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Explaining Is Losing

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The decision to hold a joint arts faculty graduate celebration this year had been controversial, but Joe can’t find it in himself to work up much upset about it; it’s the same thing as it always is, excited students and their families, professors alternately proud or indifferent or just not showing up, free food that’s really only worth it if you’re a student or on a temporary contract. Joe isn’t, a minor miracle he doesn’t deserve, so he leaves the way clear for the people who are. He wants to go and congratulate Nile, who is looking horrifyingly young in her PhD gown, but she’s introducing her mother and brother to some of her student friends.

“Oh, look,” Booker says, joining him by the window. “It’s your arch-nemesis.” He gestures across the hall to where Nicky diGenova, senior lecturer in religious studies and famous throughout the arts faculty as the bane of Joe’s existence, is talking to one of his colleagues.

“Isn’t that joke getting a bit old, Book?”

“Never,” Booker says, leaning back against one of the pillars and folding his arms. “You don’t talk; you tear each other’s work apart in public, which takes work since you’re an art historian and he studies religion; there was the thing at the holiday party five years ago –”

“Despite the rumours, no punches were thrown, you know that?”

“I believe you, nobody else does.”

“Andy believes me.”

“I and Andy believe you, nobody else does.”

“It keeps the undergraduates on their toes,” Joe says, even though he doesn’t really think that and knows that he is widely regarded by undergraduate students as a relatively soft touch for things like assignment extensions. He thinks it’s less that, and more that some of his colleagues are unreasonable assholes. Weirdly enough, grandparents do start dying when you were in your late teens and early twenties.

“So, he’s your arch-nemesis,” Booker concludes. “I don’t even remember what it was about to start with.”

“He asked me if there was even any Islamic art worth studying,” says Joe, with emphasis, because yeah, okay, he’s never going to be not a tiny bit pissed that it had been said at all.

“And you swear you never punched him?”

“I just visualized it,” Joe says. “In artistic detail. He’s not worth punching.”

Booker laughs. “I don’t blame you for never trying to make nice with him, in that case, no matter how much it upsets the humanities dean.”

“Copley doesn’t even know we exist, much less that we’re arch-nemeses,” Joe says. “We’re just two more senior lecturers.”

“Nice for some,” Booker says glumly; he’s on a temporary contract.

“Next year, Book,” Joe says. “I’m crossing all my fingers for you.”

Nicky glances over at them, before walking towards Nile and her family. He has an oddly hawkish gaze for a mild-mannered religious studies professor. It catches Joe every time.


The first time he’d really noticed it was nearly four years ago now, when he and Nicky had still been openly sniping at each other, on the heels of the thing at the holiday party (which hadn’t involved any punching, that part was true, but…it had maybe been close). Joe had been describing to Andy, who was an ancient historian but had the misfortune to co-teach a class with Nicky on the history of religion, a paper he’d just submitted.

“I know it’s a long shot,” he’d been telling her, “but it’s worth trying –”

“No it isn’t,” said Nicky, who hadn’t even been in the conversation; it was pure drive-by dickishness. “Sounds to me like it’ll get sent back within a week.”

“I don’t remember asking you,” Joe had said.

“Anyway,” Andy had come in swinging, “they always take at least a month to get back even if they’re not sending things out for review, they’re so goddamn slow.”

“Thanks, Andy, I definitely feel better.”

“Hmph,” Nicky had said, and wandered on, probably to make a PhD student cry. Joe felt like he was the kind of person who would do that. Sure, he looked all approachable, but Joe knew the truth.

A month later – fine, Andy had been right about that part – Joe had taken a copy of the manuscript to Nicky’s office, just because he could.

“Suck it, diGenova.” He slapped it down on Nicky’s desk. “It’s out for review.”

“It’s going to get torn to shreds,” Nicky said, not even twitching, “and if it gets accepted, revisions or no, I will do that in that storage closet across the hall.”

“Oh, wow,” Joe said. He couldn’t lie, the guy was good-looking, but Joe had a minimum standard for people he went to bed with that included being able to be in the same room with them for more than two minutes without becoming homicidal. “An offer I really can’t refuse.”

“You’re not going to get the chance,” Nicky said. “Now go and bother somebody else.”

Two months after that, Joe had stared at the acceptance email for five minutes – minor revisions, take that – before printing it out. He was pretty sure that Nicky was teaching a class right now. He’d slip it into the old-fashioned receptacle on Nicky’s office door (the humanities departments needed renovations badly; what else was new, in any university anywhere) and walk away. He’d circled his name and the title of the paper in red, just to be sure Nicky got the point.

Unfortunately, Nicky was standing at the door to his office when he got there, writing something on the little whiteboard.

“Oh, it’s you again,” he’d said.

“I just wanted you to be the first person to hear,” Joe said sweetly, and handed him the print-out. He’d thought this through; this way there was never going to be an email chain of them being dicks to each other, which could come back and haunt them (or haunt Joe, anyway, he wasn’t worried about anything haunting Nicky.) It wasn’t that Joe doubted his own self-control; it was just that Nicky really got under his skin, somehow.

“Huh,” Nicky said, reading it. “Huh.”

“Don’t worry,” Joe said, “I’m not going to hold you to –”

Nicky made a low, impatient noise, grabbed Joe by the wrist, and towed him into the storage closet, which was, as advertised, across the hall. He didn’t turn on the light.

Joe was taken by surprise and not sure what kind of game of chicken Nicky thought he was playing. He leaned back against the shelving and folded his arms, waiting him out. Which was why he was really surprised when he felt hands at his belt.

He reached out, and then down. His hand landed on Nicky’s head. His hair was surprisingly soft.

“No touching,” Nicky said, tersely. Joe folded his arms again, suddenly aware that his cheeks were flushing and he was – as Nicky’s clever fingers pulled him out – already half-hard.

Nicky turned out, surprisingly for someone who strong faculty rumour had it had once attended seminary, to be really good at the fine art of blowjobs. Joe had never had much of a taste for anonymous sex, but he learned a new thing about himself that day. Which was that being sucked off in a dark storage closet during the working day, by the person he disliked more than anybody else at his university (administration obviously aside), not even able to touch him, did it for him in a very serious way. He was coming his brains out in about five minutes flat. He had to muffle himself; not moving his hips was taking all his self-control.

Nicky swallowed, which was, shit, also extremely hot, and then tucked Joe back into his clothes and did up his belt.

“Nicky,” Joe said, feeling hot and bothered and faintly ridiculous and like he couldn’t just leave someone who’d done that for him hanging, even if that someone was Nicky diGenova.

“Shhh,” Nicky said. Joe could hear him getting to his feet. All the sounds were magnified in the near-dark. “I’m listening for when we can leave.”

“But –”

“Be quiet,” he said, very intensely and very irritably, and despite the post-orgasm glow Joe was remembering all the reasons he didn’t like him.

He walked out of the storage closet on Nicky’s heels, turned left down the corridor back towards History, and didn’t look back.


Joe had spent the next week or so brooding over what had happened; he wasn’t a natural brooder, so it was very uncomfortable. The shock of you had unprotected sex in a storage closet with your co-worker who you hate, what were you thinking had hit him before he’d even got back to his office. Joe had done his share of stupid things when he was younger but this was, frankly, right up there. He even contemplated the possibility of blackmail for a microsecond and then dismissed it. Despite everything else he disliked about Nicky, he didn’t seem the type.

The thing he was brooding over, which was the absolute stupidest thing he could be, was that he hadn’t had the chance to reciprocate. Joe liked to think of himself as a generous lover; he was pretty sure he lived up to it ninety-nine percent of the time; the idea that he’d let someone do that and just…walked away? He didn’t like it. It wasn’t who he was. He had to at least…well, that was where he was stumbling. What was he going to do – go back to Nicky’s office and say “It’s been killing me, let me take you back across the hall and return the favour?”

That was plainly nonsense, so he didn’t do it, and he didn’t do it, and he probably would have got over it eventually if he hadn’t found himself walking past Nicky’s office on the way back from a discussion with Quỳnh on a visiting professor they were jointly inviting. (She taught eastern religions; she and Andy had a famous and longstanding on-and-off relationship which rivaled Joe and Nicky’s dislike of each other in university lore; it was a wonder the religious studies and history departments could ever cross paths without open warfare breaking out, honestly.)

He hadn’t seen Nicky since the – incident. He told himself that he wasn’t going to slow down, and then he told himself he wasn’t going to see if Nicky was in, and then he told himself he wasn’t going to say anything, and he was all the way to Nicky’s desk before he admitted that he was going to do all of those things.

“Come here a minute,” Joe said, the least effective come-on in the history of come-ons, but apparently it was just effective enough for Nicky to let Joe lead him into the storage closet. Joe turned the light on. He just preferred it, that was all.

He got to his knees. It wasn’t even difficult. Nicky was wearing extremely boring trousers with a plain leather belt. The badly-kept linoleum of the storage closet was hard on his knees.

“I don’t like leaving things…uneven,” Joe explained, to Nicky’s dick, which was the second least effective come-on in the history of come-ons. But apparently it didn’t matter any more than the first one hand, because when he looked up Nicky was looking down at him, eyes glittering between his long lashes, a high flush already rising on his cheeks. His mouth was slightly parted. Joe had a very intense flashback to what he’d done with that mouth.

“Get on with it, then,” Nicky said, but – gently. Sort of. Joe took that as permission, and undid his belt.

Nicky made a series of very low noises, almost out of the range of hearing; Joe took him deeper, perversely wanting to make him loud. A hand brushed his hair, and then retreated. Joe pulled off long enough to say “I don’t mind,” and it came back, gripping his curls lightly. Joe went down all the way, not quite sure he could manage it until he did, and Nicky’s hand tightened. It was exactly the opposite of polite behaviour; it was driving Joe wild; he was almost disappointed when Nicky came.

Joe kept nuzzling him until Nicky pulled him away, which sent a frisson down his spine and made his cock twitch. Then he leant his forehead against Nicky’s thigh, dizzyingly hard and not knowing what to do about it.

“Don’t let me stop you,” Nicky said, low and intense, but still breathless. “I’m not the one who’s worried about keeping score.”

“Fuck you,” Joe said, just to remind them both what they were doing here, and jerked himself off kneeling in a storage closet with his head leaning on Nicky diGenova’s thigh and Nicky petting his hair. It was the hottest thing that had happened to him since the last time in a storage closet. He’d given up counting where it fell on the list of stupid things he’d done in his life. He had a horrible feeling the list was going to get unmanageably long.

He didn’t look back when he left this time, either, but he could feel Nicky’s gaze the whole way down the corridor, until he turned the corner.


The third time, Nicky found him. It was past ten o’clock and Joe should really have packed up and gone home to mark these essays on his couch, but he hated taking marking home if he could possibly avoid it; he’d rather be the sad person who lived in his office than take work into his home, at least work like marking, which was long periods of tedium punctuated by rare moments of despair at the state of education and even rarer moments of genuinely being impressed. Students, Joe liked. Essays? Essays he hated.

“Why aren’t you doing that at home?” Nicky asked, having walked into his office like he owned it. The cleaner had left the door partially ajar when he’d been by earlier; being here later than the cleaners, that was really tragic, Booker always reminded him.

“Home is home and work is work,” Joe said. “Why aren’t you at home, instead of in my office?”

“I noticed a light was on in this corridor,” Nicky said. “I thought I had better make sure it wasn’t something suspicious.”

“Like what, a thief come to steal two hundred first-year essays on art in the European Renaissance? They’d be welcome.”

“You never know,” Nicky said, sitting on the desk.

“Seriously, what are you doing here?”

“I am pleased to see you too,” Nicky said. Joe looked up to see a smile playing on his mouth. He looked a hundred times more approachable than he ever had before. “I like the glasses.”

Joe snatched his reading glasses off, reflexively, which was very stupid because then he couldn’t read the essay. Nicky didn’t laugh at him. He put them back on. Slowly.

“Two hundred is a lot,” Nicky said, looking at the various piles.

“One of my tutors got sick,” Joe said, sighing. “You know how it goes.”

“And you didn’t give them to another one?”

“They have enough marking to do as it is.”

“You…are not a bad person,” Nicky said, which would have been a compliment if it hadn’t sounded like he was surprised.

“I have three essays to finish marking,” Joe said. “You can keep making snide comments or you can wait until I’m done and have my full attention.”

“I’ll wait,” Nicky said. He did.

Joe circled the B- on the last paper (good structure; chronic lack of references) and put it on the done pile. Then he stretched. Then he looked up at Nicky, who was still sitting on his desk. Nicky grinned at him, like he had been waiting for this – well, he had – and put something down on the desk in front of Joe. It was one of those single-use sachets of lube, which Joe remembered from the days when he’d had a lot more time for clubbing, and a condom.

“Are you serious,” said Joe.

“The cleaners have already been and gone,” said Nicky. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”

“You are the bane of my existence but I’m not going to lie to you,” said Joe, which was how he ended up getting fucked on his own office desk by Nicky diGenova at eleven pm on a Wednesday night. It would have been a lot easier to dismiss as an aberration brought on by lack of sleep if it hadn’t been so incredibly good. Nicky was thorough and patient and worked Joe over with deep, precise thrusts that kept both of them hanging deliciously for what felt like forever. Joe bit his lip trying not to beg. He was going to be walking funny tomorrow and he didn’t care at all. Plus, Nicky had helped him clear the essays onto the top of the filing cabinet first, which had been very polite.

“Okay, uh,” Joe said when they were both catching their breath, “not that this wasn’t mind-blowing, but my back isn’t going to take doing this more than once. Next time you have to offer me a bed.”

“What, and dinner?” Nicky said. He had been, at that point, still buried in Joe.

“It wouldn’t hurt.”

“Mmm, I’ll think about it,” Nicky had said, drawing a hand softly down Joe’s side. They were both still wearing most of their clothes. It was some very strange mixture of impersonal and incredibly intimate, all at once.

And that was how Joe had started the most ill-advised office affair of all time with his arch-nemesis.