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i’ll forget you by next year, some year

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The oversized green door sticks in the same place it always does, finally opening with a shriek of metal on metal. Like it's a ritual, Nicky adds 'oil the door hinges' to his mental to-do list. You'd think after eight years of working at the science center, he'd have gotten around to it by now.

"Good morning, Nile."

"I see one of us got up early enough to have coffee before leaving the house."

"Go make yourself some; I'll get the clipboards ready for the first school group."

Her look of undisguised gratitude is all the thanks he needs. Things are non-stop until after one when Nicky finally gets a chance to find a bench in a sunny spot and enjoy his lunch. He tilts his chin up, letting the warmth hit his face while he unwraps his sandwich. 'Well, Nicky,' he thinks. 'If you've got to be at work, spending your lunch sitting in the sun, finally reading the article that caught your eye last week, and enjoying your sandwich is a nice consolation.'

The article is a profile of an up-and-coming author, a real critics' darling, who recently managed to avoid the sophomore slump with his second novel. The premise sounds interesting, and the guy's first book was fantastic. Nicky found a copy in a library give-away bin and took it home. It was missing a dust jacket that might tell him a bit about the plot, but he liked the title, and it was free, and that was good enough. The debate this week has been whether to get the new book in a physical copy or e-book. He's hoping the author profile might sway him one way or the other. 

First impression: This guy ought to sound pretentious but somehow escapes it through sheer charm. He wonders if that's just the journalist's doing. 

  Excerpt from the Sunday Book Review's Author Profile   

   Always an engaging interview subject, today al-Kaysani is particularly animated. He claims it's because he finally caught up on sleep after his latest book tour. We're not here to talk about that book, though; we're here to talk about his latest endeavour.

   I mention some buzz in the publishing industry about the dramatic departure his second book takes from his first, but we both know that's putting it mildly. When an author has spent three years being lauded for creating one of the most original, thrilling, genuinely revolutionary mystery novels in decades, it might be reasonable to expect him to offer something in that genre for his next effort.

   Instead, al-Kaysani has chosen to write a fairy tale about two young lovers struggling to reunite after a separation and the challenges and obstacles they face along the way. The novel is no less innovative and extraordinary than his first, but it did give the industry a touch of genre whiplash--as though Charlotte Bronte had chosen to follow Jane Eyre with Salem's Lot.  

   When he leans forward, creating a more intimate space between us as he talks, I suddenly understand why my wife sighed when I told her I'd be doing this interview.

   "I've always loved the story of The Odyssey. I'm fascinated by the idea of taking years and years to make it back to the person you love, of never giving up. What kind of love would inspire that fervor, that dedication? With this story, I particularly wanted to think about what might have happened if both lovers were fighting to get back. If, in the Odyssey, Penelope were also fighting that whole time to get back to Odysseus."

   "In your book, the heroes are young--in their early twenties. Do you think this kind of passion and devotion is a young person's game?"

   Al-Kaysani props his elbows on the table, his eyebrows drawn together. He spends a minute fiddling with my pen before putting it next to my notebook and meeting my eyes.

   "On the contrary. I think we're capable of that depth of feeling at any age. I just think that often we're adults before we realise how precious something in our youth was." He spreads his hands out, an exaggerated, nonchalant shrug. "Of course, by then, it's gone."

"Did you read his first one?" Nile drops down next to him. She's holding a carton of lo mein in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. 

"Yes, I liked it a great deal. It was a wonderful use of the outside perspective." 

Nile nods, a forkful of noodles halfway in her mouth. "He's cute, too." 

"Please get the noodles all the way in before speaking; it makes me feel less like I'm having a conversation with a squid."

She grins, chewing and swallowing. "He is cute, though." Leaning over, she tries to scroll up, and Nicky swats at her arm. 

"I will get to it! Let me finish the—" The top of the author's picture has scrolled onto the screen. It's not much, just the top of his hair, but Nicky's heart is in his throat. "Let me finish the article."

 One of his oft-mentioned dimples flashes, driving home why so many of my colleagues have used the word 'magnetic' to describe him. Still, there's something in the way he phrased that.

"You sound like this is something you're familiar with."

He's quiet for a long time before he says, "Maybe that's why they're young. Wish fulfillment for all of us who didn't fight when we should have, who are channeling all their emotional energy into regret." His voice relaxes, and he winks. There's that dimple again. "Or novels."

I want to ask more, we all do, but it's clear even before he sits back and asks about my watch that this avenue of conversation is now closed.

(Yusuf al-Kaysani's second novel, “Every Riddle, Every Dragon,” is available in hardback and digital starting today and out in paperback on May 5th.)

Nicky's memories, Nicky's heart, are screaming at him to close the tab now, to walk away from this. Instead, he scrolls down until the entire picture is visible. 

The shard of glass that lodged his heart more than a decade ago begins to twist. Nicky would know those eyes anywhere.

"You okay? Hey, Nicky are you okay? Is there something I can do?" Sometimes Nile is so relentlessly American. She thinks they can fix every hurt if they just talk about it, and she thinks it's possible to be 'okay.'

"I'll be fine."

"You look like you just saw a ghost." 

The hiccup of hysterical laughter Nicky's been trying to hold in finally slips out. A ghost, yes. 

When Nicky was twenty-two, he was in love. With the world, yes, and with his own life, with the way having an interrail pass and some money in his pocket made him feel that anything was possible. But most of all, with Joe. With him, love was effortless. They laughed easily, they traveled together well, and they fucked like gods. 

By the end of his year of wandering, Nicky had the love of his life and a plan for their future.

Nile never knew that version of him, the Nicky so in love that he stole Joe's t-shirt and stuffed it in his backpack, thinking he could wear it to bed and imagine Joe was still holding him. By the time he met Nile, Nicky had not only stopped sleeping in that shirt, he'd long-since shoved it in the back of his bottom drawer behind a spare blanket. After that, he could almost pretend it never existed.

After the fight that ended things, Nicky had changed the name for Joe's contact to 'No.' Perhaps he should have deleted it. If you’d asked him why he hadn't, he'd probably have lied to you, but only because even he hadn't known the reason. After a year of having his heart torn open every time he scrolled past it to find his Nonna's number, he'd eventually got smart and added a 'z' to the beginning so that it would live at the bottom of the list, but he still hadn’t deleted it. When Nile came to work at the science center, plopping herself into his life as easily as she joined him on his bench today, Joe's contact had been under the 'Z' section for more than six years. 

In the years since Joe, either things have gotten easier, or he's gotten better at ignoring them, and now, more than a decade later, he hardly thinks about Joe at all. Except sometimes when it rains like it did that day in Paris. Or on soft summer nights, like that one in Aljezur. 

And sure, maybe sometimes he has baklava just so he can remember licking the honey off someone else's fingers, but everyone has memories attached to food. 

"I knew him. Once."

"This author? Nicky! That's cool!" She finally gets a look at his face. "Isn't it?"

"Yeah. It's—This is great. We'd lost touch."

"You didn't have an email or a phone number?"

He'd had both. The one time he tried to send mail, it bounced back, and his last phone call had been routed to an impersonal voicemail rather than Joe's cheery recorded request that he leave a message. ‘I'm not leaving my heart in what might be some stranger's voicemail,’ he'd thought.

"They didn't work."

Nile closes the top of her container and looks around for a bin. "No social media?"  

Staring up at Nicky from the screen is a man sitting in front of a small cafe, a smile on his face and the wind in his hair. The man who's lived in Nicky's soul like a wound since the second they ended their final phone call, and who just told the world, 'this story can be for all of us who didn't fight when we should have,' as if he thinks about Nicky as often as Nicky pretends to not think about him. 

"I didn't know his last name." Even saying it he's cringing.

This man was the love of Nicky's life, and he hadn't bothered to get a last name. Well, now he knows; Joe is Yusuf al-Kasani. So the only question left is, what does he do next?

Nile locks her fingers together and stretches her arms out in front of her. "Let's go back in; it's time for some snooping."

Half an hour later, Nicky wonders how accurate Nile was to call it 'snooping.' Everything they've found has been public record, and none of it has been the least bit salacious. His name is not particularly uncommmon, but Nicky knows where he’s from, or at least where his parents live, where he went to university, and where he was living when they finished traveling. Once Nile narrows the search to Amsterdam, they’re able to find articles in a few local papers, and they somehow trip over his father’s Facebook. That feels too much like intruding on his privacy, so they back-click and see what else the internet has to offer.

"This should be good." She passes him his tablet. "It's a Reddit AMA. Save this one for when you've got some time." 

Nicky spends the train trip home trying to remember Joe's voice enough to conjure the phrase, "channel all their emotional energy into regret." 

The memories roused from their slumber keep him company on the walk from the train station; they escort him to his flat and gesture to the chair by the window, the one that gets the best evening light. 

An hour later, Nicky is sprawled on his couch, his tablet propped on his chest, relearning Joe. There are a few good questions, but not many. An aspiring writer asks what trope he’d most like to write that he hasn’t explored yet (unreliable narrator) and a girl currently on a backpacking trip asks what city he’d most like to visit for the first time (Tunis, where his parents are from). The rest are forgettable, or things Nicky already knew. (Is he a dog perso or a cat person? Dog, but he travels so much it’s not fair to have one.) They seem to get worse as they go, but at the end, buried in some of the worst questions he's ever seen in an AMA, is a gem. It’s a post from someone saying they know he loves to travel and asking if he ever gets to explore cities while he's there for book tours. 

   timtamtaroo: You've said before in interviews that you like to travel. Do you get to explore cities when you're there for book tours?

   JaK: I wish I did. I travel in my free time, though. For now, Amsterdam is my home, my family is there, but as much as I love being there and spoiling my nieces and eating my mother’s cooking, I've always been an explorer. I think it's strange the dichotomies we hold inside us. I'd be happy never waking up in the same city two Mondays in a row, but I've kept the same phone number for almost fifteen years.

Something that feels like a steel band tightens around Nicky's chest, and there's a rushing sound in his ears. 

Outside, the sun is gone, the street lamps have come on, and Nicky can hear the chatter of people on the street. He lets himself be mesmerized by the night for a few minutes, lets his brain expand to consider the reality that those people on the street, the people who installed the street lamps, even the driver of the bus that goes rattling past, are all part of the same world, living in the same space. 

His phone is still sitting in the middle of his hall table, right where he'd dropped it when he emptied his pockets. Joe is still listed under the Z's. Five minutes ago, it was only a phone; now it's a time bomb.

When Nile calls at half-past nine, Nicky nearly jumps out of his skin. 

She wants to talk about what kind of food Nicky is bringing to their upcoming game night, so she can figure out the drinks she's going to bring. After about ten minutes of trying to pry answers out of him, she finally asks what the hell the matter is with him.

"Nothing. Just distracted by something on the street. I'm bringing pastries from the bakery up the road. There is something I have to get back to. Was that all you needed?"

'Come on,' he tells himself. 'You know better.' Nile is the perfect person to ask about this, but he can't even think of where he'd start. Two minutes later, he reaches for the phone, finally having found the best way to phrase the question, but she's already calling.

"Yeah, that was bullshit. I considered letting you get away with it, but you're an adult who should be able to talk about his feelings. So let's try again."

"If... if you were going to reach out to someone you had not talked to in a decade, what would you say to them?"

"How's life with a driver’s license?"

"Nile."

She's entirely too amused with herself. "What? It's not my fault you're old." His sigh must communicate everything he's feeling in his soul because she finally says, "I'd probably just say hello. What I wouldn't do is sit around and give myself a panic attack trying to find the perfect wording. Either he's going to be thrilled to hear from you, in which case it doesn't matter how you start, or he's going to block you, and then it really doesn't matter."

Nicky's worried the response will fall between those two outcomes.

What if he read things wrong in that article? What if Joe was talking about some other past relationship, some other regret? Maybe what they had was just a youthful fling, just something Joe put behind him around the same time he stopped being able to sleep in fucked up positions without his neck hurting the next day. Nicky's not scared of being rejected, but he's terrified he might see, ‘It's been a while. What's up? Anything new?’ Because that's not who they were. Not ever. And he doesn't want to ruin all those memories by dousing them in banality.

One night, in some old port city, they found a spot on the city wall near the harbor and lay there watching the stars and listening to the ocean. Each time Nicky pointed out a constellation, Joe brought his hand back down to kiss the pads of his fingers one by one.

He would rather they have no contact at all than think of that Joe as the same man who answered 'How are you?' with 'same old shit. lol.'

"I need to think about this for a day or two."

"Think about it as long as you want, Nicky. There's no clock on this."

That night, he falls asleep and dreams of Joe's mouth on his skin, sucking the inside of his thigh or dragging over one tight, sensitive nipple. "I love you. I love how you respond to every little touch. Come for me, Nicolò. Come on me..."

He wakes suddenly to find the sweat on the back of his neck is cool in the night air, and his hips are grinding into the sheets. There's no point in stopping now. He tries to bring back the warm sweep of Joe's tongue into his mouth, the weight of Joe against his back. It takes only a handful of fevered thrusts before Nicky's eyes slam shut, and he comes with a groan, the last of his movement doing nothing but smearing his release against his skin. 

His heart might still be torn on whether or not to reach out to Joe, but his body has no such reservations. 

In the end, he stews about it for a week. The following Saturday, Joe's second book cracks the top ten on the bestseller list.

 


 

"Joe!"

"What?"

Andy pinches the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. It's a gesture he's come to recognize as 'I can't believe I do this without getting paid.' She sighs. "I asked what you thought of the tour schedule so far."

The list swims into focus again, and Joe notes some familiar stops and some new ones. The one at the top of the list is what shorted out his circuits just now.  

"We're going to Budapest?"

"Have you ever been?"

"No. I was supposed to, but—" The silence stretches out. 

But. 

But before Budapest was Prague. But he met Nicky in Prague. But after that, he never wanted to be anywhere except wherever Nicky was. So, no, he's never been to Budapest. 

"You'll like it." 

"It'll be nice to get there finally." 

"God, Joe. Even your smile looks tired right now." 

He's not tired. That ship sailed two weeks ago. By now, Joe can feel the exhaustion in his bones, in his joints. 

It's not that he regrets writing this book; he just wishes he'd been able to set it free like the catharsis it was meant to be. Instead, he keeps having to talk about it.

Every time he's asked about the inspiration for this story, Joe thinks of Nicky. When the reporters want to know if the love story is based on a real love in his life, Nicky's sleepy smile is the first thing that comes to mind. Invariably, after a lot of prodding, Joe will say something about wanting to explore the idea of a happy ending being sweeter because of the struggle. The reporter will hum as if they understand; if it's in-person, perhaps they'll give him a knowing smile as well, maybe even a nod. 

The more astute reporters will sometimes pick up that he didn't actually answer the question, but by then, Joe will have steered the conversation somewhere else. Anything to avoid thinking about how little struggle he'd put up. Anything to avoid hearing the defeat and resignation in Nicky's voice at the end.

"I'm fine, really, Andy."

"That might work if I weren't your friend."

There's a kind of strange relief in the way the heels of his hands press into his closed eyes. "I'm serious. It's nothing a few good nights of sleep won't fix."

Nevermind that none of the good nights’ sleep he's got in the last twelve years have made a dent - this time will be different. Now the book is out, the story told, he's drawn a line under that part of his life. 

They’d tried to make it work after they both got home from their respective backpacking trips, but not as hard as they could have. Not as hard as they needed to. Victims of their own success, that's what Joe realised far too late. It had been so easy for them, so they'd never learned how to compromise with each other, never learned what spots were tender and shouldn't be prodded. 

The irony of that last conversation, their only fight, was that they'd both been right. Joe had insisted he deserved better than to be just a prop in Nicky's life, that if Nicky had listened at all, if he'd cared at all, he'd have spoken to Joe before making decisions about their future. In return, Nicky had lashed out, saying that Joe had no room to talk about listening or caring; that if he were such a paragon of communication and compassion, maybe he wouldn't hide things that might upend their lives completely.

"How would this upend your life?” Nerves frayed, Joe was demanding rather than asking, his voice nearly a shout. “Whether I'm in one city or another doesn't matter because you're not in either of them yet."

"And clearly, you want to keep it that way. Meanwhile I want to be able to see you for more than a weekend. I want to wake up next to you every day."

"Wherever you decide, right?"

"It was supposed to be a surprise!"

"You were going to surprise me by pinning me down?"

"I had no reason at all to suspect you might want to leave! Because you didn't tell me!"

It got louder from there, but no more productive. The two of them repeated the same things in circles for what felt like hours until finally Nicky had sighed and said, "I was so excited to see what our forever looked like, but I don't want forever with whoever I'm talking to now."

It had gone downhill fast after that. 

Shaking off the memory, Joe realises he missed something Andy said. 

"What?"

"Message from Quynh." Andy holds out her phone, and Joe can see he's been summoned to brunch the next day.

"I'd love that." 

He's learned, as everyone with a broken heart must eventually learn, how to get through the world with memories of that love everywhere. 

Deleting Nicky's contact had proved impossible. He'd settled instead for changing the name to We Don't Call This One, and being grateful he didn't drink enough to worry about feeling so weak during the small hours of some future morning that he’d ignore his own advice.

Andy and Quynh had rescued Sunday afternoons for him. Now, instead of thinking about Nicky spread out on the bed, basking in the sunlight as Joe found new patches of his skin to taste, he thinks about taking the train to Haarlem, sitting in their sun-drenched kitchen, and watching Quynh in her apron, humming off-key. 

Some memories he's had to push down by brute force. Nicky's sly grin, for one, and baklava for another. He's spent enough years actively forgetting the sweep of Nicky's tongue against his fingers, the way he'd licked the honey from Joe's wrist, that the first time Andy offered him a piece he barely thought of Nicky at all. He just politely refused. 

"Do you not like it?" Andy had asked.

"No, I love it. I just don't eat it. Ever. Can we talk about something else?" And because she's always been his friend, not just his agent's wife, she’d dropped the subject.

In the morning, there's a text from waiting for him when he wakes. It's just a string of exclamation points and a note that Joe should come over the instant he's awake, no matter the time.

Quynh is a fantastic cook, and she loves cooking for company, especially Joe, "Otherwise, you'd only eat microwave meals and fast food. If I cook for you, I can rest easy knowing that you won't get scurvy." This Sunday, and only this Sunday, in addition to the eggs, fruit, and sinfully fluffy sticky buns, there is champagne. 

"You made the top ten. Is there a better reason for champagne with brunch?" 

Joe laughs and hugs Quynh. As much as his parents might wish otherwise, when it comes to his religion, he’s not particularly observant. Among the rules he does follow, he doesn’t drink except on very special occasions. Quynh is right, this qualifies. "I would love some."

They get caught up telling stories and reminiscing about Joe writing his first book, about the late nights he pulled, and how much he worried about things that turned out not to matter. There's no way around that, though. Or so Quynh says. 

"You have to sweat the small stuff at least once, or how will you know what the small stuff is?"

By the time Joe thinks to check his phone, it's been dead for hours. When he plugs it back in, the phone loads the text messages a second or two before it loads his contacts, and since there are more than a few digits in common, at first, Joe thinks the message of congratulations is from his cousin. 

When his contacts finally load, he has to sit down until the room stops spinning. 

We Don't Call This One: I remember this was a dream of yours. Congratulations!

Under it is a screenshot of the bestseller list with his book in the eighth slot.

He has no idea how long he sits there staring at it. At least long enough for Quynh to come by twice. The first time she'd passed him, sitting on the couch with his mouth open, she'd joked that he looked like someone should hit his reset button. His lack of response must have started her worrying.

Not long after, she comes to sit beside him and, in fits and starts, he gets out the essential parts of the story. 

"You're sure that's who sent it?"

"Pretty sure."

"How over is that part of your life?"

Just this once, he doesn't bother lying to himself. Nicky's voice is in his ear every morning, and Nicky's touch is a ghost on his skin every time he wants comfort. When he takes himself in hand, in the quiet dark of his bedroom, Nicky's taste is on his tongue. Every date he's been on for twelve years has been because the guy was precisely like Nicky, or deliberately nothing like Nicky at all. 

Fisting his hands in his hair, Joe sighs. "It's not over. It's never been over."

"This one is different, Yusuf." She turns one aristocratic ankle and nudges him in the belly with her big toe. "Why is this one different?"

"My sister could always tell when I was hiding something, so she knew about him before anyone else in the family. They even met once or twice. As much as you can meet someone over a video call, and they got on like you want someone you love to get on with your family. They would tease each other mercilessly. Three years ago, she got married, and even though I hadn't heard from him in years, even though I'd moved on and dated other people, when I saw her come up that aisle, I wanted him beside me so badly I could smell his skin." Joe drops his head back against the couch cushion. "He's not different from all the others. All the others are different from him."

"Oh." She gives him a minute to see if he has more to say. He doesn't. "Do you want to talk to him again?" Terror and hope are warring in his heart, and Joe wonders if it shows on his face. Whatever she sees there, Quynh takes his phone with one hand and puts the other on his knee. She checks the time stamp on Nicky's message. 

"You've been sitting here for an hour, and that means he's gone five hours without a reply. Send him something. It'll answer any doubt you might have about whether it's him, and it'll ease any worry he might have."

From Joe: Nicky?

"Now what?"

Quynh squeezes his knee. "Now you come help me with the dishes."

Before Joe has the first plate dried, there's buzzing in his pocket.  

From We Don't Call This One: Hi

This time the picture he's attached is a single olive branch. Joe might have spent hours going round and round about what Nicky's word choices meant, but this picture's meaning is unmistakable. He takes a second to think about what to send in reply.

From Joe: Hi to you too

Below that, he's added a picture of a peace lily. While he waits for an answer, Joe updates the name for Nicky's contact. It takes only a second or two, but it shifts something in the ground beneath Joe's feet. 

Nicky's reply is a picture of a purple flower. Squinting, Joe can see that in reality, it's a bundle of smaller flowers all on one stalk. Two minutes on Google tells him it's a hyacinth. Because he knows that Nicky didn't pick this flower just because it's pretty, because he knows Nicky understood the meaning behind Joe's choice, he digs a little deeper. 

Sorrow. Purple hyacinths mean sorrow and regret.

Little wisps of hope are pushing in through the cracks in his heart, filling his throat and making it hard to breathe. 

Joe sends back a white tulip. Forgiveness, apology, a fresh start.

From Nicky: Remember, Joe, no one wins an arms race, not even an arboreal one 

Dropping his head into his hands, Joe finds himself weeping. He cries until he laughs. It's a little hysterical, true, but it feels like he can breathe again, and he's giddy with it.

He knows how he wants to reply but still spends a full minute second-guessing himself before coming to his senses. One of the things Joe loved best about their relationship was that Nicky *got* him. Stupid jokes always landed, and Nicky made him feel like his instincts were right. Trusting his instincts is why Joe's got a novel on the bestseller list.

From Joe: You're right, we should nip this in the bud

(Somewhere in England, Nicky chokes on his water and then laughs until he cries.)

Two exchanges later, Joe apologizes that he's about to be going offline. 

From Joe: I have an interview with some magazine in America tonight and an early meeting with my publishers. I feel like we have more to talk about

They exchange email addresses—Nicky's is clearly his personal address, as his username is an extremely nerdy space joke—and say goodnight. 

Joe looks up to see Quynh in the doorway, the dish towel slung over her shoulder and a fond look on her face. "You're taking some of these leftovers with you."

"I can do that."

As he helps her finish the clean-up, he watches the steam from the wash water condense on the window and run down, leaving little trails. 

And just like that, Joe's not in his house anymore. He's thinking about that sweltering night they'd splurged on a private room in Seville. Nicky standing at the foot of the bed, with Joe's back tucked up against his chest. One arm splayed over the center of Joe's ribs, pulling their bodies together. The way Joe's knees were spread on the bed, the curve of his hip and ass rocked back to take more of Nicky's cock. He hissed at the sting when Nicky's other hand curled and gripped tighter, leaving deep fingernail crescents in his hip. 

After what seemed like hours, days, Nicky shifted, changing the angle and leaning back.

"I can see myself pushing into you. It's beautiful. Does that sound strange? Look how tight you're stretched around me, look how your hips tilt back, chasing me as I pull out, hungry to keep me with you. Your back." The hand at Joe's hip moved to stroke down his spine. "The muscles are so tight, you're holding yourself so still." He clutched Joe's hip again and shifted the other hand to curl around the front of Joe's neck. One broad hand cupped his jaw and tilted his head back for a slick, filthy kiss.

"I love you so much," Nicky said, and Joe grinned against his mouth. 

"Do you love me this much when your cock isn't buried inside me?" Nicky's teeth sunk into Joe's neck at the exact moment his hand slid over Joe's mouth, trapping the shouted curse. 

"Right now, I love you more than I ever have. In half an hour, I will love you even more. That's how it always is with you, and it will be true whether your tight little hole is clenched around me or not." 

Joe gasped in a breath as Nicky's hand slipped under Joe's arm and snaked around his chest to drag over one tight nipple.

When Nicky's forehead pressed against the back of Joe's neck, it felt like the spot where they met was melting in the heat. His hair tickled Joe's neck, hot breath ghosted across Joe's skin, and sweat dripped from Nicky's nose and ran down Joe's back. It was a dark molasses moment, sweet and slow, and Joe could feel his own pulse where he was stretched around Nicky. He was foam on the ocean, borne along by the endless rolling waves as Nicky fucked into him.

Part of him wanted Nicky to slow almost to a stop, to let Joe stay inside him, keeping his cock hot and hard for hours while Nicky's hips hitched forward from time to time and his words dripped into Joe's ear. When Nicky's teeth sank into the meat of Joe's shoulder, his body decided for him. He could feel himself throb against Nicky's grip, and then, seconds later, he felt Nicky follow him over the edge.

After, it felt like they kissed for hours, and though it had almost been too hot to sleep, they'd woken up pressed as tightly together as two lovers could get.

This isn't Seville. Joe isn't that man anymore, and neither is Nicky. But is it too much to hope that there might be a chance to get to know each other again? Joe's never wanted anything more; not his first book deal, not his debut in the top ten, not even that first kiss with Nicky. 

Andy thrusts his leftovers into his hand. "Take that expression home and figure out how you want to deal with this. We'll be here to listen when you're ready."

"I love you both."

She smiles at him, and her expression is one of deep, sincere affection. He's like a little brother to her and has been since the second they met. "Go away so I can have sex with my wife."

Laughing, he kisses her on the cheek before leaving.

 


 

It seems like they do things almost in reverse. 

The first round of emails is close, familiar. Joe talks about the emotional rollercoaster of writing for money. He talks about his mother, and how he worries about the way she’s forgetting things more and more. Nicky talks about his father's cancer, about how it was both sudden and endless at the same time. He doesn't say that every time he took his father to chemotherapy sessions, he'd spend at least five minutes hiding in a bathroom stall, weeping around his fist and wishing like fuck he could call Joe.

After that, they back off a little. Nicky gripes about his boss but sings Nile's praises; Joe talks about finding Quynh, the perfect agent for him, and how she and Andy took him under their wing. He talks about his brilliant nieces who can do no wrong in his eyes.

By the third email, Nicky is griping about his commute while Joe compares the quality of outdoor markets in his town to the one where Andy and Quynh live. 

At the end of one email he sends, Joe mentions that he's glad Nicky reached out, joking that Nicky must have been going through boxes and found some piece of paper Joe wrote his number on.  

Nicky stares at it before quickly responding, "Something like that!" 

 

Two days later, in the middle of editing the monthly program calendar, Nicky's shoulders sag, and he spews forth the kind of profanity string that goes past offending people and simply leaves them in awe.

"I've worked with you long enough to know those are not good words. What happened?"

How can he put this? Well, Nile. I just realised that two days ago I missed the perfect opening. I should have corrected him, should have said that I didn't just find his number again. That was when I should have said, 'I've wanted to reach out for years. I missed you. I never forgot. You ruined baklava for me. You ruined dating for me. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.'

"There was something I meant to do but didn't."

Her eyebrows go up. She may not understand each word, but the sheer length of Nicky's profane screed in no way matches up with his excuse. His plea for mercy must show on his face, and she must be feeling kind. 

"Is it too late to go back and do it now?"

Even in her mercy, Nile doesn't let him off easily. They're just words; he can say them at any time, with or without the perfect set-up. He likes how things are now, though. Having Joe in his life again makes Nicky so happy that Nile had to tell him to knock it off because his smiles were scaring the school group chaperones.

Is it worth risking this happy friendship to try having the conversation now? Of course it is, but even the idea of broaching the subject over email gives Nicky cold chills. 

"I don't know."

"Is this about that guy?" Nicky nods. "You'll figure it out."

"You sound very sure of yourself."

"I have faith in you," she says in a tone that indicates at some point she'll just take the decision out of his hands.

He wants to see Joe's face when they talk about this because otherwise, he'll second-guess his words with every unexpected silence. Whether it's by video call or in-person—and oh, his stomach flips at the idea of seeing Joe in person again—it'll wait until Nicky can see Joe's reaction.

"If it makes you feel better, he's probably somewhere worrying about this exact thing."

Nicky frowns. Surely not.

(He is. In Joe's case, he's decided to wait until he can find the perfect words. He's supposed to be good with words.)

 

When Nicky's phone buzzes that night, he's halfway through his soup, enjoying a quiet evening. 

From Joe: First leg of the tour starts tomorrow. I waited too long to pack.

The picture shows a mound of clothing, with the handle of a suitcase poking out from the bottom. 

From Nicky: I thought you said this was mainly EU stops?

From Joe: It is.

From Nicky: Then why are you packing for a three-year polar expedition? 

From Joe: You're right. I'll leave one of the jackets at home.

Nicky's happiness pushes at the inside of his skin, stretching him like it's too much for his body to hold. 

From Nicky: What's your first stop?

From Joe: Budapest.

This is the moment Nicky realises things aren't as easy between them as they're pretending. He wants to ask if Joe’s been there before, but that will only throw a spotlight on why Joe hadn’t gotten to go the first time he’d planned it. Why he missed that stop on his backpacking trip. They're not shy about saying they're happy to be talking again, but neither of them has even hinted at what they used to be.

What would he even say? He lets the moment go, watches it slip away while he settles for something safe.

From Nicky: Where will you go after that?

It doesn't leave him, though. Until he goes to sleep, their first night plays in Nicky's head like a looping film.

Joe had been sitting in the hostel's common room when Nicky came through the door, his friend Angela mostly draped over him. She'd slurred a greeting at Joe, waving so hard she smacked Nicky in the face. 

"He's cute," she said.

"Yes, he is, and he will be just as cute tomorrow when you are sober."

"I won't be any more straight, though." This vision of dimples and curls and sinfully beautiful hands had winked at Nicky, and he'd almost dropped Angela on the floor.

Once he had her tucked into bed with a bottle of water, Nicky considered finding his way to his room, his pillow, but found himself in the common room instead. The empty common room. No cute guy with big brown eyes, not even the TV left on.

He sighed. Wine. This was a moment that called for wine. 

Pushing the kitchen door open, Nicky nearly collided with the cute guy and the enormous steaming mug in his left hand. 

"Woah! Careful."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. I almost spilled your tea."

"Your tea."

"What?"

The guy smiled—Nicky had in no way been prepared to see that smile up close—and held out the mug. "It's your tea. You didn't look like you were going back out, and someone who cuts his evening short to make sure his friend makes it home safe deserves tea at the very least."

Stunned, Nicky took the mug from him, the steam wafting its way into his nose. "Mint?"

"Yes." The curls bobbed as he nodded, and that was just really not playing fair. "My father drinks this brand, so it reminds me of home. Also, no caffeine." Sinking into the comfiest couch in the room, the guy patted the cushion next to him. "So, designated driver?"

Nicky sipped at his tea. "No one drove. I am the designated dignity, I suppose." 

"You keep your friends from going home with someone they'll regret?"

"I am particularly good at making sure they don't call their exes."

"Is she your girlfriend?"

"No." Nicky'd been training for this. He'd spent the entire trip getting more and more comfortable saying the words. "I do boyfriends, not girlfriends."

The man's sinful mouth had curled into a smile that made heat pool in Nicky's belly. "That's the best news I've heard all day." He'd wiped his palms on his jeans like he had any reason at all to be nervous, like he wasn't the most gorgeous person Nicky'd ever seen in the flesh. "I'm Joe."

"I'm Nicky. Thank you for the tea, Joe."

"You're very welcome, Nicky." His name in that mouth sent a shudder down Nicky's spine. 

They talked for hours, never moving from that spot on the couch. 

Nicky's friends came barreling in at some point, asking after Angela and casting entirely unsubtle glances toward Joe. 

"She's in bed," he told them. "Where you should be."

The girls had wandered off, but one of the guys hung back, looking Joe up and down. "Are you sure, Nico? I could—"

"Massimo," Nicky said, hoping Massimo was sober enough to hear the unspoken 'I will stab you in the kidney.'

"Right. In that case. Good night, then."

When Massimo's footsteps were nothing more than an echo, Joe said, "Travel buddies getting on your nerves?"

Nicky scrubbed at his face. "It's so much worse than that. He's my cousin."

For an hour, they talked about the people they were traveling with and the personalities involved. They discussed who the peacemakers were, the comic relief, the lovable disasters.

When Joe's friends came in just after two, most of them walked straight past the common room, deeply engaged in a spirited discussion about football. One of the men, a round-cheeked boy around Joe's age, spoke to him before leaving. 

"You going to be ready in the morning," he asked, his voice heavy with the sounds of Glasgow.

Joe nodded. "Sure thing, Ty."

Ty's smile pushed the apples of his cheeks up his face, nearly forcing his eyes closed. "Okay, I'll see you then." He waved at Nicky. "Good night."

For a second, the voices from the kitchen got louder as Ty pushed the door open, but as soon as it swung shut, the two of them were alone again in this space they'd created around themselves.

"Where are you going in the morning?" 

Joe looked up at the ceiling, flipping through some mental calendar. "Budapest, I think. Yes. Budapest."

Nicky could have let the moment go, but instead, he thought, 'I didn't send Massimo packing so I could not at least try.'

"That's a shame."

Joe turns to him. "Why?"

"I was hoping I'd get to kiss you."

"Can I tell you something, Nicky?" At Nicky's nod, Joe leaned forward, the following words barely above a conspiratorial whisper. "That train's not leaving for hours. There is no way I'm spending those hours with anyone but you, and there's no way I'm spending those hours with you and not kissing you."

Joe opened his mouth to say something else, but Nicky's kiss swallowed the words.

When it was still nothing but a press of mouth against mouth, Nicky felt Joe's fingers toying with the hair behind his ear, cupping his face. He sighed into Joe's mouth, sagging against him and resting one palm against Joe's neck.

For the second their mouths touched, Nicky heard nothing but his heartbeat and the whisper of Joe's breath, the quiet little sigh of pleasure when Nicky's thumb brushed under his ear. By the time they separated, they were both smiling, leaving short little kisses in their wake. 

"So?" Joe's eyebrows went up in question, their foreheads resting together. 

For years, Nicky would wonder if things might have been different if he'd opened his mouth and said the first thing that came to mind. If he'd looked at Joe and said, "I never want to have another first kiss," would they still have gone their separate ways just over a year later? It hardly mattered because Nicky said the second thing that came to mind instead.

"We're good at that."

"Want to get better?"

Nicky laughed and tugged at Joe's neck with one hand and his shirt with the other. With every bit of grace he could muster, Joe straddled Nicky's lap, bending to kiss him again and again. 

Joe buried his nose in the hair behind Nicky's ear, kissing the skin of his neck. "Nicky."

"Mm?" Nicky hooked one finger in the neck of Joe's t-shirt, pulled it lower, and then sucked a kiss just below his collarbone. 

With his fingers curled in Nicky's hair, Joe brought their mouths back together. The kiss got filthy fast. "Nicky." Ducking forward, Nicky kissed him again. "Nicky, listen."

Nicky sucked at Joe's lower lip. "I'm listening."

Joe's groan rumbled against Nicky's chest as his mouth slanted over Nicky's. "I need to say something." Again, he licked the seam of Nicky's mouth, and Nicky wondered if Joe tasted the mint on his tongue.

"Then say it."

Joe put his hand on Nicky's chest, his palm just over Nicky's heart, and pushed himself backward. "Okay. Wait. I can't—I can't think when you're—"

Surging up, Nicky tried to nip at Joe's chin but felt Joe's fingers in his hair again, tugging him back. Nicky blinked up at him, wide-eyed. 

"I can feel how hard you are under me, and I want to taste that so much my mouth is watering, but if we do that in here, someone will interrupt us. Let's take this somewhere else." Nicky stared up at him with the sad, woeful eyes of a cartoon woodland creature, but Joe knew he was right. "I'd rather not spend the next two hours thinking about who might come through the door. Not when my other option is riding you until you cry."

There were six beds, but only two occupants in Joe's room, and the other one was his friend Anton. "Who texted me earlier to say he wouldn't be back tonight." As soon as Joe finished wedging the toe of his hiking boot under the door, Nicky crowded him against the wall and kissed him breathless. 

Rather sensibly, they chose to undress themselves rather than fumble about trying to deal with each other's clothing, but when Nicky went to push his underwear down, Joe's fingers circled his wrist. 

"Let me," he breathed. 

"Yes. Please." He kissed Joe again. "Hurry. I want to get to the part where you ride me until I cry."

Joe pulled the waistband out, then down, shucking the last of Nicky's clothing down his legs. His hand circled Nicky's shaft. "Oh. Hello. I've changed my mind."

"Joooooe."

He stroked down, pulling at the skin to expose the slick, pink head of Nicky's cock. "I'm going to suck you until you cry instead." Joe's tongue lashed out, licking at the moisture beading up in Nicky's slit.

Nicky hadn't cried. A whimper, he insisted, is not the same as crying. He'd been incoherent by the time Joe finally took mercy on him, babbling in a mixture of Italian, German, and English.

When Joe pulled off with an obscene pop, leaving Nicky's cock jerking in the cool early-morning air, still hard, still weeping, he looked up at Nicky, and for a second, Nicky forgot to breathe.

"Don't come yet, please. I need to feel you fucking me."

Sobbing, Nicky had curled over enough to hold Joe's face in his hands and kiss the crown of his head. "Just tell me how."

'How' turned out to be Joe face-down into his pillow, moaning uncontrollably as Nicky's lube slick cock fucked into the juncture of his thighs. When Joe crossed his legs at the ankle, tightening his grip, Nicky dropped his forehead between Joe's shoulder blades and held perfectly still for almost a minute.

"Nicky?"

"Shh. Don't. Don't move." He kissed the salty sweat skin of Joe's back, waiting for his climax to back down. "Okay."

"Ready?"

"Yes." 

Joe bent his elbows, bringing his hands level with his shoulders, and Nicky took the cue to lace their fingers together, using his grip on Joe's hands as part of his leverage for each thrust. He could feel the delicious scrape of Joe's hair over his skin, could feel the seam of Joe's balls drag across his cock, could even see the way Joe's eyes clenched shut a little harder at the bottom of each thrust, at the point where his cock dragged against the sheets.

"Do you want—"

"If you change a single thing about what you're doing, I'll never forgive you."

Nicky had always been a man who appreciated clear, direct feedback. "Can you come like this?"

"I think so."

Vowing to make sure that happened, Nicky fucked his way into the humid perfection of Joe's body. He might have made it, too, except that not long after, Joe sighed, the most peaceful expression on his face, and said, "Nicky. Nicky, you're making me feel so good. When you're ready to come, I want to feel you paint me with it."

The mental picture, the perfect reality of that visual, the way Joe's ass would dimple and flex as he fucked himself into the bed, covered in Nicky's come, was more than Nicky could take. Pulling back, he knelt up, fisting himself, taking in the curve of Joe's back and the heat in his eyes. Sobbing quietly, Nicky felt his cock pulse and saw the ribbons of his come spattering against Joe's skin.

Panting, gulping in air, Nicky reached out with his left hand, using two fingers to smear his mess over the curves of Joe's ass and thighs. "You look perfect like this."

"How about like this?" Joe pushed himself up and over, sprawling on his back under Nicky's gaze. He pushed his palm down his cock, his face going slack. "I need to come, Nicky. Help me."

"How?"

Joe's thumb dragged over Nicky's lower lip. "Your mouth."

He must have been nearly there when Nicky came, because it took only a few deep sucking pulls before Joe shoved his fist in his mouth, gripped the top of Nicky's head, and throbbed against Nicky's tongue, pumping his hips in tiny pulses as he spilled in Nicky's mouth. 

Nicky spent his afterglow kissing every part of Joe he could reach. Soft, grateful kisses on his softening cock and his heavy balls. Peppered kisses covering his belly. Sucking kisses to each nipple, gentled with the swipe of his tongue after. When he finally nosed at the underside of Joe's jaw, he felt like he .was made of pleasure, made of the electric brush of their skin when they touched.

He nipped at the curve of Joe's chin. "I have an idea."

Joe's hand pushed into his hair, his fingers carded through it as he hummed and sighed. "Oh?"

"Hear me out." Nicky kissed the curve of Joe's neck where it met his shoulder. "What if you didn't go to Budapest?"

Just when Nicky started to worry about the lack of response, Joe asked, "What would I do instead?"

"I think with a few days of practice, we could become experts at this."

"If we get any better at this, I'm going to pass out." He could hear the laugh in Joe's voice, and it made Nicky's toes curl.

Propping his elbows on Joe's chest, Nicky looked down into his eyes. "Then we'll do what we were going to do anyway. Travel. See new places. Joe, the only thing better than exploring would be doing it next to you. I want to see what this world looks like when I see it with you." He looked away. "I know that's probably too much—"

"Nicky," Joe breathed, cupping Nicky's face. "How's this for 'too much?' I don't want to be anywhere except right where you are."

They were promises made by young men, sealed with kisses, and witnessed only by the first rays of dawn sliding over the windowsill. For more than a year, anything seemed possible.

Now they know better, they know that even the most effortless relationships need work, and they know how quickly it can all disappear.

That night is still running through his head when Nicky crawls into bed, and when he wakes in the morning, he can taste the ghosts of mint tea and Joe's skin.

 


 

Any other year, the trip to Budapest would have felt to Joe like closing a door. As if finally getting to the place where he was heading when he met Nicky meant that part of his life was well and truly over. Strangely, he'd almost been looking forward to it for just that reason; he’d thought maybe it would give him what he needed to finally, truly, move on. 

In the wake of the rekindling of their friendship, Budapest had just felt strange. It felt like a place he shouldn't be and also have Nicky sending text messages. 

The point is, it's nice to be home. It’s nice to see his little garden, nice to have Friday dinner to look forward to, a chance to hug his parents and spoil his nieces. They seem to have gotten his love for exploring, so he never fails to bring them back something from each new city he visits. After his last book tour, his sister made him promise to stick to small presents in the future. This time he’s stuck to piles of postcards. On the back of each one, he’s scribbled three or four lines of a story about a day the girls would spend in that place.

You'd think a man so glad to be back in his own house would have better ways to spend the afternoon than poking at his memories like a sore tooth. With his elbows propped on his kitchen table, Joe is swiping through his pictures from the last month he'd been traveling with Nicky. 

Each shot is a pressed-flower memory of a perfect moment. Nicky on a picnic blanket, drowsing in the sun. Nicky bent over Joe, mercilessly tickling him. Nicky, eyes closed, kissing Joe's temple. Nicky curled up like a pretzel in a laughably small train seat, so uncomfortable he's frowning in his sleep. 

Joe's looked at these a handful of times since their last call. He allows himself one pass through them each year, usually near the anniversary of the fight. Some years, he'd go through them like this, lazy swipes and a fond smile. Other years he'd race through them, half-angry, as though he were punishing himself with these grins. (There were years he couldn't even consider looking at them, but he doesn't like to think about those years.)

He never looks at the video. Since his last viewing, the month before their big fight, Joe's never even kept his eyes open as he scrolled past it. 

Just this once, he thinks. Just to remember how Nicky's voice sounds. As if he could ever forget.

The video starts with Nicky's face way too close to the camera. "Hello. You came back from the bathroom and fell asleep with your phone unlocked, so I'm taking advantage of that. See, there you are." On the screen, Nicky screen pulls the phone away and points over his shoulder to where Joe is snoring in the bunk behind him. "Someone told me once that saying 'I love you' too often made it less special. I always thought that was bullshit, and I am very glad you feel the same. We say it every day, but it still feels special whenever I hear it." 

Reaching behind him, On-Screen Nicky rests his hand on Joe's ankle. "There is something I don't say every day, though, and I wanted to say it now. Are you listening?" As he always has, every time he watches this, Joe leans forward. "You are the love of my life, Joe. My world is better in every way because I start each day being loved by the most incredible man I've ever met."

In the background of the video, Joe shifts in his sleep and reaches out for Nicky, who turns back to the camera and grins. "I can't resist you when you do that. I love you."

The video ends with Nicky pressing a kiss to his index finger and touching the screen. 

Alone at his kitchen table, Joe stares out the window. Back then, he'd known what he and Nicky had was special, but if he had any inkling of how special, how rare, he'd never have let Nicky get on that last train. He'd certainly never have given up after one fight. At the time, he had some ridiculous notion that long, drawn-out discussions about how to compromise and who was and wasn't a good listener would somehow soil the memory of those perfect, effortless months. Their love had been easy once, and he didn't want to ruin that memory by making it mundane.

There is no asshole quite like the asshole you can be at twenty-four when the world has already handed you the other half of your soul.

On Monday, Quynh emails him the proposed list of cities for the second leg of his tour. 

In a fit of confidence, Joe sends Nicky a text.

From Joe: I've got another round of signings coming up. If you're interested, maybe we could have lunch if there's a stop near you.

In the two seconds after he hits "Send," Joe's heart starts racing, and he has to put his phone down and walk to the end of the lane and back.

From Nicky: I'd like that.

A quiet surge of happiness runs up Joe's spine. He forwards Nicky the list of cities and dates, and Nicky replies with a 'Thank you.'

Joe feels a bit like a cartoon character who finds themselves suddenly out past the edge of a cliff.  How is he supposed to interpret 'Thank you,' anyway? Is that 'Thank you for letting me know, I'll get back to you with the best options?' Or is it 'Thank you, but let's never mention this again,' and what kind of response does that even warrant?

In the end, he decides to make the suggestion himself, which means finding out where Nicky is.  Some stubborn, irrational part of Joe thinks the window for asking that kind of question has long-since closed. Instead, he waits and listens. 

 

For two weeks, every time Nicky mentions the weather, Joe checks for cities matching that pattern. He tries to pick up every context clue he can, going as far as asking Andy and Quynh for their thoughts.  Somewhere around the fifth time, Joe idly suggests a possible city to them only to get exasperated looks in return. He drops his head back and stares at the ceiling. 

"It shouldn't be so hard."

"You're right," Andy says. "And it wouldn't be, except you two"—she gestures back and forth between Joe and his phone—"are dumbasses." She plucks his phone from the table, takes less than fifteen seconds to type and send a message, then drops the phone into his lap.

From Joe: I realise I never asked where you're living these days, and I don't want to assume. Which stop on that list is closest to you?

Joe frowns at it, then up at Andy. "Some friends are nice to each other."

She flicks through the fruit plate until she finds a blackberry. "Not if one of those friends is being an idiot."

"You could at least pretend sometimes."

Andy licks a little bit of purple juice off her thumb. "Ugh. Too much work."

It's another Sunday brunch. Another afternoon with Andy and Quynh. Speaking of—

Sinking into the cushions next to him, Quynh takes his phone and puts it on the side table behind her, resting her feet in Joe's lap. She's too clever for her own good. He can't see the phone, which means he can't stare at it, pretending like he's not waiting for an answer. 

"I don't want to make it sound like my life hasn't been good without him; it's been incredible. I’ve studied and trained and learned everything I could get my hands on as part of my writing. I have incredible friends”—Quynh blows him a kiss—“and I get to watch Lina and Sonia grow up. I can take them to the park every day for a week if I want, because my work lets me and I’m close enough. I get paid to do this thing that I love, and then travel the world and tell people stories. I've achieved my wildest dreams. It's not even that those achievements would have been better with him by my side because I don't know that. I'll never know, so it's pointless to consider. He hasn't been this great hole in my life for a decade. It's more—" Joe scrubs his hand over his mouth, scratching his beard. 

"Lately, I just realise that it's more that the person I am, the one who achieved those things, exists in part because of him." He leans forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "Loving him—We sometimes say that our love for something is 'all-consuming,' but I never knew that in truth. Not until I met him. Loving him consumed me. I don't mean some pleasant, tame version of the word, no. 'Consumed' like flames of him licked at the inside of me and burned away everything except the way it felt to wake up in his arms. 'Consumed' like I had a void inside me that wanted more and more and more of him. Who I am now is because I loved him, and he loved me."

"Like you were someone new," Quynh said. "Like green shoots in a forest taken by fire."

Realizing he's trapped her ankles against him, Joe sits back. "You read too many bad novels." She grins at him. "But, yes. Exactly. I couldn't see it at the time, but every day without him in my life has made it more and more clear.  When I started writing this last book, I thought I could write our happy ending and put it into the world. I thought I'd see it on paper and make it look exactly the way I wanted, and then maybe I could start looking for the happy ending just for me." 

"I'm afraid you've miscalculated, my friend."

Joe's laugh is more of an indignant snort. "I know. I tried to put our ending out there to be done with him, and all it did was bring him back."

"What do you want from him this time?"

Nothing. Everything. To have Nicky by his side. To say goodbye once and for all and never again want Nicky by his side.

"I'm still figuring that out."

Behind Quynh's shoulder, Joe's phone rattles against the tabletop. He catches the phone when she tosses it and unlocks the screen.

From Nicky: The fourth stop is only ten minutes from where I work. If you're interested, I know a good place for a late lunch or early dinner.

From Joe: I would like that very much. I'll let my agent's team know so they can make sure some time is blocked off on that day.

The instant he hits 'Send,' Joe realises how pretentious that looks. It's too late to pull the message back, but he can at least give Nicky the unpretentious version.

From Joe: This is a fancy way of saying that I'll tell my best friend because she makes sure I don't forget to put things in my calendar.

"What's the fourth stop on the list?"

Andy's voice comes in from the kitchen. "One second." He can hear her flipping through a pile of papers. "Bristol."

What is Nicky doing in Bristol?

He'd been between degree programs at Sapienza University of Rome, and Joe thought he planned to stay in Italy after graduating. Then again, it wasn't something they'd spoken about with any detail. They'd spun themselves stories about where they would travel on their holidays and where they might retire, but where they'd be in their day-to-day lives hadn't come up nearly as often as it should have. In the end, that had been the biggest symptom of the problems that ended their relationship.

True, Joe had never made the call to say, "This is over," and neither had Nicky, but he's not young or foolish enough to think that means anything, really. It's not as though that minor technicality means they're still together after ten years of no contact at all. Has it been ten years, or is it longer?  

He should be over this by now, but the minute Joe thinks about the date for their last call, ice runs through his veins. It's officially twelve years now; the anniversary was last week. Their texts from that day are so ordinary. Nicky talking about his co-worker and how sometimes he hates working with kids as much as he loves it, Joe talking about how he's stuck on a tiny plot point for a short story he's been working on, but he thinks a walk might help. What would that conversation have looked like if either of them had remembered? It's not the kind of thing they make greeting cards for.

"Happy Heartbreak Anniversary! Wishing you the best on this day when it all fell apart for us."

It's better that neither of them remembered, that they've been able to live in the way they are with each other now, rather than mourning who they used to be. If things keep up like this, who knows what they might be to each other this time next year? 

He imagines Nicky in this room with him. Nicky on that couch, reading the afternoon light. Nicky cooking, humming quietly. This idealistic fantasizing gets them nowhere; they've proven that, but Joe has to physically wrest himself away from the daydreams by shaking his head until it's clear. The reality is that as much as he would miss his family, as much as he would wear out every bit of travel space between England and home, of the two of them, Joe is the one with the portable skill set. He doesn't know a damn thing about Bristol, but if Nicky—

This kind of daydreaming isn't any better. Plans that involve both of them should be made together, and he's not even sure if Nicky's interested in more than this friendship they have now. Wait. Breathe. They'll see each other soon enough, and they can ask some of these questions in person.

(Knowing he's doing it, thinking of it as a treat, Joe lets himself have one full minute to think about Nicky puttering around in the morning, shaving and brushing his teeth, and just existing in a space where Joe gets to reach out and touch him. In the end, he's not sure whether that minute helped or hurt.)

 


 

Nicky has invested time and energy over the last decade into being a man who could adjust, compromise, learn to live in the world as it exists instead of railing against it or demanding to be met half-way. He's buried his nose in philosophy books and practiced patience and mindful thinking, which is why he's particularly infuriated by how anxious he is about Joe's visit. 

It's two months away, and in the meantime, he and Joe have their regular conversations over text and email.  

"You going to tell me why you're all wound up?"

"I am not all wound up."

"Nicky, you've sharpened that pencil eight times." The silence stretches out as he refuses to acknowledge her comment. "We don't even use pencils here most of the time."

She lets him get away with it that time, but a week later, she blocks the door to the office and tells him for the amount of sighing and fretting she's put up with in the last five days, she deserves at least half the story. 

Nicky tells her about their meeting and how they came to be traveling together. With a soft smile, he tells her about some of their favorite places. When he gets to the end, he gives her the vaguest description of the argument and how things ended. 

She stares at him over her lunch. "That was about half the story, wasn't it?"

Nicky raises one eyebrow, and Nile just rolls her eyes. 

 

With just under three weeks to go before they're due to be in the same city, Joe starts the day's messages by sending, "Settling in for a hard day's work!" He attaches a picture of his desk. 

It couldn't look less like Nicky's workspace if it tried. It's perfectly tranquil. The desk is clean without looking fussy or bare, the books piled on either side look like they're there for reasons other than making him look smart, and the view beyond the window is a container garden with wildflowers spilling everywhere. 

There's a steaming mug just to the side of the laptop, and Nicky thinks about mint tea and the taste of their first kiss.

The area around Nicky is utter chaos. They're working on a new project, and the planning, paperwork, and mockups have left their office looking like an excited toddler ran headlong into a busy accountant's office with a fistful of art supplies in either hand.

It takes him a couple of minutes to get the ideal framing. He wants the most chaos he can get, and he finally finds an angle that lets him include the teetering pile of take-away containers they amassed the day before.

The message he sends with the picture says only, "Us too!

An hour later, Joe must be coming up for air and some more tea. Nicky's phone vibrates, and Joe's reply is just an incredibly shocked emoji. 

"What are you laughing at?"

"It's only someone's reaction to a picture."

"Are you ready to finish the last part of the display notes?"

Nicky holds up his finger but doesn't look up from his screen. "One moment." 

From Nicky: I'm afraid I've found a partner in crime who is just as bad as I am about the chaos. Don't you miss having me around?? 

He tacks a crying, laughing emoji on the end, thinking Joe will remember the way he eventually gave up trying to tame Nicky's sprawl and settled for just corralling it on one side of whatever room they were in. Ah, good, his tea is still warm. Just before he slips his phone into his pocket, it vibrates again. 

From Joe: Yes, I do

What is that even supposed to mean? He keeps trying to find other ways to interpret this; maybe Joe was reading something different into Nicky's joking question.

But then, if Nicky's honest, it wasn't a joke, was it? That line near the end of Joe's author profile still sits in his mind like an unwanted houseguest. It works at him, wears him down, and at least once a day, he wonders if he's just reading into the words. It's almost easier to believe that, to believe Joe was just mysterious with a reporter to build interest in his book, that he doesn't regret the way things ended between them, that he never thinks of Nicky. 

Because the other option is that the future Nicky's mourned for a dozen years might still be within reach. That possibility shakes him. It leaves hysterical laughter trapped in his throat, pushing to get out, shouldering into the choking disbelief that such a chance might ever come his way again. 

"Nicky?"

"Later."

"You sure?"

He's sure. There's a right way to go about this, a right next step to take, but Nicky's not going to figure it out while Nile is staring at him, and they're under a looming deadline.

"We should finish the design work."

Still, after that, things are different. Possibility crackles in the air like electricity, charging ordinary conversations in a way they hadn't been before. 

 

A week later, well after they would usually have gone home, Nicky and Nile are putting the finishing touches on their project and trying to clean up the workspace. She's feeding page after page into a shredder; Nicky is rooting under his desk for a Sharpie cap.

"We should—"

"If you're about to say that we should start planning earlier next time, so we don't end up rushed and disorganized, I will put your lunch through this shredder."

"That will ruin the shredder."

She lifts a shoulder in a casual shrug. "Might be worth it." Nicky passes her another handful of pages. "Thank you. Besides, show me one person who makes great things with a clean desk."

Thrusting the phone under her nose, Nicky wiggles it to get the picture oriented the right way.

"That's where Joe works."

"Very tranquil," Nile deadpans. "I like his view, though. And that print is amazing."

Print? Nicky zooms in on the picture Joe's got hanging just to the right of the picture window. He's looked at this at least a dozen times, but this is the first time he's ever noticed this detail. 

The next time Nicky goes to take a breath, there's no air in the room.

It could be any ordinary tourist shot, looking down the length of a fortified city wall, but Nicky knows better. He knows that if the photographer were one step to the left, he'd be able to see a nook in the wall, a place large enough for a cannon, perhaps, or for someone on night watch to stop and rest his feet for a minute or two.

It's also large enough for two grown men to lay side by side, listening to the ocean on the other side of the wall,  battering away at the rock as it has since before the city was built, as it will long after these stones crumble away.  When the sun starts to rise, and the stars they've been looking at fade from the sky, those two men might walk home together, and for a day or two, until they wash them, their shirts might smell of that night.

Like the one stuffed in the back of Nicky's bottom drawer had. Salt and stone and Joe.

If Nicky had been looking for proof, this is as close as he's going to get. He'd known, logically, that the time meant something to both of them. It was a year of their lives, after all. It's nice, though, to have proof that it's lived not just in Joe's head, in his memories, but in his heart a little as well. 

That's something Joe looks at every day. Does he see that nook in the wall and think, "That's where Nicky first said he loved me," or is it just another memory of a pretty place he's been? No. If it were just another pretty place, he'd have a professional shot. This one seems more like an amateur got lucky with some good framing and some great light. 

Joe took that picture. Nicky knows that in his bones. This means that however much it hurt them both, Joe had enough good memories to want to go back. When Joe thinks back on that year, not every part of it was so painful to look at that he locked it all away.

From Nicky: I was showing Nile your office, and she pointed out the picture. I'd missed it until just now. Is it the same spot?

From Joe:  It is; good eye!

From Nicky: When did you get back there?

From Joe:  A few years ago, 4 maybe or 5

Taking a deep breath, Nicky decides to lean over the edge, just to see how far the fall will be if this goes wrong.

From Nicky: It looks just like I remember it

From Joe: I worried it might have changed, that I wouldn't recognize it or be able to find it, but once I saw it, I knew. And the feeling was the same

There's a thin shred of plausible deniability in place for either of them, just to save face, but Nicky knows they're not talking about the picture anymore. Not really.

From Nicky: I'd have worried about not finding it there at all. About there not being any place to go back to

From Joe: Me too. I'm glad we were both wrong

From over Nicky's shoulder comes a disgusted snort. Whipping his head around, he's just in time to see Nile roll her eyes. 

"I was going to offer to order dinner, but I'm not rewarding you for being that big a dumbass."

Nicky tries for confused but lands somewhere near 'offended.' "Nile, I don't understand what you are talking about."

"Listen, as you keep reminding me, I'm young, so maybe I'm not familiar with all the rules, but is there some over-thirty thing where you're not allowed just to say what you're thinking? "

"It's complicated, Nile."

"I call bullshit. It's not complicated. Unless you were this big a chicken when you first knew him, and you're worried he won't recognize you if you take chances."

He wasn't. When they were together, Joe thought Nicky could do anything, and Nicky thought someone as brilliant as Joe couldn't possibly be wrong. 

"Come on,” he says. “Let us get ready for the school group coming first thing in the morning. If we do it now, we don't have to come in early."

"Are you trying to avoid talking about this?"

"No, Nile. I am trying to remove every obstacle between me and the chance to sit down and concentrate on the message I want to send him."

"Okay," she grins. "Okay, then."

When he comes through the door, he's already thought of what to say. He drops his keys and bag in a heap by the door, then settles into a chair in his front room. 

The picture, the comment in his author profile, the way he'd said he missed Nicky, all of that is enough to convince Nicky that he's not imagining things, so now it's time to be as brave as he learned to be next to Joe. 

According to the clock, it's just past midnight. In the past, Nicky's sent messages to Joe at odd hours of the night, and it's always been the morning before he hears back. Nicky is probably expecting Joe's phone to be on do-not-disturb at this hour. That's for the best because it means Nicky won't be up all night waiting for a reaction from Joe. 

Once written, the message needs a word or two changed, but after that, Nicky is as sure as he can be that the words reflect his feelings.

"There's something I should have said by now, and after talking about that print in your office, I don't want to wait any longer. I joked that you must miss having me around, and you said you did. I miss having you around, too. I miss you. Full stop. Every day for twelve years. I hadn't realised how much until we started talking again. Possibly I'm misinterpreting things, and for you, our time has passed for good. If that's the case, I will respect your decision and be glad to have your friendship again. But if not, if some nights you wake up and can still hear and smell the ocean, can still see the stars above us, and feel the warmth where our shoulders were touching, then you are not alone. I hope there is still a chance for more."

He clicks 'Send' and immediately feels a weight lifted from his shoulders. All the adrenaline starts to fade away, and suddenly he's exhausted. Double-checking the lock, Nicky crawls into bed.

 


 

Usually, yes, Joe puts his phone on do-not-disturb when he turns in and leaves everything to sit until the morning. Usually. Tonight isn't routine. He's been commissioned to write a short story for an upcoming collection, and he hit a wave of productivity just after dinner and decided to ride it until it was gone.

After seeing Nicky's message, the wave is gone. 

Phone cradled in one hand, Joe is staring at the screen. This? This is everything he could have wished for. They'd spent their years apart growing and learning and finding out how remarkable what they had truly was.  

Could Nicky possibly think that Joe wouldn't want this? 

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe can see the picture on the wall. The first night, when they'd been there together, it had been not long after they started traveling together. With their jackets under their heads like pillows, they'd looked up at the stars for hours. Nicky started by telling him the actual constellations, but before long, Joe was making some up, pointing them out to Nicky.

"That one is the heart."

"Why is that one the heart?"

"See? There, there, and there, and you connect them." Joe had pointed to each star, going quiet only when he felt Nicky's hand slide up his arm, one broad palm against his wrist, fingers encircling him. 

"It's interesting you picked that one."

"Oh?"

"Mm. There is a legend about it. They say that most people can't see that constellation."

"It's right there."

"That is the legend. Are you going to let me finish?"

"By all means, Mister Astronomy. Continue."

"The legend is that only those in love can see the heart constellation. And it burns especially bright if they are with the person they love."

Turning, Joe could see Nicky's face silhouetted against the night sky, the shape of his nose, and the curve of his jaw.

"Nicky," he breathed.

At first, only Nicky's eyes cut over to look at Joe, then Nicky rolled his head, so they were facing each other.

"How bright does it look for you?"

Reaching out, Nicky brushed his knuckle over Joe's eyebrow. "I could read by it if I wanted to."

"As could I." 

"You know, don't you? How I feel? These last few weeks, I've felt myself falling more in love with you every day, and I don't want to go a minute more without making sure you know that."

Joe had felt like he wanted to save this moment just as it was, forever. "I will love you all my life," he said. There had been slow, tentative kisses, as though they hadn't scandalized half the hostel by now. 

Sitting at his desk, Joe's arms break out in gooseflesh. This is his Nicky. So often, people wrote him off as being quiet or reserved, but those who sat close enough knew the truth. They could see Nicky's quiet intensity, his dry humor, his devotion. If he thought something was the right thing to do, he had neither fear nor hesitation. 

That's who typed the message Joe is staring at, the one that is everything his broken twenty-four-year-old heart could ever have wished for. 

Why did he ever think anything with Nicky could be half measures? Could they ever have been just friendly? Just acquaintances who saw each other when they were in town?  Perhaps. But it's not where either of them seems to want to be now. Joe may not have the reckless streak he did in his twenties, but when it comes to Nicky, he's never been at a loss for passion. Now, it seems, it's time to make sure Nicky knows that.

From Joe:  I have started every day missing you, and I have ended them all the same way. Even on days when I was busy enough not to think of you directly, the memory of you still burned in me like ice.

This complete lack of ambiguity is what they both deserve, what they should be capable of if they even want to try working on something else. He's sure Nicky feels the same way. He's at least eighty percent sure.

After the first few minutes without an answer, he thinks maybe seventy-five percent is more accurate. Eventually, Nicky saves him from himself.

"I know we said we'd have lunch when you're in town, but I don't mind waiting until after your reading and signing if it means we can have dinner instead. I have something to show you."

Joe has no idea how long he sits there staring at his phone with a lovesick look on his face, gently stroking the side of the case with his thumb. 

From Joe: Nicolò, are you asking me on a date?

He can see Nicky start and stop a reply at least three times, but the message that finally comes through is just what this conversation calls for.

From Nicky: I am

Like biting into a berry, Joe suddenly tastes their first kiss again. He feels the same way now that he did back then, full of promise, nearly giddy with hope.

From Joe: Can we still have lunch, too?

He wants all the time he can get with Nicky, of course, but also he wants to get any awkward greetings or last-minute nerves out of the way before whatever Nicky has planned for the evening.

From Nicky: At the risk of sounding too invested, I will take any minute of your time I can get

Joe closes his laptop; he's not going to make any further progress on the story tonight, not with the temptation of Nicky luring him away.

From Joe:  We never apologized to each other before for how strongly we felt about things, let's not start now. I've only just looked at the time. You're awake late

From Nicky: Once I made up my mind to say something, I wasn't letting anything stop me. Not even sleep. You're right though, it's past my bedtime. It's past yours, too, but I'm glad you were awake

They're both awake, and what Joe wants to do next could technically wait until the morning but—No more wasting time. Everything good they've ever had was because they didn't hide from each other. 

Somehow, even knowing that Joe's heart is racing as he waits for Nicky to answer. 

"Joe, what is it? Is something wrong?"

He's spent years trying to perfect his memory of Nicky's voice, hoping that on nights when he needed it, he could close his eyes and hear Nicky say his name. He came close, he thinks, to the way Nicky sounded when they last spoke, but the way he sounds now is something altogether different. 

Age has deepened his voice, and a long night has added an edge of huskiness to it. It's quiet on both ends of the call, meaning neither needs to be loud to be heard, so Nicky's voice is intimate, low, and sweet.

"Yeah. Everything's--I'm--" The silence stretches for a second, Nicky giving him time to collect his thoughts. He hadn't considered what to say after Nicky picked up.

Then again, they haven't heard each other's voices in so long, and if Nicky's reaction is anything like Joe's, he could use a few minutes to get his feet under him again, too. 

"This isn't how I meant to do this."

It seems like tonight, Nicky has the power to grant second chances. 

"Hang up," Nicky says.

"What?"

"Hang up. Call me back. We can say this was a practice round."

Joe can't help but laugh, and just before he clicks 'End,' he can hear the start of Nicky's deep chuckle, and it makes his heart ache. When the phone rings again, Nicky answers it just as quickly. 

"Joe. Hi."

Most likely, Nicky's not trying to put on a bedroom voice; it seems that talking to Joe after midnight just brings that out in him.

"I wanted to say goodnight. I just--wanted to say that. Nicky."

 "Go ahead."

Quiet. Joe wonders if Nicky can hear the insects outside his window the same way he can hear the traffic in the street outside Nicky's flat. The way his throat tightens feels like nothing so much as being choked, but Joe gets the words out anyway. 

"Goodnight, Nicky."

"Goodnight to you too, Joe."

Another second of quiet, then a huff of a laugh from Nicky, and the call disconnects. Alone at his desk, Joe runs the corner of his phone across his bottom lip and smiles. 

 


 

"So, where are you taking him?"

Nicky looks up from his laptop. "Hm?"

"It's two days away from your big reunion date. Where are you taking him?"

He has part of a plan, but he knows it'll be perfect. 

"Nile, you've asked me some version of that question at least three times a day for the last week. What makes you think now is going to be different?"

"Please. Like this whole situation itself isn't a lesson in not giving up hope."

Well. He can't argue that. He can, however, distract her.

"Do you have the attendance numbers for last month?"

While Nile is pawing through the papers on her desk, Nicky's phone buzzes.

From Joe: On days when I have many things planned, my agent's wife takes my phone at the beginning of the day and keeps it in her pocket, powered off. Sometimes she doesn't give it back until it's time to go home. She says it's because otherwise, I get distracted and fiddle with it when I'm bored, instead of pretending to *not* be bored and continue to listen like a good, obedient author.

From Nicky: I'm endlessly amused by how terrified you are of them both.

From Joe: You'll meet them. You'll see. The point is, I always make sure that people who might need to reach me on the day have her number as well, in case it's urgent. 

Nicky programs her number into his phone under Andy the Merciless.

 

The day before Joe's reading, Nicky is at his desk doodling on the back of a flyer for a new exhibit and thinking about the multifaceted nature of the human heart. 

Nile would tell him to do something sweet and romantic but not to take it over the top, that trying too hard might scare him away.  Nicky wonders if he should feel that way, too. He doesn't. 

Joe's shown Nicky who he is and how he feels about them seeing each other again. He laid his feelings and wishes out clearly and openly more than once. Joe's made it plain that this isn't an occasion for holding back.

Maybe Nicky is wrong, maybe Joe's been putting up a good front, and the instant Nicky tries to pull out all the stops on this date, Joe will run for the hills. Why, though? He's never given Nicky any reason not to believe him, not now and not then. 

Once, Joe was the sole focus of Nicky's devotion for more than a year. He's been loved, treasured, and adored, and his responses were only ever gratitude and the kind of starry-eyed want that made Nicky's knees weak. If he's no longer someone who can handle being the center of Nicky's world? Better to know that now.  

Nicky doesn't want to love a man who has to be eased into passion.

You mean keep loving him. Don't you? Grumbling, Nicky concedes to his inner critic. It never misses a thing, and right now, it's got a point.

It's in that spirit that Nicky picks up the phone and calls Andy.

Maybe she'll think Nicky is some overzealous man with a crush he can't get over, but her opinion isn't the one Nicky cares about right now. He's got a job to do.

"I don't know if Joe mentioned it, but we're supposed to meet up that evening for a date."

"Yes," she says in a voice dry as dust. "I'm aware."

"I'm wondering if you would be willing to answer one or two questions for me. I want to make sure the evening lives up to his expectations."

"I don't know you, and you don't know me, but we both know Joe. So trust me when I say that you could take him to the middle of a roundabout and serve him half a protein bar and a bottle of water, and it would still be everything he's been dreaming of."

"That might be true, but he's worth more than that. What's more, he deserves someone who knows he's worth more than that."

She's quiet for a minute. Nicky just waits. 

"He deserves everything," Andy says.

"And I'd like to give it to him, but first I need to know a food he likes now."

"Don't you remember what kind of food he liked?"

"Yes, but I'm not going out with the man he was. Or, at least, I'm not only going out with the man he was."

She makes a 'huh' sound. "I like you."

"Thank you."

"When he's here for Sunday lunch sometimes, Quynh will make sandwiches with irritatingly busy bread, goat cheese, and whatever vegetables are in season."

"Busy bread?"

"Someone's tried to load it up with seeds and oats and stuff bread doesn't need to be good. And—Oh, I know. If things don’t go too late, Joe likes to go out for dessert after a signing. He'll be with you this time, so that might be a good idea. Anything with lemon."

"Thank you, Andy, that sounds like the perfect thing."

"You're welcome, Nicky. If you're going to be there for the reading, you can sit with my wife and me. We're generally tucked off to the side so that we're not caught in the crowd after, and they usually give us slightly nicer chairs."

Nicky can hear the smile in her voice, and it's obvious now why Joe loves her the way he does. "That sounds very nice. I look forward to meeting you."

"I'm looking forward to it, too.  Joe speaks well of you and of your time together."

"It's good to know he's not referring to me as his creepy ex."

Nicky's expecting Andy to join him in laughing, but she's unexpectedly quiet before saying, "I don't believe he used either of those words."

With the information he needs all in order, Nicky can finish the shopping. If he's done this right, it will show Joe that Nicky was thinking about him, but he hasn't become splashy or obnoxious in their time apart. The plan should bring together who they were with who they are, and best of all, he has a backup plan for if the weather acts up.

 

Eventually, there's nothing else to plan, nothing to buy, nothing to prepare. It's just before noon, and Nicky is meeting Joe at his hotel. The lobby is trying hard to be a grand hotel in a much larger city, but Nicky appreciates the effort. For entertainment, he's picking out the worst piece of art he can see without turning his head. Behind him, a voice says, "Nicky?"

A panicked little part of him wants never to turn around. He wants to hold perfect in his head this image of Joe the last time Nicky saw him in the early morning light and the way he smiled. The most significant part of Nicky, the part that has him turning toward that voice, is hungry for the sight of Joe precisely as he is now.

For all that it looks like someone took the Joe from his memories, softened the edges, added a beard and some smile lines at the corners of his eyes, looking at him still feels like staring at the love of his life. The window of time in which Nicky should return the greeting is closing fast, but he can't bring himself to say anything. Surely he can be forgiven if all he wants to do is stand here and stare at Joe's smile until he can speak again. 

"You recognized me."

Nicky is suddenly, blisteringly glad they decided to meet before dinner because he's not sure he could have dealt with this level of awkwardness later tonight. 

"I did. And I'm guessing you recognize me."

"I do. Always." What does that even mean? 

After that, which is worse? That Joe holds his hand out for Nicky to shake? Or that Nicky actually shakes it?

He's trying to pull out of this conversational nose-dive, but somehow every attempt at correction keeps making it worse. "How was the train?"

Twelve years, countless dreams and memories, an aching place in his heart that never heals, and what Nicky decides to go with is, 'How was the train?' 

"It wasn't bad. Though I always end up wishing I'd brought a  physical book."

Nicky smiles, holding the door open and following Joe out of the lobby. There hasn't been much planning put into lunch. For better or worse, most of Nicky's efforts went into what they'll do for dinner. 

"Are you hungry?" When Joe shakes his head, Nicky offers, "We can stop and get a coffee, maybe? And then I can walk with you to the place where the reading is."

Hands stuffed in his pockets, Joe nods. "That sounds—"

This is ridiculous. Curling his hand around the inside of Joe's elbow, Nicky pulls him to a stop, tugging him out of the middle of the sidewalk, so they're not blocking anyone. Joe's gaze shifts from Nicky's hand up to his face and then back down. There's a question in the line between his eyebrows. 

"I don't care about the train."

Joe's shoulders drop, and he sighs, the tension draining from his face. "I can't believe we shook hands."

"Should we try that again?"

"You're a big believer in do-overs, I see."

"We can stick with 'How was the train,' and handshakes if you would prefer."

Joe shakes his head. "No. Absolutely not." He takes a deep breath in, then out again. "Nicky, I didn't realise how much I missed you until I saw you again."

"Seeing your face still makes me feel like the sun has come out. I cannot wait to learn about who you are now." Nicky holds his arms out, and Joe steps into them like no other option even occurred to him.

It's the strangest thing; Nicky can feel his heartbeat slow as Joe's arms tighten around him. He wants nothing in this world so much as to bury his nose in Joe's neck, but if he does that, Nicky knows he'll need to taste that skin. He'll need to lick the salt and sweat away and feel the flesh between his teeth. Instead, he turns away, away from Joe's hair, his neck, and that spot behind his ear, and just holds him. 

"I could do this all day," Joe's breath ghosts across Nicky's ear and, like Joe drew a finger over the length of Nicky's spine, a shudder runs down his back. 

"Normally, I would agree entirely. But, I don't want to deal with Andy's wrath."

"She's not that frightening."

Nicky pulls back, looking Joe in the eye.

"Okay, yes she is." Joe laughs, one hand on Nicky's shoulder, the other on his opposite forearm, squeezing. The creases at the corners of his eyes when he laughs are nothing new, but the way they stay even after Joe's face relaxes *is.* The years have been kind to him, and Nicky has to let him go and step back to keep from pushing Joe against the wall and kissing him breathless. 

Hooking his arm through Joe's, Nicky leads him to the bookstore. They talk about Andy, the short story, everything except the reality of years since they last saw each other's smiles. 

"This is where I leave you for now."

"I'll see you after?"

"You don't think I would miss a reading by one of my favorite authors, do you?" Nicky's proud of his faux-incredulous tone, and he's not ashamed to admit it.

Joe laughs again, and Nicky's fingers itch to touch his smile. Their eyes keep landing on each other's mouths, but they're smart enough to know now isn't the time or place. Well, one of them is smart enough at any given time, and luckily that's all they need right now.

"Andy said I could sit with her and Quynh during the reading."

Dragging his thumb over his lower lip, Joe asks, "Would you mind sitting in the main group instead?"

"If that's what you want, I'm happy to."

"After a few cities where I spent the entire reading staring at her face, wondering if I was doing something wrong, Quynh usually sits off to the side where I can't see her." He chews at his lip before saying, "I want to be able to see you if you're there."

"Then I will sit where you can see me."

"I want to hug you again."

"So do I, but—"

"But then we'd have to stop again. Go back to work. I'll see you in a few hours?"

Nicky smiles and nods then turns on his heel and leaves before he can do something stupid like throw Joe over his shoulder and march them both back to his flat.

Nile spends the rest of the afternoon sending him on increasingly unnecessary errands all over the center. It works perfectly, he barely has time to check the clock, and because he's moving already, he's not just pacing back and forth in front of his desk. She kicks him out half an hour before he usually leaves.

"You're useless to me right now. Enjoy your night, and I expect all the details tomorrow."

"All the details?"

"Most of the details. Please don't make me think about you like that; it's creepy and wrong."

Because the night feels like it's full of promise, Nicky just laughs and hugs her. "I'll see you in the morning."

 


 

"Hi. It's so nice to see you all here." One of the things Joe likes about doing readings and signings at actual stores is that the lighting usually allows him to see people. As opposed to stage lighting, which usually left the rest of the room as a murmuring sea of silhouettes. "I can't thank you enough for coming. If you're already a fan, I appreciate the support. If you're curious, I appreciate the interest. Tonight, I thought I might do a little bit from the first book and then a chapter from the new one."

This is always somehow both the easiest and hardest thing at once. On the one hand, the books are published; Joe can't change them now, regardless of how this audience responds. There's a kind of freedom in that. At the same time, the feedback is immediate in terms of time and distance. These people are right in front of him, and he's going to be able to see their faces as he soars or tanks.

Tonight, of course, has the added layer of Nicky's presence. It could make him more nervous, anticipating the reaction of someone so involved in this story, whether he knew it or not. Instead, seeing Nicky's face calms something small and anxious inside him. 

The passage he reads from the first book is one he's always thought sounded better with a vocal delivery, and it's always satisfying to hear the audience's reaction. When it's time for the second part of the reading, Joe briefly reconsiders which part to read, given that Nicky's in the room, but ultimately goes forward as planned. 

The end, the last page of the excerpt, is the hardest part.

"'What does a lion know of love?' Hyron asked.  The great beast turned, slow with age. 'Think you,' he said, 'that only humans know the yearning of one heart for another? Think you that dumb beasts cannot possibly understand the spark of souls colliding? I have had passion strong enough to rival the thrill of the hunt, and for the sound of my love's heartbeat, I have been filled with joy as wide as the horizon.'

"Hyron could see no twinned tracks, no trace of a second patch of trampled down grass where the lion's mate might sleep. 'Such great love, and yet here you are. Alone.' In a creature so large, sorrow howled like the wind in a cave. 'I have lost her,' the lion said. 'I have lost her. Now I stand here, at the gateway to all things, and hope that someday she will pass by and I may tell her that my heart has not beaten since we last touched.' 

"'I know this kind of love.' There was doubt on the lion's face. How could Hyron make him believe? 'When my lover sleeps, I am jealous of his dreams, of every second he exists where I can't follow. Such stars live in my lovers' eyes that I might sail my ship though the skies be thick with clouds. Each time my lover prays at my altar, my body fills with songs that only the gods can sing.' Falling to his knees, Hyron beseeched the creature with his eyes. The lion tilted his head, each movement of muscle and sinew rippling beneath his fur. 'Best you should be on your way, then,' the great lion said.  

"'But you—' While Hyron searched for words, the lion sank to his haunches, saying, 'Is there something I could threaten you with that you would fear more than losing your love?' Truly, it was the only thing that made Hyron's blood run cold, and he said so. The lion stretched extravagantly, one paw extended, each claw longer than Hyron's leg. 'Then I may either let you leave or kill you now, and I find that this conversation has made me tired. Away with you.' The lion's lip curled, one fang glinting in the sun. 'Run.' Hyron ran."

The audience applauds, but Joe has eyes only for Nicky. 

In the scant minutes before Joe's supposed to be signing books, Nicky finds him in the crowd. 

"I'm glad I wasn't sitting off to the side."

Joe smiles. "Me too." 

He doesn't say, 'This book was my chance to give us the ending we might have had. It's a love letter to you, and I wanted you to see my face as I said those words.' He doesn't have to. 

The way Nicky smiles, it's clear he already knows. 

 

When the signing is finally over, and they're standing on the street in front of the bookstore, Joe decides that the last thing he wants to do is spend the rest of this date tapdancing around whether or not they'll kiss. 

"I'm just going to get this out of the way," he says as he leans in close enough to feel Nicky's breath on his mouth. "Yes?"

Nicky nods, his nose brushing Joe's face. "Yes," he says, closing the distance between them. It's not a prolonged kiss or an involved one, but it's the first one in twelve years, which makes it special, and it's possibly the first of many, which makes it nearly a miracle.  

Countless things have changed since they were last together, but Joe is discovering all the things that are precisely the same. Nicky's hair is still softer than it has any right to be, slipping through Joe's fingers as he cradles Nicky's head. When the kiss is over, Nicky rests his forehead against Joe's, smiling.

"I've wanted to do that all day."

Nicky drags his nose along Joe's. "I've wanted to do that for a decade."

He would roll his eyes, but he's busy realizing just how much he missed this, missed Nicky. 

Lacing their fingers together, Nicky says, "Come on, watching you be a genius is hungry work, and I have dinner ready." 

"I'm following you."

Winding their way through the streets, Joe takes the time to realise how lucky they are even to have this chance. Maybe Nicky won't want to hear his apology, maybe this one date is all they'll ever have, but so many broken hearts don't even get this much of a chance. 

"Do you feel like the reading went well?"

He nods. "I do. I can usually tell by where they laugh, and people seemed to like the passage from the second book."

Nicky grins. "He's a compelling lion who makes some good points." He punctuates the thought by squeezing Joe's hand and turning to kiss his cheek.

"The signing was good, too. Plenty of people had copies of my first book that they'd obviously read more than once, and that's always nice to see. One or two even had copies of the short story collection that had my first published piece." 

Pulling his keys from his pocket, Nicky unlocks a large metal door, tugging it open until it starts screeching on its hinges. "Wait here; I'll be right back."

While Nicky is gone, Joe takes in the night around him. It was a lovely day, but the air is cool now and heavy with unshed rain. The sky is overcast, and Joe knows if it were still light out, the clouds would be an oppressive leaden gray. It's a shame. He'd been hoping for moonlight, stars maybe. It would be like the nights that he and Nicky would lay outside and watch the constellations move across the sky. 

The truth is that a cloudy night with Nicky is better than the sparkle of stars, but no one to share them with.

"Thank you for waiting. I didn't want to have to carry this around all night. Would you mind holding it while I lock the door?" Nicky passes Joe a good-sized insulated bag. 

"Either I'm about to have an amazing meal, or you're smuggling gold bricks in here."

Twisting the keys in the lock, Nicky grins. "Why can it not be both?" He drops his keys in his pocket and holds out his hand. Knowing Nicky's expecting Joe to pass the bag back to him, he shifts it to his other shoulder, reaching out to take Nicky's hand in his. 

"So, where are we going?"

With the pedestrian traffic near the water, it's impossible to find a spot where they're alone, even this late in the evening, but Nicky finds an open bench far enough from the nearest restaurant that they can hear each other speak. As Nicky is reaching for the zipper on the bag, Joe takes his hand. 

"Before you do that—Nicky, I'm sorry. I've always been sorry for my part in what happened between us. For what it's worth, so long after it happened,  you were right. I should have told you I was looking at programs away from home. If nothing else, I know you would have wanted to support me while I made up my mind. I think some part of me worried you wouldn't want to hear about me moving somewhere that wasn't wherever you were."

Turning his palm up, Nicky squeezes Joe's fingers. "I’m sorry I did not tell you I was making plans to move. You were never just a prop in my life.  We talked about what we'd do when we were together, and I just—I assumed if you were planning for that to be somewhere else, you'd tell me. I supposed, if I'd thought about it, I would have seen how worried I was that if you knew what I was planning, you'd tell me not to come. That we were just making up daydreams that would never come true."

Joe tips his head forward, resting his forehead against Nicky's. "When you think about it, we both made the same mistake. For so long, we'd been so in sync; it didn't occur to us that we might not be that way anymore. I know that when we were traveling, it was like you could read my mind about where to go next or what to do with our day. When we got home, I guess I thought you still could."

Nicky rubs his thumb across Joe's palm. "For so long we felt like one person, it would have felt strange asking if you had goals I didn't know about, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't have asked."

"I'm sorry I never tried to reach out after that night. After that fight, I guess it felt like I didn't want to colour those memories of our time together by spending weeks or months clawing and fighting our way back to where we'd' been so effortlessly before." Sighing, Joe shakes his head, feeling Nicky's nose rub against his. "In the end, letting go so easily didn't help at all. Instead of memories that reminded me of how hard I'd fought to keep what we had, I had all these perfect moments, but every time I thought about them, it felt like being stabbed because I didn't even try at all. I should have—"

Soft, like the sweet memory of a summer afternoon, Nicky kisses his forehead. "We should have tried harder. You weren't alone, you know. I could have kept calling that number instead of letting one failed attempt be the end. I could have reached out to other people we both still kept in contact with, in hopes of finding better contact info. I could have gotten your last name at some point." 

Joe rolls his eyes. “Nicky.”

"I know. I know. And we could both have talked seriously about the future before we went home." Nicky brings their joined hands up to his mouth and kisses the inside of Joe's wrist. "I've known from the first night we spent together that I never wanted to be without you, and I told you that, but there were so many specifics we just ignored."

"Like it was enough to say 'You're all I ever want,' and the rest would work itself out. That's a special kind of reckless."

"It's being twenty-three."

Grinning, Joe kisses Nicky's mouth, feels their smiles pressing together. "Same thing."

In the quiet space between them, Nicky's stomach growls, and they both laugh. A few words are still left unsaid, but they'll get there, and they've got tonight at least. "Can we eat now?"

"Yeah, Nicky." Joe laughs, looking at Nicky's crooked smile, still heartbreaking after all these years, and tucks a loose chunk of Nicky's hair behind his ear. "Show me what you brought."

Like he's doing a sleight-of-hand magic trick, Nicky starts pulling containers out of the bag. 

"I'm hoping you're like me in that you never lost your taste for this." He peels the lid back, and the smell crowds Joe's nose. 

"Is that the couscous? With the mint leaves?"

Nicky nods, grinning. "And pine nuts. It always reminds me of those days together. It was inexpensive and fast, and we could pull the mint from the plants outside the hostel to save our money for the little luxuries. And sometimes, when we got in late, and there would still be some left from the night before. This was—"

"Always better the day after."

"Exactly. I made this last night, so it should be perfect now." He pulls two forks out and hands one to Joe. "We are sharing containers, but I did bring you a fork of your own." Joe grins and takes it. "Now, I never quite understood the appeal of this until I had it made this way, so I got her to show me how to make it." Nicky unzips a separate pouch, and Joe can see that whatever's in it is still warm. When the lid pops off, Joe peers in.

"What is it?"

"It's Nile's mother's macaroni and cheese. Properly made, it is sin with a breadcrumb layer on top."

"This is an odd feast you're starting here, Nicky," Joe says, but he's laughing all the while.

"Have some faith, Joe. There is a larger picture."

"Okay, but first, I don't think I can let this go a second longer." It's a short kiss, sweet and light, but it tastes of promise and Nicky. "What's left?"

"This might not be the way you're expecting, but—"  

Joe stares at it, mouth open. He knows what this is; he's seen it more times than he can remember in the last few years. "That looks like one of Quynh's sandwiches." Nicky nods. "Lucky guess?"

"No. I asked Andy."

"You asked—My Andy?"

"I had her number as the contact for the day of the reading, and I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind if I used it for a slightly different reason. If you look in the bag, there should be a slice of lemon tart."

"Nicky. I love that you did that." This kiss isn't quite as short or sweet, and it's a good deal messier. He almost doesn't pull away, but the feeling of Nicky's hand fisted in his hair, tugging him back, helps. "I don't know that I'd have put these foods together in one meal, but I'm certainly looking forward to eating everything I can see."

Maybe Nicky misses the little sly twist to Joe's voice, but judging from the way his breath hitches, probably not. 

"That's good because—" Nicky clears his throat and sits up straight. "There is something here from when we knew each other before, and something each of us has learned to love since then. I tasted a little of them all as I was making them, and I think they go unexpectedly well together." 

It's their lives now, their separate lives, and who've they've become since they last saw each other, and it's their lives together. It's all those memories and the parts of themselves that exist only because of that charmed year when everything seemed easy, and nothing was impossible.

Joe can hear himself swallow. "I like them together, too." 

There's more food, of course, and bottles of water. Nicky even made some of Joe's favorite tea; it's still warm in the insulated carafe. By some unspoken agreement, they take turns eating and talking. Joe tells Nicky that after getting their presents from Budapest, Lina and Sonia had wanted more stories about them, so he’s thinking about doing a collection of stories in a few years about two girls having adventures. “Adventures where?” Nicky asks. “Nicky, it’s fiction, the adventures can be anywhere. They can be everywhere, even. Which is what I’ll probably do. That’s a great idea!” Laughing, Nicky says, “I’m not sure I helped, but you’re welcome.” Spurred on by that, Joe talks about what his plans are for the next novel, and Nicky asks some questions that have Joe scrambling for his notebook. When Joe asks about the upcoming exhibits Nicky and Nile are planning, he watches Nicky's eyes light up. 

Whether in bed or conversation, there has always been something magnetic about seeing Nicky overwhelmed by passion. His gestures become expansive, his breath comes faster, even now, when he's talking about interactive displays, his cheeks are flushed, and his eyes are bright. It takes Joe a minute to get a handle on the lump of emotion crowding his throat. He knows without a doubt that if he opened his mouth right now, the sound he'd make would be a sob.  Wrapped in laughter, to be sure, but a sob all the same. All this, Nicky and his joy and passion, might be part of his life again if he can find a way to ask.

"The key is to make the display accessible to the largest— What?" 

Apparently, he's just been staring at Nicky with a ridiculous smile for the last couple of minutes. "I just—I'm realising all the things my memory could never have captured."

"Oh." Joe wants to kiss Nicky's crooked, happy smile. "I think I understand." Nicky tilts his head, scanning the sky. "Help me pack things up; we have one more stop to make."

 

The green metal door somehow shrieks even louder the second time Joe hears it. "This is where you work, yes?"

Nicky nods, waving him in. "I'll just drop this by my desk," he holds up the bag with the remains of their dinner. "One moment."

This room could be any back office anywhere in the world. Only the intensely nerdy tone of the wall art and printouts of comic strips betray the nature of the building they're in. 

"It took a little longer than I expected, but we're ready to go." Nicky twirls a set of keys on his forefinger as Joe follows him to an ordinary door standing open. "This may be a bit sentimental, but—"

"I like sentimental."

"I know you did before; I am glad to hear that's still true." How is Nicky's happy grin this devastating every time? The room they enter is pitch black at first, so Joe is holding the edge of Nicky's sleeve. "Close your eyes for a second." 

"Where should I be going?"

"Right here." Nicky holds Joe's shoulders. "There are steps here, so I'll tell you when to step down. Forward. Forward. Down. Again. Forward. Forward. Down."

When they reach the bottom, Nicky rubs Joe's arm. "That's it; you can open your eyes. Is everything still dark?"

Joe blinks, trying to bring the room into view. "A little."

"Go ahead and have a seat on the floor. Nothing is immediately around you."

Lowering himself to the ground, Joe can see the edges of shapes starting to appear as his eyes adjust.  Seats, he thinks, and the glow of an emergency exit sign on the opposite side of the room. Nicky's solid warmth is still there at his side, and Joe feels around until he finds Nickys' shoulder. "Where are we?"

He can hear the smile in Nicky's voice. "Up," he says, as the area above them grows brighter and brighter.

Oh. 

The bright stripe of the Milky Way stretches across the ceiling, with stars flickering in the inky depths all around it. 

"Nicky," he breathes. 

"This was one of my favorite things to do with you, and I wanted to make sure we could look at the stars together tonight. What good is having the keys to the planetarium if I'm not going to use it as a backup plan in case the weather keeps us from the real thing?" 

"I don't—" Turning, Joe can see Nicky clearly now. His legs are bent, his arms wrapped around them with his chin propped on his knee. He's not looking at the stars above them. He's only looking at Joe. "How long can we stay?"

"We should probably be gone before Abhishek gets here in the morning, but if you'd like, we can sit here all night like we used to."

Joe swallows, his throat tight. "And if I want to spend part of the night somewhere else?"

"We could go for a walk, I suppose, if—" His eyes are wide and guileless.

"Nicky."

Smirking, Nicky says, "Oh. I see. I might know a place."

Joe tips his head to the side until it's resting on Nicky's shoulder. "Not just yet, though."

"No. Not just yet."

Laying back, Joe stretches out on the floor, feeling Nicky's fingers lace with his own. 

They're quiet for a bit, letting the day sink in. From the corner of his eye, Joe can see Nicky turn to face him. "I've been thinking about this since I saw the picture you have next to your desk."

Meeting his eyes, Joe wants to kiss him more than he's ever wanted anything. It's almost chaste, but Joe's toes curl a little with the simple pleasure of the kiss.

"There is a setting where I can have the constellations displayed with their pictures superimposed on top of them."

"It's better when you point them out."

"I hoped you might say that."  

For almost an hour, Nicky points out not only constellations but also individual stars, explaining their colours or the way their light shifted. He points out one bright spot. "That was two stars together." 

"Is that why it's so bright?"

"In a way. Some binary systems we can see are like that. They're not orbiting each other, but they're orbiting the same center of mass, and we view their combined light as one source. These two stars started that way, but for them, things changed. Their common center of mass, this thing that they're both drawn to, brought them closer and closer until eventually, they start trading mass. One will increase, the other decrease until their orbits shift and become closer and closer until finally they merge and there is an eruption. After that, they're one light, called a luminous red nova, and it's bright enough for us to see even this far away."

He's been tracing their orbits with his finger, and Joe can't resist any longer. Reaching up, he takes Nicky's hand, drawing it down to kiss each finger.

"Always every finger, even though I'm only using one or two when I point out the stars." 

"Nicky, if you had any idea how sexy your hands are, you'd understand. How could I possibly skip any of them?"

"Joe."

Even as sure as he is of how his next words will be received, Joe's throat still goes tight. "Will I see you again? After tonight?"

Nicky's smile is everything. "I would like that, yes."

Cupping Nicky's hand in his, Joe runs his fingernail along the lines of Nicky's palm. They're both thinking about it; how could they not be?  This isn't the first time they've had a conversation like this, promises of reunions and a future. "Before I leave, we'll look at the list of cities and see if there's anywhere else you'd like to meet. You'll know when I'm due to be finished, and if Quynh changes the schedule, I'll make sure she lets you know."

"Is this you making sure we talk about the details, instead of—"

"Instead of saying 'you're all I ever want' and believing that everything else will fall into place by magic, yes. Magic doesn't buy train tickets; we do that, and—"He takes a breath, looks at Nicky's face, at the soft smile that's starting to tug at his lips, and knows these will be the truest words he says all night. "And you're still all I ever want."

Rolling toward him, Nicky brackets Joe's head with his forearms, bending to kiss him. "Would you like to come home with me?"

"Of course."

"Good, because those seats are not as comfortable as you might think, and the floor is hard on the back after a while."

Joe's been gone for this guy, that's not news, but somehow the weight of it doesn't hit him until he notices there's an honest-to-god twinkle in Nicky's eye.

"My hotel is closer."

"You make an excellent point." Nicky grins brighter than a luminous red nova.

 

Possibly driven by some misguided sense of delayed gratification, they decide to walk to Joe's hotel. It's not far, a dozen blocks maybe, but the entire time, Nicky feels like he's going to crawl out of his skin. 

Crossing an intersection, their hands brush, and Nicky hears Joe's quick inhale. Not knowing whether this will make it better or worse, Nicky takes Joe's hand for the rest of the walk. They try, for a few blocks, to keep up casual conversation. Joe asks about the planetarium equipment, and Nicky launches into the best explanation he can come up with for a layperson. Thirty seconds later, he realises he's speaking entirely on autopilot and that Joe does not hear a word; he's just staring at Nicky's mouth. 

"Let's just hurry."

Joe nods. 

Possessed by some impish urge, Nicky says, "We could pass the time by discussing options for the rest of the—"

"No, Nicky. We can't. Because that lamppost looks like an even more uncomfortable spot than the floor of the planetarium, and if you start talking about the rest of the evening, I'll have no choice but to back you up against it."

That grin. Nicky loves that grin so much, and as hard as he tried to recreate it in his mind, he hadn't even come close. 

By the time the hotel is in view, Nicky has begun to do complex calculations about the space covered by various shadows. He's bare seconds from announcing they'll need to have a little make-out, just to tide them over when Joe says, "Finally!"

Somehow neither of them sprints through the lobby. Just before the doors to the lift slide closed, Nicky makes the mistake of meeting Joe's eyes. He looks like he wants to eat Nicky alive, and Nicky's inclined to let him. 

At the last second, a hand shoots through the gap in the doors, and they slide open again. The businessman gives them each a sheepish look before hitting the button for his floor. If he wonders why the two men he's sharing the ride with, two men who obviously know each other, are standing as far apart as possible and barely speaking to one another, he doesn't ask.  

The next time Nicky looks at Joe, it's clear they're running out of time. They made the right decision, standing out of arms reach from one another, because if Nicky could reach Joe right now? Well. This is for the best. The last thing they want is to get ejected from this lovely hotel. For one thing, it would mean having to find Joe a new place to—Oh. This could work. 

Just before Nicky steps forward, the lift slides to a stop at their floor, and the doors open. "After you," Joe says, his arm stretched out to stop the door. Nicky watches the fabric stretch across Joe's chest, the way the muscles flex in the arm Joe's using to hold the door, and his mouth goes dry. 

If they made it through the lobby without sprinting, they're not doing as well in the hallway. Joe has Nicky's wrist in his hand, pulling him along as they count down the numbers.

"Which one are you?"

"Two forty-seven. So. Ah, right here."

Nicky steps up behind Joe, putting one arm on either side of his head, caging him in against the door. 

"Can we get into the room first?"

"I don't know, Joe. Can we?"

It takes forever to get the door open. Most of that is down to the way Nicky keeps dragging his nose across the back of Joe's neck, but he can't seem to help himself.

When the door finally swings open, the two of them nearly fall through. It's Joe's turn now, spinning around to slam the door closed and crowd Nicky up against it. Staring into Nicky's eyes, he says, "I promise I want to take my time with so many things, but right now, Nicky, I need you to kiss me like you've missed me for a decade."

That stops Nicky dead. How can he put that in a kiss? Two mouths coming together can never say, 'I once saw your smile in a sunrise in Brittany, and I thought it might tear my heart in two.' 

For Joe, he has to try.

With one hand, he touches Joe's cheek, feeling the drag of those short beard hairs under his fingernails, rolling his thumb across Joe's mouth. The touch of his thumb meets the darting-quick pink tip of Joe's tongue, and Nicky feels that contact like a stroke across his belly. Palm laid against the curve of Joe's jaw, he curls his other hand around the back of Joe's neck, gripping, feeling it solid and real. Here, at last, is his chance to make sure Joe knows the size of the hole Nicky's been carrying in his heart. 

Dry, first, and feather-light, he brushes his mouth across Joe's as though he's teasing himself more than anyone else. Nicky's groan is an animal sound, low and primal, as he closes the last hair's breadth of space between them and feels Joe's plush, soft mouth give against his. 

Sweeping his tongue over Joe's lower lips is a message sent by wire, the shock of the contact telling Joe open, open, open. Finally, finally, with the sweep of his tongue into Joe's mouth, Nicky tries to say, 'It took me months to stop checking for a text from you at the start of each day.' He drags their tongues together, tasting the last traces of mint from the tea and doing his best to tell Joe, 'Sometimes I check the weather in our favorite cities and imagine we are spending the day there together.' 

Joe moans against him, licking his way into Nicky's mouth. Nicky sips at the sound, answering back, 'I still reach for you at night, sometimes, and when I wake, I feel like I might never be whole again.'

When Nicky can finally bear to pull away, he rests his forehead against Joe's, listening to their breath. 

"Good," Joe says. His hands cradle Nicky's head, sweeping down to his neck once, twice, then stroking down his neck and onto his shoulders, petting him, reassuring him. "That's so good. That's perfect.."

"That's a lot to say in one kiss."

"You've always been an eloquent man."

"Says the author."

 What comes next is not so much kissing as it is pressing their smiles together.

"God, Nicky. You have no idea how many ways I've thought about you touching me since the last time I saw you. And now you're here, with me, and I want them all."

"Tell me. That's all you have to do."

"Tell you everything on my list, and you'll go through them one by one?" Joe smirks, and Nicky can feel it race down his spine.

He takes Joe's hand, guiding it down the front of his body until the heat of Joe's palm is resting over his cock. "This is from hearing the sounds you made when I kissed you. It's from knowing I made you feel that good. So yes, I would love a list." 

Joe's eyes are enormous. "Nicky," he breathes. "I don't--"

Nicky can see the ideas piling on top of each other behind Joe's eyes. 

"Pick one thing."

"You. Holding me as you fuck me. It would feel so good to come with your arms around me and you buried inside me."

"You want me to hold you and fuck you and make you come? Is that the only way?"

"No, it's just the last way."

"Can I take you in my mouth?"

"Yes. Once like that, you know I love your mouth."

"I remember." Knowing full well what it will do to Joe, Nicky's tongue darts out and wets his lower lip. 

"That's not fair, Nicky."

"Was fair part of the plan?"

"Just for that, I want a third one, too. I want to come once while you're talking to me."

"I don't know if--"

"I don't care what else you're using or what else you're doing at the same time, but I want you talking the entire time, so all I have to do is just listen to you."

Nicky's throat goes tight. "Three?"

"I've had so many dreams, Nicky. Of the way you made me feel and the way, I felt when we were together. Show me all the things that haven't changed." 

Nicky's choked-off grunt sounds like it's been punched out of him. He's lost in the images. Joe looking down at him while Nicky sucks his cock. Joe's neck tight as he tries to listen to every word Nicky says while Nicky strokes him. Joe spread beneath him, a wailing mewling mess on Nicky's cock. All because Nicky was good to him in just the right way. 

"Your face says you like the sound of that. I can see you now, so wrapped up in sucking me that you don't even realise you've come all over my leg."

"No."

"No?"

"I want to be inside you when I come, as you said. And I want to be sure I'm hard enough to fuck you." He knows what he's signing himself up for, but he also loves that he can give this to Joe.

Joe smiles, stroking his palm down Nicky's neck again. "How did I get so lucky?"

"I haven't done anything yet."

"You will." Joe grins, and Nicky wonders how deep those dimples go. "Shower first? It's been a long day, and we were nearly running by the time we got to the hotel."

Fingers steady with purpose, Nicky opens each of Joe's buttons, pushing the shirt off his shoulders and mouthing at the tendon standing out proud against his neck. 

Nicky groans as he feels Joe's fingers sink into his hair and curl against his scalp, then hisses as Joe tugs him back to meet his eyes. "Hello, gorgeous. It's going to take an hour for us to get naked if we try to do this part for each other." He releases Nicky's head, and in the space of a blink, he's nearly across the room, somehow, unacceptably, out of Nicky's reach. 

"Besides," he says. "The sooner we're in the shower, the sooner you can show me just how good you can be with your mouth. I fear I've forgotten all about it." His eyes are wide, innocent, and Nicky laughs so hard he snorts. 

Later, it will take Nicky nearly ninety seconds to untangle the mess of socks, underwear, and denim, resulting from how fast he shucks his jeans off his body, but it will be so worth it. The water is just the right temperature, pounding against his back when Joe steps in.

"The water pressure in here," Nicky says.

"I'm certain whatever they did to achieve it violates some water efficiency standard, but right now, all I'm thinking about is how you look. I mean—Do you know how broad your shoulders are?" Nicky has one or two ideas on how that might be useful, but judging by the look on Joe's face, they're on the same wavelength.

Nicky cups the back of Joe's neck in both hands and tugs him closer for a kiss. Water is splashing against his face, but all Nicky cares about is how good it feels to stroke his tongue against Joe's, to hear him sigh with pleasure. Every noise Joe makes because of something Nicky does is like a hand around his cock.

"I could let you do that for hours. I could kiss you and fuck myself against your skin until I come all over your body, but you promised me your mouth." When Nicky sinks to one knee,  Joe says, "Not here. I want to be able to watch you without worrying about getting water in my eyes or yours. And I know kneeling in here wouldn't be fun, at least not for long." He strokes his thumb along Nicky's cheekbone. "Come up here and kiss me, and then let's get clean and get out of here."

It's a quick, happy kiss, bright against Nicky's lips, and he takes the chance to wrap his arms around Joe, to hold him for a minute. For all the time lovers spend against each other's naked bodies, something about hugging each other, nude and standing, always feels a little strange. Nicky turns to kiss Joe's cheek groaning at the feeling of their cocks brushing.

"Please let me," Nicky says, taking the soap and washcloth from Joe's hand. "I'll be quick; I just want to touch you."

"Oh, Nicky. Do you have any idea how much it turns me on to know that you will take any excuse to touch me? As if you needed an excuse." He kisses the tip of Nicky's nose. "Go on."

True to his word, Nicky is efficient, if not exactly business-like. The only time he stops to indulge himself is when he's behind Joe, rinsing off the backs of his legs. He's kneeling up, resting his forehead against the small of Joe's back as he slips his hands down, feeling the roll of each leg muscle under his hands and the curls in the hair on the back of Joe's thighs. 

As he stands, Nicky drags his hands up the front of Joe's legs, over his hips, his chest, pressing just a little as he slides across each nipple.  The curve of Joe's neck is too much to resist, and Nicky buries his nose there, feeling the water slapping against his face as he kisses Joe's shoulder.

There's a delicious, slick drag as Joe turns in his arms and then the feel of Joe's mouth against his, opening him for a kiss. 

Nicky washes himself, but Joe insists on doing his hair. When he digs his fingers into Nicky's scalp, Nicky groans loud enough that Joe's gaze flicks down, checking to see if Nicky came just from having his hair washed. He hadn't, but that's not to say he wouldn't have if that had gone on much longer. As the last of the soap sluices down the drain, Joe shoos Nicky away. 

"I'll be out in just a few minutes. See if you can find anything useful in the small side pocket on my bag, and take a couple of the towels with you."

Taking a minute to look around the hotel room, Nicky considers his options. He likes the look of that chair, and he knows it'll mean Joe can relax. Besides, it'll be a better angle for Nicky than kneeling on the bed.

He tosses a couple of pillows at the foot of the chair and goes hunting in the pocket of Joe's bag. There's something intensely sexy about a man who prepares for anything. 

When Joe walks into the room, towel slung low around his hips, Nicky's mouth goes parched. He watches a single drop of water roll down Joe's left arm and drip off the knob of his wrist. 

"Now who isn't being fair?"

"What are you talking about?" Again, Joe tries for innocent, but at the same time, he shifts his hand, so the towel slips a little lower. 

 Nicky rolls his eyes, slipping his fingers into the front of the towel and tugging Joe closer. 

For a second, Joe, beautiful, talented, funny Joe, looks unsure. All Nicky wants in the world is to drive that look from Joe's face. Reassuring words, blowjobs, whatever it takes. "Hey, talk to me. What do you need? "

That settles something, and the tension drains from Joe's face. He brushes the backs of his knuckles up the side of Nicky's jaw. 

"I'm very glad you're here with me. Thank you for coming to the reading and for dinner." He smiles, quiet, like a secret only they share. "Thank you for the stars."

Somehow, Joe standing there holding that towel so tightly makes Nicky feel even more naked. Only one way to solve that. Stepping forward, Nicky takes the towel, tossing it into the bathroom, where it lands in the sink with a wet slap. 

"You're very welcome. Thank you for inviting me." 

This kiss is less desperate than when they first came through the door and sweeter than the slick, wet kisses they exchanged in the shower. When Joe pulls away, there's a tiny seed of warmth left behind in Nicky's chest. 

"Joe?"

"Yes?"

"You wanted to come in my mouth, wanted to watch me suck you." Joe nods. "I want to give you that, so much."

"Then—"

"I want you to relax and let me take care of you; let me be good to you just the way you want."

"What are you waiting for?" He smirks, and the warmth Nicky feels at that seeps into some of the torn spaces of his heart. 

He grins. "I can do it standing here, but I can make it even better if you'll sit right over there." 

As Nicky motions toward the chair, Joe smirks. "Who's giving directions tonight?"

Nicky knows the smile he's giving Joe right now is impossibly fond and soft, but he can't seem to help himself. "Please go sit in the damn chair?"

Joe swats Nicky's ass before dropping into the chair and making himself comfortable. One hand is idly rubbing his chest, while the other wraps around his cock. There's a smirk on his face. 'Anything,' Nicky thinks. 'I would do anything for this man.'

"Don't get me wrong, Nicky, knowing I put that look on your face is making me even harder than I was before, but at the risk of sounding like a cliche, it's not going to suck itself."

The burst of laughter is just the thing they both need to keep them grounded in the moment, and the joy of it zips down Nicky's spine. 

Though, of course, Joe has a point. Arranging the pillows under himself, Nicky kneels in front of Joe, looking up at him.

Joe traces Nicky's upper lip with the pad of one finger. "Last week, I dreamed of you sucking me, and it felt so real I could swear I still felt your mouth around me even after I woke up." 

His finger presses at the center of Nicky's lower lip, pushing his jaw open and slipping inside.

He managed to rinse away all of the soap, which means Nicky can concentrate on the sheer pleasure of sucking. As Nicky watches him, Joe's stare turns liquid and hot. "Your mouth."

"Tell me how. I want to make this better than your dream," Nicky says. 

"I want to feel your mouth. Everywhere."

"Are you going to watch?"

"Every second."

Nicky kisses the pad of Joe's finger and sinks into this feeling. He's not sure how long he'll be able to keep this up, but he'll go as long as he can.  

On his knees, his hands dragging up the outside of Joe's thighs, Nicky stops to breathe. He needs a second. The feeling of Joe's fingers against his face grounds him, and there is nothing Nicky wants more right now than to make this incredible, brilliant, sexy man lose all power of speech. 

"Nicky. Please?" 

He nods,  leaning into Joe's palm as it cups his face. 

Slipping one hand under each well-muscled thigh, he arranges Joe's legs, so they're resting in the crooks of his elbows, his knees on either side of Nicky's shoulders. 

Joe hisses, moaning as he says, "That's a perfect stretch, Nicky. I was thinking about your shoulders earlier." 

Nicky noses into the crease of his hip. "I heard what you said; I thought this might work."

"My Nicky, giving me just what I asked for." A pleasant, throbbing heat settles in Nicky's belly at the idea of Joe using his body however he needs.  

Nicky grins and kisses the hollow of Joe's hip so sweetly it makes everything that comes after so much filthier by comparison. 

Joe is thickening, his cock growing flushed and dark, but he's not fully hard yet. Perfect. Nicky's always loved the feeling of Joe growing hard against his tongue. Ducking his head, he has just the right angle to curl his tongue up behind Joe's balls. He starts his stroke there but doesn't stop until he's licking just under the head, teasing the ridge. Then he does it all over again. 

It's nearly meditative, and Nicky's mind starts to drift. His reality is the heft of Joes' balls on his tongue and the treat of licking clean whatever he finds when he reaches the top of each pass. When Joe whines at the start of a stroke, Nicky blinks; coming back to himself, he sees that Joe's balls are slick and messy with all the saliva Nicky couldn't control with his mouth open like this.  

Above him, he can hear Joe's muttering and whining change pitch. "Yes, fuck. Nicky, your mouth—I love that. Love it so much." Those sounds, those words are because of him, because he's doing things just the right way and giving Joe what he asked for. The thought has Nicky's cock jerking where it's hanging heavily between his thighs. Humming, Nicky tries to suck Joe's balls clean, pulling one into his mouth and lapping at it.  He releases it with a wet pop and sucks the other in to take its place. 

"Good. God, that's so good, Nicky. How—Yes, just like that. Making me so hard."

With a quick swipe of his tongue to wet his lips, he slips his mouth down over the head of Joe's cock. Immediately, Joe's back lifts away from the chair, and he groans so low in his chest Nicky imagines he can feel it on his tongue. Of course, there's a technique to the way Nicky moves his hand and the way he sucks harder at one point in his stroke and softer at another. Even the way he licks at the head each time he pulls up. That all feels so far away, though. 

"Just like that. Thank you, that's perfect. You're perfect."

Before long, Joe's body is curling over Nicky's, and his moans have become more desperate. He tugs at Nicky's hair, and Nicky stops what he's doing to stare up the length of Joe's body. Joe's fingers sweep over Nicky's cheek, pressing lightly. ‘He's feeling himself. He's feeling his cock sliding across my cheek as I fuck my mouth onto him.’ Nicky's cock jerks at the realisation; it's nearly dripping, he's sure of it, but it can wait. 

He keeps sucking, feeling the soft-over-hard perfection of Joe's shaft and flicking his tongue over the sensitive spot just under the head. Joe's fingers are dragging through his hair now, not gripping, only petting, and Nicky feels that in his toes. This is what Joe wanted, just like this, and Nicky's giving it to him. He's the reason Joe's face is slack with pleasure, and it's his mouth that's making Joe moan and curse and whisper Nicky's name over and over. 

He pulls off, licking Joe's balls just to watch them wrinkle and tighten as his breath cools the wet spots. He rests his cheek against Joe's thigh and feels the tense, pulsing pressure on his shoulders as Joe tries to close his legs, desperate to fuck up into something that isn't there anymore. 

"Nicky?" Looking up, Nicky can see the liquid heat of Joe's stare. "I'd dream about you and wake up so hard it hurt, and the feeling I'd be chasing is this one right here. You're so good, sweetheart, so good." 

"Will you tell me when you want me to make you come?" he asks.

Joe smiles, nods as he strokes Nicky's cheek.

"Will you tell me how to make you come?"

"I seem to remember you being good at figuring that out without my help."

"Doesn't mean I don't want you to tell me."

It seems like the grin and the laugh burst from Joe at the same time. "I can do that."

Rubbing his nose against the thin, soft skin of Joe's inner thighs, Nicky feels Joe's nails against his scalp and hums with pleasure. 

When the only breathing Nicky can hear is measured and even, and the press of Joe's knees no longer pins Nicky's arms at his sides, only then does he lean in and start again. This time, he licks up the crease of Joe's thighs just for the pleasure of feeling those tight curls on his tongue.  Once or twice he has to stop and deal with one that's come loose as he licked over it, but it's a small price to pay for the pleasure of smelling the concentrated heat of Joe's body and hearing him start to moan again. Nicky's fingers circle the base of Joe's cock and start a lazy, loose stroke. 

"Oh, please. Please, just Like that. You know I love it just like that."

He does.

Slipping his mouth onto Joe's cock again, he sucks and strokes, letting his fingers meet his lips, letting the taste of Joe drip onto his tongue. 

"Faster, Nicky."

Humming, a bit lost in how good it feels to know just what he should do next and just how to do it, Nicky does as Joe asks. 

Joe plants his heels against the floor, and his hips rock up to meet Nicky coming down. A few times, Nicky coughs as the head bumps at the back of his throat. Somehow, that only deepens the pleasure of being precisely what Joe needs right at that moment. 

"Now. Keep licking, keep sucking, hand tight. Make me come, Nicky."

The pleasure of that specificity tingles across Nicky's scalp.  He licks at the underside of Joe's cock over and over, making sure he's sucking hard enough to keep the insides of his cheeks against the shaft. His fingers tighten; all that loose laziness is gone as he strokes at the same pace Joe's been rolling his cock up into Nickys' mouth so far. 

There it is, there's the hitch in Joe's breath that he's been waiting for. Nicky moans, the heat pooling low in his groin at the reality that he's going to drive Joe over the edge with just his hand and his mouth and the sheer force of his devotion. 

When Joe groans, curling forward and clutching Nicky's head, he realises he's been dragging his cock against the chair and has to cant his hips back to keep from coming all over the furniture. Still, he can't hold back a satisfied sigh when Joe chokes on Nicky's name and spills, hot and rich, across his tongue.

The pulse of Joe's cock against his lips keeps going long enough that Nicky settles back down and rests his head against Joe's thigh. Content to keep Joe's in his mouth until Joe says it's time to stop.

Someday, if he can convince Joe, and they have nothing else planned, he wants to do this for hours.

"That's enough, love," Joe says, and though they both go still for a split second, neither of them says anything about how easily that word slipped out of Joe's mouth. 

Sliding up the length of Joe's body, Nicky stops to suck on one nipple hard enough for Joe to grab the hair at the back of his head and tug. "You can do that after you kiss me."

How can he refuse? Joe's mouth slants against Nicky's, coaxing it open so Joe can lick Nicky's tongue clean of his pleasure. 

While Joe is splayed out in the chair, letting the sweat dry on his skin, he points Nicky to a pocket on the messenger bag he had at the reading. "Check the front." 

Nicky fishes out two granola bars and a little baggie of almonds. He turns a questioning look on Joe. "Quynh got tired of me forgetting to eat; she was worried about me getting snappy during signings, so she made me start packing something I could eat between readings and signings." 

Peeling the wrapper back on one of the bars, Nicky hands it to him along with a glass of water. "Well, you do need to keep your strength up tonight."

"Oh, do I?"

Nicky shrugs, but he knows his smile betrays how much he wants to kiss Joe right this second. "You're the one who said you wanted to go for three."

"I did, didn't I?" Scrubbing his hand over his chin, he sighs. "I might have overestimated things in the moment. I'm worried at this rate we'll be up until dawn." Nicky sinks to the floor again, kneeling between Joe's feet and tearing open the bag of almonds. A slow smile spreads across Joe's face. "Unless you think you can make come faster next time."

The bite he just took lodges in Nicky's throat as his mouth goes dry. "I can. I think. Let me try, please?"

Joe smiles, and Nicky feels everything in his brain grind to a halt and then start up again with a lurch. Was he ever not in love with this man? That's not a conversation for tonight, but it is a conversation they'll be having soon.

"Of course, Nicky."

"Good. I love the sound you make when you're so close, it lets me know how I'm doing, that I'm giving you what you need, and I've been looking forward to hearing it more tonight. Thank you."

Running his big toe along the side of Nicky's calf, Joe says, "Someday, you should see how many times you can hear it before I beg you to finish me."

"Are you sure you can find three days when you don't have anything else to do?" Nicky tries for that same innocent tone Joe used earlier; it has roughly the same success. Joe laughs, and crumbs of his granola bar land on the arm of the chair.

"Confidence," he says when he finally stops coughing. "I like that. It's a good look on you." 

Once the snacks and water are gone, Joe leans forward in the chair. He strokes Nicky's chin pulling him close for a kiss. When Nicky opens his mouth then closes it again, Joe asks, "Something to say?"

"Oh, is it time for me to talk now?" Heat flares behind Joe's eyes and Nicky takes that as a yes. He gets to his feet, holding a hand out for Joe. "In the bed, please? I want you laying down, want to be able to roll you over and kiss every part of you."

The visual of Joe, spread across an ocean of crisp, white sheets, one arm pillowed under his head, is impossibly decadent. Like this, he can simply lay back and let Nicky give him all the care and pleasure, and attention he wants. Knowing that is better than any of the fantasies Nicky's had since they started talking again.

Straddling Joe's thighs, Nicky frowns. "I should have started further back," he says. Joe cocks a questioning eyebrow. "I would have been able to run my hands over your thighs. They've been killing me all night, Joe."

"What's wrong with my thighs?"

"Not a single thing. Except, perhaps, for the way they torment me when you walk in front of me. All that muscle and all I can think of is how they'd feel wrapped around me.  Around my hips. Around my head. Someday, I'm going to get in just the right spot that I can run my hands over them while I take you apart on my tongue."

"Someday?"

"Greedy." He grins at Joe's unrepentant shrug. "I love that. When you want something, it means there's a chance for me to give it to you, and nothing turns me on more."

"Not even my thighs?"

Smirking, Nicky reaches down and pinches Joe's leg. "Not even your thighs. Though they come close." Joe's body is laid out under him like a dragon's hoard, and Nicky wants all of it. "So does this." Joe's chest hair is almost impossibly soft under Nicky's hands. "Look at you. I want to map your body with my mouth."

"Nicky."

Whatever Joe might have been about to say is choked off as Nicky's fingernails catch on his nipples.

"Yes?" Joe nods. "More?" Another nod. "Good, I can do that." He cups Joe's face. "When you tell me what you want, how you want it, do you know what that does to me?"

"I think--yes."

"Do you know why?" 

"Tell me." 

 "Every time you say you want something more, or different, or harder, it means you think I can give that to you. You wouldn't tell me just to watch me fail, and you wouldn't tell me if you thought I was just going to ignore it. It makes me so hard, knowing you think I can please you, touch you, just the way you want. Not just that you think I can, that you trust me to either do it on my own or be good while you use my body to do it yourself. And that?" Leaning forward, Nicky whispers in Joe's ear. "That makes me so hard I get wet."

Joe's cock twitches in its nest of soft curls. It's plumping up under Nicky's gaze, and his mouth is watering. 

 "Tonight, I thought maybe I wanted you to tell me an idea, and then I could give it to you so perfectly you scream my name when you come. Then I wondered if I wanted you to tell me each step so clearly that I felt like I was yours to do with as you will."

 "And?" Joe asks. 

"Neither, I think. You said you didn't care what else I used or what else I did, as long as I was talking. I don't want you to have to think. You should not have to guess, or plan, or answer too many questions. So, tell me now if you have anything specific you want, but after that, anything else you say is up to you. I might ask a question that needs 'yes' or 'no,' but not many. I want you just to enjoy this. Yes?"

"Yes."

"Is there anything you particularly want or want to say?"

"I trust you. You've always known what I like, what I love. Please."

Nicky's never been so glad to have big hands as he is right now. He cups one side of Joe's chest in each hand, gripping and curling his fingers in to feel the meat of Joe's body fill his palms. Shifting his grip, Nicky takes Joe's nipples between his fingers, his touch so light he's barely holding them at all.

Joe sucks in a breath of air, gripping Nicky's shoulders. That's Nicky's cue to start tightening his grip. Slowly, of course, knowing that it's almost better if Joe doesn't realize what he's doing until Nicky's pinch is almost cruel. 

He sits back, fingers still tightening. Pinching hard, Nicky smiles as Joe bucks and twists under him. 

"AH! Nicky!" 

He releases his grip, watching Joe's grimace dissolve into a blissful smile. "You like that. I think you want it even harder." 

Joe nods, his eyes half-lidded and his body straining toward Nicky's hands.

"You want it harder even though you know it will hurt. You hope it will hurt." His fingers pinch down again, pulling in little pulsing tugs until Joe's head bends back and he groans. "You want them to be swollen and so sensitive you can't even take feeling my fingers on them." He flicks his fingernails over each nipple in turn. 

Nicky thinks he might be able to see Joe's pulse in his cock as it thickens, growing flushed and pink at the tip.

"So beautiful, Joe." When Joe bites down on his lip, Nicky says, "Don't, baby, please don't. Hearing the sounds you make when I touch you makes me drip, Joe. Come leaking from me just for the noises you make."

Joe's "Yes," is drawn out into nearly a hiss as Nicky pinches again. He takes care this time to dig the blunt edges of his fingernails in and watches Joe's cock jump at the sensation.

"I will keep touching you, even after it hurts." Nicky switches from a steady grip to quick plucking grabs, and Joe grips Nicky's forearms even as he cries out.

"Yes!"

"I'll use my mouth instead of my fingers though, I know you like my mouth." Joe nods, his eyes clenched shut as Nicky bends his head and takes one flushed, pebbled nipple between his teeth. In between little nipping bites, he says, "You'll be so sore but still so desperate to be touched that I'll have to lick and suck you instead of gripping and tugging." Switching sides, Nicky lavishes attention on the other side, noting with pride how it's just a little puffy already. "I want to do that, Joe, for as long as you want. Let me be so good for you that you're almost too tender to put on a shirt in the morning."

Gasping, Joe clutches at the back of his head, holding Nicky's face against his chest as he closes his teeth over each nipple and tugs. Joe's heels dig into the bed, and he bucks under Nicky's weight. The movement shifts Nicky forward so he's sitting nearly on top of Joe's groin and can feel as Joe's cock gets thicker, harder. He wants to taste it again, but he's got a job to do.

"Good, oh, Nicky, that's so good. That's perfect. You're perfect." 

Flushed with praise, Nicky starts sucking, flicking at each one with his tongue until Joe's moans start to take on an edge that says he's close to the unpleasant side of overstimulation. Pulling free with a sucking pop, Nicky looks up at Joe--as much as he can-- as he licks gently over the poor, abused little bundle of nerves over and over. He soothes the other side just the same, feeling Joe's fingers sweep through his hair. Realizing that the flush of heat he can feel against the crease of his hip is Joe, fully hard again, Nicky can't help but smile.

"My sweet Nicky, you're so good to me. Take such good care of me."

Biting one side of his bottom lip, knowing full well what that will do to Joe's already strained composure, Nicky asks, "You're so beautiful like this, I love taking care of you. I love being good to you. I want you to lie on our front for me while I stretch you open, and every time I push into you, they'll drag against the sheets. Will you let me hurt them just a little more? "

Joe's face tenses up like he's nearly flinching just imagining it. "Nicky, love, you're diabolical."

There's that word again. Nicky tucks it away with the other instance, not even sure if he wants to mention them later.

Instead, he grins at Joe. "That's not a 'no.'"

Between his swollen, sensitive nipples and his erection, it takes a second for Joe to find a comfortable way to arrange his body. In the process of shifting a pillow under his hips, he wriggles around a bit, and Nicky has the pleasure of an unobstructed view of Joe's ass flexing and bouncing. 

Because he can't, in all honesty, resist, Nicky reaches out and swats it gently.

"Not this time," Joe says.

Feeling the back of his neck get hot, Nicky says, "Noted."

"What did you find in the side pocket of my bag earlier?"

Pointing to them on the bedside table, Nicky says, "Lube, condoms, gloves."

"The glove is up to you; I think after the shower, you can skip it if you want. The other two--"

"Are non-negotiable," Nicky says, bending to kiss Joe between his shoulder blades. 

"I wouldn't mind getting to the point where the condoms are optional, but we can talk about that another time. For now, I was promised talking."

"I know, and I will, but please let me do something else with my mouth? Just for a second?"

Joe sighs as though this is the greatest sacrifice of his life. "Only if you promise to put the lube somewhere it'll warm up while you're at it.

Nicky kisses the dimple at the top of each of Joe's ass cheeks. "You're so kind."

Tucking the lube under his arm, he slips between Joe's legs and palms his ass, feeling the flesh give under his grip. "This is remarkably unfair. I had to look at it all night, and all I wanted to do was slip my hand down the back of your pants and grab it just like this. I love your ass so much. I love the shape of it, the way it moves; I love how it  flexes when you roll over and when you walk." Spreading Joe open with his thumbs, Nicky kisses one cheek. "This is what I love most of all."

The instant Nicky's tongue swipes over Joe's hole, Nicky can feel the roll of Joe's hips as he tries to push back and up into the sensation. 

"Looking at you right now, it's hard to believe this will ever stretch enough to take me inside. It's small and so tight." He sweeps the flat of his tongue against Joe twice more. "But we know better, don't we? We know that sometimes your hole is so greedy it'll fit my cock and my thumb, and you still won't feel full." Nicky's kiss is soft, sweet even, particularly in contrast to his next words. "Someday, if I treat you so well you promise me anything I want, I'm going to ask for a whole afternoon where I can pin you to my bed at home one afternoon and spend hours opening you up for my hand."

Joe curses, loud and deep, and tries to fuck his ass up high enough to reach Nicky's tongue. 

He sucks a filthy kiss against that tight, perfect hole and wonders if Joe can feel him smiling.

Deciding that some kind of verbal feedback should still be possible, Nicky decides to spend the rest of the time his mouth is occupied moaning like it's his hole that's being licked until he wants to cry. At first, he concentrates on slow, deliberate licks, then adds some pressure, tugging with his thumbs. When he manages to get his tongue in far enough to flick at the rim, Joe actually sobs. Nicky starts to float with satisfaction, with pride, with the praise of those soft cries washing over him. 

Pulling back, he plants one last kiss right at the center, where the skin is pink and not as tight as it had been a few minutes ago. He swishes his mouth out, spitting into the empty second glass. Joe's breathing is almost back to normal when the click of the lube bottle opening fills the room. 

Joe sighs, a blissed-out smile on his face, his body squirming against the sheets. 

"I'm going to get you ready for my cock, Joe, and I promise I won't stop talking. Close your eyes; I've got this." Joe sighs again, his eyes drifting shut, and Nicky is consumed by a wave of affection, pure and easy fondness. He leans forward and kisses Joe on the cheek. "I'm so glad we get this. Thank you for bringing me here, for trusting me with this. I'll be so good."

"I know."

By every reasonable measurement, Nicky uses way too much lube. He's glad it's water-based, or the lube would ruin these sheets. It's worth it, though, for the visual.

"I'm watching this lube drip down your crease, Joe, knowing it's making you slick, that I'm going to be using it to open you. It looks so good. You look so good." 

Slipping his fingers into the split between Joe's cheeks, Nicky spreads the lube as far down as the back of Joe's balls, dragging the pads of his fingers against that tight, slick hole. Joe's mouth drops open, and he whispers a quiet, "Ohh."

"Listen to you. I'm aching right now, and every sound you make just feels like you're stroking me."

Curling his finger over, Nicky works the knuckle against Joe's hole, twisting, pushing, but not too hard. He's listening for something specific, he'll know it when it happens.

"Can you hear that? There's so much lube pooling up around my hand, it's making every movement sound wet and sloppy. My finger isn't even in you yet, but it sounds like my cock has been stretching you for hours." Another twist of his knuckle and Nicky can hear a quiet sigh as Joe's chest relaxes like some of the tension has drained out of him. That's his cue. Nicky's finger sinks in past the first ring of muscle, and he fucks in a few more times, spreading the lube and nudging at the second muscle until that, too, gives way.

"You're gripping me so tight, Joe. It's like you're trying to hold me inside you. I bet you've been aching to have something fill you." Joe nods; the only tension on his face is the tiny line between his eyebrows. "I thought so. Thank you so much for telling me how to ease that ache for you. When I look at you and know that I put that smile on your face, it doesn't just stroke my cock; it fills my heart. Just as much as if you'd let me listen while you talked about a story or let me make you tea after you've been doing reading all day."

Twisting, pulling his finger out just to sink it back in, Nicky soaks up the little whimpers drifting out of Joe's mouth. "That's what I mean when I say I want to take care of you, to be good to you. I mean, I want to do whatever will make you feel good, whether it's remembering what you like to eat or opening you up on a plug so that you can keep it in all day and ride me whenever you wish."

"Fuck, Nicky, listen to the mouth on you."

"This is what you asked for," he whispers as he bites the shell of Joe's ear. "Is this still what you want?"

"Yes, it's better than I imagined. Thank you, baby."

"It's my pleasure." Joe smiles as if he knows this, and warmth fills Nicky, pushing at the seams of him, threatening to burst out. He kisses the back of Joe's neck. "You want a second one?"

Joe shakes his head, and for a moment, Nicky wonders if he'd misread the signals.

"Just for a second, stop." 

"Was it when I mentioned the plug?" Joe's eyes clench shut, and he nods. "Did you bring one?"

Shifting, Joe turns his head to look up at Nicky. "No, I don't usually take toys when I travel. But—what you said about being mine to do with as I like." Nicky's cock jerks, spattering the bedding below him. He's been able to ignore it until now, focusing instead on Joe, but that's no longer an option. 

"How? Please tell me how."

"I want you to work me open with your cock. Slow and careful. Can you do that without coming? Because I still need you to fuck me."

In all honesty, he's not entirely sure. In the last few seconds, his cock has accidentally brushed against Joe's skin twice, and it's felt like every nerve ending was singing in his head. "Yes, Joe, for you. You'll tell me when to make you come?"

Joe pillows his arms under his head, grinding his cock against the bed as he nods.

Keeping a punishing grip on his cock, Nicky reaches for the strip of condoms. 

With the formalities out of the way, Nicky tries to find the perfect position. The first time he lets the head of his cock nudge against Joe's hole, it feels like electric shock fires out of his fingers. Holding perfectly still, he hisses, teeth clenched until he stops seeing stars at the edges of his vision.

Rolling his head on his neck, Nicky sweeps his cock up through the excess lube and tries again. Good. Okay. He can handle this. He's supposed to be talking, though.

"If I thought you were tight against my finger--God, Joe, you feel so good. Always feels this good. I remember how I used to watch my cock slide into you, thinking that nothing else would ever feel that good, and I was right."

With a moan, Joe's fists grip at the sheets, twisting his face tight. "More, Nicky."

"I'm watching us. I can see how hard my cock is right now, how dark, and--It aches. Every time I push forward, it rests against your hole, kissing it, begging you for more."

Another press forward, another scant bit of progress, another moan from Joe.

"Feel me working you open, just like you wanted. My cock wants me to sink inside you and fuck you blind. But I know it'll be better, will make me happier, if I feel your hole clench down on me, and hear you when you come.

"Such a filthy mouth, Nicolò."

Bending, smiling, Nicky kisses his favorite freckle on the back of Joe's left shoulder. "It's been said."

Joe buries his face in the pillow, wailing as the ridge of Nicky's cock slips past the first ring.

Just for the enjoyment of hearing Joe's voice as he does it, Nicky tugs back without actually pulling out. Each time, Joe cries out, his hips grind into the bed, and one foot thumps down against the sheets. 

Pausing for a second to let them each catch their breath, Nick says, "I thought I remembered you liking that."

"I regret asking for this now."

"No, you don't."

"I might!"

Nicky laughs, bending to pepper kisses across Joe's back. 

"Nicky?"

"Mm," Nicky smiles. "Just happy." His hips twitch forward again, and Joe gasps. 

"Baby, make me come. Please, I need to come."

Heat rolls down Nicky's back as he goes back to the steady, relentless rocking of his hips into Joe, to the way his cock is begging to slip a little deeper. Joe's neck is damp with sweat, and Nicky can't resist dipping his head to lick one particularly slick spot. As he does, he feels Joe sink just that last bit into the sensation, and on his next rock in, Nicky's cock head pops past the second ring of muscles. 

With Joe this close, Nicky doesn't try to get fancy. He keeps stroking just the head in, slowly, just deep enough to stretch Joe, not deep enough to be fucking him with any real intent. As he does, he tells Joe how good he looks, how good he sounds, how his muscles look with a sheen of sweat over them.

He says that he loves feeling Joe around him, loves hearing every little noise, how much it turns him on to know he's making Joe feel good, to give this to him.

"Look at you, so eager to come you're humping the bed. Oh, Joe, you're so beautiful like this. I bet your sore, sensitive nipples have been rubbing against the sheets. I'm trying to decide from your voice if it feels so good it hurts, or if it hurts so much, it feels good. I can't wait to kiss them, Joe, right after I kiss your mouth again. Joe, do you know I've spent twelve years wishing I could kiss you one more time?"

Joe is a mess, grinding into the bed, rolling his hips up toward Nicky, whining and moaning. He just needs a nudge, just a little push.

"As soon as you come, I'm going to roll you over and lick you clean. You'll be able to taste yourself when you kiss me."

That does it. Joe's mouth falls open, his breath turns to panting, and his hips stop pushing back. Instead, they're circling against the sheets, and Nicky's only regret is that he can't see the way Joe's cock is pulsing as he comes.

While everything still feels good, before Joe is wrung out and sensitive, Nicky pulls out. He kisses Joe's shoulder, his back, his neck. "Going to roll you over, okay?" Joe nods, half out of his mind still, but lets Nicky ease him onto his back. 

Nicky gets his wish as Joe's cock jerks one last time in the sudden coolness, and the last of his orgasm dribbles down the length of his shaft.

"Just the prettiest cock," Nicky says, almost muttering to himself. As promised, he licks Joe clean as much as he can. Even knowing how sensitive Joe must be right now, Nicky can't resist suckling at the head for just a second, backing off as soon as Joe's whimper turns to a hiss.

"Kiss me," Joe says, and Nicky wouldn't dream of refusing.

Nicky sighs into the kiss, wishing almost that he could ignore his own cock and kiss Joe until they both fell asleep, but he promised one more. More than anything, more than kissing or getting himself off, Nicky wants to make Joe happy. He wants to hold to his promise and show that Joe can trust Nicky to take care of him, whatever he needs.

"Now who has a filthy mouth?" Nicky asks as soon as Joe pulls back, sighing.

"Both of us."

Nicky laughs, not even trying to hide the little snort at the end. "I'm going to get a washcloth."

"Good plan."

When Nicky comes back, he's got a warm, wet washcloth, a fresh glass of water, and a minty fresh mouth. 

Joe hooks his hand over Nicky's neck, tugging him down. "Mmm, more kisses, please."

This is one of Nicky's favorite versions of Joe, stoned on sex and a little silly.

"Anything for you." 

He wonders as he moans into another kiss if it will always feel this good to lick his way into Joe's mouth, to taste his happiness. God, he hopes it will.

Kissed until his lips are a little puffy and his body is swabbed clean of any remaining mess, Joe stretches like a pampered cat and drinks some of the water Nicky hands him.

"You ready for another?"

"In a minute. Come here."

How, how could Nicky have forgotten that Joe cuddles like a needy octopus?

"I used to think for someone's mouth to make me feel good it had to be touching me," Joe says. "Then I met you. Your mouth, your mind--You're incredible, and the way you make me feel is a gift." 

Nicky kisses his head; how could he not? Just when he starts to worry that he'll have to take the condom off before it slips off, Joe kisses the curve of his neck. The ghost of breath across his skin and essentially taps Nicky's cock on the shoulder.  

By now, he's been so hard for so long it's almost like background radiation heating everything else he does. He's trailing his fingers down Joe's spine, trying—and succeeding, mostly—not to grind himself against Joe's hip. 

"Some nights," Joe says, "I dreamed about you, and it wasn't anything filthy at all. A few years ago, I had this amazing dream—it hurts a little, even now, thinking about it. You were tucked up behind me in bed; you had one knee between mine and your arms around me. I asked you to hold me tighter, and you did, then you told me how much you loved having me in your arms when you fell asleep. You said it was almost as good as—"

"As having you in my arms when I woke up. I didn't think you heard that."

Joe props himself on his elbow, looking straight at Nicky. "What?"

"I said that a few times, early on, before we said—anything else. It was a way of sneaking up on it, I supposed. That's why I waited until I thought you were asleep. I'd kiss you right here." It's one of his favorite spots to kiss, that little place just behind the hinge of Joe's jaw, so it's no hardship to demonstrate it now. "Then I'd say that I loved holding you, that the only thing I loved more than having you in my arms when I fell asleep was having you in my arms when I woke up. I just—I thought you couldn't hear."

"And after we'd said—the rest of it?"

"By then, I had a whole list of things I loved that I could tell you to your face, including how good it felt to hold you. No more of that, I promise. No more things I will only say while you sleep."

"You've paid attention to everything, haven't you? All night you've been watching me to see what I wanted, and not just in bed. You've been asking me how and then giving it all to me exactly how I wanted, how I needed, so I'd know that you see me, you listen." 

Nicky feels Joe's knuckle under his chin, urging him up until they're looking directly at each other. 

"Hey. I know part of what you've been trying to show me is not just that you listen or pay attention or ask what I want, but that I can trust you with those answers. You'll only use them to make me feel good, to please me or protect me or take care of me. Nicolò, I trust you."

Nicky leans into Joe's palm as it cups his face. "Making you happy makes me happy, always has. I just had some things to learn about making you happy. And some growing up to do."

"You just want to be good, don't you? You want to be good to me and good for me." Joe's kiss starts soft and sweet but ends hot and filthy. "You're so hard, baby. I know it must ache, you must want to come so much, but you waited; you wanted to be sure you'd be hard when it came time to push your desperate cock into me. Didn't you?"

Nicky nods, his face in Joe's neck. 

How long has he been humping Joe's leg like this? Not long enough to irritate Joe, clearly. Nicky nods, sinking his teeth into Joe's shoulder just because it looks tempting.  

"Someday," Nicky says, "I want you to lay just like this while I make a proper mess of you."

"You going to finger paint with it?" Joe's eyes crinkle as he smiles, and really, that's just so unfair. Nicky's having a hard enough time as it is. The sight of Joe's ass, slick and shiny with lube, does not help matters at all. "My Nicky, so good to me. I think it's time for you to fuck me." 

"I want to hold you," he says.

"Sit up, then." Nicky pushes himself back until he's seated, almost fully upright, and can't hold back his grin as Joe straddles his thighs.

Once they've arranged themselves, Joe in Nicky's lap and Nicky's hands under his ass, Nicky tips his hips up, letting Joe fall forward until Nicky has his full weight. With a happy sigh, he drops kisses along Joe's collar bone.

"I like that I'll get to kiss you." Nicky's hips twitch, and his cock slides along the crease of Joe's ass. He slaps around in the bed until he finds the lube and pours an honestly unnecessary amount of it into his hand, slicking it over his shaft and across Joe's hole.

Every roll of Nicky's hips works his cock through that lube, slipping past Joe's hole over and over. The only consolation to the way it's scrambling Nicky's mind is that it seems to be doing just the same to Joe.

"Oh, baby, Nicky, this is perfect. I love your arms around me; I love you holding me. I can just take it."

"That's what I want. You just sit there and enjoy it, feel how much I love making you whimper and moan and cry for the way I touch you. When you say the word, I'll stroke you until you come all over my fingers. You don't have to think, you don't have to talk except to say 'more' or 'now' or 'harder.' You don't have to do anything but let yourself go, and know that I've got you. I've got you."

As he speaks, his clean hand is stroking Joe's chest, feeling the soft hairs, the curve of each muscle, even the little spots of pulsing heat at each nipple. Unable to resist, he plucks at one of them. Joe might be hissing with pain, but he's pushing his chest into Nicky's hand like all he wants is more. Nicky sweeps his tongue over it, soothing that heat just as he stokes it. One hand stays over Joe's heart, but with the other, Nicky takes his cock and tucks the head right up against Joe's hole. 

"Go on then. Fill me up, stretch me over your sweet cock."

Nicky could snap his hips up, could risk throwing Joe off balance just for the satisfaction of hearing the punched-out grunt of pleasure he imagines Joe would make. Instead, he pushes, slow, relentless, unending, until he's buried halfway inside. He stops, gasping, digging his fingers into Joe's hips. He's so fucking tight; it's like the sweetest vise around Nicky's cock. It's perfect.

Joe howls; there's no other word for it. He clutches at Nicky's hair, tugging, holding on as Nicky drops his hips and pushes up, again and again, a little more each time. By the time the heat of Joe's ass is snugged up against Nicky's body, the noises have faded to rhythmic cries each time Nicky bottoms out. 

"Do you know what you're doing to me? Knowing I'm the reason behind those noises makes me so hot I can barely stand it. And your hole. God, Joe, the way it feels around me, I love this. I love it."

"So good—"

"It feels good?"

"You. You're good." 

Joe is barely coherent, and Nicky's not much better. 

 "Good to you?"

Joe shakes his head as Nicky circles his hips. "Good at this. Mine."

Choking on a moan as Joe's hole clenches around him, Nick says, "I want to be good for you, I want to be yours. This is all for you. Want me to stroke you now?" Joe nods, a sweet, low whine escaping him. The sweet ache of Joe's fingers gripping his shoulders and the heat of Joe's panting breaths against his neck is everything Nicky wanted. He keeps himself deep inside Joe, circling and grinding his hips rather than thrusting.

"Please, your hand." 

Nicky's taking in every sound, every movement, the way Joe's skin smells; he's going to be high on this for days, weeks maybe. The weight of Joe's body against him, the sinful curve of Joe's ass in his hands, that little pulsing heat of Joe's nipples, and the drag of Joe's chest hair against his skin. The furnace of Joe's slick hole pulsing around him as Joe's heart beats. Reaching down, he swipes up a bit of excess lube, then takes hold of Joe's cock. It's not hard, but it's getting there. The feel of it, still mostly soft, still dripping from earlier, makes Nicky's mouth water. If he hadn't promised to fuck Joe, he'd be on his knees right now, letting this pretty cock get hard in his mouth. 

He's so close, can feel his climax like a hand on his neck, but there's no way Nicky's coming first. He bites down on the end of his tongue. Not enough to draw blood, just enough to distract himself as he keeps thrusting, rolling his hips into Joe, pushing Joe's cock into his hand.

"Do it, baby." Joe's sounding far too coherent; Nicky should do something about that. "Make me come then; let me feel you."

"Yes. Yes. However you want." With one hand, Nicky grips Joe's neck and brings their mouths together. It's a messy, uncoordinated kiss, but it feels fantastic. When the kiss is over, Joe rests his forehead against Nicky's, whining each time Nicky's hand slips up his cock, and he thumbs at the head. 

Nicky opens his eyes, looking at Joe. "I missed you," he whispers. "I missed you so much.

Joe's mouth drops open; he doesn't make a single sound as his cock, over-sensitized and still only half-hard, pulses in Nicky's grip. It's the third time this evening, so there's barely anything spilling from Joe's cock, but Nicky can feel what little there is hot against his fingers.

His cock continues to throb in Nicky's grip as Joe is reduced to sounds that are barely more than mewling whines.

At first, Nicky's not sure he understands what happened.

"Come, Nicky. Come in me. Like I asked."

That's all it takes. Nicky grips Joe's back with his free hand, holding him so tight it must hurt, and lets his climax roll over him. 

To anyone else, Nicky probably looks like he's in pain. His face is tight, mouth slack and open, and the high, keening sound he's making is like a wounded animal. The truth is nothing in his entire life has ever felt this good. His orgasm hits him like it's squeezing the nape of his neck, and each heavy pulse of his cock as he fills the condom reminds Nicky how long he's been hard, that he's been aching to come for hours. 

One of Joe's hands comes up to curl around the one Nicky has spread over his heart. He kisses the crown of Nicky's head, his temples, the curve of his nose. As Nicky starts to come back to reality, he can hear Joe's voice. "My sweet Nicky. You were so good for me. Thank you, baby. I'm so lucky." 

Nicky presses a soft kiss to Joe's neck and hears Joe say, "Hey. You with me?" He nods, hoping that's enough. "Why don't you deal with the condom? I'll wipe myself—" Nicky whines, and Joe answers it with a laugh. "Okay, I get it. I will lay here and not move."

It's not that they regret that decision when they wake up from their doze twenty minutes later, but the clean-up certainly takes a little longer now that everything has dried. Nicky warms the washcloth again and cleans the last of their mess from Joe's legs. He drops one last, soft kiss on the head of Joe's cock, almost as a 'thank you,' before swabbing himself clean and dropping the washcloth in the bathroom.

As soon as he slips between the covers, Joe tugs him close, resting his head in the hollow of Nicky's shoulder. Nicky can smell his hair, his skin. Joe's hand brushes over his chest, and Nicky feels the calluses of his fingers. It's a charmed moment, and for a second, Nicky wishes he could live in it forever. But then, that's part of what led to years and years of feeling Joe's absence like a literal wound. 

When Joe speaks, Nicky can feel each beard hair that scrapes across his nipple, and if he weren't half-dead with exhaustion, he might clutch the back of Joe's head and beg him to keep doing that. As it is, he scratches his nails over Joe's scalp and listens.

"Come to breakfast with Andy and Quynh tomorrow before we head home?"

"Will they eat me alive?"

"Only a little. I want them to know you." 

Nicky buries his grin in Joe's curls. 

"While we're planning, if you're free two Saturdays from now, will you come to Edinburgh with me?"

"Another reading?" Joe nods, and Nicky squirms under the sensation. "I'd love that."

"Then, after the reading, come home with me? Meet my mother and father. Meet the girls event, if you want to. You can take a late train back on Sunday."

"No, a late train—"

"I'll even pay for a flight if it's faster."

"You don't have to do that."

"Nicky, I don't want this to be a thing that only happens in hotel rooms like we're sneaking away from our real lives."

"Of course not, and neither do I. I want you to be part of my real life; I want you to meet my friends and cook with me and all those things we didn't get a chance to do last time because we were busy trying to make it a fairy tale." He tips Joe's chin up, meeting his eyes. "I was going to say that I could talk to my boss and see if I can take a Monday train. Would that mess up your schedule?"

"Not at all, and even if it were, I'd still find a way to make it work. I’ll tell my mother, she’ll be planning dinner before we even hang up the phone." He sighs, and Nicky can feel Joe's arm draped around his waist, Joe's thumb brushing across Nicky's ribs. "I can already tell I'm going to get hooked on falling asleep like this, and I won't want to go without it longer than I have to."

"Edinburgh then," Nicky says. "And everything that comes after." 

 


 

Excerpt from the Sunday Book Review

After stunning critics and readers alike with his twist on fairy tales in his last novel, we were prepared for another course change when Yusuf al-Kaysani announced he was working on a new book. The collection of short stories he published last year, all set in the same town in the same week, breathed life into the Rashomon trope that's become a bit predictable after being borrowed for so many television shows. 

By the time his publishers announced that his third novel would be released this September, we had all learned our lesson. Expect the unexpected. 

Somehow, even as we'd prepared for anything, he surprised us again. At heart, 'Nova' is a political thriller featuring explorers and diplomats, the world-weary, and those fresh with promise. Even against the backdrop of interplanetary travel and court intrigue, he has managed to bring a brightness and perspective uncommon in the genre. 

We caught up with him recently at a reading in Basel, where we sat down to talk about the novel, politics, spoiled cats, and the nature of love. Since the intriguing hints he dropped about his second novel's motivation and inspiration, asking al-Kaysani about the inspiration for his books has become a favorite pastime for interviewers. This writer, sadly, is not immune. 

I ask if this one comes from a place of personal experience. 

"In a way, I suppose. I wanted to look at the human experience of travel, how it's fundamentally the same from man's earliest venturing away from the safety of our group to the characters in this story, who are visiting uncharted space and navigating the uneasy landscape of court politics."

"I think we've all learned by now that your work always has another level." Unrepentant, al-Kaysani shrugs.

"Well, not all journeys happen from one place to another. I also wanted to look at the way we find new places within ourselves and the way the landscapes in our hearts change as we grow and explore." 

He smiles and twists the ring on his finger. "My husband and I met while traveling. We're still exploring the world, still visiting new cities and countries together. But our relationship has also shown us unexplored places in our hearts, and I find a particular joy in mapping them. Our time together has changed the shape of our individual lives. With him, I am discovering new worlds every day."

He sits forward; his following words are quieter, as if we're in on a secret together. "Also, he's a scientist, and I am weak for his mind. By writing science fiction, I got to ask him to tell me about astronomy as often as I wanted."

I want to ask if this is the same man who inspired the love story of his second novel, but that can wait until after we eat.