Actions

Work Header

the sun shines on your broad shoulders

Work Text:

It’s been a long day when Joe opens the door to their small house outside of London. All he wants is tea, a nap, and a cuddle from his husband. Not necessarily in that order.

What he gets is a set of black suitcases that Joe hasn’t seen before sitting by the door. His husband standing in the front hall, jacket draped over his arm and a blank look on his face.

Joe starts to ask what’s going on but is cut off.

“I’m leaving you.”

The sentence punches the air out of Joe, and his head goes to static.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’ve been seeing someone else.”

And Joe shouldn’t ask this question, should leave it, but he can’t help himself. “What do you mean seeing someone?” And the look his husband gives him, standing in the hallway of the house they’re still paying off and five years into a marriage that’s had its rough patches, certainly, but had seemed sturdy to Joe. Had he not been loving enough? Was there something about him?

The look his husband gives him tells Joe exactly what he means, and the shock in his veins is pushed out by fury.

“Fuck you,” snaps out of him before he can stop himself. “Too cowardly to even serve the divorce papers before fucking someone else.” Andy’s voice is in his head telling him to not do anything stupid; to let the lawyers take care of it and not give his partner any fucking ammo.

His husband scowls at the words and Joe lets out a hysterical laugh. “Did you think you were walking out of this on the high road?” Joe asks, moving to the side of the door and taking off his coat, willing to let his words do the fighting. “Did you really think that between me getting angry at you for you cheating on me and you managing a cold, unemotional goodbye that you would somehow come off looking like the good guy?” Joe rips a hanger off the rail in the closet.

No words come out of his husband, but Joe feels a dark sense of smugness about the shade of red the man’s gone. “Leave.”

**

Joe wakes when the tour bus goes over a bump and slams his head into the window.

“Shit!”

He gets a stare from that day’s seat-mate, Adam, who had sunnily introduced himself to Joe before Joe had had caffeine. Joe watches as Adam shakes off his outburst, “we’re stopping in Cortona soon,” he says. Joe wipes the side of his mouth where he’s drooled a little, barely coherent and unsure of how he managed to sleep so deeply on a rattling bus window.

Three days ago, Andy had burst into his apartment, shoved a ticket and an itinerary into his hands and told him she’d booked him for “Gay and Away”.

“What’s gay and away?” Joe had made the mistake of asking. He’d been levelled with Andy’s unimpressed: “It’s a singles tour through Tuscany. Go be depressed in Italy. It’s not as though you’ll be writing anything here anyway,” before she’d forced Joe into the shower while she packed for him. She’d damn near dressed him, shoving him out the door and into a cab, her parting words a sardonic: “arrivederci bello,” before she'd slammed the car door behind him.

Joe loves her.

So here he is, depressed in Italy instead of in his London apartment, on a tour bus surrounded by plenty of other gay singles who are looking to make a connection, and listening to the best of Abba playlist piping through the bus speakers on repeat since early that morning. He’s hiding behind his sunglasses, Adam teasing him for wearing the tour baseball cap backwards, especially since he can’t put his head back against the seat properly because of.

Adam leans over to Joe again, flirty and hopeful despite the fact that Joe probably looks a step away from a general meltdown. “Would you like to get some food together, seat-buddy?”

“I hadn’t even thought of it,” Joe says, maybe a little surprised that food hasn’t been first on his agenda every day given where he is.

“Well, it would be nice to get to know each other, wouldn’t it?”

It’d be rude not to, so Joe shrugs and nods. “Ok.”

The bus stops just inside the city limits. Joe feels like the sun is mocking him with how brightly it’s shining as the group makes the quick walk to the crowded market. Joe and Adam get gelato and then find some benches nearby so they can sit and chat; Joe finding out that Adam is an IT specialist from San Francisco, which is an immediate turnoff, but also that the man does have a photo album on his phone filled with pictures of his cat, which is really sweet.

Joe wishes he could be cheerful and put together for Adam, because the man is clearly trying to make a connection, but Joe already knows there isn’t a spark (in his darkest moments he wonders if he’ll ever love anyone again). He still talks with him, tries to be friendly but not encourage anything further than that. Adam seems to get the hint that it isn’t going to go any further and is gracious enough to back down. Joe just pats himself on the back for not sobbing out his divorce story to a man he barely knows.

On the way back to the bus, Joe’s eye catches on a window filled with real-estate listings.

“Ah, I could buy a house here and move permanently,” he says offhandedly, stopping briefly to look.

“Well… why not?” Adam says.

“I don’t think my agent would be too happy with me.”

“Sometimes you gotta’ grab stuff when you see it. Who knows, maybe your destiny is here? There’s one that’s 300 years old, that’s gotta’ have some character to it,” Adam smiles at Joe, and Joe feels the corners of his mouth quirk at the idea of destiny getting him to buy real-estate in Italy.

**

Joe’s stubbornly set his head back on the rattling glass of the bus window not twenty minutes later when the bus stops to let a herd of sheep pass. He’s not really paying attention to what’s outside, but a shock of orange makes itself known against the grey stone of an ivy covered fence. A sign.

Vendesi

And above it a ceramic plaque with the word 'Bramasole' written on it. Joe sits up, catching Adam’s attention.

“No way…” Adam says, as soon as he puts two and two together.

The house whose poster had been in the real estate window. From what Joe can see from the bus window, the house’s garden is overgrown and its shutters are hanging off the windows. The grey stone fence is also in need of some repair, but the ‘for sale’ sign is clear as day, and Joe is suddenly unable to stop himself from standing up from his seat, seized by something. He tells the lovely young lesbian running the tour that he’s getting off here, thank you very much for the tour, no he’s not crazy, yes he’s taking his bags.

He vaguely hears Adam cheering him as the doors to the bus close.

And then he’s standing outside the gate with his bags, watching the back of the bus bounce away and wondering what in the singular fuck he’s doing. His ex’s voice comes into his head ‘this is what happens when you get too romantic Joe, you don’t think, you just act.’ Joe had laughed at the time.

He’s about to turn around and try and figure out a taxi, calling himself eighteen kinds of stupid and wondering whether he’s going to have to walk back to town, when a couple strides out of the front gate, furiously slamming it behind them and speaking rapidly in Italian. All Joe can pick up is ‘old woman’ and ‘crazy’.

Fuck it. He is romantic, and destiny has its hooks in him and he's probably going to buy this house.

Then he’s going to call Andy and grovel.

The gate creaks as he opens it, his eyes flitting around as he slowly makes his way down the driveway. He takes in the garden around him with its tall cypress trees, vivid green shrubbery, and the endless view of rolling hills beyond the garden walls. There’s a small outbuilding behind the house, containing who knows what, but when Joe lays eyes on the old façade of the house, his heart gives a thump, and he’s in love.

 

IMG_0129

 

It’s a square, two-storey building with a tiled roof and painted a peach tone that Joe loves. There’s a couple of loose tiles on the steps up to the door, but Joe’s brain is already starting to figure out colour schemes and paint. He’d put endless amounts of love into the house in London, and while he’d hated it by the time he’d sold it, it doesn’t mean he can’t do something similar with this.

Even better, Joe won’t have to compromise on anything with this one. Won’t have to wince through another catalogue of same-y black and white furniture and modernist statues; he can paint the walls however he wants and add floor pillows and have knickknacks.

He tries the bell beside the door and when he hears nothing, knocks. It takes a moment, but the door swings open to reveal a man who seems surprised that Joe is there. He asks a question in rapid Italian, and Joe has to put a crowbar to his memory to try and pry out vocabulary from his Italian class in lycée. He gets to ‘the apple is red’ before the estate agent seems to realise Joe is struggling and asks the question in English.

“You are here to see the house?”

English Joe can do. “I am.” He says, taking off his sunglasses. “I didn’t book a time to see it, but is it alright if I take a look?” If it isn’t, and the man sends him away, Joe isn’t coming back.

“No please, come in. I’m the estate agent, James Copley. The owner shooed off the last possible buyers early so we can fit you in.”

They move down the front hall, and Joe is charmed by the copper tap sunk into the wall between the front door and a pair of archways. He looks through the archway to his right, revealing a room filled with stacks of old furniture and paper, and to the left, a kitchen.

The agent leads Joe past a staircase and into a nearly empty living room where the owner, an old woman, is sitting on a couch covered in a sheet. As soon as she spots them, she says something in rapid Italian, sounding like she’s chastising Copley. He smiles at Joe. “She’s saying that she hopes I brought her someone better than the last couple. They were talking about turning it into an Airbnb.” Joe looks at her and she makes a rude gesture in the direction of the front gate.

“I had meant to ask,” and again Joe thinks about how unprepared he is for this. How likely that it’s a huge mistake to do this. “How much is the house going for?”

Mr. Copley smiles and hands him a calculator, mentioning the price. The money from the house that Joe had sold outside of London covers both it and hopefully some of the work that is going to need to be put into this one. Thankfully he still has money coming in from book royalties.

He’s crazy, but he puts a lower number into the calculator and hands it back to Mr. Copley, who shows it to the woman. She looks at it for a moment, then gestures Joe over. He sits next to her on the couch and she holds her hands out to take his. She looks at him for a moment, then mutters something while squinting.

“Heartbroken.” Copley translates.

Joe feels his eyes fill nearly immediately with tears. He is. He is heartbroken. He’s heartbroken and he’s angry that he’s heartbroken and he wants to stop being heartbroken.

He sniffs once, tries not to freak the poor woman out, and nods. She says something to Mr. Copley, who then turns to Joe.

“It’s been some time since Bramasole has had love inside of it, but she feels that you are full of it.” He double checks something with her. “It will need some care, and you can’t let it fall to ruin.” ‘Like your heart’ goes unspoken.

She firms up her grip on his hands and nods. “I’ll sell,” Copley translates.

Which is how Joe finds himself suddenly in the possession of a 300 year old Tuscan villa.

**

By late morning three days later, Joe checks out of his hotel and receives the keys to his brand new house, the money for it on the way to his new Italian bank account, and everything signed on the dotted line.

“Normale.” The woman at the realtor’s office had smiled before stamping his papers eight times. Joe had thanked Mr. Copley (“please, call me James”) as much as he could for all the help that he’d given Joe, and they’re both smiling when James gives Joe the enormous set of wrought iron keys to his new front door.

Joe does enough groceries for two days and buys plenty of cleaning supplies before he gets a cab back to his new house, nearly shaking when he walks up the front step and unlocks the door to Bramasole.

He gets fives steps in and then has to sit down in the hall next to the tap, needing a moment for a small crisis, laughing at himself for how crazy it is that he’s done this. He reaches up and turns the tap on, chuckling again when nothing comes out of it.

“You too?”

He rubs his face before heaving himself up to dump the food in the kitchen, wincing at the state of the forty-year-old fridge. He goes upstairs next to try and find a bedroom with a floor that will support his weight.

He has another minor crisis in the bedroom, and then decides he needs to clean so he can run away from the silent abyssal scream running through his head.

He starts with his bedroom, moving everything into one corner and pulling down the dusty curtains to be washed in the ancient washer in an outbuilding in the yard. The bed frame gets thoroughly gone over with a cloth, same with the wardrobe, side tables, and the small wood stove. The floor gets scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and when everything is set back to rights, Joe decides to tackle the attached bathroom. After the bathroom he does the kitchen, stopping to have a premade sandwich and another crisis.

He pulls chairs down from the table in the dining room and wipes them and the table down, and then takes twenty minutes to ponder about what he should do about the broken saloon door that is the window. The scream has metamorphosed into ‘call Andy’, but he grits his teeth and ignores it.

He bathes in the second floor bathroom with the stupid hand-held shower faucet attached to the bathtub because the house doesn’t have a real shower, and then he stares at Andy’s contact number for twenty minutes before fumbling and nearly dropping his phone when she calls him instead.

“Andy?”

“Joe. How’s the tour so far? Met anyone?”

Joe swallows.

“Joe?” her voice is suddenly very serious. “What have you done?”

“So quick to accuse me of something, boss?”

“I know you, you big, dramatic idiot. What have you done?”

He chuckles weakly. “I bought a house?”

There’s silence. It goes on long enough that Joe looks at his phone screen to make sure she hasn’t hung up. “Andy?”

“I’m here. Apparently, I’m able to manifest things and I’m thinking of the consequences of that. I told someone yesterday that you should find someone or not come back at all,” Joe coughs back laughter. She continues: “You know that as your agent I’m supremely annoyed and angry that you would do this without contacting me.”

“But?”

“No, I definitely am supremely annoyed.” She sighs. “You’re just lucky that I was your friend first, and so I’m also happy enough that the two emotions cancel each other out and I don’t feel anything at all.” He hears her moving around her apartment. “I’ll need all your new info and I need to send you a bunch of forms. Have you gotten in contact with your landlord up here yet?”

“It’s on my list. I’ll keep the place until at least the end of the month to keep my stuff safe.”

“Good thing you sold all your furniture after the divorce.” Joe winces, but it’s true. Andy had found him lying on the ground in a living room that was empty but for the tv Joe was staring at. He’d been there thirteen hours without moving.

Andy continues: “You’ve suddenly made my day much busier than I thought it would be Joe, so I’m going to hang up now, go boxing, and then send you the forms I want filled out.” Joe grimaces.

“Capisce?”

“Perfettamente. Thank you, Andy,”

She grumbles. “Bye Joe. Work on your Italian. I’m grudgingly happy for you.”

**

The next day he goes into town because no matter what his current finances look like, his back is a shipwreck from sleeping on the old mattress the night before. If he’s going to be here for the foreseeable future, he’s not spending another night on it.

It’s as he’s thinking that his mattress in London could go into a guestroom that he realises that he has guestrooms plural now, a far cry from the tiny one bedroom flat that cost him an arm and a leg despite still needing an hour transit ride before even hitting London.

Fuck it. He buys new sheets, and then new enamel and steel pots. Then he gets more groceries and a grocery cart when he realises how impractical hauling everything back is going to be. He sets up getting a Wi-Fi router and hopes nothing will eat the wires to it before he can get the windows fixed.

When he goes into the hardware store the man at the counter advises him to hire someone to do his walls, and that plaster is finicky. Joe sighs, but he does buy turquoise paint, some hinges, and a latch for the window frames and shutters, then takes a bunch of swatches in the brand the clerk recommends for plaster walls.

**

He still has to call his mum.

“How is your tour?” is the first thing she asks.

“Mum,” Yusuf starts.

“Ah,” she says, and Yusuf doesn’t know whether to cringe or laugh.

“I’ve bought a house in Tuscany,” he says, and then listens patiently to her bemoaning the fact that he has his father’s passionate heart and now he lives in Italy and if he wanted to move so badly why not back home?

“I wasn’t planning to move at all,” he starts to defend himself, well aware that that probably makes it worse. He hears his mum gearing up to start lecturing him when his aunt wrestles the phone out of his mum’s hands.

“Good work, love. London is a miserable place, and the light will love you more in Italy,”

His mother despairs but perks up when his aunt tells her that at least Yusuf is much closer now. Suddenly his mother is back to her usual sunny disposition, chatting away about various cousins, friends, aunties, and uncles.

“Make sure you get a cat, Yusuf, so you don’t get lonely. I’ll send a care package and start getting stuff ready for you to bring back when you come for Eid.”

**

He wakes up the next morning and there’s a pigeon in the kitchen. Joe figures that out because he walks in to make coffee and the thing flies at him from the top of the stove fan. Joe shrieks.

The stupid bird looks cocky when it lands on the counter. It takes a moment to fluff its feathers and strut around, makes direct eye contact with Joe and then wing slaps the Moka to the floor.

Joe had been planning to spend that morning doing some more cleaning, but the pigeon’s presence means he spends his hard earned coffee time watching how-to videos on fixing window latches. It’s about thirty seconds into the first one that he realises he has no tools, but a quick hunt around the house and outbuilding shows up a hammer and two screw drivers that have seen better days.

He gets a response from Andy to the picture of the pigeon and the text about his plan to fix the window that just says 'don’t die' but how hard could fixing and painting windows and shutters be?

He gets up on the step stool he’d also recovered from some cobwebs in the outbuilding and, if not confident, then certainly determined, sets to gradually unscrewing the windowpane hinges so he can paint the frames and then put in the new latch. He reaches up to get some extra steadiness, and it’s when he grabs on to the outside of the window that he fucks up.

The window swings outwards, dragging Joe nearly off the step stool before the thing slips out from under him and neatly flips him over the window frame, ruthlessly dumping him on his ass in the grass below the window and winding him.

He watches the window squeak backwards and forwards a couple times before it snaps off the frame completely and spikes itself ten centimetres directly into the ground right next to his head.

He lies there for a bit, thinking about the world at large before he puts in a call to Mr. Copley.

“You… defenestrated yourself?” The man says, confusion heavy in his voice. Joe can only be happy that he’s not laughing at him.

“If you know anyone in town that does a good renovation job and isn’t too expensive, I would love to hear from them. I’m happy to lend my services carrying things, but I’m clearly out of my depth.”

James’s cough doesn’t conceal his chuckles very well. “I know someone. I’ll send them over tomorrow.”

Joe hangs up after giving his thanks, he takes a moment to lie on the ground outside his house and look up at the sky, the clouds, and the rapidly approaching window casing. He has enough time to scream ‘blergh!’ before scrunching himself up, the casing landing in a perfect border around where Joe is sitting.

He unclenches and sits up, wide-eyed, looking back at the hole in his dining room wall. “This guy better know what he’s doing.”

**

The next morning a small truck pulls through the iron gates and bounces up to the front door where Joe is waiting. There’s a ton of equipment in the back, which is probably a good sign, but Joe realises belatedly that he has no Italian vocabulary dedicated to the art of doing renovation, so who even knows how this is going to go.

His ability to communicate ends up being moot because the man that steps out of the truck leaves Joe speechless. Thick thighs, wide shoulders – stupidly Joe feels himself start sweating with nerves as he tries to come off composed and like he hadn’t had to hire this guy because he’d been spiked out a window through his own incompetence.

‘It’s only been a few months after the end of a five year marriage and you’re already crushing on someone, so that has to be a record. Also, he’s working for you,’ He thinks to himself, and that’s enough to dump an ice cold bucket of water all over Joe.

Well… sort of. Joe takes in the aforementioned shoulders that are wider than they have any right to be and tries not to gibber when he says “Ciao,” and reaches out a hand, zero idea if James had let the man know that Joe’s Italian is rusty at best.

The man’s hand wraps pleasantly around his, big and warm, as he returns the greeting.

“Ciao. Nicolò di Genova,”

“Yusuf al-Kaysani. Joe.” then he says the words he’s used regularly in the past week. “I apologise, my Italian is bad.” And then holds up his phone questioningly.

Nicolò nods, then answers in Italian. “It’s okay, my English is bad.”

“French?” Joe asks, then chuckles at the exaggerated grimace Nicolò gives him.

“Emergencies only,”

It takes a bit to walk Nicolò through the house, as the man makes no attempt to speak English or French. Joe doesn’t ask about it, he's the one in Italy after all, and is just thankful that Nicolò is patient with Joe’s broken Italian. The look the man gives him when he sees the hole in the dining room where his window used to be is pretty universal anyway, and has Joe blushing furiously and trying to hustle Nicolò back out of the room.

When they get through all the communication and miscommunication, it all boils down to: The plumbing has been pretty recently replaced, the electricity has not, a lot of the flooring needs to be redone on the second floor, and most of everything else that needs to be done is aesthetics.

“I’ll fix the hole in your dining room first though,” Nicolò says drily.

**

The construction starts with the two of them working to get the window casing back into the hole in the wall. The thing is heavy, and Joe can say for sure that his muscle mass is not great at this point (a solid month of post-divorce depression will do that), but he’s satisfied when they manage to lever the stupid thing back where it needs to be.

Together, they empty the dining room of furniture that’s in it; Joe noting that most of the varnish has come off the sideboard. A good project once the rest of the house is finished.

Nicolò tests the floor, he makes note of wall plaster that needs to get fixed, and then he scrutinizes the ceiling for any imperfections. After all that, he very kindly chases the pigeon back outside before taking the remaining window down and the shutters off, the corner of his lip tilting up when he looks over the other pane that they’d pulled out of the ground.

He sets Joe up with some sandpaper, the windowpanes, and shutters for the room.

“Take off the paint, I’ll see if anything needs to be replaced, then you paint them.” Joe nods, excited that he now knows the verb for ‘to paint’ in Italian. Nicolò narrows his eyes, then bluntly says. “Don’t touch anything else. You’ll break it.”

Which, the sample size isn’t huge so who’s Nicolò to say that Joe might break something else. He scowls at Nicolò, who smirks and turns away, leaving Joe to do his job.

As annoying as he is, it’s kind of nice, Joe thinks as he sands everything, to have someone here with him.

**

It turns out the one thing Nicolò wants to get someone in for is the electricity because "only an idiot would work with it,” so Joe meets Sébastien (“Booker, please”) the day after Nicolò secures the windows in the dining room and then starts checking the structure of the rest of the house.

(He’d checked over Joe’s sanding job, nodded, and then competently fixed the slats that needed fixing in the shutters. It had been a weird boner to have later that night, but Joe had orgasmed so fast that he’d scared himself so there must be something to it).

(The guilt had settled in immediately after, only now, instead of just asking himself if it’s too soon to start having sexual feeling for other people so soon after his divorce, he also agonises over the fact that he’s hired Nicolò and is therefore his boss. Then the day and the orgasm catch up and he sleeps ten hours.)

Booker’s a nice guy, smiling and checking all of Joe’s switches and the lines that run from the house to the city grid. When they go into the cellar to find the fuse box, he turns to Joe and tells him the box is so old he’s never seen one like it and that his house is lit by hopes and dreams.

“I haven’t had any blackouts yet,” he says, and Booker snorts.

“Don’t worry, you will. Or you might, depending on how good a job I do. Just don’t bother getting an electric kettle. Those are the gateway to using more appliances than the wiring can handle. I’ll bring a new fuse box tomorrow and call the city, but I’m not going to bother installing it until I get the rest of the house wired. If you haven’t died yet, I’m not going to confront the luck you’ve had,” he nods at Joe before wandering off, apparently not perturbed in the least over the concerned look Joe knows is on his face.

When Joe steps back into the dining room, he thrills at the beautiful green blue of his new windows. He can only imagine the size of the smile he turns on Nicolò when the man enters, but the man just clenches his jaw a bunch of times before nodding in the general direction of the room.

“I will fix the walls, and then you will paint them.” Nicky says, his gaze piercing into Joe.

“Deal.”

**

Joe’s smile sticks around when he gets started painting. He’s an author by trade, but he’s painted and sketched so regularly and for such a long time that Andy had started to find buyers for his work. Painting a wall may not be the kind of art he’s used to doing, but its not as though he’s touched any of his art supplies in two months anyway.

It’s a shiver of satisfaction as he starts to paint the living room a colour he picked out just because it made the turquoise windows look so bright.

Nicolò is working away in the other room on something. The man’s a bit strange, steady and quiet most of the time, before ruthlessly turning on Joe and teasing him about his renovation skills before suddenly stopping to look at Joe with a clenched jaw.

Joe shrugs it off, focusing instead on what else he can do with the walls. A design around the arch to the kitchen would probably look great, and he thinks on the geometry he grew up with in his first home in Tunis. It’s a design that needs an unreasonable amount of painter’s tape in interlocking geometric shapes, but Joe knows it will look good, and, more importantly, be a piece of home.

He gets started as soon as he’s done the other walls, head immediately going blissfully blank as he listens to the sounds from outside come through his fixed window. Between the rasp of the tape coming off the roll and the pleasure of the way the paint goes on, Joe’s in heaven.

Nicolò ends up wandering in about halfway through the process, plaster slopped down the front of his shirt from where he’s fumbled something. He doesn’t say anything at first, just squints at what Joe’s doing on the wall before tilting his head. Joe is suddenly gets nervous about the design despite the fact that Nicolò’s opinion has absolutely no impact on what Joe does with his own house.

“It will look good,” Nicolò finally says, and Joe can’t help but beam.

“I picked up most of the colours for it this morning, it’s just the gold I’m missing, but I’ll need to see if the hardware store even has a metallic gold paint.” He shifts his weight. “I’ll worry about it once I’ve got everything else laid out, though.” Nicolò nods at Joe, looks back at the wall and nods again before moving out of the room.

Joe gets the first two coats of paint on in a darker shade of cream, and when they’re dry and he pulls all the tape off, he’s thrilled at how it looks. Taking a few minutes to admire it before going for the teal colour he’s using to pick out more shapes. He thinks about doing more taping and then decides to free hand.

It takes until mid-morning the next day to get halfway through the design with the turquoise paint. He’s quietly hating himself for not putting the painters tape up when Nicolò comes into the room from a trip into town. Joe feels the back of his neck burning where he assumes Nicolò is staring at it. Joe finishes the shape he’s working on and turns around, only to have a can of paint nearly clock him over the head.

“I found this,” And Joe looks at the label and sees that Nicolò has brought him a can of gold metallic paint. Joe looks up at him.

“I know people who work at the store very well,” Nicolò says, shifting his weight. “I brought the samples of the colours you’re using so they could help me.”

Joe can’t help the smile that bursts across his face. “This is great! Thank you so much, just add it to my bill okay?” Nicolò nods and then seems to almost scuttle back out of the room.

 

IMG_0130

 

He makes his way across the wall, Nicolò popping in and out of the room a few times, finally sticking around when Joe’s finishing up.

Nicolò smiles at him as they both take in the whole wall. “Beautiful.” Nicolò nods. “If nothing else, you can paint.”

Joe carries the compliment all the way to sleep that night.

**

The dining room gets finished in record time, and while Joe thinks an area rug might be nice to have, it’s not high on his priorities list right now given that the rest of the house feels like it’s going to fall down around his ears. He hates the overhead light too, but he has no other ones to provide Booker with to replace it, so he’ll just deal with it for now. Booker’s already managed to wire three extra wall plugs in the room as well as a couple switches, so Joe has nothing to complain about.

Apparently Booker does, because all Joe can hear from upstairs is cursing as Booker rewires something in the large space next to the stairs.

“I can’t believe he’d say that about the electricity’s great grandmother,” he says to Nicolò as they heave the dining room table back into the room. The quirk of the smile he gets from the man makes him feel good.

“You should hear what he calls me when he loses a bet we’ve made.”

Joe chuckles. “Does that happen often?”

“More than he’d like but less than what I’d like.”

Joe is about to plunk the dining room table back down in the middle of the room, but Nicolò moves until they’re nearly at the far window from the door. Joe raises an eyebrow.

“I…” Nicolò looks almost uncomfortable. “I sanded down the sideboard. You mentioned wanting to re-varnish it. The colour under the old varnish is really nice,” his jaw ticks a bit. “So, you can also just seal it instead of varnish it.”

Joe doesn’t know what to do with that. “Thank you. I’ll check the colour?” Nicolò nods sharply before heading back into the living room, looking back once to make sure that Joe is following him.

**

The newly sealed sideboard going back into the dining room marks the end of the work on it, and Joe loves it so immediately he can’t stop smiling every time he looks at it. He will have to leave the house, however, as the next day is fuse box day, which means no power while Booker is doing his job. Nicolò tells Joe he’ll work on doing the flooring upstairs while the daylight is good, but that Joe should go make himself busy elsewhere.

This is how Joe ends up at the Museo Diocesano. His Italian is improving by leaps and bounds, and while he is vaguely annoyed that Nicolò won’t speak anything else to him (despite hearing him curse at Booker in French), he will admit that the process works. Still, his brain desperately needs a break, and so he asks if there are any tour books in English or French.

“We’re out,” says the woman at the front, her name badge says Dionisia. “But one of our volunteers can probably help you out.” She waves at a young woman across the atrium before she turns back to Joe. “Nile is amazing at tours, really knows her stuff. Her one downside,” she raises her voice while grinning at the woman approaching the desk. “Is that she’s American.”

Nile (Joe can only assume) scowls, but she’s smiling when she looks at Joe. “How can I help you?”

“This man is looking for a tour book in English or French even though it would be best if he practiced his Italian,” she winks at Joe. “But I wondered if you would have some spare time to show him around the Museum?”

Nile smiles. “I’d be more than happy to. Nothing on my plate right now and I’m bored.”

The woman behind the counter smirks. “I’d figured as much. Have fun you two.”

The tour that Joe gets from Nile is unbelievably in depth, and between looking at the pieces, he finds out she does this job over the summer and is just finishing off her master’s degree in art history in Florence. Joe mentions the fact that he does some art of his own, and they end up spending a wonderful afternoon chatting.

They finish back in the lobby with Nile turning to him and asking: “You should come for drinks with me this evening. I know a really nice place in town.”

Joe raises and eyebrow and then laughs when she sputters out “not in a date way!”

His chuckles wind down but his smile remains. “I’d love to. I’ll need to head home first, but give me your number and we’ll meet.”

Nile’s smile is bright.

**

He arrives home to nap and change before going back out and is thrilled to see that he has electricity, immediately wondering how Nicky’s done with the floor.

Joe gets his answer after hoofing it up the stairs, smiling at the new floorboards in the first spare bedroom. Nicolò had said that he would scrape and stain the flooring after he’d finished everything so that it would look uniform, but Joe is just excited to have a second floor room where he doesn’t have to worry about taking a shortcut to the dining room via the ceiling.

He heads down the hall to the second spare bedroom, where Nicolò is still working. He’s got his shirt off, but Joe manfully doesn’t look at his back, instead picking his way across the floor to ask him about the progress. He has a moment of dread when a floorboard creaks under his foot, Nicolò turning around and getting out a choked “stop!”, just as Joe’s foot goes right through the floor, sitting him down so fast he can feel his tailbone in his neck.

His leg is dangling above his kitchen and there are broken floorboards digging into his leg just above his knee.

The pain kicks in after a few seconds, and all Joe can do is hiss out a prolonged ‘fuck’ as he starts to try and pull his leg out from the hole he’s made in the floorboards. Nicolò has darted over and his face is calm next to Joe’s, his hands steady as he works to try and pull some of the sharper edges of the boards out of the way so Joe can pull his leg out without further injury.

When he gets his leg out, he’s thankful the damage is minimal, with just one larger gash that will need to be bandaged up, but no stitches required.

“Well,” Joe chuckles. “That will teach me to not wander around a construction area.”

Nicolò doesn’t respond, his lips pressed firmly together as he helps Joe stand up and then test his weight, before looking at Joe with a face that defined ‘long-suffering’. “I’ll help you bandage your cut,” he says firmly.

“It’s really not necessary. I’m the one who stupidly walked into the room without checking with you where it was safe to walk.”

“Do you have a first aid kit?”

Joe stops. “Ah. I guess that would be helpful.”

Nicolò’s mouth quirks. “You are lucky that I have one stored in my truck. I’ll go grab it and meet you in the bathroom.”

**

Joe reminds himself that he’s Nicolò’s boss as the man kneels in front of him and starts cleaning Joe’s cuts with an antiseptic wipe, thankful for the sting as it takes his mind of the image Nicolò presents. He also reminds himself of the fact that he’s a grown man sitting on the lid of his toilet after falling through the floor.

Despite this, he can’t avoid observing how big Nicolò’s hands are as they carefully make sure all of Joe’s cuts are clean.

“I’ve really not made a good showing of my construction skills, have I?” he mutters dryly at Nicky.

“I wouldn’t recommend going into the profession,” Nicolò says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as unsuited to it as you.” Joe winces, and Nicolò’s face softens. “I definitely have some horror stories of my own though.” He states as he gently pats antibacterial cream across a big cut.

“Oh?”

“I put a screw through my hand once and had to reverse the drill to get it out.” Joe hisses in sympathy, watching as Nicolò pulls out some gauze and medical tape. He looks up at Joe, down at the medical tape and then back up at Joe. “I’ll leave this behind for you, shall I?”

Joe chuckles. “It’s okay, I have to head back into town anyway, so I’ll stop by the pharmacy.”

“Shopping?”

“No. I went to the Museo Diocesano, and the volunteer who showed me around invited me out for drinks.”

A look flashes across Nicolò’s face. “A date?”

Joe chuckles. “Just drinks. I think she’s got a crush on the woman who works the desk.” More than a crush, probably. Joe had watched Nile sigh about ‘Dizzy’ eight times as they’d their museum tour. Nicolò nods and presses the last piece of tape into place, Joe shivering when his fingers catch the hair on Joe’s calf when he tests that the tape is secure.

Nicolò snaps him out of his thoughts. “All set. Would you like me to give it a kiss to make it better?”

Joe laughs, but it sounds almost strangled. “Thank you, but I’m alright.”

Nicolò starts putting stuff back in his kit. “Would you like a lift into town?”

“That’d be great actually. Do you mind waiting while I change?”

Nicolò shrugs. “It’s no problem. I’ve got a few things to finish off, because someone put a hole in the floor." Joe grins and Nicolò smiles softly. "Just let me know when you’re ready.”

He stands, and Joe looks up at him from where he’s sitting, Nicolò’s nose charms Joe like crazy, but his eyes are unbelievable too. “Thanks again for the medical help Dr. Nicolò,” Joe says, watching Nicolò go red and his jaw clench as he turns around and strides out of the bathroom.

**

The ride back into town is mostly small talk about the house before Nicolò very graciously drops him off in front of the pharmacy.

“Thanks for the ride, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Nicolò clears his throat. “You’re welcome,” His gaze intensifies to the point that Joe feels like a bug under a microscope. “There’s a storm soon, so watch out.”

And with that vaguely threatening goodbye, Nicolò pulls back into traffic.

**

“You don’t think it’s a little weird that he didn’t just give you the kit and go back to work? It’s not like it was your hands that were injured.”

Joe had spilled the story as soon as they'd sat down and gotten their drinks.

Joe frowns. “I can’t believe I didn’t even question it for a second.” He looks at Nile, eyes wide. She starts to laugh.

“Not even for a second?” Joe shakes his head, still looking stunned. She continues, “I think this guy might be into you Joe, but maybe its an Italian thing?” They look at each other for a moment before breaking up with laughter.

The subject eventually gets left behind as they chat more about Nile’s university, and what she loves to do, and once Joe’s got enough drinks in him, he talks about his ex-husband a little bit without crying, which is a personal victory. He enjoys himself, and he definitely drinks more than he should, which is, he supposes, part of the reason he chooses to walk the twenty minutes home instead of taking a cab, despite the heavy clouds overhead and a leg that still aches a little.

Unfortunately, the skies opens up when he’s halfway home, and Joe is soaked to the bone within moments. The first bolt of lightning sending him running and also scaring the shit out of him. He can only be glad his leg doesn’t hurt that much as he tumbles in the front door of Bramasole, immediately hitting the lights and then watching as they flicker when another bolt of lightning strikes. While Joe knows that the windows in the dining room will hold, he’s not so sure about the rest of the house as he hustles upstairs to get out of his wet clothes.

He’s in the bathtub trying to warm up with the stupid hand sprayer when a window downstairs slams open so hard that Joe yells, which is also the exact moment when the power goes out.

He’s a grown man, but he ditches the idea of warming up with water and starts towelling down, scrambling into his jogging pants and t-shirt, jumping into bed, and hiding under the covers as the storm howls overhead.

**

He isn’t able to fall sleep until the storm finally falls off at around two in the morning, which means that when his phone alarm goes off, he barely manages to stumble into a pair of sneakers to avoid stepping on anything in the construction zone that is his house before stumbling downstairs, desperate for caffeine in a way that’s bordering on sexual.

He realises he doesn’t have power when he goes to try turning on the kitchen light, and he can only be thankful the cook top is gas as he preps the Moka.

It’s as he’s about to put the Moka onto the flame that he hears something and stops a moment. He turns the stove off and listens, finally hearing something again. The tiniest, whimpering mewl.

Joe frowns and abandons his coffee to start the hunt, pausing to try and hear the sound again. When he finds the source, it’s in the room just across the hall from the kitchen, perched on a chair that Joe had left in there after deeming it insect and dirt free.

A small white and ginger kitten, ragged and pitiful and clearly having crawled in from the rain the night before. The poor thing looks half-starved, and Joe immediately re-prioritises - he’ll need to make a run to the vet this morning. He takes his shirt off and very slowly approaches the bundle of fur, trying not to spook the poor thing. It’s too tired to do much more than huddle in the corner of the chair where the cushions meet, so he’s able to gently wrap his shirt around the pile of damp fluff, gently using a sleeve to try and rub some of the dirt and water off its face.

Which is, of course, when the front door opens and Nicolò strides in with a brand new toilet in his arms. He passes by the office, hits reverse, backs up and stares at Joe, standing in the middle of the room, no shirt, curls likely staging a revolt after sleeping on them wet, and likely looking half a step away from death with how tired he is. Joe can only give Nicolò a tired smile.

“Sorry.” Joe says, earnestly. “I had a visitor this morning.” He walks over to Nicolò and pulls the t-shirt away from his burden, the bleary eyed face of the kitten looking out from its cotton prison.

“I see,” Nicolò says, but his eyes seem a thousand miles away. “Let me just,” he gestures to the living room with the toilet. Joe takes that moment to run upstairs to get ready, barely managing to keep the kitten trapped in the shirt while he brushes his teeth. He re-burritos her and goes to find Nicolò again

“I hate to leave you, but I need to get to a vet. There’s coffee in the kitchen, you just have to get the Moka on the stove.”

Booker interrupts him by stepping into the front hall, checking the light switches, and nodding when they don’t turn on. “Nicky will drive you. He shouldn’t do any work until the electricity’s back on anyway.”

“I don’t want to interrupt-” “I did the flooring just fine yesterday-”

Booker ignores Nicolò by tossing the keys of the vehicle to him.

Joe turns to Nicolò, willing to walk to town, but Nicolò’s already gesturing him out to the car with a look of surrender.

**

The ride to the vet’s office is mostly quiet, especially since Joe has not had coffee yet, but they make it there in good time and thankfully don’t have to wait very long before getting the kitten checked out. Between Joe’s slowly improving Italian, Nicolò, and the vet’s patience, they manage to get everything done pretty quickly, ending the visit by grabbing a few things for the kitten that the vet has for sale that will hold them over until an actual pet store opens up or Joe can get online. Joe is just thankful to not have to re-burrito her now that he has a new carrier, but that feeling is quickly replaced by humiliation when he has to spend ten minutes trying to get her into the damn thing while ignoring Nicolò’s quiet snorting laughter.

He does eventually manage to get her in and then straps her into the very small backseat of Nicolò’s truck, listening as she howls her fury at being contained. Nicolò is thankfully quick to get the vehicle started again to head back to Bramasole, and Joe thinks the day is picking up, especially since the kitten's okay and Joe is actually within reach of desperately needed caffeine. Then Nicolò nearly chokes Joe out on his seatbelt when he abruptly hits the breaks, throws the car into park, and throws his hazards on. Joe’s checks on the kitten who had gone quiet for a moment, but she gets right back to making her rage known to the vehicle at large.

“Please wait for a moment,” is all Nicolò says in explanation, deftly ignoring the honks and yells they get from drivers that now have to squeeze by as hops out of the car and hustles into a café. Maybe he hadn’t had a coffee that morning either, Joe thinks, his horniness for a cup of coffee starting eke into willingness to participate in a year-long sexual BDSM roleplay territory.

Only Nicolò is coming out with a caffè and walking over to Joe’s side of the van. He gestures at him to roll down the window with a weird look on his face, carefully handing a surprised Joe the small porcelain cup as soon as the window is down.

“Oh, thank god,” Joe says, in near ecstasies as he finally takes his first sip of caffeine. He drinks it quickly due to a combination of need and embarrassment that Nicolò has stopped traffic to get him a coffee. As soon as he’s finished, Nicolò plucks it out of his hands and jogs back into the coffee shop.

He’s back out in a moment, and Joe still has no idea what’s just happened. “What do I owe you?”

Nicolò waves him away. “Don’t worry about it. Just don’t tell Booker, he’ll complain that I never buy him anything.”

Joe chuckles.

They chat a bit more, and Joe finds himself enjoying the company. Nicolò tends not to mince words, but he is clearly passionate about the work he does.

“And what do you do?”

Joe squints one eye shut and purses his lips, “I’m supposed to be a writer, but I haven't written much lately.”

Nicolò looks over at him. “I’m sure your inspiration will come back, your skill is just hibernating right now,”

Joe shrugs a shoulder. “Hopefully,” then clumsily changes the subject. “The house has been great, by the way, and I’ve really enjoyed working with you. My leg’s fine today, so if you need me for anything just let me know.” He hopes Booker’s got the lights up and running.

“The bathroom downstairs can be taken apart. You haven’t mentioned tile, but I did pick up the paint you asked for so let me know. I’ll see how far I get with the living room today unless you’d like the front room done for your office.”

Joe shakes his head. “Living room first. I won’t even know what to do with the office when I have it.”

**

They finally pull into the drive, and he and Nicolò tromp into the house with a paper bag filled with flee shampoo, toys, food, and a carrier holding a cat that has experienced getting its temperature taken for the first time as well as the thrill of Nicolò’s driving.

They’d spent the final few minutes of the drive discussing names for the kitten, but it’s only when they walk into the kitchen that Joe decides he’s going to lean into location and so has dubbed the small thing Girasole.

“Such a big name for such a small cat,” Nicolò says, but the smile on his face betrays him.

Joe crouches to open the door of the cage and watches as Girasole jets out of it, and the kitchen as fast as she can. The thump of the paper bag with a few other necessities has him looking back at Nicolò. “Thank you again for your help Nicolò. I feel like you’ve done so much for me over the week.”

Nicolò waves him off. “Nico, please. Booker calls me Nicky just to piss me off, but Nicolò is too long.” He shrugs. “I was happy to do it.”

Joe’s smile is interrupted when his phone vibrates in his pocket, Andy’s name flashing across the screen when he pulls it out. He smiles at Nico and answers.

“Pronto?” He says looking at Nico, whose lips quirk in response.

He ends up plugging in a set of headphones and manages to find and wrangle an extremely grumpy kitten into the kitchen sink for her first round of flee shampoo, chatting to Andy about the storm and his little, furry visitor.

They chat for a bit before Andy turns to business. “So, all your forms have gone through just fine. Any problems on your end?”

“No. My phone is all changed over, and the bills are all set along with my wifi. My house is a construction zone right now, but I’m hopeful that my half bath downstairs might be ready in a few days.”

“Good. Are you coming back to clean out your apartment?”

“I’ve still got some time.” Andy makes a sound of acknowledgement.

“And what about finding a man to keep alongside that cat?”

Joe chuckles, but the quiet on Andy’s end means she’s more serious than she’s let on. “Why are you so stuck on this?” He asks.

“I worry. Especially given how the last couple months have gone.” Which Joe can't argue against because she's right to worry given how Joe was before coming to Tuscany. He pulls Girasole out of the sink and starts drying her off with a towel.

“Boss. I’m not ready to be in a serious relationship right now. It’s only been two months since the divorce went through.”

Joe jumps when a throat clears behind him.

Nico’s face is bizarrely neutral. “Apologies for interrupting.” Joe waves it away. “I was wondering where the paint was that you had purchased? I thought I’d fix the window that broke down here.”

“Oh, I left it in the room across the hall.” Nico nods.

Joe still doesn’t know the man very well, but he’s looked at Nico's back enough to recognise his shoulders are slumped.

Andy continues. “Time doesn’t matter. If you’re ready to take the leap, you’re ready to take the leap. I swear Joe,” Andy makes a disgusted sound at herself. “Your delight in falling in love is almost inspiring. Don’t let the amount of time you think you should mourn be something that stops you from doing it.”

Joe melts. “Thanks boss.”

Andy grunts. “Don’t think I don’t know you.”

**

The half-bath under the stairs is a pretty small room, and it looks bizarre without a toilet or sink. Joe had found some tile he’d liked, but the company had needed to order it in, so it won’t be here for another few days.

When he gets a crow-bar from Nico, the man seems to have shaken off whatever was bothering him, lifting an eyebrow and triple checking that Joe is sure he wants to do this.

“I just don’t know if I can patch up anything more serious than the cuts on your leg.”

Joe chuckles. “I think I can handle it, and the room is small, so I’ll be careful.”

It ends up being really nice to just beat the shit out of some ugly yellow-brown floor tile. Andy wasn’t wrong; he loves falling in love, but he also doesn’t think he’s wrong in needing a little bit of time to work through some stuff, as handsome and kind as Nico is and as nice as it is knowing that Nico is in the living room plastering and just being in Joe’s space.

When that excuse doesn’t work, he reminds himself that he’s Nico’s boss, which also only sort of half works.

With the tile gone in record time, all that’s left is to paint over the old wall colour. Joe goes with a light background colour as his base, but once it’s dry, he plans to paint the sprawling branches of an orange tree across two walls; he thinks about the terracotta tiles that will be going in, the antique mirror that he wants to keep where it is, the fact that he’s still looking for a nicer ceiling light.

He thinks about the last two years with his ex, where all of Joe’s stuff had slowly made its way into storage or his office as the furniture and decorations were replaced by glass that couldn’t be touched and canvases with two slashes of colour across them.

He suddenly realises that he’s starting to feel happy again, and basks in the sound of Nicolò moving around the living room, his spatula working plaster into cracks in the wall.

**

He’s thankful to have gotten into the meditative portion of the painting process by the time Nico checks in with him again to ask something, but the man continues to not make noise when he moves.

“I need to bring someone in to look at your roof.”

Joe jumps two feet in the air, dragging his brush behind him. “Fuck!” He turns to Nico, standing in the door and looking amused at the fact that he’d managed to surprise Joe so badly that there’s a smear of green across two feet of wall. “Is there something wrong with it?”

Nicolò shakes his head. “It’s a good idea with roofs like these to get them checked out, especially after a storm like the one that happened last night.”

Joe nods. “Whatever you need to do.” He puts his brush down. “I thought I might go into Firenze tomorrow and see if I can’t find a light that I like for the dining room or in here.”

Nico nods absently, looking at the painting Joe has done: No flowers or oranges yet, but lots of leaves. “It looks beautiful. You have a knack for this.”

Joe feels a flush crawl up his face, pleasure in his bones from the compliment. “Thanks.”

**

It’s as he’s going to sleep that night that he really thinks about the incident with the coffee that morning.

“What the fuck?” he asks his bedroom.

Girasole grumbles, stretching against his side before going back to sleep.

**

There’s a train that leaves from Cortona to Firenze the morning of the next day, and so Joe starts his day of sight-seeing and lamp shopping early. It’s starting to get into true summer, so he dresses lightly, and then hums and haws before finally packing a blank journal in the hopes that maybe he can write something in it after not touching it since he found his ex in the front hall.

Even just opening the thing would be a success.

When he leaves, Nico is getting ready to put in the last of the floors in the upstairs before moving to stain them. He assumes the person that Nico is bringing in to look at the roof will come by before it gets too hot.

He feeds Girasole and double checks that her water is fresh (he’s already purchased a cat water fountain despite the fact that he’d seen her drinking out of the rain barrel in the back) and hopes that she’ll be alright on her own for the day, then figures that if she made it through the storm that brought her here, a sunny day is no problem.

**

Joe had forgotten how lovely Florence was since the last time he’d been here in his second year of lycée, but when he arrives, he gets to discover the city all over again. He does some sightseeing, then putters around the market, picking up some food and finding himself a bench near another man who looks about the same age.

He’s just tucking into his food when the man clears his throat, Joe looking up at him and catching his eye. “Do you mind if I sit here?” he asks, and Joe takes not of how handsome he is.

“Sure,” Joe moves his stuff over, smiling as the man settles down next to him.

The guy laughs. “You know I was sitting over there, and I saw you, and I was just completely amazed by how gorgeous you are. I felt I had to introduce myself on the off chance at having a conversation.” He holds out his hand. “Alberto Castello,”

Joe takes it. He did need to figure out some stuff, so what could it hurt? “Joe al-Kaysani.” He looks the man up and down and takes his time appreciating him. “I’m glad I got your attention.”

He gets a boyish grin from Alberto. “Do you mind if I sit a little bit closer?”

“Be my guest.” It’s been a while since Joe’s flirted with someone, and he’d forgotten how nice it is. He’s not aiming for anything to happen, but to have someone think he’s handsome enough to flirt with is a boost to the ego he hasn’t had in so long. Even before the divorce, he and his ex hadn’t really taken the effort to flirt with or romance each other.

Joe hitches his arm on the back of the bench so he can rest his head on his fist. He wonders if Alberto will be able to replace his thoughts about Nico.

**

On his way back to the train station that evening freshly showered, fully aware of the hickey high on his neck, and looking very much like a man who’s just gotten some, he spots an antique store.

The front window is stacked wall to wall with things, and the theme continues when he steps inside, a small stairway near the back nearly crowded out with stuff. He takes a look through everything, and then finds, right next to the stairs, a ceiling light with glass leaves surrounding a white bud where the bulb fits in. It’s perfect, and he manages to haggle the price down after the owner of the shop gives him a knowing smile.

He gets on the train with the lamp nestled in a box on his lap and tries not to pump his fist or look too giddy over the fact that he’s had sex for the first time in months. Alberto had been excited to get naked with him, had told Joe how hot he was. Joe’s never been one for one night stands, probably won’t be having one again, but to be reassured that he’s still attractive…

He smiles softly down at the lamp, as his brain thinks back on Alberto, but allows his thoughts to wander to Nico. Nico with his broad shoulders and steady hands, his calm nature, to be the focus of his gaze in bed…

Joe blushes so furiously he has to put his head in his hands.

**

Returning to Bramasole in the evening brings a smile to his face. Even with the disappearing light, the painted and fixed shutters rejuvenate the house. He notes that Nico’s van is not in the drive, but an enormous ladder leading to the roof is up, so Joe assumes that he’ll get the update tomorrow.

As soon as he lets himself in, Girasole immediately marches up to him and climbs the leg of his jeans. She ignores the box he’s juggling in her quest to rub her head against his beard, and Joe has to make several deft maneuvers to place his new lamp on the counter in the kitchen before he can gently grab her and start petting, listening as she starts to purr.

“Ah, what a bad father I’ve been. Only a day I’ve had you and already I’ve abandoned you for a lustful encounter.” He kisses her head, chuckling at his own silliness.

It’s still a strange thing to come back to an empty house with the knowledge that no one else is coming home. He makes dinner and decides midway through that it might be nice to start making lunch for Nico. He won’t bother with Italian foods, but he’s a deft enough hand at other things that he could put together something pretty tasty. It would be nice not to eat alone.

He has dinner, plays with Girasole, and then goes to sit in the overgrown garden and wonder where to even begin with it. He watches the sun go down and enjoys the last remaining minutes of heat before the chill chases him back inside.

His bed is bliss, and he’s out like a light.

**

Joe’s immediate judgment about Quỳnh when he meets her the next morning is that she’s quick as a whip and has a sense of humour that Joe loves. He thinks about how much Andy would like her too.

Of course, the first time he meets her she immediately compliments his hickey and asks how his night went, sending red from the roots of Joe’s hair to the top of his chest. She laughs and reaches for the mugs of coffee that he’s brought out for her and Nico.

Nico’s face is unreadable.

“Just a one off,” Joe finally jokes, making direct eye contact with Nico as he passes him his coffee. He watches the unreadable look get replaced with something softer, something closer to what Joe is used to getting from Nico. He decides not to read into it as he changes the subject. “I figured since you two would be fixing the roof that I’d work outside today too. I’m happy to provide lunch if you guys want to let me know when you usually eat?” Quỳnh looks excited by the prospect. Joe lets his eyes slide to Nico. “I promise I won’t cook Italian, but I’m great with a lot of other stuff and I can definitely put together sandwiches and salad.” Finally, a quirk to Nico’s lip and a nod.

They work out the schedule for that day, Quỳnh aiming to fix a few tiles that she’d noticed yesterday before checking the eavestroughs and helping Nico check that there’s nowhere for water to get into the house through the exterior paint. They’ll check the outbuilding too.

The two of them climb the ladder and Joe moves to start pulling weeds and start corralling the garden. The little outbuilding contains tools that are still in good enough shape, and so between those and the internet, Joe can finally start getting the garden under some kind of control. He only goes inside to get glasses of water, use the washroom, and slather on sunscreen, and he enjoys how meditative it is to pull out weeds and start taking stock of things like retaining walls. He takes his shirt off around noon before bending over to start again, but he snaps up when he hears the clang of tools dropping and Nico cursing.

“You okay?” He yells, turning towards the house.

Quỳnh’s yells back: “Fine!” Before her laughter comes tumbling down from the roof.

By the time one o’clock rolls around, Joe is absolutely drenched in sweat and drinking straight from the kitchen sink, dunking his whole head in it at certain points.

When he pulls his head out from under the running water, he hears the sound of the gates to Bramasole squeaking open.

He isn’t expecting anyone, so he heads back outside, frowning when he sees a small truck trundling down the path. His eyes widen when he recognises the driver though, moving before Andy can even step out of the stopped vehicle, swooping in to pick her up in the biggest bear hug he can manage, swinging her around and growling as she hugs him back. When he finally sets her down, she smiles at him and says: “You look okay.” She tilts her head. “Better than the last time I saw you.” And then he picks her up again.

“What are you doing here?” he finally asks, and she smiles at him.

“I got tired of waiting for you to come get your stuff, so I got your neighbour to help me load the truck and I drove here.” She pauses and, looking far more sincere, says: “I missed you.”

“I missed you too. I’m a bit speechless right now,” he gives her a hairy eyeball when she raises an eyebrow as if to mark the impossibility of that. “What do I owe you?”

“We’ll figure it out, I needed a vacation anyway and you’ve got a free room for me.”

Andy pulls the small truck closer to the house, and Joe’s suddenly thankful that he sold as much of his stuff as he did, because it means everything fits a single small truckload.

“Do you want to eat first? I figured I’d make lunch for everyone and it’s easy enough to add more.”

Andy nods gratefully and is then distracted by the house, whistling loud and long when they get through the front door. “I still cannot believe you bought this,” her face is unimpressed when she looks at him, but she looks away and her tone softens. “Seeing it, though, and knowing some of your plans for it…” She smiles at Joe. “It really suits you Joe.”

Girasole is immediately endeared to Andy. Andy, who has never dealt with cats before, has no idea what to make of the small one making herself at home on her lap as Joe starts cutting things for lunch. Their chatter eventually morphs into the current living situation that Andy has invited herself into.

“Actually, the guest bedroom situation might be a bit complicated so you may get moved around a bit while you’re here.” Joe says honestly.

“Totally fine. I knew I was coming into a construction zone.” She takes a long drink of water. “I will say though,” she nods her head in the direction of the dining room. “I really like how that looks.”

Joe smiles. “Thanks, I’ll show you the paint job later.” He grabs a bowl for salad. “I’m not taking anything out of those boxes until construction’s over, by the way. Just thinking about all the dust I’d have to clean off everything gives me hives.”

**

Joe pokes his head out the front door when lunch is ready but can’t see Quỳnh or Nico. He ends up yelling at the roof and hoping they hear what he’s said. Moments later he watches the two of them scramble down the ladder, shirtless in the heat, and both of their shoulders starting to burn.

Joe’s lucky enough to turn to Andy in time to catch her mouth hanging open and her eyes glued to Quỳnh, his hand going up to click it closed while she scrambles to recover her calm.

Nico and Quỳnh must be starving, because they haul on their t-shirts and hustle into the kitchen to grab plates, water, salad, and sandwiches. Joe introduces everyone, smiling at the way Andy can’t get her eyes off of Quỳnh, and catching Nico’s gaze so he can playfully roll his eyes while tipping his head in the direction of the two of them.

“I’m glad to meet you, Andromache.” Quỳnh says, and then moves to brush her hair back over her shoulder in a way that Joe gets the Joy of watching Andy’s brain collapse in on itself.

Lunch goes well.

**

Afterwards, the work of emptying the moving van begins, and Quỳnh kindly asks if the two of them would like some help.

Joe smiles. “Don’t worry about it. But if you could unlatch the door on your way out that would be great,” she nods before heading back outside to finish the work on the roof. He and Andy follow shortly after to start bringing stuff in, hauling in a rug, seven boxes of books, two boxes of Joe’s clothing, a bookcase, a television, and a mattress and box spring.

The last thing to come in is Joe’s absolute beast of a desk. Andy complains the whole time except for when Quỳnh comes into view, when she immediately starting to act as though it’s the easiest thing she’s ever lifted.

Quỳnh stops just outside the door when they’re taking a quick break to shake out their arms. “You sure you don’t need help?” She asks, eyeing his desk.

Joe makes eye contact with Andy who shakes her head the gentlest amount. “Oh no, Andromache is strong enough to do this all day. I’m the one slowing the process down.” Quỳnh looks over at Andy, who is definitely flexing her arms despite not actually carrying the desk, and Joe watches her check Andy out head to toe before smiling at her.

“You’re very strong. I’m very impressed,” before heading back outside and up the ladder again.

When Andy looks back at him, Joe wiggles his eyebrows.

“Shut up,” Andy says, but the smile on her face as she rolls her eyes makes Joe cackle.

**

Joe spends the rest of the week with Andy, including touring Cortona and making the effort to get to Florence and Rome. They do as many touristy things as they can, and Joe’s Italian has now improved enough that he can charm who he needs to if the occasion calls for it.

Andy brings Alberto up when they’re in the Uffizi.

“It was a one off,” Joe says, taking all the time he wants to look at the extremely grumpy face of Mary and the Latin laser beam being shot at her by Gabriel.

“Sorry to hear about that,” Andy says, but Joe shrugs in response.

“It’s okay. It was just nice to have someone remind me that I’m not horrific to look at,” it’s a joke that comes out more sincere than Joe intended.

“Still. Anyone else you’ve been thinking about?”

Joe is immediately suspicious at the way Andy phrases it. She’s too casual by half. “Is there something you’d like to share with the class Andromache?” He asks dryly.

“Just noticed that you spend a lot of time checking out the guy fixing your house.” Andy says, before moving to the next painting.

He could deny it, he supposes, but why bother. “Hard not to. He’s helping me renovate. I have to look at him eventually. I’m amazing you noticed given how much time you spent gazing at Quỳnh.” Andy nails him with a dead eyed stare. “Ok, yes, I regularly check him out. But he’s technically working for me so no need to mess around with that.”

She smirks. “He checks you out too.” She says, then seems to reconsider her words. “Actually, less checking out, more considering marriage proposals.”

Joe elbows her in the side. “He stares, but I think he’s just trying to figure out what he wants to say.”

“Yeah, what to say for his proposal. I swear Joe I’ve never seen a man with more hope in his eyes. Except for when you look at him.”

Joe shrugs, desperate for a topic change, and for once, Andy lets it go.

They finish at the Uffizi and go to pick up the overhead light for the dining room that Joe had found on Subito. The man’s older, chattering on about his grandkids after they make the exchange, and Joe eventually has to fake a cramp to get them out of the situation as he watches Andy’s soul drift further and further from her body.

They’re halfway through the trip home with the radio on low when Joe looks sideways at Andy. “Do you really think… it’s okay that I’m moving on this quickly from a five year marriage?” He feels like he needs to have mourned harder. Three months is nothing. Is Joe flighty? Is this why his ex felt the need to cheat?

He thinks about this before he goes to sleep at night sometimes; the fact that he’s already slept with someone. That he’s developed a pretty serious crush on Nico.

Andy’s firm when she answers. “No.” Her hands tighten on the steering wheel. “You move at whatever speed you want. If you losing twenty pounds of weight because of how depressed you were could have been avoided, I wouldn’t care if you found someone the day that fucker left you.” Her eyes don’t leave the road, but she reaches over and grabs his hand. “I don’t give a fuck Joe, and you shouldn’t either. Do what makes you happy. Even if it’s ogling while your reno man climbs up a ladder.”

“His thighs are beyond my personal ability to not ogle.” Joe says, then clears his throat. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

**

Nico warns Joe away from trying to do the bathroom and dining room lights himself and calls Booker, who arrives mid-morning the next day and immediately teases Joe about becoming a hard-ass construction boss after telling Booker where he wants the lights.

Booker continues: “You’re also the second best electrician in a two metre radius, so you’ll be helping me out.” And Joe chuckles but moves to help Booker pick up the dining room table to put it out of the way so he can get the chandelier up.

They chat a bit as Booker takes down the first light, Joe complimenting the man on thinking of USB ports in all the wall plug plates.

“My partner loves technology, so I’ve redone the whole house to make sure he can do whatever he wants. Except for smart appliances, he hates those.”

“What does your partner do?”

“He’s a realtor, but he used to consult for the French police. He met me while I was in the drunk tank,” Booker grunts as he hauls the original light down and picks up the chandelier, Joe supporting it from the bottom. “Of course, it took a little bit to connect after that. He was mourning his wife and I had three kids that I was in the process of disappointing.”

“How did you end up here?”

Booker chuckles. “I was chased out of France for some shady business dealings that were possibly my fault. The south of France wasn’t safe anymore, I’d rather die than live in northern France, and he’s from England originally,” He gives such a perfectly French grimace that Joe has to laugh. “So we did what all good relationships do: we compromised and came to Italy.”

Joe chuckles. “If it makes you feel any better, the reason I’m here is because my husband of five years cheated on me, I lost twenty pounds from depression, and then Andy signed me up for a Gay and Away Tuscan tour so I could be depressed in Italy,” Booker’s head snaps back in laughter, leaving Joe to take most of the weight of the chandelier.

“That does make me feel better actually,” he smirks down at Joe. “Misery loves company, no?”

Joe smiles. “I have to say, actually, things have been looking up since I got here. I’m eating regularly, going outside, doing stuff with my hands, getting enough sleep. You?”

Booker smiles. “Not too shabby at all.”

It’s a few minutes of quiet as Booker rewires some stuff, but eventually something he said strikes Joe. “Wait, you said your partner is in real estate. Is James Copley your partner?” Booker beams. “I can’t believe your partner sold me this house and now you’re fixing my lights.”

Booker chuckles as he finishes connecting the chandelier to the beam running across the centre of the dining room and double checking it won’t fall. “It’s the nepotism,” he finally says, making direct eye contact as he puts his tools away. Joe cracks up before helping Booker move the table back, then watching as Booker grabs his bag to go put the light in the bathroom in next and looks at Joe. “You and Andy should come to the party we’re holding. James’ niece is getting baptised, so his sister’s borrowing our place to hold the after-party. There will be alcohol if that’s your thing, and food if it’s not. Also, I guess Nicky might be there if that’s an incentive.”

Joe feels warm at the invitation. “Sounds great.”

“Also don’t let Nicky convince you that he wins bets against me. That man has never won a bet in his life.”

**

After Booker puts the bathroom light in, Joe spends the afternoon painting the rest of the tree in the bathroom, Andy curled up on the couch she’d dragged over so she could talk to him while she drank wine. When he finishes, hes smiles. Aside from waiting for the paint to dry and the linens to go in, the bathroom is officially done.

With the late afternoon light beaming in through the windows, and Andy out for drinks with Quỳnh, Joe turns now to the living room. It’s all plastered, and Nico had checked the fireplace and flooring and deemed the room non-hazardous, so now it just needs a coat of paint. Joe, now well versed in the process, quickly tapes everything up and puts drop cloths down. The walls get more of the neutral paint that Joe looks forward to covering with something, and then he turns his attention to the wall with the archway to the dining room in it.

He spends ten minutes thinking on what he could do with it before eventually, hesitantly, he goes to the kitchen to find his bag, fishing out his coloured pencils and the still new journal and taking both into the living room.

He sits down and puts them on the floor in front of him. They sit there for long minutes as Joe stares without reaching for them, the weight of weeks of not being able to open any notebook. Not to sketch, or journal, or make lists. Finally, he grabs for the sketchbook and cracks its open, and when faced with the simple emptiness of the first page, feels something crack open inside himself.

The first colours go down quickly, almost frantically, starting with swirling yellows and blues. Joe doesn’t think he’s even drawing for the wall anymore, just wants to get something down before the urge leaves him. At some point he starts crying, sniffing his way through another two pages and watching blotches of water appear on the pages. He finally slows down a bit as he swaps to drawing loops and shapes, smiling as a small Girasole appears in the corner of one page before dabbing at his eyes with the bottom of his t-shirt.

Someone clears their throat and Joe looks up to see Nico standing at the entrance to the living room, his face lit by the afternoon sun pouring in through the windows and looking unbearably kind.

“I just wanted to let you know that I was going to head out.”

“Oh.” Joe croaks. “I should have asked; what were you up to today?” He gestures at the floor beside him but tries to add a question mark to the movement so Nico doesn’t feel pressured. The couch is still pushed into the space by the bathroom.

Joe’s favourite quirked smile sits in the corner of Nico’s mouth as he comes over and sits down. “Finished the roof and the two retaining walls that you wanted in the garden. Double-checked to make sure your fence wasn’t going to come tumbling down.”

Joe flips to a new page in his notebook and picks up a pen to start making a list, glad that Nico hasn’t said anything about walking in on Joe crying into his notebook.

“The upstairs bathroom is going to be complicated because of the washing machine. We’re going to need someone to do the more complex pipe work, and we will likely need to also take down a wall in the study and maybe the hall.”

Joe nods, taking down details as Nico rattles them off. Nico apparently knows someone who will do the job right and for the right price, but it will still take at least three days before Joe has some kind of working bathroom, and that’s if the shower comes in at the right time.

At some point Girasole trots into the room, sniffs at Nico’s legs, and then crumples over his crossed calves in a sprawl. Joe’s distracted for a moment by the way Nico’s large hand covers the kitten’s head completely as he starts to pet her, but her tiny body is rumbling with the force of her purrs as Nico rubs his thumb across her face. Joe can’t help but smile.

 

IMG_0132

 

Then he realises that he’ll be without a shower for at least three days during one of the hottest months of the year.

“I’m going to have to wash in the rain barrel.”

Nico looks at Joe in confusion.

“Well, I’ll have no water, so it’s sit in my own filth after gardening or wash in the rain barrel.”

“You can stay with me.” Nico says abruptly, looking down at Girasole. Even he seems a little surprised at the offer.

Joe’s touched at his thoughtfulness. “I wouldn’t want to put you out.” He leans his elbow on his knee so he can rest his head in his hand. “Especially since I’d be there for a bit. I don’t want to bother you.”

“You wouldn’t be. I’m offering.” Nico shifts, making shushing noises at Girasole when his weight moves and she mews in complaint. “It will be a week at most. I promise that you won’t be a bother. I’ve got space for her as well.”

“Let me think about it. I don’t know when Andy is planning on leaving.”

They chat a bit more about what’s left to do, and Joe offers to make dinner but Nico declines, insisting on needing to head out. Joe rests his weight on the frame of the front door as Nico gets back into his truck, giving Nico a lazy wave as he watches the truck trundle off.

Joe doesn’t hear Andy coming back to the house until he’s in bed himself, just drifting until he hears the front door open and close, and then dropping into sleep when he knows she’s safe.

**

He makes breakfast the next morning, springing for something a little bit flashier than toast by doing a stack of crepes. He sets the table and calls up to Andy but doesn’t hear anything back, which is unsurprising given how thick the walls are in this house. He dutifully tromps up the stairs to find her and ask if she’s okay to eat breakfast. If she’s hungover, the answer will be mostly yes, but she’ll finish off her own pot of coffee first.

He knocks on her door, thinks he hears someone say ‘yes’, and opens it.

Only to be faced with Andy’s head buried between Quỳnh’s thighs, Quỳnh’s hands clutching at Andy’s hair.

He slams the door shut, barely hearing a muffle “Joe!” from Quỳnh and decides to just shout through the door that breakfast is ready before going back downstairs.

He’s poured an enormous, strong coffee for himself by the time the two of them come to join him. Neither of them seems particularly ashamed, instead just grinning at each other as they settle down at the table.

They both fork two crepes onto their plates in silence before Joe finally rolls his eyes. “Sorry for walking in on you, didn’t realise Quỳnh had come home with you last night Andy.” He turns his gaze solely to Andy. “Someone needs to come in to fix the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom so the washing machine and proper shower can go in. We’re going to be without water for at least three days. I was going to book a hotel room for us,” he raises an eyebrow at Andy. “Unless you have other plans?” He watches as she and Quỳnh stare at each other before Andy speaks up.

“I can stay with Quỳnh. Are you sure you’re happy to stay alone in a hotel room?”

Joe shifts, then watches as both Andy and Quỳnh’s gazes sharpen on him. “Nico invited me to stay with him while the construction is going on.” They’re both silent, and then the news seems to sink in and the two of them crow like a pair of roosters. Joe scrambles. “I don’t want to hear it. I’m his boss.”

Quỳnh starts in. “Joe, Nicky is so into you. I swear this is his dream come true. He’d quit if it meant he could start something with you.” Andy is nodding next to her.

Joe has to stop this before it can get too far. “He’s--”

Andy looks at Quỳnh. “Have you ever noticed that he tries to flex whenever he thinks Joe will notice?” Quỳnh starts to giggle, nodding frantically at Andy.

Joe thinks that's unfair because Andy did exactly the same thing whenever Quỳnh walked by. He says as much, but Andy waves it away like it’s not the same thing.

Quỳnh continues. “Booker, I think I mentioned him to you before, said that Nicky told him that the first time he saw Joe painting, Nicky slopped plaster all down his front because he couldn’t believe how gorgeous he was.”

Joe puts his head in his hand as Quỳnh continues. “Which is nothing compared to the other day when Joe was working shirtless in the garden. Nicky dropped his whole toolbelt while he was trying put it on and it took his pants with it.” The two of them dissolve into peals of laughter.

Joe knows he’s completely red. “Please just eat your breakfast you two, I’m begging you.”

Andy’s gaze snaps to him. “You have to stay with him. It’s an act of charity at this point.”

Joe’s confused. “I know. He’s the one offering to let me stay without paying.”

Quỳnh shakes her head. “Oh no, you’re the one giving to charity.”

**

James and Booker’s house is on the other side of Cortona, so Andy and Joe take the little second-hand scooter Joe had bought. They zip into the driveway of a party that is already in full swing, a crowd outside chatting and a house full of laughing people.

They hop off the scooter and head towards the front door, Joe hoping that Booker is nearby, and then immediately spotting the man waving at them, James standing next to him looking quietly happy. Introductions are made, and Joe smiles and thanks James again for helping him with the house. Booker tells them that their kids are somewhere around but not to hold their breath on meeting them.

Joe ends up losing Andy about five minutes later when she spots Quỳnh talking to someone, but Joe can’t say anything because as soon as he spots Nico lurking in a corner near the stairs, he makes a beeline.

“I’m glad I know someone here.” He says when he gets close enough. Nico startles and Joe smiles. “Also good to know I can surprise you once in a while.”

“You always surprise me,” Nice says back, and it’s so sincere that Joe doesn’t know what to do with it.

Nico looks good, is all Joe can think. The way the light comes into this little secluded corner brings out his jawline and the breadth of his hands around his drink. When he looks up Nico is looking back at him, so Joe coughs and mentions that he needs a drink of his own.

“Ah, they’re over here. I’ll show you.”

They chat and drink before supper is served on long wooden tables in the garden.

It takes long hours before the night starts to wind down, but he and Nico have managed to stake out a wrought iron table in a back corner of the yard and Joe is feeling warm with wine and the company. So far, Nico’s been entertaining him with some of his worst relationship stories, the current one involving Nico not understanding why his first girlfriend kept wanting to sit on his lap that has Joe cackling.

“I don’t think I could have been more clueless. It turned out that I was gay, but even in my first relationship with a man? Oblivious.” He delivers the line with no expression on his face, and Joe’s cheeks are hurting from how hard he’s laughing.

He ends up leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table, his head cupped in his hands as he smiles at Nico. He can feel the energy change as he lets one hand fall, tracing an outline around where Nico’s hand is splayed on the tabletop.

“How did you end up here Joe?” Nico asks in almost a whisper.

“Booker invited me.” Joe answers, trying to avoid the question. Nico doesn’t laugh, so Joe sighs and lets his fingers start playing Nico’s like a piano. “Andy signed me up for a “Gay and Away” tour.” Nico snorts, bringing a smile back to Joe’s mouth. “She told me to go be depressed in Italy, and in revenge I bought a house that I’ve been so busy with I haven’t had the time to be mentally ill.” Sometimes he wonders if the post-divorce depressive episode was a one off, or if it’ll be a fun repeating pattern for the rest of his life.

Nico frowns. “Was this right after your divorce?” Joe looks up at him in surprise and Nico looks sheepish. “Booker told me, sorry.”

Joe stays quiet for a moment. “Two months after. It went through so fast; just a month for a five year relationship to be over.” He can’t look at Nico, just has to keep tapping his fingers across Nico’s knuckles. “I got to spend two desolate months losing weight like it was my job because I couldn’t get out of bed. I told my parents I couldn’t make it to Eid because of work, but really, I just thought my parents wouldn’t recognise me or know what to do with me.” He lets his ring finger gently rest on the nail of the same finger on Nico’s hand. “Of course, avoiding social interaction is not a good idea when you are already depressed, and I still regret not going.”

Nicolò looks pensive. “You don’t have to answer, but why did you get divorced?”

Joe thinks on whether he’s had enough wine to talk about this and pours himself another drink.

“I showed up at home, and he was standing in the hallway,” Joe’s throat has a rock stuck in it and he can tell the waterworks are about to start, but he pushes them back. “And he had all his suitcases lined up in a row against the wall. And then he told me that he’d met someone else. It turned out he’d met that someone else about six months prior and was too cowardly to say anything about it.” He sniffs and leans back in his chair, finally able to look at Nico, who looks back with sympathy across his face.

“Joe, I’m sorry.”

Joe waves his hands as though to disperse the words. “I’m lucky. I’m here now and I get to meet people like you. Much better I’d say.”

Nico’s face does something complicated. “I don’t know how much better I am than him.”

Joe raises an eyebrow. “Well, I can tell you for sure that you haven’t cheated on me, so that’s pretty good.” Nico’s mouth does something just short of a smile. His eyes haven’t left Joe’s face.

“You bring me coffee,” Joe starts listing things off on his fingers. “You help me get a sick kitten to the vet. You aren’t into minimalist design,” Nico raises an eyebrow at that. “You seem to like what I paint and help me when I put a foot through the floor.”

“I don’t think I’m doing anything that anyone else wouldn’t do.”

“You are.” Joe says confidently. “You offered me an apartment while my bathroom is getting renovated. You’re a good person Nico, I promise, and I really like you.” And Joe means it, and if Nico asked right now if Joe wanted to go to dinner with him, it wouldn’t take even a second for Joe to agree. He wants this. He’s in too deep now, is starting to think about how to fit Nico into the house the man is helping him fix.

Instead, he gets a sad smile from Nico, and Joe watches as the man seems to withdraw into himself in real time. His gaze never leaves Joe’s face, but Joe would swear that Nico’s eyes dip down to stare at Joe’s lips. “I like you too Joe. I’m sure you will find someone who is exactly what you need right now.”

Joe, a bit confused by the non-sequitur, nearly says ‘but you’re what I need right now’ when a shriek of laughter from inside has Nicky standing and offering Joe his hand to help him off his chair so they can go say their goodbyes.

He ends up also driving Joe home because Andy had asked if she could give Quỳnh a ride back to her place.

Nico let’s Joe off at the gate to Bramasole, and Joe still loves the house even in darkness, but when Joe crawls into bed that night, he feels unbearably lonely.

**

The next day is, in Joe’s opinion, weird. Nico still drinks the coffee Joe makes for him, but he doesn’t stay as long to chat. He still eats the lunch that Joe makes, but he’s more reserved than Joe would have thought after the conversation they’d had the night before. Joe had thought that the night before had done something, but now it seems like Nico’s trying to get away from Joe, and Joe can’t help but wonder what he did wrong.

Joe ends up spending the day working in the garden instead of painting just so he can get out of the house. Then he texts Nile and asks if she wants to go for drinks.

I absolutely do. When and where?

**

“How’s your big fat crush on your construction dude?” Nile asks as she takes a sip from her spritzer.

“I don’t know, have you asked out Dizzy at the museum yet?” They stare each other down before they both crack up.

“What an absolute pair of sad sacks we are.” Nile says, and Joe leans forward to clink his glass with hers.

“I try not to think about it too hard. I’m pretty sure Andy found the love of her life the day she arrived because I’ve barely seen her since last week.” Nile groans in commiseration, before changing the subject to talk about how her mom and brother are doing back in Chicago and how she needs to take a French language course soon to help fulfill a couple of weird course requirements.

“You’d think that learning Italian from scratch would be enough, but apparently I’m not European unless I have five languages,” she grumps.

“It’s easier because we’re so many countries packed together. Hard to learn many languages if you aren’t interacting with it regularly.

“What about you?” She asks.

Joe smiles. “I have four,”

“I hate you. What do you speak?”

Joe brings up a hand to start counting. “Derija, French, English, and now Italian,” Nile puts her head in her hands. “I can speak French with you if you want. To help you improve?” and she grumbles a bit more but eventually nods.

After another drink, Joe finally gives in. “I do have an update about Nico, actually, but it’s a weird one.”

Nile raises an eyebrow and sits back in her chair and Joe starts in on the story of the night before, ending with, “it’s like we’re back to being strangers.”

Nile’s eyebrows furrow. “What the fuck?”

“That’s what I thought. I promise that I didn’t invite you for drinks to talk about this though.”

“Oh no. Your life is somehow more of a tragedy than mine right now, so you keep talking.”

**

He gets back to the house and can only be glad that the construction on his bathroom doesn’t start until the next day so he can stand in his bathtub with the hand shower, breathe deep, and work extremely hard to stop feeling sorry for himself. If Nico doesn’t feel comfortable with something (still no word on what, exactly, that something might be) then that’s fine and Joe won’t push him. Joe’s his boss, and while Joe is starting to feel more and more confident that he’s ready for something long-term again, that doesn’t negate the fact that Nico might be worried about his job.

While he’s making dinner, he texts Nico to ask whether it’s still okay that Joe stays at his place while the bathroom renovation is happening before putting his phone down on the table. He is unbelievably chill about all this.

Then his phone vibrates and the speed that he scrabbles for it is embarrassing at best, but Nico’s 'of course' is good. Big weight off the shoulders. Definitely not going to make the energy the two of them have going worse.

He packs a bag for five days and hopes that he won’t have to wash his clothes at Nico’s place.

**

Construction starts bright and early the next day, and Joe makes a concentrated effort to not go inside. Nico had arrived and given Joe a nod instead of a wave and a greeting, so obviously there’s been no change with that. He spends all morning pulling weeds and, forgetting that he has no water in his house, ends up having to use the rain barrel anyway to get himself together enough that he can go into town to buy bottled water.

By the end of the day Joe is absolutely disgusting, nearly to the point of offering to walk instead of getting a ride into town, but Nico gestures at Joe to get in the truck.

Nico’s apartment is nice, and Joe takes it in during the quick tour Nico gives him. The place is stacked with books, odds and ends, and, notably, a longsword hanging on the wall. Nico finishes the tour at the spare bedroom that will be Joe’s home for the next few days.

“Dinner will be ready in a bit,” Nico states, before turning around and stiffly walking towards the kitchen.

Joe gets Girasole set up, and then finds himself free to take a desperately needed shower that does not involve a stupid hand sprayer. The initial fight with the water temperature takes a bit, but the bliss of having an honest to god shower is such a delight that he doesn’t care that he’s probably going to lose his skin to third degree burns.

He gets out of the shower and goes through his skin and hair care routine with a spring in his step, his hands then reaching for his underwear and sweatpants. He then reaches for his t-shirt, only to have the shirt unravel into another pair of sweatpants. He mutters in annoyance before walking to the door to go grab one from his room, but instead nearly bowls over Nico, who was standing in front of the bathroom door about to knock. Joe avoids an accident only by virtue of grabbing him around the arm and using the momentum to let Nico fall against his chest instead of the other way. He takes a moment to be happy about being strong enough now that he can do this before helping Nico get settled on his feet again.

“Sorry about that!” Joe apologises, letting go of Nico, patting his shoulder and then power walking to his suitcase and pulling out and putting on a t-shirt.

Cool, calm, collected.

When he turns back to Nico, the man looks red in the face, but keeps his tone neutral when he tells Joe that dinner will take another twenty minutes, and that he’s fed Girasole.

Joe smiles at him. “Thanks, I’ll be there in a second.” He waits until he's sure that Nico's back in the kitchen before he whisper-screams quietly into his fist.

**

The rest of the next two days goes much the same: Gardening and avoiding Nico.

The nights at Nico’s apartment haven’t been horrible, they mostly watched tv, Joe doing a little bit of sketching before turning in at a time that only eight-year-olds recognise as bedtime in order to avoid the fact that Nico still isn’t really speaking to him.

The one break ends up being in the morning, when Nico stumbles out of his room looking absolutely exhausted. Joe frowns, unsure of what could have kept the man awake, but quickly pouring Nico a cup of coffee. A tired Nico seems to forget that something's going on and so he chats with Joe as per usual, only going silent once he's had some caffeine.

Joe suddenly realises that he’s been staring intently at the man who is delivering his stove for way too long and has to pretend like his Italian is still shit as an excuse. He signs for the delivery and realises that it might be a good idea to start thinking about asking Nico what the fuck was going on.

Not today though. Tomorrow is probably the best time.

**

Instead, he ends up being unable to suffer through another quiet night and decides to just rip the bandage off.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Nico looks surprised, as though Joe is presenting him with completely new information about something. “No,” his brow creases. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that ever since I got drunk and told you about my divorce it feels like I’ve made you uncomfortable. You barely talk to me? And I understand if it was too much information or something, but if you could let me know so I can avoid doing it again...”

Nico’s eyes are the platonic ideal of deer in the headlights. “I promise you I’m not mad at you. I…” And here it looks like it’s physically killing Nico to do this. “I apologise. I’m not mad. I’ve just… had a lot on my mind since that night, and I’ve been dealing with it poorly.”

Joe narrows his eyes. “Alright…” He shifts to look back at the tv.

Nico clears his throat. “I’ll try and deal with it better,” and Joe nods again.

The next five minutes are absolutely silent. Joe’s seriously pondering just going to bed at 8pm again, but Nico clears his throat, and they manage to make casual conversation for a whole half-hour.

Joe thinks that this is a solid 9/10 in the moving forward department.

**

The stilted return to camaraderie lasts until the next day, when the plumber essentially tells Nico to fuck off. Nico comes downstairs to help Joe move things out of the kitchen for the last of the major renovations, and finds Joe just just as Joe’s about to go under the sink to disconnect it. Nico shakes his head and gently budges him out of the way. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Joe raises an eyebrow at Nico. “Okay… That is a fair look to give me. But, I think it would be a good idea if I did this, and I will show you how to do something else.”

Joe gestures at Nico, watches him hitch his shoulders back and then crouch to get under the sink. He gets distracted by the fact that Nico’s pants look like they’re one careless sneeze from splitting because of his powerful thighs, but once Nico is turned over and slipped halfway under the sink, Joe does his best to refocus.

There have been multiple times during this process that Joe has been impressed by Nico’s fix-it abilities, and he can only assume the sink will be detached and out within moments, but it wouldn’t be a horrible thing to try and learn how to do it himself. Who knows how long Nico will be around for?

Joe goes to kneel down so he can look at what Nico is doing but loses his balance a bit on the way down, his hand coming up to brace himself and landing on Nico’s knee.

There’s a dull clunk from under the sink.

“Shit.” Nico says, the first time Joe’s ever heard him speak English, and then water comes geyser-ing out from underneath the sink, pouring onto the floor around Nico so quickly Joe is barely able to back off in time to avoid being collateral damage.

It takes thirty seconds before Nico does something that stops the water, the kitchen sink letting out once last groan that sounds like a fart. The puddle now stretches nearly three metres out from the sink and Nico is absolutely soaking from where he received the initial blast.

It’s quiet for a moment, and then Nico wiggles out from under the sink, sopping wet and surprised.

The laughter starts quietly, but moves quickly to chuckles, and then Joe is ugly guffawing in less time than it took for Nico to turn the tap off. He bends at the waist, as he laughs harder than he has in absolute ages, almost in pain from the ‘cat pet backwards’ look sprawled across Nico’s face. He tries to stop, but every time he looks back at Nico, he falls into a fresh round of laughter, finally trailing off into hiccups because it hurts to keep going. He wipes his eyes and looks at Nico again: “My hero,” ekes out between his lips as he struggles not to giggle.

He holds out a hand to help Nico up, takes an extremely fast look at the way his t-shirt clings to his body, and then focuses on the man’s face again. Only, Nico meets his eyes and Joe feels like he’s back at Booker’s party, something in the air that feels almost like possibility. Nico’s eyes dart down to his lips, and Joe’s mouth feels dry.

“Nicolò,” he manages. “Why did you avoid me after the party?”

And then Nico’s hands are coming up to cup Joe’s head, his eyes asking, and all Joe can think is yes, and then their lips are pressed together and he closes his eyes and kisses Nico back and it feels so good and right and all that Joe’s wanted for ages.

Only Nico’s suddenly pulling away and Joe is confused.

He’s not looking at Joe anymore. “I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

Nico’s jaw clenches, his eyes focused on Joe’s chest.

“Because I’m not what you want.”

And now Joe is really confused. Did Nico miss the fact that Joe had kissed him back? Do they need to kiss again?

“What do you mean?”

And now Nico, who is usually such a still person when he’s standing without work to do, fidgets. It takes a bit before he seems to finally decide on holding his hands behind his back, like he’s trying not to grab Joe with them, which is the opposite of what Joe wants.

Nico clears his throat, still avoiding looking at Joe’s face. “I don’t want this to be only once,” he shifts his weight. “I can’t. I adore you Joe, a lot. And…" He grimaces. "It cannot be a one off.” He repeats.

Joe frowns. “Why would it be a one off?”

“I know you aren’t ready to get into a relationship, and I tried not to get too attached because I know that you’re looking for something short term, which is fine, but I can’t be short term.”

Joe can’t help the incredulous sound that leaves his mouth. “What are you talking about? Is this about that one night stand I had?”

Nicky shifts again, a look that Joe suddenly recognises as jealousy crosses his face. “No… just. You mentioned to Andy that you weren’t looking for anything permanent.”

Joe’s heart does a flip. “Nico, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re completely wrong.” His hands come up to cup the man’s face as a smile crosses his face. “I really, really like you and if you asked me to dinner tonight and tomorrow and a million days after that I’d be there.” He watches as Nicky’s eyes widen; let’s his thumbs rub across his cheekbones. “You should kiss me again. Maybe that’ll stop you from thinking I’m not looking for something permanent,” and then they reel each other in, and they kiss and kiss and kiss, and Nico’s absolutely sopping wet, but Joe doesn’t care because yes.

IMG_0131

They take a moment to pause, foreheads leaning together and sharing air. Joe feels like at this point he needs to say a few things, to make sure Nico knows what he’s getting into. “You’ll have to be patient with me,” He finally whispers, setting his forehead on Nico’s shoulder. “Because I… I was really hurt by what happened when my husband left me,” he feels Nico tense. “I promise I’m working on it. But Nicolò, I don’t want this to be short term.”

Nico reaches up to grab Joe’s wrist and press a kiss to it and says, “I’ll take care of you.” And Joe knows he will. Just like he’s taken care of this house that Joe loves so much.

They kiss again, and Joe is giddy by the time he finally pulls completely away from Nico. He keeps a finger hooked in the man’s belt loops. “I can’t believe you thought I was going to hit it and quit it.”

Nico scowls but Joe can see the way that a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “How was I supposed to know? I was working with the information I had.”

“It really hurts my feelings Nicolò.”

“Please. I’ve seen your feelings and I’m glad they’re injured.”

Joe chuckles, feeling light with relief and happiness. He pulls Nicolò back in for another deep kiss, only to be interrupted by the plumber, a man with an incredible smile named Lykon, clearing his throat in the archway of the kitchen. Joe would feel guilty, but he’s just too happy to care.

“I hate to break up your love festival, but I need Nicolò to help me out.” He frowns at Nico. "How are you soaking wet when the water's off?" Nico can only answer with a shrug, smiling at Joe as Joe lets go of Nico’s belt loop, leaving him to follow the plumber back upstairs.

Nico stops at the bottom of the stares and turns back to Joe. “I will be right back as soon as I help Lykon. Don’t touch the sink Joseph, I fear what you will accomplish.” As though his hair isn’t still plastered to his head with water.

Joe smiles as he watches him go upstairs, only to be disturbed by the sound of running water.

There, in the middle of the hall, is the copper tap; fresh, crystal clear water dripping out of it.

**

The bathroom upstairs gets a new shower and a washing machine and dryer, the rest of the house gets all the paint it needs, most of it neutral, but with the expectation that paintings and murals and shelves will eventually cover it all.

Joe and Nico eventually manage to get the kitchen sink out after another laughing fit from Joe. The floor gets cleaned to within an inch of its life, revealing gleaming tile that Joe decides not to replace. Cabinets go in, and Nico builds him a beautiful little island in the centre of it all with two bar stools. The new stovetop goes in, alongside a sink, and Nico shows Joe how to put in tile backsplash.

Throughout the renovations in the kitchen and bathroom, Joe stays at Nico’s apartment. They trade kisses while making dinner together, then make out on the couch like teenagers after dinner. They go on dates, but they’re basically already living together, and Joe feels like he’s in a relationship going at twice the speed and in the wrong order, but he thinks back to Andy’s words about doing what he wants, and then reminds himself that he’d done all the steps in the right order for his marriage and that had still fallen apart.

He tells Nico way too early that he loves him, but Andy was right, there is no time limit. Nico smiles at him and whispers it back and kisses him.

He listens to the endless “I told you so"s from Andy and celebrates when he goes for drinks with Nile and finds out that Dizzy asked her out. When Booker comes in to put in a couple more ceiling lights in in the kitchen, he gets to watch Nico and Booker make a stupid bet about whether Booker will shock himself, and then has to comfort Nico with kisses when he loses the ten euro. Andy does go back to London, but only long enough to get reassigned to the publishing offices in Florence so she can come back to Quỳnh.

The care package from his mum comes in after all the renovations are done, and the smell when he opens it makes him homesick. A few hamsas to hang near doors alongside some snacks that she knows keep well. A container of proper lump sugar is set alongside dried verbena and a box of green tea. There’s a note tucked in with everything where she tells Joe how much she loves him in all the ways she can. Joe tucks the paper into his journal to keep safe until he can find a good spot for it.

**

Joe turns on the tap in the hall, clear water running into the bucket beneath it, ready to clean the front step.

The house still smells a bit like fresh paint, but after the construction had stopped and everything that might create dust was finished, Joe had gone through the entire house and cleaned it to within an inch of its life. He’d finally pulled open boxes from his apartment and brought things out that, for nearly a year, hadn’t seen anything but the inside of his office in the house in London.

The sounds of Nicky trowelling grout pours in through the open front door, and Joe picks up the bucket, carefully setting it just inside the sill so as not to disturb Nico’s work on the front step as well as the new tiles that border the front door.

The box of tiles had been a gift from when Joe had finally gone to back to Tunis to visit his parents for Eid al-Kabir. It had been a difficult visit, Joe needing to explain what had happened to him when he couldn’t visit for Eid, crying through his explanation and watching his father cry with him, his mother’s hand tight around his. Afterwards, they’d hugged Joe tightly and his mother had pressed kisses to his forehead and cheeks.

He’d come back to Nico with a car stuffed to the brim with food and various things that his relatives had passed on to him from their own houses that were still in amazing shape but didn’t get used. The star of the show had been an absolutely spectacular tea-set from his Auntie, beautiful enough that his mum had accused her of trying to buy Yusuf’s love.

He can’t walk down the front steps, so he heads deeper into the house to get to the side door leading outside. He takes a moment to look into the office and smiles at Girasole, tucked away on the same overstuffed armchair he’d found her on and enjoying the sunlight pouring in through the window.

The shelves in the office are stuffed to the brim with Joe’s poetry, reference books, and old sketchbooks. Nicolò’s books occupy way more space in the bookshelves in the living room, alongside the art and knickknacks that had come from his apartment. Upstairs, Nico’s clothing sits next to his in the wardrobe, and with autumn starting to come on, they get to snuggle in bed with the little stove heating the room.

Joe’s laptop sits on the beast of the desk that he and Andy had moved in all those weeks ago, and on it is the beginning of the first book that Joe’s written in nearly half a year.

He passes through the living room and smiles at the sunflowers that sprawl on the walls beside the fireplace, right next to a shelf filled with Nico’s knickknacks.

He opens the side door and walks out into the garden, still in progress and in the midst of being prepared for winter. He turns the corner and spots Nico kneeled down and finishing off the last of the tile. He doesn’t go to him right away, instead turning his head to the sun and revelling in the warmth.

He jumps a little when he feels two hands on his hips but smiles at the kiss that’s pressed to the nape of his neck. “The light loves you,” Nico whispers, and Joe turns around, ignoring Nico’s dirty hands as he pulls him into a lingering kiss.

When he pulls away, there’s Nicky’s smile, the one that quirks the sides of his mouth like he’s trying not to let everything out so he can savour what he’s feeling. He kisses Joe again and again and only takes a break to say: “And so do I.”