Sunrise was a lilac sigh suspended below the horizon. Paolo lay still, eyes opening just a fraction. Daan’s face was all but invisible in the low light, only the contrast of brown skin against snowy white pillowcase giving away its location. His left hand was much clearer, resting quiescent on the sheets between them, not far from Paolo’s head.
Paolo pressed his lips to the tip of his finger and tucked the small embrace into the centre of Daan’s relaxed palm. Daan’s fingers flexed in response to the whisper-light touch, and he retracted his hand, rolling over so his back faced Paolo. He mumbled something indecipherable, then sighed and settled again, though Paolo could tell by the cadence of his breathing that he was waking up.
Sliding across the bed, he wrapped himself around Daan’s back, one hand circling his waist. The sleep-warm skin of Daan’s tummy was soft under his palm. “Good morning,” he murmured next to Daan’s ear.
“Mmm, m’rning.” Daan yawned widely, rubbing the side of his face into the pillow. His stubble made a sibilant rasp against the cotton. “’Time’s it?” He shifted his arm back to lie atop Paolo’s side, another point of contact above and beyond the relaxed curl of his body resting at Paolo’s front.
“Still early.” They had time yet before the rest of the household would wake.
Daan let out another small sigh, feeling contented as Paolo’s lips smoothed across the back of his neck, just below the border of springy dark curls. He did like morning kisses.
Paolo smiled at the sound, feeling, as always, a tiny surge of pride at contributing to Daan’s happiness. Tucking one leg between Daan’s knees, Paolo slid it up to rest at the heated line of Daan’s morning arousal, evident through the thin fabric of his sleep shorts. “Were you dreaming of me?” Paolo whispered the words into Daan’s ear, tracing the curve with the tip of his nose and delighting in the shudder this provoked.
“Always.” Daan’s reply emerged as a breathy gasp when Paolo’s hand moved lower, tucking under the waistband of his shorts to capture him in a gentle hold. He moaned at the touch, one hand coming up to cover his lips. They’d figured out by now that Daan needed something to muffle his instinctive vocal enjoyment during sex. Their current position meant Paolo didn’t have a hand free, so it would be up to Daan to suppress his own sounds. “Mmph,” Daan got out as Paolo stroked up the length of his dick. His hips jerked forward, then back into the cradle of Paolo’s lap.
Now it was Paolo’s turn to bite his lip. The supple, rounded curve of Daan’s ass was rubbing him just right, though it would feel even better if…. “One second.” Paolo let go just long enough to push down first Daan’s shorts, then his own. Their close alignment meant that the low thrum of sound in Daan’s chest as Paolo resumed his grip around the base of Daan’s cock felt almost as though it came from inside himself.
Freed from the restrictive fabric that had hampered his movements, Paolo settled into an unrushed rhythm, hand and hips encouraging Daan to lean into the pace as well. The first weak rays of daylight began sidling in above the curtains, bringing Daan’s profile into relief. Paolo leaned back from where he had been mouthing along the side of Daan’s neck. It was uniquely gratifying to be able to observe Daan while he was facing away, unable to monitor Paolo too closely in return.
Their shared intimacy built languidly towards the peak, Paolo’s hand marking the increments of time until Daan spilled, hot and wet and almost unbearably endearing in the way he rolled back to maximise the amount of contact between their bodies. The slickness of Daan’s release felt indescribably good when Paolo brought his hand back to wrap around himself, coming with a bitten-off sound all over Daan’s lower back and ass. His breath stirred the hair at the nape of Daan’s neck as he panted, mouth open against warm skin.
Daan shook out the hand he’d removed from his mouth, dispersing the sting from his teeth sinking into the side of it. The huff of laughter from Paolo behind him made Daan chuckle too, though they both kept the volume low.
Rolling backwards and lifting up on an elbow, Paolo checked the luminous red display of the alarm clock as he reached under his side of the bed, retrieving the towel they kept there for just this purpose. He cleaned them both up and reinstated their temporarily displaced clothing, contemplating how best to use the remaining few minutes of alone time before they’d need to get up and ready for the day. “Coffee?” He could brew a pot and bring it back to the bedroom. Daan looked over at him, eyes wide and inviting, and Paolo knew what he was going to say even before he spoke.
“Not yet; come cuddle with me first, liefje. I missed you while I was asleep.” Daan held out a hand to bring Paolo back to his side, his own smile deepening in response to the fond grin that spread across Paolo’s face.
Paolo let himself be tugged over to lie half on top of Daan. “Amore mio.” He kissed the tip of Daan’s nose, and his lips, once, twice, and again, before nudging them open and kissing him deeper in a silken slide of tongues.
Yes, there was something special about morning kisses. Daan slid his fingers into Paolo’s sleep-rumpled brown hair, forearm framing his face, encouraging Paolo to angle his head in the other direction. Their noses brushed, Paolo letting Daan guide him, and Daan hummed low with satisfaction.
Then a doorhandle down the hall rattled and small feet thumped along the floorboards, heading towards their room. Paolo pressed one last kiss against the flushed pink pout of Daan’s lower lip before rolling off the bed.
Daan watched Paolo unlock the door, shutting it behind himself as he went out to meet Italia. She greeted him with a high-pitched, “Papà!” and Paolo gently hushed her, reminding her to use her inside voice so they wouldn’t wake Saar. Their quiet voices moved away as they continued down the hall to the kitchen. Daan smiled, savouring the warm feeling of knowing he had people who loved him and whom he loved in return.
Hands in his pockets and boots swishing through the colourful autumn leaves scattered across the sidewalk, Daan whistled on his way to work, mentally revisiting the lovely, lazy warmth of waking up enclosed in Paolo’s arms. He hugged his arms in closer to his sides, trying to recapture a little of that sense of cosy entanglement.
Unfortunately, when he arrived at the shop it seemed that his blissful wake-up call was destined to be the only bright spot in a sea of avalanching problems. The power had gone off overnight, leaving most of the food in cold storage unsalvageable. Daan sent Paolo a message telling him what had happened, not expecting an immediate reply because he and the girls would be on their way to school and daycare.
It was a three-hour wait to get an electrician in, during which time Daan bagged up all the spoiled food from the freezer, and a good portion of the fridge’s contents too. He’d made a start on cleaning up the previously frozen liquids that had leaked through the freezer seals to ooze onto the floor of the food preparation area when the electrician finally arrived.
It took her only a minute to diagnose the problem. Once the freezer unit responsible for the tripped fuse had been unplugged the power supply to the rest of the shop came back on with no further issues. The electrician wrote out a bill and shook his hand on her way out. Daan flicked his fingers against the paper, adding the amount to the tally of mounting costs for the day.
He sent another message to Paolo to update him on the continued streak of bad luck before calling his usual commercial kitchen supply company. The model of freezer he wanted wasn’t in stock, nor was it available at the second or third places he called. Finally, Daan ended up renting a unit as a temporary measure. Mentally calculating how much money he had tucked away, Daan’s face fell into a frown as he realised he’d have to dip into his savings account to buy the replacement whiteware—assuming he could find somewhere that had one available.
The rented freezer unit was scheduled to be delivered anywhere between 5 and 10 p.m., which meant Daan would get home late that night. He checked his phone, debating whether to wait for Paolo to respond to the earlier messages before sending yet another text, but decided it was better to do it now, so Paolo would have as much notice as possible that he’d be flying solo with the girls this evening.
It was another hour before Paolo sent back a brief, sympathetic acknowledgement and a confirmation he would look after Saar and Italia. Daan felt a small pang of hurt and annoyance that Paolo hadn’t asked how he was doing on such a trying day, but he tried to push that away, reminding himself of Paolo’s habitual reticence when it came to most forms of communication.
Daan finished clearing up the rest of the mess and began sorting through the fruit and other food items that he usually kept in cold storage to extend their shelf life, but would survive at room temperature. He was trying to determine whether he could still fulfil the two catering contracts that were due for collection tomorrow afternoon, or if he would need to cancel or pass them off to someone else—assuming he could find anyone willing to take on a last-minute job—when a knock came at the door.
“We’re closed for repairs today!” he yelled over his shoulder, towards the front of the shop. The knock came again and Daan let out a vexed groan, wishing the person would just read the damn sign he’d tacked on the door. He pushed off the bench and walked over, trying to rein in his bad temper long enough to deal with the potential customer.
On the other side of the glass was a familiar face with slicked-back hair, blue eyes and a toothy grin. “Bas. Hello.” Daan waved him through the door, locking it behind him. “I can’t feed you today. Most of the food is spoiled because the freezer broke down.”
“Is that what the smell is?” Bas wrinkled his nose, leaning a hip against the side of the front counter and watching Daan clean. “I thought it was a new air freshener or something.”
“Air freshener…Why would I choose an air freshener that makes the shop smell like a rubbish dump?” It wasn’t uncommon for Daan to find his patience being tested when Bas was around, but his usual reserves were depleted today.
Bas held up his hands. “Woah, man, it was just an observation.” He picked up a bag of pretzels from the stack on the counter, opened it and jammed a handful in his mouth, scattering crumbs and salt on the freshly mopped floor.
Daan gritted his teeth. “Sorry. It’s been a rough day. What’s up?” Instantly, he regretted asking, as Bas started monologuing about his and Mirjam’s sex life in far more detail than Daan required. He tried to interrupt to say something to this effect, but Bas steamrolled over the attempt, munching away as he spoke, and ultimately Daan just let him talk, tuning out the words while he added items to his checklist and made note of the gaps in his supplies.
Several minutes later, Bas finally wound down, dropping the empty pretzel bag back on the counter. “Don’t you agree, Daan?” Daan made a vague sound of assent in response to his name. “Good, I’m glad you agree. I’m going to ask her tonight. Will the smell be gone by tomorrow? I’ll come back and tell you how it went.” Without waiting for a response, he went over to the door, calling back a goodbye and setting the bell jingling on his way out.
Daan tunnelled a hand into his hair, rubbing at his scalp to try and soothe his temper as he looked at the renewed mess and slightly ajar door Bas had left behind. “Why are we friends again?” he asked the empty store.
In the end, the freezer arrived right at the outside end of the scheduled delivery window, and it took Daan some time to get it set up before he could leave for the night. Paolo and the girls had FaceTimed him just after 7 o’clock, when they’d finished dinner and were getting ready for Italia’s bath and bedtime routine. It had been good to put aside his problems and talk to them for a few minutes, but after they hung up, he’d then had nearly three hours to stew in his annoyance before the delivery driver finally pulled up outside the shop.
Daan was beyond glad when he finally got home, the luminous halo emanating from his phone lighting the way as he pulled out his keys. Shutting the front door behind him and twisting the lock, he took off his boots and placed them carefully on the shoe rack, walking slowly down the hall so his footsteps wouldn’t echo. In the bathroom, he brushed his teeth and stripped down to his boxer briefs. Running a towel under warm water, he swiped it over his body, wishing he could shower off both the grime and his lingering bad mood, but knowing the sound would wake the others if he tried.
Paolo had left the bedroom door ajar. Daan closed it behind him and slid between the sheets, waiting to see if the movement would wake Paolo, but he didn’t stir, body relaxed and breathing steady. Despite his exhaustion after the physical and emotional toll of the day, Daan lay awake for a long time, staring at the ceiling and suppressing the desire to wake Paolo and tell him about it. Eventually, he dropped into a fitful doze, waking with a start more than once.
Daan’s moodiness carried over to the next day, when he woke alone in bed. Muffled voices and an occasional clatter were audible from the direction of the kitchen, which meant he wouldn’t get a chance to talk to Paolo alone until that night. Burying his face in the pillow, Daan pulled the covers all the way up over his head.
It took a good five minutes of wallowing in bed and ten more minutes of self-directed pep talking in the shower before Daan summoned the willpower to put on a positive front for his family. Dropping a kiss on top of Italia’s fluffy blonde curls then Saar’s slightly tamer long brown ringlets on his way into the kitchen, Daan grabbed Paolo and hauled him in for a tight hug. “Hello.”
“How are you doing?” Paolo hugged him back, arms firm and warm and feeling like home.
Daan wanted badly to vent about the disaster that had been yesterday, but swallowed it down, knowing there wasn’t time for a proper debriefing before they all needed to be ready to leave the house. “Fine.” He squeezed Paolo once more, then let go.
Paolo gave him a searching look but didn’t enquire further, just patted Daan’s arm above the elbow and handed him a plate of toast and sliced fruit. Then it was the usual whirlwind of morning activities before Daan kissed them each goodbye and was out the door, on his way to try to catch up on a day of missed work.
Daan’s produce and cold food suppliers came through, 8 a.m. deliveries seeing him set up with all the necessary replacement ingredients. Business throughout the day was slow in terms of walk-ins, but that worked out Daan’s favour because it meant he had time to assemble all the dishes for both catering contracts, finishing with half an hour to spare before the two clients came to collect their orders. As soon as they’d departed he locked the door and turned the sign to “Closed.”
Needing a moment to regain his equilibrium after maintaining such a frantic pace all day, Daan slid down to sit on the floor with his back pressed against a cupboard. He pulled out his phone and sent a message to Paolo, asking how his day was going, hoping Paolo would reply in kind. His phone stayed silent, and after a few minutes of tapping the screen to reactivate it each time it dimmed, only to find no new message notifications, Daan put it back in his pocket and dragged himself upright to do some prep work for the next day.
It was over an hour and a half before his phone chimed with a text notification from Paolo. Good, thanks. On my way to get the girls. Daan read it several times, each repetition increasing his annoyance at the bare-bones message.
The black cloud of frustration that hung, pall-like, over his head wasn’t helped by the arrival of Bas, who pounded ceaselessly on the door until Daan let him in. “Why did you tell me it was a good idea to suggest a threesome to Mirjam? Now she thinks I’m going to cheat on her.”
“What? I didn’t tell you to do that.” Daan hadn’t once been willingly involved in any discussion of Mirjam and Bas’s relationship, much as the latter liked to overshare about it.
“Yes, you did! Yesterday, I said, ‘Daan, should I ask Mirjam if we can have a threesome to spice things up?’ And you said, ‘Mmhmm.’” Bas sounded indignant, adding sarcastic air quotes around Daan’s supposed response.
“Bas, I wasn’t listening; I’ve told you before, I don’t want to know about your sex life. I had work to do, alone and without any assistance.” Daan could hear the volume of his voice rising but found he didn’t want to moderate it. “Now, what do you want? Because if it’s just to talk more about your inadequacies in bed, I’m not interested in hearing it. I’ve had a hard couple of days, and I just want to finish this so I can go home and see my family.” He slammed his knife down on the bench and tipped the vegetable scraps into the compost container, then stomped over to the sink, running the water so he could do the dishes.
Bas stayed quiet until Daan turned off the taps and started clanking around, scrubbing at the utensils, chopping boards and other food preparation items he’d used during the day. When Bas finally spoke, his voice was the most uncertain Daan had ever heard it. “Hey, man. We all have bad days. But don’t take it out on me.” His footsteps receded and the small bell above the door rang as he left without a goodbye.
“Wait, Bas, I’m sorry.” Daan followed him out onto the street, but Bas could move quickly when motivated, and he was already halfway down the block, leaving Daan the choice of abandoning his unlocked shop, or watching his best friend walk away. “Shit,” he muttered. This bad day turned bad week just kept getting worse. Bas wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but Daan knew he’d been unfairly harsh. He resolved to text Bas later and apologise again. And maybe try to set some limits on conversational topics, not that he’d had any luck on that front over the last twenty-something years of friendship.
He went back inside and finished up the final few dishes, wiped down all the surfaces and double-checked that the rented freezer was working as expected. Given the general downturn in his fortunes this week, he didn’t want to take any chances. Pulling on his jacket, Daan locked up and started making his way home. He just needed to get through dinner and bathtime, and then he’d finally be able to talk with Paolo and get some much-needed sympathy and support.
When the girls were finally in bed—Italia with the lights off and her woolly lamb toy tucked firmly under her arm, Saar with a book and a small reading lamp on—Daan flopped down on the couch, bone-deep weariness pulling at him. Paolo held out a cup of tea, checking he had a good hold on the handle before letting go. “Thank you, liefje,” Daan said.
Smiling slightly in acknowledgement, Paolo sat down next to Daan and lifted up his own tea, squinting and puffing out his cheeks as the too-hot liquid landed on his tongue.
Watching him, Daan felt a surge of fondness, thinking of Paolo at his side in five, twenty, even fifty years, perpetually incapable of letting his tea cool properly before taking the first sip. “What a week.” He blew idly across the surface of his mug, watching the rising curls of steam twist and sway.
“What happened? I don’t think I know the full story.” Paolo gulped down more tea, adding to the delicious pool of warmth forming in his tummy.
The little niggle of resentment reared its head once more and the smile dropped off Daan’s face. “I wanted to tell you earlier.”
“You can tell me now,” Paolo said. Abandoning the now-empty cup on the coffee table and relocated to his usual corner of the couch, he held out his arms in invitation for Daan to lie back and lean on him. Daan sometimes poked gentle fun at him for gulping his tea like it was a race, but Paolo coveted every extra second of the lovely grounding feel of Daan’s weight pushing him deeper into the cushions.
Looking at Paolo, sitting there as though it were any other day, Daan felt a sudden need to reject the offer. He wasn’t exactly sure what had changed, or when; he’d been looking forward to this moment for the past day and a half. Now it was here, though, it didn’t feel like enough. Turning away, Daan concentrated on his cup, swirling it carefully to ensure the liquid stayed contained.
“Daan?” Paolo’s query was soft, hesitant. He wasn’t sure how to interpret the lack of reaction. This was the first time Daan had been anything less than enthused about the prospect of cuddling on the couch. He’d thought Daan liked it as much as he did. “Are you okay?” Paolo paused minutely before the final word, unsure which adjective to use, when Daan was clearly not alright.
Daan felt a small, mean surge of satisfaction at the hurt confusion that tinged Paolo’s voice. Good, he thought. Now Paolo would know how he’d been feeling over the last couple of days. Instead of moving towards Paolo, he settled into the far corner of the couch, taking the first sip of his cooling tea. The sloping angle of the cushions meant he could see Paolo from the corner of his eye without looking directly at him. The loose sprawl Paolo had initially adopted was changing, one limb at a time being reeled inwards until he was folded up small and tight.
Silence stretched, heavy and awkward. Paolo’s gut churned, face flushing with uncomfortable heat. Finally, he spoke again. “Did I do something wrong?” He angled his head as he looked at the side of Daan’s face, willing Daan to look up at him.
These words opened the floodgates, overriding the immature urge to continue giving Paolo the silent treatment. “Really, Paolo? I’ve been dealing with this shitty week all by myself, and you make it sound like it’s my fault for not telling you sooner. Do you know how long it takes you to answer my messages? Hours. I know you have things to do. I don’t expect you to hover over your phone just waiting for me to get in contact, but when it takes that long to reply, every single time, it’s like you don’t care. And then even when you do respond, there’s no ‘how are you’ or ‘I love you’ or anything beyond how you’d answer an automatic message from the bank or something.”
Daan ran out of breath and had to pause. The momentum fuelled by that first flush of fury drained away, leaving behind only the hurt. He put down his mostly full cup of tea, propping his elbows on his knees and letting his head fall into his hands. Feeling incredibly exposed, he spoke to his knees as he admitted, “It makes me wonder if I even exist for you while I’m gone.”
There was another prolonged pause. They sat side-by-side, separated by far more than just physical distance. Paolo’s head was full of static, panic ripping through him, pinning him in place as he tried to process what was happening. He pushed it down, taking in a measured beath and trying to speak levelly while bracing himself for the worst. “Are you breaking up with me?”
Daan’s head snapped up at the oddly detached quality of Paolo’s voice. He’d sounded like this before, in the middle of the night after waking from another nightmare about his mother leaving. Instinctively, Daan reached out a hand, wanting to offer reassurance, but Paolo was no longer looking at him. He was as far away as it was possible to be while still remaining on the couch, coiled so rigidly it appeared a touch might shatter him, fingers rubbing together in a nervous habit he’d mostly stopped over the last few months, as he became surer of their relationship. Worse still, his expression was distant, as if he’d already checked out of the conversation.
“Paolo, no. Hey, look at me.” Paolo remained staring down, one fingertip scraping reflexively over the ridge of his thumbnail, again and again. Daan moved closer so he could cover Paolo’s hands with both of his own. “Paolo, please look at me.”
It was the plea that did it. Recalling the last time he’d felt this out of his depth—gazing down at Italia in the premature baby incubator, so tiny and fragile and utterly, utterly perfect—Paolo summoned all his resolve and met head-on the melting softness of Daan’s deep brown gaze. He could be strong, he’d proven that to himself. “This is not a breakup. This is just a fight, like all couples have. I tell you what I’m feeling, and you tell me what you’re feeling, and then we talk until the issue is resolved.”
“You…you’re not leaving me?” Paolo didn’t let himself relax, not yet, because there was no way he would be able to hold it together if he was wrong.
“I’m not leaving you, Paolo. I just want an occasional reminder that you think about me, care about me, too.” Daan’s voice, face, posture; all of it spoke of complete sincerity.
The tears Paolo had been holding back through sheer force of will finally overflowed, but it was relief, not sadness, that propelled him across the space to press his face into the side of Daan’s neck. He tried to speak, but the broken words that came out were muffled by the fabric of Daan’s shirt and the force of his sobbing. All he could hope for was that Daan understood enough to get the message that Paolo did, indeed, care deeply and also definitely did not want to break up.
Daan held Paolo close and murmured soothingly, not entirely sure what he was saying. He deeply regretted letting his frustration build to this point and expressing himself so poorly. That Paolo had actually thought Daan was breaking up with him made his heart ache and sent a hot rush of tears pricking at his own eyes.
Eventually, Paolo calmed, though his fists remained clenched in the back of Daan’s shirt, preventing him from moving away. Lifting his head, he looked Daan in the eye. “I’m sorry.” He managed to hold it for another second or two, then had to drop his gaze again before he continued. “I’m sorry I made you think I don’t care, when I do. So much. I don’t know how to do this. I grew up being rewarded for being still and silent. The nuns taught me to listen, and not speak. When I met Mario, it was the first time someone wanted to know how I felt, what I thought, and I didn’t have the words.”
“Oh, Paolo.” He looked so vulnerable as he laid himself completely open, trusting Daan not to use the knowledge he was revealing to hurt him.
“We talked—of course, we talked—but after eight years, Mario came to me with the adoption papers all but ready to submit, and I realised he didn’t know me, and I didn’t really know him, or I would have understood this baby wasn’t just a hypothetical for him. That was our first, and only, big fight. I was afraid to lose him, but he wanted more, and in the end it didn’t matter what I said because I wasn’t enough for him.” Paolo tried to say it matter-of-factly, but the remembered pain made it difficult to maintain a neutral tone. “A miracle brought me Italia, and you and Saar. I have more than I ever dared to wish for, and it scares me, to want this so much.”
Daan let the tears fall as he leaned his forehead against Paolo’s. “I’m scared too, Paolo. We can be scared together.”
Their lips met, wet and flavoured with salt. The kiss was an apology and a promise, hope and fear and the need to reconnect. It was several minutes before Daan pulled back, turning his head to the side to wipe his sleeve over his eyes. He brushed Paolo’s hair back from his face, seeing the same exhaustion he felt. “It’s late. We should go to bed, talk more tomorrow.”
Paolo nodded. He felt hollowed out, but also lighter somehow. Sleep and a respite from the heavy emotions would be welcome now that they both had the reassurance of their renewed commitment to each other.
They cleared away their cups and turned off the lights. Daan went to get changed into his pyjamas while Paolo brushed his teeth and washed the remnants of the tears off his face, then they switched. When Daan returned to the bedroom, he found Paolo positioned in the middle of the mattress, sheets pulled back in front of him. His arm fell neatly around Daan’s waist and his body formed a warm, steady curve against Daan’s back, mirroring the way they’d lain together two days ago.
Daan linked his fingers through the hand resting on his tummy and whispered, “I love you.”
Paolo’s voice was equally hushed, though no less heartfelt for the low volume. “I love you, too.”
As Daan closed the front door behind him the next morning, rubbing his hands together to warm them in the chill of the late autumn morning, his phone chimed. Pulling it out of his pocket, he saw Paolo’s name on the notification screen and swiped across to open it. “I miss you already.”
Daan smiled and sent back a red heart. I love you, too.