Later, Joe will remember how close he came to skipping this meeting altogether. It’s Wednesday night, he’s done enough work this week to feel like it should be Friday already, he has to teach a 9:00 AM class in the morning, and he doesn’t feel like making small talk. However, these introductory meetings for people interested in joining the local interfaith council are notoriously hard to schedule, since they have to account for the holidays and days of rest for at least six different faith traditions, and the next one isn’t for several months.
Community education and social action, Joe repeats to himself. Those are things you love, that’s why you’re here.
He isn’t planning to stick around and socialize after the meeting, but he also feels like it would be rude to leave without saying hello to Dr. Mitchell, who teaches at the local Roman Catholic seminary and who invited him to the meeting in the first place. Thankfully, Dr. Mitchell is standing near the door, which Joe hopes guarantees a quick exit when they’re done. Unfortunately, someone else is standing with Dr. Mitchell, which means that exit is probably going to be further delayed by at least five minutes.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Joe says.
Dr. Mitchell beams at him. “Not at all! I’m so glad you made it, and how lucky, now I can introduce you—Joe, this is Nicolò diGenova, one of my students at Dominican.” Nicolò-from-Dominican is about Joe’s age, and he looks like he wants to leave as much as Joe does, he’s just doing a worse job of hiding it. “Nicky, this is Dr. Yusuf al-Kaysani, he teaches art history at—where are you now?”
Joe names the two universities he bounces between as an adjunct. “Dr. Mitchell’s done some guest lectures about Christian liturgics for my seminar students.”
“And how is that relevant?” The man’s tone and expression are both completely impossible to parse.
“It’s a seminar on sacred architecture.”
“That sounds—quite interesting, actually.”
“Oh,” says Dr. Mitchell, “there’s Rabbi Kreinik; I need to make sure I speak with her. Excuse me.”
And just like that, Joe’s alone with possibly-an-asshole-Nicky-from-Dominican, and he feels the last of his filter slip away.
“Thanks, after a PhD, years of penury, and the persistent lack of job security, I hope I can at least make my classes interesting. May the same one day be true for your sermons.”
Nicky opens his mouth and shuts it again. This unfortunately forces Joe to pay attention to said mouth, which is criminally beautiful, especially considering it’s attached to a person towards whom he feels no warmth. Nicky’s lips are an infuriating shade of pink, and the Cupid’s bow of his upper lip should come with a warning. “Thank you for your concern for future parishioners. I did mean it, though, I think I would have liked a class like that. What faiths do you typically cover?”
Joe gives him the elevator pitch for the course—modules divided by faith tradition, always including first extant buildings and whatever he’s decided are important examples of one phenomenon or another. “It’s hard to fit a global scope into a single semester, and I wish they’d let me teach it in two parts, but so many of these students only get ‘western art history’, which is a mostly nonsense concept anyway, so I always make sure to cover East and South Asian and South American—I’m sorry, are you not actually interested?” Joe can tell that Nicky’s been glancing over his shoulder every third word. He doesn’t expect people to make constant eye contact, God knows he’s had enough students who had wonderful things to say but had to say those things to the ceiling, but the man’s practically craning his neck to get a look at something going on behind Joe, and he’s out of patience.
Nicky appears to drag himself back into the conversation he’s nominally a part of. “Sorry, there’s someone I want to catch before he leaves.”
“Well, I’m actually really tired, so I’m going to leave now. For your future parishioners’ sake, I hope your listening skills improve.”
It’s the kind of encounter Nicky doesn’t think about much in the moment that then proceeds to haunt him for a week.
Yes, his manners were not what they should have been; no, he hopes his mother never finds out. In his own defense, and the guy did leave without Nicky being able to explain, he had a rather important point to bring up with Father Kelly, and the fact that Father Kelly was at an interfaith council meeting in the first place frankly boggled the mind. The important point that Nicky had to bring up was that he was halfway through his MDiv and getting excellent grades, thank you very much, and he is therefore now qualified to take Father Kelly up on his suggestion to “come back and talk to me about this when you’ve been to seminary.”
Okay, so maybe the point isn’t important in like, the general scheme of things, and it really doesn’t excuse being rude to the tired art history professor. But the point is important to Nicky.
He would bring the whole thing up at confession, except he only goes to confession before Christmas and Easter because he has to drive forty-five minutes to get to the one priest in the diocese he finds helpful, so he resolves to apologize to—Yusuf? Joe? He never actually specified which one he preferred—the next time he sees him, which will probably be at an interfaith council event in a month or so. Or possibly never, depending on how badly Nicky’s pissed him off. Nicky has a lot of experience with studiously avoiding and being studiously avoided by people he sees on a regular basis.
As it happens, Nicky only gets a week to stew and a week to attempt to forget.
It’s a month into the semester. Shit has gotten real in the way it always does a month into the semester, and yet he’s always surprised by it. Assignments listed on the syllabus start coming due? Appalling. How could anyone have predicted that this would happen.
He’s planning two different papers in his head as he tends bar at The Old Guard on a Thursday evening, and he knows he’s going to have to include St. Jerome in at least one of them, which makes him frown.
“Hey.” Andy elbows him in the ribs. “Stop thinking about theology on the clock, you know I don’t pay you for that.” She actually often pays him to do exactly that, because she lets him do his course reading when the place is empty at three in the afternoon.
Andy owns the place, and you would never know it, which is one of the reasons why Nicky loves her so much. He also loves that her ownership is mostly technical in that it’s her name on the business license, but the employees split the profits. Add that to Andy’s house policy of “fuck around and find out” when it comes to customers being a nuisance, and she’s got the lowest turnover of any service industry enterprise Nicky knows. He’s been working here since he was old enough to drink.
It’s the slow hour between the end of people-who-stopped-for-a-drink-after-work but before the beginning of people-who-are-going-to-be-here-all-night. The Guard isn’t a restaurant—there is a menu, but it’s short enough to fit on the chalkboard hanging behind the bar, and it’s mostly “this will soak up the booze” food. (Nicky’s partial to the pierogi.) There are no televisions, and they only put the sound system on when the conversation level is below a dull roar, because they believe in people being able to hear each other.
But the place is mostly empty at the moment, so Nicky feels justified in browsing through the music library, and that’s why he doesn’t see Yusuf-or-possibly-Joe until the man’s already seated at the bar.
“Oh,” Nicky says, abandoning the music without picking anything. “Hello.”
“Hi.” His eyebrows are slightly raised. Is he surprised? Annoyed? Was he this handsome two weeks ago?
Before he can be accused of staring, Nicky remembers that he works here and has a job to do. “What can I get you?”
“Ginger ale, please.”
“Is that what you actually want?” The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.
The man blinks. “Why would I come to a bar and ask for a drink I don’t want?”
Nicky shrugs. He’s been told by numerous people that this is not an endearing habit, but none of those people were raised by his mother, so what do they know. “Lots of bartenders are assholes about non-alcoholic beverages, and ginger ale is something you can usually get without complaint. I realize I’m doing a lot of assuming here, but if you want something without booze that you can’t buy at a gas station, I’m happy to make something up.”
“Hm.” He folds his arms. It’s not threatening in the slightest; if anything, it makes Nicky aware of how—huggable he looks? God, graduate school’s wrecked Nicky’s dating life, and he needs to get a grip on himself. “That would be nice, actually. What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” says Nicky, grabbing a Collins glass. “Do you go for more tangy or more sweet?”
“How does some kind of lemon-pomegranate-mint combination sound?”
Nicky throws the thing together and sets it down in front of Joe-or-possibly-Yusuf just as he’s taking a book out of his bag. “I didn’t ask,” Nicky says, “when we met at Temple Beth Emeth—do you prefer Yusuf or Joe?”
“Joe’s fine, or it’s what you prefer?”
He tilts his head to the side, just slightly, and picks up his glass. “It’s what I go by every day. Call me Joe.” He tries the drink and makes a pleased noise. “This is really good.”
“Thanks, that’s what they pay me for.”
Joe blinks at him again and takes another sip. “What about you? Nicky or Nicolò?”
“Nicky. Nicolò’s mostly for family.”
“And for me,” Andy says, appearing at Nicky’s side, “when I’m annoyed with you.”
“Like I said, family. Andy’s known me since I was a teenager,” he tells Joe.
“Since he was sneaking into queer bars on the strength of a fake ID that fooled our bouncer but did not fool me.”
“In the bouncer’s defense, I’ve had the dark circles of a thirty-year-old since I was thirteen.”
“I usually let him stay,” Andy continues, “on the condition that he did not embarrass himself.”
“No, you let me stay on the condition I not embarrass you.”
“And you’ve mostly kept up the streak.” She reaches up and ruffles his hair. “What brings you to the Guard, Joe? Passing curiosity?”
“Recommendation from a work friend. She thinks I spend too much time in my office, and she said it was run by good people, not too loud. And…”
“Full of raging queers?”
Joe laughs, and Nicky sees a flash of smile that can only be described as megawatt. “Believe it or not, those were almost her exact words.”
“Well, don’t let us distract you,” Andy says, nodding at the book. “Leave the nice man alone, Nicky.”
“Sure thing, boss. Shout if you need anything. Joe.” He’s aware that he takes slightly too long to spit the man’s name out, and he can feel his face heating.
Absurd, he tells himself, you are absolutely absurd. He’s able to make a quick escape when a group of college students installs themselves at the other end of the bar.
Joe has so many questions.
Firstly, is it normal for future priests to tend bar? Everyone has to pay for graduate school somehow, he guesses, and as far as stories he’s heard this is definitely not the weirdest way, but still—unexpected.
Secondly, what is the deal with this guy? Is he only considerate when he’s at work, because his job depends on it, or was the attitude he had two weeks ago the statistical outlier?
And thirdly, or perhaps this actually part-two-subsection-B, what is the deal with this guy’s face? Joe still finds it hard to read, but he’s beginning to see how you could learn. A smile that’s more a twitch at the corner of the mouth, a light behind the eyes. What color are his eyes? Is the light bad in here or can’t they make up their mind? It’s infuriating.
Stop thinking about his eyes, Joe tells himself after he’s read the same sentence three times. He’s bound for the priesthood, and also you don’t really like him.
He flags Nicky down after an hour and asks for another one of whatever this mint-pomegranate lemonade thing was. Oh—there’s a question he can actually ask.
“It doesn’t have a name,” Nicky replies. “I just made it up. Actually, though, Andy and I have been talking about a better not-booze drink menu. We want this place to be like a home for people. You should be able to get what you need.”
And there’s that corner-of-the-mouth smile.
Joe heads home at nine, having made considerable progress in his book, and he thanks Quỳnh for the suggestion when he sees her the next day.
Contrary to what he expected to happen when he walked in and saw Nicky-from-Dominican tending bar, he finds himself at the Old Guard on a pretty regular basis. He usually brings a book with him. Nicky doesn’t try to talk to him when he’s reading, which is another sign that perhaps the man is not a total dick, which, you know, bodes well for whatever church is going to be stuck with him.
Halfway through February, Joe tumbles into the Guard feeling like he has icicles in his beard, and Nicky asks if he’d rather have something hot to drink. He nods, since he’s still in the process of unwrapping his snow-covered scarf, and there’s a mug full of something steaming sitting on the bar by the time he’s finally gotten his coat off.
“Mulled cider with sparkling blood orange juice,” Nicky says before Joe can ask. “The juice was room temperature and the cider’s been on the stove for hours, but tell me if it’s not hot enough.”
“It’s perfect,” Joe says.
“Bartenders are constantly fighting thermodynamic equilibrium.”
That’s not a sentence you hear every day.
“Hey Nicky,” Andy says, reaching under the bar and producing a bag of individually-wrapped chocolate truffles. “Nile left these, said to share them around.”
“I’m good, but thanks.”
“Ah shit, I forgot, sorry.”
She holds the bag out to Joe. He smiles and takes two.
After she’s moved down the bar again, Joe gives Nicky a questioning look.
“Lent,” Nicky says. “Started yesterday.”
“Ah. So no truffles til Easter.”
“Indeed. Also no meat and no alcohol.”
“So you can help me test these drinks.”
The smile is slightly more noticeable now.
“I’m actually due for my shift drink, now that you mention it. Hey, boss!” Andy looks over her shoulder. “I’m taking my fifteen.”
She gives him a thumbs up and he makes himself a mug of the same cider drink Joe has.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Nicky asks, nodding to the empty seat next to Joe. “I won’t talk if you want to read.”
“No, it’s fine,” Joe says, and he’s a little surprised to realize that it really is.
He’s not sure what Nicky’s expecting they’ll talk about, since they haven’t really had a discussion since he started coming to the Guard that isn’t about something right in front of their faces.
Nicky doesn’t leave him in suspense. “Last year I went to an interfaith council thing—one of those Exploring Religious Landscapes panels they do—and there was a really interesting discussion about fasting across religious traditions, and the different attitudes that come with it. I mean, Ramadan seems like a more joyful time than Lent.”
So they spend Nicky’s break discussing attitudes and practices of their respective fasting seasons, which is absolutely not how Joe expected to spend part of his evening. It’s enjoyable, though, because it’s actually a conversation. Nicky asks questions, and they’re genuine and thoughtful, and he doesn’t expect Joe to speak for nearly two billion people. If he’d acted at all like he did the first night Joe met him—well, that would have been confusing based on how he’s acted literally every other time Joe’s seen him now, and that also would have been the end. The end of Joe coming to the Guard, maybe, and also the end of…something he hasn’t examined too closely yet.
Their conversation continues past Nicky’s break. He drifts down to Joe’s end of the bar whenever his attention isn’t actively being demanded, and the discussion eventually evolves to be entirely about food, rather than the act of abstention therefrom.
“I think I would commit crimes for a bambalouni right now,” Joe says somewhere around his third mug of cider.
“Say that again?”
“Crimes, I would commit them.”
“No, the—is it a doughnut?”
“Are they filled?”
Joe shakes his head. “Dusted with sugar. Or soaked in honey.”
“The word is so similar to bombolone. Also a doughnut, but filled.”
“Like pączki?” You can’t escape pączki in their city on the day before Lent starts, even if you’re not Christian.
“Well, pączki are Polish, bomboloni are Italian.”
“So definitely not the same.”
“I didn’t say—” He stops. Nicky’s been holding eye contact with him for a length of time that seems meaningful.
“You have the driest sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met,” Joe says.
Nicky cracks a smile, a modest one by regular-people standards, but the biggest one Joe’s seen so far. It spreads across his mouth, slow like honey and maybe just as sweet.
Uh-uh. Nope. Stop it.
“So I’ve been told,” says Nicky.
“And you don’t get tired of people misunderstanding?”
Nicky shrugs. God, his shoulders—talk about crimes. “All the important people understand.”
The part of Joe’s brain that is easily distracted by handsome men goes into overdrive as he tries to determine if, by that logical premise, Nicky is telling him he’s important.
The part of Joe’s brain that got him through graduate school gets him through the rest of the night without embarrassing himself.
Okay, Nicky admits to himself after realizing he hasn’t heard a word his systematic theology professor has said in the last ten minutes. He might have a crush on Joe.
It’s Thursday, which is the day he can count on Joe showing up at the Guard, and they’ve spent the last few Thursdays in the same kind of drawn-out conversation they had in mid-February. Nicky’s not usually a talkative bartender; he tends to do more listening, because apparently he has the kind of face that makes people want to confide in him. He doesn’t mind, it’s the part of the job he likes best, but talking to Joe is more than just not-minding. He wants to talk to Joe. A lot. He also wants to look at Joe a lot.
Jesus Christ, Nicky is thirty years old. He’s a grown man, he doesn’t know why he’s so unsettled about this.
He forces his attention back to what Dr. Johnson’s saying, because he’s not going to win arguments if he daydreams his way through the rest of his degree.
Joe doesn’t come to the Guard that night.
Nicky glances at the door so often that Andy snaps his arm with a towel and tells him to get his head out of the clouds.
Shit. Yeah, okay. Definitely a crush.
There’s an interfaith council community dinner the following Tuesday, and Nicky blows off an evening of studying to go. There is a truly stunning amount of food, and everything’s thoroughly labeled—contains dairy, contains chicken (halal), vegetarian, contains eggs. Nicky grabs a bowl of chickpea stew that smells so good he could weep and some rolls he suspects were baked this morning. He takes a seat at a mostly-empty round table and waits for fate, or providence, or something, to determine who his messmates will be.
Providence gives him a group of other graduate students who are various flavors of Christian, and then, just when Nicky’s thinking about leaving as soon as he finishes his meal, providence also gives him Joe.
Nicky spots him right as he comes into the parish hall, and gives a little wave. Joe’s face lights up in a way that makes Nicky feel like he’s the only other person in the universe.
Nicky throws his coat over the chair next to him and fixes his face with an expression that dissuades people from even asking if anyone’s sitting there.
“Hi,” Joe says as he sets his food down.
“Hey.” He has fucking butterflies in his stomach. What has he done to deserve this. “It’s good to see you.”
“We missed you last Thursday.”
“It was midterms last week, I had so much grading to do. I missed you guys too.” He takes a sip of coffee from a mug with the church’s seal on it and winces.
“The Episcopalians,” Nicky says, sympathizing, “seem to be constitutionally incapable of serving good coffee.”
“No kidding.” He keeps drinking it anyway. “It’s more about the effects than the taste, at this point. I still have work to do when I get home.”
They catch up in general terms for a few minutes, and then Nicky hears the graduate students discussing the Church Fathers with a lack of nuance he’s all too familiar with.
“Ah,” he says to Joe. “Excuse me just one second.” He turns towards the students at the other end of the table—there are three of them, all men—and shamelessly inserts himself into the conversation. “Sorry to interrupt, but if you’re going to discuss Aquinas and sexuality, you have to remember that almost everything is sodomy.”
The three guys blink at him. They’re all dressed sharp (the one in the bow tie almost certainly knows how pretty he is), which helps Nicky as he tries to pinpoint exactly what kind of philosophy bros they are.
“If you’re going to use to the Church Fathers in a discussion on how we apply sexual ethics to modern Christianity,” he tries again, re-framing it so they don’t spook at the word ‘sodomy’ (cowards), “context is absolutely crucial.”
“Yes,” says the one with red hair. “We did go to college.”
Nicky narrows his eyes and decides he doesn’t feel like being patient. “I’m in seminary.” They sit up slightly straighter, and while that’s the effect Nicky was going for, it make him like them even less. “Aquinas is concerned with what types of sex are and are not logical, which has everything to do with the possibility of procreation and the nothing whatsoever to do with the pleasure of the people involved. This renders any type of sex without the goal of procreation illogical, and therefore outside of natural law and to be avoided as sin. Now, I do wish people would stop throwing the medieval era as a whole out with the proverbial bathwater, but Aquinas’s stance on human sexuality is completely unworkable in the modern age, and in fact did not work when Aquinas formulated it. The sooner the majority of Christian institutions get on board with the fact that sex is fine, actually, the better the Church will be for it, and the less harm we’ll inflict on people, especially queer people, by beating them over the head with patristics.”
“Okay,” says the one in the tweed jacket. “Sure.”
They return to talking amongst themselves.
Nicky sighs and stands up to clear his place. He takes his dishes to the busing station near the kitchen door, and when he turns to head back to the table he realizes Joe’s right behind him.
“Have you had enough to eat?” Nicky asks.
“Plenty,” Joe says. “Oh, wipe that look off your face, I’m telling the truth. You’re making the same expression my mother does when she doesn’t believe me.”
Joe sorts his dishes and hands Nicky his coat. “You didn’t have to—” Nicky starts.
“You looked like you were ready to go.” Nicky extracts his hat and scarf from his coat sleeve and starts to bundle up. “How are you getting home?”
“I was going to walk. I live close.”
“How close is close?”
“It’s freezing. Do you want a ride?”
Nicky remembers being seventeen, throwing himself into the passenger seat of some beautiful boy’s car after debate team after school, loosening ties, rolling up sleeves, getting twenty-to-thirty-minutes-depending-on-traffic in a small space with someone he liked, someone he wanted to like him, cycling through their favorite albums as the streetlights sped by.
Fuck yes, he wants a ride.
“Yeah, that’s very kind of you. Thanks.”
Joe kind of wants to talk about what just happened, but he’s wary of bringing it up himself because he’s not exactly sure what just happened.
“It’s possible I shouldn’t have done that,” Nicky says, just after he buckles his seatbelt, and Joe sends up a silent thank-you. “First of all, spending interfaith community dinner fighting with other Christians is stupid; if I wanted to do that I could just wait for church on Sunday. And I really didn’t mean to cut the evening short. I wanted to see you. Take a right at this next stoplight.”
I wanted to see you is a normal thing that people who are friends say to each other, Joe reminds himself.
They’re outside Nicky’s apartment building in no time at all—a fifteen minute walk translates to about a three-minute drive around here. Joe throws the car in park and twists in his seat so he can look at Nicky straight on. He has prep work to do when he gets home, he should be conscious of the time, but he really wants Nicky to keep talking.
“It’s a sore point for me,” Nicky continues, “when people elevate the great theologians without acknowledging that the world today is not the same as the world then, or without admitting they can be wrong.”
“The amount of study you do, to try and understand who you are and what that means for your faith—you understand?”
His voice is—not fragile, exactly, not breakable, but there’s something delicate about it, more tender than Joe’s heard from him before. “I do.”
“I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen. I was the bane of my religion teachers’ existence in high school; they were so glad to see the back of me. I just couldn’t stop fighting. Still can’t. I probably need to be more pragmatic about which fights I pick.”
“I’m not suggesting you stop fighting,” Joe begins, choosing his words carefully, “but—are you in the place you need to be? Is there somewhere else you could go, where you didn’t have to fight so much?”
Nicky shakes his head. Joe can tell he’s getting better at ready Nicky’s face, because despite the darkness and the fact that Nicky’s in profile, Joe recognizes his sadness.
“I’ve asked myself that question so many times, over so many years. And the answer is that there is probably somewhere I could go, and I wouldn’t have to fight as much, and I would be fine, and maybe happy, but this is my home. I deserve to be welcome in my own home, and the people who come after me deserve to be welcome without having to fight like I did.”
Joe’s suddenly blinking back tears. This man has love pouring out of his veins. “I see.” His voice is nearly a whisper. He clears his throat. “I completely understand.”
Nicky turns and looks at him, finally, and smiles that small, lovely smile. “Thank you for the ride, Joe. And thank you—” He cuts himself short. “See you at the Guard?”
“I’ll be there.”
Nicky gets out, and Joe watches until he’s through the door of his building. He drives home without the radio on and admits to himself that, against all reason and good judgement, he’s absolutely enamored.
The Sunday afternoon thing starts like this:
It’s a Thursday at the Guard. There is the smallest discernible whiff of spring in the air. Nicky has perfected the ratio of lavender syrup in the drink he’s just served Joe. (“It’s there,” Joe says, “but it’s not overpowering,” which is the proverbial Goldilocks rule when you’re working with lavender.)
Nicky’s telling Joe about an argument he had with a classmate that week about Scripture in the vernacular.
“Jerome gives us the Vulgate and we canonize him,” Nicky explains, “Wycliffe gives us the Scriptures in Middle English and we excommunicate him. After he’s dead!”
“See,” Joe says, “if you had kept your holy writings in the language they were given to you in, some of these problems might have been solved.”
“People should be able to hear the word of God in their own tongue.”
“People should be able to hear the teachings of God in their own tongue, I’ll grant that, but surely the word of God is important enough to learn a language for. Two, in your case.”
“Unfortunately these days the primary way to learn those languages is to go to seminary, which, you will remember, I am doing.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why do Christians seem to be…not great?...at religious education?”
“I ask myself this question constantly, and you’re looking at someone who has eighteen years and counting of Catholic education, and half of that’s from the Jesuits, which is important, trust me.”
“I’m just saying, you’ve got all these people saying ‘we don’t know what this word means’ while all these very intelligent Jewish scholars are out here like, ‘stop telling everyone Hebrew’s dead!’”
Nicky snorts, and immediately feels his face heat. It’s just the way he laughs, but he’s weirdly sensitive about it—probably a leftover self-preservation instinct from all-boys school—and the look Joe gives him is difficult to read. “That’s a good point.”
“Also, I can walk into any mosque in the world and be met with a greeting I understand, and join in prayers I understand.”
“Mass is sung to the same chant both here and in Italy,” Nicky offers, “but that’s not the same.”
“Joe,” Andy calls from down the bar, “whatever you do, do not let him talk about when they changed the Mass translation a few years back.” Nicky turns to her and opens his mouth, but she cuts him off. “I am a dyed-in-the-wool heathen, Nicolò, and you owe me financial compensation for how much I now know about what happens at a Roman Catholic Mass. I was this close to getting a spray bottle and squirting you with water every time you brought it up.”
She’s so annoyed and so obviously fond that Nicky finds himself snorting again, and when he risks a look at Joe he sees him with his elbows propped on the bar, shaking with laughter.
“I have more to say on this subject,” Nicky starts.
“I’m sure you do.”
“But I have to look a few things up before I can call my argument ‘well-informed’. What does your Sunday look like?”
Joe stops laughing. “Um. I can make it pretty free. Aren’t you busy?”
“Only in the morning. Do you want to come to mine in the afternoon? I’ll cook.”
What Joe doesn’t know, and Nicky desperately hopes it’s not showing on his face, is that he’s been trying to figure out how to ask this question for weeks.
“Oh. That—that sounds lovely, yes, I’d love to.”
The man snorts when he laughs. Joe really can’t catch a fucking break.
He also cooks a really good Sunday brunch, which is frankly just rude.
After they eat, they sit facing each other on either end of Nicky’s couch, with a pile of books between them that they reach for every time they want to double check something or read a quote verbatim. At one point their hands collide as they go for different volumes in the same vicinity, and Joe absolutely wants to die.
He reminds himself constantly that it’s a miracle he and Nicky even like each other, given the start they got off to, and that a friendship is a gift that can last a lifetime, while his God-this-feels-like-high-school crush has all the impermanence of a shooting star. The crush came before the friendship, really. That doesn’t surprise Joe—he’s the person who falls in love on public transit. The friendship will outlast the crush. He’ll see to it.
Except—he’s gotten much better at understanding Nicky, it’s really no effort at all now, and he thinks the man might be flirting with him. He touches Joe’s arm to get his attention, he’s thrown an arm around Joe’s shoulders a couple of times, and then there’s the way he smiles, or glances up through his eyelashes. But that could also just be his face, Joe reminds himself, and he could just be a tactile person. Joe now knows that Nicky’s whole family’s Italian, as in his parents grew up in Genoa and he spent his summers there through high school. (Spending summers abroad with family is something else they’ve bonded over during his evenings at the Guard and now Joe wants to meet Nicky’s mom in an absolutely normal your-son-and-are-good-friends-no-really way.) Joe’s glad Nicky’s not as repressed about touch as most men in this country. They really just are dudes being theology bros.
Because Nicky’s gonna be a priest. That’s what this all comes back to.
But he isn’t yet, Joe’s brain whispers, and somewhere between the Sunday afternoon where they discuss the Day of Resurrection and the Sunday afternoon where they discuss angels, Joe wakes from a half-remembered dream swearing he can feel Nicky’s mouth against his neck. The only thing that keeps him from staying in bed and finishing the job is the knowledge that he won’t be able to look Nicky in the eye that night if he does.
They switch from Sunday lunch to Sunday dinner once Ramadan starts, and then their respective semesters catch up to them and they put Sundays on hold. Joe still tries to run by the Guard on Thursdays, though, even if he only has time for one drink, and when he’s exhausted and swamped with grading, he texts Nicky to let him know he won’t be by. Nicky gets back to him almost immediately, asking if Joe wants him to bring dinner over.
Are you not working tonight?
I am but the place is empty and Nile’s also here
And I never take time off
So Andy will let me do what I want
Joe hesitates, and then decides to say fuck it.
I’ve already eaten but it would honestly be nice to have someone here?
While I grade a hundred final exams
I’m on my way.
Nicky brings him food anyway. “I haven’t eaten,” he explains, unpacking cartons from the Thai place nearby, “and the sesame chicken you like keeps well.”
“I, a fellow child of Mediterranean parents, should have known better than to expect that you wouldn’t try to feed me.”
Joe continues grading while Nicky eats dinner and reads the book he brought with him. Sometime around nine o’clock Nicky gets up and stretches, and Joe thinks he’s about to head out, but instead he asks, “Do you want coffee?”
“Are you offering me my own coffee?”
“I am, and I’m offering to make it. I will confess it’s not wholly altruistic, as I was planning to make enough for myself as well.”
“You’re a paragon among men,” Joe says, which might be skirting a bit close to the line, but then Nicky—winks? Possibly? He doesn’t quite manage to keep one eye open, but the feeling’s there. “Everything’s on the counter next to the kettle.” The words tumble out in a rush, and he immediately returns his attention to a mostly acceptable exam answer about Hagia Sophia.
He listens to Nicky move through the process of making coffee, and when he feels a prickle at the corner of his eyes he tries to tell himself it’s because he’s tired. But he’s bad at lying, always has been, and when Nicky sets a full coffee cup down next to him he can’t stop himself from saying, “Thank you. It’s been a while since—since I had someone around to offer.”
“It’s my honor to take care of you,” Nicky says, so simply. And then he goes back to his book.
Joe wants to scream.
Nicky has been told he’s not the most obvious flirt in the world, but personally he thinks he’s just been surrounded by obtuse people who don’t recognize flirting. None more so, it would seem, than one Yusuf al-Kaysani, PhD. Nicky feeds the man at least once a week; half of his shift drinks go to Joe with a “don’t fight me on this, you know you’ll lose”; they have passionate discussions on a wide variety of topics; and Joe now knows more about the dark, tender parts of Nicky’s life than anyone except Andy and Nicky’s own mother, and frankly it’s just a matter of time before he catches up. Which is astounding, because Nicky only met the man in January.
It is now May. Their semesters are over, grades have been submitted and received (Nicky is now two thirds of the way through his MDiv, still getting excellent grades, and he will be informing Father Kelly of that fact the next time he sees him, because he is exactly that petty), and Joe goes to visit his family for Eid al-Fitr. He sends Nicky several family photos and details who everyone is, from left to right. On the one hand it’s nice to be able to put faces to the names Nicky’s heard so much about; on the other hand Nicky takes one look at Joe dressed to the nines and almost blacks out.
The other possibility, of course, is that Joe does recognize Nicky’s flirting and chooses not to acknowledge it as a way to let him down gently without ruining their friendship. And that’s fair, Nicky tells himself. He respects that. That just makes it another unrequited crush, it’s not a big deal. At least he can count on Joe not completely ignoring him like a number of boys at church did over the years when they picked up on the fact that Nicky’d caught feelings.
He still gets those stupid butterflies in his stomach when, on the last Thursday in May, he brings up the annual inter-seminary soccer game.
“If you don’t have plans this Saturday,” Nicky says, sliding Joe a freshly mixed lime soda, “and you feel like watching some soccer, I will be one of the band of brothers fighting for the glory of Dominican.”
Joe rolls his eyes. “You actively dislike half the guys at your seminary.”
“This is true,” Nicky admits, “but remember when the U.S. team won the World Cup a few years ago?” Joe frowns, confused, and Nicky clarifies. “The women’s team—in this country there is soccer and there is men’s soccer, until further notice.”
“Ah! Yes, okay, I know exactly what you mean.” Neither he nor Nicky have any patriotic attachment to the United States whatsoever. At the same time, Megan Rapinoe for president.
“This is the one day I set my criticisms aside in order to defend our honor against the Protestants. On Saturday, we crush them beneath our heels. On Sunday they can go back to being right about women’s ordination.”
He goes on to tell Joe about how it’s only become a soccer match in the last five years. “It used to be American football, but there were a few too many grievous injuries. The associate priest at my mother’s church has a busted knee from when he played fifteen years ago, and one year someone had to get their spleen removed. Apparently there was a fight about what to replace it with—the Catholics wanted basketball, of course, and I think the Protestants wanted softball. In a gesture of ecumenism they picked something neither is entirely happy with.”
Joe accepts the invitation, and Nicky tells himself to stop feeling like that means something.
It’s a perfect day to play soccer, or, in Joe’s case, to try and avoid spontaneous combustion.
He brings a blanket and a backpack full of snacks to the park where they’re holding the match, and he hasn’t even started unpacking when Nicky spots him from the field and waves. Joe waves back and grins like the idiot he is. Nicky is wearing a maroon t-shirt that says “Fighting Friars” on the front and “diGenova” on the back. His shorts are short enough to give Joe a generous eyeful of unnervingly pale but surprisingly muscular legs. Joe can already tell that coming to this match is simultaneously the best and worst idea he has ever had.
Joe’s watched a lot of soccer in his life (and yes, it does annoy him to call it soccer, but he learned very early into his school career that that was a stupid battle to fight) and it’s clear that Nicky is good. Not just spent-his-summers-playing-with-his-cousins good, although Joe personally knows how far that will get you, but probably-could-have-gotten-college-scholarships-for-it good. The upside of this is that it makes the match very enjoyable to watch, and the steep downside is that it reminds Joe how fucking hot competence is. Is it not enough that Joe watches Nicky be incredibly good at his job at least once a week? Why has he also subjected himself to watching Nicky be obscenely good at a game Joe loves while looking obscenely good doing it?
Generally Joe tries to avoid thinking about Nicky’s body, because that way madness lies, but there’s little else to do at the moment, and when Nicky stretches his arms over his head as he talks to a teammate during halftime, Joe can’t stop staring at where his shirt rides up. Never has he wanted to dig his fingers into the muscles of a man’s back this badly. He actually has to stop himself from clenching his hands into fists. He’s also frantically sorting through his memory trying to figure out if he’s seen Nicky in short sleeves before, and then he remembers that Nicky runs cold and is rarely without a jacket or a hoodie, so the answer is probably no. His brain is processing a lot of new information, and it’s coming to the conclusion that the whole man should just be outlawed.
He takes a deep breath full of fresh May air, which has famously never made anyone less horny, and gives himself some gentle reminders. It’s understandable to have feelings for a friend, you just have to make choices about your behavior and stick to them. Nicky joining the priesthood may be personally inconvenient for you, but it’s a decision he has to have given a lot of thought to. Joe can still see Nicky sitting in the passenger seat of his car back in March, can hear his voice as he says, “I deserve to be welcome in my own home, and the people who come after me deserve to be welcome without having to fight like I did.”
And that, devastatingly, is probably what made Joe fall in love with him.
Dominican wins by one goal. The players shake hands and chat for a few minutes after the final whistle, which gives Joe time to shove his snacks and his blanket into his backpack and try to collect himself.
Nicky jogs over, covered in grass stains and absolutely drenched in sweat.
“Hell of a game,” Joe says.
“Yeah, Union put up a good fight.” Nicky’s breathing isn’t heavy, exactly, but it’s…noticeable.
“Your honor is safe for another year.”
“Yeah—do you think they’ll let me play next year, even though I’ll be graduated?”
Joe doesn’t want to think about that, doesn’t want to think about this time next year when some part of Nicky will be lost to him forever. He also doesn’t want to think about the bead of sweat that’s just rolled down Nicky’s throat and disappeared into the neckline of his t-shirt.
“I don’t know,” Joe replies, and it’s the truth, but there must be something about the way he says it that sounds off, because Nicky gives him a curious look.
“I was thinking,” Nicky says, which is a much better beginning than Are you alright? or What is wrong with you today? “It’s been a while since I’ve been out here, do you want to ramble around the park together for a while? Or we could go back to mine for lunch? I’ll have to shower first.” He rakes a hand through his hair and makes a face, presumably a reaction to all the sweat.
Joe wants to shove his face into the crook of Nicky’s neck and lick the sweat off of him, which makes him feel deranged. The thought of hanging out in Nicky’s apartment while he showers, while he cooks lunch with his hair still damp, is enough to completely end him. If he goes home with Nicky, he’s going to crack, he can feel it. If he goes home with Nicky now, it might be the last time.
“I can’t,” Joe says. “I’m sorry. But I’ll see you Thursday?”
Nicky looks a little confused—this might be the first time Joe’s turned down his cooking—but he doesn’t press. “Thursday, of course. Have a good week until then.”
And then Joe flees.
Nicky stays at the park by himself for a while, grabbing his water bottle and settling himself against the trunk of a tree near the river. He stares across the water at the city’s skyline and tries to undo the knots that have formed in his chest.
There’s a high likelihood that he has to give up hope about Joe. This isn’t anyone’s fault, he tells himself, these kinds of things happen in friendships all the time. One person looks at all the reasons they love their friend and says, “Those are also reasons that make me want to kiss them,” and the other person doesn’t, and that’s fine. The worst breakup Nicky ever had was when he dated a boy in college because it made sense more than because he actually wanted to be with the guy. Nicky would never wish that on Joe. He thinks he would rather die than cause Joe pain.
But there’s still one thing left he hasn’t done, which is ask Joe how he feels, and Nicky wants to have a nice long think through their history before he broaches the subject. So he goes back to January, to meeting Joe after the interest meeting at Temple Beth Emeth. It’s been so long since he thought about it—he realized sometime around the end of February that he’d never actually apologized for being rude, and by that point it seemed like it would have been more awkward to bring it up. Dr. Mitchell introduced him as student, and Joe as a professor, and Nicky proceeded to only half-listen to what he’s sure now was a very thoughtful and interesting answer, because he was preoccupied with sticking it to Father Kelly, and Joe had said—
“No.” Nicky says it out loud. He stares at the water as though it will give him answers and starts to run through the last four and half months on fast-forward. Dr. Mitchell didn’t specify whether he was an ordinand or not, and Joe had clearly assumed he was—For your future parishioners’ sake, I hope your listening skills improve.
And Nicky’s pretty sure he’s never said or done anything to contradict that assumption. Fuck, he thinks he leaned into it—Thank you for your concern for future parishioners—because evidently he’d been set on being an asshole that night. He swears and fumbles in his backpack for his phone.
“Who won?” Andy asks without preamble.
“We did, it doesn’t matter—where are you?”
“At the Guard, doing prep. Is everything okay?”
“Um, I don’t know? I mean I’m physically fine, please don’t worry, but I’m also a total idiot.”
“Get your ass down here,” she says, “and tell me everything.”
“You can laugh,” he says after he finishes explaining. “I can see you holding it in.”
Andy allows herself one explosion of hearty laughter that has her bent double for exactly five seconds, and then she reigns herself in and reaches for Nicky’s hands across the bar. “Why do you look so gloomy? It’s possible you’ve just discovered the explanation for everything, and there’s only one way to find out.” Nicky blinks at her. “You’ve got to talk to Joe,” she says, in a tone of voice that sounds like she really hopes that was obvious to him.
“How do I ask him out without sounding like a complete weirdo? ‘Oh, sorry I didn’t correct a huge and understandable miscommunication because I completely forgot about it’? Who wants to date that guy?”
“You won’t know until you ask.”
“And what if that’s not it? What if I tell him and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s good to know, but it doesn’t change anything.’ Or worse, ‘I absolutely knew, is that how you explained to yourself why I’m not interested’?” Nicky swallows. “What if he breaks my heart, Andy?”
Andy sighs and gives him a small, sympathetic smile. “Then it will hurt like hell, and I will give you vodka, and you will live to love another day.”
“Yeah.” His voice is shaky.
“Oh, Nicky.” She comes around the end of the bar and pulls him to his feet and into a hug. Andy gives the best hugs. “Do it soon,” she says, pulling away and sliding her hand around the back of his neck. “Don’t lose your nerve. And then call me.”
Despite Joe’s best efforts, every third thought he’s had since leaving the soccer match has been about Nicky. And then, because God is merciful but the universe apparently isn’t, the man’s name appears on his phone screen.
Are you busy tomorrow evening?
Oh. Sunday. Right. He hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to make up an excuse when his phone pings again.
I would really like to have dinner.
Joe groans and flings himself onto the couch, staring up at the ceiling as if it will tell him how to live his life. He gives it five minutes, and then he crumbles.
What’s this week’s topic?
No topic. I just want to see you.
He feels like he’s going to start crying. Does Nicky hear how he sounds? Does he know what he’s doing? He can’t, Joe thinks, because he’s not a cruel man. He can be petty, unnervingly direct, and kind of an asshole when he forgets himself, but he isn’t mean, and he has no joy in the suffering of others.
Sure. Dinner’s good. What time?
Nicky di Genova
5:00 it is.
Joe’s gotta tell him.
Nicky kicks himself all day for asking Joe to dinner instead of lunch, because it means he’s added approximately four hours of waiting time to his day, most of which he spends pacing. His downstairs neighbors are going to murder him, and God will surely pardon them for it.
He opens the door when Joe knocks, feeling like an actor in a play, and has to remind himself not to spill his heart out to the man right then and there. At least offer him a drink first, he can hear his mother say.
Joe accepts his offer to test a new blackberry lemonade recipe and Nicky goes through the motions of making it in a haze.
“What?” he says as he hands Joe the glass.
“Usually you have something on the stove when I get here,” Joe says. It’s true, Nicky tends to feed Joe things that need to cook for an obscene length of time, so even though they might not eat for a couple of hours after Joe comes over, there’s always something on the burner. “Trying something different tonight?”
“Uh, yeah,” Nicky says, because it’s not a lie. “Can we—talk first? I promise I do actually have something planned.” It’s a very quick pasta dish that will double as comfort food if he ends up having dinner alone.
“Yeah, there’s something I’ve been meaning—can we go sit down?”
So they go to the living room and sit on the regular opposite ends of the couch, because it’s the only sitting furniture Nicky has room for.
“Um, do you mind if I—” Nicky starts, at the same time Joe says, “So what did you—”
They laugh at themselves, it’s awkward, and Joe says, “You go.”
“Okay, um, I don’t know if you know this, and I think I’m going to feel really stupid whether you do or not, but—I’m not in seminary as an ordinand.”
Joe sets his glass down on the coffee table with a thunk.
“I’m not going to be a priest,” Nicky continues, as though Joe doesn’t know what ordinand means. “I’m just going to get the MDiv, non-ordination track. It’s a—I don’t know, logical conclusion of years of annoying religion teachers and clergy? A lot of priests in this archdiocese, including one of my parish priests, they don’t think what you have to say matters as much if you don’t have an advanced theology degree, which is bullshit of course, but I…couldn’t remember if you…knew?”
There’s a small frown line between Joe’s eyebrows. Nicky can’t read the face Joe’s making at all, but he can hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“Why are you telling me?” His voice is not as neutral as he hoped it would be. His throat feels scratchy, he wants to have more of his drink, but if he reaches for it Nicky will know that his hands are shaking.
Nicky sighs and scrubs both hands over his face before raising his head to look Joe in the eye. “Because I wanted to ask you on a date. And I didn’t want there to be any, ah, confusion.”
Joe feels lightheaded. There’s a faint buzzing in his ears. “No confusion. Right.”
“Joe.” Nicky’s voice cuts through the buzzing. “Please. Tell me whether or not I’ve just made a fool of myself.”
“No!” And suddenly there’s air again, and his lungs know how to breathe it. “No, you haven’t made a fool of yourself at—I came tonight to tell you I love you.”
Nicky goes very pale and then very flushed in the space of a few seconds, which can’t be comfortable.
“I came here to tell you I love you,” Joe repeats, “because not telling you wasn’t—I knew it might be the end of things, if I said something, but I just couldn’t keep—Hang on, why did you not tell me?”
“Because I thought you knew!”
“You made a comment about future parishioners the first time I met you!”
“Yes, because I was being a rude idiot who was thinking about sticking it to someone he didn’t like instead of listening to you. Which I should have done from the first words you said to me.” Nicky is gazing at him with those beautiful infuriating eyes, and Joe wants to live and die in them. “I also never apologized for being a rude idiot, which I should have done the moment you walked into my bar.”
“I think I was a little in love with you from the moment I walked into your bar.”
“That had to have been very annoying for you.”
“It really was.” Joe feels like he needs to laugh, scream, and cry all at once. “Nicky.”
“Why aren’t we kissing right now?”
Nicky exhales. “You always ask such good questions.”
They meet in the middle of the couch. Their first kiss is soft, and bleeds into their second, and their third, and then Nicky sighs, and Joe opens his mouth, and the only sound in the apartment, in the whole world, is the sound of their breathing and their kisses. And now Joe finally knows what Nicky’s mouth, which has literally haunted his dreams, feels like against his.
He says as much when they finally pull away.
“For me it was your hands,” Nicky says. “I would dream about…”
“Go on,” Joe says, “you can’t start a sentence like that and then just stop.”
“I would dream about your hands all over my body. Running over my chest, down my back, pulling my hair. I would dream you held me close and then, when I woke up to an empty bed, I would try so hard not to cry.”
“I would dream you covered me with kisses, light ones, across my face and down my back, and then you’d reach my shoulders or my neck and you would lick at me, bite me…”
Nicky groans and captures Joe’s mouth again. It doesn’t seem real, that they get to have this, not after months of being so sure they didn’t.
“We can make that happen,” Nicky says after a while. “We can make anything you want happen. Well—we should probably talk about some things, but you know what I—”
“I do, I do.” And they’re kissing again.
Sometime later, Nicky: “So do you want dinner—”
So they forgo dinner in favor of bed, where they strip each other down with a mix of tenderness and ferocity.
“You make me—” Joe starts, as he and Nicky cling to each other, their bodies moving together in a way that feels exquisitely good. “You make me want to do the funniest things. Yesterday all I could think about was licking sweat off your neck.”
Nicky makes a noise that is part laugh, part moan. “That explains your face, then. I thought you were disgusted.”
Joe pulls away, stilling. “I could never be disgusted by you.”
Nicky raises an eyebrow. “I was very sweaty.”
“And you’re about to be again, so don’t worry about it.”
“You can, if you want.”
“Lick sweat off my neck. You can lick me anywhere.”
“What will your parents think?” Joe asks, quite some time later. They’re naked beneath the blankets, legs tangled together. “Not that it changes anything, for me.”
Nicky sighs. “I think, for my father, me being gay is still something that’s abstract. My mother’s going to love you, and so many things about me are going to make sense when you meet her. I can hear her now, telling the other women at her church about us. ‘I don’t know what you’re so concerned about, Pam, they both worship the same God.’”
They both laugh, and kiss, because they can.
“What about your parents?”
“They’re going to be thrilled,” Joe says. “My siblings too. They’ve only ever wanted me to be happy.”
“And are you?” It’s a question that’s asked for the joy of hearing an answer that’s already known.
Surprisingly, for a man who’s basically just gotten everything his heart desires, Nicky sleeps like shit. He doesn’t know if it’s the excitement or the excess emotion keeping him awake into the small hours of the morning, but he drifts in and out of a doze until the light begins to change beyond the window shades. Joe sleeps more deeply, but every so often he’ll stir against Nicky’s back and press kisses against whatever part of Nicky is closest—the back of his neck, or between his shoulders. So Nicky doesn’t worry too much about the sleep he’s not getting; it’s worth it to feel every kiss Joe gives him.
There’s nothing that has to be done the next day anyway, until his shift starts at the Guard. Joe’s teaching a summer class, but it doesn’t start for another week.
Nicky finally drifts off properly somewhere around five A.M., and when he wakes up at ten, Joe’s still asleep. Another late sleeper, good to know.
He’s going to need a nap later, but he’s fully awake now, like it or not, so he rolls out of bed as gingerly as possible and goes to make coffee. When it’s finished brewing, he returns to bed and begins to press soft kisses across Joe’s back until he stirs.
“Not a dream this time,” Nicky says. Joe smiles at him, still half asleep, and God, he is in love.
Joe’s at the Guard as soon as it opens that evening, because what is the point of a relationship’s early days if you don’t lean into the utter intoxication of being around the person you adore? It isn’t going to be like this forever, and that’s not scary, it’s just a fact.
Him and Nicky, though. That is forever, he thinks.
“Congratulations, Yusuf,” Andy says when he takes his usual seat.
“Are you annoyed with me?”
“No, I think you get the full name treatment when I’m feeling fond.”
“Well, you’re family now. You understand.” She looks him straight in the eyes, her expression unmistakable.
“And it’s nice to see that Nicky’s finally found someone to treat him right, judging from the bite marks—”
“Andy,” Nicky complains, “not during business hours, I beg you.”
“There’s no one else in here, Nicky, and I offered you concealer. Oh,” Andy says to someone behind Joe, “hey, babe.”
Joe turns to see Quỳnh, who teaches art history at one of Joe’s universities, lean across the bar and give Andy a kiss that lasts slightly longer than is considered polite in public.
“Hi Joe,” Quỳnh says with a smile that implies there’s much more going on here than he realizes. “Glad to see you took my suggestion.”
“They finally figured it out,” Andy tells her.
“Yes, I thought I saw…” She nods at Nicky and taps the side of her neck. He frowns and zips up his hoodie, which hides absolutely nothing.
“Wait,” Joe says, “you’re going to have to explain this to me. Andy is your wife?”
Quỳnh’s wife is famous in the art history department because Quỳnh loves to tell stories about adventures they’ve had, but the wife is famously nameless and all identifying details are redacted except those needed to understand the stories.
“The one and only.”
“And you suggested I start coming here because…”
“I told you, you needed a third place, not home, not work.” Joe nods once and waits. “Also Andy’s told me so much about Nicky and I’ve told her so much about you, and we thought it would be a good way to set you up without it feeling strained.”
Nicky throws his towel on the bar and takes a lap around the room.
“What?” Quỳnh asks, turning to Andy.
“They actually met before we got to them.”
“It didn’t go well.”
“But now it’s going great.”
“So we’re still in the right here.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Nicky says, “both of you.” He finishes his lap and returns to his spot behind the bar, reaching to take both of Joe’s hands in his own.
“But it did work out,” Quỳnh repeats, taking a seat next to Joe.
“It did,” he says.
“Pour us a round, babe,” she says to Andy, then turns back to them. “Tell me everything.”