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Too late, Booker realizes he‘s shown his hand. It’s not purposeful, he just can’t help the way his eyes go entirely too soft, watching Joe chat with the waitress who had just dropped every single one of their drinks. He’s telling her about his ill-fated job at a bar in their second year of university, making her laugh through her tears and helping her mop up the mess of spilled beer.

 

Booker’s just about to get up and help them, he is, but he’s taking a single moment to wallow in how kind Joe’s smile is. He also apparently remembers Joe’s time as a bartender very, very differently, than Joe. Joe is currently describing himself as a naïve, hapless twenty-year-old who could never remember drink orders and broke more than a few glasses trying to be smooth. Booker remembers  Joe with his curls cropped short and his beard shaved closed, grinning across the counter in tight T-shirts. He remembers drinking his beer and seething in quiet jealousy while Joe got number after number scrawled on damp napkins.

 

He forces himself up at last, grabs a stack of napkins off the empty table next to them and goes to help, but he’s a split second too late.

 

Nicky’s coming back from the restroom with a pile of paper towels in his hands, and he’s staring straight at Booker.

 

Booker kneels down and helps Joe mop up the liquid, the back of his neck burning.

 

He makes his excuses not too long after.

 


 

Booker has known Joe and Nicky for ten years now. He can boast of being one of the few people who knew Joe and Nicky before they were Joe and Nicky; he met them both on the first day of university because they all lived in the same hall. He was there when they first ran into each other in the stairwell, and he awkwardly clapped Joe on the back when they both heard Nicky’s awful family tell him to stay far away from Joe’s corrupting influence.

 

He was also there two days later when Nicky knocked softly on Joe’s door to apologize, which led to their very first fistfight because Nicky was shit at it and made it sound like it was Joe’s fault for being a Muslim in the first place.

 

After, he patched up Joe’s knuckles in the shared bathroom on their floor and commiserated with Joe on what a dick Nicky was.

 

At the time, Booker had thought he was straight, and hadn’t read too much into the frisson of heat down his spine as he held Joe’s hand in his.

 

At the time, Booker was an idiot.

 

Some things never change.

 

In his defense, it only took him about a year to parse that the reason he felt so soft and gooey inside whenever he and Joe touched was not in fact because Joe was the best friend he’d ever had, it was because Booker was stupidly in love with him.

 

Unfortunately, Nicky beat him by about eight months.

 


 

Booker hides out at work for a solid two weeks. He’s an investigative journalist, and some stories take time and attention, Joe and Nicky know that and they don’t push except to shoot him texts in their group chat reminding him to get some rest and drink enough water.

 

Of course, right now, all he’s got going on is an ongoing series about worker exploitation at an unnamed coffee shop chain, for which his research is very much tied to business hours. He amuses himself by adding in an op-ed about the inherent sexism of judging people for drinking pumpkin spice lattes, because he can.

 

Andy drops it on his desk three days later, covered in red marks. “I’ll run it,” she says, “because it’s a slow news week, but this was probably dated in 2012.”

 

Booker shrugs. “Does calling out sexism ever get dated?”

 

“Nah,” Andy says. “I did it just this morning on my way to work. Just seems like you’re burning the midnight oil for no reason.”

 

Booker very carefully doesn’t answer.

 

“What’s wrong, Book?” She asks.

 

When he still doesn’t answer, she sits down on the edge of her desk. “Look,” she says awkwardly. “I know we don’t really do this, but if you need to talk—"

 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Booker says instantly, because there is nothing he wants less than to have a heart-to-heart with his boss, as great as she is.

 

“Book,” she chides gently. “You haven’t worked this late since Meta.”

 

He closes his eyes briefly. “Thanks,” he says. “Thanks for that. Really.”

 

“I’m just trying to help.”

 

“There’s nothing to help,” he insists. “Feelings are stupid and if I ignore them long enough they’ll go away, that’s all.”

 

“Oh sure,” Andy says. “That worked out great last time.”

 

Last time had been Meta. Last time had been when he dropped off the radar entirely on an ill-fated bender of a relationship with a woman who had almost definitely committed malpractice, been sued for it, gotten off scot-free and then sued her victims right back for defamation, and when they had been unable to meet her extortionate demands, she’d sued them all the way to criminal court, where Nicky had been their public defender.

 

Joe had been so rightfully angry at him for hurting Nicky that Booker had thought he had finally killed their friendship. Booker has no idea why Joe decided to invite him over for football again, three weeks after he called it off with Meta.

 

Nicky is still so rightfully angry at him for hurting Joe by not answering any of his calls for the entire two months he’d been Meta’s arm candy that he hasn’t looked directly at Booker in a full year, or at least, he hadn’t until two weeks ago, when he chose exactly the wrong moment to look at Booker again.

 

Booker has been fine, living off the dregs of what he’s done to those friendships until they dissipate into nothing, as they should.

 

It’s probably best to make it a clean break.

 

This, of course, is when Nicky turns up in front of his desk to give Andy a hug and to ask her if he can take her employee out for dinner, since he’s been running himself ragged.

 

Andy, the traitor, says, “Sure thing! Glad to see someone taking care of him. Booker, if you really want me to run this, you’ve gotta make it a whole lot more intersectional.” She says the last tapping on his stupid op ed about pumpkin spice lattes.

 

Booker sighs. She’s not wrong, and at least he’ll have something to do with his time after Nicky asks him to stay the fuck away from Joe.

 


 

Booker actually came around on Nicky a few weeks before Joe did.

 

That is to say, his room was between both of theirs in the hallway of their college dorm, and he and Joe had already become friends, so it was to him that Nicky came, searching for a way to apologize to Joe for acting like a racist asshole.

 

At the time, Nicky had been all of eighteen. His shoulders had already been broad, but he hadn’t yet packed on the muscle he has now. He’d been all limbs and eyes and Booker had been helpless to resist his earnest attempts at doing better by Joe. Especially once he’d realized that Nicky had spent the last years desperately closeted in a deeply religious household, he’d gone so far as to give Nicky tips on wooing Joe.

 

Looking back, Booker has wondered more than once what would have happened if he had been the one to buy Joe flowers instead of just telling Nicky to. If he had offered to pose for Joe when Joe was struggling in his life drawing class.

 

If, when Nicky haltingly admitted to never having kissed anyone before and being scared to try it with Joe, he had offered to help Nicky practice like he’d wanted to.

 

Then he remembers that wishing Joe and Nicky had never become Joe and Nicky is the cruelest thing he could wish for. It’s been ten years, and they are still the happiest couple he knows.

 

It just hurts him to watch sometimes, that’s all.

 


 

“Booker,” Nicky begins their dinner. “Sebastien,” he adds then, which is how Booker knows he’s in deep shit.

 

He stabs blindly at his ravioli – it’s one of the few Nicky-approved Italian restaurants in San Francisco, and Booker will never be able to go here ever again after tonight, he’s going to eat his dinner, sue him – and tries not to make eye contact.

 

“Look, I don’t want to make things worse,” Nicky says eventually, which, at least he’s not pretending things have been good. “But the other day – you were looking at Joe like – and you haven’t been to see us since then.”

 

“What was I looking at Joe like, then?” Booker asks mulishly.

 

“Like I look at him,” Nicky answers easily. “Like he’s the only thing keeping your heart beating.”

 

Booker chokes on his ravioli.

 

When he’s stopped coughing and had a few sips of water, Nicky asks, “Well? Am I right?”

 

“Yes,” Booker says roughly, voice shot from choking and emotion. As ever, he only finds his bravery when it’s too late.

 

Nicky breathes out, long and shaky. “How long?” He asks.

 

“Years,” Booker says blankly. “College.”

 

Nicky swears in Italian and Booker’s stupid stomach flips over. “Why did you never speak?” Nicky asks.

 

Booker looks at him at last. The circles under his eyes that have been there ever since law school are deeper than usual, and his collar is crooked. “I could never come between you,” he gets out. “You and him, you’re perfect.”

 

Something flashes across Nicky’s expression, something cold and uncaring and so unlike him, and he says, “What do you think you have been doing, all these years? With Kozak? With all your flitting in and out of our lives?”

 

Booker swallows. He coughs again. “I thought – someday it would be enough. Someday you wouldn’t take me back.”

 

Nicky nods sharply. “You’re a fucking idiot,” he says, then.

 

It’s not wrong, so Booker goes back to his ravioli.

 

“I am so angry with you I could shake you,” Nicky continues. “Every day you avoid us, every day you make Joe sad. Is this what love is to you? To hurt him enough that you can run from us forever?”

 

“Christ, Nicky,” Booker says, fork clattering down onto his plate. “Do you think I did this on purpose? Do you think I wanted to realize, a year too late, that actually, I do like men and my best friends in the world just happened to be the most beautiful, kindest men I would ever meet? Do you think I’ve wanted to torture myself like this for years? Do you think I wanted to sabotage every relationship I’ve ever been in because I just can’t stay away from you two? Do you think I—” his voice shakes and he has to look away again. “Do you think I wanted to hurt you? I just – there’s a limit to what I could take. I’m weak, you know this. Meta knew it, too.”

 

Nicky is silent for so long that Booker thinks these might be the last words they ever speak to each other.

 

“The way you talk about it,” Nicky says eventually. “It sounds like you’re not just talking about Joe.”

 

Booker’s cheeks flush hot. His hands are shaking, he realizes. His consciousness is floating somewhere far above his body. When he speaks, the words are clumsy on his lips. “I’m not,” he says.

 

“Sebastien,” Nicky says. His voice is so low Booker can barely hear it. He leans towards it like a caress.

 


 

About a week into sophomore year of college, Booker saw Nicky and Joe having sex.

 

Well, no, that’s not entirely true, he saw them about to have sex, which was so much worse, because he then spent the next four months imagining in excruciating detail what might have happened after.

 

He was coming back from a party. He had gone with them, but lost track of them while they were there, and he’d left when he couldn’t find either of them. It turned out, they headed back to the dorm without telling him. He could understand why: when he finally got in, he saw the two of them pressed up against the wall, Nicky between Joe’s legs, Joe’s head thrown back against the wall. Joe’s hands were up Nicky’s shirt, and the thin sliver of skin at his waist where his shirt was rucked up haunted Booker’s dreams for weeks after.

 

He tiptoed silently outside and didn’t watch.

 


 

A week after what would be the most traumatic dinner in Booker’s memory if he hadn’t dated Meta Kozak for two full moths, Joe turns up at his door with Indian takeout.

 

“Champion’s League tonight,” he offers.

 

Because Booker has absolutely no sense of self-preservation, he lets Joe in.

 

Way back when, when Booker was a less pathetic man, he didn’t really think about how Joe ate. Sometime, about four years ago, when he had been dating Laura for half a year and was starting to think he could move on with his life, he made the mistake of watching Joe eat French fries. The problem is, Joe’s hands are very elegant – artist’s hands, for all his relentless do-gooder-ism has led him into teaching art instead of making it most of the time – with their long, slender fingers and the expressive curves he draws with them when he gets enthusiastic. Joe’s elegant hands covered in salt and grease? Worse yet, Joe licking his fingers clean after eating?

 

The sight had made Booker half-hard when he first noticed it, and it had killed his relationship with Laura dead on impact.

 

Now, Booker has to watch Joe use his naan as a vehicle for his paneer saag, pink tongue licking stray bits of sauce off his fingers, eyes closed in bliss at the taste.

 

Really, the only thing worse than watching Joe eat is watching Joe and Nicky eat, because Joe will feed Nicky bites off of his fork and then Booker has to contend with Joe’s hands and Nicky’s mouth and none of it is fair, least of all the deep, yawning pit of loneliness in his stomach when he sees how happy they are.

 

Still, apparently Joe’s still willing to eat with him and watch football in silence, even after everything.

 

Until halftime, that is, when he turns to Booker and says, “Nicky said we needed to talk.”

 

“Did he tell you about what?” Booker asks, already feeling like he’s floating above himself again.

 

Joe shrugs, easy. “He said he’d tell me if you wouldn’t.”

 

A threat, then. Nice, Nicky.

 

Booker picks at the label on his beer.

 

“Don’t you want to tell me?” Joe asks. He sounds nearly desperate. Unwillingly, Booker remembers the cadence in his voice, ten years ago, when Nicky had finally worked up the courage to knock on Joe’s door and say, Joe, Joe, can we talk? and Joe had answered, Sure, come in.

 

“I really don’t,” Booker admits. “It’s very embarrassing.”

 

Joe raises an eyebrow at him. “I’ve seen you so drunk you pissed yourself,” he points out. That is very much not what Booker wants Joe to be thinking about right now, but it is unfortunately true.

 

He runs a hand through his hair shakily.

 

“Look,” Joe says, sighing. “I don’t like how things have been between us. Not since Kozak. Not since before then, either. It’s like you’re pushing us away. And if you don’t,” he swallows, forehead creasing. “If you don’t want us around anymore, that’s alright. If that’s what’s best for you. But I need to know, my friend.”

 

He’s in such obvious pain at the thought that Booker understands he’s going to have to tell the truth for once in his miserable life.

 

“I’m in love with you,” he says, staring at the rim of his beer bottle because it’s easier than having to watch Joe react. He’s so expressive. Booker won’t be able to take the disgust in his eyes. “I know you and Nicky are forever, I’ve known for years, I don’t expect anything, sometimes it’s just hard to look at you two and not feel…” he trails off. For all he’s just bared his soul, he has no end to the sentence that isn’t far too revealing.

 

“Not feel what, Sebastien?” Joe asks hoarsely.

 

Booker chances a look over at him. Joe’s staring straight at him, and for the first time in too many years, Booker can’t read him.

 

“Not feel like I would die if I couldn’t kiss one of you,” Booker offers. “Not feel like I would spend my whole life trailing after you two because I can’t bear to lose you. Not feel like there’s too much feeling living inside me to survive.”

 

“Oh,” Joe says blankly.

 

“Yeah,” Booker says. He’s shredded most of the label by now. He starts in on the second label around the neck of the bottle.

 

Neither of them says anything for a long time.

 

Halftime ends. Booker turns the sound back on on the TV. Joe had muted it for this conversation, but it seems like it’s over.

 

Maybe that’s it. Maybe now everyone knows, they can just settle into ignoring it all more effectively.

 

“I don’t need or expect anything,” Booker says eventually, when Chelsea’s scored a totally undeserved goal after fouling the defense and Joe hasn’t even cursed the ref out in Italian, because apparently he can’t help himself anymore. “I tried, to go without you, with Meta, because I thought it would be better, and it was awful. All I want is to still be your friend.”

 

Joe says nothing for another very long time.

 

Eventually, he asks, “You said you wanted to kiss either one of us?”

 

To be entirely honest, kissing just one of them has long since been surpassed on Booker’s mental list of Things He Would Do If He Could. “I want to kiss both of you,” he says. “Repeatedly. Everywhere. I understand that that is a problem and that you might want to avoid me.”

 

Joe laughs a little hysterically.

 

“Can I try something?” He asks.

 

“Sure,” Booker says, thinking he might try to switch the audio output on the TV again to make it connect to the Bluetooth stereo system. It never works, but Joe still tries every time.

 

Joe grasps his chin firmly in one hand – he smells of spices from their food – and presses in close to kiss Booker.

 

It’s not a turn of events Booker was at all expecting, but he kisses back immediately. If you offer a starving man a steak, he’s not going to wait until he has cutlery, he’s going to eat it with his hands.

 

His mouth slides open under Joe’s and Joe presses closer, shifting his hold from Booker’s chin to Booker’s shoulder, pressing Booker back towards the arm of the couch. Booker lifts his hands mostly in self-defense, but once he does, they’re on Joe, on his arms, in his hair, on his back. Joe’s beard is scratchy against Booker’s own stubble, his mouth is hot and wet, his kiss is gentle and deep, and Booker’s heart hurts.

 

Joe pulls back and Booker lets him go.

 

“I need to talk to Nicky,” he says, and then he gathers his things, gets up and leaves.

 

Booker watches Chelsea win undeservedly and gets drunk.

 


 

Because Booker has some small, underdeveloped sense of self-preservation, he didn’t move off-campus with Joe and Nicky, junior year. He stuck it out in a cramped dorm room all four years of college and hung out on their crappy couch when he went and visited. Nicky’s parents had stopped talking to him over Joe pretty recently at that point, so Booker and Joe spent a lot of time devising increasingly ridiculous ways to make him laugh. Booker remembers those days incredibly fondly.

 

There was one night, when Joe was fielding a call from his own parents – supportive in theory, not thrilled at their son moving in with someone during college in practice – that lasted hours, when Booker had done a dramatic reading of the most syphilis-infused passages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra because he had to read it for class anyway and Nicky had laughed so hard he curled in on himself and then on Booker because the couch was just that shitty, and then he’d just---stayed there. Booker had kept reading, voice going softer and softer until Nicky had fallen asleep nestled against him.

 

Joe had come back out from his phone call and his whole face had gone so soft at the sight of them Booker had just stretched out his arm for Joe to join them and Joe had, and there Booker had been, Joe on one side with his head on Booker’s shoulder, Nicky on the other with his head on Booker’s lap, both of them emotionally exhausted and sound asleep, and Booker had felt so caring, so tender, that he thought flowers might grow from his fingertips.

 

He still thinks about that night, when things are especially bad.

 


 

On Saturday, Joe and Nicky take him out for dinner.

 

It’s unexpected, given that Booker had been sure he wouldn’t see either of them again.

 

They go to Nicky’s second-favorite Italian restaurant and split a bottle of red between the three of them. Joe orders tiramisu for dessert and feeds it to Booker on his spoon.

 

After, they insist on walking him home, and Nicky presses him up against the door to his apartment and kisses him so thoroughly Booker barely manages to stay standing.

 

“Now we’re even,” Nicky tells Joe smugly when he pulls away. But for the mess in his hair where Booker’s hands had run through it, he looks unfairly put-together.

 

“Was this a date?” Booker asks blankly.

 

They both turn on him.

 

“We talked all last night,” Joe says, and looks over to Nicky to continue the explanation.

 

“You remember when you were dating Laura?” Nicky asks.

 

Booker blinks in confusion. “Yeah?”

 

“You went away with her for a week, once.”

 

Booker remembers; they had gone to Acapulco for a week just after Booker had realized he was still ridiculously in love with Joe and Nicky and always would be. It had been miserable and he had broken it off with her directly afterwards.

 

“We watered your plants,” Joe adds.

 

Booker nods.

 

“You, ah,” Nicky says delicately. “You left some things on the bedside table, when you left. A, uh, a harness.”

 

Ah. Right. Laura’s strap-on. There was a reason Booker had dated her for so long.

 

“We realized what you and her must have used it for,” Nicky finishes. “And we had to have sex in your shower because we liked the thought so much.”

 

If Booker were not already leaning on the door, he would fall.

 

“It was very confusing,” Joe says. “You know that every fight we’ve had in the last two years has been about how to make you happier?”

 

Booker inhales sharply. “I’m sorry,” he says helplessly.

 

“Don’t be,” Nicky says. “We knew you were always sad, and we wanted to make it better. We didn’t know we were making you sad. Now we do.”

 

“So your solution is to date me?” Booker asks.

 

Joe presses a soft kiss to his lips. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

 

Booker has no answers.

 


 

They date him for approximately two months, and they are the most confusing and arousing months of his life (since Joe was a bartender). He keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for some reason, it just doesn’t. He gains two pounds from all the meals they feed him, home-cooked and otherwise.

 

Eventually, Booker can’t take it anymore.

 

“What’s the verdict?” He asks, between Joe and Nicky on their couch, watching the game with half an eye while reading along with Nicky’s book over his shoulder.

 

“Verdict?” Nicky asks. He’s half asleep, but still trying to read. He’s been too stressed at work recently, too many tough cases and too little time, and Booker wishes he knew it was okay to just rest.

 

He settles back against the couch, enjoying this last moment of Nicky leaning against him. “Have you decided if you want to keep dating me yet?”

 

Nicky drops his book.

 

He twists till he’s on his knees, looming over Booker. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Was there something unclear about the baked ziti I made you for dinner?”

 

Booker looks at him blankly.

 

“Was kissing you goodnight for twenty full minutes yesterday not a fucking sign?”

 

“Ignore him,” Joe says from Booker’s other side. He’s actually been watching the game, and he’s still a little distracted. “Nicolò is a little frustrated.”

 

“Huh?” Booker asks.

 

“Joe won’t fuck me until you’re ready to join us,” Nicky says through gritted teeth, “and you apparently haven’t understood that we’re all in on this yet.”

 

It’s too much information to process all at once.

 

Joe presses a kiss to the back of Booker’s neck.

 

“What do you say, Sebastien?” He asks. “Shall we give it the old college try?”

 

Nicky groans, dropping his forehead against Booker’s collarbone. His breath is a hot tease against Booker’s skin through his T-shirt. “Never say that again, Yusuf.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Booker says helplessly.

 

Joe scrubs a gentle hand through his hair. “Let me be very clear,” he says. “Nicky and I love each other very much, and we have also always loved you. For a long time, we thought it was in a different way, but either we were wrong or things changed. We don’t like it when you go away, and we don’t like it when you’re sad. Will you let us make you happy?”

 

“Yes,” Booker says. There are no alternatives. “Yes, of course I will, but are you sure?”

 

“Booker,” Nicky says softly, “shut up.”

 

He then kisses Booker until Joe is the only thing holding him up.

 

“Joe,” Booker says foggily when Nicky lets him breathe. “Nicky. I—can I stay? Tonight?”

 

In an unprecedented move, Joe grabs the remote and turns the football off.

 

“You can stay as long as you like,” he says.