, and he’d been so obsessed with it to the point that Niccolò thought of home every time he heard the songs anyway. At some point, he figured he might as well roll with it.The way Sébastien sings along to Where You Are whenever Yusuf calls to let them know he’s on his way makes the repetition worth it.
Now that Andy is at the hospital after crashing against the neighbors’ oak tree, Niccolò finds out it is extremely jarring to hear that song when you’re waiting to know how your elderly friend is faring at the hospital, and makes a mental note to change it before he finally picks up.
“Hey,” he manages after a few seconds, clenching his fist hard to give his nerves somewhere to be that isn’t his throat. “How’s she?”
On the other end of the line, he can hear footsteps echo, the gentle hum of something electric—fans, maybe, to combat the heat of mid-august. There are voices, too, one of which Niccolò is fairly sure belongs to Quyhn, and the other is most likely a doctor. Niccolò wonders, idly, if the corridors there look as bad as they did in Italy.
“She’s concussed,” Yusuf sighs in Arabic, the exhaustion of the afternoon clear in his voice. “She’s also got some bruising on her ribs and the broken arm, but aside from that she’s apparently fine.”
Niccolò sinks into the couch, sighing in relief. He brings a hand up to his face so he can rub at his eyes and chase the moisture there, his gesture accompanied by the ringing click-clock of high heels on linoleum somewhere behind Yusuf. For a brief second, the sight of Andy and Quynh’s rental car hitting the old oak in front of the Langlades’ house across the street from them fills Niccolò’s vision, dragging his heart back to his throat, and he has to swallow hard before he asks, also in Arabic:
“Do they think there will be any lasting damage?”
“Well,” Yusuf answers, sounding like he’d been distracted by something and is only just coming back to the conversation at hand, “the arm will obviously take time to heal, and she’ll need PT, but aside from that they don’t seem to think so. Although Quynh just gave me a note that says they want to keep her in observation because of her age, so I think there might be lasting damage to the doctors.”
Niccolò snorts, he can’t help it. Andy and Quynh may be in their sixties, but they could both kick any doctor to the curb in less time than it takes to blink. Unless Quynh intervenes—which, as the marginally more reasonable of the two, she probably will—Andy is not staying in that hospital tonight.
“Does Andy know they want to keep her there?”
Just as Niccolò finishes his sentence, he hears a commotion on the other end of the line and a voice rising above the silence. Yusuf giggles in that way he does when he’s just trying to release some tension, and Niccolò’s lips pull into a smile in response, as instinctive as breathing.
“Did I hear Georgian?” He asks, shoulders relaxing for the first time since Yusuf and Quynh dragged Andy to the ER six hours ago.
Yusuf sighs into the phone, and then there’s the sound of him sitting heavily on what Niccolò assumes is a plastic chair, or bench.
Niccolò glances at the clock. It’s nearly six in the evening.
“Guess you guys won’t be here for dinner, then.”
Tel-Aviv, Israel, 2018
They both thought Andy was a born Israelite, at first. She spoke English and Hebrew without a discernible accent and, as far as Niccolò could tell, never made a grammar mistake that wasn’t completely intentional on her part. All in all, it wasn’t entirely ridiculous of them not to have realized...for a year. Ahem. The point is: they didn’t realize until Andy and Quynh invited the both of them over to watch a football match that must be of some importance. Niccolò didn’t feel particularly strongly about the sport, one way or the other, but as his fellow-non-football-watcher, Quynh had promised to share her recipe for a good phở and that he simply couldn’t have passed up… So, they’d gone to Andy and Quynh’s small house in the outskirts of Tel-Aviv and found a sober space decorated in warm browns and muted greens, appetizers ready to consume and the ingredients of Quynh’s phở waiting to be transformed into something more than the sum of their parts.
All that and Andy, lying down on the kitchen floor and shouting “Gekhvets’ebi!” at the sink above her head, followed by several more words Niccolò assumed were additional curses. Quynh chuckled and went to stand by the sink, one hand braced against the kitchen counter to spare the hip that was starting to bother her more often than not.
“Are you okay?” She asked in English, bumping her right foot against Andy’s left thigh.
“I’ll be okay when that damn—nizhara is finally fixed.”
“Usually when Nico says that,” Yusuf piped up from the living room, following Quynh into the one language they all spoke, “it means he’s not okay.”
“Maybe I’m subtly hinting that I’d like your help,” Niccolò retorted before accepting the beer Yusuf had brought him from the living room. “Have you considered that?”
Yusuf laughed, which was fair. As the son of two prominent business people who’d come from two already rich families, he’d never had to do a day of manual work in his life. Niccolò had shown him how to do basic fixes in preparation for the day he would finally leave Egypt—and therefore an environment where the name Al-Kaysani was enough to bring people back to work in the middle of their holidays. Not that he abused the privilege, far from that, but Niccolò enjoyed watching him splutter when he teased him with that, and so the barb stuck.
“Oh, Andy knows I could do that too with a little effort,” Quynh said with a dry chuckle, “she just enjoys swearing in Georgian.”
“Quynh’s unhappy because I won’t teach her,” Andy intervened from under the sink, pulling herself out as she spoke. She turned to Niccolò and indicated the broken sink with a jerk of her head. “Here, you have a go at it. I’m about to start banging around like a caveman.”
With a nod, Niccolò set his beer down on the kitchen counter and slid into place. Plumbing was far from his specialty—he’d studied carpentry during his summer camps and had made it his job once he’d gone to Cairo with Yusuf—but the dorms at the seminary had had faulty showers so he’d already had occasions to poke around something like that. Plus, contrary to Andy, he knew how to look at YouTube tutorials if he really needed to.
“I think she doesn’t want to admit she’s getting old,” Yusuf commented in cheeky Arabic, which Niccolò responded to with a light kick in the shin.
“Don’t be rude,” he said in English with a nod at Quynh.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear,” Quynh teased, and Niccolò stuffed his head under the sink’s cupboard.
The wood of it muffled most of the sounds, but he could still hear enough to know Andy was coming back to the kitchen, most likely with a beer of her own and a bowl of chips to pass the time while Niccolò worked.
“I didn’t know you spoke Georgian,” Yusuf remarked, and it was Quynh who replied:
“She is Georgian.”
Niccolò heard Yusuf hiss just as he grimaced at the offending piece of plumbing. Luckily, it didn’t seem like anything was broken, just screwed up a little wrong.
“You are?” Yusuf was asking overhead. “You never said.”
There was a pause, which Niccolò assumed meant Andy had taken a swig from her drink, and Yusuf added:
“Then again, I imagine there’s a lot of...complicated memories there.”
Niccolò heard Andy snort while he started unscrewing the...whatever the screwy thing was supposed to be called.
“My parents took us over the border when I was fifteen,” Andy said after another pause. “Didn’t have the money so we walked across Turkey, Syria and Lebanon before we could get here...and we weren’t even sure we’d all be able to stay, since only my mother’s grandmother was Jewish.”
“Luckily, you could,” Quynh says.
A longer silence settled while Niccolò got the leaky piece off its position and replaced it with the new one, which Andy had kindly left close at hand. He hadn’t planned to spend the evening doing menial work, but at least that allowed him to remain a little removed from the awkward moment outside.
Fortunately, Andy seemed to take being reminded of her past in the U.S.S.R. relatively well, and after a little bit, she spared everyone by saying:
“Anyway, I’ve had to deal with too many languages in my life. Georgian, Russian, English, Hebrew… I’m fine sticking to the last two for the rest of my life.”
“She says that like she’s not learning Vietnamese,” Quynh said with a snort as Niccolò straightened out from under the sink.
“Only for dirty talk,” Andy grumbled, holding the chips out to Niccolò.
“I’m pretty sure the first thing Yusuf said to me in Italian was ‘I want to fuck your ass’.”
“Hayati!” Yusuf protested, outrage not entirely faked, “I was trying to be sexy. Please leave my humiliation in the past!”
“It was sexy,” Niccolò tried to reassure, but Yusuf raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t expecting you to use Italian !”
“It’s not my fault you didn’t grow up with it,” Yusuf grumbled, making Quynh and Andy raise their eyebrows.
“Genoese,” Niccolò said, pointing at himself as he followed Quynh to the kitchen counter. “I did tell him Italian would be more useful but… I guess he likes the sound of ‘peo-ciù fòrte’.”
Yusuf shoved him in the shoulder, and the conversation moved on, away from sex talk but staying close to the challenges of having a multilingual household and finding a dynamic that satisfied everyone while also respecting sensibilities—or, in Andy’s case, probably trauma—and taking practicalities into account—like using mainly Arabic at home so Niccolò could insert himself into Egyptian society more easily.
In the end, they missed the match, and no one complained.
La millière, France, 2020
There’s silence between them for a few moments longer, the sounds of the hospital mixing with the Langlades’ car coming up to their portal a little further up the street. Niccolò called the nearest garage to have Andy’s car removed from the sidewalk, but the neighbors are bound to notice the large chunk of bark missing from their tree and possibly have questions. Niccolò will need to go talk to them in the morning, and he's already tired about it.
“How are you holding up?” Yusuf asks after a little while, the soft consonants of Arabic unknotting something in Niccolò’s shoulders.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve covered all our meals for the next three days,” Niccolò sighs, smiling despite himself when Yusuf laughs. “I’m tired and I miss you. I’m better now that I know Andy’s okay, though.”
The sight of her, right after, was awful—her arm bending in the middle, the line of blood over her forehead… It wasn’t the first time Niccolò saw someone look like that, but he’d always found it painful. And to have to see it on a friend’s face… Niccolò breathes, and doesn’t let himself go down that rabbit hole.
“Busy, at the moment,” Yusuf replies. “Someone has to save those poor doctors.”
This time it’s Niccolò’s turn to chuckle. He sinks further into the couch, some of the weight sliding off his shoulders with the comfort of knowing Andy isn't alone. They never really said why or since when, but she and Quynh both have a—a thing, about being told they're not allowed to leave somewhere. It’s nothing Niccolò wants to poke at—wouldn’t, even if he wanted to, because that’s not his place—but it’s good to know they have each other to help deal with it more often than not.
All of that being said, though, there is one person he and Yusuf have yet to talk about and, well, someone has to point at the elephant in the room.
“Seb’s in bed,” Niccolò tells Yusuf, and gets a tight sigh in response. “He didn’t want to at first—I think he was too busy crying—but I’m pretty sure he’s been asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.”
“That’s good,” Yusuf says, tense and sounding a little like he’s trying to pretend he’s not listening. In a way, Niccolò doesn’t blame him: this was never going to be an easy conversation, and having it over the phone is far from ideal, but….
“Tezöo. You’ve been away for the past six hours. I wish we could do this face to face but I think we need to talk about it before you come home.”
“I can’t!” Yusuf replies, too loud, “I’m too angry, I—”
There’s another voice on the other end of the line. Niccolò can’t hear the exact words, but they make Yusuf sigh and then apologize. Niccolò listens to the sounds behind his partner change as he walks, until the air goes quiet and only the crunch of footsteps on gravel reaches Niccolò.
“Sorry,” Yusuf says, sounding weary and worn thin, “I had to get out. The nurse said he’d tell Quynh where I’d gone.”
“No problem,” Niccolò says, wiping a tired hand over his face, the back of his neck. Boy, does he need today to be over already.
“Look, Andy could have died,” Yusuf starts after a brief pause. “Quynh, too, and if she’d veered right instead of left—”
Niccolò looks down at his right hand, finally steady. This is a detail he’s been trying not to think too hard about, choosing to focus on his crying little boy, and then the car, and then the meal, and now the phone conversation; and hopefully he’ll never have to think about how close the bumpers of Andy’s car swerved to him ever again.
“I know,” he tells Yusuf, glad to hear no tremble in his voice, “I know, tezöo, but—”
“Niccolò, I beg you—please not now. Please.”
Closing his eyes, Niccolò leans his head back against the sofa and wonders how today went to shit so fast. They were supposed to have a nice day together. Celebrate their first anniversary with Sébastien by having him finally meet Andy and Quynh in person—Yusuf’s parents usually aren’t free this time of the year, but they’re coming to visit during Sébastien’s Christmas break. There was going to be Niccolò’s best risotto and an apple cake, and it was going to be great. Instead, now, they have this.
Niccolò doesn’t even blame Yusuf for feeling so strongly about the situation—it is a hard one, and Yusuf has always been the quickest to react, between the two of them. To know. Niccolò never really knows how he feels about something right away: he needs his emotions to percolate like coffee until one day he can finally name them, then look back and say “oh, so those were the signs”. Yusuf doesn’t need that time. How he does it, Niccolò has no idea, but the immediacy of his emotion shines through every time, present and intense from the get go, processed faster than Niccolò could ever dream of.
Of course, the downside of it is: answers that come quick and clear are easier to cling to, to hold onto. Yusuf always knows himself right away, knows what he feels about any given person or situation right away. He doesn’t deal too well with having these impressions challenged later, especially by someone else. Normally, Niccolò doesn’t mind. They may be forever locked in a mock-fight about the legitimacy of penne lisse—Yusuf insists on being wrong and saying they’re not an affront to God and his entire Creation—but it’s not that important a thing.
It becomes a very different problem once that applies to a little boy who’s already lost far too much in his short life.
“Yusuf,” Niccolò sighs, a little harsher than he’d meant to. “Tezöo. He thinks you’re going to ban him from the house.”
He doesn’t think he’s heard Yusuf insult anyone before, not even the drunken tourists who’d thrown beer bottles at them—and inadvertently sparked their love story—the night they met. That being said, as he listens to the way he talks about Sébastien’s grandparents, Niccolò can’t find it in himself to calm him down. It’s not like he disapproves anyway.
Saint-Dié-Des-Vosges (Vosges), France, 2019
They didn’t get guardianship of Sébastien right away. Or, more accurately, Yusuf didn’t get guardianship of Sébastien right away. Maël and Honorine’s decision to have Yusuf take care of him had been a vote of confidence like no other but it had also, perhaps not been entirely thought through. As it turned out, the French government wasn’t too thrilled at the thought of having to contact a foreigner to come take care of a young orphan, not necessarily because he was a foreigner—at least not always. Niccolò may not speak French, but he did know what Yusuf looked like when confronted with assholes.
The foreigner aspect aside, though: there were insurances Yusuf was supposed to give, visits he was supposed to comply with, and a whole array of other things that would simply be much easier to deal with if they lived in France rather than Cairo. Yusuf, Nicky already knew by then, had been planning to leave since the days he’d figured he was queer. Circumstances had pushed his departure back and back again, but he’d started talking about leaving after the first six months of his and Niccolò’s relationship, so all in all it wasn’t too difficult to decide to move to France for the sake of Sébastien.
In the end, the decision was made to leave Sébastien with his maternal grandparents—no family remained on his father’s side—while Yusuf and Niccolò got their affairs in order. Niccolò, incapable of speaking French but bearing a European passport, managed to find a job in a small italian-owned carpentry workshop in Marseille and a cheap AirBnB in a village near where Sébastien had used to attend school. He left first, tasked with learning French, starting at his job and finding a place for the three of them to live at the same time.
Part of him, when he’d left, has feared being apart would be the end of what he and Yusuf had. Yusuf, he’d thought then, was bound to realize he could do much better and find his own living arrangement once in France. Yet, during the six months’ separation, they texted and phoned constantly, growing ever fonder of one another and bickering even while Niccolò gave Yusuf a video tour of the prospective houses he found.
They spent the first three days after Yusuf finally landed in Marseille having sex on just about every flat surface in the house. After that, there were meetings and setups to be attended to at the university where Yusuf had found work, a couple of complicated projects for Niccolò, a whole new host of formalities to abide by with the social services—including two visits of the house and one long interview for Niccolò—and the weekly, eight hundred kilometers drive to go visit Sébastien and let him at least get used to their faces before he came to live with them and all in all, by the time they were finally ready to make the last, fateful drive to Saint-Dié-Des-Goddamned-Vosges, it’d been almost a year to the day since Honorine and Maël’s double funeral.
They’d gone to their usual hotel, not the closest to Sébastien but the first where they hadn’t had to deal with some kind of strange look, and asked for a bedroom with two beds this time around, even though they’d been prepared to let Sébastien have one last night with his grandparents if they so desired. They had, after all, never properly met the boy until his parents died, and while Niccolò had never met them—Sébastien’s babysitter usually took him to meet them—he’d thought it would make sense for them to want to drag the moment out a little.
He’d been too shocked to protest when, instead of that they’d been met at the door by a wizened old man who’d tossed a bag of Sébastien’s stuff at their feet, pushed the boy at Niccolò hard enough to make him stumble, and all but spat:
“Don’t bother inviting us for Christmas.”
Yusuf had muttered some very unflattering—but probably entirely true—things about the man in Genoese while M. Lesoyeux walked back to his front door and the wife who’d been impassively watching from the window. If Niccolò hadn’t been too busy trying to figure out how to deal with Sébastien, whose bony little arms had wrapped around his left thigh and Yusuf’s right and who was now crying into their jeans, he’d have gone up to that door and given the old man a piece of his mind.
“I’m sorry,” he said, hiccuping so hard with the force of his sobs that Niccolò had to guess most of his words, “I’m—I’m trying to stop!”
“Trying to stop what, Sébastien?” Yusuf asked.
“St—stop—crying!” Niccolò glared at the house, even though the window was now empty.
“Oh, helwa,” Yusuf said, kneeling down slowly so he wouldn’t accidentally knee Sébastien in the stomach, “you cry as much as you want, okay? As much as you need.”
Sébastien’s small face twisted until he could look at Niccolò and ask:
“For real,” Niccolò said, and tried not to ascribe too much meaning to the child’s need to have Yusuf’s words confirmed.
La millière, France, 2020
“I hate that they made him think it was possible,” Yusuf sighs when he’s done swearing. “I hate them so much, Nico.”
Niccolò sighs in response, dragging his hand over his face again. They don’t know the details—can’t possibly ask Sébastien to provide them—but it didn’t take long after he came to live with them to realize he’d been taught some very shady ideas about muslims and what they were like. His fist clenches.
“You told him I wouldn’t, right?” Yusuf asks after a beat, worry creeping into his voice fast enough to make Niccolò want to break something. “He’s got—he needs to know I would never ever do that.”
“Of course I told him,” Niccolò promises, “but he’s seven. He needs to hear it from you. And you can’t convince him you’re telling the truth if you’re still fuming.”
“I’m not,” Yusuf sighs.
There’s another moment of silence, someone else’s footsteps on gravel growing closer and then going away again before Yusuf says:
“I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him. I know I shouldn’t have. He’s just a kid, and scared, and now I’m behaving exactly like his grandparents said—”
“Hey no, none of that,” Niccolò interrupts, abandoning Arabic in favor of Genoese. It takes more effort for Yusuf to understand, which means he has no choice but to really listen to what Niccolò is saying. “You’re allowed to be loud. You’re allowed to be scared! It’s not—”
Niccolò makes himself stop when his voice grows too loud, forcing a deep breath through his nose. This is why he doesn’t do big speeches: he can never finish them at a normal volume. And Yusuf is much better at words, anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t stay in the Church. Either way, Niccolò needs to calm down, and he makes himself go through the Pater Noster in his head, the cadence of it soothing even after everything. When he’s done, he tries again:
“Look, I—Sébastien will learn. Has learned, already. He’ll move past the bullshit, eventually—I did, and I came from far worse.”
Niccolò hasn’t had any contact with his family since he was told to piss off three years ago, but he remembers what they used to say, the jokes they made. He remembers what he used to think. If he managed to realize how wrong he was at thirty-one, Sébastien can learn at seven.
“I’m not—I know it’s hard. You shouldn’t have to go through it. But he loves you. He knows you’re not that kind of person, even if he’s too upset to remember it.”
It isn’t enough. Words aren’t enough, actions aren’t enough—nothing will ever be enough to counter the injustice of a world that thinks Yusuf, of all people, is an unfeeling brute. They don’t know—all these people out there, who take a look at Yusuf and think he’s some kind of horrible caricature they’ve built in their minds. Yusuf is bold, and loud, and sometimes a little overeager, but he is all these things for love, for joy, for the beauty that runs in the world. He’s more likely to weep over kittens than he is to be violent to anyone, not without provocation that is.
And even when he isn’t, when he makes bad choices—isn’t he a person? Niccolò made his own fair share of bad choices, has associated with people whose bad decisions sent others to the hospital—and he still got his second chance. Why should Yusuf not get the same opportunity when his faults are so much smaller?
“You’re a person,” Niccolò hisses, blinking back the tears that sting at the corner of his eyes. “You shouldn’t try to turn yourself into an apology, not even for him.”
“Oh, hayati,” Yusuf sighs, voice strangled and wet, “’ahbak. ‘Ahbak, ‘ahbak.”
“I love you too,” Niccolò says, chest loosening under the weight of his sweater and throat opening again.
Silence settles between them, a moment of respite to catch their breaths and process what happened this morning, what’s happening now. It is, after all, a lot to digest. Eventually, Yusuf speaks again:
“It’s not just about that, though. I—the accident, I mean. Niccolò, he—”
“Ah,” Niccolò says, body clenching up again, the beat of blood rising in his ears. “You saw it too.”
La millière, earlier in the day.
Sébastien had been in a bad mood the whole week. It was hardly the first time: over the past year Yusuf and Niccolò had both noticed that he could turn morose at the drop of a hat for no particular reason, bright smile leaving way to a perpetual frown and a shorter temper, his toys abandoned and his tears too quick to come. They’d dismissed it, at first: Sébastien may have been small when his parents died, but it was still a traumatic event, and between that and the subsequent year plus the move, he’d had more than enough to work through to justify some mood issues. In the past six months, though, Niccolò had been starting to suspect—to fear—something else was up, concern mounting until, finally, the confirmation came.
There was a car crash: the screech of tires on asphalt, the sound of metal folding. Sébastien, screaming.
Before the crash there was: Andy, turning into their street always a little bit faster than reasonable. Sébastien, looking at her car approach.
Stepping off the sidewalk.
After, there was Andy, slumped unconscious against the wheel and Quynh calling out for her. Yusuf, phone already dialling 15 as he yelled “Go to your room! I don’t want to see you right now!”
The rush of blood, filling Niccolò’s ears like an old friend.
La millière, France, 2020
“Yes,” Yusuf confirms, very small and very quiet. “I saw.”
Niccolò hears a deep, harsh breath—through the nose, probably. That's what Yusuf usually does. Niccolò pictures it, even as he tries to brace for the upcoming conversation: Yusuf’s free hand coming up to his forehead. His shoulders, slumping forward until he feels a little more shielded from the world...and then, the quiet sobbing, the unashamed tears. After a while—one Ave Maria later, for some habits die hard—there is another shaky breath, a sniff, and then:
“What are we going to do, Nico?”
Niccolò sighs, feeling it rattle in his bones. He’s too old for this, but also too young for this. What are they going to do? What can they do, that’s the real question. If this is what they think it is, if Sébastien really tried to—to go...they can’t fix that kind of thing. They can’t love it out of him, no matter how much they’d like to, and well Niccolò should know. If love were enough, any kind of love, one week in Egypt would have been enough to drive his own depression out of his head.
If Sébastien did see the car, if he did step in front of it on purpose, that probably means there’s nothing they can actually do against it, not directly. There may be, however, things that can be tried.
“I...would like to ask him,” Niccolò says, careful to stick to Arabic for this. “Whether he really did know what he was doing.”
“Wha—no!” Yusuf exclaims, gravel crunching under his shoes again. “We can’t ask him that!”
“We need to know—”
“I know,” Yusuf says, “but you can’t ask a seven years old if they wanted to die!”
“Yusuf,” Niccolò starts, but Yusuf doesn’t hear him:
“He’s just a little boy!” He protests, gravel crunching harder on his end of the line, “he’s too young! We can’t just—”
Yusuf’s voice breaks again, sharp and raw, and for a moment all Niccolò can do is wipe tears from his face as he listens to Yusuf cry, and fight through his own sobs to promise that he’s there, that he’s right there with him even though they both know it’s a lie. He wishes, not for the first time today, that he could take Yusuf in his arms and forget the rest of the world exists. He can’t, though, and so he waits until Yusuf has managed to calm his sobs before he says:
“Tezöo. We have to ask him. We can’t just assume this...and if he really did see the car, we can’t just leave him in the dark.”
It’s always been the worst part, the not knowing. Not knowing why he wasn’t like his older brothers, thinking and talking of nothing but girls from fourteen onwards. Why it hurt, every time, hearing his family joke about The Gays. Why the older he grew, the harder it was not to succumb to the depthless numbness of an ever-encroaching need to sleep and not wake up. Knowing, not just in his heart but really knowing and putting words on these things, that was his first step out towards a better life. He can’t begrudge his son that.
“I—I don’t want to have to talk to him about that,” Yusuf admits after a long pause. “I know we can’t just—I don’t feel ready to tell him about… what, depression, then? Assuming….”
“I don’t feel ready either,” Niccolò says, closing his eyes to ask God for some fortitude. The smell of his beef Bourguignon still floats through the house, and he tries to take comfort in that before he makes himself continue: “but I don’t know how else we’re supposed to get him to a therapist. I don’t know how else to tell him he’s not alone.”
Niccolò was prepared to have to explain himself. This isn’t, after all, something he’s ever discussed with anyone but God… and God doesn’t, generally, talk back. Yusuf, however, must hear something in his voice, must sense something coming. A long silence settles between them, long enough for two cars, at least, to pass by Yusuf. In the Langlades’ garden, their dog Léa barks, most likely at the squirrel in the oak. Eventually, Niccolò hears:
Niccolò grabs for the thin cross of ebony he’d gotten from his father after his first communion. His hand comes up empty, of course: he’d thrown it in the sea back in Tel-Aviv, back before he’d met Yusuf or found a reason to keep going. It seemed right, at the time, a logical last step. It was a surprise to realize later that he’d valued the pendant for more than its history in his family.
Now, just like many times before, Niccolò must content himself with the memory of it, still incapable of finding—or making—a new one, no matter how silly the reason. He takes a deep breath in lieu of a last prayer—briefly regrets that Genoese is too raw for what he has to say, too close to his heart for memories such as he is about to invoque. He sticks to Arabic to say, rougher than he meant to:
“When we met, I—I had a plan.”
It hadn’t been his original plan. That plan had been to give himself five days in Jerusalem to find himself and maybe find his faith again. He’d wanted to go back to priesthood unburdened, unencumbered, free to give himself over to his Parish entirely. Being gay, he’d thought then, had no bearing on his place in the Church: he could learn to hate the sin and love the sinner, even if the sinner was himself. If he truly believed, if he truly tried, then surely he would be able to forget what he’d learned about himself and go back to his normal life, free of his homosexual longings—or at least strong enough to resist them.
He’d given himself five days to clear his head and his heart, and learn to listen to God again… but nothing had happened. Nothing in him had changed, the chasm opened in his chest by knowing what he was hadn’t closed, and the sign he’d been hoping for hadn’t come. He’d started thinking that, maybe, the lack of sign was the sign. That maybe God was sending him a particularly complex message.
So, Niccolò had changed his plans.
“I didn’t actually come to Tel-Aviv by accident,” he tells Yusuf, barely managing to speak above a whisper. “I knew what I’d find there but I wanted—I wanted to prove to myself that I could resist it.”
Yusuf makes a wounded noise into the phone, and Niccolò’s free hand goes to his knee, the tips of his fingers digging into the articulation so he won’t start crying and drag this out more than is necessary.
“I… I thought it’d be my last act of devotion,” he says, unable not to snort at himself and his stupidity. “And after that, I’d just go and cast myself into the sea.”
He’d gone to see it beforehand. He’d wanted to take one look at his final resting place and comfort himself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, his soul would rest in a beautiful place. Casting the cross into it had been his way to mark the spot. A promise, more than anything else. It is, perhaps the only promise in his life he is glad that he didn’t fulfill.
On the other end of the line, Yusuf is sobbing again.
“Oh, hayati,” he manages, his voice raspy and breaking on the word, “oh, o mæ cheu, why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Because,” Niccolò tries, surprised to find his voice breaking on a sob of his own, “I met you. And I called you—I don’t know how many racist names but far too many—and you still found it in your heart to defend me when those assholes—”
“As I recall, you did a fair bit of the punching, too,” Yusuf chuckles, and Niccolò closes his eyes.
He remembers the drunk american tourists—four, maybe five of them? Remembers the side of his head exploding in pain after the beer bottle hit him, remembers Yusuf’s indignant shouting right after. He wants to say ‘Only because you started. Only because you did it first.’ but the words remain caught in his throat. He has to breathe a couple of times to calm down, unsure why tears press so hard at his throat or why his skin prickles with something cold against his spine. Eventually, though, he manages:
“Do you remember what you said after? When it was done?”
“I mostly remember trying to stop the Red Sea from escaping through your nose,” Yusuf says, making Niccolò laugh despite his tight throat.
“You said ‘if someone’s going to treat you like shit it should be for the things you said—’”
“‘Not for being queer’, right,” Yusuf completes, “I remember that.”
“Yeah,” Niccolò says, free hand coming up to his chest in the hopes of trapping the warmth there, smiling into the phone despite himself, “that. I heard you said that and I thought ‘Lord, why must this’—I don't want to repeat the word I thought but… I thought it was terribly ironic that of all the people in the world, it should be an Arab muslim who would not think being attracted to men made me a lesser creature.”
Niccolò’s crying now, he realizes, his voice broken until he can calm down again but—but he’s never said these words to anyone, never shared that part of his life, not even with God and to let the words out now is—it is as liberating as it is terrifying, and he can’t stop, can’t close the damn again now that it’s been broken, so he makes himself control his voice long enough to continue:
“I’d been looking for a sign, you know? In—in Jerusalem I’d been—I needed a sign that I could… I don’t know, be what I thought I was supposed to be. That I could… correct myself into being a proper priest, that I could forget I was gay, somehow. And when you said that I realized—you were my sign, Yusuf.”
He thinks, vaguely, that he hears Yusuf laugh through a sob. The sound lights up his chest, makes him feel like he’s going to start shining any moment now, as it always does. If Niccolò hears this man laugh a thousand times a day until the day he dies, it still won’t have been enough at all.
“You were,” Niccolò insists when Yusuf mutters to stop making him blush. “If a man like you, who had every reason in the world to scorn me, still thought that this part of me was not only not deserving of scorn but also worthy of defense… then clearly I could only have been wrong to think the opposite before. I don’t—I don’t know that I’d have died if I hadn’t met you,” Niccolò admits, glad that he will never have to know the answer. “Maybe I’d have been too scared to follow through—I don’t know. But I do know that because I met you, I stopped wanting to.”
“Oh, hayati,” Yusuf murmurs. “I’m so glad I met you. I’m so glad you didn’t die.”
“Me too,” Niccolò says, taking a deep breath to try and steady himself, “me too. The reason I didn't tell you about this is—you saved me. Not on purpose, maybe, but you still did. And I didn’t want to—to burden you with that memory, when I haven’t thought of this once since I met you.”
“Niccolò—” Yusuf pauses and sighs. “I wish you’d told me sooner. I could have helped you carry it...but I guess it goes to prove your point, doesn’t it?”
“I know,” Yusuf says, “I know that’s not why you said it. But… you’re still right. I hate that this is happening to our baby—that he has to go through this and we’re going to have to accept this as part of his life, at least for now. But he does deserve to know, and to understand.” There's a pause, during which Yusuf takes a deep breath and audibly tries to calm himself down. “I know you said he’s asleep but—do you mind passing him the phone? I’d like to apologize before I come home.”
Niccolò smiles and rises from the sofa, crossing the hallway to turn in the corridor leading to the bedrooms. He opens the door as quietly as he can, hesitates with his hand hovering next to the light switch and then decides, if he’s going to wake Sébastien up anyway, he might as well spare himself the risk of stepping on a lego. With that in mind, he flicks the light on, and freezes.
“Yusuf,” he manages around a strangled breath.
“What? Niccolò, what’s going on?”
Gémenos (Bouches-Du-Rhône), France, 2018
“I didn’t know there were hogs around here,” Niccolò said, forcing himself to stick to French for the sake of practice.
It’d been a week since Yusuf finally managed to join him in France and settle in their small house in La Millière. They’d decided to leave all the administrative papers, the new neighbors and their respective jobs behind for the day and spend it gleefully pretending that Yusuf didn’t have a syllabus to finish and Niccolò wouldn’t have to go back to work on monday to yet another rude email from their current client. They’d jumped into their recently acquired car, driven East to Gémenos, and wandered into a surprisingly but blissfully empty parc de la Sainte Baume. Just them, the silence, and a ridiculous amount of trees.
All of that, and the wild hog footprint in the mud.
“What makes you think it’s not a—?” Yusuf asks, keeping to French as well.
“Not a what?”
“Alghazal,” Yusuf clarified. “Just as an example.”
“Oh,” Niccolò said, his confusion clearing. “Hmm.”
He crouched next to the mark, brows furrowed, and tried to gather his words around him. French, as it had turned out, was both harder and easier to learn than he’d anticipated. Easier because, as a fluent Italian speaker, there were many, many transparent words that greatly facilitated his job. Harder, because once Niccolò had learned all the vocabulary he needed to survive daily life—numbers, directions, basic work things—expanding his vocabulary had started to require some actual effort and, so far, he hadn’t been all that diligent with it.
The thing was, though, that Yusuf had been right. Before Niccolò left, they’d had numerous conversations about the things they’d need, the things they’d have to achieve, and one of the things they’d agreed upon was that both of them should endeavor to speak as correct and unaccented a French as possible. It wasn’t—neither of them particularly believed in the necessity of losing one’s native accent for its own sake, but they’d heard, read and experienced enough incidents linked to the way they spoke to realize a better regulated French grammar could only be beneficial. (“Let’s face it,” Yusuf had said, “we’ve got enough things they might dislike us for, we might as well try to work on that factor.”)
Besides, it wasn’t only for their comfort: it was also for Sébastien’s sake. Six years old children rarely had the best pronunciation, and the first few visits with him—every two weekends at first, every week since Yusuf got there—had been greatly complicated by the language barrier. Beyond that, the poor kid had already lost his parents, relocated to the other side of his country, and would soon take a return trip to the south of France. He’d had to deal with more than enough already: it would have been cruel to drop him in a household where most conversations would be unintelligible to him.
With that in mind, Niccolò didn’t allow himself to switch to Arabic—in which he felt he'd have done better job—and pointed down at the footprint instead:
“Deer foot traces are more—they’re longer. They’re thinner, too. And, see that?” He pointed to the two drop-shaped marks under the main mark. “Deer feet have dots too, but they’re smaller and they don’t… go outside?” He finished, gesturing with his hands to illustrate his point.
“Point outward,” Yusuf provided, smiling. “Who taught you that?”
“Maria, at first,” Niccolò explained, unable to restrain a bittersweet smile at the memory of his older sister helping him read books on the topic in preparation of his first summer camp experience. “Then the village’s youth group.”
Yusuf snorted. Immediately, his hands went to his mouth, most likely to try and stifle the reaction, while Niccolò stared at him.
“I’m sorry,” Yusuf managed after several seconds of trying to get himself under control, laughter still lingering in his voice. “Sorry, it just sounds so… boy-scout-y.”
“Give or take a certain fondness for Mussolini,” Niccolò muttered. A little louder, he said: “It wasn’t linked to the Boy Scouts. They thought that was too liberal and not Christian enough.” He paused. “Come to think of it, I’m not even sure that was an official organisation. More like… ‘we think the others aren’t strict enough so we’ll do it ourselves,’ I guess.”
Niccolò’s father and his two older brothers had spent all their summers with the group from age six to eighteen, as did Bernardo after them—the girls, of course, had followed their mother’s footsteps and gone to the corresponding youth group, which provided different activities but very similar mindsets. Sometimes, like now, the memories were pleasant and fond: tracking in the forest, making campfires and singing songs around them… other times, when Niccolò remembered the jokes they’d made around those campfires, the things they’d been taught, the things some of the other boys had bragged about as they grew up… in these moments, he didn’t know how Yusuf could stand to even look at him.
“Yes,” Yusuf said, quieter, as he took Niccolò’s hand in his and steered them to their feet, resuming their walk. “I can imagine the sort of things they’d teach.”
This time, it was Niccolò’s turn to snort.
Next to him, Niccolò saw Yusuf’s expression turn sour, the grimace there and gone in an instant. His palm grew sweaty in Niccolò’s hand.
“I suppose it had to come out some day,” he muttered, obviously unhappy with the turn of conversation.
Niccolò wanted to tell him he didn’t have to, that it was still early into their relationship—it had, after all, only been a year and a half! Niccolò was amazed they were still together, still wondered sometimes why Yusuf would bother with him when caring for Sébastien would take up so much of his time and energy as it was. He didn’t have to share all his secrets if he didn’t want to. Yusuf must have guessed his thought process, though, because he looked up to smile at Niccolò and said:
“It’s only fair.” He sobered, then, and continued: “My university was quite far from my parents’ house, and none of us wanted me to have to deal with the daily commute, so I had to find a new Mosque. The one I found seemed… alright, at first. It was tiny, but people smiled and welcomed you with warmth. But the imam there…”
Yusuf paused just long enough to make the thin suction noise he used to show disapproval. Niccolò, who had no trouble guessing where the story was going, winced in sympathy and brought them a little closer together under shade of the trees.
“Hayati, you do not want to know the things he said—or approved.”
Niccolò stopped walking then, and pulled Yusuf in his arms, surprised to find him tense as a bowstring. He pressed at his head with gentle hands until Yusuf’s head came to rest on his shoulder, more than familiar with the feeling of old shame resurfacing. He didn’t have the words to pursue this conversation in French, and if Yusuf was anything like him, Arabic might feel a little too close to his heart to use it here and now, so he turned to Genoese instead to ask:
“How did you get out?”
Yusuf snorted, possibly guessing at Niccolò’s reasoning for the change of language, but did not protest.
“I was—what’s ‘homosexual’ in Genoese?”
Yusuf nodded, repeating the word to himself few times before he spoke again:
“I was homosexual. After a while, I realized there was no way that community wouldn’t see me as undesirable. Eventually—and it took me far too long, let me tell you—I decided to leave them behind and go back to my parents’ mosque.”
Niccolò felt Yusuf shrug against his shoulder, a sigh brushing his collarbone.
“Obviously, I couldn’t officially come out there either...but I’m fairly sure some people knew and didn’t mind. And the rest were at least much more tolerant of other differences.”
With a sigh, Niccolò twisted his neck until he could kiss the top of Yusuf’s head, hoping against hope to lift his lover’s mood. There were some things in Yusuf’s experience he would never be able to fully understand—there was the obvious, of course, but also… Niccolò had been born in a wildly bigoted community, that much was true, and he didn’t know that he’d ever feel confident enough to come out to a more moderately catholic community, provided he ever set foot in a church again. But through it all, even when he’d been young and hadn’t realized what he was, he’d never had to worry about being arrested for the crime of being queer. Until he’d followed Yusuf to Cairo under the guise of perfecting his then-rudimentary knowledge of carpentry, he’d barely even remembered that was still possible.
Even then: it had only ever been temporary. They’d decided early on in their relationship that they would either not work out and leave Egypt separately, or keep going strong and leave Egypt together. It had, after all, been in Yusuf’s plans for a long time at that point, and they’d been lucky enough to be able to afford it—why stay in a hostile environment longer than they had to? There were things in Yusuf’s life that Niccolò would probably never understand. Some of them they talked about, others not so much. Niccolò still wasn’t sure where Yusuf would place himself with regard to islam—whether he still believed or not, whether he wished to practice or not—but at least now he could oppenly support him as a partner so. There was that.
Eventually, they started walking again, slower and more entwined than before. The mood had turned morosely pensieve, and Niccolò feared for a moment that their day of rest may have been ruined...that is, until Yusuf seemed to remember what they’d originally been talking about and went back to French to ask:
“So, does that mean if I hid in the woods just now you could put your ear on the ground and find me?”
“That’s not how tracking works,” Niccolò laughed, surprised by the question, “and we’re not meant to get off the paths, anyway.”
“Shame,” Yusuf pretended to sigh, “here I thought you could be my own personal Aragorn. We’d let you grow a beard—”
“I look ridiculous in a beard,” Niccolò countered, but Yusuf merely shrugged.
“Robin hood, then—like in Prince of Thieves ?”
“I don’t know that one,” Niccolò said, and smiled when Yusuf cast his eyes—and his hands—to the sky to ask:
“God, why did you give me a man who has no culture?”
This time, Niccolò snorted. Growing up without TV hadn’t always been easy, and he and his siblings had occasionally gone to ridiculous lengths to access some of the favored programs of their generations, but sometimes he thought it’d been worth it just to be able to tease Yusuf with it.
“Maybe God thought that movie wasn’t important enough to put it on my path,” he said, trying hard to keep his voice neutral.
That earned him a light elbow in the side.
“Hayati, that movie not only marked the first time I saw a man’s naked ass on a TV—” Niccolò burst out laughing, “you’re also missing the glory of Morgan Freeman with facial tattoos!”
“I’m sure it’s not that much of a crime,” Niccolò said, knowing exactly what he was doing.
As predicted, Yusuf spluttered, absolutely indignant, and poked at Niccolò’s chest with impressive vigor:
“You and I are watching this tonight, and then you will swallow your words, mister Genovesi.”
Niccolò, still not done laughing, managed to nod anyway.
La millière, France, 2020
Niccolò tries to breathe in, casting his eyes across the room, left to right: dresser, Sébastien’s loft bed—empty, empty, empty—desk underneath, open window, pictures and posters on the right hand wall—the bed again, empty, unmade, empty, empty, em—
Niccolò blinks. Closes his eyes. Forces himself to listen to Yusuf again.
“What do you mean ‘gone’?” Yusuf asks, voice more tense than Niccol heard it in years.
“I mean,” Niccolò says, abandoning all hopes of speaking anything but Genoese until he knows where his boy has gone—until he knows he’s safe—“his bed is empty. I—he’s not here, Yusuf. He’s not—”
“Hayati, don’t panic,” Yusuf warns, stern. “Every minute you panic is a minute you’re not looking for him.”
Niccolò nods, heart hammering in his chest, and tries to take deeper breaths, tries to slow down. Shit. Shit. He wishes Yusuf were here—he’s the one who knows how to think on the spot! But he’s not—he’s in the hospital, kilometers away, and even though Niccolò can hear gravel crunch under the rapid cadence of his footsteps he won’t be home for another hour at a minimum. More, maybe, accounting for traffic. Niccolò knows this, knows there’s nothing he can really do about it, and yet he still wishes.
“Nico, listen to me,” Yusuf is saying in his ear, Arabic harder to understand than it should be, “listen to me! You have to stay calm.”
“Right,” Niccolò manages, the effort it takes to understand what Yusuf is saying enough to pull him out of his own head for the briefest moment, “yeah, you’re right. Calm. I can do calm. I can do rational.”
“Good,” Yusuf says.
Niccolò hears the moment he enters the hospital again: the gravel stops crunching, and the phone call takes on a cleaner quality between them. He focuses on the sound of doors opening and closing on Yusuf’s way while he tries to do some thinking of his own: where could Sébastien have—the window.
“You need to check—” Yusuf is saying, but Niccolò interrupts him:
“The blinds are open.”
They’re metal blinds and the latch they use make it impossible for a knife to pass through. If anyone had tried to force their way in, Niccolò is confident he’d have heard it, even from all the way in the living room, which means….
“God,” Yusuf says, “he’s outside.”
It’s the middle of summer, and it’s only about half past six in the evening, which means they still have almost four hours of declining light left. Four hours to find Sébastien unless they want to risk him spending the night alone out there.
“Go to the neighbors,” Yusuf tells him on the phone, audibly starting to jog, “tell them what’s going on and ask them to look with you.”
“The police?” Niccolò asks, but receives a sigh in response.
“They can’t do anything until at least an hour has gone by, no point in trying yet. Quynh’s here. I’ll let her know I’m leaving, I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“Alright,” Niccolò says, hand clutching his phone hard enough to hurt as he closes the blinds then the window, “okay. Stay safe on the road—‘ahabik.”
“Love you too,” Yusuf says. “As fast as I can, I promise.”
Niccolò hears him call Quynh’s name as he hangs up, and then there’s nothing but the quiet of the evening to keep him company. He runs up the street to the Langlades’, all but jumping over their fence to get to their door and pound on the wood like his life depends on it.
It takes too long to explain that no, he’s not here about the tree but about Sébastien, and then another eternity before they can decide where everyone is going.
“I need you to stay near my house,” he tells the Langlades’ daughter, tall fifteen years old with brown hair who didn’t look happy at being left behind. “If Sébastien comes back, ring the porch bell as hard as you can.”
She tells her parents she’ll keep her phone on, and goes to take her post in the entryway—Niccolò follows her with his heart in his throat, cursing at himself when he realizes he forgot his torchlight, and then hurries back outside. The adult Langlades are set to walk up the Allée du Ver Luisant and split up when they reach the more populated Boulevard Catacholis, while Niccolò goes away from the city and into the hills, yelling Sébastien’s name as loud as he can as he forces himself to keep his pace slow and the movements of his torchlight regular. Padre nostro che sei nei cieli , his mind supplies even as he strains to find any sign of his son’s presence, sia santificato il tu nome, venga il tuo regno; sia fatta —Niccolò freezes.
“Sébastien?” He calls out.
Nothing. Nothing but the wind and the occasional burr of traffic on the D8N. Niccolò waits, his heart in his throat, but doesn’t hear anything more. He starts walking again, acutely aware of the vast emptiness of the world before him, the millions of ways a child could get hurt in these hills. Sia fatta la tua volontà , his brain picks up, come in cielo così in terra. Dacci —this time, there’s no mistaking the high pitched sound of a child screaming on the plain.
“Sébastien!” He calls out, and stays utterly still until—there, to his right! “Sébastien!”
As soon as Niccolò hears the word clearly, he starts jogging in the right direction, resisting the urge to run and risk injury—he’s not sure how long he’s been searching but it’s still light so it can’t have been very long and—broken branches. There are too many for any local animal to have done that, so Niccolò calls again:
“Nico! I’m here!”
It takes a few seconds longer, but eventually Niccolò finds Sébastien lying in some kind of natural hole in the ground—not very deep, but enough so that a scared child wouldn’t realize he can climb out. With a relieved cry, Niccolò all but crashes to his knees, bends forward and, seizing Sébastien by the back of his pyjamas, bodily hauls him out of the ditch and into his arms.
“Never, ever ever scare me like that again!” Niccolò tells the boy, pressing him to his chest hard enough he’s half afraid he’ll break him. “I thought I’d lost you, pìcolo! Oh, figeu—”
“I’m sorry!” Sébastien wails when Niccolò sobs on his last word, “I tore my pants!”
Sébastien yelps when Niccolò pulls him away from his chest, fingers clutching hard at his shoulder, and says as clearly as he can:
“I don’t care about the pants, Sébastien! I don’t care about your pyjamas—I just want you to be safe and sound! Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“No,” Sébastien manages.
He holds out, valiantly, for a few seconds longer before big tears well in his eyes and spill over onto his cheeks. Niccolò brings him to his chest again, breathing him in—the smell of his skin, his hair still smelling of the fun dinosaur mint shampoo they bought for him last week, the thick coating of dust over it all. Sébastien’s little arms snake around Niccolò’s neck and squeeze and squeeze, hard enough it becomes hard to breathe but he doesn’t say anything and lets his baby cry into his shirt, rubbing circles onto his back.
“Pardon, papa,” Sébastien manages as Niccolò finally gets to his feet to bring them back home, “please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, pìcolo,” Niccolò promises. “I told you, all I want is for you to be safe. I promise I’m not mad.”
Sébastien sighs, and then he sags further into Niccolò’s embrace. It’s getting darker but mostly light enough to see even without the torchlight. Still, it requires concentration, and it’s a surprise when Sébastien says in a very small voice:
Niccolò’s heart sinks a little at the correction, a part of him disappointed despite himself, but he does his best to recover fast.
“I lied. My feet are a little hurt.”
Niccolò chuckles, relieved that it isn’t anything worse than that. Pausing, he bends down to take Sébastien in his arms and settle him on his right hip, the flashlight still secure in his other hand, before he starts walking towards the house again. It’s still very new, absolutely lovely, and Niccolò’s next project will be to fence the garden in. For a while, they walk in silence: they’re not very far from the house, but the terrain isn’t exactly easy to navigate and so Niccolò takes his time to avoid a fall.
He calls out for Aurélie Langlade as soon as they get close enough, and she emerges from the front of the house with her phone in hand, dialing her parents before Niccolò has time to ask her to.
“Mom wants to know if you need anything else tonight? Like leftovers or anything?”
“No, thank you,” Niccolò says with a relieved smile, turning his torchlight off once the light of the porch comes into view. In his arms, Sébastien has slumped into something very close to sleep, and he lowers his voice as he comes closer to the girl. “You’ve all been very helpful, but he’s here and he’s fine now. I’ll come round to invite you for dinner next week, if that’s okay.”
“Sure,” Aurélie shrugs. “Good night then, sleep well M. Genovesi. Sleep well, Sébastien.”
Niccolò thinks Sébastien mumbles something in response, but it’s too garbled to make out and, anyway, Aurélie is already too far away to hear it. Leaving the porch light on, Niccolò gets in, deposits Sébastien on the sturdy kitchen table, and goes to retrieve both the pharmacy kit in the bathroom and Sébastien’s stuffed rabbit from his bedroom. He’s quiet as he sits in front of Sébastien and rubs the dust and plant debris off the sole of his feet with a wet kitchen towel, frowning when he discovers a couple of small gashes in the softer part of the soles.
Niccolò raises his eyes and finds Sébastien looking at him with big, watery eyes, and for a second he thinks it’s the pain—until he realizes the boy is worrying at his rabbit’s left ear the way he does when he’s nervous.
“Is Yusuf very mad at me?”
“He’s not mad at you,” Niccolò says, cleaning up the last gash on Sébastien’s right foot.
He grabs a length of gauze with a shiver in his hand and begins wrapping it around Sebastien’s foot, wishing Yusuf would come home, help him take care of this mess.
“He said he didn’t want to see me,” Sébastien counters in a shivering whimper. “He looked angry.”
Sébastien is not wrong, and the thought makes Niccolò sigh a little. He tucks the end of the gauze into the bandage and tapes it there for good measure, just to give himself time to breathe, to figure out what he wants to say and how to say it.
“He did look a little angry,” he says, unwilling to put words in Yusuf’s mouth. “But even if he was—he still loves you, you know that? No matter what. We’ll always love you, pìcolo. I promise.”
Sébastien sniffs and gives the tiniest nod before wiping his nose on the top of his purple rabbit’s head. It’s such a little gesture, but Niccolò remembers a time when even that would have been impossible, and he counts it as a win. There’s a part of him that wants to keep going. To ask the hard questions now and have more time to process the day...but he’s not sure what that would accomplish right now, save maybe scarring the boy further, so he bites down on his interrogations and bandages Sébastien’s second foot instead.
“There,” he says when he’s finished, “all done. Now, we’ve had a big day today. What do you say to a hot cocoa and Moana to calm down before bed?”
Sébastien nods from behind his rabbit, eyes watery and wide still, and Niccolò smiles at him before he sets to work. He’s in the middle of setting up the DVD and muttering against his lack of technological training when Sébastien pipes up in a small voice:
“Are you mad that I called you papa?”
La millière, France, 2019
“Hi mister and mister Le Livre,” said the most poised and polite child Niccolò had ever met, “thank you for having me this afternoon.”
Yusuf was the one who’d opened the door to let Nile in, and Niccolò saw him put a hand to his chest from his spot in the hall. He himself couldn’t help but smile at this little girl with ripped jeans and a missing front tooth who talked like she was about to impart the great secrets of life and who, in Sébastien’s eyes, could do absolutely nothing wrong.
“Of course,” Yusuf said without correcting her mistake, “it’s a pleasure to make Sébastien’s friends’ acquaintance.”
He’d made sure to keep his words slow, Niccolò noted, probably to accommodate the girl’s still-shaky grasp of the French language. He switched to English to add:
“Now, Niccolò and I both speak English so don’t be afraid to ask us if you need anything during the weekend. Did Sébastien tell you what we’d planned already?”
“Niccolò makes pancakes for the—for the four hour,” Sébastien explained in his still messy but much more enthusiastic English, “it’s good!”
“Well, I suppose that’s the essential part,” Yusuf said with a roll of his eyes so exaggerated that Nile giggled. “Anyway, I’m leaving now for groceries but don’t you be afraid of Nicco’s silence, he’s a right marshmallow under it. I’ll see you in two hours.”
He slipped out of the door behind Nile, poking his tongue out at Niccolò’s mock-frown, and was in the process of blowing a kiss at the house when Niccolò reached the front door to shut it behind him. By then, Nile and Sébastien had already moved to the living room and were, from the sound of it, in the process of examining the pictures framed on the wall left of the hearth.
“That’s from my first day of school,” Sébastien was explaining. “I was a little scared so Yusuf said to make scared faces in the picture so we’d leave the fear in it.”
“Why you call them Yusuf and Nico?” Nile asked in French.
She and Sébastien had met through an association further West in Marseille that provided mixed language art classes for young learners. The teachers there encouraged all children to speak exclusively in the target language, even if that meant using two languages in one conversation, and it seemed as if neither Nile nor Sébastien had any inclination to break the habit for the weekend.
“It’s his name?” Sébastien replied, sounding somewhat perplexed.
From his spot in the hallway, safely hidden behind the threshold, Niccolò smiled. Unsurprisingly, though, Nile didn’t leave it at that:
“Yes but they’re your daddies, right?” She asked. “Why you don’t call them Daddy?”
Niccolò bit his lips, hesitant. Eavesdropping on innocent conversation was one thing, but listening in while his kid was having an emotional conversation, even at seven… that was a different thing. He didn’t have time to hesitate for long, however, as Sébastien replied in a quieter tone:
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Why?” Nile asked, sounding genuinely puzzled.
There was a pause, presumably while Sébastien searched for his words in English and Niccolò could have used the time to leave. He was surprised to realize, however, that Sébastien’s remark had rooted him to the spot. What did he mean, not sure he could? Had Yusuf and Niccolò somehow done something to hint otherwise? Had they...intimidated him somehow?
It wasn’t—they’d both agreed that Sébastien would never have to call them dad, or any variation thereof. They hoped he would, of course, but they wanted it to be his choice and not anything he’d feel pressured into,and so they hadn’t mentioned it. Should they have? Had their silence somehow implied—
“I don’t know if they like me,” Sébastien told Nile, almost too low to hear from the hallway.
In his hiding spot, Niccolò closed his eyes with some urgency and took a deep breath through his nose. He wiped at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger as Nile and Sébastien continued to talk—she was trying, in short and wobbly sentences, to reassure him he was very probably loved or he wouldn’t get pancakes for his afternoon snack—and then he retreated to the kitchen, leaving them to the rest of their conversation.
It took him a few minutes to resolve to make sure he would tell Sébastien he loved him—some people needed to hear it, right? And Niccolò knew he wasn’t always great at saying it with words—and then gather himself enough to take the crepes in the living room without arousing suspicion in either of the children. By then, they’d taken their seats at the table and grown so impatient to partake in the experience of ‘french pancakes’ that they welcomed Niccolò with an adorable—if ear-splitting—roar of victory.
La millière, France, 2020
Niccolò must have waited too long to answer: Sébastien sniffles, hides his face behind his rabbit's head again, and sobs:
“I’m sorry! I didn’t do it on purpose, I—”
“No, no, pìcolo,” Niccolò promises, “no, that’s not—I’m sorry I scared you. I didn’t mean to, I just—well, you know me. I need a little time before I speak.”
“So… you’re not mad at me?”
“No, no. No, quite the contrary, Sébastien. I—it makes me very happy. That you want to call me that.”
Sébastien flushes and hides behind his toy again, making Niccolò smile. He wonders, sometimes, what it is about being responsible for a child that makes you want to smile at everything they say. It’s not unlike being in love, that way: there may be times when he’s less than pleased with Sébastien or his behavior, but even in these moments there is a certainty in his heart that he will never want this person out of his life. That there is nothing they can do to make him stop caring about them.
The fact that Sébastien has spent enough time with people who didn’t care for him to think—even for an instant!—that Niccolò doesn’t feel that way about him is… sometimes, it makes Niccolò want to take a page out of his older brothers’ friends book and set things on fire. Tonight, Niccolò squashes the impulse by leaning in and hugging Sébastien again. He breathes in, relieved by the smell of dusty little boy, and makes a mental note to change Sébastien’s sheets tomorrow morning. Showering can wait—it’s always a bit of a complicated moment anyway, no need to try it after the day they’ve had.
Niccolò finds himself particularly grateful for his decision when, barely a minute into the movie, Sébastien asks:
“What’s ‘papa’ in Italian?”
“Oh!” Sébastien exclaims,visibly delighted, “it’s almost the same as French!”
“It is,” Niccolò agrees with a smile. “A lot of languages have similar sounding words for it. For example, in Arabic, it’s Baba.”
“I didn’t know that!” Sébastien exclaims. “What other ones do you know?”
They’re still on that line of questioning—although they’ve moved on from translations of ‘papà’ to those for ‘mom’—when they hear the sound of a car slowing down and stopping in front of the house. Sébastien bolts out of the couch with a velocity that leaves Niccolò scrambling after him as he throws the heavy front door open with a loud bang and, heedless of his bare, bandaged feet, races across the driveway with a great cry of Yusuf’s name.
“Helwa!” Yusuf shouts, “Sébastien!”
He barely has time to collapse on his knees before Sébastien crashes into him hard enough to send him sprawling on his ass. They stay there, Sébastien sobbing while Yusuf covers his little face in kisses and hugs him tight enough to look uncomfortable. Niccolò watches them from a few steps away until Yusuf extends a hand, summoning him. Niccolò goes, of course, and crouches next to them, his back to the car, one hand rubbing circles in Sébastien’s neck while Yusuf grips at the other hard enough to hurt.
Saint-Dié-Des-Vosges, France, 2019
“Hayati,” Yusuf murmured in the quiet darkness of their hotel room, his breath tickling against Niccolò’s nape, “the moon is still here. Why aren’t you asleep?”
In the bed next to them, Niccolò watched Sébastien huff in his sleep and roll towards them, his brand new stuffed rabbit still clutched tight in his arms. His entire body had gone slack, and his open mouth shone with a layer of spit, a thin line connecting the corner of it to the bed. The sight pressed around his ribs, warm and heavy in a way that should perhaps have scared him, but didn’t. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it just yet, couldn’t parse when or why or how the feeling had started, but it felt welded to his bones all the same—an undying thing meant to protect and ready to go to any length to do so.
“I can’t stop thinking about his grandfather,” Niccolò told Yusuf, foregoing Arabic in favor of Genoese, mostly so he could hear Yusuf groan at the effort asked of him so soon after waking up. “The way he just tossed him at us. I can’t stop seeing it.”
Couldn’t stop hearing his mother, either. The disgust in her voice when she’d told him he was a fool if he expected her to try and appeal to his father in his favor—to even want to. He remembered the sneer on Pietro’s face when he’d gone by their old shared room and grabbed what little he could of his life up until then, fully aware that he wouldn’t be allowed in the family house again. He remembered Maria, his very favorite sister, looking him go with her eyes full of tears and Anna, who’d only been twelve then, asking what was so bad about being gay.
A part of him—the more generous part—wanted to pray for Anna, for her time in the family to be easier than his. She had, after all, still three years to go before majority, and if she’d kept questioning their parents’ opinions.…
Most of all, though, Niccolò couldn’t help but remember the pain of it all—how he’d felt like nothing in the world could ever be right again. Like a part of him had died that day, shattered in too many pieces to count, and he’d been forced to ignore it or start crying and never be able to stop again.
Behind him, Niccolò felt Yusuf sigh, his arms tightening on Niccolò’s middle even as he pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck, the base of his head, the apex of his shoulder.
“There’s always adults who don’t do right by the children they’re in charge of,” he mumbles in sleepy Genoese, never one to back down from a challenge. “It is a terrible thing about the world, but at least he’s lucky enough to leave this place behind him.”
“He’s lucky to have you,” Niccolò agreed, and smiled when Yusuf shook his head, his beard tickling Niccolò’s neck.
“He’s lucky to have you,” he said, almost like a correction.
This time it was Niccolò who shook his head, unable not to smile at Yusuf’s tone, despite the tinge of sadness that accompanied it.
“You’re his parent,” he said. Yusuf’s arms tightened around him, and Niccolò hurried to add: “I’m not trying to imply—I just—” he groaned, and took a few breaths as he organized his thoughts a little better. “I’m not trying to imply you’d kick me out of his life when or if we broke up, I know—”
“When?” Yusuf exclaimed.
There was a brief silence as they both listened to Sébastien’s breathing, making sure he was still sleeping before Yusuf hissed, switching back to his native Arabic:
“When, he says! There is no ‘when’ about leaving you, Niccolò.”
Niccolò blinked, surprised by the vehemence in Yusuf’s voice. He felt his partner rise to his elbow and automatically rolled to his back so he could see him better—watch the way the moon and the streetlights from outside painted silver-white stripes across his face as he got his knees under him and around Niccolò’s hips, hands bracketing his head. Niccolò reflexively raised his own hands to circle Yusuf’s wrist, heart slamming against his chest like he’d just run a marathon.
“Did you think I asked you to come raise a child with me because you were a convenient babysitter?”
“Of course not,” Niccolò protested, pride stinging.
He wanted to explain himself further, but before he could Yusuf continued:
“Good, because that’s not what happened. I agreed because—’cause—” Yusuf took a deep breath here, as if preparing for a deep dive, and then he said: “because you’re more to me than you can dream. Because you’re—you’re the moon when I’m lost in the dark, and you’re warmth when I’m cold. I asked you to come raise this child with me because you’re far kinder than the world deserves. Because it’s been three years, and I still can’t get enough of kissing you. Because I love you, beyond measure—or reason. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Niccolò blinked, surprised to feel tears leak from the corner of his eyes—a mirror to the glittering sheen in Yusuf’s gaze. For a moment, he could only stay silent, trying to parse everything he’d just been told—to understand the enormity of such a declaration. Slowly, he dragged himself further up the bed, sitting up before he asked:
“Tezöo. What are you saying?”
“I am saying,” Yusuf said, hands coming up to rest on Niccolò’s cheeks, “that I am passionately in love with you.” He kissed Niccolò’s forehead. “That I refuse to imagine my life without you.” He kissed the apex of Niccolò’s right cheekbone. “That I fully intend to be right by your side in whatever nursing home you end up in.” Niccolò laughed, wet and strangled, as Yusuf kissed the left corner of his mouth. “And that I want to marry you, if you’ll let me.”
“Oh,” Niccolò said, fresh tears threatening to spill on his cheeks, “you incurable romantic.”
He grabbed the back of Yusuf’s neck and brought him in for a kiss, which they almost couldn’t complete for grinning too hard.
“Nem,” he managed after they separated, their lips so close he almost couldn’t tell they'd stopped touching. “Yes.”
He kissed Yusuf again.
“'Ana 'ahbik kathirana.”
This time, Yusuf huffed in laughter. He brought their foreheads together and sighed, the breath of it tingling against Niccolò’s lips, and murmured:
“Te làmmo, Niccolò. I’m glad I have you in my life. And I’m also glad to know you’ll help me make sure he never goes through what you’ve gone through.”
Niccolò smiled. Then his brain ran away with him, and he snorted.
“Let’s not make any promises yet,” he said. “Someday he might come out as straight.”
Yusuf smacked him in the ribs, but he also did kiss just about every inch of skin he could reach once he’d settled down at Niccolò’s back again. Niccolò wasn’t too worried.
La millière, France, 2020
“I’m sorry!” Sébastien manages after a while, sobbing so hard he almost can’t get it out, his arms taut around Yusuf's neck, “I’m sorry Yusuf! I didn’t mean to hurt Andy!”
“Oh no—no, helwa,” Yusuf exclaims, voice breaking halfway through, “oh baby, no, no—it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
“But,” Sébastien starts, but Yusuf shakes his head.
“No, no, baby I promise it’s not your fault. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was—” Yusuf sighs and takes a deep breath before he continues: “I was terrified, Sébastien. I heard the car crash and I knew you and Niccolò were in the street and I thought—I thought I’d lost you both! And then you were alright but Andy—I was scared, helwa. So, so, so scared, and—and sometimes it’s just—it’s easier to be angry, you know?”
From the crook of Yusuf’s neck, Sébastien blinks up at Niccolò, like there’s something he wants to know but is afraid to ask. Niccolò gives him a smile and shifts on the asphalt until he’s no longer crouching but rather sitting behind Yusuf.
“Fear goes in,” he says. “It sticks inside you until it feels like there’s no room left for anything else—but anger goes out. That makes it easier to be angry—less painful.”
“Yes,” Yusuf agrees even as Sébastien nods, “but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I’m sorry, helwa.”
“We really were very worried,” Niccolò says.
“We still are! We don’t—we’re not sure what happened, or why you left, and we—if we don’t know that we can’t know how to help you!”
“I—I—” Sébastien tries, but the words seem to get stuck somewhere on their way out, and fresh tears pour onto his cheeks.
Niccolò, his heart breaking a little more with every passing second, leans into Yusuf to put an arm around Sébastien’s shoulders.
“It’s okay, pìcolo. It’s okay. You don’t have to know how to explain.”
He feels Yusuf’s head bob as he nods, causing Sébastien to sob even harder than before, great heavy gulps of air that barely sound like they can fit into his lungs until, finally, he wails:
“I’m scared! I think about—going with papa and maman—all the time! And—and I don’t—know—how—to—stop!”
Yusuf makes a wounded noise in the back of his throat, and Niccolò feels his shoulders tense as he, presumably, resists the urge to hug Sébastien tighter for fear of breaking his ribs. Niccolò can’t see his husband’s face, but he can take a guess at what it looks like and, without taking his hand out of Yusuf’s, he snakes his free arm around his waist, pressing a kiss to the side of his neck before he does the same to Sébastien’s forehead.
“I’m sorry I can’t be normal!” Sébastien cries again, before a long bout of phlegm-filled coughing interrupts him.
Niccolò, hit square in the face, recoils with a wince and rubs the offending fluids off on Yusuf’s t-shirt when he hears him chuckle at his misfortune. Fortunately, that doesn’t prevent Yusuf from saying:
“Helwa—don’t be sorry for that. Please don’t ever be sorry for that, it’s not your fault.”
“But you said—” Sébastien starts, and this time it’s Niccolò’s turn to turn the hug crushing.
He feels Yusuf crumble into him, sagging from being on his knees to sitting on the ground in his nice slacks. He lets go of Niccolò’s hand to card his fingers through Sébastien’s hair, sobbing quietly until he gathers himself enough to say:
“I know what I said—I’m sorry, helwa. I’m so sorry. I never meant to imply—I forgot. I forgot how little you are. I forgot you didn’t know—I’m very sorry, Sébastien.”
“I don’t know how to stop,” Sébastien says again, his voice muffled but marginally more stable than before. “I didn’t mean to be—”
“We know, pìcolo,” Niccolò promises. “It’s not your fault.”
“Shh, shh,” Niccolò soothes. “I promise it’s not your fault. Do you know what depression is?”
He feels Sébastien shake his head against Yusuf’s shoulder, his face still hidden against the cotton of Yusuf’s t-shirt. Niccolò runs his fingers through Sébastien’s hair before he explains:
“It’s a sickness of the brain. It means your brain doesn’t know how to make the stuff to make you happy.” Beside him, Yusuf chuckles at the phrasing, and Niccolò gives him a light slap on the ribs before he continues: “we think that’s why you think so much about dy—about leaving.”
Sébastien looks up, staring at Niccolò with wide, frightened eyes:
“My brain is broken?” He asks, pitch rising with every syllable.
Niccolò sees tears form in his eyes, another wave of sobbing just bubbling to the surface until Yusuf takes Sébastien’s cheek in his hand and says:
“It’s not wrong, Sébastien. It’s never wrong—you’re not wrong. It just means your brain might need help doing its job. I’m sorry that I made you feel like you were bad, helwa. You’re not. You never were, alright? You don’t have to forgive me, but I need you to believe it.”
Sébastien looks up at Niccolò again, and he can’t do anything but smile and bend to press a kiss to his forehead, his cheek, his neck—and then follow it up with a big lick up his cheek that makes him shriek with laughter.
“That’s gross, papà!” He exclaims, still caught in the sudden amusement.
Niccolò feels Yusuf stiffen for the briefest of times beside him, but he recovers in an instant, loudly proclaiming that Sébastien is absolutely right in his assessment and that Niccolò is the grossest man to ever walk upon the Earth.
“Why I shudder in horror to think I once set my sights onto such a man—divorce! Divorce, this instant! Begone, foul beast!”
There is, of course, quite a lot of gesticulating that comes along with the dramatic tirade as Niccolò pretends to be terribly wounded by the words. He waits until Yusuf is done talking and Sébastien is done giggling before he deadpans “no” and proceeds to press a purposefully wet kiss on Yusuf’s cheekbone. Laughter rises out of the three of them, loud and high in the air, rising into a crescendo far beyond what their shenanigans warrant, until their nerves are finally spent and, with a yawn, Sébastien says:
“I’m sorry I made you scared. And angry. I won’t do it again, I promise.”
“Oh, helwa,” Yusuf sighs, fond, as he gets to his feet and brings Sébastien up with him, “we’re always going to be scared for you. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
“No but,” Niccolò says before Sébastien even has a chance to start, keeping his tone as gentle as he can. “It’s not your fault. It’s just something that happens sometimes.”
“For a reason?” Niccolò pauses where he was about to start walking back to the house. “You always say everything happens for a reason.”
“I do,” Niccolò agrees, moving to stand closer to Yusuf so he can put a hand on his waist and the other on Sébastien’s back. “And I mean it. I think—” he pauses, there, conscious that he can’t take as much time to think on this as he would like to, but also acutely aware that he can’t afford to mess this up with the wrong words. Eventually, he settles on: “I think today happened so we could know that you need help. So we can help you go through this, and find a way to help you get better.”
“That,” Yusuf adds with a mischievous wink in Niccolò’s direction, “and also so papà would have an excuse to prepare an all-day crepes buffet tomorrow. Don't you think?"
"Aren't we going to go visit auntie Andy in the hospital?"
"We will if she's not home by then," Yusuf promises. "I'm sure she and auntie Quynh will be very excited about it, too."
Niccolò and Yusuf look at each other while Sébastien cheers for family time crepes, quietly checking in. There’s no sadness left in Yusuf’s face for now, nothing but relief and affection as far as Niccolò can see, and he bumps his forehead to his husband’s as they walk back towards the house at a leisurely pace, ready to reheat cocoa and let Sébastien fall asleep in front of his movie before they take him to their bedroom so he can finish the night with them.
Cairo, Egypt, 2018
Niccolò pulled his jeans on fast enough that he almost tripped, buttoned them closed with jittery haste, and carefully closed the bedroom door behind himself before he strode to the front door, one hand running through his hair in an effort to make it look a little less like he’d just had shameless after-lunch sex. Fortunately, a look through the peephole revealed no one but Yusuf’s parents waiting on the other side of the door, and Niccolò sighed as he let them in.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted them in arabic, jerking his head towards the bathroom door to his right: “he just got in.”
“Oh,” Hafsah exclaimed, pretending to turn around, “we’ll be back tomorrow then!”
Niccolò laughed and stepped aside so she could lead the way into the apartment, shaking Akl’s hand as he followed suit and immediately complained about the heat. It was an understandable complaint: he and Hafsah were entering their mid fifties and the apartment’s ventilation left a lot to be desired. Yusuf and Niccolò made do with homemade A/C and lots of ice cubes, but they were also young. It was easier on them.
“I made lemonade,” he told Akl, moving past the thin wall that served as a separation from the tiny kitchen and the tinier working area, “it should freshen you up.”
“You know,” Hafsah said, turning on her seat so Niccolò could see her from his spot in front of the fridge, “it is good to know he still spends ages in the shower.”
Niccolò came back to the table with a sound of polite enquiry, setting the pitcher of lemonade and three mismatched glasses on the table.
“We used to think he took so long because he was, uh—”
“Evening his hormone levels,” Hafsah said with an eloquent half-gesture of the wrist.
Niccolò nearly choked on his own saliva, laughing until his eyes and the muscles of his stomach stung with it, Akl and Hafsah smiling at him with something like fond indulgence in their faces...they made it easy, sometimes, to forget how terrifying it must have been for Yusuf to realize he had no interest in women. His parents, by Yusuf’s own admission, had been entirely accepting and supportive from the very start. They’d welcomed Niccolò with open arms and more compassion than anyone he’d known back in Italy. Sitting with them at home felt so simple, so easy—they made it easy to forget that homosexuality was still illegal in Egypt. That every day Niccolò had spent in Cairo since he’d impulsively followed Yusuf there after knowing him for a grand total of five days could have landed either of them in jail—or both. More importantly, they made it easy to forget how much courage it must have taken Yusuf to come out as a young teenager. How much trust, how much love there had to be between these three people for him to feel safe enough in gambling so much away….
Niccolò could never have done anything like that. He was inclined to think, first of all, that there was a reason he’d waited until adulthood to figure himself out. And even then—even as a somewhat independent adult—he’d felt the need to put safety measures in place before he’d talked to them, hoping for the best but knowing his family well enough to brace for the worst. Yusuf’s relationship to his parents, by comparison, sounded like fairytale material, and sometimes it was enough to make him forget just how vast their reserves of affection were, how impossible to measure the gift the three of them had given Niccolò by welcoming him into their rank, even in the first few days when he hadn’t known what to do but stay quiet to avoid offending them. He had no idea what would happen to this bond in the coming months, but he knew he’d be grateful for it for the rest of his days.
“How is he,” Akl asked after they’d finished laughing, “really?”
Niccolò looked back at the bathroom door, from which nothing but the sound of falling water came out. Yusuf had been taking a lot of showers in the past three days, and for the first time since they’d gotten together Niccolò wasn’t sure if he was allowed to join.
“He’s—holding up, I think,” he said quietly, eyes drawn back to his lemonade. “It’s only been three days.”
The phone call had come late in the evening, the task no doubt pushed back for one reason or another. Yusuf had started in English, then French, and then he’d gone deathly pale and utterly quiet, and it’d been all Niccolò could do to direct his fall to the couch rather than the floor.
“We haven’t really...talked. About the boy.”
Mostly, Yusuf had cried. He’d explained—tried to, at least, in between sobs—who Honorine had been how they’d met. Niccolò had held him and kissed him and fed him, and prayed for his God to give strength to the man he loved to survive this terrible moment.
“No, I imagine not,” Akl agreed. It is rather too soon, still.”
Hafsah hummed, then said:
“To be fair, it isn’t like there is all that much to discuss when it comes down to it.”
“No,” Akl agreed, “I suppose not.”
Niccolò blinked. Yusuf had just been asked to take care of a child—something he’d never had an occasion or particular inclination to do before. At a minimum, he would have a duty to figure out enough of the French administration to make sure the little boy—Sébastien, they’d said his name was—could get the best possible life away from him. If he did decide to become his guardian, however...well, that just raised even more questions, didn’t it?
“I suppose,” Hafsah said, voice rougher than Niccolò had ever heard it, “that we should be grateful he even stayed so long. I always thought he’d leave sooner.”
It was a reasonable assumption, Niccolò supposed. Living in Egypt as a queer man was dangerous in itself. Being in a relationship only heightened the danger—the risks of being caught out, of being reported, became much higher when you had someone to display affection for. Yusuf himself had told Niccolò that he’d considered going abroad for university and only stayed because he hadn’t wanted to be parted from his parents just then. And while Yusuf hadn’t shared any thoughts on the current situation yet...he had mentioned wishing to be a father before. More than once, even. All things considered, it made sense to assume he would agree to be Sébastien’s guardian, and doing so in Egypt would be too great a risk. From there, going to France simply made sense. He nodded, trying to convey sympathy, and was surprised to find both Hafsah and Akl looking at him with speculative gazes.
“I suppose,” Akl said, “that the main question is then: will you go with him?”
“Oh,” Niccolò said. “We uh—we haven’t discussed that, yes. I don’t know that he’ll ask me to.”
Akl and Hafsah exchanged one of those married-and-therefore-telepathic looks all old couples seemed to develop, and Niccolò gulped surprised at the speed his heartbeat reached under their scrutiny.
“But will you agree?” Akl pressed. “When—if he asks you to go to France with him. Will you agree?”
That, at least, had the merit of being an easy question to answer. Niccolò may have every intention of respecting Yusuf's wishes, whatever they were, but he had no desire for their relationship to end...and besides, he was a European citizen. France would be just as easy to leave if things turned out wrong as it would be to get to in the first place.
“Yes,” he said simply, “of course.”
He smiled when both Akl and Hafsah rose to hug him, clearing his throat as they released him. He wasn’t fooling them, he knew, but they did him the courtesy of not pointing it out. Instead, Hafsah sat back in front of him, features turned serious enough to make Niccolò straighten up like he was ten and about to receive his father’s wisdom again.
“If that is the case,” she said, her voice low, “I have some expectations regarding your life out there.”
Before he could think of it, Niccolò gaped. Neither Hafash nor Akl had ever tried to impose anything on him or Yusuf in the year since he’d known them, and to have that abruptly change even as they were mostly likely going to leave Egypt was—Akl bursts out laughing.
“Stop scaring the boy, Hafsah,” he demanded while Hafsah joined him in laughter. “She just wants to teach you how to cook some of our dishes!”
“God knows my son won’t be the one feeding you,” Hafsah said with exaggerated despair.
Yusuf found the three of them still laughing themselves silly at the kitchen table.
La millière, France, 2020
Sébastien stirs when Niccolò tugs on his jeans to let him sleep more comfortably, and the sleepy way he asks “Papà?” makes something warm and tender curl in his chest. He smiles and leaves the jeans on the floor before he sits next to his boy.
“Do you think there’s a reason I have despr—depression?”
Niccolò sighs, and runs a hand through Sébastien’s hair, the other one smoothing the boy’s lego coverlet around his chest. The nightlight that he’d finally accepted after he’d started to have nightmares, temporarily relocated on Yusuf’s side of the bed, washes his round little face in blue, making him look almost ethereal.
“Yes,” he says, willing himself to be honest. “I don’t know what the reason is. I don’t even know if that’s a good reason, or if I would like it. But I mean it when I say I think everything happens for a reason.”
Sébastien nods, eyes lowered to his clasped hands. There’s still something restless in him that Niccolò wants to soothe, and maybe that’s why he says:
“I think I know why I had depression, though.”
“You do?” Sébastien exclaims.
His hands immediately fly to his mouth, and he glances to his right, where the open bedroom door does nothing to muffle the sound of Yusuf finishing up in the bathroom.
“I did,” Niccolò says. “Sometimes, depression heals and goes away.” He smiles, the gesture more strained than usual, before he says: “right before I met Yusuf I was—a lot of complicated and painful things happened in my life. I lost a lot of friends. I stopped talking to my family—”
“Is that why your mom and dad never call us?”
Niccolò closes his eyes, willing himself to let the pain of that simple fact pass through him rather than settle and drag him down the way it usually does. It’s not Sébastien’s fault that three years isn’t nearly enough for him to get used to the fact.
“My mom, my dad. My grandparents. My brothers and sisters.”
All in all, even leaving aside those of his relatives he’d never been close to, Niccolò had lost almost forty people in one day. He can, he thinks, be forgiven for holding onto the hurt for a while. This isn’t, however, a burden he can unload on a child, so he tries to stay neutral when he continues:
“After that happened...I thought about ‘leaving’, too. And I think the reason that happened was so I could be here by your side, and tell you that I understand, and truly mean it.”
Sébastien nods, and reaches out to his side so he can grab his stuffed rabbit and press it against his chest, the toy’s abused left ear fitting comfortably in his mouth. Niccolò wants to hug him and tell him everything will be fine, but Sébastien is old and perceptive enough to realize it won’t be true for a while yet, so he restrains himself. Instead, he waits as patiently as he can, petting Sébastien’s hair until he says:
“Do you think Yusuf understands?”
“He understands that you’re sad,” Niccolò says immediately, “and he understands that it’s not your fault...but I don’t think he understands it the way we do, exactly. But you know what? I think that’s good, too.”
“That he doesn’t understand?”
Sébastien looks so skeptical, Niccolò can’t help but chuckle and rub a thumb over his cheek.
“Yes,” he says. “Because then, when I have to explain things to him, I can remember that not everyone’s brain works like this. It means that it doesn’t have to be like this all the time...and to me that’s a comforting thought, sometimes.”
Niccolò smiles down at Sébastien, who looks somewhat unconvinced, but doesn’t insist. They’ll have to have this conversation again, more than once he suspects. It can wait for tomorrow.
“Now,” he tells Sébastien, “it’s getting very late and we’ve all had a very big day. “Try to fall asleep, alright? We’ll come join you soon, I promise.”
“Okay,” Sébastien says. “Goodnight, papà.”
Niccolò leans down to press a kiss to Sébastien’s forehead before he gets up and slips out of the room to cross the hall and step into the bathroom. Immediately, he molds himself to Yusuf’s back, nose going straight for his hair and the new lilac shampoo that suits him so well. He feels Yusuf chuckle against his chest, arms coming to rest on his, head leaning back until Niccolò has perfect access to his neck.
“Don’t start something we can’t finish,” Yusuf warns in Arabic, his sentence melting into a yawn.
“What if I intended to finish it?”
“You and I both know you don’t have the time before Sébastien starts having questions, papà.”
Niccolò recoils, face wrinkling, and he steps around Yusuf to look him in the eyes as he says:
“Tezöo, I love you more than my life but if you ever call me that in any kind of sexual or sex-adjacent context again, I’m asking for a divorce.”
Yusuf laughs, loud and sharp like fireworks, and has to muffle the rest of it behind his hand, snorting loudly while he turns around to face Nico and tears leak out of his eyes. Niccolò valiantly resists the urge to hug him and kiss his forehead for almost a full minute, which is probably some kind of record, when he’s like this.
“Sorry,” Yusuf manages after a while, voice still strangled with laughter, “I couldn’t resist. I won’t do it again, promise.”
“You’re forgiven,” Niccolò says, mock-seriously. Then, turning genuine, he asks: “Is it okay with you? Really?”
“And what would you do if it weren’t?” Yusuf asks as he steps further into Niccolò’s arms, resting their forehead together. “Ask him to go back to Nico?”
“No. But I would prefer to know it. Try to be mindful.”
“My kind man,” Yusuf smiles before he kisses Niccolò’s cheek. “My gentle man.”
“You gentle me,” Niccolò says as he accepts a kiss on his other cheek.
Their mouths drift together then, and for a long moment the world is reduced to the humid warmth of the bathroom, the way their chests press together until it almost feels like they’re about to melt into one another.
“So,” Niccolò asks against Yusuf’s temple when they separate, unwilling to step away yet, “you truly are okay with it?”
“I’m eagerly waiting my turn,” Yusuf replies with a grimace curling into the sound of his voice, a brief chuckle following the words. “But yes, I’m okay with it. I’m happy for you, hayati.”
“Good,” Niccolò says, pressing a kiss to Yusuf’s temple. “I’m sure he’ll call you dad soon, too.”
Yusuf chuckles again and kisses Niccolò’s lips with enough tenderness to make him melt, only to draw back a few seconds later:
“Quynh texted back, by the way,” he says. “She and Andy were waiting for a taxi. They should be here in a couple of hours.”
“Good,” Niccolò sighs, relief washing over him again. “I’m glad you thought of asking.”
If he’d been alone, Quynh and Andy would have gotten here to a closed door and everyone far too asleep to guide them to the guest room.
“You can repay me by being the one who stays up until they arrive,” Yusuf smirks, and Niccolò huffs in laughter.
He kisses Yusuf again, and in the end it is several more minutes before he actually gets into the shower.
La millière, France, 2019
“Yusuf?” Niccolò whispered as he exited their bedroom and almost stumbled on his lover, sitting in the dark with his back pressed against Sébastien’s door, “what are you doing?”
Thin lines of white light came in from the open bathroom, streetlights filtering inside through the slits in their metal blinds, and Niccolò used them to watch Yusuf run his hands over his face with a deep sigh before he answered, matching Niccolò in his use of Arabic:
“I heard him cry when I came back, so I went in to see if I could help. I hugged him and calmed him down, and then I asked if he needed anything.”
“What did he say?”
“He said ‘no, thank you mister Yusuf’.”
Niccolò winced and slid to the floor so he could throw an arm around Yusuf’s shoulder to pull him close. Yusuf’s head slotted into the crook of his neck without a second of delay, the weight of it warm and comforting as they breathed together, hands reaching for one another. Yusuf, it was easy to see, had more on his mind, and so Niccolò stayed quiet and waited for him to be ready to speak.
“I don’t know if he’ll ever see me as a parent,” Yusuf said at last, in the most miserable tone Niccolò had ever hear in his voice.
“He will,” he whispered fiercely, pulling Yusuf closer so he could speak against his hair. “He’ll get there Yusuf, you’ll see.”
“I’m not even asking for—at this point I’ll be glad if he calls me Yusuf for the rest of his life.”
“Tezöo, it’s only been three weeks,” Niccolò pointed out, trying his best not to sound condescending, “he just needs more time.”
“He calls you Nico!” Yusuf protested, wincing when his voice rose in pitch and volume.
They both paused to listen for any abnormal sound from inside the door, but when nothing came except the hum of the fridge in the kitchen and a lone cricket chirping outside, Niccolò whispered:
“That’s only because he’s been biased against you. I know it hurts, I wish—I wish things were different. I wish you didn't have to go through this. But this is his grandfather talking, not him. He might need a bit more time, but he’ll love you, you’ll see.”
“Sometimes,” Yusuf said after an explosive sigh, “I hate white people.”
Niccolò winced, but didn’t protest. He’d grown up with the kind of white people Yusuf was talking about, had been one of them until far too recently for his liking. He’d learned better, since, was getting used to living with the guilt of knowing what he’d done, what he’d said, what he’d thought. He knew, better than most, that the sentiment didn’t come from nowhere, and tried his best never to dismiss it. So far, Yusuf had never taken it to a place where Niccolò felt like he had to protest, either, so he just hummed and repeated:
Yusuf sighed, long and weary.
“It’s not your fault.”
“No. But I’m still sorry.” He kissed Yusuf’s temple again, then his cheek, and added: “you’re an amazing dad, tezöo. Sébastien might need time to realize that, but that doesn’t mean he won't.”
“‘An amazing dad’,” Yuuf repeated. “That’s quite the high praise, mister Genovesi. Care to tell me what you’re basing that assessment on?”
“Fishing for compliments, are we?” Niccolò asked with a playful nudge at Yusuf’s shoulder.
“Yes. And as my future husband, it is your duty to comply.”
They giggled together, like they were young boys gearing up to some innocent mischief rather than two grown men sitting by their child’s bedroom door in the middle of the night.
“I’ve met your father, for one,” Niccolò said, never truly reluctant to tell Yusuf good things about himself, especially when it served to assuage his few insecurities. “I know you have a great role model—much better than mine ever was. I know you’re sweet, and caring, and determined to do right by him. I know you’ve been reading those parenting books where you think I won’t see them.”
Yusuf’s cheek grew warmer against Niccolò’s nose, but he didn’t remark on it. He himself hadn’t bothered to crack the books open yet—he’d grown up babysitting four siblings, often all at once, and figured he could probably get by on that for the first month or two, at the very least. Besides, trying to enroll Sébastien in his former school again was enough of a challenge without him having to worry about doing things the ‘proper’ way.
“I know you’re the most loving person I’ve met in my entire life,” Niccolò concluded, his free hand coming up to rest on Yusuf’s knee, “and I know that’s the most important thing you can give a child. I know it’s hard, to have to wait for him longer because of the bigotry of others. I wish it weren’t like that. But it’ll change, I promise you that.”
“Alright,” Yusuf said, eyes shining in the half-light, “alright, I believe you.”
Yusuf moved in for a kiss, Niccolò responded, and they didn’t get back to bed for another long, long moment.
La millière, France, 2020
Niccolò is at the stove, laddling batter into the pan for the first crepe of the morning when Yusuf steps into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and with a severe enough case of bedhead to make Quynh snort into her tea.
“Sorry,” she says when Yusuf turns to mock-glare at her, which is when Andy says:
“Don’t be, he looks ridiculous.”
“Why am I getting attacked first thing in the morning?” Yusuf complains as he crosses the kitchen and comes to wrap his arms around Niccolò’s waist, dropping a kiss to the crook of Niccolò’s neck before he settles his head against his shoulder. “Isn’t it enough torture that I have to speak English?”
Niccolò chuckles and turns for a kiss as soon as he’s able to, happily taking in the imprint of wrinkled bed sheets on his cheek, the light smell of sleep-sweat still clinging to him.
“I think you look adorable,” he tells Yusuf. “Positively delicious.”
“Thank you,” Yusuf mumbles, fighting a yawn, “it’s good to feel supported. How are you feeling, Andy?”
“Old,” Andy retorts after another mouthful of tea.
From the corner of his eyes, Niccolò sees her wince when she moves her injured arm too fast. He hears Quynh tell her to be careful, sounding worried and exasperated in equal measure, and chuckles before telling Yusuf:
“There’s fresh coffee, if you want some. I’d make you a cup but—”
“You stick to the crepes,” Yusuf says, playfully patting Niccolò’s butt, “I’m sure I speak in everyone’s name when I say we’re eagerly waiting for food.”
“Crepes,” Quynh whispers in a comically deepened voice, one finger beating against the table as she continues: “crepes, crepes, crepes, crepes—”
“Please don’t do this,” Niccolò says while Yusuf moves past him to the coffee machine, “you sound like a child.”
“Crepes, crepes, crepes,” Andy joins once she sets the teacup down, using three fingers to beat against the edge of the wooden table backed against the wall.
Niccolò turns to Yusuf just as he joins with a rap of knuckles against the window, then swallows his mouthful of coffee to join in a raspy voice.
“Crepes, crepes, crepes—”
“You are all banned,” Niccolò laughs as the volume and speed of their demand rises, “you’re going to—”
“Crepes, crepes, crepes,” the others continue, and Niccolò pauses after the next one to point at Quynh and says:
“I want you to know I blame—”
“Sébastien!” Quynh exclaims, light voice rising in pitch as she throws her hands up in the air like she’s cheering for one of her beloved hockey matches.
“Auntie Quynh!” Sébastien exclaims, and rushes to hug her as she rises from her seat at the table.
“Look at you,” Quynh exclaims, pulling away to watch Sébastien, “so big already! And wearing the best pyjamas in the world, I see!”
“You’re only saying that because you picked them,” Andy retorts, making Niccolò chuckle even as he turns back to the stove and starts in on the next crepe.
He does like the purple, starry look though, and nods in approval when Sébastien expresses a similar sentiment.
“But I like the book you sent me, too, auntie Andy.”
“He hasn’t wanted to hear anything else since we got it,” Yusuf says. “I’m developing quite the Eeyore voice.”
“I knew you’d like it,” Andy says.
Niccolò hears the sound of kissing going on for a bit, before a small body bumps into his legs.
“Morning, papà,” Sébastien says as Niccolò takes the next crepe off the stove and bends to kiss his cheek.
He’s about to go back to his cooking when Sébastien walks up to Yusuf near the window, pauses and, after only a brief hesitation, says:
“Good morning, baba.”
Niccolò chuckles as Yusuf scrambles to get his coffee settled at the edge of the sink, then picks Sébastien in his arms fast enough to make the boy yelp as he lets out a joyful exclamation and starts spinning them in place. Quynh has to move out of the way so she won’t get hit by a stray foot, and Andy is grinning harder than Niccolò has ever seen her as she watches Yusuf pepper Sébastien’s cheeks with kisses that make him giggle.
“My son, my son, my son,” Yusuf says after a few more kisses, “oh what a glorious morning!”
“It’s raining,” Quynh points out, dry enough to drag a chuckle out of Niccolò.
“Glorious morning,” Yusuf repeats, no room for further argument left in his voice, “joyous morning! Favorite of all my days!”
Niccolò watches his husband half-waltz around the kitchen, Andy and Quynh laughing even as they press against the wall to avoid another accident. Sébastien, holding on to Yusuf’s neck for dear life even as he explodes in great peals of laughter with every move. Yusuf’s eyes catch Niccolò’s, then, and he barely has time to turn the stove off before he is pulled into the dance, Andy and Quynh rising to form their own pair as Yusuf keeps sing-songing:
“Glorious morning! Joyous morning! Favorite of all my days! Joyous morning, glorious morning, for I am a father today!”
Niccolò lets himself be spun around the kitchen for a while longer, nearly tripping into Andy and Quynh at least twice. Then, just because he can, he pauses, wraps his arms around Yusuf’s waist and, lifting him and Sébastien at the same time, gives them both one last spin. He settles them back down to Andy’s playful whistle and Quynh’s delighted clapping, his heart swelling with the delight in all of their faces, the way their eyes shine, the way both of the men of his life move to kiss his cheek at once.
He grins, full of love, and joy, and surrounded by family.