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Nicky isn’t normally type to sit in bars by himself. However, he doesn’t quite feel like going home yet. So he’s sitting in the hotel bar nursing a beer and re-running his disastrous blind date in his mind. He still can’t figure out how someone can get into such a heated argument with a person he barely knows, but Nicky had managed it. He groans. The man’s opinions had just been so wrong and Nicky couldn’t let them go unaddressed. At least he hadn’t really had high hopes for the date, since they never went well for him.

Nicky’s staring at the menu the bartender had left for him, thinking of the dinner that had gone untouched after the date went horribly south. Somehow, ordering food seems worse than sitting at the bar drinking a beer by himself. Instead, he pulls out his phone.

Is it sad that I’m sitting alone at a bar after a date? he texts Nile. He tells himself the situation is a little better if he’s talking to someone else. Even if it is only a text conversation.

He takes another drink of his beer, drawing patterns in the condensation on the bar. It’s a couple of minutes before his phone buzzes.

That bad, huh?

Nicky drags a hand down his face. You have no idea.

This really does feel low. He’s sitting here by himself, texting his best friend. He’s thinking he should just go home. Before he can do anything with that thought, his phone buzzes again.

Want company?

He’s about to say yes when a man sits down next to him. A gorgeous man, Nicky notices when he turns to look at him. He’s haloed in perfect curls, and just close enough that Nicky can see a dusting of freckles across his nose. Nicky looks away quickly, not wanting the man to think he’s staring. Nile’s text stares at him a moment longer before his screen locks. He’s thinking about unlocking it and telling her it’s fine when the man beside him speaks.

“I hope you don’t mind.” The man’s voice is accented, though Nicky can’t quite place it.

Nicky can’t decide how to explain that not only does he not mind but he would very much like him to stay. So he settles for, “I don’t mind.”

The man is watching him, so Nicky decides it’s probably fine if he returns the look. When he does, he is immediately struck by the stranger’s warm, brown eyes. He probably should have kept staring at his beer. It would be safer than looking at this man with his impossible curls and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He turns back to his drink and realizes the glass is mostly empty. Shit.

He should leave. He’s finished his beer and he’s just come off a very bad date. Besides, what does he really expect here? That they’re going to exchange numbers, meet later? He should definitely go. Maybe Nile will want to come over to his place and watch bad movies. Except before he can leave, the man starts speaking again.

“Can I buy you another?”

Nicky swirls the beer in his glass a few times, not looking back at the man next to him, yet, then downs the rest of it in one drink. In that moment, he makes a decision. If the most beautiful man in this bar wants to pick him up, Nicky isn’t going to say no. Because, suddenly, he doesn’t want to go home anymore.

“Sure,” Nicky nods, setting his glass back down on the bartop. He wants to keep staring, except he’s been told he can come off as intense and he doesn’t want to scare off a gorgeous man who seems to want to pick him up.

The man flags down the bartender and orders another for Nicky, and it’s all Nicky can do to keep his eyes off him. Nicky checks his phone quickly while he is still talking with the bartender but before he has time to reply to Nile, the man’s attention is back on him. Nicky locks the screen and sets his phone on the table.

“I should probably introduce myself if I’m buying you a drink,” he says, and Nicky still hasn’t said much, but he wants to know this man’s name so he makes a sound of agreement.

“I’m Joe.”

“Nicky,” he replies, reaching for the glass the bartender has placed next to him.

“Nice to meet you, Nicky.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Nicky isn’t done berating himself for not coming up with something better when Joe speaks again. “I couldn’t help but notice the accent. Italian?”

He nods. “I grew up in Genoa.”

Nicky can’t quite figure what drew this man to him in the first place. Tonight is just the latest in a series of bad first dates and he’s beginning to think maybe he’s the common denominator. And if he ever told Nile that she would scold him roundly for it, which is why he hasn’t ever mentioned it to her. Still, the attention makes this feel unusual, to say the least. Rather than letting his thoughts continue down that road, he takes another drink of his beer and waits for Joe to say something else.

Instead, Joe stays silent. When Nicky finally looks over at him, he’s giving him a considering look, like he’s making up his mind about something. Nicky wants so badly to know what's going through Joe’s head.

Before Nicky can question him, Joe asks, “Do you want to come upstairs with me?”

Nicky is so completely taken aback that all he can do is stare for a moment. He feels like he’s been doing too much of that since Joe sat down next to him. Joe, to his credit, manages to only look mildly interested, rather than like he’s worried about rejection. It piques Nicky’s interest. And going to a hotel room with an attractive man is better than where his night had been going before Joe showed up.

“Okay,” Nicky says. His glass is still half full but he doesn’t really care. The prospect of going to a hotel room with Joe is much more pressing than finishing his drink. He can’t quite take his eyes off Joe, can’t stop thinking about what it will feel like to touch him, to taste him.

Joe turns to the bartender and says, “You can charge his drinks to my room.”

Nicky takes a large gulp of his beer while the bartender prints a receipt for Joe to sign, the action pulling Nicky’s attention and he’s thinking of what else those hands can do. Suddenly, he can’t quite wait to get upstairs with this man. He’s desperate to get his hands on him, to taste him. He can’t quite recall the last time he reacted so strongly to another person.

“Ready?” Joe asks once he’s closed out at the bar.

Nicky nods and stands up with Joe and follows him to the elevator. A blessedly empty elevator. Except now that they’re alone, Nicky suddenly can’t decide what to do with himself. He desperately wants to kiss Joe but maybe he’s supposed to wait until they reach the hotel room. He has no experience with this kind of thing, no framework he can use. He makes up his mind when he realizes Joe has selected the top floor and he knows doesn’t want to wait that long.

Nicky turns to Joe at the same time Joe turns to him. He opens his mouth to say something, but whatever it is appears to die in his throat when Nicky grabs his hand and pulls him closer. Joe’s mouth closes and Nicky crowds into Joe’s space and kisses him. The touch of Joe’s lips against his is electric and Nicky can’t get enough of him. Joe’s mouth opens underneath his and his hand comes up to tangle in Nicky’s hair, tilting his head for a better angle.

An embarrassing groan escapes him at the touch but Joe just tightens his grip on him. He wedges a leg between Joe’s and he can feel how aroused Joe is. He wants to taste, to touch, to feel Joe’s body underneath his hands. The elevator dings and suddenly the interminably long is over. Nicky pulls away from Joe with a feeling of disappointment, which is ridiculous considering what’s waiting for him once they get to Joe’s room.

Nicky crowds against Joe’s back, unwilling to lose the feeling of Joe’s body against his, as he lets them into his hotel room. His penthouse hotel room. Nicky pauses for a moment, realizing just how much money this man who’s brought him to his room must have.

“Nicky?” Joe says, a note of concern in his voice. “Is everything okay?”

Nicky hums and then returns his attention to the taste of Joe’s skin and he’s rewarded with a groan from Joe. He feels his hand gripping in his shirt and then Joe’s pulling him to the bed. They fumble in their rush to get clothes off and reveal more skin and Nicky sits down hard on the bed when his legs hit it unexpectedly.

He can’t say he’s upset with his new vantage point. Leaning back on his hands gives him a particularly fine view of Joe’s newly bared chest. He doesn’t get to enjoy his view for long, though, because suddenly Joe is on top of him, lips crashing against Nicky’s. Nicky surges up to meet him, and God that’s even better. He drags Joe down to him, pressing their bodies together, his hands trying to touch every bit of skin he can reach.

Joe has other ideas. He pulls away and Nicky immediately misses the weight of Joe’s body against his. Except now Joe is pressing kisses against his chest, wandering lower, and his hands skimming down Nicky’s body have him arching off the bed, seeking more contact.

And then Joe’s hands are at Nicky’s waistband and unfastening the fly. Nicky groans, and before long he’s completely naked before Joe. He might feel more embarrassed by his obvious arousal except Joe is staring at him so hungrily that all that’s left to him is desire.

Nicky sits up and reaches for Joe. He’s not going to stand for being the only naked man in this absurd hotel room. He pulls Joe closer by his waistband, undoing the fly, earning a bright grin from Joe. He wouldn’t mind seeing more of that. But he also wants Joe’s pants off.

When they’re finally off, Nicky gets on his knees, pressing another searing kiss to Joe’s lips and wrapping his hand around Joe’s cock.

“Oh shit” Joe gasps against Nicky’s mouth.

Nicky nips at Joe’s neck and strokes his cock long and slow. “Good?” he asks when Joe bucks against him.

“So good,” Joe says, pushing Nicky back against the bed. “It’s so good. You’re so good.”

Joe continues the trail he started down Nicky’s body before Nicky got his pants off, and Nicky can’t do more than writhe under his ministrations and grasp at the sheets beneath him. When Joe’s mouth closes on Nicky’s cock his mind goes completely blank. It feels so incredible.

“Fuck,” he sputters and Joe pulls off him. “Fuck.”

“Good?” Joe asks and Nicky’s head falls back against the pillows as he groans. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Nicky wants to hate him for his smug tone but he can’t because everything Joe does feels so good. So instead, he groans out an affirmation and Joe goes back to lavishing attention on Nicky’s cock. If Joe doesn’t stop soon Nicky is going to come, and he’s not ready for that. Not yet. He wants to feel Joe, all of him.

With something that feels almost like regret, he pulls Joe up so their faces are at a level. “Condom?” he murmurs into Joe’s ear.

“Yeah,” Joe replies. “Hold on.”

He doesn’t move off of Nicky, just reaches over to the night stand. He’s back with a foil packet in hand that Nicky promptly takes from him. He tears the packet open with eager efficiency and slowly rolls the condom down Joe’s cock. Joe leans towards the night stand again and comes back with a bottle of lube.

Nicky’s thoughts are scattered and fuzzy as Joe works him open, being almost overly generous with the lube, going slow, taking his time. It goes on for what feels like forever, and just when Nicky thinks he can’t wait any longer, Joe slicks himself up and pushes inside him and Nicky has to remember how to breathe. The way Joe fills him is almost more than he can bear, and yet Nicky wants so much more. Then Joe starts to move inside him and Nicky grips him hard enough to leave bruises on Joe’s hips.

The sex is fast and hot and, God, Nicky wants more. Joe buries his face in Nicky’s shoulder as he sets a bruising pace and Nicky gets a hand in his hair. He shifts his hips until he finds the perfect angle, groaning at the overwhelming sensation.

“Fuck, Joe— yes—” Nicky is incoherent but it doesn’t matter because so is Joe. He feels teeth scrape against his shoulder and he nearly comes undone. He does come undone when Joe’s hand wraps around his cock. When Joe falls apart, Nicky is struck by how beautiful he is. It occurs to him as they lay against each other that he might be in trouble.

Joe cleans them both up afterwards and then lays back down next to Nicky.

“You don’t have to leave yet,” Joe says, watching him with a look Nicky can’t quite work out.

He doesn’t know what to say but he also can’t stop himself from watching Joe, even as he falls asleep in bed next to Nicky. This is all so new to him, he’s not sure what he’s supposed to do now, if he should leave. Nicky means to leave. He really does, but Joe’s arm is draped across his chest and Nicky feels like he can barely move in this state. He tells himself staying would make this more complicated. Soon his eyelids drift shut and thoughts of leaving are extinguished.


When Nicky wakes up the next morning, Joe isn't in the bed. In fact, Nicky realizes he doesn’t hear any sounds of another person in the suite. He’s completely alone. He shouldn’t have stayed. He knew that the night before, and now here he is alone, no sign that Joe was ever there, save one.

There’s a note on the nightstand. He rolls over and reaches for it with an eagerness he doesn’t want to contemplate. When he opens it up and quickly skims its contents, Nicky feels like he can’t breathe. It’s not anywhere near as enjoyable as when Joe made him forget how to breathe the night before. Joe is gone. He had an early flight and arranged a wake up call for Nicky so that he doesn’t miss check out time. Nicky hadn’t needed the phone call, though it was unusual for him to sleep in this late.

It shouldn’t really bother him that Joe isn’t there when he wakes up. He knew this couldn’t be more than a one-night stand. How could it have turned into anything else. Still, waking up alone after a night like he’d had with Joe feels like a punch to the solar plexus even if it isn’t unexpected. But what really makes the breath catch in his chest is the money and the explanation in the note that, as they had not agreed on a price, Joe hoped it was enough.

Joe thought he was a sex worker.

His number is also in Nicky’s phone. Not that Nicky is going to do anything with that information. He doesn’t delete the contact from his phone either. He just stares at it for a few moments. Then he opens up his message thread with Nile.

Do you want to get coffee this morning?

He puts the phone down and picks up his clothes from where he had so carelessly discarded them the night before and gets dressed. By the time he’s dressed, Nile has replied.

The usual place? 10?

Perfect.

Nicky grabs the envelope before he leaves. The elevator ride is interminable. Nicky just wants to get out of the hotel. He needs space to process everything, but he’s pretty sure he won’t ever be going to that hotel again. Certainly not the penthouse suite, that’s for sure.

In his own apartment, Nicky tries to wash off the night before, like if he just scrubs hard enough he will stop thinking about Joe’s curls, the crinkles around his eyes when he smiles. The sex. There’s no denying last night was fun. Better than fun. It was great, until... He shuts the water off with a groan, resolving not to think about any of it anymore.

He meets Nile at the same coffee shop they always go to. It’s the only cafe in the area that makes a tolerable cappuccino. She’s already sitting there with a cup of coffee in front of her so he goes to the counter to order.

“I think I owe you an apology,” Nile starts.

“You? I didn’t even reply to you,” Nicky replies. He feels a pang of remorse as he realizes that she offered him company and he never texted her back.

“Yeah but I never looked for an answer. I met someone last night,” Nile explains.

“I met someone last night, too,” Nicky says.

Nile looks like she’s about to ask him for details but she’s interrupted by the barista calling out his name. He stands up to get his cappuccino. When he’s back, Nile is grinning at her phone. She puts it away when Nicky sits down across from her.

“So what happened last night?” Nile asks with a quick glance back to her phone before giving Nicky her attention. Nicky raises an eyebrow at her but she returns it with that look Nicky has not yet learned how to disobey. He’s not going to get her story until he shares his.

“I met someone at the hotel bar and we went upstairs to his penthouse suite,” Nicky starts. He pushes his mug back and forth a bit, not looking at Nile.

“A penthouse? How rich is he? Oh, is he famous? Do I know him?” she prompts him when he doesn’t offer any more explanation. “How was it?”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought when we got there. Maybe he’s famous?” Nicky pauses. “And it was fantastic.” He pauses again, because how does he explain Joe’s note? “He apparently thought I was a sex worker.”

“No!” She’s leaning in now, all of her attention completely focused on him. “How do you know?”

“Yeah. He left a note and an envelope full of cash,” Nicky replies. “And his phone number.”

“Would you see him again?” Nile asks and he can tell from her tone that she doesn’t think he should. She’s right. He knows she’s right.

“No.” Nile gives him a skeptical look. “Maybe. But I’m not a hooker! And he thinks I am!”

“But you had a good time?” Nile asks. “Was he hot?”

“It doesn’t matter. I can’t see him again,” Nicky protests.

“Yeah, but you had a good time. So,” she presses, “was he hot?”

“Yes, he was hot,” Nicky acknowledges begrudgingly. “He was really hot. I actually think I haven’t seen anyone as gorgeous as he is.”

“So you do want to see him again,” Nile teases.

“I do. But not if it’s going to be a business transaction.” Nicky turns his mug on the table. The coffee remains untouched.

“You could tell him the truth,” Nile suggests.

“Definitely not,” Nicky says, trying to suppress the weird, panicky feeling in his chest. He doesn’t want to look too closely at why he doesn’t want to tell Joe about the misunderstanding. His past dating failures leave him feeling miserable enough. Telling Joe he’s not a hooker seems so much worse than those.

“If you want to see him again, you should probably tell him the truth,” she chides him.

“How am I supposed to tell him that?” Nicky asks, that panicky feeling still there. “Hello, Joe. I had a really great time while you were in town, but you didn’t need to pay me. I’m a PhD student, not a hooker?”

“That would get the point across,” Nile says, with an astonishing lack of sympathy. “Look, Nicky. You’ll save yourself some pain if you tell him.”

Nicky drops his face into his hands with a groan. When he looks up at Nile again, her expression has become much more sympathetic. This keeps getting worse. He had thought he wanted her sympathy but now he wants no-nonsense Nile back. It’s not like he’s going to see Joe again.

“What about you?” Nicky changes the subject. “You said you met someone last night.”

“Yeah,” she says, a soft smile on her face. “And don’t think I don’t see you changing the subject, but I really want to talk about my night too, so yeah, I did.”

“So you should definitely tell me what happened,” Nicky encourages her. “Since I just admitted I slept with a man who thought I was a prostitute.”

“Fine,” Nile agrees, “but only because I really want to.”

Nicky finally takes a sip of his cappuccino that has, so far, gone untouched. He doesn’t say anything, waiting for Nile to continue. He would much rather hear about her night than continue talking about Joe. He also knows that if Joe hadn’t made assumptions about his profession he wouldn’t be able to stop talking about the man.

“I met him at a bar and we were talking and I lost track of time,” Nile says, the smile lingering on her face. “So he wasn’t just hot. He was fun to talk to, too.”

“Right,” Nicky teases. “So you went home to his place to talk.” He puts enough emphasis on talk to make sure she can hear the air quotes.

“Ok. Rude,” Nile says. “We can go back to you being mistaken for a hooker instead.”

“No, no, please tell me more about how you went home to this man’s place to talk,” Nicky protests, not quite able to keep the emphasis off that word.

Nile raises her eyebrows at him until Nicky gives her a placating look.

“Anyway,” Nile continues, “he asked me if I wanted to go home with him.”

“And you said yes?” Nicky asks, disbelieving.

“Yeah, I was surprised, too,” Nile replies, looking a little embarrassed. “I don’t exactly make a habit of going home with people I meet in bars.”

“Neither do I,” Nicky says.

“Yeah,” Nile agrees. “At least this guy didn’t think I was a prostitute.”

“Okay, so your night was better than mine,” Nicky concedes. His coffee mug is finally emptying now that he’s no longer the focus of their discussion. “And you went home with him.”

“Yeah. And he made breakfast in the morning. But then he had to rush out because he forgot about a deadline or something,” Nile says. “But we exchanged numbers.”

“Was he the one you were texting after I ordered my coffee?” Nicky asks.

“Yeah.”

Nicky is jealous of her very obvious happiness even if he is glad her night was so good. He had woken up that morning feeling the same way before realizing the suite was empty. Then he had read that note and now he feels this weird clenching in his chest every time he thinks about Joe. He wants to see him again, but he doesn’t want to confront the fact that Joe paid him for the night.

“When are you going to see him again?” he asks Nile in an effort to distract himself.

“I don’t know yet,” Nile responds and, at his skeptical look, adds, “He just wanted to apologize for rushing out this morning.”

“When do you want to see him again?” Nicky asks.

“As soon as I can,” she replies.

“I’m glad last night went so well for you,” Nicky says.

Nile gets a look on her face that Nicky doesn’t really like. “If you see this guy again without explaining the misunderstanding, does that make you a sex worker?”

“No!” Nicky protests. “No. That’s not how that works.”

“But if he pays you again,” she trails off.

“I’m certain that’s not how that works,” he says, frowning. “Besides, who says I’m going to see him again, let alone sleep with him.”

“Relax, Nicky,” Nile reassures him. “There’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker.”

“Except for the part where I’m busy getting my PhD,” Nicky points out.

“Think of how much faster you can pay off your student loans,” Nile suggests. “I mean, how much is he paying you? If it’s a good rate, you could pay off your debts before you retire.”

He gives her an exasperated look and the expression on her face changes from one of teasing back to the sympathetic look from earlier. He appreciates her so much, he really does. She can tell how conflicted he is about last night, and is trying to be what he needs. Besides, she’s right. If he meets Joe again, the payment would make a sizable dent in his student loans.

“Hey,” Nile says after a moment of silence, “are you going to the university art show in a couple weeks?”

“The one with the formal dress code?” At Nile’s nod he grimaces. “You know I don’t do formal.”

“Come on, Nicky. Please,” she wheedles. “It’ll be fun. Besides. I’ve got some art in the show. We can go together.”

“Nile,” Nicky starts.

“You need to get out. Meet someone.”

Nicky thinks about the previous night. Again. He thinks maybe, if he meets someone, he can get Joe out of his head and he’ll stop thinking about seeing him again.

“Fine,” Nicky agrees, even if it means he’s going to get dressed up.

“Yes! Nicky, thank you!” Nile exclaims happily, and Nicky thinks it might be worth it just to see her so happy. “I really appreciate it.”

They stick around a little longer, finishing their coffee and chatting, before Nicky has to go run some errands. Nicky spends the rest of the day definitively not dwelling on what happened the previous night. At least, that what he tells himself.


He doesn’t hear from Joe for a few weeks and Nicky thinks maybe he’s forgotten him. Nicky wishes he could forget Joe so easily. It’s a Friday night and Nicky feels like he wants to die. He’s been staring at his proposal for the last hour, trying to make his brain come up with something, anything coherent. His cursor blinks at him. With a groan, he slumps back in his chair and drags his hands down his face.

He’s about to get up for a change of scenery when his phone buzzes. Joe. And now he feels like he wants to die for completely different reasons. He stares at his phone where it sits on the desk for a long time, like it’s a rattlesnake, coiled and dangerous, waiting to strike, before he finally picks it up.

I’m in town for a bit. Want to meet up tomorrow night? Same place?

He should say no. Nicky knows he should say no. Meeting Joe again is a terrible idea. One he definitely should not follow through with. He puts the phone back down. It’s still there taunting him. He needs to get out of his apartment. Instead, he picks up his phone and stares at the message a little longer before switching over to his thread with Nile.

He texted me again.

He’s pacing the small space while he waits for Nile’s response, phone back on his desk. He feels like he needs to do something, but he can’t stop thinking about the message. His phone buzzes again. This time, it’s Nile. Of course, she already knows exactly who he’s talking about.

What are you going to do? Are you going to see him again?

Why did he expect her to be helpful? The three little dots pop up, and he squints at the phone, waiting to see what she’s going to say next.

Seriously Nicky. Do you want to see him again?

He does. He really does.

He tells Nile as much. Yes, but it’s a terrible idea.

You could try living a little.

I live plenty, thank you.

He groans again. This is completely unhelpful. He tries to tell himself he doesn’t want to see Joe again. But then he looks back at the computer, where his nonexistent proposal is staring at him. He switches over to Joe’s text message and stares at it. He takes a deep breath and starts typing.

Same place tomorrow sounds good.

Those three dots spring up.

I’ll be there at 9.

There’s a little jump in his stomach at the words. He replies back with a quick OK. He resolves to clear up the misunderstanding when he meets Joe. He cannot leave without Joe knowing that he’s a PhD student and is not selling his body for sex on the side.

I’m seeing him again, he types to Nile.

So you’re going to get paid for sex again. Like a sex worker. Nicky can see her lifting her eyebrow at him.

No. I’m going to tell him!

Good.

Nicky checks the time, and decides to get out. He needs to expend some energy. And stab something. He closes up his laptop, packs up his gym bag and leaves for the gym where he fences. They’re holding open fencing hours. It’s as close as he’s going to get to stabbing something. Plus he could use a good flood of endorphins through his system.

When open fencing ends, Nicky is sweaty and breathless and still just as frustrated with himself as he was before he left. But at least while he was fencing he wasn’t thinking about Joe or his dissertation proposal.

The rest of the time until he meets Joe again somehow seems to pass by interminably slowly and also horribly fast. Sooner than he’d like he’s getting dressed to go meet Joe. He considers texting Nile to ask for advice, but he doesn’t really want to be teased further for meeting up with a man who thinks he’s a prostitute.

He picks out his best pair of jeans and a crisp Oxford. He checks his look in the mirror and decides it’s good enough. Besides, he’s pretty sure Joe is less interested in what Nicky is wearing than what is underneath his clothes.

He gets to the hotel bar early and orders a beer and settles the tab up front. He tries not to think too much about what he’s doing. He knows he’s checking his watch too frequently—Joe isn’t even late— but he’s nervous, thinking anxiously about how he’s going to tell Joe that he’s not a prostitute. And how, if Joe knows, he might not get the opportunity to see him again. But Nicky assured Nile he was going to tell Joe. He has to tell him.

Joe shows up when Nicky’s almost finished his beer. Which is good, because he’s not sure another would have been a great idea, not when he’s already making a terrible decision. He downs the rest of it in a quick gulp and turns to look at Joe, who is just as beautiful as he remembered.

“Hi,” Nicky says, and why does this feel more like an awkward first date than two people with very clear expectations meeting up for the night?

“Hi,” Joe answers. “Ready?”

And Nicky’s not. Not really, not if he’s being honest. If he’s being honest, he shouldn’t have come here at all, or he should tell Joe that he needs to clear the air before they do anything else. Except he wants this. He wants to feel Joe’s body pressed against his, wants to feel Joe inside him. He can sort the rest out later. So he nods, and stands up to leave with Joe.

“Do you?” Joe trails off, gesturing to the bar and Nicky’s empty glass to finish his question.

“I closed out before you got here,” Nicky says with a shake of his head.

He follows Joe out of the bar and into the elevator. This time there is another couple in the elevator and Nicky shoves his hands in his pockets, keeping his eyes straight ahead even though they’re so close he can feel the warmth radiating off of Joe’s body. The elevator numbers tick by slowly. Finally, the other couple exit and Nicky turns to Joe, only to find Joe already facing him, his hand coming to rest just above Nicky’s hip, drawing him closer.

Their mouths crash together in a messy, desperate kiss and Joe draws Nicky’s hips in against his. His hands are still on Nicky’s ass in a very possessive hold and Nicky groans into Joe’s mouth. He can’t get enough of the way Joe feels beneath his hands. All too soon the elevator dings and they’re outside the exact same penthouse.

“Do you get this room every time you’re in town?” Nicky asks against Joe’s neck as he opens the door.

“Mmm,” Joe hums, distracted, as he turns back around in Nicky’s arms. “I like it. It has a nice view.”

Nicky wants to agree, ogling Joe, but he doesn’t get the chance to make the quip before Joe’s mouth is on his, his tongue slipping past his lips, and Nicky can’t stop the whine that escapes him. His hips are grinding against Joe and he feels like he could come right there but that’s not what he wants, so he pushes Joe back to the bed.

This time Joe hits the bed first and Nicky is still struck by how good this man looks. His lips are swollen and his pupils blown and Nicky can’t resist the urge to crawl into Joe’s lap any longer. So he does, and the way Joe kisses him tells Nicky he approves.

He fumbles to get Joe’s shirt off, desperate to feel his skin, to remind himself how Joe feels. He is completely derailed when Joe gets his jeans unfastened and his hand on Nicky’s cock. His breath hitches and his hips buck into Joe’s hand and he can’t think. All he wants is right here. This moment.

He barely knows how they get their clothes off but suddenly they’re naked and Joe’s hands are all over Nicky’s body and he’s too much and not enough all at once and Nicky aches to touch Joe everywhere.

He reaches between them, wrapping his hand around Joe’s cock and Joe’s grip tightens where his hand has fallen to Nicky’s ass and Nicky loves how that feels. He nips at Joe’s jaw as he tightens his grip slightly, eliciting a growl that does things to Nicky.

He’s struck with an incredible idea, really, and he tears his attention from Joe just long enough to find his lube in the same spot on the side table as it had been last time. He slicks them both up and then he’s got his hand around them both. It feels incredible and if the way Joe’s breath stutters and his grip on him becomes just that much more desperate, then Joe is quite happy with his idea.

It’s messy and it’s slick and Nicky can’t stop kissing Joe everywhere he can reach, his jaw, his neck, his mouth.

“Nicky,” Joe says into his neck, his voice breathless and needy and so, so hot. Nicky did this, undid Joe like this.

“Come on, Joe,” he murmurs, nipping at the skin just below Joe’s ear. “Let go.”

Joe does, his whole body tensed as he comes all over both of them with an aborted shout and he looks so wrecked, his breath coming in harsh gasps, that it’s the last push Nicky needs to fall over the edge.

Nicky looks down between them, where they’re both softening and they’re a mess of lube and come. “We’re a mess,” he says, wishing as soon as the words are out of his mouth that he could take them back, but Joe laughs, and oh Nicky is so fucked.

“Yeah,” Joe says as his laugh dies down, but those crinkles are still there around his eyes, and Nicky is mesmerized. “This room has a pretty nice shower,” he adds.

Nicky hears the suggestion in Joe’s voice and gets up out of Joe’s lap before offering him his hand and dragging Joe to the bathroom. It is a nice shower, one of those ones with wall sprays and a steam function and plenty of room for both of them, so Nicky draws Joe inside with him, turning on the water. Then he’s turned around and Joe is in his space and touching him, and he’s not really sure how they get cleaned off when they can’t seem to stop touching each other but they do.

“Come back to bed with me,” Joe says when they’re drying off. “Stay.”

Nicky thinks about saying no, but there’s something in Joe’s voice that makes him want to stay, so he does. They’re laying in bed, idly touching each other and Nicky is mapping Joe’s features as his voice gets sleepier. He still hasn’t said anything, and with Joe like this, he can’t. He wants so much for this to be more, but right now he can pretend. Pretend that any part of this feeling that’s growing inside of him is returned. As Joe’s eyes fall shut, Nicky thinks again that he should leave, but the bed is so comfortable and warm and he’ll stay just a little bit longer.

Nicky wakes up to the sounds of Joe shuffling about, bleary eyed. Joe turns towards him and sees that he’s awake.

“Go back to sleep,” Joe tells him. “I scheduled a wake-up call if you need it.”

His voice is so soft and Nicky frowns. He really should get up. He should leave. But Joe sits down on the bed next to him and rests a hand on his shoulder.

“You don’t need to leave yet,” Joe reassures him, his voice still unbearably gentle, which just makes everything so much more confusing.

So Nicky lets himself settle back into the bed and Joe stands up and goes back to what he was doing. He has never been a late sleeper, but now, for the second time, he finds himself unwilling to wake up, to leave. Both nights, Joe had left him exhausted, and now Nicky slips back into sleep before Joe leaves.

The next time Nicky wakes up, the room is empty and Joe is gone. He lets his head fall back into the pillows. He hadn’t told Joe and there is another envelope on the nightstand. This cannot happen again, no matter how good the sex is and how attractive Joe is. He showers, using the little complimentary toiletries. He might as well get as much from this as he can before he dresses and leaves. He takes the money with him, too.


A week later, Nile is sitting in his bedroom, looking very pretty in a cocktail dress. Ostensibly, she is there to help him pick something appropriate to wear to the art show, but so far she’s just been grilling him about his second encounter with Joe.

“I thought you said you were going to tell him,” Nile says, regarding the shirt Nicky is holding up.

“I meant to!” Nicky knows he’s being defensive, but he can’t seem to help it.

“That one doesn’t work,” Nile says. “It’s too casual.” “How is this too casual?” Nicky asks, looking down at the blouse.

Finally, she sighs and stands up to look through his closet herself. She’s pushing hangers aside when she returns to the topic of Joe. “You know,” she muses, “I think you might be worried that if you tell him, you won’t get to see him again.”

Trust Nile to get right to the heart of the matter, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. Because how can he be thinking about Joe as a romantic interest when all they have is two one-night stands and one hell of a misunderstanding between them.

“That’s not what it is,” Nicky protests.

She hums, skepticism coloring the sound. She hands him a dress shirt. “This one.”

“It’s just sex,” Nicky tries again, changing in to the dress shirt she handed him. It is more formal than the last one he picked out.

“Right. So that’s why you won’t tell him you’re actually a PhD student and not a hooker?” Nile asks, finding a jacket Nicky had forgotten he owned. “Here.”

“The opportunity never presented itself,” Nicky says, trying to sound more convincing.

“Ok,” Nile says, and while she still doesn’t sound like she believes him, she doesn’t press the issue any further. She gives him a considering look and finally nods in approval. “Not bad.”

He goes into the bathroom to see how he looks and it’s not bad. He still hates anything more formal than jeans and a t-shirt, but it’s not a bad look. He sighs and returns to the bedroom where Nile is waiting for him.

“Let’s go,” Nicky says offering her his arm.

She takes his arm with a bright smile, and this is why he can’t refuse her. She smiles at him like that, and she looks so happy. He does his best not to act too put upon for her sake as they walk to the gallery.

Nile hands over their tickets to the student working there and then she drags him into the gallery. The art is good, judging from what he sees as Nile pulls him along. It really is. Still, when she leads him to the bar and buys him a glass of wine, he accepts it gratefully.

“Next one’s on you,” she tells him, taking a sip. “Now, come on. Let’s go look at the art.”

They’re in a gallery and Nile is telling him about the art, when he stops listening to what she’s saying. Joe is there, in the gallery, looking as beautiful as ever. Even more so perhaps, in the suit he’s wearing. Joe still hasn’t seen him when Nile trails off, realizing Nicky isn’t listening to her anymore.

“Hey,” she says, sounding mildly offended. “Where’d you go?”

“That’s Joe,” Nicky answers with a nod towards the man in question.

He wishes he didn’t feel that uncomfortable feeling in his stomach at the sight of Joe, but he doesn’t know what to do in this situation. They only times he’s seen Joe the goal has been sex. Now he’s in an art gallery. The same art gallery that Nicky is in because Nile asked him to go and he hadn’t been able to say no.

“That’s him,” Nile asks. “No wonder you don’t want to tell him you’re not a prostitute.”

“That is not helping! And stop staring!” Nicky tells her. “He’s going to notice.”

He purposefully skips over her comment. He really cannot be having that conversation right now, not when Joe is right there. He keeps glancing over at Joe, unable to ignore him, until Joe sees him. The frown on Joe’s face stops in in his tracks. He doesn’t know what to do.

“Nicky,” Nile says and his head snaps to her. “Are you going to talk to him?”

“No,” he says automatically, then he looks over to Joe. “Maybe.” It sounds a little bit like a question.

“You don’t have to,” Nile tells him.

He feels like a cat watching a tennis match, his gaze flicking between Joe and Nile. Joe is no longer looking at him, but it feels like he’s pointedly not looking, like Joe is still fully aware of where Nicky is. It doesn’t help him at all.

“You don’t even have to tell him you’re not a prostitute,” Nile adds when Nicky doesn’t respond to her.

After another moment of silence, Nicky says, “I’m going to talk to him.”

“Nicky,” Nile says, but she doesn’t get a chance to finish because Nicky is already on his way over to Joe.

He still has no idea what he’s going to say when Joe is right in front of him. Real. He shouldn’t have walked over.

“Are you working?” Joe asks with a pointed glance to where Nile is still standing, looking like she’s trying to ignore the pair of them.

“What?” Nicky asks, distracted from the line of thinking telling him exactly how terrible this idea is.

“The woman you’re with,” Joe says, still looking at Nile.

NIcky glances her way and it clicks. Joe thinks she’s a client and somehow that’s worse than Joe thinking he’s a prostitute. “No,” Nicky protests. “She’s a friend. I’m not working tonight.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Nicky wants to kick himself. This would have been the perfect opportunity to clear the air, and instead he tacitly agreed with Joe about his profession. Again. Before he can think about correcting himself, Joe’s attention is caught and the look on his face changes to something Nicky can’t quite read.

“I have to go,” Joe says. “I’ll see you.” And then he’s gone.

Nicky returns to Nile, his thoughts spinning. He needs to do something. If he’s being honest with himself, he wants to stab something, but his fencing gear is at home and the gym is closed now anyway. Besides, he promised Nile. Which means he’s stuck here, trying to pretend like he isn’t reeling from his encounter with Joe.

“That looked awkward,” Nile says. “You okay?”

Nicky looks at her. “Yeah. He thought you were my client.”

Nile snorts. “Like I could afford a prostitute.” She laughs more and Nicky joins her. “Wait. What did you tell him?” she asks after a moment.

“I said you were a friend,” Nicky replied.

“You didn’t tell him you weren’t a prostitute?” Nile asks incredulously. “Nicky!”

Nicky groans. “I realized after I told him you were a friend. And then he disappeared.”

“It looked like he was running away,” Nile agrees.

“He said he’ll see me,” Nicky says, gaze focused on a painting, studiously avoiding looking at Nile.

“And you want to see him again.” It’s not a question.

He answers anyway. “I do.” He wishes he didn’t.

“If you insist on falling for him, you’re going to have to tell him,” Nile tells him as she steers him through the rest of the gallery. “Prostitutes aren’t supposed to fall for their clients.”

“I’m not falling for him,” Nicky protests and Nile gives him a knowing look. “I’m not. And I’m not a prostitute!”

She doesn’t say anything and Nicky knows she doesn’t believe him, but at least she’s not pressing the subject anymore. He’ll count it as a win.

At the end of the night, Nicky decides he didn’t hate it. The art was good and Nile carried most of the conversation. The worst part was running into Joe, but after that initial encounter, he didn’t even catch a glimpse of him again.

Now he’s back in the comfort of his quiet apartment, slipping out of the dress shoes. He intends to change but all he wants is to sit. He’ll change later. He collapses onto his dilapidated sofa and lets his head fall backwards, trying not to think of the night as a disaster.

When he goes to bed that night, he still doesn’t know if he’s going to see Joe again.


The sound of the buzzer as someone scores a point is the first thing Nicky hears when he enters the gym. Fencers are broken up into pairs and organized on the floor; a quick glance shows him he’ll have to wait for someone to wrap up a match before he can go out there. He sits down on the bench and tries to keep his restless energy pent up.

He’s only mildly successful. His leg is bouncing up and down, feeling only slightly under his control as he waits for a free partner. Quỳnh, another regular at the gym and his favorite fencing opponent, sits down next to him. His head whips around to look at her.

“Feeling a little jumpy?” Quỳnh asks with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m fine,” Nicky replies a touch defensively.

“A spot just opened up on the floor. Care for a match?” Quỳnh asks, nodding to the open spot.

Nicky couldn’t have asked for better luck. He’s fenced Quỳnh before and she’s more than a match for him. If anyone can challenge him enough for his head to clear even for a few minutes, it’s Quỳnh. He nods and follows her to the mat.

They don their masks and bow, and then they’re sparring. Fencing Quỳnh allows him to truly get out of his own head. She’s fast and she’s vicious; she’s been compared to a pit viper and not just by him. He can’t do anything but focus on the match when he’s fencing with Quỳnh. He has always been competitive, and winning against Quỳnh requires all his attention.

The match is over before he knows it and she lifts her mask. She won the match and Nicky knows he was more distracted than he would have liked. Still, it helped. He shakes her hand and she grins at him.

“Let’s get changed and grab lunch,” she suggests, and Nicky can’t help but agree.

He showers before he goes outside to meet Quỳnh. The match made him too sweaty to force Quỳnh to sit through it. He didn’t want to sit through lunch drenched in sweat either, for that matter. When he finally gets outside, Quỳnh is already waiting for him.

She gives him a quick once over and then says, “You showered.”

“I thought it would be better than being sticky and gross while I ate,” Nicky replies, falling into step beside her. “Where are we going for lunch?”

“There’s a little sandwich place not too far from her,” Quỳnh answers easily. “My wife brought me there when we were first dating.”

Nicky nods absentmindedly before he realizes what she said. “Wait,” he says. “You have a wife? I didn’t know you had a wife.”

“You don’t ask about my personal life,” Quỳnh says mildly. “Or you would have known about her already.”

Nicky shoots her a worried look, but she’s smiling at him, and he realizes she’s teasing him. Somewhere along the way they started to become friends. Which is nice. He’s buried himself so thoroughly in his studies, he doesn’t really count a whole lot of people as friends. Nile probably has quite a few opinions on that.

The shop Quỳnh has brought them to is small, not the kind of place that you immediately notice. A hole in the wall might be the way to describe it. But when they walk inside, he smells fresh-baked bread, which, he thinks, is a good sign.

He spends a fair amount of time staring at the menu while Quỳnh waits less than patiently beside him. She doesn’t actually say anything, but he can tell she already knows what she wants, and is only waiting for him because it’s the polite thing to do. He settles on something simple and once they place their orders, Quỳnh picks a table near the back.

They sit and chat and eat and Nicky actually gets to know the woman who is so much fun to spar with. He thinks they should do this more often and he tells her as much. She grins and agrees. Eventually, he can no longer put off working on his dissertation and they leave the shop and part ways after exchanging numbers. It occurs to him, as he walks away, that this is the longest he’s spent not thinking about whatever is going on with Joe and his burgeoning sex work career since the art show.

Not that he would admit to Nile that that’s how he’s begun to think of his interactions with Joe. And he’s not going to admit that to Quỳnh either, but they’ve only just started developing something that looks like friendship.

If I see Joe again, does that make me a sex worker? Nicky shoots off a quick text to Nile while he’s walking back to his apartment.

. . .

He watches those three dots for way too long, considering that he’s walking through crowded streets. He’s actually surprised he hasn’t walked in to anyone yet.

Did he text you? she finally settles on.

No.

He should probably have sent her something more than just “No” if he actually wants her help, but it’s too late now So he pockets his phone and pretends like he’s not waiting anxiously to read what she has to say.

He’s walked a couple of blocks when he finally feels his phone buzz. Still, he doesn’t pull his phone out of his pocket for another block. And by then his phone has buzzed a few more times. Apparently, Nile has opinions, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to him.

It’s another couple of blocks before he actually looks at his phone again. Most of the texts are from Nile, but there’s another one. It’s from Joe; of course it’s from Joe. There’s a little jump in his stomach at the sight. It’s been a couple of weeks since the last time he was in Joe’s hotel room. Although, it’s not Joe’s hotel room. He knows that. It’s just that both of their— meetings, that’s what he’ll call them, have been in the same room. Or rather, suite.

He ignores Joe’s texts and opens up the thread with Nile instead.

Yeah but you’re thinking about him aren’t you?

Aren’t you?

Nicky!

Of course I am, he types back, quickly, before she can type anything else.

Nicky!

Why else would I ask you if seeing Joe again would make me a prostitute?

He starts typing again. I’m thinking about the future.

Mmm

That’s not helpful. Not at all. He lets himself into his apartment. He still hasn’t looked at Joe’s message. It’s not like he needs to. It’s not like he doesn’t know why Joe would be texting him. It’s not like he can pretend that he wishes Joe was texting him for something more than sex. But he isn’t.

Nicky

He doesn’t reply right away, and he knows there’s going to be more messages waiting for him. He tells himself he’s got to put his gear away. Then he gets a glass of water and sets himself up at his computer. He has to work on his dissertation after all.

I know you’re avoiding me.

You texted me

Are you going to meet him again

He looks at the messages she sent him. He wishes he could lie to her. But he’s never been very good at lying. Plus, it’s Nile; he definitely cannot lie to her.

No? He sends it.

He doesn’t wait for a response before he sends, probably not.

NICKY

He should have seen that coming.

Did he text you again???

What did he say???????

Yes, Nicky replies back quickly.

I haven’t read it yet

NICKY

Give me a minute, he shoots back.

Blessedly, she does give him a minute. He opens the text message from Joe. Actually, it’s multiple messages. He’s written exactly what he had anticipated; a time and a date, and the same location they’ve met the last couple of times.

It’s the same thing, he writes, just a time and a date

Are you going to meet him?

He doesn’t reply, and he feels kind of bad about that. He should. She’s the only one he’s told about Joe, and she has actually supported him. But they both know the answer. He knows he should say no. But he can’t pretend like the sex isn’t phenomenal. He can’t pretend that he isn’t wildly attracted to Joe. He wishes he could. He almost wishes he hadn’t told Nile about Joe in the first place, but it’s too late for that. He opens the other message thread.

I’ll be there

He tosses his phone aside as soon as he sends the text to Joe. He doesn’t need to see the response. What he does need to do is get to work on his dissertation. He pulls up his work playlist and starts sinking into his work. He doesn’t hear his phone again for the rest of the afternoon.


He’s not nervous this time. He already knows how this goes. He knows that Joe wants him. There’s no question of that. And he’s decided he’s not going to pretend like he doesn’t want to do this, either. He will, however, continue to pretend like these interactions with Joe are purely physical. He has no feelings for the man, nothing that he wants to reflect on.

He sits in the bar, same, as the last two times. He drinks a glass of wine. He’s not in the mood for beer. He’s not even really in the mood for wine, but he doesn’t feel like sitting at the bar of a fancy hotel without drinking something. He barely resists the urge to run his finger around the rim of the glass to draw out the ringing, but he does. It’s not much of an accomplishment, but he considers bragging about it to Nile all the same. She has teased him frequently about that particular tic of his, but if he were to tell her he didn’t make his glass ring, he’d have to tell her what he was doing. It isn’t a conversation he feels like having.

They don’t waste time in the bar when Joe shows up. Nicky has already paid and Joe clearly has no desire to linger in the bar. Joe’s hand lands at Nicky’s elbow and he practically drags Nicky out of the bar. Once they’re in the elevator, conveniently empty, Joe crowds him against the wall and kisses him.

Tonight feels there’s something more desperate, almost hard, in the way Joe touches him, holds him. He doesn’t know what happened with Joe, but the heat is different from the other times he’s been with Joe. Nicky gives back as much as he gets. It feels almost like a fight. It’s not what Nicky has come to expect, but right now he finds he doesn’t really mind. He barely registers exiting the elevator and making it into the penthouse. Always the same room. It makes Nicky smirk even as he matches the heat of Joe’s kisses.

Joe’s teeth are sharp and his grip is bruising; it’s almost overwhelming in its intensity. It feels like he’s trying to wipe the smirk from Nicky’s face and Nicky lets him. They make their way to the bed with even less grace than usual and Nicky feels like he is at Joe’s mercy, but he lets him take what he wants, touches him harder, kisses him with more teeth.

Later, he’s lying awake in the suite’s bed, sore and breathless. Joe exits the bathroom where he had retreated a few minutes ago and, for a moment, he just stares at Nicky. Nicky stares back. He sits on the bed and Nicky moves over to give him some room.

Finally Joe speaks. “Are you okay?”

Nicky shrugs, the movement awkward because he’s still lying down. “Fine.” When he sits up, he looks a little more closely at Joe. “You?”

Joe runs a hand over his beard and sighs. “It’s been a rough week. Sorry, I should have—”

“It’s fine,” Nicky cuts him off. This is the most they’ve talked and it’s a little weird, but he doesn’t want an awkward apology. “I would have told you if it wasn’t.”

Joe nods and the silence falls again. Nicky wonders if he should go.

“Do you want room service?” Joe asks into the quiet that’s fallen between them. “We could, I don’t know. If you want.”

Nicky looks at Joe and he’s rubbing the back of his neck. Apparently he isn’t alone in feeling unsure in whatever this is.

“Room service sounds good,” Nicky says. After all, he doesn’t really want to leave, even if he probably should. Prostitutes aren’t supposed to develop feelings for clients. Not that he is one, but Joe thinks he is.

Joe hands him a menu and after a few minutes he makes his choice and Joe puts in the call. Nicky feels like he should put something on if he’s going to be staying. They’ve never done this before and there’s no blueprint for how this should go.

They’re not looking at each other. Finally, Joe says, “Do you want to see my favorite part of the suite?”

Nicky nods and Joe gets up. He pulls on his pants so Nicky does the same. It’s a relief to be a little more clothed now, almost like this is a normal interaction and not a transaction. He follows Joe to the balcony and for a moment Joe is the only thing Nicky is paying attention to. He can’t take his eyes off of Joe’s profile as he takes in the view. Then Nicky follows Joe’s gaze and he understands. For all the luxury of the suite, it’s the view that is incredible.

“When I’m in town,” Joe says into the night air, “I always want this room. Looking out over the city like this, it—” he pauses as if looking for the right word. “It calms me.”

Nicky turns back to Joe and he can’t take his eyes off of him. He’s always asleep when Joe leaves and he’s never gotten the opportunity to really look at Joe. Not since he first saw him in the bar downstairs. Eventually, Joe turns to him, catching him staring, and offers a small smile. Nicky swallows.

“Do you want to sit?” he asks and Nicky nods.

Something shifts when they sit down on the balcony. The silence feels less uncomfortable now, but still somehow weighted.

“You said it was a rough week,” Nicky prompts in order to break the silence.

Joe looks at him, surprised. “Yeah. I like what I do, normally. But, I hate the publicity.”

Nicky frowns and, for the first time, he finds himself seriously wondering what it is Joe does, beyond how he earns enough money to regularly stay in this penthouse suite. Now he wonders if he should have recognized Joe when they first met.

“I have to sell myself,” Joe continues and Nicky snorts. Of the two of them, Nicky is the one selling himself. Joe laughs with him. “I guess I should remember who I’m talking to.”

It would be the perfect time to tell Joe he’s not a hooker, but Nicky doesn’t. A part of him worries that if he were to tell Joe, he would lose all of this. So instead, he says, “Don’t worry about it.”

“I wanted to make art,” Joe explains. “Right now, I’m working on a commission and my buyer has no idea about how I work, just keeps telling me what to do without considering whether it’s even possible. And then the guy who manages my media and web presence was arguing with me over my image and web design. It’s been more stressful than usual.”

Nicky nods, but before either of them can say anything else, there’s a knock on the door to the penthouse.

“That will be the food,” Joe says, getting up. “Wait here.”

Left alone to his thoughts, Nicky thinks about having Nile find out who Joe is. If he was in the show, it’s more than likely that Nile could track him down. She didn’t appear to recognize him at the art show, but he’s not actually sure she got a good look at him. Joe is back before he can follow that line of thinking any further.

“I think it would be easier to eat inside,” Joe says from the sliding glass door.

“Okay,” Nicky agrees, getting up to join him at a little table inside.

If Nicky could stop thinking about the fact that this is a transaction, it would be cozy. There’s almost no distance between them at the table. They fill the time with quiet conversation and Nicky hates how much he wants this. He feels like he’s beginning to know Joe. He doesn’t know much about his background or what he does beyond “art,” but he’s getting an idea of what Joe is like. He’s more than just the incredibly gorgeous man paying Nicky for sex.

When they are done eating, Joe piles everything neatly, avoiding looking at Nicky. It’s beginning to feel awkward again, when Joe says, “You don’t have to leave. If you don’t want to.”

The thing is Nicky doesn’t want to leave, even though he knows he should. So he nods.

When Joe is in the bathroom, Nicky texts Nile.

I think I’ve made a mistake. Coffee tomorrow?

The three little dots pop up immediately in the message window.

You’re with him right now aren’t you

Then, We’re definitely getting coffee tomorrow

He locks his phone and sets it aside just as Joe comes back out. This time, the sex is slow, aching, almost tender, and Nicky feels more overwhelmed than he did when they first stumbled into the penthouse.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

As usual, Joe is gone when Nicky wakes up. It’s strange how well he sleeps when he’s with Joe. He never used to be a late sleeper. He pockets the cash Joe left on the nightstand and dresses, leaving as unobtrusively as possible.


Nile isn’t at their coffee shop yet when he gets there so he orders a latte and stakes a claim at their usual table. He doesn’t have to wait too long before he sees her in the entrance of the shop. She scans the space quickly and Nicky can tell when she sees him. She orders her own coffee and joins him at the table.

“Spill,” Nile says without preamble.

Nicky takes a sip of his coffee and puts it down again, not sure how to start.

Before he has a chance to say a word, Nile cuts him off. “I thought you weren’t going to see him again.”

“I never said that,” Nicky says defensively. “I just said I didn’t know.” “Nicky, you told me last night you thought you made a mistake,” Nile reminds him. “I think you’re falling for him and you still haven’t told him you’re not a hooker.”

“I’m not falling for him,” Nicky says, trying to defend himself. At the incredulous look she gives him, he says, “Okay, so maybe I started getting to know him last night.”

“Nicky,” Nile says and she looks like she feels sorry for him, which Nicky cannot handle.

“I think he’s an artist,” Nicky says in an effort to deflect.

“He was at the art show wasn’t he?” Nile asks, frowning in thought.

Nicky hums an affirmation. “I think he’s rather prominent in the arts. He was talking about publicity and self-promotion last night.”

Nile pulls out her phone and starts tapping away. “I’m going to do some research. I might be able to figure out who he is. I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks,” Nicky says, glad he hadn’t had to ask.

“So, you don’t like him and want to know more about him?” Nile asks with a raised eyebrow.

Before Nicky can protest, the barista calls out Nile’s name and she gets up to grab her coffee. Nicky is staring down at his coffee when he realizes Nile should have sat back down by now. She’s standing with a tall man with dark blond hair at the counter, her mug cradled in her hands.

Nicky frowns. He’s never seen this man before. When he leans forward and brushes Nile’s arm, it occurs to him this might be the man she met the same night he met Joe. He’s just thinking he should go over and say hello when Nile looks back over to him and, with a hand at the man’s elbow, brings him over to introduce them.

“Nicky,” Nile says when she’s at the table. “This is Booker.”

Nicky stands. He doesn’t feel like being towered over by this man. “Pleased to meet you,” he says, offering Booker a hand. “Sit,” Nicky adds, gesturing at the free chair.

While Booker sits, Nicky gives Nile a raised eyebrow. Booker, he mouths. She gives him a slight shake of her head in reply and they both sit down.

“Italian?” Booker asks once all three of them are seated.

“Yes.” He should offer more explanation than that. It’s polite to make conversation with your friend’s friends, or boyfriends, after all. He doesn’t.

“Nicky’s from Genoa,” Nile offers, shooting a frown at Nicky. “He’s doing his PhD here.”

“What are you studying?” Booker asks, looking genuinely interested, and honestly this is probably a better conversation than Nicky’s budding career in sex work, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

“I’m doing my research on the interaction between religion and literary movements,” Nicky explains. “I know that’s vague, but it’s the best I can do right now without ending up reciting my abstract.”

“I ended up in tech, but I always liked studying art, so I get that being vague about your work is sometimes easier,” Booker replies. “Actually, most of my business is in the art world so I get the best of both worlds, art and computers.”

Nicky nods noncommittally before the words actually hit him. If Booker works in art, maybe he knows Joe. However, he decides he doesn’t really know Booker well enough to open that line of conversation, but he can feel the weight of Nile’s gaze on him. He ignores it for now and doesn’t turn the conversation to Joe, especially since all he has is a first name and that’s not enough to go on, he’s sure.

They talk a little bit longer before Booker excuses himself. Nile turns to him expectantly.

“That’s the man you met a few months ago?” Nicky asks.

“Yeah,” Nile replies, still looking like she’s waiting for more.

“He seems fine,” Nicky says. He isn’t ready to make a decision about the man based on one conversation filled with polite small talk. But he did notice the way Booker looked at her throughout the conversation. It had been hard not to. “He looks at you like..” He pauses, searching for the best words. “Like you mean a lot to him.”

It’s not really what he means. It doesn’t really fully capture the depth of emotion Nicky saw on Booker’s face when he looked at Nile, but she has told him so little about Booker— which is probably Nicky’s fault—so he isn’t sure if that’s what she wants to hear.

She grins at him, which tells him that’s exactly what she wanted to hear. “I like him a lot,” she says, and Nicky really is happy for her. And a bit jealous, too, if he’s being honest with himself. She’s developing a relationship with someone she clearly likes without any of the complications or misunderstandings he’s dealing with.. Issues you’ve had plenty of chances to sort out, he reminds himself.

“I’m glad,” he tells her before glancing back down at his mug. Nile lays her hand on Nicky’s and he looks back up at her. “I am.”

“You’re just developing feelings for a man who thinks you’re a prostitute and you’re jealous that I have something significantly less complicated,” Nile extrapolates with a smile.

“Sorry,” he says, and he genuinely means it.

“It’s okay. I’d be jealous, too,” Nile tells him.

“I don’t have feelings for him, though,” he says, cycling back to the other thing Nile had said. He can’t have feelings for Joe, because that would complicate things further. “I barely know him.”

Nile lifts a skeptical eyebrow at him. “No?”

“No.”

“That’s good, because I’m pretty sure that’s the number one rule of sex work,” she says. “Don’t fall in love with your client.”

Nicky sighs and drags his hands down his face. He doesn’t need to tell her he’s not a sex worker. They both know that, but that’s not the point of this conversation. Joe doesn’t know he’s not a prostitute.

“Right, so it would be a bad idea for me to fall for him.”

“We’ve both seen Pretty Woman. Just because it’s a bad idea doesn’t mean you won’t,” Nile reminds him, and Nicky really wishes she wouldn’t. It’s not like he doesn’t know that. “Anyway, you know I just don’t want to see you get hurt,” she adds.

“I know.”

They switch topics to their degrees. Nile had a very successful showing at the exhibit she dragged him to a few weeks ago, and she’s making good progress on her portfolio. Nicky is still feeling like he’s knocking his head against a wall with his research but he thinks he has a good lead. The coffee shop is mostly empty by the time they leave.


He meets with Joe a few more times over the course of the next months and every time he finds himself at the fencing gym afterward, working off the frustration he feels each time he wakes up in the morning to find Joe gone and an envelope with money sitting on the nightstand.

One day, after a particularly intense bout of sparring with Quỳnh she starts talking about her collection of Vietnamese literature. It is so interesting, not something he’s studied much, [ ] when she cuts herself off.

“You should come over,” she says. “I can loan you some of my translations.”

Nicky wipes sweat off of his neck, not answering right away. This is a line they haven’t crossed yet. They’ve gone for lunch, they’ve sparred, but he’s never been to her home. Still, he really wants to see her literature collection.

“Sure,” he says after a moment. “Sure, I’d like that.”

“Great,” Quỳnh says with a grin. “Get showered. We can go now.”

“I–” It’s sooner than he expected. He thought they’d plan for a future date. “Sure.”

She’s still grinning at him when he meets her eyes again. “I’ll meet you outside in fifteen?” she suggests.

“Yeah.”

He showers quickly and dresses in his usual jeans and t-shirt. She’s not there yet when he gets to the entry. A quick glance at his watch tells him, it’s barely been ten minutes. He’s early.

“You must really want to see this collection,” Quỳnh says, approaching him. He whirls around and offers her his small smile. “Come on, then,” she says, returning it. “Let’s go.”

For the first time, Nicky is glad he doesn’t drive anywhere. He doesn’t have to worry about what to do with his car, when he gets into Quỳnh’s and she pulls out of the parking lot. She lives on the other side of town from him and he wonders how she found the fencing gym, so he asks her.

“Oh,” she says before switching on her turn signal and turning into a residential neighborhood. “There aren’t that many fencing gyms in the area. When I moved here with Andy, I was trying to find anywhere where I could fence. I liked that one best.”

“Lucky for me,” Nicky remarks as she pulls the car up alongside a townhouse.

She gives him a roguish grin as she pulls into a street parking spot. “You are lucky. I’m a delight.”

He doesn’t have a response to that but he grins at her as they walk up the driveway to the little townhouse. There’s a car already parked there, which Nicky assumes is the reason Quỳnh had parked on the street. She doesn’t give any explanation for the car so he assumes it’s her wife’s car.

He’s still very curious what Quỳnh and her wife do so that they can afford to live here, but he doesn’t ask, even as she opens the door and gestures to him to go inside. She closes the door and walks ahead of them into the house.

She’s just entered the kitchen when she exclaims, “Yusuf!” to someone he still can’t see. “I’m so glad you’re here! I haven’t seen you in ages!” Quỳnh is saying as Nicky walks through the entrance to the kitchen. The man’s back is too him so he doesn’t recognize him until Quỳnh turns him around saying, “There’s someone I want you to meet, my friend from the fencing gym.”

Yusuf’s laugh sounds suspiciously familiar and Nicky realizes why when he turns around and his gaze lands on Nicky’s face. His open, happy expression shutters when he recognizes Nicky. Joe—Yusuf—Nicky corrects himself, steps forward and offers Nicky his hand. Nicky takes it, feeling numb. This can’t be happening. He wonders if this is what it feels like to lose your mind.

“Nice to meet you—,” Yusuf pauses, waiting for Nicky to fill in his name. Right, as far as Quỳnh knows, they’ve never met.

“Nicky,” he supplies, extracting his hand from Yusuf’s grip. “Nice to meet you.”

Quỳnh grins, looking pleased with herself. “Nicky, give me a minute. I’ll just go grab those books for you.”

Nicky wants to stop her, but she’s gone before he can even open his mouth and he’s left alone with Yusuf. He turns back to Yusuf, studying him. They’re both silent, the air thick with tension.

“So,” Nicky starts, letting the word hang there for a moment. “Yusuf.”

“Nicky.” Yusuf’s reply is just as short. There’s a look there on his face Nicky is struggling to interpret. Anger, he thinks, or maybe disappointment.

“Of the two of us, I did not lie about my name,” Nicky says, trying to claim some high ground, when he feels like his world just got turned upside down around him.

“Right, except you must be lying to one of my best friends,” Yusuf retorts, anger bleeding into his voice. “Or does she know about your profession?”

That last is said with just enough derision to make Nicky defensive. He’s not a prostitute, but he won’t let Joe belittle him just because Joe thinks he is. “Oh, now you’re going to judge me for my work,” Nicky says, keeping his voice low, so there won’t be any chance of Quỳnh hearing them, “after you’ve already paid me for my services. How many times has it been now? If you think what I do is bad, remember you are just as culpable.” Only too late does Nicky realize he hasn’t contradicted Joe, Yusuf, he reminds himself, and has only further confirmed for Yusuf that he is a prostitute.

Yusuf makes a noncommittal noise, and before Nicky’s brain can catch up to his mouth, he’s barrelling on. “And since you’re so concerned about what Quỳnh would think of my work, let me set one thing straight.” Nicky’s brain is starting to catch up, but it’s too late. He continues, “I’m not a prostitute; you made an assumption and I didn’t know how to correct it.”

Joe—Yususf—he has to keep telling himself, looks stunned, but before he can come up with a response, Quỳnh returns. Instead he just glares at Nicky while her back is turned to him. Nicky wishes he could take everything back. Go back to when they didn’t know each other outside of the context of a hotel penthouse. Quỳnh doesn’t appear to notice the tension in the room.

“Here you go, Nicky,” she says, handing him a stack of books.

“Thanks, Quỳnh.” Nicky is trying to ignore Yusuf on the other side of the room, but he can’t miss the look of confusion on his face, nor can he resist smirking at the sight of it. He’s the one who made assumptions.

“I can give you a ride home if you want,” Quỳnh says. She’s looking at him with a little frown on her face, but she doesn’t seem to realize what just happened between him and Yusuf yet.

“It’s fine. I wouldn’t want you to have to leave Yusuf here,” Nicky said.

“It’s no problem,” she says, turning to grin at Yusuf. “He’s practically family, more than welcome to make himself at home here.” She turns back to Nicky, “Please. I drove you all the way out here, let me give you a ride.”

“Okay,” Nicky agrees finally.

In the car, Nicky turns to Quỳnh. “You don’t have to take me home. The gym is fine.”

“It’s really no problem,” Quỳnh tries to assure him.

The thing is, Nicky doesn’t know how to explain to her that he doesn’t know how to be around anyone right now, when he’s come to the terrible realization that he would have liked to date Joe and, in a matter of minutes, has blown any chance he might have at that. And since he can’t come up with any other reason why she can’t give him a ride to his apartment, he just shrugs and agrees.

After a couple minutes of stilted conversation, Quỳnh turns to look at him while they’re at a light. “Are you alright, Nicky?”

“Fine,” Nicky lies. “It’s just been a long week and I have a lot of work this weekend.”

He’s not sure if Quỳnh believes him but she doesn’t press him on the subject either and he’s thankful. How would he even begin to explain what’s really bothering him?

“I thought you and Yusuf would get along,” Quỳnh says as they turn onto Nicky’s street. “He’s a good guy.”

“I’m sure he is,” Nicky says, finally looking at Quỳnh. “Maybe another time, I will be able to get to know him better.”

“Yeah,” Quỳnh agrees.

The rest of the drive passes in silence, leaving Nicky plenty of time to think about the conversation with Joe, or Yusuf, he thinks. It occurs to him, finally, that he was wrong to suggest that Yusuf had lied about his name when they were in Quỳnh’s kitchen. Joe, he is reasonably certain, is a fairly common shortening of Yusuf. He had been off balance by Yusuf’s presence, and all he could think was he knew even less about the man he had been sleeping with than he had thought. Nicky refuses to think about why that bothers him so much, at least not while he’s still in Quỳnh’s car.

“This is me,” he says and she double parks so he can let himself out. “Thank you for the books Quỳnh. I’m looking forward to reading them.” “You’re welcome, Nicky.”

He gets his phone out after he’s back in the quiet of his own apartment. He pauses when he opens up the message thread with Nile. With a groan, he drops onto his old sofa and drags his hands down his face. The message thread is still open. He picks the phone back up again, types one sentence and hits send.

You were right

The phone vibrates a minute later and he can’t bring himself to look at it. He knows he needs to or he will be bombarded with a string of texts each one more concerned than the last. But it all hurts more than he had realized it would.

You told him??

Are you ok?

I’m coming over

The last message startles a response out of him, and he types out a quick message and hits send.

You don’t have to do that

I know. I’m still coming over there though

He doesn’t respond right away and she sends another message.

You’d do the same for me

He can’t argue with that, so he doesn’t. It seems like no time has passed at all when Nile buzzes to be let in. When she lets herself in, she goes straight to him and wraps him up in a hug. He lets himself melt into the hug.

After a few more moments, she pulls away and gives him an assessing look. “How are you doing?”

“I’ve been better.” Nicky’s tone is as dry as a desert and he wishes he could try again. After all, she stopped what she was doing to be there for him.

“Yeah,” she says, not commenting on his tone at all. “Yeah, I know.”

She goes into his kitchen and he follows her, hating that he feels like this, like he just wants to stop, let the world go on around him. It’s not even like it was a breakup. They weren’t together.

“Have you eaten?” Nile’s voice cuts into his thoughts.

“Not yet,” Nicky says, dragging himself back to the present. “And you’re not cooking for me,” he adds after he realizes what she’s really asking.

“Okay,” Nile allows. “So we can either make something together or we can order in.” She folds her arms across her chest and leans against his counter. “Which is it going to be?”

“Remember when we made pizza together?” Nicky asks by way of answering her.

“Yeah, you have all the ingredients?” Nile’s grinning at him and he is starting to feel better.

“Of course.”

Nile preheats the oven and Nicky starts pulling out ingredients. He always has some bread dough on hand for just this kind of occasion. Nicky rolls the dough out and Nile starts cutting up vegetables and they work in comfortable silence for a while.

“You’re allowed to hurt, Nicky,” Nile remarks when they switch places so she can start spreading sauce over the dough. “But I’m going to be here to help you keep your head above water, too, you know?”

“I know,” Nicky says, as he starts grating cheese. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were thinking about how much you liked the sex but also spending time with a gorgeous man,” Nile reminds him. “By the way, how did you find out?”

“Quỳnh knows him,” Nicky answers absently, starting to add cheese to the pizza.

Nile is looking at him. “Wait seriously?”

Nicky nods. “He was at her place this afternoon when she brought me over to lend me some books. She actually was wanting to introduce us.”

“No way.” They switch again. “Wait, so does that mean she knows about you and Joe now?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t tell her and neither did he.” He thinks and then adds, “He might have told her now though.”

“Would it make a difference to Quỳnh?” Nile asks.

Nicky doesn’t answer right away, choosing instead to focus on sliding the pizza into the oven. It gives him time to consider his answer. “I don’t actually know,” he says finally. “But I don’t think so.”

“And he knows you’re not a prostitute now,” Nile adds.

“Right,” Nicky agrees. “So now I can disentangle myself from him.”

“But you fell for him,” Nile reminds him.

“Sure. But it was never going to work. Not when all of our interactions were based on a lie,” Nicky says, and he can feel that overwhelming grief threatening to consume him again. He hates how much he had come to like Joe and now, without any preparation or warning, whatever they had between them has been snatched away.

“You wish you hadn’t gone to Quỳnh’s, don’t you?” Nile asks, and he stares at her, because she’s right. The look on his face must be answer enough, because she sighs and adds, “He would have had to find out eventually.”

He drops into a chair and groans. “I know.” If he’s being honest with himself, he knew all along, he just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Nile grabs a couple glasses and an unopened bottle of wine and joins him at the dining table. He lifts an eyebrow at her and she shrugs. “You’re going through a bad break-up. We’re going to do this right.” He snorts. When she places a full glass in front of him and asks, “How long do you want before I start pushing you to move on?”

Her tone is sympathetic and he knows she can see how hurt he is. He stares at his wine glass for a moment before he meets her eyes. “I don’t know yet.”

“Okay,” Nile agrees. “You know,” she adds after a brief pause, “Booker has kids.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” Nile says. “I didn’t find out until we had been seeing each other for a while and it was so weird. Like, I get why he didn’t tell me, but there was a part of me that couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t trust me, you know?” At Nicky’s nod, she continues. “What I’m saying is, it wasn’t the end of us. I don’t know how Joe feels, but if he broke the rules as badly as you did, this might not be the end for the two of you.”

“Thanks, Nile,” Nicky says, and he really does appreciate her. “I don’t think this is the same thing, though.”

“Of course, it’s not,” Nile shrugs. “But who knows? You know?”

They finish the bottle that night and mostly just talk. He doesn’t spend much time talking about Joe. He’s not really up to examining any of that too closely, so instead they talk about Booker and they talk about classes and whether or not Nicky is going to go home at the end of the semester.

When it gets late and they’re still talking, Nicky digs out an extra pillow and some blankets and makes the couch up for Nile. It’s not the first time she’s stayed over and he can’t find it in him to send her home now.


The next day, Nicky deletes Joe from his phone. He’s decided he’s not going to linger on something that never was any longer. When he tells Nile, she gives him a look that he refuses to decipher. He’s making the right decision.

He also avoids the fencing gym for a while, telling himself it’s because he needs to focus on his classes, that he has a lot to do before the end of the semester. He doesn’t entertain the thought that he’s trying to avoid talking about Joe with Quỳnh. Of course, he can’t avoid her forever; he still has to return her books.

He tries not to think too long about how long it’s been when he pulls up her phone number.

It’s Nicky. Do you have time to grab lunch? I could return your books.

He tucks his phone back into his pocket and continues on to his class. He doesn’t see her answer until he’s back outside.

Sure. How does Saturday sound?

Great. That sandwich place? he replies.

Ok

When he gets to the sandwich place she introduced him to all those weeks ago, Quỳnh is already seated waiting for her order. Nicky goes to the counter order before joining her.

“Sorry, something came up,” Nicky says as he sits down.

“It’s fine,” Quỳnh replies. She’s giving him a concerned look. “Is everything alright? You haven’t been at the gym since I loaned you those books.”

“I’ve been busy with the end of the semester approaching,” Nicky explains, hoping Quỳnh lets it stand at that.

She nods. “You’re going to be preparing to defend your dissertation next year right?”

“Yeah. I’ve had a lot of loose ends to tie up so I don’t have to worry about them going into the next semester,” Nicky elaborates.

“Of course. But Nicky, you looked like something really upset you when you were at my house. It wasn’t Yusuf, was it? I really did think the two of you would get along.”

Of course Quỳnh had picked up on that. Nicky is still struggling to come up with some kind of explanation when his name is called and he takes the time to compose himself before he sits back down, sandwich in hand.

When she is still giving him an expectant look, Nicky says, “It’s fine. Really.” He pauses, reminding himself that she had introduced him as Yusuf, not as Joe. “Yusuf was fine. I just realized how busy I was about to be.” It’s a thin lie and he knows it, but he really doesn’t want to explain to Quỳnh that he had already met Joe.

Thankfully she doesn’t push any further even though she looks like she still wants to. The conversation shifts to what’s going on in their lives. Quỳnh tells him that Andy’s organizing an event at her gallery that will help bring attention to emerging artists. He thinks, not for the first time, that he should spend more time actually talking to Quỳnh about her life. This is the first time he’s hearing about Quỳnh’s wife having a gallery.

“You should go!” Quỳnh says. “It will be fun. Andy and I will both be there and I can introduce you to some of our friends.”

“I don’t know. I might be able to go, but it’ll depend on when it is,” Nicky hedges.

“I’ll send you the dates.” Quỳnh looks absolutely delighted at the prospect of Nicky at her wife’s gallery, meeting their friends.

He still isn’t committed to going to an art gallery by the time they part ways. The only times he’s gone to shows were in support of Nile. They tend to be much more formal than he cares for, and he’d much rather be comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt than feel stiff in a suit, but he couldn’t find it in himself to outright refuse Quỳnh’s invitation.


He tells Nile about his lunch with Quỳnh and her invitation to the art gallery a few days later at their standing coffee date, but she doesn’t react the way he expected. She gets a thoughtful look on her face. A knot of tension grows in Nicky’s belly and he has a feeling his world is about to shrink again.

“Did she tell you when it was?” Nile asks. She’s fidgeting with her coffee mug, which is normally Nicky’s thing, not hers.

“Here,” he says, taking out his phone. “Let me pull up the message.”

He opens it up and shows it to Nile. She frowns at his phone and then at him. “And Quỳnh invited you because it’s her wife’s project?”

“Yes,” Nicky replies. “What’s going on, Nile?” He is confused as ever and he wishes she would tell him what’s put that look on her face.

“Sorry,” Nile says after a moment. “I just realized something.”

“What’s that?”

“That my world is smaller than I thought,” Nile replies. “I think Quỳnh invited you to the gallery that I’ve been preparing to show my work in. I think I’ve met her wife.”

“Really?” Nicky feels like his own world is shrinking.

“Yeah. She’s a friend of Booker’s. Anyway, I was invited to show some of my work at her annual event where she showcases up and coming artists with more well known artists to draw a bigger crowd. I don’t remember who the other participants are going to be off the top of my head.”

Nicky knows before Nile even asks him that he will be attending this show. He had so badly wanted not to go. But he wants to support his friend. He can tell that this is a big deal for her.

“You should come,” Nile says, cutting into his thoughts. “I know it’s not really your thing,” she adds hastily, “but it means a lot to me when you’re there.”

“Sure,” Nicky says, “I’ll be there.”

She grins at him and he can’t find it in him to regret his choice. She’s been there for him through everything; it’s the least he can do to support her at her show. Plus, it makes her so happy.


The night of the show, Nicky regrets telling Nile that he’d be there. He’s staring at himself in the mirror in the suit and it’s fine. It looks fine. But he’s going to have to spend the next couple of hours in it, and it’s so uncomfortable.

The memory of Joe at Nile’s last show pops up unbidden in his mind. Nicky wonders if he makes it a habit to attend art exhibitions and if he does, will he be at this one too? That thought makes Nicky regret even more telling Nile he would be at her show. He does not want to run the risk of running into Joe again. He knows, though, that he can’t cancel on her now.

With a sigh, he tugs at his tie to straighten it and then leaves his apartment to meet Nile at the gallery. He spends the entire way over convincing himself that Joe will not be there. Not only will Joe not be there, but an evening of personal discomfort is nothing compared how happy it makes Nile when Nicky supports her like this.

He’s a little early to the gallery and there aren’t a lot of people there yet, but he doesn’t see Nile right away when he gets inside. Mostly because Quỳnh gets to him before he’s barely made it through the door. She’s beaming at him, and gives him a hug when they’re close enough. He stiffens a little in surprise at first. They’ve never done this before, but he doesn’t let himself think too hard about it and returns her hug.

“I’m glad you made it. I wasn’t sure you were going to,” Quỳnh tells him, pulling away. “Come with me, I want you to meet my wife.”

Quỳnh’s wife is almost as tall as Nicky and she has a stern look on her face, that softens when she sees her wife.

“Hey,” she says, kissing Quỳnh on the cheek. “How are things looking?”

“Good,” Quỳnh replies, pulling away only slightly from her wife. “Andy, I wanted to introduce you to Nicky.”

Quỳnh’s wife—Andy, Nicky repeats to himself—turns her attention on him, and the softness that had appeared when she saw Quỳnh is completely gone.

“You’re Quỳnh’s friend from the gym.” Nicky’s pretty sure that’s not a question. “Quỳnh has been wanting to introduce us for a while now. It’s good to meet you, Nicky.”

She offers her hand to Nicky and Nicky takes it. Her grip is firm. “It’s good to meet you, too,” he replies, taking his hand back and flexing his fingers slightly.

“Quỳnh can be very persuasive. She told me she invited you, but she didn’t know if you would be here,” Andy remarks, and that soft look is back on her face for a moment as she looks at her wife.

“Actually,” Nicky says, “my friend is showing her art here tonight, and I always show up to support her.”

“Really?” There’s a slight lift to her eyebrow. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Nile,” Nicky replies, hoping his friend won’t mind him talking about her to Andy. “Nile Freeman,” he elaborates.

“Oh, my up and coming artist,” Andy says, and for the first time, Nicky is sure of the emotion on her face. She’s excited. “Her work is really good. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes.”

“I should find her,” Nicky says, “see how she’s doing.”

Andy grins at him. “She’s probably around her exhibit still,” she says, pointing in the general direction.

Nicky thanks her and goes in search of Nile. It doesn’t take long to find her; she’s exactly where Andy had said she’d be and she’s with someone. Booker, Nicky thinks, though he’s only met him one time. When he’s close enough that she’ll hear him he says her name and she turns with a brilliant smile on her face.

“Nicky! I’m so glad you’re here,” she says.

The man turns around, and Nicky is sure now that it’s Booker. “Nicky,” he says, holding his hand out. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Hi,” Nicky replies, gripping Booker’s hand in a firm shake. “Good to see you.”

He does actually want to get to know the man that Nile is dating, but he’s never been any good at small talk. He’s about to make a comment about the artwork on display when Nile grabs his arm.

“Nicky, I wanted to show you my favorite display tonight!” She’s so excited and Nicky loves this for her. She is so clearly in her element. Nile raises up slightly on her toes and presses a kiss to Booker’s cheek and says, “I’ll see you in a bit.”

And with that she’s dragging Nicky to another part of the gallery. In the past, Nicky has listened to Nile talk about the art she loves, looked at the images she’s shown him. Looking at the art on display here, it’s easy to see why this is her favorite display. It’s warm and bright and emotional. He’s not used to feeling emotional about art.

“Who’s the artist?” he asks, wandering over to one piece that caught his eye, Nile keeping in step with him.

“Yusuf al-Kaysani,” Nile says, and Nicky turns to look at her.

It can’t be the same person. Sure, Joe’s name is Yusuf, but it’s not like he’s the only Yusuf in the world. Because if Yusuf al-Kaysani is the same man Quỳnh had called Yusuf, then that means he’s most likely here, at this gallery, and Nicky really isn’t ready to see him. Actually if he could go the rest of his life without seeing Joe again, that would be good.

Nile is still talking about the art and Yusuf al-Kaysani when he tunes back in after considering the possibility that Joe is here. And then his attention is caught again. As if his earlier line of thinking had summoned the man himself, Joe is there.

“Nicky?” Nile lays a hand on his arm and he turns to look back at her.

“Yes, sorry,” Nicky says, turning all of his attention back to her. Maybe Joe didn’t see him.

“Are you okay?” He returns his full attention to Nile, because this is Nile’s night and she doesn’t need to be worrying about him. So yes, he is alright.

Before he gets a chance to tell her that, Nicky hears that voice behind him. Nile’s frown tells him she knows he looks familiar but she hasn’t decided why yet.

He holds his hand out to Nile, and for a moment Nicky has a wild thought that maybe Joe will just ignore him. “I’m Yusuf,” he says with that warm smile on his face. “You must be Nile Freeman, right? Andy told me so much about you that I didn’t have to think when she asked me to contribute some art to her gallery for the exhibition.”

“Wait.” There’s a look of disbelief on Nile’s face, and Nicky chooses to focus on that rather than the fact that Joe is right there, and not even looking at him. “Really?”

“You’re very good.”

They exchange a few more pleasantries while Nicky stands there trying to figure out how to make his escape. This is too much. Before he can come up with a reasonable excuse to make his exit, Joe turns to him.

“I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself to you, too,” Joe says, his face still so open and warm. Nicky wonders what he ever did to deserve this. “Yusuf. Some people call me Joe.”

“Nicky,” is all that he manages in reply and then Joe’s hand is wrapped around his and the feel of Joe’s skin on his is all he can focus on.

Joe releases his hand and his brain catches up. He’s using this opportunity to start again, explaining that he is called Joe, that it’s short for Yusuf. Nicky finally looks at Joe, actually looks at him. His expression has changed, still open but there’s a tentative hope there that wasn’t there when he was talking to Nile and Nicky suddenly knows without a doubt that, while Joe may have wanted to talk to Nile about her work, he had come over because he had seen Nicky.

“Nice to meet you, Nicky. How do you like the art?” Joe gestures around him as if to encompass the whole space.

“It’s good. I always come to the shows that Nile has art in.” He glances over at her and gives her a warm smile. She looks like she’s working on a puzzle, trying to figure out how the pieces work together. “It’s actually the only time I go to art shows.”

Nile gives him a distracted grin, and then realization dawns on her face. Nicky shakes his head slightly. Not now.

“She’s lucky to have such a supportive friend,” Joe says.

Nicky needs Joe to know that he is even luckier to have Nile. “I am so grateful to have her as my friend. It’s the least I can do.”

That earns him Joe’s bright smile and something warmer from Nile.

Then she kisses his cheek and takes the opportunity to murmur so only Nicky can hear. “This is Joe?” At his slight nod, she adds, “Are you okay?” Another nod and louder, “I’ll think I’ll leave you to it and go see if I can find Booker again.”

“Booker?” Joe asks, but she’s already weaving her way through the crowd, so it’s left to Nicky to answer.

“The man she’s been seeing for the last few months,” Nicky says, and he can’t stop looking at Joe. He should. He knows he should. Knows he needs to find some way to carefully extract himself from this conversation before he undoes any of the progress he’s made in getting over this gorgeous man.

But then Joe is looking at him, and there’s a little wrinkle between his eyebrows. Not like he’s upset, but like he’s thinking. “I know Booker. He’s a good friend of mine.”

This cannot be happening. This is worse than Nile being the up and coming artist at an art exhibit where Joe is the headlining artist. This means that if Nile and Booker keep seeing each other and it’s serious there’s no way he won’t end up running into Joe more frequently.

He’s jolted out of this line of thought by Joe adding, “I think he tried to set me up with you, actually.” He’s still got that look on his face, remarkably similar to the way Nile had looked when she was putting it all together. “The world’s a lot smaller than I thought,” he adds with a small laugh.

“Yeah,” Nicky says, which doesn’t fully encompass how it feels realizing exactly how much smaller his world is than he thought.

“Nicky—” Joe starts, but before he can say anything Nicky finds his mouth engaging before his brain again.

“I didn’t use any of the money.” And he wants to take it back, wants to go back to when they were having a conversation, two people who didn’t know each other would have.

“What?” A look of confusion crosses Joe’s face. “I wasn’t— that wasn’t what I was going to say. Wait. Really?”

He feels like this is a conversation they shouldn’t be having in the middle of Joe’s art exhibit. “It didn’t feel right,” Nicky explains, running a hand over the back of his neck. “It felt dishonest.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe says, and that’s not what Nicky is expecting. “I shouldn’t have assumed.

“I—” Nicky pauses. He doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not okay, which is what he would say to most any other apology. And he thinks about how he never corrected Joe. “I should have said something.”

“Why didn’t you?” Joe asks.

Nicky frowns. This really isn’t the place for this conversation.

“It’s fine,” Joe adds quickly. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“Sorry, I was just thinking, the middle of your art exhibit might not be the best place for this,” Nicky rushes to explain, gesturing between them to make it clear what he meant.

Joe gives the room a quick glance, taking in all the people, and then nods. “You’re probably right, but I would like to have it.” He pauses a moment, but before he can say anything, Joe adds, “Only if you want. I would understand, after everything, if you didn’t.”

Joe is right. He really shouldn’t want to keep this going, because what good can come of it. It will only result in more pain for Nicky, but he doesn’t say that. What he says instead is, “Okay.”

He doesn’t think he’s imagining the look of relief on Joe’s face. “Really?” Nicky nods. “Okay. Okay, I have to stay a bit longer still or Andy will probably murder me.” He checks his watch. “I don’t think she’d let me get away with less than two hours. Then you can meet me out front?”

This is a mistake. Nicky knows it is, but he’s still the same man who had taken months to tell Joe he wasn’t a hooker, so he can’t resist the opportunity to spend more time with him.

“Two hours,” he agrees. “I’ll meet you there.”

And that is definitely relief on Joe’s face when Nicky agrees. They part and Nicky finds his way back to Nile’s exhibit. Thankfully she’s there, talking animatedly to Booker. She smiles when he joins them, but it’s less bright and more worried.

“Are you alright?” she asks, and Booker looks quickly between the two of them and it’s clear he wants to know what’s going on, but he doesn’t ask.

“I think so,” Nicky responds. “We’re going to talk. Later.” She frowns at him and he adds, “I’m fine. Really. This is your night.”

He passes the next few hours with Nile and Booker, getting to know the other man better and Nicky decides he likes him. He also introduces Nile to Quỳnh and the pair of them get on like a wildfire. Before he knows it, it’s been two hours and he’s making his exit.


There’s no one there when he gets outside. He thinks for a moment that Joe won’t show, and Nicky doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed at the idea. He’s just starting to decide where he’ll go after this if Joe doesn’t show, when the doors open behind him and there’s Joe. Lit by the light pouring out of the gallery, he’s more beautiful than ever, and Nicky abruptly regrets agreeing to this.

“Hey,” Joe says, as he approaches Nicky. “Sorry, I had a woman who wouldn’t stop talking to me about one of my pieces, except she clearly didn’t know I was the artist, and I couldn’t get a word in to enlighten her. And normally I like to talk about my work, but she was terrible,” Joe finally stops for breath.

“Sounds terrible,” Nicky says, feeling a little breathless himself.

“It was.” Joe’s face is so terribly earnest as he says it that Nicky can’t help but laugh a little.

“So,” he says, “where are we going?”

“I thought maybe we could just walk,” Joe says. “Then you have an out whenever you want.”

“Okay,” Nicky agrees.

They fall into step as they walk without any destination. They’re quiet for a couple of blocks, just the sounds of the city filling the space between them. It would be nice, Nicky thinks, if they were just two men on a walk together, but there’s so much between them.

Finally, Joe breaks the silence, as they walk past a drug store. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“At first, I didn’t realize that’s why you picked me up,” Nicky says. “And it was hard to resist coming up to a gorgeous man’s room.” The word slips out of Nicky’s mouth effortlessly. He glances over at Joe to see a small smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “And then you left the money and that note. And I didn’t know if I’d hear from you again. And then somehow I never seemed to find the right time.” Nicky takes a deep breath, preparing to be honest. “And a part of me was convinced that if I told you I wouldn’t see you again.”

“You wanted to see me?” Joe asks, and Nicky isn’t quite sure what that tone is but suddenly he’s so exasperated. With him or with Joe, he’s not entirely sure.

“Yes, Joe,” Nicky says. “I wanted to see you again. Every time.”

“Huh.” They keep walking and Joe doesn’t say anything else until they’re waiting for the light to turn at an intersection.

There’s another question Nicky has to ask, has to know the answer to. “Why did you think I was a prostitute in the first place?”

Joe rubs the back of his neck and there’s a sheepish expression on his face. “I actually didn’t at first.” He pauses and Nicky waits him out. “When I asked you to come upstairs with me, I was surprised at myself, even more surprised when you said yes. And I told myself, the only reason you said yes, the only reason we did all that was because you were a prostitute.” He’s still not looking at Nicky when he pauses again and Nicky really doesn’t know what to say. “So I left the note and the money. And then you agreed to meet me again.”

Nicky is still trying to come up with a response to anything Joe just said when he’s speaking again.

“Do you want to know why I stopped texting you before we met again at Quỳnh and Andy’s?”

Nicky isn’t sure he does, but that doesn’t stop him from asking, “Why?”

“Because you’re not supposed to fall for the person you’re paying for sex,” Joe says as if that’s the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the first rule of prostitute/client interactions. So I had to find some distance.”

Nicky feels like the ground’s fallen out from under him. He’s trying to find words but his mind has gone conveniently blank. He always has words.

He must be silent too long, because Joe adds, “Listen, I’m pretty sure that was actually inappropriate and so we can pretend like I never said it. And you don’t have to–”

Nicky’s words finally come back to him. “I was falling for you, too,” he says, effectively cutting Joe off. “But it’s the first rule of prostitution, as Nile liked to remind me,” he adds.

“Nile knew?” Joe asks, and Nicky thinks he can just see a blush on Joe’s cheeks in the light from the streetlamps.

“I had to tell someone about it,” Nicky admits. “I didn’t actually think the two of you would ever meet.”

“Yeah. No. Of course,” Joe says, and Nicky shouldn’t find it so endearing the way Joe is trying to form a complete sentence, but if this night has proven anything, it’s that Nicky has a bad habit of not doing things that he’s supposed to. “I just feel embarrassed, knowing that she knows how the two of us met.” A pause. “Wait. You were falling for me, too?”

Nicky can’t quite resist rolling his eyes. “Of course I was.”

“So where do we go from here?” Joe asks.

“I don’t know,” Nicky says honestly.

“I could take you on a date,” Joe suggests. “A real date. If you want.”

“Not a hotel bar,” Nicky says, startling a laugh out of Joe. He smiles, enjoying Joe’s laughter.

“No, not a hotel bar,” Joe replies. “I can text you the details. I know some really good places to eat around here.”

“You still have my number?” Nicky asks.

“I couldn’t quite bring myself to delete it,” Joe admits. “I just promised myself I wouldn’t text you anymore.”

“Okay,” Nicky agrees. “Okay. I want to go on a date with you.”

They keep walking and Nicky loses track of the time. He realizes how much he missed just talking to Joe. Sure, the sex was good, but talking to Joe is so easy. The conversation flows easily. Finally, when Nicky can’t stop yawning, Joe walks with him until he points out his stop.

Nicky can’t seem to tear his eyes off of Joe. Some small part of him is convinced that the minute he looks away Joe will be gone. Joe is looking at him, too and this moment feels like a bubble. The slightest movement and it will burst.

Joe breaks the silence. “I want to kiss you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Joe’s looking at him like he had hoped for a different answer.

Nicky’s brain feels like it is going a hundred miles an hour. And then he clarifies. “Okay, you should kiss me.”

He’s holding his breath as Joe leans in and presses his lips to Nicky’s. A shiver runs down Nicky’s body and he finds himself relaxing into Joe. It’s different than before. Joe’s lips are soft against his, teasing. He presses closer, hungry for more. More of Joe’s lips, more of his body pressed against his. They break apart much too soon.

Joe lets out a soft chuckle. It sounds like relief. “Good night, Nicky.”

“Good night.” He breathes out. Walking into the station and boarding the train feels almost dreamlike.

When he’s home, he takes out his phone for the first time since he left the art gallery. There are multiple notifications. Most of them are from Nile. A few more from an unknown number, but when he checks, he sees they’re from Joe. He feels a smile curl around his lips. He closes the thread and then clears the social media notifications before opening his message thread with Nile. She’s been worrying long enough.

Hey everything ok?

Nicky are you with Joe?

Nicky call me when you’re home

He calls her.

“Nicky.” The relief in Nile’s voice is unmistakable. “What happened?”

“I’m fine,” Nicky tells her. “We talked. And then we kept talking. I’m fine, really.”

She still sounds skeptical when she asks, “So what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to go on a date with him,” Nicky says, and he likes how that feels, saying that he’s going on a date with Joe. It’s a different kind of feeling, knowing that this won’t be a transaction. That there can be another date, that he can introduce Joe to his friends.

“You sound happy,” Nile says.

“I am,” Nicky says. It feels good.

“Okay, can I say one thing?” At his sound of assent, she carries on, “I can’t believe you met Yusuf al-Kaysani before me!” He can hear the indignation in her voice. “You know how incredible his work is? Nicky, you have to introduce me!”

Nicky feels the laugh bubbling up inside of him and says, “Okay, okay.”

They chat a little while longer, before they hang up. He’s going to see Joe again. He’s going to see Joe again, not as a prostitute but as someone he wants to date. Everything seems a little brighter.

Epilogue

Nicky had thought he would feel more nervous when this day came around. He’s waiting in the hallway outside of a classroom where a panel of doctors are waiting to question him on his dissertation and he feels, not confident exactly, but ready. He knows the quality of his research and he’s spent so much time living and breathing it that some days over the last few weeks he felt like he could recite his work in his sleep. All in all, he’s not as nervous as he thought he would be.

“Hey,” a voice calls out, pulling him from his thoughts and Nicky smiles.

“Hey,” he says, turning to the source of that voice. His heart swells at the sight of Joe, there in the hallway.

“You ready?” Joe is grinning at him, and Nicky loves that grin. He loves all of Joe’s grins, but this one is special. It’s just for him.

“I think so,” he answers.

“You’ll do great,” Joe says, pressing a soft kiss to Nicky’s lips.

Before Nicky gets a chance to deepen the kiss, the door opens behind Nicky, and someone clears their throat, before beckoning Nicky inside. The board passes in a blur. It might last a couple minutes or a couple of hours for all he remembers. What he does remember is being directed, as Mr. di Genova, to take a seat, and being congratulated later, as Dr. di Genova.

And then he’s being wrapped up in Joe’s arms and congratulated. And Nile is there. Both of them telling them how happy they are for him.

“Come on,” Nile tells him, “we’re going out for lunch.” Her smile turns teasing. “Joe’s paying.”

“We’ll meet you there,” Joe says, before Nicky can say anything. Nicky gives him a look and he just winks and says, “Trust me.”

And Nicky does. Of course he does. He follows Joe, resisting the urge to ask what’s going on, but he’s beginning to get an idea.

“Joe,” he says, understanding coloring his voice.

They’re in a secluded spot, still on campus, and Joe turns to him. “Seriously, Nicky?” he groans but he’s grinning and Nicky can’t help but return it. “I had a whole plan.”

“I like this spot,” Nicky says. “I’ve studied here before. Not many students come by this way.”

“Okay,” Joe says. “Okay. This isn’t taking away from your dissertation, right?” He’s suddenly looking a little nervous.

“No,” Nicky assures him. “No, it makes it better. I promise.”

“Okay.” He looks around quickly and then he takes a deep breath. Nicky knows what’s coming but he can’t help holding his breath, waiting for Joe to say it. “Nicky,” he says finally. “I had this whole speech planned, about how much I love you, how much you mean to me. You are everything to me, Nicky. I want to spend my life with you. Will you marry me?”

Nicky feels tears stinging his eyes, which is ridiculous, because he knew this was coming. They had decided to wait until after he finished his degree. Even still, this is Joe, the love of his life. “Yes. Yes, of course I’ll marry you.”

Joe kisses him and Nicky’s hands sink into his hair, holding him there, pouring all of his emotions into this kiss. When they part, his breathing is heavy.

“Come on,” he says, tangling his fingers with Joe’s. “Our friends want to celebrate with us.”

Joe is beaming at him and Nicky smiles in return. They hold hands the entire way to the restaurant where their friends are waiting for them. Nicky can’t stop smiling