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on strike against god

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A list of six things regarding Nicholas Esteban Hemmick:

  1. He wore a white tux to his baptism. The church was crowded that morning, heat radiating off the parishioners in waves. A ceiling-high portrait of La Virgen loomed over them behind the altar. At the time, Nicky felt protected, but that was before he learned to be wary of mothers.
  2. Maria kept a picture of that day on her nightstand alongside a scene of the Sistine Chapel, where God was creating Adam; the material of it was cheap like she tore it out of a catalog, leaving Nicky with blue thumbprints whenever he picked it up. She also hid a blurry image of Chapultepec Castle, taken by the shaky hand of a child, under her lamp. Nicky used to sit at the edge of her bed and stare it for what felt like hours, and he never quite understood why.
  3. He attended a private Catholic school until his freshman year of high school, and in first grade, his teacher taught the class a prayer. Dear Saint Anthony, she said, please come around. Something is lost and it cannot be found. Anytime you feel like you have misplaced something, she added, you recite that prayer to our holy saint. That, among many other things, is a habit he, at eighteen, has still yet to shake.
  4. Despite everything, he loves his mother.
  5. Every Monday, she would pick him up early from school and sneak him out for ice-cream or for an afternoon at the theatre. Sometimes she didn’t drop him off at school at all. Instead, she packed them lunch and drove them to the Latin American Art Institute, where they would spend the day wandering between portraits. No matter where they went, she always spoke to him in Spanish. No more glancing over her shoulder, no more whispering, no more lies. Ya me hacías falta, mi amor, she would say. I was beginning to miss you.
  6. He can’t make himself let go of that, either.

 

***

Nicky, after four days in Germany, has tried to meet Erik Klose three times.

The Kloses are from a small town north of Stuttgart. They live in a bright yellow, one-story house that overlooks a stream. A fenced garden sits in their front yard and a handmade birdhouse is tucked on the high branch of an old tree. It might just be the Columbia in Nicky’s bones, but his first few hours on German soil are spent staring at the large expanse of green grass and high hills, the houses with roofs the color of spiced rum. He thinks for a moment that the birds sing differently here.

Mr. and Mrs. Klose, as they show him to his room, tell him that their son, Erik, is at the gym doing laps, but hopefully, both of them will meet properly once he’s back. Nicky agrees politely but thinks to himself that if by some miracle he leaves his bed in the next twenty-four hours, it’ll be by divine intervention alone.

He sleeps the rest of the day and wakes up early the next morning ravenous. As he slinks soft-footed as a cat to the kitchen, he takes time to absorb what he sees: mismatched furniture in the living room, artwork decorating the walls, and silly magnets hanging certificates on the fridge.

Nicky, sitting at the breakfast bar, is in the middle of shoveling cereal into his mouth when Erik pads into the kitchen, takes one look at Nicky, and freezes.

Nicky, perplexed, stops chewing his mouthful of corn flakes to stare back.

His first thought is that Erik looks exactly like one of those boys you’d take home to meet your mom. Clean face. Tall, but not lanky. Some stubborn baby fat still sticks to his cheeks. Nicky saw a picture of him only once. The Kloses e-mailed him a family picture when they were first assigned to each other months ago. The Erik in the photograph struck Nicky as someone who considered his body to be an ill-fitting glove, and Nicky recognizes the Erik standing before him now as no different from the Erik he saw on his computer screen.

His second thought is that only a boy like Erik would wear a t-shirt two sizes too big that says, I bee-lieve in you! across it in big, blocky letters. A cartoon bee spirals toward his armpit.

“Ähm,” Erik says, and stops there. 

The tension is thick enough to chew, the silence almost a physical weight over both of them. Nicky, being an expert at icebreakers, goes to say something, remembers too late there’s still food in his mouth, and immediately snaps it closed, but not before he swallows an unchewed mouthful and promptly begins choking.

As far as first impressions go, it’s not the best, especially since Erik’s parents come in just as Nicky starts coughing his lungs out. Mr. Klose slaps Nicky on the back while Mrs. Klose greets Erik in murmured Arabic and with a kiss to the cheek. Then she leads him out of the kitchen and Mr. Klose asks Nicky how he’s feeling, so it stays at that.

 

 

Nicky is in the middle of a wet dream about root beer and peanut butter M&Ms when someone kicks his door open so hard the door handle bangs against the wall, loud as a gunshot.

Nicky does the only sensible thing, which is shout, “Jesus Christ!” and fall off the bed on his ass, the covers tangling around his legs. He glances at the alarm clock he toppled; it’s barely eight in the morning.

He hears footsteps racing down the hall, then when they skid to a stop at his open door. Mrs. Klose huffs under her breath. “What—?”

“You didn’t say he was staying here!” A voice cracks in defensively.

Someone else asks, genuinely curious, “Where else would he be staying?”

Nicky untangles himself enough from the sheets to poke his head out and watch Mrs. Klose, fully dressed and caffeinated, send Erik and the girl who just kicked a boot mark on his door away, rubbing the bridge of her nose raw. He thinks he catches her mutter, “This is not what I meant when I said break him in, Louisa,” before turning her dark, sharp eyes on Nicky.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

He’s clad in boxer briefs, has bed head, and recognizes the dull burn of a bruise forming on the spot where his hip meets his ass. Nicky feels “all right” in the same way Mary felt “all right” standing before the Archangel Gabriel—meaning not at all.

“Sure,” Nicky lies anyway.

Her mouth twitches, twinkling with silent amusement. “Have you ever played chicken?”

“I—yes?”

“Good,” she says, then adds, as if as an afterthought, “Breakfast is waiting. Come down whenever you’re ready.”

 

 

Louisa won’t stop staring at him.

He spends the first five minutes at the table pretending he hasn’t noticed it, and then the next two realizing she doesn’t care if he does either way. He stabs at the pancakes on his plate and spares her a glance.

She has dark hair she keeps tied in a messy knot at the top of her head with a bright orange scrunchy. The rimmed glasses on her face sit just a touch crooked, and she nudges at them with the heel of her hand every few minutes like it’ll do anything. She wears jeans and high boots and a flannel over her t-shirt. Nicky, absorbing her long eyelashes and squarish jaw, half expects her to smell like hay.

“Louisa,” Mr. Klose says, “stop trying to intimidate him.”

“Let her,” Mrs. Klose suggests, putting her hand gently over her husband’s. “It’s the only way we’ll get through the rest of the year.

Another few beats of silence pass between everyone.

“So. Nicky,” Mr. Klose says after apparently realizing no one else is going to say anything. He lifts his coffee in Nicky’s direction. There are bits of dried clay on the fingers he has wrapped around his dragon-themed mug and apron, which hangs a little awkwardly off his shoulders. “This is Erik’s friend, Louisa. As you can see, she was raised in a barn.”

"Hilarious.” She turns her gaze back to Nicky. Beside her, Erik is staring off into the middle distance as if he would rather be anywhere else. “I usually take a nap in the guest room while Erik gets ready. I didn’t realize it was occupied.”

A beat passes.

Some might argue it doesn’t count, but the moment he makes brief eye contact with Erik is the third time he tries and fails to meet—or make sense—of Erik Klose. Nicky’s unsure if this is Louisa’s way of apologizing or if she’s accusing him of something, so Nicky stares at Erik, terrified, which Erik ignores in favor of looking down at his plate.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

She holds out her hand. There’s an obscene amount of syrup on her plate. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Nicky takes it, his own probably still sticky with juice and jam. “Likewise.”

 

 

Nicky finally relents and decides he’s procrastinated unpacking his stuff long enough on account of (a) it being true and (b) he’s still pretty petrified of stepping out of his room.

He spends the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon organizing, moving furniture around, and throwing his shit wherever. By the end of it, he feels sore all over and he’s willing to tackle anyone in the house to the ground if it means dibs on the shower.

Erik runs into him in the hallway—literally. He turns into it just as Nicky makes it past the corner. Nicky flails, trying to keep his balance. Erik merely wavers on his feet, wide-eyed and wincing. He’s surprisingly strong under his tucked-in button-ups, Nicky thinks.

Erik rubs at a spot on his forehead. “Sorry.”

“You’re fine.” He’s hyper-aware that his hair is sticking up, his face shiny with sweat and oil. He sighs, eyes fluttering closed in a half-formed wince. Usually, he’s not so bad at this. “It’s nice to finally know what your voice sounds like.”

The joke lands wrong. Erik stiffens, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. That was rude.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Nicky would’ve been lying a few hours ago; he thought Erik was an asshole at first, but after watching him scrub his face and avoid making eye contact with everyone, Nicky’s starting to realize he might just be shy.

Erik looks down at his shoes. “I wanted to let you know what Louisa did—she didn’t mean anything by it. She was trying to be—“ he grapples for a word “—protective.”

“Protective of what?”

Erik’s eyes widen. “Ähm,” he says. “We dated for a while a few years ago, and we’ve been friends for longer. Neither of us makes other friends very often, I guess, so she—”

“Wanted to know if I was a piece of shit,” Nicky finishes for him.

Erik huffs a laugh. “Yes, exactly.”

There’s fondness creeping into Erik’s expression as he talks about Louisa, transforming his grimace into an almost-smile. It’s the kind of expression you get when you talk about someone you love, the kind of look you get when you talk about family. Something dark and sad pangs in Nicky’s chest to see it. He wonders briefly if that’s what he looks like when he talks about his parents, though he discards the idea as soon as it comes.

(Waste not, want not. It’s his father’s favorite proverb. If Nicky doesn’t waste time thinking about something he’ll never have, its absence will never hurt.)

He nods, wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans before sticking one out. “It’s nice to meet you, Erik.”

Erik takes it hesitantly. “Pleasure to meet you, Nicky.”

 

***

 

The next few weeks pass by gradually.

Nicky never considered his German to be bad, but he’s quickly starting to realize the difference between speaking a foreign language in a classroom full of beginners and throwing himself into a German-speaking country. It’s frankly a miracle he can keep up with anything at all, and he often asks Mr. and Mrs. Klose to slow down or repeat themselves.

He calls his mom regularly, half because he knows it makes her happy and half because he knows his being here makes her uncomfortable, that she only ever agreed to let him study abroad because of his father. Before his first year of high school, she tried to convince him to take four years of Spanish instead of German.

(I could help you, she said as she set the stove on low to heat up dinner. Nicky sat at the breakfast bar, swinging his legs back and forth. His father was working late, and Nicky couldn’t help but think her timing wasn’t a coincidence, as if she planned for a private conversation.

I barely speak it anymore, he reminded her. His father never liked his mom speaking a language he couldn’t understand under his roof, and once Nicky was too old for his mom to find ways to teach him through lullabies and secret trips, the language fell away from him like water through a sieve, leaving behind only pebble-sized memories.

She turned away from him. You never know, she said. It might come back to you.

Maybe, he said noncommittally, remembering what she told him once about missing someone to the point of deprivation. He wondered if that expression extended to other things.)

All in all, Nicky spends most of his time either pretending to do homework, watching highlights of last year’s Exy season on YouTube, or sitting in his new room, staring endlessly at the empty walls and clean carpet.

(White walls, white floor, white sheets.)

The only problem—the one that follows him around, the only constant in Nicky’s life—is mass.

 

***

 

There’s a church by Nicky’s school. Its bricked walls have gone brown with age, the sign out in front yellowing and peeling. It’s a juxtaposition against the memory of his father’s church, golden and huge.

As much as Nicky would prefer to just lie to his mom about the whole thing, he knows he won’t be able to keep it up all year. Either he’ll break or let something slip, so lying is strictly out of the cards.

He has a strange, recurring nightmare that he’ll gather his courage to walk inside only to find that the doors are locked, and an even stranger one that the locks aren’t meant to keep him out but to keep something else in, something with gnashing teeth. Something that demands blood. Something that would otherwise hunt him.

He hovers, uncertain, at the curb staring at the church a few times. His thoughts running a mile a minute while he tries to shake the odd sensation of eyes boring into his back. As if someone is going to come running out after him and—and what?

He prefers the days when he sits in bed and thinks of nothing at all.

After two weeks of probably driving the St. William secretary to the verge of tears, Nicky shoulders his backpack and walks inside.

The church is empty, his footsteps echoing louder than gunshots as he makes his way through the foyer, past the office. Dipping two fingers into the stoup, he steps inside the nave. There are only four rows of pews. An organ cramped into the corner. A carpet worn down to the same pale, washed-out color of the walls. The stained glass does little to brighten the green-lit room, and there’s no gold anywhere in sight.

He’s beginning to think he’s alone when someone pops their head out from behind the altar.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky blurts out.

The priest must not have noticed him come in; he freezes at Nicky’s voice, blinking where he stands.

“I didn’t realize, um.” Nicky waves his hand around vaguely. “Forgive me, Father.”

The priest recovers easily, pinning a smile on his face. It’s a kind smile, one that smoothes the lines at the corners of his eyes, at the center of his forehead. “This isn’t reconciliation. No need to apologize. Please, sit down.”

Nicky still feels caught, but on autopilot, he follows the order and sits down.

“I’m Magno Moreno, though you can call me Father Magno if you like. Are you here just to sit?” he asks.

Nicky is expecting the question in German. Maybe even English—some native speakers find Nicky’s accent tricky, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s decided it was just easier to speak to Nicky in his own tongue.

The last thing he’s expecting is for the priest to open his mouth and start speaking Spanish.

Luckily, he uses words Nicky’s brain still foggily recognizes. Hearing it is like blowing cobwebs off the cover of an old book he blurrily remembers but can’t quite place or wrap his head around. He says, “I don’t, actually—I mean, I used to, but not anymore.”

“Oh. Excuse me. I just assumed.”

“Where are you from?” Nicky asks. Then winces. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Instead of telling Nicky to get the fuck out of his church, Father Magno considers him quietly before answering, “Jalisco. Before that, el Distrito Federal. You?”

“South Carolina,” he says. “I only asked because I, um. My mom, you know, she’s from Oaxaca, and she—there’s not a lot of people from there where I live.”

It’s beyond an understatement. Nicky’s suburb is filled with white picket fences and stay-at-home moms. All of his friends growing up didn’t look anything like Nicky, and sometimes he thinks his father wanted it that way, separating his mom from everything familiar until her only connection back to Mexico was a museum two hours away.

Father Magno pauses again. “It’s perfectly all right.”

Jesus Christ.

“I’m sorry. I think I’ll,” Nicky says, gathering his things off the floor, “um.”

“Of course,” he says.

 

 

Nicky feels eyes on his back and a presence at his heels his entire walk home.

 

***

 

Somehow, Erik and Nicky settle into a strange kind of friendship on complete fucking accident.

One Saturday as Nicky is scrolling aimlessly on his phone and avoiding the huge stack of math homework piled on his desk, he hears Louisa very clearly snap, “Erik, for fuck’s sake!” and then a thumping noise like someone getting shoved.

Nicky meerkats his head at the soft knock on his door, so soft he doesn’t know if he imagined it. Then there’s another rap of knuckles, this time harder.

“Yes?”

The door opens slowly. Erik pokes his head in and stares at Nicky for a few moments before simply saying, “Hi.”

“Hey?” Nicky hazards.

“Are you busy?”

“Very,” Nicky says, who hasn’t moved from the bed all day. When Erik keeps staring like he can’t decide if Nicky is being serious or not, Nicky clarifies: “I’m very busy doing nothing. What’s up?”

“Louisa and I are taking English as our foreign language credit, and we have an exam on Monday, but neither of us understands most of what’s going on. We were hoping you might be willing to help us.”

Nicky mentally loses his step. It’s the first time they’ve asked him to join them on something. He’s aware his German is still pretty trashy compared to theirs, and they’re so close, have known each other for longer than Nicky’s known almost anyone. If it was him, he would be covetous of a relationship like that, too. A spark of hope flares in Nicky’s ribcage.

“Sure.” Nicky tosses his duvet to the side and gets to his feet, stretching his arms up high over his head until he hears his spine pop. Erik is rubbing the back of his neck and looking everywhere but at Nicky’s face. He has the same look on him that he did the day they met: uncomfortable, wary, and more than a little panicked.

“Erik?” Nicky asks.

“Yes?”

“You don’t have to be nervous about asking me for things, you know,” he says. “It’s just me, and I’m only, like, half as bitchy as I sound.”

Erik smiles into his hand, relaxing incrementally against the doorframe—which isn’t a whole hell of a lot, but Nicky takes satisfaction in the small things. “Half?”

“Oh, you have jokes. That’s cute,” he adds, before pushing Erik down the hall.

Fortunately, Nicky isn’t dumb enough to not know what they’re going over. Most of it is vocab with a few grammar and conjugation rules thrown here and there, and he’s able to answer most of their questions without having to scan the book. At some point, Louisa ends up stomach-down on the floor with Nicky’s knee serving as a cup holder for her hot chocolate. Erik sits on his other side, back reclined against the couch. He gets up once to refill their mugs—one covered in silly, hand-drawn roosters, the other glazed green—and comes back with a third for Nicky, the handle heart-shaped.

The following Saturday, they do the same thing: a knock on Nicky’s door, a mug already awaiting him on the coffee table. The Saturday after that, they take Nicky’s breakfast upstairs to Erik’s room. The one after that, Nicky sets an alarm and meets them in the kitchen.

(None of them talk about it, mostly because Nicky wouldn’t know what to say. Erik and Louisa, on the other hand, seem to think there’s nothing to discuss.)

During the weekdays, Erik and Nicky sprawl themselves across Nicky’s bed and trade papers, homework, and notes. It turns out Erik is single-handedly responsible for keeping the publishing industry alive, so he does Nicky’s Socratic questions on Conrad while Nicky corrects his English homework.

If asked, Nicky would say he didn’t expect this to snowball the way it did, but it’s a nice change considering they rarely spoke to each other and now spend hours together daily.

“I would’ve asked you sooner if I’d known you’d agree,” Erik insists, though Nicky already explained he isn’t arguing that point. “That and if I knew you didn’t hate me.”

“I’ve literally never heard anything dumber than what you just said,” Nicky says, “and I grew up in a conservative suburb in South Carolina.”

“You say that like I should know anything about U.S. geography. Or the U.S., for that matter.”

Nicky draws a red x over one of the answers Erik puts down on his homework. “Why would I hate you? I’ve only been here a month.”

“Seven weeks.”

“What?”

“You’ve been here for seven weeks, not a month.”

For the sake of his sanity, Nicky ignores that. “Why would I hate you?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “You seemed... skittish, I guess. I thought I might have offended you.”

“Oh,” he says, biting his mouth. “Maybe it was because I was afraid there wasn’t enough room for both me and your ego in any given room,” he adds, partly to add some levity and partly to hide his guilt. Though, with his luck, Erik will be able to read it off him anyway.

Instead, Erik’s expression is the one that shutters. He turns his face away and says, “Right.”

A few beats of awkward silence pass between them, which Nicky spends fidgeting. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Nicky tries again. “Hey. What do you think my chances are of bullshitting my quiz tomorrow?”

Face downturned, Nicky nearly doesn’t catch the way Erik’s mouth twitches. “You couldn’t even tell me the main character’s name.”

Relief pulses through Nicky. He relaxes against the wall with an inaudible sigh and shrugs, let’s his shoulder brush against Erik’s. Erik doesn’t back away. “It’s multiple choice.”

“That just means you have a 75% chance of being wrong.”

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shoving Erik until he breaks, laughing as he half-dangles over the mattress. “Go be smart somewhere else.”

 

***

 

There are a few things you should know about Erik Klose:

  1. He doesn’t practice a religion, even after a lifetime of following his mom in and out of mosque and his dad to temple once a year. But he does believe in God.
  2. From first glance, he resembles his dad: tall Black men who like to grow out their hair and dimple when they smile. But upon closer look, the topography of his face is eerily similar to his mom’s: the slope of his nose, his cheekbones, his soft jawline.
  3. The first time he kissed a girl, he was thirteen. His class was on a field trip to the roller-skating arena, and Louisa plopped down next to him in the corner as he tied his skates on. She was uncharacteristically hesitant when she pressed a chaste kiss to his mouth.
  4. The first time he kissed a boy was his junior year in the greenhouse. He was taking notes on his planetarium project when his partner caught him mid-sentence and cupped Erik’s face in his hands.
  5. Following his tradition of all or nothing, he decided he liked both.
  6. Louisa invites Nicky to her farm for the first time the summer after their graduation. She manhandles him onto a horse while Erik stands a safe distance away. Nicky, wrapping his absurd octopus arms around the horse’s neck, spends the entire time cracking jokes about looking like a brown Zorro while trying desperately not to lose his shit. Louisa hooks her arm in Erik’s as they watch and says, I kind of like him, to which Erik answers, Well, good. I was planning on keeping him.
  7. He only ever gets drunk once in his life. He’s twenty-one and standing in the living room of his apartment avoiding his bedroom because he can’t stand the thought of crawling into a cold, empty bed. He generally hates drinking, but Nicky liked to keep a bottle of red wine in their kitchen for special occasions. Erik only ever knew the taste from what he could lick off the back of Nicky’s teeth, but right then, he chugs it down in gulps, wanting it to wash over him until the wine is the only thing he can taste for days. He has a nagging feeling it’ll be the closest he’ll be to Nicky for a while.
  8. He ends up being right about that. Seven years filled with frustration, wonky Skype calls, mismatched schedules, and rushed vacations culminate like a thunderous storm and finally break to reveal this: Nicky stepping off a plane, holding a one-way ticket, and saying to Erik, “There you are,” like he found something lost in the last place he thought to check.
  9. Erik never meets Nicky’s parents. He can’t say he minds.

 

***

 

Nicky doesn’t think about church.

Rarely. He rarely thinks about church.

But on the days he does, he thinks of Father Magno’s accent, the way it rounded his vowels and reminded Nicky of his mom. The second Father Magno spoke Spanish, Nicky was suddenly seven years old again and sitting in his mom’s lap as he ate his melting ice-cream under the sun. She pointed once at the sky and said, Mira el cielo, mi amor. Mira los pájaros. Look at the sky, my love. Look at the birds.

He remembers smacking his lips together and telling his mom, Sí, Mamá. Sí los veo. Yes, he sees them.

It’s pissing down rain outside, but Nicky runs out in only his sweater. He arrives at St. William’s completely soaked, his tennis shoes squeaking against the old tile. (Tracking the outside world into God’s house, his mom would scold.)

The only person he finds is Father Magno, lingering outside the confessionals with his head bowed toward the tabernacle.

Nicky makes considerably more noise on his way inside this time, trying to slow down his breathing and chattering teeth enough to get a word through.

Father Magno takes one glimpse at him and asks, “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” Nicky answers through his chilled fingers. He rubs his hands together, trying to create some friction. Rain drips softly from his clothes to the floor. “Do you mind?”

“No,” he says wryly. “I had just been thinking it had gotten too quiet.”

Outside, the rain continues beating against the windows, muted like the sound of a heart beating—like Nicky’s own heart beating, strong but steady against his ribcage. For a single moment, he wonders what the fuck he thinks he’s doing. There’s no reason for him to be here, making a puddle on the floor on a rainy Friday night, a bad guest in a sacred home. His father would say he’s making a scene.

Then Nicky remembers his mom in the museum, his mom with her arms wrapped around him in the grass.

“I wanted to ask you for a favor,” he says.

Father Magno doesn’t say anything. He stands there and waits patiently as Nicky takes a few more steadying breaths, tries rubbing some heat back into his hands. Tries to remember what it’s like to be warm.

“I want to learn how to speak Spanish again,” he goes on. “I don’t know anyone else who can help me. I thought about doing it myself, but—well, I’m a bad teacher, but I’m a quick learner, I swear. I could help around here with anything you need in exchange, if you want. I know a lot about—”

“Yes.”

Nicky stops. “Yes,” he echoes, inane.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt, though I should say I would be happy to help you before you continue,” he says, smiling. The wrinkles in his face soften again. He must smile a lot, Nicky thinks. “I only ask for your name in exchange.”

Nicky blinks.

“It’s Nicky,” he says. His voice rings in the empty church, bouncing off the walls and leaving a pleasant hum like the last notes of a hymn. “Nicky Hemmick.”

 

***

 

Because his life literally cannot get any weirder, Nicky ends up spending whatever time he isn't with Erik and Louisa with a priest.

At least he thinks his life cannot get any weirder until the day he shows up to church after school and the secretary tells him Father Magno is not currently there.

Half an hour later, Nicky is standing in the middle of a bar six blocks away, saying, “I don’t even want to know what a priest needs a side hustle for.”

Father Magno looks drily at Nicky from the other side of the pool table. He’s wearing a coat that conveniently hides his clerical collar.

The man he’s playing with stares blankly between Nicky and Father Magno, and it’s only once Father Magno sets his cue stick aside and slides their bets in the man’s direction that his confusion manifests into shock, followed quickly by sheer terror.

“It’s lucrative,” Father Magno explains.

“I can’t believe this. I come to you to replenish my soul,” he says, just to show off; he only recently learned the word for “replenish” in Spanish. “And I find you here.”

Nicky takes a seat at the bar, ignoring the way his jacket sleeve sticks to the counter. “Also, you do know that your secretary just works on her thesis and streams college Exy games on your dime, right? Why do you even keep her? Every time I ask her, she never hesitates to tell me where you are.”

“I like people who lack manners,” he says.

Nicky ignores that. An idea pops into his head. “Hey, what’s the drinking age here?”

Father Magno fastens his coat and motions at Nicky. “Come on.”

The chilly afternoon breeze hits them on their way out, a counterpoint to the warm, salty air of the bar. It’s late enough into the year that the sky has dimmed into a soft, muted orange. The handful of restaurants and bars still open turn on their flickering neon signs. They blink against the sky, humming. 

Nicky asks, genuinely curious, “Isn’t gambling a sin?”

“Excessive gambling,” Father Magno corrects him, “but look at where we are, in the heart of this town. How can this be a sin, enjoying the company of everyday people?”

Nicky says, “The part about hustling them out of their money.” Father Magno huffs out a laugh just as Nicky adds, “Or them taking pocket change from one of God’s servants. Pick and choose.”

“They rarely take my money.”

“And you never take theirs,” Nicky guesses.

Father Magno looks extremely affronted. “I obviously take the money.” 

Nicky’s laughter echoes in the empty streets. He wonders if this is how those birds in the sky his mom pointed at felt while flying: As if gravity has released him, left him weightless. 

 

 

Before they part, Father Magno says, “Oh, I almost forgot. Here.”

He hands Nicky a prayer card. It’s old, crinkled at the corners, and soft to the touch. Age has done to the paper what sunshine does to a book cover, but Nicky can still make out the shiny background, bright red like the skin of an apple.

Nicky looks at Father Magno skeptically. “St. Anthony?”

“You know the rhyme?”

“Everyone knows the rhyme,” he answers absently, flipping the card over. The print is in Spanish. “Where did you get this?”

He smiles. “Home.”

Nicky swallows. The inside of his mouth tastes like sand.

The card resembles those free ones youth pastors hand out, like this was an impulse purchase from a drugstore decades ago. The ink smears and the material is thin, but it’s also worn through with love. Father Magno probably knows every tear and wrinkle in it to the finest detail, would recognize it blind. Nicky’s never had anything like that, never carried around a rosary or his scapular like a good luck charm.

Nicky should tell him he can’t take it. He should give it back.

Father Magno must sense the protests on the tip of Nicky’s tongue. He presses the card into Nicky’s palm with his thumb. “Keep it,” he says in a voice that’s kind but no less unyielding for it. 

Nicky worries it between his fingers as he watches Father Magno disappear inside the church. St. Anthony, the patron saint of everything lost and stolen. Only certain breeds of Catholics turn to this prayer for any reason other than pure habit, and Nicky wonders which one Father Magno is of the two: lost or stolen. Does Father Magno, like Nicky, wander aimlessly through life feeling unmoored, or does he feel cheated out of something else altogether?

More importantly, what is he hoping Nicky finds? Himself or God?

 

***

 

Usually, they talk about moral relativism.

“It makes no sense,” Nicky argues from where he’s replacing burned-out candles from La Virgen Maria’s altar. She looks down at him, kind and loving and sad. Father Magno gave him an unreadable look when he mentioned it, but Nicky thinks all moms are sort of like that. Just a little bit sad.

“Is this going to be another one of your conniptions about the Sixth Commandment?”

“No,” Nicky straight-out lies.

“Ok,” Father Magno sighs, not believing a word.

“It’s just that it’s dishonest.”

“Dishonest by your lights. The point is to discourage ambiguity.” He shuffles through his thick stack of papers in the pew. Behind his reading glasses, his eyebrows scrunch together. He scribbles something down in the margins. “Exceptions inspire debate.”

“Nothing is ever clear cut.” Nicky genuflects before following Father Magno into the pew. He plops down and starts in on the second pile of work.

“This is true,” Father Magno agrees, flipping back and forth between the packet listing the volunteers for next Sunday and the monthly bills, “but where do you draw the line? How do you separate the moderate and the extreme?”

“Common sense?” Nicky says. “Anyway, it’s hypocritical to pretend the Church doesn’t somewhat embrace relativism. It’s not human nature to deal in absolutes.”

“Hm.” Father Magno looks up from the papers. He slides off his glasses and taps them against his mouth, considering. He gestures at Nicky, asking, “Are sins ranked?”

“I’m just saying,” he insists, “that if you go by black and white, you just hurt more people than you help.”

Father Magno raises his eyebrows. “Is this really what you look forward to all day? Running through religious talking points with a middle-aged priest?”

“You’d think you’d be more flattered. I’m extremely popular, you know.” Nicky grabs a calculator out of his backpack once he gets to the finances. He got a B-minus in Calc last semester, and he doesn’t want to be the reason Father Magno goes bankrupt.

He scratches a spot on his chin and adds, “Anyway, I like being here. You—uh. I like talking to you. You don’t spray me with holy water for being honest with you. It’s nice.”

There’s a beat of silence before Father Magno lays his hand carefully against Nicky’s shoulder. He says, “Thank you.”

It would be funny if Father Magno didn’t look so sincere, staring at Nicky with his bleeding eyes. He could be talking about anything: the paperwork, the company, the compliment. Nicky can’t help but feel that there’s a meaning here he’s failing to grasp, but still, he answers, “Of course,” because it’s the truth, because there’s nothing to thank him for.

Chapter Text

Nicky’s mother calls him on Christmas Eve.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she says, her voice crackling over the line. The sound reminds him of nuts over a fire, of holidays spent at home. Baby Jesus on the mantle. An angel balancing on the tip of a tree. Nicky, kneeling in front of La Virgen with a rosary in his hands.

He swallows. “How are you doing, Mom?”

“Good. You’re father and I are sad you won’t be with us this Christmas, though. We sent your gifts over the mail.”

“I mailed yours over, too. Both are in the same package. It should be there tomorrow.”

There’s a slight pause. The open line buzzes in Nicky’s ear.

“Nicky?”

“Yeah?”

“You do miss us, don’t you?” Her voice is quiet, a touch anxious. It’s the same voice she would use around Nicky the first few months after he came back from camp. She used to tiptoe around him, waiting for him to crack and turn into someone else, a reversed metamorphosis. Even now, Nicky doesn’t think she trusts him.

Nicky fiddles with the loose thread on his jeans. “Yeah. I miss you.”

He imagines her face brightening, her shoulders easing, a burden lifted off her. “You think of your father in your prayers tonight, all right? He’s having a hard time with you away.”

Nicky doubts that, but he says, “Sure,” because he knows that’s what she wants to hear.

 

***

 

Louisa doesn’t kick Nicky’s door open this time, mostly because he learned a month ago it’s better to just keep his door open and let her stroll inside like she owns the place. Which is exactly what she does now.

“Put on a coat,” she tells him.

Nicky pauses rubbing cologne at the hollow of his throat to spare Louisa a sideways glance. Neither Erik nor Louisa’s parents celebrate Christmas, but apparently they’re old friends with weird traditions, so they dumped their kids plus Nicky at the Kloses’ and went out to go sit by the frozen lake.

Louisa, Erik, and Nicky agreed weeks ago they were going to stay home, raid the wine cabinet, and put on old films Nicky doesn’t understand until morning.

He frowns. “Are we going out?”

“Backyard,” she says. “It’s clear enough to make a bonfire.”

With that, she walks back out of Nicky’s room. It’s probably the thing he likes most about her: She talks when she has something to say and leaves when she doesn’t.

He throws on his warmest coat, a pair of gloves, and winds a scarf around his neck before making his way outside. He finds Louisa efficiently piling logs, twigs, and sticks into the bonfire pit while Erik stands off to the side, holding a matchbox in both hands. He looks like he’s waiting for instructions.

“I always knew you were the muscles of the outfit,” says Nicky, sidling up next to him.

“You and Louisa are so annoying,” he says. “I do work out, you know.”

“Shut up, Erik,” Louisa says, brushing her hands off on her legs. Stray strips of bark and leaves stick to her jeans. Erik tosses her the matchbox, and the bonfire lights up with a blast of heat, licking up Nicky’s whole body. The wind blows a few tendrils of smoke their way.

The last time Nicky went to a bonfire was a year ago with a group of people he only somewhat knew from church. It was nothing like this, standing in the backyard of a small house, overlooking a town on the edge of nowhere, sandwiched between two people he considers friends. He sighs, tucking his hands under his armpits, and breathes it in.

Something heavy and solid strikes him in the solar plexus. Nicky cracks his eyes open to see Louisa shoving a wrapped present into his chest, her expression flat.

“Merry Christmas,” she says, which is just about the last thing Nicky expects to come out of her mouth. He opens and closes his mouth uselessly, alternating between gawking at her, glancing at the present, and then—with raised eyebrows—back at her.

The wrapping paper has frogs and Santas on it. He kind of wants to ask her where she got it.

“You’re an atheist,” he reminds her because someone has to.

She shrugs. “You’re not.” Apparently, she thinks this ought to explain everything.

Nicky turns to ask Erik what the hell is going on and finds him handing Nicky a glittery bag.

Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ,” he says.

Erik smiles. “I guess that’s an appropriate thing to say.”

“I—this is,” Nicky stammers, more than a little panicked. Then he stops. “Hold on.”

Before they can say anything, Nicky sets the gifts carefully on a folded chair a few feet away and runs toward the backdoors, stumbling into his room and digging out the plastic shopping bag he hid in his closet. They weren’t meant for today but fuck it. Plans change.

Once he’s back outside, he says, breathless, “You guys fucking suck,” before handing them their gifts.

Figuring out what Louisa might like took Nicky about five different tries and a couple of hours spent wandering aimlessly through the mall. He knew she wouldn’t like anything impractical, and she hates getting clothes and lotions.

Nicky finally settled on a brown watch with a thick leather band. The shadow of an old tree decorates the clock face, the roots reaching toward the edges. Louisa stares down at it, swiping a thumb over the glass. Meanwhile, Erik runs his hand over the cover of The Waste Land, and the wonky felt bookmark Nicky made.

Erik asks, “When did you buy these?”

“A few weeks ago. They were supposed to be for your birthdays,” he adds pointedly.

Erik scratches a spot on his face, wincing. “This makes my gift look so bad. I got you a new sweater and a Starbucks gift card.”

“I made you a painting to hang up on your wall,” Louisa tells him flatly, her gaze withering. “You live like a monk.”

But instead of embarrassment, a sweet, thick sensation he has no name for kicks up his spine. Nicky’s eyes sting, heat prickling under his jaw. He knows his lines: he’s meant to crack a joke, to be funny, and smother an obnoxious kiss on Louisa’s cheek to hide how touched he is.

He reminds himself that Erik and Louisa have known each other their entire lives and dislike having to make room in their friendship for others. Nicky doesn’t know how to interpret Erik’s different silences, not the way Louisa does. He’s always a step behind on their jokes, still doesn’t know exactly how Erik likes his tea. He’s simply the satellite that monitors their orbit.

Though he can’t help but acknowledge that they did this for him. Like in all things, they telepathically and simultaneously agreed to incorporate Nicky into their world. He has seen how they interact with other people at school: detached, bored. They’ve never once acted that way with Nicky.

“Thank you,” he says. It blows through him like wind through a hollow reed. “I love them.”

“You haven’t opened them yet,” Erik points out.

Nicky smiles. His cheeks hurt from it, but the ache just makes the warmth in his chest burn brighter and hotter than the fire a few feet away.

He doesn’t know how to explain that he never lived in a place that reminds him of the sweet, instrumental hymns they play during Sunday mass. He never understood the idea of home being a sacred place, but if this is how others feel in church, he wonders how anyone ever manages to leave.

He thought lifelong unhappiness was all right as long as it was a habit. At some point, misery roots itself into your bones, and one day it becomes the background hum of an AC you forget about until it switches off.

With them, this, too, switches off.

“Thank you,” he says again, this time for God and all his patron saints to hear him. “I love them.”

 

***

 

Here’s the thing.

Nicky’s first kiss happened at a friend of a friend’s graduation party, and there was a boy there named Sebastian that reminded Nicky of a cloudless sky, absolutely blinding.

When Nicky—lacking any coyness—clumsily complimented his shoes, Sebastian had laughed, delighted, before backing him up into a dark corner and fitting his mouth against Nicky’s, his hands a contact burn where they cradled Nicky’s jaw.

Right now, Erik gazes at Nicky like he’s on the brink of tears, and Louisa predictably breaks the moment by declaring, “Christ, this is maudlin,” and pulling a box of cheap red wine out of thin air.

Three hours later, Louisa and Nicky are squeezed into the same plastic chair and screaming pop songs into each other’s faces. Erik, being the buzzkill he is, tolerates it for about an hour. Then he snatches the wine, ignores their protests, and starts putting out the fire.

He starts leading Louisa gingerly inside, but before he manages to get her on her feet, she grips Nicky by the lapels of his coat and pulls him into the tightest, most intense hug of his life, made only more overwhelming by the weight of her love focused entirely on him. It’s probably the best hug of his entire life.

After presumably tucking Louisa into his bed and leaving water and aspirin on the nightstand, Erik comes back down for Nicky, who he tosses on the living room couch like a fucking ragdoll because he’s a shameless traitor who picks favorites.

Nicky hasn’t taken his coat off yet. His clothes smell like the smoky combination of ash and something distinctly earthy, which he suspects is going to be a pain in the ass to wash out.

He burrows into the couch with a heavy sigh, burying his face in the cushions. Sometime between the sound of a faucet running and Erik leaving his side, Nicky drifts off to sleep. He stirs when Erik’s hand alights on his ankle.

“Hey,” Erik whispers.

When that doesn’t work, he shoves Nicky’s legs aside and sits down.

Nicky pops his head up to glare over his shoulder. “No room at the inn. Find your own spot.”

“Water,” he says, setting a bottle on the coffee table. “Unless you want to wake up with a headache tomorrow.”

“How are you not drunk?”

“I know this must come as a shock to you,” he says, moving to the armchair with a blanket in one hand and The Waste Land in the other. He has his bookmark, Nicky notes absently, and the lamp haloes him in a honeyed glow. “But I know how to make it through a night without getting wasted.”

Nicky frowns at him from over the arm of the couch. “Are you keeping vigil?”

“I want to make sure you don’t die in the middle of the night.”

“I don’t puke,” he lies. “Do I get a blanket?”

“Behind you.”

With extreme effort, Nicky sits up and starts shaking off his layers. He’s windswept and just a little unstable, so when he glances up and sees Erik there, fist against his cheek as he reads, Nicky is struck with a sudden, overwhelming bolt of want.

The effect is startling. He flushes, fever-sweetness lapping over him like waves breaking: water sweeping in after whitecaps, dragging him under the riptide. Longing is a physical weight on his shoulders, leaving him worn thin, weak.

No.

Hysterically, he reminds himself of Maria locking herself in her room. He reminds himself of the summer he spent surrounded by white walls, white floors, and white sheets. You live like a monk, Nicky, Louisa told him. She wasn’t far off.

Then he thinks of reaching over and curling his fingers around Erik’s chin, coaxing his mouth open. He thinks of running his hands through Erik’s hair, clutching him by the oversized neckline of his sleep shirt.

A white-hot terror drags its fingernails up Nicky’s spine, as sweetly sickening as a mother’s caress.

“Nicky?” Erik is watching him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he says. His voice sounds very far away. “Yeah, I’m good.”

 

***

 

Nicky doesn’t think about it.

Rarely. He rarely thinks about it.

This is a disaster. This is a massive, unmitigated fucking disaster.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Nicky—he was supposed to be fucking clean, for Christ’s sake. Wasn’t that the point of that whole summer spent away from home, of all those Bible verses, all his time in a confessional repeating the same rehearsed lines at the priest? Wasn’t the point to guarantee Maria would never need another reason to kneel at the edge of her bed until her knees bruised, begging God for guidance? So she would never look at Nicky like he was the monster in her closet?

Maybe this is a complete misunderstanding. Maybe this isn’t even a problem. This could just be a relapse or whatever. Maybe the explanation is that he was drunk and taking stock of how long he’s gone without any real friends. Loneliness and alcohol are cousins.

Besides, Erik is so completely a terrible person—not terrible, terrible, but so undeniably flawed. He’s so organized it’s downright exhausting. He color-codes his flashcards from most to least difficult, keeps countless lists in his calendar, and needs to write out scripts before making phone calls. He won’t go to a party at gunpoint, and he’s cagey, sensitive about his failures, insecure about his abilities.

The way his eyes crinkle too much when he smiles, brightening his entire face. The way he’s so completely shaped by honesty, unlike Nicky, whose best talent is avoiding the truth, who—most days—doesn’t recognize his own lies. The way he smells like sunshine, fresh linens, and something indescribably sweet, like coming home. The dizzying intensity of having Erik’s undivided attention and—and—

Shit.

 

***

 

Seven days after shit hits the fan, Nicky finds himself biting his nails in the confessional, letting the silence stretch out until it’s thick enough to chew.

He used to go to confession regularly in the States. Every Thursday, he would drive to church, sit in the pews, and wait. He used to think of the loose, easy sensation he felt unlock his shoulders after each confession as proof of his healing and grace. Now he wonders if he was simply relieved it was over.

Nicky breaks the silence. “You know what else is confusing? Pluralism.”

Father Magno heaves a sigh. “We really must go over what’s considered a sin together, Nicky.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to know who’s on the other side of this thing.” Nicky gently taps the paper sheet covering the latticed window. It must be nice to be on the other side of it.

“You asked me ten minutes ago if we could do a confession.”

“You know, Jesus was Jewish.”

“Still not a sin.”

“What’s the Church’s stance on that? Are they going to tell Jesus he doesn’t understand God?”

Father Magno asks, “What are we really talking about here, Nicky?”

“Isn’t God just God, no matter what religion? Why do people shout to the sky that they believe in goodness and faith when they step on anyone underfoot?”

“Nicky—“ Father Magno tries again, but Nicky cuts him off with, “I’m gay.”

Then neither of them says anything at all. That same brutal, suffocating silence that fills the empty corners of Nicky’s brain invades this space. All Nicky can do is dig his nails into the meat of his arm to keep from fleeing.

“I know I should be confessing it,” Nicky says. “I’ve practiced it so many times, but I—“

Whatever else he was going to say dies in his throat. All that remains is the silence, the sour taste of panic, and the cross on the wall.

Nicky shakes his head. He knew this was a bad idea. He knew this would happen. Everyone Nicky has ever told has left him free-falling. There was no reason for Nicky to think this time would be any different.

Nicky wipes at his face with his sleeve, feeling stupid and pathetic as he gets off his knees. He’s almost to the door when it opens from the other side.

Nicky freezes without meaning to, surprised as hell, but he attempts a smile. In the dark corners of Nicky’s mind, a small voice (Luther’s voice, his mother’s voice, God's voice) tells Nicky not to make a scene.

“You’re just breaking all the rules today, huh?”

For once, Father Magno doesn’t smile. He says, “It’s not a sin.”

Nicky looks away. “Say that to Moses.”

“Moses also said you’d go to Hell if you ate meat on Fridays.” Father Magno licks his lips, hesitant, fingers drumming absently against the door to the confessional. “My parents sent me to boarding school when I turned thirteen, you know. I met a group of nursing students during my eighth year. It was the first time I fell in love.”

There must be a hint of what Nicky is thinking on his face because Father Magno admits, “His name was Francisco.”

Stillness takes hold of Nicky, a stillness so complete he expects lightning to strike.

“I used to wait on the back steps for him,” he goes on, “so I could say hello when he took a cigarette break.” He laughs, a soft murmured thing. “He could have led me by the nose if he wanted to.”

Nicky shakes his head. He feels sucker-punched and a little like there’s a migraine blooming at the base of his skull. His voice comes out shaky. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because this is a safe place. Do you understand, Nicky? We’re just—we’re here to talk.” Then, as if any of this makes sense, he adds, “It’s not a sin, Nicky. Please. Breathe.”

So Nicky breathes.

He gives Nicky a few beats to compose himself before asking, “Do you want me to come in? Or should I go back to the other room?”

A part of Nicky knows the right answer is to ask Father Magno to stay. He knows the brave thing to do is let Father Magno stay, to look at the face he spits on.

But Nicky wants to remember he isn’t in his father’s church anymore, so he says what he wants, which is, “Can you go back?”

Father Magno nods.

 

 

“How long has it been,” Nicky asks, “since you last saw your parents?”

They’re sitting in the pews now. Or Father Magno is, anyway. Nicky is sprawled across it, counting the number of cracks in the ceiling. It’s bad etiquette, sure, but right now, Nicky can’t bring himself to care. He still feels as wrung out as a rag, having spilled every secret he has.

Father Magno doesn’t talk about his life often, not the way he likes to debate religion with Nicky for hours without end. Instead, he drops hints that Nicky has learned to collect like old coins. He grew up in a small town in Jalisco without any siblings and with only his parents for company. He goes back home during the summers. He’s lived in Germany for ten years, and his best friend is a Rabbi who lives half-an-hour away. His favorite thing to do is go fishing in the quiet hours of the morning, sitting in his mesh chair and listening to the soft crash of the waves against the sand.

“A while,” Father Magno admits. “They didn’t want to leave Mexico. They’re happy, though, with what I’ve chosen.”

“As opposed to what?”

Father Magno stares at him, hearing what Nicky wants to say but won’t. It’s a question Nicky wants answered, even if it’s cruel. He’s never met anyone like him who has made it. Someone who grew up. Even if it’s selfish, Nicky needs to know what to expect, if he ever makes it that far. Mostly, Nicky wants to know if it’s just his parents who would rather bury him six feet under than see him as himself.

“I don’t think they’d mind,” Father Magno murmurs, an apology so sincere and sad Nicky has to force himself to look away. 

 

***

 

Of course, saying it out loud doesn’t erase the problem. If anything, it probably makes the whole thing worse.

Nicky starts to fidget too much, growing restless and hot whenever Erik steps in a little too close, whenever his foot brushes Nicky’s thigh, whenever their fingers touch. Nicky never noticed how close Erik sits next to him when they study together until Nicky is suddenly hyper-aware of it, losing tracks of conversation like he’s still the new kid from the States.

Erik balances on the razor edge between asking Nicky if something is wrong and pretending everything is normal. Nicky might be edging toward fluency in three languages, but he thinks he’s conversational in Erik now. He can tell Erik thinks he did something wrong but he’s too afraid to ask, and Nicky is too much of a coward to tell him what’s actually wrong, so he lets the weird tension between them grow and put down roots.

Louisa, meanwhile, peers at Nicky like she can see right through him.

After two long weeks of this, Nicky jumps three feet out of his skin when Louisa barges into his bedroom with her heavy boots and cloudy expression.

Nicky cowers behind his bed because he’s a fucking chicken. He nearly loses his grip on the towel wrapped around his waist. “I thought we were past this.”

“What the fuck is the matter with you?”

Nicky muffles a groan. “Are we really doing this now? I’m still naked.”

Louisa kicks the door closed behind her. “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

Nicky straightens, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Erik thinks you’re mad at him about the Christmas thing. Is he right?”

Nicky can’t do this while naked. He yanks open his drawer and pulls out some clothes. “No.”

“Then what is it?” she demands. Nicky squeezes himself into the closet and starts changing, hands clumsily searching for pants and a t-shirt in the dark. “You can’t just treat us like this, Nicky.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think you do.”

Nicky slides open the closet door. “It’s complicated,” he snaps.

“Then explain it,” she fires back.

Nicky stands there, lets his thoughts marinate with his anger and shame. He doesn’t know what he’s meant to say. That when he was fourteen years old his parents shipped him off to live with nuns and priests? That they told him he would bring on hellfire, perdition, and judgment? Is he meant to look her in the face and explain he was fixed, meant to be remade in God’s image, but he still managed to fuck up his second chance?

He doesn’t know how long Louisa waits for him to answer, but at last, she says, “Fine,” and stalks out of the room without sparing Nicky a backward glance.

 

***

 

It rains on the way to church. His shoes squeak, his teeth chatter, and his whole body tingles, numb. Some things, it seems, come back full-circle.

He finds Father Magno where he always is, sitting in the front pew with his hands clasped together. The picture of devotion. A holy man. A righteous man. A good man—only nine more to save Sodom.

Nicky doesn’t bother with a preamble. He doesn’t bother with apologies. He marches up to Father Magno without genuflecting first and says, “I hate God.”

Time seems to stop. Nicky might even think it if he couldn’t hear the blood rushing in his ears, the ambience of his breathing.

“All right,” he says. His body language—open and friendly—hasn’t wavered once.

Nicky balls up his soaked sleeves in his fists and digs his nails into his palm, a focal point for the pain to gather and formulate.

Maybe the nuns were right. He can feel the hellfire boiling under his skin.

“Is that all you have to say?”

“Is there something you want to hear?”

“How can you do this? Aren’t you miserable? Is anything you told me even true?” Nicky gestures at the altar, rooted and permanent at the heart of the church. Nicky always hated that chair they all sit in, the one they look down at the rest of them from. He hates the scripture, those robes, mi culpa, mi culpa, mi gran culpa.

He’s practically shouting when he says, “Because you still pretend like it’s nothing. Like it’s all just bullshit!”

The word ricochets off the walls, making the air around them rattle. He’s never sworn in a church before.

Father Magno rubs a hand over his face. He sounds tired. “I’ve never lied to you, Nicky.”

Nicky’s throat tightens. “Everyone lies.”

Father Magno smiles, and it almost resembles those smiles he gets when Nicky makes a good point in an argument. Like he sees something on Nicky’s face, and it’s something astounding.

Almost. Except this one resembles the one on La Virgen’s face, the one on his mother’s. It’s the ghost of a smile. It carries grief.

It’s sad.

“Point,” he murmurs. “I’ve never intentionally lied to you.”

Nicky shakes his head, scrubs his face raw so he doesn’t have to think about how badly he’s shaking.

“Nicky, I know this isn’t my place, but whatever you had in America,” he says, barreling on even after Nicky flinches, “that’s not life. You’re free of it, now.”

Nicky barks out a wet laugh. “You don’t understand. You—“ Nicky bites his tongue, wanting to taste blood.

There was a time when Nicky would prostrate himself at every Sunday mass, and he did it because he liked it. He liked confessions, liked the apologies and the promises to do better. He loved the portrait of Jesus above the tabernacle, but that was before Jesus gifted Nicky with his crown of thorns. 

Before every Sunday became a routine crucifixion.

Before Nicky was told to sit down and bare his wrists. Get on his knees, let the blood trickle down his neck, and call it penance. Call it the cross on his back, call the sermon the last nail, the one that rings through his body and leaves a nauseating hum. 

It’s not fair. Jesus only had to do it once.

You’re free of it, he says as if Nicky will ever be able to pass off this cup, as if he can ever go another Sunday in his life without thinking about big, echoing churches. Nicky will never be able to shake the sound of Maria’s voice or untie the noose Luther has so expertly fashioned. As if Nicky’s life hasn’t just been a parody of the Book of Job. He figured out a long time ago that his life isn’t a test of faith as much as it is a long-running fucking joke.

You’re free of it. It clashes against: You can’t escape God, Nicholas. 

“I’ll never be able to run away from it,” he says. “There’s always Sunday.”

There’s always the day of rest.

Father Magno nods again. He glances at Nicky, who is still standing in the middle of the aisle, and scoots over to make room. Nicky considers lashing out and finds the bottomless well in him empty, hollow like a barrel scraped from the bottom, so he sits, watching Father Magno toy with the rosary in his hands.

“Maybe you’re right,” he says. “This life is difficult to leave. It follows you, and I regret that it’s not always a good thing.”

Nicky huffs a laugh under his breath, not necessarily because it’s funny but because it’s an impressive understatement. He wishes religion for him was the same as it was for Father Magno or the Kloses. He wishes it was a refuge rather than a source of terror. He wishes he could imagine God without picturing a laughing face. He wishes he could look at an altar without imagining Luther with wood at his feet, ready to make a cross. He used to pray for it, for all the good that’s done him.

But that doesn’t excuse barging in here, desperate to whip whoever he thought guilty.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky says. “I was out of turn.”

“You had to say it,” he says with a shrug. “Don’t apologize. I know you weren’t really talking to me, anyway.”

 

***

 

Nicky stands outside Erik’s room.

The door is closed and the hallway is completely silent. No stereo playing, no muffled voices. Nicky doesn’t even know if Erik is home. He might be at Louisa’s for the afternoon, might be swimming laps at the pool. More importantly, he might be avoiding Nicky, giving him a taste of his own medicine.

Nicky shakes his head. No. Erik wouldn’t do that. He has no practice at being cruel.

Nicky is starting to consider escape when the door opens from the other side, and Erik blinks at him from behind his stupid blocky glasses, the ones he wears when he knows he’ll be staring at a screen for hours. Erik hates them, but Nicky always thought they made his eyes look huge and impossibly brown. He wonders how trite it would be if he told Erik he has the most astonishing eyes.

“Hi,” Nicky says, heat prickling under his jaw.

“Hello?”

He scratches a spot on his cheek. “I came to say sorry. I know I’ve been acting like a dick.”

“Yeah, you have.” Erik’s jaw works. He stares down at his shoes briefly before meeting Nicky’s eyes. “But you don’t owe me an explanation.”

“No, I really do,” he insists. No matter how forgiving Erik is, no matter how generous, Nicky doesn’t deserve to let Erik make this easy on him. “I just, um. I—like guys.”

Erik bites his lip. Nicky watches helplessly.

“You… like guys,” Erik echoes.

Nicky doesn’t know if he has the courage to say it again without having a breakdown. He nods. “Yeah, and my parents, they—it doesn’t matter. The point is that this hasn’t been easy, and I didn’t want to put you in a place where—“

“Wait.” Erik scrubs his hand over his face as if it’s taking a lot out of him to follow this conversation. “Do you—is this?” He makes a vague flapping gesture. “Do you like me?”

Nicky has never been so happy to be brown in his life. His face radiates heat. “I’m sorry.”

“Can I kiss you?” Erik blurts.

Nicky’s brain promptly short-circuits. This cannot be happening. “I—what?”

He huffs. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still kind of pissed at you, but as long as we’re being honest, I think I should tell you that I really want to kiss you.”

Hesitantly, he brings his hand up, puts it gently against Nicky’s cheek. His thumb runs over Nicky’s cheekbone. Nicky shivers, all selfish wanting. “For a while, actually,” he mutters. “So this is me asking.”

This is a hallucination. It has to be, but fuck, Nicky isn’t going to say no. “I—yes. Yes, you can.”

Nicky half expects Erik to drag him in, to fit his mouth solidly against Nicky’s, but Nicky should know Erik better than that by now. Instead, Erik holds Nicky like he’s something precious. He takes his time, explores every valley and hill of Nicky’s face. He leans in slowly, carefully, until their noses are touching, until their lips are brushing, and no closer.

It says a lot that Nicky doesn’t rush him, his fingers insistent on Erik’s collarbone. “God,” he grinds out. “This is so fucking scary.”

Erik noses at the hinge of Nicky’s jaw.

“Nicky,” he whispers, “it’s only me.”

Then he closes the distance.

Nicky sighs into the kiss, edges closer. Erik’s body radiates warmth and Nicky plasters himself against it. He wraps one hand around Erik’s chin and coaxes his mouth open. Erik’s fingers skim through his hair, the briefest touch.

It’s nothing like his kiss with Sebastian, where both of them drank each other in like the world was ending. This one is better, a thousand times better. It reminds him of that scene from the Sistine Chapel, where God and Adam reach for each other so carefully. Built like football players with hands broader than an open horizon, yet God reaches out like Adam is made from porcelain. Nicky used to think something like that was impossible, yet here they are: Erik’s hands on him gentle and kind.

Then the sound of the front door opening shatters the perfect stillness of the house.

 

 

Nicky deals with this in a very mature fashion, meaning he hides in his room like a complete baby until he remembers it’s fucking Passover and he has to show his face at dinner, where he sits opposite of Erik and looks at absolutely no one.

“I hope you two remember we have to start planning your graduation celebration in a few weeks,” Mrs. Klose says as she takes a seat. When there’s no reply, she adds, “You two do remember you’re graduating?”

“Of course they remember. Look at them,” Mr. Klose says, gesturing at Nicky and Erik, who both haven’t said a word the entire evening, “they’re practically climbing the walls.”

Nicky smiles and hopes it doesn’t resemble a grimace. Across from him, Erik refills his glass of water and finishes it in a single pull.

Mrs. Klose squints. “Are you two all right?”

“I’m just tired,” Nicky explains at the same time Erik blurts out, too loud and too fast, “Yes.”

Absently, Nicky wonders if he could make this any worse by lying on the ground and dying.

Mrs. Klose exchanges an indecipherable look with Mr. Klose, who is tapping an unsteady rhythm against the tabletop. They communicate silently for a few more seconds before Mr. Klose nods.

“Okay,” he says slowly, apparently satisfied enough to let it go. “Great. Now everyone shut up and think about escaping Egypt.”

 

***

 

Hiding only works out for a few hours longer. Erik chooses the worst possible moments to shed his shyness, so he tolerates Nicky’s behavior until nine at night, at which point he raps his knuckles impatiently at Nicky’s door.

“You’re avoiding me,” Erik accuses him.

“No,” he says, hiding under the covers, “I’m not.”

Erik licks his lips. On purpose, Nicky realizes too late, to check if Nicky is watching, to see if Nicky clocks the movement. It’s smart, subtle, and Erik all over.

Nicky, with his stomach in his mouth and his muscles pulled tight as a strung bow, wonders how anyone ever survives loving someone like this.

“Did I misunderstand something?”

Jesus Christ. Nicky slides out of bed and scrubs his face. “No, you didn’t.”

“Then did I go too fast? Did you not—“

“Erik,” Nicky interrupts him. They’re too close now, standing inches apart in the dark. Nicky is glad he can barely make out Erik’s face. He doesn’t know if he could muster up the nerve otherwise. “You're thinking too much.”

Erik huffs irritably but goes quiet and soft  when Nicky reaches out, up, hovering with his hand over Erik's cheek. Nicky licks his lips, swallowing. He belatedly remembers that Erik asked before he kissed him. Would it be weird to ask now? Should he pull away? 

Then—because Erik is kind, always makes things easy for Nicky—Erik briefly grabs onto him before he can decide. Then, slow and calm like he's soothing a startled animal, he edges closer and leans, inch by inch, and brushes his lips against Nicky's.  

The hot, intoxicating rush that sweeps through him right then is absolutely ridiculous. The last time he did this was less than ten hours ago, but like this, with his fingers curling in Erik’s belt loops, Nicky feels trapped between urgency and wonder. He can't help but press in a little harder. Erik tastes like water after forty days of desert.

Erik palms his throat, thumb fitting against the underside of Nicky’s jaw. He pulls back, opening his mouth to say something, but Nicky—who is an opportunist by nature—follows him. Erik makes a noise against his mouth, half a sigh and half a snort of laughter, before cradling Nicky’s face in his hands to push him gently back.

“Please don’t ask me if I’m sure,” he says before Erik can say anything.

Erik raises his eyebrows. “I wasn’t going to, but now that you bring it up.”

The only thing keeping Nicky’s hands from shaking is the tight hold he has on Erik’s sweater. He has no idea what expression he has on his face, but he doesn’t have to be a genius to know he probably sounds unstable. He sure as hell feels unstable. He isn’t certain, even now, if he can trust himself.

He shouldn’t have touched Erik. He knows this. He knows touching Erik means ruining Nicky for anyone else. Touching him means that there’s no way he can take it back. Chickening out is officially out of the cards, but God help him, Erik is the first thing Nicky’s wanted for himself since he was fourteen. Since before that, since his father first put a rosary in his hands.

Erik slides his hands down to circle his fingers around Nicky’s wrists. Slowly, he works Nicky’s hands loose, laces their fingers together. Something pangs in his chest to see how well they fit together.

“We don’t have to do this,” Erik whispers, still so careful. “I can wait. I don’t mind waiting.”

Nicky shakes his head. He can feel the outside world creeping in on them, all the ghosts in Nicky’s head that haunt him and pick at his thoughts like they’re low-hanging fruit. “No,” he says, “I’m sure,” and leans forward again.

Erik doesn’t fight him. Instead, he makes another one of those soft, low noises. Nicky is immediately certain he wants to hear them for the rest of his life.

The path to Nicky’s bed offers a truly exciting, varied, and perfectly handsy number of ways to lead each other, like Nicky leaning up to catch the back of Erik’s neck as he walks blindly backward or crowding Erik against his dresser with Nicky’s insistent hands. Erik delays at the foot of the bed to nose at Nicky’s temple, dragging his mouth down to mouth at the hollow of Nicky’s throat before Nicky gets impatient and tugs Erik back up to kiss him the way he’s dreamed about for weeks, months. Forever, maybe.

Nicky forces himself to breathe for a second. The bed frame is digging into Nicky’s ass where he’s pressed up against it, still not quite on the bed. Nicky’s shirt is skewed and crooked, like Erik meant to take it off but kept getting distracted. “Is this how you treat all the boys?”

“Only choirboys.”

Nicky laughs and plants a delighted kiss at the corner of Erik’s mouth. He starts backing towards the bed, pulling Erik along, but he stumbles a step and smacks their foreheads together. 

Erik mumbles a flat, Ow, to which Nicky responds with, In my defense, I've only ever done this once, and they collapse onto the mattress like little kids, laughing and shushing each other in turn.

 

 

***

 

They don’t go farther than kissing, but by the end of it, Nicky is dizzy and exhausted, face smushed into the pillow next to Erik’s. The faint sound of humming insects slips through the crack in the window. The sodium flare from the streetlights catches on Erik’s cheekbones.

“By the way,” Nicky asks, unable to notice how loud his voice sounds as it cuts through the quiet, “what were you going to ask me?”

“When?” Erik asks. He experimentally runs his fingers up Nicky’s side and watches dryly as Nicky pushes them away, giggling. “Hot.”

“You only say it like that because you secretly think it’s true,” he shoots back. “Earlier. What were you going to say?”

Erik avoids his gaze. “I was going to say I’m glad you decided,” he says. “I’m glad you chose me. I know it’s—I’m sure it wasn’t an easy thing for you to do.”

“It wasn’t a matter of deciding,” Nicky says. “It’s just.” Nicky grapples for the right words, decides there’s none, and simply says, “I’m me.”

Erik grins. “That’s part of the appeal.”

“I’m serious.”

“I think you’re giving me a lot of credit here,” he says. “I’m not perfect, either, you know. Any baggage you’re carrying doesn’t scare me.” Erik clasps Nicky’s hands in his and drags a kiss across his knuckles. “I already know you.”

 

***

 

Graduation comes around faster than any of them expect, which means Louisa, Erik, and Nicky end up frantically cramming for exams the last three weeks of their senior year.

Or rather Louisa and Erik frantically cram. Nicky, who’s perfectly fine graduating with his 3.5 GPA, watches them as he alternates between doing his homework and putting his head in Erik’s lap. Each time he does this, Erik asks him if he’s finished his work. Nicky always lies, but Erik doesn’t know that and Nicky makes sure Louisa isn’t around to call him out on it. So. Victimless crime.

Erik and Louisa’s parents take all three of them into town over the weekend to start picking out graduation frames and riversides to take pictures at. Nicky stands in the grass, listening to the water lap against the bank, and lets the sunshine brush its fingers over his face, warm to the touch. A year ago, Nicky thought he wouldn’t live long enough to see his graduation, that he would find an escape in the sharp edge of a knife. It’s been months since Nicky last ran his finger over his wrists and stared blankly at his white walls, imagining what would happen.

Nicky is so distracted by the magic of it that it takes him a while to notice he’s somehow ended up in the center of attention. Erik and Louisa’s parents spend the better part of the first hour asking him questions and laughing a little too hard at his jokes.

At the first opportunity, Nicky pulls Erik aside by his sleeves. His parents are distracted by the sample cakes in a storefront window, and Louisa is loudly explaining to her parents why she doesn’t need new pants for the graduation ceremony.

“What did you tell them?” he asks.

“What?”

“I’m funny,” Nicky says, “but I’m not that funny unless I’m making dick jokes. What did you tell them?”

“That sometimes we make out,” he says, then smiles, tucking hair behind Nicky’s ear. “And that I like you.”

Nicky falls silent, searching Erik’s face. He doesn’t know what he expects to find. Mockery, maybe, or insincerity. He wonders briefly why he still thinks to check, why he still thinks one day Erik is going to let him in on the joke. Erik only ever says things he means, and never anything he doesn’t.

Nicky buries his face in the crook of Erik’s neck. “Don’t flirt with me in front of your parents.”

By the end of the day, Nicky is trudging his feet, mentally and physically drained. He collapses into the couch as soon as they get back home, letting his shopping bags fall to the floor at his feet.

Erik’s fingers find his elbow. “Go to bed, mi amor.”

Nicky turns on his side and smiles. “That’s a new one. Where did you learn it?”

“Google. I thought you might like it.”

Nicky’s smile morphs into something else. He reaches out, curls his fingers in Erik’s belt loops, and pulls him closer. “I do like it.”

“Watch your hands, Hemmick.”

“Why? Maybe I want to have some fun.”

Erik raises his eyebrows. “In front of my parents?”

So Nicky excuses himself to his room. He must miss dinner because the next time he opens his eyes, Erik is slotted between the wall and Nicky, his head tucked under Nicky’s chin. His hair tickles Nicky’s cheek, but he smells like fresh linens and sunshine, like coming home, so Nicky wraps himself like a vine around Erik and doesn’t let go.

He must move around too much. Erik stirs at his shoulder, hands skimming up and down Nicky’s back in slow, lazy patterns.

“What are your plans,” Erik asks, voice slurred from sleep, “once you get back home?”

Nicky gnaws at his bottom lip. He hasn’t thought about the idea of going back to the States for a long time, and it wasn’t until a month ago that he remembered he had a flight ticket back to Columbia tucked inside his suitcase, drumming its fingers. Waiting.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Will you apply for college?”

Nicky shrugs. Maria and Luther used to gloat that their son was planning to become a deacon. A good boy raised with a strong faith who would get his education, spread the word of the Lord, and marry a nice girl, maybe even have some kids. Nicky never told them he might want to do something else.

“I don’t know,” Nicky says, feeling dumb. Here he is, fumbling around in the dark, while Erik probably has a timeline shoved somewhere between his journals, completely sure of what he wants. Nicky learned a long time ago how to fold his wants into something small enough to hide away.

Erik stops the zig-zag motion he’s tracing against Nicky’s back and puts it between them on the pillow. “That’s all right.”

They don’t talk for some time after that. Nicky is starting to think Erik fell asleep when he asks, “Will you go back?”

Nicky closes his eyes. It’s the million-dollar question both of them have been avoiding, the thing they’re scared of talking about.

“I don’t know.” He says it because it’s the plain, simple, hand-on-the-Bible truth. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if it’s better to leave Germany and remember it as paradise or tell Maria he’s not coming back home, to explain why. Or, perhaps worst of all, to go back and be honest.

Erik hides a kiss at the hollow of Nicky’s throat and doesn’t say anything else.

 

***

 

Nicky calls his mother.

“Hello?” He keeps his voice low and quiet. The sun is just starting to peek past the horizon, light filtering through the curtains and streaking across the floor and up the wall. The open window lets in the sound of birds singing.

“Nicky,” Maria says warmly. Crackling line, rounded vowels. “How are you? What time is it over there?”

“Pretty early,” he says. “Listen. I have something I need to tell you.”

“Oh, your father and I are very excited about your graduation, and to see you after so long. This house feels so empty without you in it. We’re thinking we might—“

“Mom,” Nicky interrupts, digging half-moon marks into his palms. “I need you to listen to me for a minute.”

The line goes quiet as Maria waits. Nicky inhales and exhales slowly, trying to steady his breathing. He feels hot-cold and nauseous.

“I think I might stay here for a little longer. I haven’t asked Mr. and Mrs. Klose yet, but if they don’t mind, I really want to stay here with Erik and figure some things out.”

“Baby,” Maria says softly, “I understand you made friends, and I’m so happy for you. Really. But your family misses you so much, and I don’t know what your friends can help you with that your father and I can’t.”

“Mom,” he says, reminding himself that the longer he delays, the more it’ll hurt, “Erik and I are—we’re not just friends. I want to stay here with him and see where this goes.”

There’s a beat of terrible, ice-cold understanding Nicky feels down to his bones.

“Nicholas.”

“And you could come visit,” he goes on desperately. “Mom, you would love it here, and you would like Erik so much. He’s studious and he—you know, he never lies. He’s kind. Everything you’ve always said you’ve wanted for me. He’s good.”

“Nicholas,” Maria snaps. “Enough. Do you hear yourself?”

“Please, just listen to me.”

“I’ve listened. God, I knew this would happen. I told your father this was a mistake,” she says. Nicky thinks he might be sick. “But he didn’t believe me. Now you listen to me, Nicky. You are going to come back home, and you are not going to tell your father about any of this, do you hear me? We can handle this together. Yes, baby? But you are coming home.”

“Can’t you just give it a shot? I gave it a shot. I tried. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“It does. Just because it didn’t stick the first time doesn’t mean we can’t try again. I know you can do this, you just need your family to help you.”

“Maybe it wasn’t meant to stick. You can’t know this isn’t God’s will.”

“That’s out of line,” she says, “and you know it. We can speak about this further when you come back.”

Before Nicky thinks it over, he opens his mouth and says, “No. No, I don’t think I will.”

“Nicholas, stop.” She doesn’t sound scornful anymore. She just sounds tired. “You are coming home.”

“Why? Genuinely. Why?”

“I know this is difficult to understand when you’re like this, but I just want what’s best for you. There’s nothing more important than family, Nicholas. I love you so much, and—“

“Can we stop?” he cracks in. “Let’s just stop.”

Silence. The birds keep singing, the sunlight keeps streaming in, and the outside world keeps spinning. It doesn’t matter that Nicky is reeling, that all he can see is the memory of Maria’s face as she wandered the museum behind his open eyes. All he can hear is her voice in his ear, her voice leading him through lullabies she snuck back from her homeland. All he can feel is her arms around him, keeping him safe. 

“Nicky.” She sounds devastated. “You’re breaking my heart.”

You’re breaking mine! he wants to scream.

“Actually, this was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have called. I’m gonna go now.”

“Nicholas,” she starts, but he hangs up before she can say anything else. He sits alone in the resulting quiet, letting the sun and soft wind embrace him, reminding him he’s safe.

 

***

 

Erik is still asleep when Nicky sneaks back in an hour later. His back is pushed up against the wall, his hand outstretched with his fingers fanned across Nicky’s side of the bed, as if he looked for Nicky in his sleep. Nicky wakes him by hooking his leg over his thigh and breathing him in, nosing in until Erik flutters his eyes open and gives him a sloppy kiss.

“I heard you on the phone,” Erik rasps, palming Nicky’s throat. He applies his lips to Nicky’s chin, sweet and sleepy. “Who were you talking to?”

Nicky presses down on Erik’s shoulder until he gives in and rolls on his back. Nicky crawls on top of him and buries his face in the crook of Erik's t-shirt, where it has gone crooked, exposing warm skin. The shirt is a size too big, blindingly yellow, and tacky as hell. Nicky kind of adores it.

“Do you think your parents would mind letting me stay in this room a little longer?” he asks Erik’s shoulder.

Erik freezes.

“I mean,” Nicky says, leaning back, “only if that’s what you want.”

Erik huffs out a disbelieving, bright laugh. Then he grabs Nicky by the ears and drags him up. Both of them are smiling too much for the kiss to be anything but chaste and clumsy and perfect.

Forever, Nicky thinks. He gets to have this forever.

“Thou art all fair, my love,” Nicky murmurs against his mouth. Erik smiles even wider when Nicky’s hands come up to cradle his jaw. “There is no spot in thee.”

“Nicky.” His voice is complete, uncomplicated happiness. 

“His mouth is most sweet.” Nicky watches his fingers trace the corners of Erik’s mouth. “He is altogether lovely. This is my beloved,” he says quietly, touching the baby curls at his temple, brushing his lips over the bridge of Erik’s nose. “This is my friend.”

Erik wraps his octopus arms around Nicky and lets the rest of the Song of Solomon pour down his throat like wine. He can’t help but notice how brightly Erik glows in the early morning light, as if touched by something holy.

Breaking away, Erik tells him, “That was the sappiest, most embarrassing display I’ve ever seen.”

Nicky touches Erik’s forehead with his own. “I meant it.”

“Yeah,” Erik says, dimpling. “Yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

Four years later.

 

***

 

Nicky, juggling three thermoses in his arms and trying to locate his keys by jumping and listening hard for which pocket jangles, nearly screams when he jumps and lands on something soft.

“Jesus!” he shouts. “God, you’re so lucky I didn’t spill any of this.”

Erik winces, shaking some feeling back into his foot. “Why are you using echolocation to find the keys? You could’ve put those down.”

Nicky, who isn’t about to explain to Erik for the hundredth time why putting your personal things on the floor is disgusting, asks instead, “Where is everybody?”

“Downstairs. Louisa is helping them empty their cars.” He thinks for a moment. “I think her parents bought us a horse.”

“Fuck.” Nicky jiggles his leg. “Hey, do you mind opening the door? Front pocket.”

Erik fishes in his pocket and pulls out the keyring. He takes his thermos back from Nicky before opening the door.

With Louisa’s help, they managed to clean out the musty smell from their new apartment, repainted the walls, and set up most of their furniture. Their kitchen is small enough that their fridge barely fits between the oven and the wall, but when the sunlight streams in through the living room windows, it reminds Nicky of the Kloses’ home. He thinks it carries the same music, the kind responsible for making places of worship sacred, the kind that makes love swell in Nicky’s chest.

“Ready?” Erik asks.

Nicky smiles. “Yeah.”

 

 

Louisa’s parents did not, in fact, buy them a horse.

They brought them a bookshelf, which Erik is genuinely excited over and which Nicky pokes at cautiously, wondering if it's old enough that it’ll collapse as soon as Erik puts books in it. Louisa tells him it was handmade by her grandparents and to stop glaring at it like he thinks Erik will leave him for it.

Mr. and Mrs. Klose give them a collection of silly, mismatched dinnerware. Father Magno buys them a fern bigger than both Erik and Nicky stacked together. Louisa buys them a hamper full of essentials because “You two are stupid enough not to have thought of that.”

Neither of them wants to be the one to tell her she’s right. They accept the gift without a word.

The rest of the night goes by within a heartbeat. Nicky is too busy laughing and reveling in everyone’s company to realize how late it is, and before he’s caught his breath, the dishes from dinner are clean and dried, the wine boxes are sucked dry, and Louisa is passed out across their beanbags. In the kitchen, Erik and Father Magno talk about their poetry collections as Erik walks him to the door. (Nicky’s life is obviously destined to be lousy with nerds.)

The Kloses are the last to leave. After Nicky successfully dumps Louisa in the guest room, Mrs. Klose drags Nicky in for a fierce kiss, leaving a blurry red lipstick mark on his cheek. “Look at you,” she murmurs.

“Thank you,” he says, his hands gripping her by the biceps. He’s said it a thousand times over the years, but it’s never enough.

She stops him before he can go on. “I don’t want to hear it.” Gently, she brushes a few stray hairs out of Nicky’s face, the way she sometimes does to Erik or Louisa or her husband.

That night, Nicky falls into bed grinning like a fucking idiot. When Erik asks him about it, Nicky shrugs and drags him under the covers, pulling him close. He’s smiling too wide for the kiss to be anything more than a simple press of mouths, but Erik doesn’t complain. Instead, he huffs a laugh and allows it, skating his fingers down Nicky’s back until they fall into a deep, blissful sleep.

 

***

 

Maria calls.

 

***

 

He doesn’t think about it.

Rarely. He rarely thinks about it, until he lets himself consider it, which means he starts thinking about it constantly.

Except he doesn’t want to. He and Erik finally, finally have their own apartment. There’s a stray dog by their building Erik has a terrible weak spot for, they still haven’t figured out how to use the downstairs laundry machine, and they have to use a cheap electric fan to keep the air circulating—but it’s theirs.

He doesn’t want to think about it. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that it’s been years since he saw his parents, and if he gives in, he’ll be face-to-face with them with no one guarding his back in less than a week. He doesn’t want to think about how scared that makes him, how he’s expecting them to push a knife sweetly between his shoulder blades. He doesn’t want to think about how he told Father Magno this morning he only expects things would be weird, but in reality, the second he looks at Maria he’s going to forgive her for everything and he knows it.

Instead, he wants to listen to Erik bitch about whatever bad manuscript he’s correcting and gush about the really good ones, curled up on the couch with the cat mug his parents gave them as a housewarming gift. He wants to pay a stupid amount of money to find out what the fuck is wrong with their AC and he wants to have breakfast with Louisa on the weekends. He wants to sit on their rickety balcony and watch the sky yawn to life. He wants to go to Sunday mass and talk to Father Magno until Erik calls him and asks him to come home.

He should stay, he tells himself. He might be Catholic, but he can’t starve himself with only his guilt to gnaw on for the rest of his life. Sacrifice doesn’t make him holy.

He should stay. That’s what anyone would say if he asked. There are some things you can only walk away from. There are some things better left in the past.

 

 

He thinks about Maria.

 

 

He waits until Erik comes back from work.

Put simply, all hell breaks loose.

It reminds Nicky of this phrase Father Magno likes: Siguete haciendo el gracioso. Keep playing funny. If Maria had the chance to be the mom she wanted to be, Nicky imagines she would’ve said that to him a lot. He’s never known how to shut the hell up. Even now, twenty-one years old and scared out of his mind, he still thinks cracking a few good lines will get him out of the way Erik is glowering at him as if he thinks Nicky is being unreasonable when this is the only decision that makes any goddamn sense.

Nicky doesn’t know when he started raising his voice, but he’s definitely shouting when he says, “You just don’t get it. You don’t understand.”

Erik—who never loses his temper—looks at Nicky now with tears of frustration. He lifts his chin a little, defiant. “You’re right. I don’t understand it. Didn’t you want this?” He throws his hands up. “Aren’t you happy?”

“Are you serious right now?”

“Then I can’t comprehend why you would even consider this. Look,” he says, folding one leg under himself, then the other, “I’m on my knees. I’m begging. Don’t go.”

“Don’t do that to me.” Nicky’s throat is sticky and useless at this point. How the words get past his teeth is beyond him. He stumbles one, two, three steps back when Erik reaches for him. “No. Why are you so upset about this? Maybe everything will be fine. Maybe this will all turn out to be one big fucking mistake and I’ll be back within a month.”

“Because I know you, Nicky!” he cracks in, nearly yelling. It stuns Nicky into snapping his mouth shut. “And you don’t know how to love people by halves. You’ll go, you’ll take one look at those kids, and you’ll stay.”

They stand there for a moment, staring at each other. Even after four years, they’ve never found themselves in this situation. Nicky’s always chosen Erik over everything and everyone. He’s the first thing he’s ever wanted badly enough to disobey his parents. Nicky would turn his back on God before he ever turned his back on Erik. It’s always been Erik. Erik is family.

But these kids are family, too. They’re teenagers who barely know each other and have a thousand different issues between them. He knew his Aunt Tilda was shady and rough around the edges, but he didn’t know she was sick and beat her son. He didn’t know she gave birth to twins and orphaned one of them, and he doesn’t know how much Luther knew about it, either, but there’s no doubt in Nicky’s mind that Luther will take them in if he doesn’t.

(There's nothing more important than family, Nicholas.)

And Nicky can’t let that happen. Even if it hurts Erik, even if it means Erik looks at him like he’s never seen him before—he can’t.

“I have to go,” he says. He’s not shouting anymore. He’s just so, so tired. “There’s no alternative.”

Erik’s legs eat up the space between them. He scoops up Nicky’s hands and brushes his lips over his knuckles. “Yes, there is.”

“I can’t live with that,” he admits. It hurts him to say it, and it hurts Erik to hear it, but all he does is nod.

“Yeah,” he says, resigned. “I know.”

 

***

 

Nicky shows up at the airport with his plane ticket in one hand and Erik’s sweaty palm in the other. Nicky’s hair is slicked back, his shirt buttoned up and tucked neatly into his pants. The prodigal son returns.

"Let me come with you," Erik says.

"Don't be stupid. It doesn't suit you." Nicky searches his face. "This is your home. I'm not going to ask you to leave it."

"Home is wherever you are," he says without a trace of hesitation or irony or anything short of earnestness. Nicky is hit hard with the realization that if he asked Erik to come with him right now, Erik would do so in a heartbeat.

For one guilty split-second, the word yes balances on the tip of his tongue. He swallows it down before it has the chance to slip past his teeth.

Maybe Erik could start anew, maybe where they live honestly doesn’t matter to him—but this is what Nicky knows for a fact: There are all kinds of fucked-up shit waiting for him on the other side of this, and he doesn't want any of it touching Erik. There's a difference between leaving Eden and being banished from it. Even if it’s selfish, Nicky wants Germany to still seem like paradise when he comes back.

Erik pulls Nicky into his orbit, and Nicky lets himself savor the easy sensation of stepping into Erik's space, breathing him in as Erik plants a lingering kiss on his hairline.

Nicky shakes his head, willing the creases between his brows to go away. "No."

Erik unwraps his fingers from around the meat of Nicky's arms. He nods, his mouth twisted. "Okay," he murmurs. "Just promise me you'll come back. I don't care about anything else, but I—just come back."

"Where else would I go?” He soaks in the sight of Erik, trying to commit every detail to memory. He runs a thumb absentmindedly over Erik’s pulse. “Hey. While I’m gone? Stop feeding that fucking dog.”

He waves Nicky off. “You like her.”

“You like strays,” he accuses. “Stop feeding the dog.”

“Okay,” Erik says, grinning like the filthy fucking liar he is.

Nicky can’t stand goodbyes, so he just stands there for a moment, wishing for—he doesn’t know. Time. He wishes for time. One last look, one last kiss, one last chance.

“I’ll see you later,” he says finally.

Then he lets go.

 

***

 

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,

for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes [...]" 

- Romans 1:16.

 

***