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"Ugh," Yusuf said, wincing, as Nicolò softened and slipped out of him, followed by an unpleasantly familiar sensation.

Nicolò looked down at him with a questioning tilt of his eyebrow. His color was still high; they were both still breathing hard. "Was it not—?”

"No, no," Yusuf said, patting his hand vaguely at Nicolò's shoulder. "It was wonderful." An understatement, to be honest, and the gleam in Nicolò's eye suggested he knew it. "Just—" He shifted, feeling more of Nicolò's release leaking out of him, and wrinkled his nose at the sensation. "The aftermath."

"Oh," Nicolò said, withdrawing from between Yusuf's legs and reaching for the cloth they kept by the bedside. He cleaned himself, then Yusuf, gently and thoroughly, as Yusuf watched him with drowsy tenderness. "I didn't realize you disliked it so much. I'll avoid it, in the future."

"I'd appreciate it," Yusuf said, yawning, and pulling Nicolò down to his chest.

Nicolò hummed, and Yusuf stroked his hair, floating happily between satisfaction and sleep. Some moments later Nicolò said, carefully, "I love it."

"I can tell," Yusuf chuckled. "It's just a preference, Nico. I'm not saying you can never—"

"Thank you, but I mean," Nicolò said, tucking his head further against Yusuf, until it seemed he was almost speaking directly to his heart, "I love it, when you come inside me. It makes me feel—" Nicolò paused, and Yusuf could feel his mouth working ever so slightly, like he was practicing his next words. He curled his fingers more securely around Nicolò's shoulder. "It makes me feel that I'm yours."

"You are mine," Yusuf said simply, and felt it roll through Nicolò's body, everywhere they touched. Then, wryly, "It just makes me feel like I have come in my ass."

Nicolò laughed, a pleasant rumble against Yusuf's side. "Not very romantic."

"No." Yusuf pressed a kiss to his hair. "I am yours, Nicolò, just the same."

"Yes," Nicolò said, no trace of hesitation, and Yusuf felt his lips curve into a smile.

*

Nicolò was as scrupulous in this as in all things, and for several months Yusuf's pleasure was only enhanced by Nicolò's consideration, and equally his determination, unforeseen but wholly welcome, to mark every inch of Yusuf's body with his release, and to observe where Yusuf found it most gratifying when he did. Yusuf did miss it, sometimes, just a little, those last few heartbeats where Nicolò went fierce and wild, shuddering and surging deep into Yusuf's body, but not quite enough to overcome his distaste.

At the beginning of their current bout of lovemaking, as it happened, Yusuf had been eagerly looking forward to Nicolò, when he withdrew from the hot clutch of Yusuf's body, taking himself in hand and coming all over the delicate skin in the hollow of Yusuf's throat, a location which was now known to both of them to drive Yusuf half-mad with a possessive sort of pleasure.

The problem now, Yusuf thought in a daze, jerking his own cock with his fist, was that Nicolò was currently hammering against the pleasurable spot inside of Yusuf with such furious precision that the thought of him stopping was far worse than the thought of the resulting mess.

Regrettably, Yusuf was too far gone to articulate this, and could only snarl in frustration as Nicolò withdrew just at the moment of truth, ending up entangled awkwardly in Yusuf's grasping legs, his release splashing hot against Yusuf's inner thighs as Yusuf, clenching on nothing, hissed through an orgasm that was merely passable.

"Sorry," Nicolò said quietly, in response to whatever was showing on Yusuf's face as they came down, panting.

Yusuf's jaw clicked shut against the deeply unfair, though heartfelt, complaint he had been about to make. He pushed himself up onto one elbow, and reached out to brush a hand tenderly across Nicolò's jaw. "For what, my love? Doing exactly what I asked, without hesitation or complaint?"

Nicolò's brow furrowed. "Yes?"

"You're perfect, Nicolò," Yusuf said, his heart suddenly in his throat. "You're so good to me."

"Stop," Nicolò muttered, looking away.

"I won't," Yusuf said tartly, rolling them over and pressing Nicolò down into the mattress with his whole body. His release was still slightly warm between their stomachs, Nicolò's between their thighs: Nicolò's hips ticked upward, reflexively, at the sensation, and Yusuf found that very interesting indeed. "Next time I want to ride your magnificent cock to ecstasy I'll simply ask in advance."

He spoke so to make Nicolò blush, which he did, and to make him roll his hips properly, which he also did, and Yusuf felt free to make several other, more immediate, requests, all of which Nicolò fulfilled with admirable efficiency.

*

They continued on that way for awhile, with Nicolò withdrawing as a matter of course, unless Yusuf asked him, before they began, not to. This resulted in several technically spectacular climaxes, on both their parts, but Yusuf could not help but think it introduced a shadow of self-consciousness into their lovemaking.

For his part, the knowledge that Nicolò was going to come inside him was a distraction, and the awareness that he didn't like it and, more, that Nicolò knew he didn't like it, lurked somewhere in his mind, not quite as far back as he might have wished. For Nicolò's part, he seemed increasingly beset by nerves each time Yusuf requested an exception, clearly feeling that he needed to make the experience worth it; as if it were an indulgence he had to atone for in advance, as opposed to an occasional pleasure Yusuf was happy to share.

Yusuf mostly stopped making exceptions, which helped their nerves, but sometimes he felt regretful that Nicolò was not getting something he enjoyed, and then felt a little resentful that Nicolò was making him feel regretful, though Nicolò was, in fact, absolutely doing no such thing. He resolved not to think about it at all for awhile, which may not have been the best course of action.

Things reached a peak - so to speak - one blazing afternoon some weeks after he came to this decision, when the sun shimmered in the sky and the horizon shivered with heat and Yusuf rode Nicolò in the shade of an ancient oak tree, lost in long shuddering waves of sensation as Nicolò clutched at his hips and moaned against his neck.

"Nicolò," Yusuf gasped eventually, "yes, yes, my love, yes," and began to drive his hips with purpose.

"Hold on," Nicolò mumbled, his fingers slipping over sweat-slick skin, "Yusuf, I—"

"Please just—" Yusuf panted, "I want— I'm so close—”

"I'm going to—" Nicolò said, more clearly, leaning back and making a valiant effort to meet Yusuf's eyes. "Yusuf, tell me if you don't want—”

In retrospect Yusuf should have stopped and allowed Nicolò to withdraw graciously, or else he should have clutched Nicolò's sweet face back to his breast and breathlessly urged him on toward mutual delight, but what he actually said, passion making him impatient, was, "Can't you wait?"

Nicolò's face shuttered instantly, but not before Yusuf saw annoyance flash in his eyes, which Yusuf understood, followed by shame, which Yusuf bitterly regretted. "I can't guarantee it," Nicolò said stiffly, and removed his hands from Yusuf's hips, and kept his gaze turned down as Yusuf slowed, then stopped, then removed himself gingerly from Nicolò's lap.

Yusuf wasn't sure what to say, and so sat at Nicolò's side fiddling his thumbs until eventually Nicolò muttered something about washing up and clambered to his feet and disappeared through the trees in the direction of the river.

Yusuf found him there a few minutes later, far enough out from the bank to stand submerged to his chin, and not looking at Yusuf despite the racket Yusuf had purposely made in his approach. So Yusuf waded out to where he stood, and arranged himself so they were face to face, inches apart, where he could see every quicksilver flash of emotion in Nicolò's eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "That was unfair."

"I would like nothing more than to give you what you want," Nicolò said, not quite looking at him. "But it seems I—"

Yusuf did have to kiss him, then, before Nicolò could say I can't, in that small, miserable voice, had to press every inch of their bodies together and kiss his love and devotion and need so deep into Nicolò that there could be no mistaking it. "Never that, Nicolò," he said, when they broke apart, pressing their foreheads together, "never say you can't give me what I want. All I want is you."

"You have me," Nicolò said, kissing him, "all of me," kissing him again, "always. But, Yusuf—" He sighed. "Perhaps we should lay that particular act aside, for a while."

"No," Yusuf said, definitively.

"Then let's make it simple, and I won't ever—"

"No, thank you," Yusuf sniffed.

Nicolò eyed him like he couldn't decide whether to kiss him again or drown him. "My heart," he said, with admirable restraint, "I am trying to find a solution to a problem that vexes us equally."

"Nicolò," Yusuf said, imperiously, or as imperiously as he could manage given that his legs had wound their way quite without his volition around Nicolò's waist, and he was now being held gently in the water by the cradle of Nicolò's hips and the span of Nicolò's hands under his ass, "are you trying to tell me that I can't have it both ways?"

"Despite my best efforts," Nicolò said flatly.

"That is a problem," Yusuf said, furrowing his brow theatrically. He leaned back a little and let his arms drift wide in the water, enjoying the way Nicolò's hands flexed to keep him up. "Let's think it through logically."

"You don't want me to come inside you," Nicolò said.

"Right."

"Except when you do."

"Correct."

"You tell me in advance when you want me to."

"Yes."

"Except when you don't."

"I can be fickle," Yusuf sighed, not sounding the slightest bit sorry about it. "Oh, Nicolò. How I must try your patience."

Nicolò's eyes had become bright with amusement, but his voice was serious when he said, "I'm happy to be spontaneous, Yusuf, and I'm happy not to be. Only, you must let me know which you prefer. It's not—" Nicolò choked on saying It's not fair, as Yusuf knew he would, and Yusuf wiggled closer to press a kiss to Nicolò's reddening cheek. "I'm not happy, with not knowing how to please you," he finished, so plainly, and openly, that Yusuf had to wrap his arms around him, and simply hold him for a bit in the whispering water.

"I don't always know, myself,” Yusuf mused after a little while, leaning back again, so he could see Nicolò's face. "As a matter of course I prefer you withdraw. Not always. But somehow requesting an exception in advance makes us both nervous, and changing my mind mid-course seems worse." Nicolò watched him steadily. "I almost wish I'd never brought it up."

"No," Nicolò said firmly, and wrangled him back in for a kiss. "I always want your honesty. And I will always give you mine. The rest we can figure out, so long as we have that."

Yusuf kissed him back in agreement, and pleasure, and pride in Nicolò's fierce love. "So," he said, "what's the solution?"

Nicolò didn't say anything for a moment, but abruptly there was something very interesting in his expression.

"What?" Yusuf demanded, tightening his legs around Nicolò's waist.

"Perhaps you would like it better," Nicolò said thoughtfully, his eyes locked eagle-like on Yusuf's face, "if you didn't have to decide."

Yusuf's eyes narrowed. "If I didn't—" Then his mind caught the implication and his heart gave a peculiar kick and his thoughts went a bit fizzy, and he found himself mumbling, "You're a genius," against Nicolò's laughing mouth.

*

From almost the beginning of their relationship they had had a word they shared, a signal that meant an immediate stop, and Nicolò reminded him of it after their conversation in the river, and every time they made love after that for several weeks, though he didn't come inside Yusuf in all that time.

Of course Nicolò had done this so that when he did finally shake his head and wrap his arms firmly around Yusuf's waist to lock him in place, just after Yusuf himself had come and had started slowly to shift off of Nicolò's cock, the word sprang instantly and readily to the forefront of Yusuf's mind.

He thought about saying it, as he met Nicolò's searching gaze, knowing perfectly well that Nicolò was alert to the slightest breath of speech, even as he shifted Yusuf onto his back and drove steadily into his body. He thought about saying it, less to prevent Nicolò taking his pleasure, and more because the thought of using it, of exercising that power, sent a unexpected surge of anticipation through him.

In the end, he didn't, and he was happy not to have rebuffed Nicolò at the first, not only because he was glad of Nicolò's delight, but because he realized later that he had vastly underestimated Nicolò's nervousness. Afterwards, when Nicolò had kissed and petted him all over, and cleaned him gently, and asked if he was all right and told him how amazing he was and how much he loved him, and then brought Yusuf off again with his mouth, Yusuf curled against him and tucked a giggle into the curve of Nicolò's neck and reflected that honesty really was the best policy.

*

So Nicolò was a genius, and his brilliance only increased in the centuries that followed. He continued to respect Yusuf's preference most of the time, which was wonderful, but sometimes he didn't, which was equally wonderful. Yusuf loved those moments when Nicolò would pin him down with his hips, lock his hands around Yusuf's wrists, and take his pleasure deep in Yusuf's body even as Yusuf panted imprecations into his ear, or screamed them into the mattress.

Nicolò, now Nicky, found increasingly filthy ways to inspire his husband's resistance and consequently increase their mutual pleasure. Yusuf, now Joe, loved his husband's need for him, his husband's tender care for his feelings, and his husband's instant and unquestioning obedience whenever Joe decided the game was over.

In Barcelona, three years after their little family had been broken and reformed, and one year after Booker and Quynh had come home and made their family complete once more, the warm low light of a summer evening found Joe blinking awake, nestled safely in Nicky's arms, every cell in his body singing with perfect satisfaction.

Nicky stirred a little, as he always did when Joe woke up, even before Joe moved or spoke. He tugged Joe closer against him with a small, complaining sound. "Sleep," he muttered, and Joe grinned, twisting to drop a kiss on his nose.

"You sleep. I'm going to see about dinner."

Nicky grumbled again, but let him go, twisting over onto his stomach as Joe slipped out of bed and got dressed. He could hardly begrudge Nicky an extended nap, he thought, a little giddy at the memory of how spectacularly Nicky had exerted himself throughout the afternoon.

Joe had used the safe word, twice.

The first time because he just didn't feel like letting Nicky come inside him; he had plans for their afternoon, and none of them were improved either by dripping with Nicky's come, or taking the time to clean up. So he'd spoken the word, and Nicky had stopped and withdrawn immediately, smoothly, and without complaint, as he always did, as he always had, as Joe knew for a certain fact he always would.

Over the years they'd only grown more playful about it; it had less to do with Joe's certainty, which had been absolute from the start, and more to do with Nicky's confidence in Joe's certainty, that the result would be the same no matter what. Sometimes Joe had not used the word for years at a time; sometimes he used it a dozen times throughout the course of one sweetly agonizing embrace. Sometimes Joe would wait until he knew Nicky was a heartbeat away from completion before hissing the word and watching Nicky's eyes go dark and wild as he slid out of Joe's body and into the grip of his own hand in one practiced motion, jerking white hot come all over Joe's cock on the very next push of his hips.

Sometimes Nicky would withdraw, then stay absolutely still, tantalizingly close, keeping his eyes locked on Joe's own, breathing against his face, his entire body a challenge Joe usually found himself desperate to meet. Sometimes they fell apart, laughing, and started anew. Sometimes Nicky would whimper in frustration, and turn over and demand Joe take him instead. They indulged each other in a million fantasies made real, sweet and filthy by turn, built on the bedrock of honesty and trust between them, a foundation that had not cracked in almost a thousand years.

Today, the first time, he'd waited and watched as Nicky withdrew his cock, flushed and slick and mouth-watering under Joe's hungry gaze, and unlinked their fingers, and sat back on his heels, watching Joe with a careful, amused expression that hardly matched the high color on his cheeks or the way his breath was heaving in his chest. "What would you like, my heart?"

Joe had leaned back, stretching luxuriously, tucking his hands behind his head. With a tone of perfect, performative scorn, he'd said, "Why don't you suck my cock and calm down a little?"

The way Nicky's eyes had darkened was almost enough to make Joe come untouched. Then Nicky had shuffled backward, until he had room to lay on the bed and lower his mouth to Joe's leaking cock, looking straight into Joe's eyes the entire time. This was truly, in Joe's opinion, the most wondrous sight in all of creation: the most beautiful man in the world between his thighs, the most beautiful lips in the world stretched around his cock, the most beautiful eyes in the world staring up at him in baleful adoration.

It never took him long to come, in that circumstance. He'd tilted his head back and let Nicky come on his throat afterward, making them both shudder with pleasure.

The second time, several blissful hours later, he had every intention of letting Nicky come inside him, his tremulous protestations to the contrary, and he said the word mostly to prolong the exquisite torment. He'd looked up at Nicky beseechingly from under his wet lashes as Nicky’s cock slid once again out of his body, knowing that Nicky would understand him correctly, which he did.

"I don't know why you're crying about it," Nicky said softly, sweetly, crawling up and leaning over him so that no part of his body was touching Joe's save where their noses brushed together as he spoke. "You don't have to worry about the mess." He dropped a light kiss against Joe's lips, his eyes shining with promise. "After I fill you up I'm going to lick it all back out of you."

Joe had come then, untouched, about which Nicky would secretly be smug for days, then said, hoarsely, "I withdraw the objection," and Nicky had smiled his most deadly smile, and wrestled him onto his stomach, ignoring Joe’s pleas, laughing at Joe’s threats, and wrested his hands roughly behind his back and fucked him right through Joe’s sobbing surrender and out the other side into an ecstatic silence.

Nicky had been as good as his word; Nicky always was. Nicky had filled Joe up, and then he had licked him clean, not satisfied until Joe had started to cry and to plead all over again, rocking back against his mouth, then he had brought Joe off again with four fingers up his ass and a mercilessly tight hand wrapped around his cock. Then they'd both fallen asleep smiling into each other’s clumsy kisses, tangled blissfully together in the warmth of the late afternoon.

So Joe had good reason to be smiling to himself as he headed toward the kitchen, drifting across the floor like he was dancing, feeling almost drunk with pleasure, and happiness, and love. His smile widened to a full grin as he saw Andy and Quynh and Nile there, seated at the high stools around the kitchen island. "I didn't know you were back."

"We got back just now," Andy said, with some secret amusement in her voice. "Though we did stop in a few hours ago, to grab the tickets to the special exhibit." Quynh hummed in agreement, ducking a smile into her wine glass.

Joe briefly narrowed his eyes at them, wondering if he had missed a joke, but, honestly, they'd both been pretty giggly since they reunited, and he was one hundred percent in favor of it. He turned to Nile and asked, brightly, "How did you like the museum?"

"It was great," she said, a little too loudly, looking directly at him, and then down into her wine, and then at him again, with a weirdly intense expression.

"Okay," Joe said slowly, still feeling far too relaxed to engage with...whatever was going on here. "Well, I'm just gonna grab some food—" He'd meant to make dinner, but they could have bread and cheese and wine in bed, and maybe he could convince Nicky to go another round, and then they'd go out for dinner later.

"Nile wanted to talk to you," Quynh said, with a little warbling note in her voice which most people probably wouldn't have noticed at all, but which to Joe sounded like she was on the verge of hysterical laughter.

"Nope," Nile said, shaking her head. "No, I don't. At all. I'm good."

"Nile." Joe crossed his arms, and gave her a hard look. "No secrets."

"Argh," Nile said. No secrets was the law, since the Merrick incident, and Nile was the law's most inflexible enforcer. "Okay! Okay. Just, when we stopped in earlier, you guys were— I mean— I didn't expect— I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

Joe blinked at her. Surely the window for Nile to develop a case of shyness about sex had closed long ago. Probably before they'd even met. Certainly since she'd been sharing space with Joe and Nicky, and then Andy and Quynh, over the past year and more. "Of course we're okay."

"No, I mean—" Nile stared up at the ceiling, then, when that wasn't helpful, back down into her wine. "That you were okay."

Joe looked back and forth between her and Andy and Quynh, absolutely baffled. "Help me out here."

Andy and Quynh dissolved into laughter. "You see, Nile?" Andy chortled. "He doesn't even know what we're talking about."

Joe threw his hands in the air. "What are you talking about?"

"Somehow, Nile has managed to go this long without hearing all the classics," Quynh giggled. "Like the one today, with the screaming, and the sobbing, and the begging?"

"I wasn't even really begging until the end," Joe scoffed. "And you've definitely heard me—" As he thought back over the course of the afternoon, the penny dropped. "Oh!” He laughed, relieved. "Oh, that." He wrapped an arm around Nile's shoulders, dropping a kiss to the top of her head. "You're sweet, Nile. Always looking out for me." He gave Andy and Quynh the stink eye. "Unlike some people."

That set Andy off again. "I don't think you wanted me to interrupt."

"I could have been being murdered!" Joe protested, placing a hand over his heart dramatically. Nile shook her head and laughed against his side.

"I've heard you being murdered so many times," Quynh snickered, "and that's not what you sound like."

"What doesn't Joe sound like?" Nicky asked in a sleepy voice, as he wandered into the kitchen, yawning and scrubbing a hand through his hair. He made a beeline for Joe, nudging his way under the arm that wasn't already wrapped around Nile, and immediately turned his face against Joe's chest and closed his eyes again. "What are we talking about?"

"Consent," Joe said, pressing a sweet kiss to his forehead.

"Oh," Nicky said, perking up. "Well, I really think it starts with honesty..."