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two men walk into a bar

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Nicky is always hesitant to go to Andy for advice. 

She's one of the wisest people he knows. Never once has she left him worse off than he was when he sought out her two cents. Still, he always seems to come out of their talks feeling like an idiot for not putting the pieces together as quickly as she always does.

But something had to give, here. Isabella left almost eight months ago. Nicky still isn't sure if it's the loneliness eating away at him, or the memory of the sudden and overwhelming relief he felt when she ended it. 

"What," Andy intones flatly once he's finished venting, looking at Nicky as though he is missing the entire point, "is the common denominator in all of these romantic pursuits that you've found so unfulfilling?"

Nicky blinks at her, at a loss for the conclusion she's clearly waiting for him to come to. He has only four ex-girlfriends to show for his 30 years. They couldn't be more different from each other in terms of backgrounds, careers, and interests. Hell, only two of them spoke any Italian, only one a native speaker. The only common thread he can think of are the complaints that led to their breaking up with him. 

Always something to the effect of you are so sweet or kind or lovely, Nicky, but....

You act like we're just friends, and I think you want to love me more than you do, and I don't think I'm the person you're looking for, and it's fucking weird that you aren't attracted to me and I don't understand why you treat sex like it's all about me. Don't you know that you're supposed to enjoy yourself too?

And of all the things brought up, it's always the sex, and specifically his lack of interest in it that he's the most ashamed of.

Nicky doesn't understand. He isn't asexual, he doesn't think, though both Isabella and Camille assured him that they could make it work if he was. But, and yeah, he knows that this is his own fault, the sex always falls away as the relationships go on. Nicky just doesn't want it that much. He gets horny sometimes, sure, and orgasms are pretty fucking awesome, but sex has just never lived up to the hype in his experience, nothing more than a means to an end. So he always tries to follow the other person's lead, but eventually his lack of initiating always seems to become a problem. And he doesn't fault any of them for taking issue with that, because not feeling wanted by your partner is the worst thing in the world. And because Nicky shied away from the sex, all four of them inevitably shied away from the non-sexual intimacy that Nicky craved. Cuddling, and talking. Being close. 

It's awful to say, and so Nicky has never tried to explain it. But he definitely craves something sexually. Just, something that he hasn't found yet. Something that lurks just beyond the periphery of his imagination, something that feels just real enough when he touches himself in the shower that he knows not one of them were it. 

Not for the first time, the equation lays itself out in his head. Four perfectly wonderful women, and Nicky as the variable that always led to disaster. 

He nervously twists his fingers together, unable to look up to meet Andy's eyes, suddenly. 

"Am-" he swallows, not letting his voice waver, "am I the problem?"

"Nicky." Her tone softens, expression shifting as she leans forward. "That's not what I'm saying."

He rubs his palms over his knees. 

"What are you saying?"

She leans back against the sofa with a sigh, looking very much like she does when she wishes Quynh would jump in and handle the emotional stuff for her. But Quynh is already at the bar waiting for them. 

(Sometimes Nicky is jealous of what they have, ten beautiful years together and the rest of their lives left to go. Getting to be who they are and loving each other for it. Accepting each other with no pressure to do things that don't come naturally.)

"Haven't you ever considered that the problem is that they were all women?"

And just like that, Nicky's turbulent mind goes entirely, perfectly blank. 

(Ashraf on the swim team in high school teasing him and racing him to the deck and smiling at him like that and the time Camille's brother showed him how to start a campfire with flint and steel and he couldn't stop thinking about how much bigger his hands were than Camille's and how Alexis had a buzz cut when they met and wore men's clothes and started going by Alexander the year after Nicky saw him for the last time and how he was the only one Nicky ever really enjoyed having sex with.)

He sees Andy's grimace in response to his silence, but he doesn't really. He hears her soft, cautious words about how the things he's described having difficulty with are common in queer people who haven't figured it out yet, something something compulsory heterosexuality something something she's seen with her own eyes how Nicky freezes up around handsome men who flirt with him. About how his enthusiastic ally-ship is the reason they all thought he was gay when he moved to the city and Nile decided to adopt him into the friend group, how Booker had his eye on him for months before Nicky met Camille, and how she and Quynh are there to talk whenever he wants, if he ever wants. And then she starts talking about how it's also fine if he's asexual, and all Nicky is thinking about is how much he liked it when Isabella wore men's deodorant whenever she was planning to go on a run because she found that it worked better than women's, liked how Alexander was dominant in bed and the way he talked and the way he held himself and lots of other things about him too, how he spent a lot of time in the following years thinking about what it would have been like if they'd still been together when he transitioned, liked that Camille lifted weights to stay in shape for work (she was a firefighter) and that she didn't shave her legs very much.  

Except he doesn't really hear any of it, because his ears have started ringing. 

Andy hugs him of her own volition before they leave for the bar, and he feels it just enough to know to savour it. He thanks her and tells her he loves her, and she calls him a softy and then touches his cheek and tells him that there's nothing wrong with being one, because she wants him to be exactly who he is. 

The bar is something of a bisexual scene, and Nicky has never been so acutely aware of it, of all the men who are dancing and kissing on other men and how hard he subconsciously tried not to stare before, hands shaking a little. He's not an enthusiastic dancer on the best of nights, and so tonight while Andy and Quynh are dancing and Booker and Nile are both working on woo-ing the same woman, Nicky is sitting on a bar stool, staring down into a glass of jack and coke like it holds all the answers to the universe. 

"Are you alright, man?"

Nicky pulls his gaze out of the glass and looks at the man who has appeared on the stool to his right. 

The first thing he thinks is fuck, eyes, and the second thing he thinks is fucking fuck- dimples, when the man smiles at the helpless look on his face. Now he's remembering the time he remarked to Camille how ruggedly handsome her boss was (like he chose this profession purely because he knows he'd be the centrepiece in one of those nude firefighter calendars for charity, he'd said) and then she'd asked if he often noticed how handsome other men were, and when Nicky'd said doesn't everyone? She'd laughed until she was out of breath.

"Tell me to fuck off if you want to be alone," big-pretty-eyes says. "I won't be offended."

"Sorry." Nicky lets his foot slip off the frame of the stool and onto the floor, turns his body enough to invite conversation. "Let me try that again. Yes, I'll be alright. Long day. I'm Nicky."

"Joe."

Joe motions with two long, slender fingers to the bartender, and Nicky wonders if he has a thing for hands that's been hiding away in his brain with the whole gay thing. Wonders what else he'll discover about himself now that he's looking. 

"I'm going to get a beer. Can I get you something, or do you want to keep staring into that glass there like it's insulted you?"

Nicky smiles at him, slow and real. 

"Beer sounds good. Thanks." And then, because he thinks that women people you're interested in like it when you say the nice things you're thinking out loud and it seems like the kind of thing that should still be applicable in this brave new gay world, "you have incredible eyes. They're so pretty."

Joe blinks at him a moment, miracle eyes gone all wide and pleased, and then smiles his sunshine smile again. 

He and Joe don't talk about anything of importance, really. Nicky learns that Joe has also had a long day, and like Nicky, is also not partial to dancing. He learns that Joe's humour is dry and witty, and his eyes light up when Nicky snorts and claps a hand over his mouth in response to something he's said. He learns that Joe thinks he's funny too, and his laughter is larger than Nicky's, head-thrown-back-full-body kind of laughter, crinkles around his eyes. He learns that it's hard not to stare at Joe's lips wrapped around a bottle and that once they've pulled their stools closer together so that they don't have to raise their voices over the music, Joe touches his arm a lot as he makes this point and that and gestures with the hand he's holding the bottle with, and Nicky likes it. All of it. 

He likes it a lot. 

A few beers in they decide to split one of the pink and lime green sparkly drinks with the orange wedge and massive curly straw that's being sent over to a bachelorette party. It is very expensive and tastes like sugar. 

"Bet you taste like sugar," Joe says when Nicky points this out, and then they both start giggling because they might be drunker than Nicky thought (the glass is two thirds of the way empty).

"Are you calling me sweet?" Nicky lays his head down on Joe's shoulder then, because his bicep is very large and inviting and right there, and his grey t-shirt looks very soft. And partially because the more he drinks the less steady he feels on the stool. 

He feels Joe's arm come around him, and the gentle press of his head on top of Nicky's.

"I was actually inviting you to kiss me, but this right now is very sweet. You tired, babe? Can I call you a cab?"

Nicky snuffles, squirming a little bit because he really likes being called babe in such a low tone, and mumbles into Joe's shirt. 

"Not tired. I think 'm having a midlife crisis. You smell good."

Joe rubs his hand up and down against Nicky's arm. 

"Thank you. Not where I thought this conversation was going, but what's your crisis about?"

"I'm gay. I found out. Today."

He feels Joe lift his head to stare at him.

He stares back, and based on the very coherent confusion on Joe's face, thinks that he might be much drunker than Joe.

"Sorry," he mutters, and then he buries his face in his arms on top of the counter instead, feeling a bit like crying. 

Joe is quiet for a moment, and Nicky resolves to keep his face buried in the bar until he disappears with somebody else who knows that when another man says you must taste like sugar you're supposed to kiss him. 

"You don't have to be sorry that you're gay. I'm gay. I thought we were flirting. You're having a day, and you're drunk- I should be saying sorry."

Nicky shakes his head in his arms and then lifts his head, because Joe is still here and that makes things a little bit better.

"I liked flirting with you. But I'm- a baby- gay baby- gayby." Nicky watches Joe laugh, and frowns, not knowing what's funny. "Did you hear me?"

Joe squeezes his shoulder again, and Nicky mournfully takes another sip through the stupid curly straw, Joe's face doing complicated things while he searches out the straw with his tongue, wide, earnest eyes trained on Joe. 

"I heard you. You might be a gayby, but you're also an adult. You can flirt with handsome men in bars if you want. In fact, you can also say something like- hey, I'm new to this. I like you, but I might need somebody to show me the ropes, and to understand that I'm still figuring out who I am and what I like. Are you interested in that, handsome man who has been flirting with me all night?"

Nicky snuffles some more, straightening up and leaning close. He glances at Joe's lips, and then closes his eyes and leans into the hand Joe has lifted up to cup his jaw.

"I am new to this, and that's exactly what I want to say. And I also want to say you're beautiful. And I like talking to you. And I like your laugh and your fingers."

Joe arches an eyebrow at that, eyes going to Nicky's mouth, and Nicky's blush feels like it's burning him. 

"I've never had casual sex, either. I am drunk, and I like you, and I want to learn the ropes, but I don't think I'll like myself in the morning if I sleep with you and then we never speak again. Unless you think that's the best way to go about this? I understand if you don't want- more. I don't want you to feel like an experiment. I'm rambling because I like you very much a lot and would want to see you again."

Joe's exhale is shaky, his eyes shiny. 

"Okay," he mutters, and then he's standing up and Nicky's stomach drops. 

Then he holds his hand out for Nicky to take. 

"We're gonna get you a cab," he says, and Nicky kind of wants to cry again, thinking that if being gay came with a report card he'd be staring at a giant red F-. 

Joe leads him out onto the street. The air is a bit chilly, and Nicky wants to apologise again while Joe calls to arrange the cab. He decides not to, because Joe told him he doesn't have to. 

He watches Joe tuck his phone into his pocket, and then take a deep breath before turning to face him again. 

Nicky opens his mouth to offer to pay him for the cab and the drinks, but Joe cuts in first. 

"My ex-boyfriend called me today and tried to talk me into giving him another shot. I think that if you had not have been sitting at that bar, I would have gotten very drunk, and then gone to his flat and re-entered a relationship that made me very unhappy for a very long time."

Nicky's hands find Joe's shoulders, because his voice sounds so small and Nicky doesn't like it at all. 

"You have been more considerate with my feelings and have complimented me more in the last three hours than I can recall him doing in the last two years. You're funny, Nicky, and you're handsome, and you're sweet. So you're still figuring yourself out. And I'm- kind of a mess right now, if I'm honest. But I like you, and you like me. So I am going to give you my phone number, and if you still want to I'd like it if you texted me sometime. I'll tell you a secret- I'm not big on casual sex either. Maybe we can get coffee, or dinner."

Nicky is nodding his head so fast his brain feels shaken up. 

"Yes, I- yes."

Joe smiles again, finally, and Nicky blurts, "I don't believe anyone could see a smile like that everyday and not tell you how beautiful it is."

Joe does that shaky little exhale again. 

"Can I have your phone?"

Nicky hands it over, and watches the way the screen brightens up Joe's face. He hears Joe's phone chime. 

"Now I have your number too."

"Good." Nicky nods some more. "I think I might be nervous. My heart is beating really fast."

Joe smiles at him, and presses his palm to Nicky's chest. Then he takes Nicky's hand and presses it against his own chest, so he can feel Joe's heart hammering in return. "Should we set a date now so you can't chicken out, gayby?"

Nicky can only nod some more, fingers curling into Joe's shirt. "Are you busy tomorrow night? There's a screening of some old horror films at this theatre in my neighbourhood. And maybe dinner after?"

Joe's hand sneaks up to his neck, and then his jaw. Nicky shivers.

"That sounds perfect. You'll text me the time and address, Mr. Romantic?" 

Nicky gives his own shaky exhale, and leans his forehead against Joe's because he's feeling a little dizzy all of the sudden.

"I will," he whispers. And then, "remember when you invited me to kiss you earlier?"

Joe nudges their noses together, and then they're kissing. 

Joe tastes like beer and sugar. His stubble makes Nicky gasp, and his tongue makes him whine, the confident press of his hands the only thing grounding Nicky to the earth. He kisses like he's hungry for it, and Nicky feels like he's being devoured.

(This is it. This is what he's been craving.)

He makes a sound when Joe pulls away from him, and watches the sly, pleased smile light up his face, his kiss slicked lips, all illuminated in the headlights of the cab. 

(Nicky wants and wants and wants.)

"Get home safe, gayby. Don't forget to text me that address."

(Nicky hits send before the bar and Joe's watching form have even disappeared around the corner.)

(Nicky's number in Joe's phone is saved under the name gaybyyy for the next six months, and then becomes beloved ♡ ♥💕❤😘)