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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.

Chapter Text

In the present, Joe is looking suspiciously at Nicky talking to Nile and her family, but only because Booker is expecting him to; old habits die hard.

“I can’t believe you’ve managed to have him on your PhD student’s committee all the way through to graduation,” Booker is saying. “I thought for sure she’d have to choose one of you before it was done.”

“Just because he’s my arch-nemesis doesn’t mean I’m going to put that onto the students,” Joe says, mildly offended. “We’re professionals.”

“News to me,” Booker replies.

*

Despite Joe’s comment about a bed, and Nicky sort of agreeing with him, they had ended up fucking at work half a dozen more times before Joe ever saw Nicky’s place, or Nicky saw his. Joe had figured out pretty quickly that they were both getting off on it. It wasn’t the possibility of getting caught, or it wasn’t for Joe. It was something about having this as a secret, an unexpected alliance between the two of them. One cross-department meeting, Quỳnh had made an acerbic comment about keeping things professional, glancing pointedly at the two of them. That was rich, considering how she was with Andy. Joe had locked eyes with Nicky across the table, and then had to look away. Half-an-hour later he’d pinned Nicky against the sink in the tiny one-person bathroom in the humanities building basement that nobody ever used because legend had it there were cockroaches. Joe, personally, wouldn’t have noticed, because he’d been too busy grinding against Nicky’s ass and jerking him off slowly, watching his face in the mirror.

“If you’d been more prepared you could have fucked me,” Nicky panted, because having sex hadn’t stopped either of them sniping at each other.

“If you’d asked me home I could have fucked you in a bed,” Joe said, and managed to drag his eyes away from Nicky’s in the mirror to nudge his collar down and bite him on the shoulder. Nicky came swearing, and sucked Joe off while Joe tried his hardest not to break the sink as he gripped it.

“There are cockroaches in here,” Nicky said, while Joe was still recovering; he’d stood up rather quickly, Joe had noticed.

“You tell me now?”

“I could have told you before you were done,” Nicky said, “would that have been better?”

“We’re never doing this in here again,” Joe said, with conviction, and while he was tucking himself away Nicky sighed and pulled out his phone and said, in the tones of someone who knew he was going to regret what he was about to do, “What’s your number?”

Joe told him. Nicky typed something with economical movements, like he’d done it before. A few seconds later, Joe had a text from an unknown number: it was an address.

“Oh, hey,” Joe said, surprised. “We’re practically neighbours.” It was only two streets over from his place.

Are we?” Nicky didn’t look totally pleased by this. “I’m free on Saturday.”

“Free for what?”

“A romantic candlelit dinner,” Nicky said, smiling beatifically in a way that belied every word he had just said. His hair was a mess (the no-touching rule had been amended in the past few weeks) and he needed to do up his top shirt button; Joe could just see the bite mark. Joe was astonished at what a Pavlovian reaction he’d developed to a slightly sex-mussed Nicky diGenova. It was probably psychologically unhealthy.

“Sure,” Joe said. “I believe that.”

“I can promise,” Nicky said, “that I definitely own a bed.”

“Acceptable,” Joe said, and walked past Nicky to leave the bathroom. Nicky caught him by the arm, and Joe turned. Their faces were very close together. Nicky really did have a kissable mouth, Joe thought absently. The moment stretched out, and Joe was on the verge of saying fuck it and kissing him when Nicky licked his lips and said “See you Saturday.”

“Yeah, uh, yeah,” Joe said, coherently, and had to teach a two-hour seminar on twentieth-century art in colonial Africa while trying to process what had just happened; it was not his best work. He felt guilty. The students deserved better.

*

Joe honestly didn’t know what to expect when he showed up at Nicky’s. It was a modest flat in keeping with their university salaries; not too different to Joe’s, except Joe’s got better light, because he’d been willing to sacrifice a lot (like space) for that. He knocked on the door and for a second panicked that it was going to turn out to be some sort of awful prank, even though Nicky had shown zero signs of being that sort of person. Nicky opened the door. He had something white and powdery smeared on his shoulder. He looked – hesitant.

“Hi,” Joe said, stepped inside, and kissed him.

This wasn’t planned; this wasn’t something, historically, they’d ever done; but Joe had been thinking all week about that last moment in the forbidden cockroach bathroom. Nicky leant into it almost at once. The back of Joe’s head hit the door, but gently.

“Hi,” Nicky said, pulling away.

“I like kissing,” Joe explained, feeling like he needed an explanation. “Kissing is fun.”

“Ah, fun is what we’re calling it,” Nicky said, his eyes dancing, and they’d made out up against Nicky’s door for the next five or ten minutes, slow like syrup, Joe remembering all the other things he’d done with Nicky’s mouth and marveling that he’d never thought of this one.

Just as they were starting to grind against each other and Joe was thinking of asking about that bed, Nicky pulled back. “That’s going to have to wait until after dinner.”

“Are you serious?”

“You are the bane of my existence, but I’m not going to lie to you,” Nicky said, throwing his own words back at him, and led him into the kitchen, which had a very small table set up for two. There was a dish of something on the bench that smelled amazing. There was even one flickering tea-light candle.

“I don’t know whether to be touched or worried,” Joe said.

“How about thankful?”

“I’ll consider it.” Joe pulled out a chair.

Nicky offered him sparkling water, which was – more considerate than he’d expected, actually, and they proceeded, over dinner, to have something that bizarrely resembled a conversation between people who actually liked each other. Although Nicky did make time in the middle there to talk shit about one of the new courses the history department was offering next semester (Booker was teaching it, not Joe), so things weren’t too off from normal.

The food was, unexpectedly, really good. Joe said so, because good food deserved praise no matter who’d made it. And, okay, he was still hoping to get laid after dinner.

“You’re welcome,” Nicky said, smiling at him in a way that wasn’t sarcastic or annoyed or aggressive, and Joe smiled back, and it was – nice?

Joe’s sense of equilibrium was restored after dinner when they went into Nicky’s bedroom and finally got to fuck very enthusiastically on a bed. It wasn’t a good bed – Joe could tell even with what they were doing that it was going to have terrible roll-together – but it was a marked step up from storage closets and cockroach bathrooms. Joe found out that Nicky didn’t like having his nipples played with but went alternately soft and then a little feral if Joe sucked hickeys just above his collarbone, and also that Nicky, when not rushed, could draw a blowjob out for long enough to turn Joe’s brain into complete mush. Then they napped, and then Joe got to find out what Nicky looked like when he was getting fucked, which was very Saint Sebastian, in the dirtiest and best way. Joe’s specialty was Islamic art, but he’d taught European Renaissance courses so often the comparison came naturally. By the time they’d gone two rounds and napped again and cleaned up, it was nearly midnight. Joe felt almost ecstatically fucked-out. This was great. This had been the best idea he’d had all year.

Nicky had his face pressed into Joe’s shoulder – the roll-together was making itself felt now they were lying still – and Joe wanted more than anything to just drift off to sleep, but also this was Nicky diGenova and that wasn’t what they were. He sat up and looked around the room for his clothes, before remembering they’d started to come off in the living room.

“Are you going?” Nicky asked. Joe looked back at him. “Don’t want to be here in the morning?”

“I don’t think you want me here in the morning,” Joe said, his limbs still too lethargic to start moving. One more minute.

“I’m not promising breakfast. I’m not very good at breakfast.”

“Okay,” Joe said, and lay back down. Nicky pressed his face back into his shoulder. Okay; okay. He slept like a baby all night.

*

They didn’t even fuck in the morning, which was new; just traded sleepy kisses for a little while, before Joe got up and summarily took over Nicky’s kitchen to make breakfast, which he was good at. Admittedly the hardest part was puzzling out Nicky’s tiny benchtop espresso machine, which was far and away the fanciest thing in the kitchen. Nicky’s flat was, overall, almost ascetically bare, especially compared to how Joe kept his place. The least tidy part he’d seen had been the bookshelves in the living room. Joe was resisting the academic urge to go and browse them.

“Congratulations,” Nicky said, observing him succeed at coffee. “That doesn’t even work for me sometimes.”

“So you were just planning to stand there and watch me fail?”

“You seemed so set on it, I hated to get in your way.”

“Luckily for me, I’m a man of many talents,” Joe said. “Do you have anywhere you have to be?”

“Church, at ten o’clock,” Nicky said, taking his caffe latte. “But I walk there, it isn’t far, so there is no particular rush.”

“Lots of things to confess, huh?”

“Probably not what you’re thinking.” Nicky sipped his coffee. “And that’s not part of Mass anyway.” 

“I’ll admit I may be hazy on the details.” Joe tried his own coffee; he had done a good job.

“I saw,” Nicky said, a little hesitantly, “that you have a graduate seminar on Friday afternoons this semester. Has that been a problem for you?”

“It’s not ideal,” Joe said. “But it’s only every second week, and only this semester. The timetable just didn’t work out any other way. Or that’s what I was told.”

“They should try harder,” Nicky said, disapprovingly.

“I’m surprised you care,” Joe said, which was maybe a little harsh, but – fine, he still hadn’t forgotten how he and Nicky had come to be at odds, last year.

“I don’t –” Nicky dragged a hand down his face. “You’re still angry about that thing I said last year.”

“Well – yeah, actually,” said Joe, who was now wishing he could take the lovingly-prepared coffee back.

“I’m sorry,” Nicky said, having dropped his hand, but still looking at the floor.

“If it helps,” Joe said, “I made this incredibly bad decision to start fucking you before you even acted like you’d consider apologising, so don’t feel like you have to just because of that.”

Nicky made an impatient noise. “No. I am sorry, because it was an ignorant and bigoted thing to say, and because when you were upset about it, which was reasonable, I let myself get angry that you were upset instead of apologising as I should have, and then we...”

“Right, and then…” Joe said, waving a hand to encompass their entire past year and a bit of low-grade academic warfare. In which – if Joe was being fair – Nicky had never descended to that same level of casual bigotry ever again. Just general dickery.

Nicky looked up, finally. He looked genuinely embarrassed, and even vulnerable, in a way he hadn’t in three months of bad-decision office sex. “I know it’s too late, but, you deserve the apology nonetheless. And yes, I do think it is unreasonable that the department could not schedule your classes around your extremely predictable religious commitment, and that it is unfair that I don’t have to worry about it.”

“Who are you and what have you done with Nicky diGenova?” Joe said, partially joking, partially in genuine disbelief.

“I’m not an asshole all the time,” Nicky said, some of the familiar snap coming back into his voice.

“You save it up specially, just for me.”

“It feels reciprocal.”

“Mmm,” Joe said, and saluted Nicky with his coffee cup. “I’m going to clear out soon, so you can get ready, but…are you free this time next weekend? Or no, not this time. Last night next weekend. Saturday.” He was losing his words; that wasn’t a good sign.

“I could be,” Nicky said. “For what?”

“Well,” Joe said, slowly, “I can’t let you go around thinking that you’re the only person in this…room…who can cook dinner.”

“Ah,” Nicky said. “Your famous dislike of leaving things unequal.”

“I wouldn’t call it famous.”

“Memorable. At least, very memorable to me.”

“Saturday. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Nicky said. “Now have your shower and get out of my house.”

Joe laughed, and kissed Nicky on the cheek on his way out of the kitchen. He thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Nicky smiling into his coffee.

Chapter Text

The new configuration of their…interactions…seemed to be a sort of enemies-with-benefits thing. Joe couldn’t, all things considered, complain. The benefits were of course regular and consistently mind-blowing sex, but also more and more often dinner and watching television, or even one Wednesday night, sitting together in Joe’s living room marking and competing to read out the most entertainingly bad turn of phrase from their students. Bringing work home turned out to be not so bad when you weren’t by yourself.

That evening was so horrifyingly domestic that the next day Joe broke their two-month streak of nobly not having sex at work to blow Nicky in their old reliable storage closet. Nicky didn’t have any complaints. They nearly got caught by Quỳnh, but only nearly, which was fine.

All this meant that when Joe’s PhD student Nile came to him nervously to say that she’d been thinking about it very hard and she thought that the best thing would be if they added Nicky to her committee, because of the amount of his work she’d ended up reading, Joe said “Yeah, okay, that makes sense,” and not the “Absolutely not, out of the question,” he would have said six months before that.

Okay, fine, he wouldn’t have told Nile absolutely not; he would have told her he’d have to go away and think about it and frantically tried to come up with someone else. She knew how he and Nicky were – how their departments thought they were, that was, not how they actually were now – but that wasn’t her responsibility to manage around. It was his. 

“Oh my God,” Booker had said, when he’d heard. “And you said yes? There will be blood in the corridors before she graduates.”

“Look, Book,” Joe said, exasperated. “We’re not out of control. Just because I don’t like him –” it felt almost like a lie on his tongue, and Joe hated that “– doesn’t mean we can’t work together for something like this. It’s a PhD committee, not a co-publication.”

“Nobody would survive that collaboration,” Booker said. “Alright, but don’t say I didn’t predict it.”

It was fine; it was, in point of fact, astonishingly fine; right up until the point that Nile went home to Chicago for a month over the winter holidays, and organized Skype catch-ups with Joe so she could stay an extra couple of weeks and work from there. She did not mention to Joe at any point – which, she emphasised later, she had not been obliged to do – that she’d organized the same thing with Nicky as well, because she was now writing a paper with him for a conference this summer.

The real culprit in the situation, Joe was fairly sure, was Nicky. Firstly for forgetting that he had a call scheduled with Nile until five minutes before; secondly for forgetting because of an athletic mid-Saturday-afternoon bout of sex with Joe which had resulted in both of them needing to shower; thirdly for not telling Joe he was about to get on a Skype call in the living room; and fourthly for never having told Joe where the spare towels were kept, in a solid half-year of having Joe sleep over at his place.

All of which meant when Joe poked his head into the living room to inquire about the towels, clutching Nicky’s used one to himself as a temporary substitute, he was greeted by the sight of Nicky with his back to him, a computer screen open to a video call, and then – before he’d clocked who the call was to – the sound of an unearthly wail of horror from the computer speakers.

(“It was not an unearthly wail of horror,” Nile said at a much later point. “It was a perfectly reasonable yell of surprise, because what the fuck, Joe, how was I supposed to know I was going to see you mostly-naked?”)

Joe, startled, had fallen back into the hallway. After a beat he poked his head back around the door. Nicky was staring at him, wide-eyed. On the screen was – fuck, fuck, fuck.

“I’m…just on a call to Nile,” Nicky said, weakly.

“Towels?” Joe got out, in a very strangled voice.

“Top shelf of the wardrobe.”

“That is an extremely stupid place to keep towels,” Joe’s mouth said without his brain intervening.

“I of course seek your permission in all my housekeeping decisions,” Nicky said, rolling his eyes. It was the most sniping they’d done in about two months. He turned back to the computer. “Sorry for the interruption, Nile. You were saying –”

Joe got dressed and was contemplating whether to slink back to his own place to die of embarrassment alone when his phone started vibrating; incoming Skype call. From Nile Freeman. Fantastic.

“Hello, Nile,” he answered, keeping the video off. There had been enough video today. “How’s it going in Chicago?”

“I apologise in advance if this sounds crazy,” Nile said, “but did I just see you in the background of my call with Dr diGenova?”

“That definitely sounds crazy,” Joe said, but a second too slow.

“That is not you saying no,” Nile said, her voice getting higher. “What the – I mean – everybody says you guys hate each other. You said when I asked if he could be on my committee that you didn’t get on! From you that’s practically a declaration of war!”

“It’s very complicated,” Joe said. Nicky had come over and was making a series of facial expressions Joe couldn’t quite interpret but he suspected added up to “this is your fault for wandering around nearly naked”, which was completely unfair.

“Is that what they’re calling it these days,” Nile said in tones of deep sarcasm, then coughed. “Uh, sorry. Sorry, that was inappropriate.”

“How about,” Joe said, “we all just forget this ever happened?”

“That sounds great,” Nile said. “Sorry again for bothering you on the weekend. I just had to – I couldn’t –”

“No problem,” Joe said. “Have a good weekend, Nile. I’ll see you for our call on Tuesday.”

“Cool, cool, cool,” Nile said, and said goodbye. She did not sound like someone who thought everything was cool.

“We,” Joe said to Nicky once he’d hung up, “need to be better coordinated.”

“Well maybe if you weren’t wandering around naked,” Nicky said, confirming all Joe’s worst suspicions.

“Hang on. You never even mentioned that –”

It was, Joe reflected later, the first actual argument they’d had since they’d started…whatever this was. It had resulted in Joe storming back home, which was a lot less satisfying when home was a two-minute walk away. He didn’t see Nicky again until Tuesday, when he passed him in the corridor and Nicky caught his glance for a second as their hands brushed together. Joe’s stomach flipped over, and, well, shit. But nobody said anything, and during his meeting with Nile, she apologised again.

“It’s not your fault,” Joe told her. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Are you, you know,” Nile said, chewing her lip, “okay?”

“Everything is fine,” Joe said, smiling his best student-soothing smile, and when he showed up unannounced at Nicky’s flat with Indian takeaway that evening – after seven, because Nicky had a late class on Tuesdays – Nicky let him in, clearly having only just got home himself. They ate and then lay on the couch together and pretended to watch television. Nicky’s couch was objectively terrible but there was just room for two tall men to lie on it if they didn’t mind being pressed very close together. Joe didn’t mind.

“We do need to be better coordinated,” Nicky said, during an ad break.

“I’m sorry I criticized your towel storage decisions,” Joe said, and waited a beat. “In front of someone else.”

“Fuck you,” Nicky said, but there was no heat in it; Joe nuzzled his nose into the back of Nicky’s neck and realised there was literally nowhere else in the world he would rather be.

*

Andy shows up while Nicky is talking to Nile and her family. “It really is amazing you got her through to graduation without murdering each other,” she says to Joe. “Congratulations. Or maybe I should be congratulating her.”

“Like you can talk,” Joe says. “You and Quỳnh –”

“There is no me and Quỳnh.”

“You snuck away from the department party to make out in her office last winter,” Booker says. “Everybody knows that.”

“No I didn’t,” Andy says smoothly, only her eyes betraying her. “Who’d do that? That would be stupid. You couldn’t so much as make eyes at someone in this building without everybody else knowing.”

“Which is why everybody knows about you and Quỳnh,” Booker counters.

Joe holds his tongue and prays neither of them look at him.

*

“I love the sun you get here,” Nicky had said to Joe, one weekend afternoon. “That’s why you took this place, isn’t it?”

Joe nodded. “For the light, if I’m sketching, or painting.”

“And because you like to lie in the sun,” Nicky said, amused. “I’ve seen it.”

“I just have a better couch to lie on. Yours is terrible.”

“I know,” Nicky said. “And it doesn’t get any sun at all.”

“Just stay here when it’s sunny,” Joe said. “You’re so small I’ll barely notice you’re there.”

“Ha,” Nicky said. He was only a bare inch shorter than Joe, and objected to Joe making anything of it. Admittedly Joe only did so because it annoyed him. They were enough of a size that their wardrobes were slowly mingling. “If I did that, we’d probably have a lot less chance of getting caught at work. We need to…it’s stupid. I don’t know why we still do it.”

“Because people keep making pointed comments at meetings about how we hate each other and I would say that it was a me problem that that’s a huge fucking turn-on, except I’m pretty sure it’s a you problem, as well. Since you keep going along with it.” Joe was wiping down the kitchen benches while Nicky put away dishes.

“It just makes it extra satisfying,” Nicky said wistfully. “Especially when it’s quick and dirty.”

“Yeah,” Joe said, momentarily getting distracted by a superb memory of quick and dirty events that had taken place, this time, on Nicky’s desk.  “But it’s still stupid. And you’re right, we probably would do it less if we were in the same place at the end of the day more.”

“So what if I did,” Nicky said. “Stay here.”

Joe took a moment to catch his meaning. “Like. All the time?”

“Or somewhere else,” Nicky said. “We could afford a bigger place. Together. But I don’t have very much stuff.”

“We’d have a living room full of bookshelves,” Joe pointed out. “Bookshelves and almost nothing else.”

“We’re academics. I think it is required.”

“Okay,” said Joe, and turned around to look at Nicky, who looked back at him, holding a novelty mug Joe’s youngest sister had given him. But all Joe was seeing was Nicky, looking torn between carefully constructed nonchalance and hope.

“Uh,” Nicky said, shrugging. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Joe said again, and looked away. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Nicky grinning as helplessly as he was himself.

*

They got rid of the terrible couch, and also Nicky’s terrible bed, and everything else only took one afternoon to move; Nicky did live light. Normally Joe would have called on Andy and Booker for something like this, and Nicky said he would have asked Quỳnh, but…

“But,” Joe said, “you want to do that explanation?” And Nicky had shaken his head vehemently no. So they hadn’t. Joe was worn out by the end of it, in the satisfying way that came with having got something done.

After dinner, Nicky had taken him into the bedroom and said “I think the best way for us to stop doing the stupid work thing is to really focus on appreciating all the benefits of having a bed.” He punctuated this by kissing Joe on the tender skin just behind his ear.

“What did you have in mind?” Joe asked. Nicky smiled in a way that Joe would have once associated with him having found a particularly devastating academic counterpoint.

Instead, it heralded him handcuffing Joe to the bed – they’d done that before – and working him over with a bullet vibrator, dragging it along his perineum and pressing it sweetly at the base of his cock until Joe was on the verge of coming. Then he’d pulled away.

“No, no, stop fucking around,” Joe whined.

“You can come,” Nicky said, “as soon as you ask me nicely,” which meant that for the next interminable length of time Joe kept getting brought to the edge and then never quite over. Nicky played with his nipples; he licked along Joe’s length; he fingered him and then slipped the bullet vibrator in. Joe gritted his teeth and breathed through it, the waves rising and never breaking, until Nicky leaned in and breathed against his mouth. “Just one nice word. I know you can do it.”

Nicky,” Joe said blindly, into his mouth, knowing it wouldn’t be enough, except miraculously it was; Nicky kissed him very softly and fisted his cock very firmly, and he came so hard everything whited out. He was barely aware of Nicky undoing the handcuffs.

“That,” Nicky almost purred in his ear, curled up close while he jerked himself, seemingly not wanting to wait for Joe to regain control of his muscles, “is what we can do with a bed, which we will now have every night.”

“You make a fantastic argument,” Joe said, turning on his side to draw him close, and listen to his harsh breathing. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Mmmm – mmmmmm,” Nicky said, coming messily between them. They had to change the sheets before they could go to sleep, on top of a day of moving. Still worth it.

Chapter Text

Joe was not an early riser by nature – he always fought hardest to avoid having his classes scheduled before ten – so that first morning, he woke up to an empty bed; he could hear someone moving around, and had a second’s bewilderment before he realised it was Nicky. It had been a few years now since he’d lived with someone else.

He pulled on a pair of boxers and an old t-shirt and wandered out, if only because making coffee naked wasn’t always the greatest idea. Nicky turned towards him as he came into the kitchen and smiled, blindingly, and Joe was struck again by what a fantastic idea this had been. Regrets – what were those?

Surprisingly, he held onto that feeling for a solid three months before the first hitch struck. Joe’s oldest sister – not older than him, but oldest of his three younger sisters – showed up unexpectedly one week; her flight, Nicky informed him, had been moved until tomorrow, when she had only been supposed to be in the city for a day. Nicky had been home when she had arrived.

“I left you a voicemail,” Noor said. “And you showed me where the spare key was and said I could let myself in anytime if I was in London –”

“Yeah, uh, you can, of course, anytime,” Joe said, scratching his head and desperately trying to remember if any other stray family members were likely to show up unannounced. “Can I introduce you to Nicky?”

“I think by now we’ve met,” Noor said. Nicky had, evidently, made her coffee. “I didn’t know you’d had to start sharing your flat.”

Nicky widened his eyes at Joe from behind Noor, asking what their play was here. Joe had nothing.

“Nicky just moved in,” he said. “A couple of months ago. I…uh…didn’t want to mention it until it was serious.”

“He’s your boyfriend?” Noor shrieked, at a really unexpected volume for someone who was five foot nothing in heels; then again, she was a lawyer.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Joe said automatically, and then had to scramble. “He’s – uh –”

“We work together,” Nicky said. “At the same university.”

“So you’re not –”

“You know, I don’t like the term boyfriend,” Nicky said, and Joe breathed a sigh of relief. “It sounds very, uh, unserious. Or young.”

“Ohhhhhh,” Noor said. “Oh, Joe, I can’t believe you didn’t – how long have you two been –”

They gave her a highly expurgated and ninety percent fictional history of their – relationship, fine, it was a relationship, Joe had been refusing to call it that, but that was apparently what was happening here. It did not involve sex in storage closets or being undercover from their colleagues for reasons Joe couldn’t actually articulate at this point. It did involve co-supervising a PhD student and having worked together for a few years.

“Oh, that’s so nice,” Noor said. “Since you’re letting me stay over, let me take you out to dinner so you can tell me all the details, for when I get home and go to dinner with our parents and they interrogate me.”

“They don’t know,” Joe said, cringing internally; he’d moved in with someone and his parents didn’t even know; he was going to be in so much trouble.

“They better by the time I get home,” Noor said, eyeballing him like he was a witness on the stand. “Because I’m not lying to them about this. And also why would I?”

“My mother knows, of course,” Nicky said, and Joe gave him a filthy look.

“Joe has always been very close to our parents!” Noor said. “And you’re so nice, Nicky. I have no idea why he’s never said anything.”

“My mother knows,” Joe said to Nicky the next evening, after Noor was safely on her flight and Joe had sent a message to the family Facebook chat which had resulted in a barrage of questions he was currently ignoring. “Really?”

“I wasn’t making it up,” Nicky said. “I told her when I moved in here.”

“Oh.” Joe felt suddenly unmoored. “That’s – of course you should have. I don’t know why I – what about your father?” He knew Nicky’s parents were separated, and Nicky didn’t like his father very much.

“Someone will tell him eventually,” Nicky said. “I’m not going to bother myself.”

“I told everyone,” Joe said. “My parents and my other sisters. They’re asking for photos.”

“So take one,” Nicky said, and Joe sent his family a photo of Nicky curled up on the couch with five books and a manuscript he was reviewing, red pen behind his ear. They all loved it. It was the first photo he’d ever taken of Nicky – no, that was a lie. It was the first photo he’d ever taken of Nicky that he could possibly ever show to his family. Jerk-off material for when Nicky was away at conferences did not count.

He took a few more, just for practice. It seemed, suddenly, like an absence he needed to fill.

*

The other consequence of Nicky moving in was that Joe had to start watching football with Booker at the pub. He didn’t like it that much, or not the first one they’d tried years back, but Booker’s afternoons off to watch football were precious (he had three children), and previously they’d spent them at Joe’s place. Joe’s place now had an expensive espresso machine in the kitchen and three extra bookshelves in the living room, among other signs of Nicky. It was therefore no longer available, unless Joe wanted to explain to Booker than he and Nicky were not only no longer nemeses, but had moved in together. He didn’t know where to start with that, so he didn’t.

Booker was mystified.

“But you hate the pub,” he said.

“This one’s better,” Joe said. “And it was time for a change.”

“It’s not that I mind,” Booker said. “It’s just unusual.”

“You think too hard, Book,” Joe said, and then they both got distracted by the game.

*

At graduation, Andy has wandered away and Nicky still seems to be deep in a conversation with Nile’s mother; Joe decides fuck it, he’s going to go over anyway, when Nile meets him halfway.

“Congratulations again,” he says, and gave her a hug. “The only thing I’m sorry about is losing you.”

“I’m not going to vanish off the face of the earth,” Nile says. “And you always knew this day was coming.”

“I know it for all my students. That doesn’t mean it’s not sad when it happens.”

“You big softie,” says Nile. “Hey, I want to get a photo with my whole committee. Is that alright?”

“Sure,” Joe says at once. “It’s your graduation. Tell me where you want me.”

“Just here, wait a sec,” Nile says, putting him next to Nicky. “I need to round up the others.”

They’re standing with their backs to a table. Joe leans on it, casually. Nicky is doing the same. Their fingers are almost touching; Joe’s left hand, the one he wears all his rings on, and Nicky’s right.

*

Joe’s parents had made a trip to London a few months after Noor had dropped in on them. Joe was not at all fooled about why. Luckily they took immediately to Nicky, whose asshole tendencies, Joe was slowly realizing, had principally been directed at him. And, to be fair, vice versa. He was starting to realise why some of his colleagues who weren’t Andy or Booker had occasionally expressed surprise that he and Nicky clearly hated each other so much. “He’s so nice,” they had said. “Very reasonable.” Well, hindsight was twenty-twenty. It helped that Nicky was clearly going through the same thing.

“Your students all like you so much,” he’d said, baffled, reading Joe’s email over his shoulder.

“I am a likeable person,” said Joe. “It’s literally just you who hated my guts.”

“You made it very easy sometimes,” Nicky said.

“Nobody made you move in here.” Joe clicked through to the next email. Nicky kissed him on the forehead, from behind, and went back to making dinner.

“You need to be free next Wednesday,” he said, from behind Joe. There were chopping noises; Joe was very glad he hadn’t witnessed how quick Nicky was with a kitchen knife until after they’d got to some sort of détente.

“Why?”

“My brother Marco is going to be in town,” Nicky said.

“And…you want me to meet him?”

“You’re not going to be best friends. But…he’s alright. And I will hear about it for the next decade if my family think I’m hiding you.”

“So you want me to meet him.”

“Yes,” Nicky said. More chopping noises. Joe waited; he didn’t say anything else.

“Okay,” he said. “I guess that’s fair.”

Nicky turned around and kissed him on the forehead again, so he’d got that one right.

Nicky had been right, that Joe and Marco were never going to be best friends. Marco was loud and – Joe didn’t want to say not that bright, because he’d had a lot of students who sounded loud and not that bright and had produced some really insightful work once you drew them out. But if he was cleverer than he sounded, he was hiding it very well. Joe managed to connect with him about football (his opinions weren’t correct but weren’t totally terrible – Nicky had once pretended to be a Milan supporter for three months explicitly to annoy Joe) and he clearly cared and worried about his younger brother, all alone in a foreign city.

“At least he’s not alone any more,” Marco said to Joe, cheerfully, right in front of Nicky. Nicky looked bland, like he was used to this. “So when are you going to get married?”

“Uh,” Joe said, frantically signaling Nicky with his eyes that this was his problem to answer, because it was his brother.

“We can’t get married, Marco,” Nicky said. “Not in the Church, you know that.”

“Oh, well, yes,” Marco said. “But everyone thinks that you should anyway, even if it’s just civil. It’s been what, nearly three years?”

Joe counted quickly in his head; that took them back to…about the time they’d been bickering over that manuscript which had started all of this (twenty citations now; Joe told Nicky every time there was a new one, because some things deserved to be beaten to death). He raised his eyebrows at Nicky.

“Something like that,” Nicky said, ignoring Joe. 

“Could you get married in a mosque?” Marco turned to Joe.

“They’re still going back and forth on it, at mine,” Joe said. “Not no, but not yes, exactly. At least not for interfaith couples. It’s a long argument I won’t bore you with.” Nicky knew all the details but he had chosen to be a professor of religious studies, so he was obliged to listen.

“I just think our mother would like it,” Marco said, turning back to Nicky. He wasn’t as good at puppy eyes as his younger brother, but he wasn’t bad.

“We’re…thinking about it, Marco,” Nicky said, and changed the subject.

“If you do come to visit my family, this summer,” Joe said later that week, “my father will probably start asking the same question. So be warned.”

“You don’t believe in getting married, if it’s only civil?” Nicky asked him. They’d just had a committee meeting for Nile, which had finished a quarter of an hour early – a miracle largely attributable to Nile being very organized – and were lingering after everybody else had left. The door to the conference room was shut, or Joe wouldn’t have raised the topic at all.

“Of course I do,” Joe said at once, and then had to scramble. “But you don’t want to marry me, so…”

“Of course I do!” Nicky shot back, and then they just stared at each other, mutually rendered speechless, until Quỳnh poked her head in. “Are you done with – oh, hey, are you two allowed to be in the same room unsupervised?”

“It was a committee meeting, Quỳnh,” Nicky said with some disdain. “We’re not drunk undergraduates.”

The disdain was deserved; Joe and Nicky didn’t talk much at work by that point, because of…well, because they never had, but Joe knew that they’d both tailed off the open warfare at least six months ago. Quỳnh was just coasting on their history.

“Fine, fine, I respect your professionalism,” Quỳnh said. “I want to set up for the seminar, so are you done?”

“We’re done,” Joe said, shoving his laptop in his bag. Nicky was on his heels; Joe didn’t even need to look around, just headed for the old reliable storage closet.

“What do you mean,” he said quietly but right in Nicky’s ear as soon as the door was closed. Neither of them had turned on the light. “Of course you do?”

“I’m not going to give you a dissertation on the importance of marriage, because I have a class in ten minutes and also I wrote it up five years ago and published it and you know how to use JSTOR,” Nicky said. “But yes, it’s important to me, and so are you. So.”

“Huh,” Joe said.

Nicky broke after barely ten seconds.“Is that it?”

“Every time I come home,” Joe said, “and you’re there before me, and I open the door and hear the noises of you being there, I feel like I’ve won a prize I didn’t know I could get, like I am the luckiest man on the planet, and I don’t know how to tell you that, ever, because you’re also the only man on the planet I want to go to my knees for in a storage closet across the hall from your office, and I don’t know how we got here, I don’t know anything, all I know is you.” He took a breath. “Marry me.”

“I’m pretty sure I asked first, technically,” Nicky said unsteadily.

“Yes, for fuck’s sake, what more do you want –” Joe was cut off by Nicky’s mouth on his. Nicky was two minutes late to his class and Joe had to lurk in the closet for another fifteen minutes pretending to search for screen-cleaning wipes, which Andy reminded him when she found him were kept in the stationery cupboard. But it was totally worth it.

*

They had a tiny civil ceremony six weeks later; there was no way they could organise either of their families until next summer at least, and neither of them wanted to wait.

“We’ll just do it again,” Nicky said. “Why not.”

They had to ask Nile to be a witness, along with the clerk at the Registry Office, after coming to the hideous realisation that there was no way they knew how to explain to their friends that they were, out of the blue, getting married.

“We’ll…figure it out before next summer,” Joe said, when Nile asked. “Look, I know this is a lot to ask –”

“Oh no, no, it’s no trouble, this story is going in my memoir, if I ever write one,” Nile said. “But none of the faculty are going to hear it from me, pinky promise.”

Or students,” Joe said, spotting the catch.

“Yes, or students,” Nile agreed, crossing her heart.

She took a photo of them, on the day; they sent it to both their families, and got swamped in responses.

“Okay, I have a new question,” Nicky said, looking at his phone. “How has nobody at work not found out from Facebook?”

“Andy doesn’t use Facebook,” Joe said, “Booker only checks it once a year, and Quỳnh – I have no explanation for Quỳnh. She’s in your department.”

“She doesn’t use it either,” said Nicky. “She’s all about Instagram.”

“Aren’t they they same thing?”

I don’t know,” Nicky said irritably; he was not a fan of social media.

“Hey, we got married,” Joe said, delighted all over again at the thought, and picked up his husband – his husband – and whirled him around the living room, staggering under the weight but buoyed up by joy, until Nicky laughed and pleaded with him to stop.

*

“Big smiles, everybody,” Mrs Freeman says, as she holds up Nile’s phone. “Come on, you can do better. There we go.” She hands the phone back to Nile. “Thank you all for everything you’ve done for my daughter.”

“It’s been an honour to have her with us,” Joe says. “We’re all going to miss her. The University of Chicago doesn’t know how good a thing it’s getting.”

“That’s so kind, Professor al-Kaysani,” Mrs Freeman says.

“Just Dr. Takes a lot to be a professor over here.”

“And this is Dr diGenova, Mom, he’s in Religious Studies,” says Nile, “and Dr Black, she’s in History too, and oh, Dr Lykon’s already gone.” Andy smiles and raises a hand when her name is mentioned.

“Yes, I remember seeing you Skyping with them,” her mother says. She turns to Nicky and Joe. “And do I remember right that you two got married last year?”

Nile’s eyes go wide; she clearly hadn’t expected her mother to say that. Joe feels bolted to the floor.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mrs Freeman says, when nobody says anything for a fraction too long. “I must have had that wrong. Nile, who were you saying –”

“No, no, that was right,” Joe says, throwing himself on that grenade because he can live with the ridiculous double-life he and Nicky have somehow constructed for themselves, but he isn’t going to let his newly-graduated PhD student sound like a liar when she isn’t. “I didn’t realise Nile had talked about us so much.”

“We’re very boring, really,” Nicky says, smiling in self-depreciation.

“I just think that’s very sweet. Congratulations,” said Mrs Freeman.

“Thank you,” Nicky says. Joe can tell it’s strained; probably nobody else could. Joe looks around for Andy, but she’s taken off.

“Come on, Mom, Dr al-Kaysani and Dr diGenova have other students to talk to,” Nile says, still looking guilty. “Thanks for the photo, both of you.”

Joe just has time to wonder where on earth Andy has got to before someone grabs him by the elbow; it’s Booker.

“What are you doing, Book,” he says, but quietly, because this is an official departmental function.

“This way,” Booker said, and guides him firmly out of the function space. Out of the corner of his eye, Joe sees Quỳnh doing the same to Nicky.

They are, he suspects, about to be hoisted on their own petards.

Andy is standing outside, tapping her foot.

“Shit,” she says, when she sees them. “Why are you both looking like you got caught red-handed?”

“We’re not,” says Nicky.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Joe.

“Fine,” Andy says. “Why did Nile Freeman’s mother think you two were married?

Joe glances at Nicky. Nicky is looking back at him, and not in a way that suggests he has any answers.

“And why are you looking at each other like that?” Andy is sounding increasingly suspicious and, unfairly, Joe thinks, increasingly pissed off. Booker is looking between them, frowning, like he can’t figure out what’s going on. Quỳnh, frankly, just looks like she’s enjoying the show.

“We are – we got married,” Nicky says, into the silence. “Last year. Nile was a witness. I guess she told her mother.”

“You did what?”

“You know, married,” Joe says. “When you go down to the registry office and –”

“I know what being married is! I’ve been married for years!”

“What – oh,” Joe says, looking at Quỳnh.

Quỳnh shrugs. “We never quite manage to get to the divorce bit.”

“I knew that, although I did not want to know that,” says Booker. “But this is a joke, right? It’s not like it could be for immigration or something. You’re both EU citizens, not British. And, did I mention, you hate each other. What would you get married for? Does one of you have a ridiculous secret inheritance? You can’t even have been drunk! Joe doesn’t drink and it takes a month to get a licence issued here!”

“You know they’ve been fucking in storage closets for, like, three years,” says Quỳnh. Andy and Booker look at her blankly. “Neither of you noticed that? They weren’t being subtle.”

“We were extremely subtle,” Joe says, defensively.

“What does anybody get married for?” Nicky says, shoving his hands in his pockets; that means he’s trying not to wave them around, and wants to very badly. “Because you love someone and want to promise to spend your life with them. The usual things.”

“This is a joke,” Andy says. “This is a joke, you are fucking with me, Nile is in on it –”

“Wait,” Booker says, shaking his head. “Is that why – this is why we started going to the pub! You haven’t had me over at your place for more than a year!” He points at Joe. “You said you just wanted a change of pace!”

“That was, uh,” Joe says, “about the time Nicky moved in.”

“What the fuck,” Andy says. Quỳnh is leaning against the wall and laughing, almost silently.

“This is treachery and betrayal,” Booker says, infuriated, shaking his finger.

“This is the funniest thing I’ve heard for years,” Quỳnh chokes out.

“You, and you,” Andy says, pointing to both of them in turn, “are coming to the pub and buying me a drink, no, several drinks, for the pain and suffering you are causing me, and then you’re going to explain exactly what the fuck is going on. Preferably with photographic evidence. I don’t believe anything you say right now.”

“But you hate him!” Booker exclaims again. It isn’t obvious who he’s talking to.

“Look,” Joe says. “We’re all academics. I acquired new evidence and changed my position to be consistent with it. That’s all.”

“What new evidence?”

“I’m really good at sucking cock in storage closets,” Nicky says, folding his arms with a casual shrug. “Also, I can cook.”

“See?” Joe says. “Husband material.”

That’s what breaks Andy; she starts laughing too.

“Fuck both of you,” Booker says, heartfelt.

“Come on,” Joe says, taking his arm. “Let’s do like Andy said, and we’ll tell you the whole story, and maybe you’ll forgive me by the proper wedding.”

Proper wedding?” Andy looks both sceptical and curious.

“You try getting two extended families to a different country with less than a year’s notice,” says Nicky.

“We just eloped,” says Quỳnh. “Much easier.”

“So did we, I guess, but we have to do it again.”

“Still not convinced this isn’t an elaborate con,” Andy says, narrowing her eyes, but she’s softening, Joe can tell.

“I hate you both, so much, everything I know is a lie, why would you do this, for years,” Booker says, but he lets Joe lead him down the corridor and out the main doors, towards the pub.

Chapter Text

FROM: y.alkaysani@[redacted].ac.uk

TO: Arts Faculty Mailing List

DATE: 8/12/2019 10.30

SUBJECT: Wedding announcement

Dear colleagues,

I am very pleased to announce that Dr Nicolò diGenova and I will be celebrating our wedding next summer. I know this may come as a surprise to a few of you, but it’s been in the works for a while now – it’s just taken this long to get both our families in one place! As our valued colleagues, we wanted you to know about this exciting new step in our lives.

Regards,

Joe

---

Yusuf al-Kaysani, PhD
Senior Lecturer in Art History


FROM: n.digenova@[redacted].ac.uk

TO: Arts Faculty Mailing List

DATE: 8/12/2019 11.30

SUBJECT: Re: Wedding announcement

Dear colleagues,

Due to the number of emails (and visits to our offices) both he and I have received in the past hour, please take this as confirmation that the above email was not a joke and Dr al-Kaysani and I will be celebrating our wedding next summer. For your information, we were legally married six months ago, but we did not wish to draw attention to it until we had organised the celebration with our families.

For everybody who had questions about how this would be affected by our individual religious convictions: may I please draw your attention to both the university’s harassment and non-discrimination policies, and also the existence of Google.

As a reminder, final assessments are still ongoing and I need to be available to students. Please do not come to my office unless you have a work matter to discuss.

Yours sincerely,

Nicky.
---
Nicolò diGenova, PhD
Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies


FROM: a.black@[redacted].ac.uk

TO: Arts Faculty Mailing List

DATE: 8/12/2019 14.30

SUBJECT: Re:re:Wedding announcement

Everybody,

Look, I know it sounds like we’ve slipped into the twilight zone, but it’s true: they really are married. I’ve seen the photos. The only reason you haven’t is that Nicky is refusing to give you all the satisfaction and frankly, with the number of reply-all emails in my inbox today, I don’t blame him. Please go back to complaining about Brexit or something.

Andy.
---
Andromache Black, PhD
Senior Lecturer in History