“This is an office, not the ZOO!” Andy yells as she pulls Joe off the asshole who’d seen fit to drop an entire printer onto Joe’s toes. At 8 a.m. in the morning. On office moving day.
“He started it!” Joe complains, because he is apparently eight years old again.
“Me?” The other guy looks like he’s about to punch Joe, but he’s also being held back by a tall blond man who has his arms in a gridlock around the guy’s shoulders. They’re very nice, broad shoulders. But Joe isn’t looking at them. “You were the one who attacked me first!”
“I did no such thing,” Joe shouts, “you were the one who assaulted me with a printer!”
“I dropped it by accident because you didn’t watch where you were going and ran straight into me!”
“One more word,” Andy cuts him off, “and I’ll personally make sure you’re both suspended for the next two weeks.”
Joe turns to Andy with big eyes. She’s been his boss since he started with the company and while she’s known to be tough, surely she wouldn’t do that.
“Glad something’s got your attention,” she sounds gruffer than she looks as she lets Joe go. Out of the corner of his eyes, Joe sees the blonde guy following her lead and letting Joe’s, Joe’s—opponent go as well.
“Now take a moment to cool down and then get back to work - at opposite ends of the building, preferably.” Andy mimes that she’ll keep an eye on both of them, then she ushers them out of different exits for some fresh air.
“And don’t think there won’t be consequences. I’ll have to talk to HR.”
In Joe’s defence, having a whole printer dropped on his foot first thing in the morning had been the last in a long line of unfortunate events that had decorated his morning up until that point. Could he have handled it more graciously? Sure.
Should he have handled it more graciously? Almost definitely.
It is, after all, the first day in the new office after the company Joe works at was bought out by a bigger one. He and Andy had gotten there early to help set up workplaces for their colleagues, so he can consider himself lucky that not many people had been there to notice his altercation with the other guy. Whether Joe had started it or not, chances are people see a brown guy shouting once and that’s what they’ll always remember him like.
This shit is bad enough to deal with on a normal day and without him fucking up so badly. It’s just that his alarm had woken him at an hour that had felt like the middle of the night, it’s that he had begged for an overpriced, overly sweet coffee from a coffee shop that was barely open on his way in, only to then drop said drink on the bus when it had taken a turn he hadn't been prepared for. Because it's a new commute and he couldn’t get through his morning on autopilot like he usually does.
Joe sighs and rakes a hand over his face. There’s no point avoiding it, though.
On his way back into the building, he runs into the other guy at the lifts. He levels an impressive scowl at Joe when they both reach to press the same button, then turns around and stalks off to take the stairs instead. Which is probably something he does often, if his ass is anything to go by. Not that Joe was watching him go. Or if he was, he wasn’t checking him out.
Joe’s head snaps back to the lift when it announces its presence with a loud ‘ping’. He really needs that coffee.
At the end of Joe’s first work day in the new building, Andy pulls him and the other guy into her office. Doesn’t offer either of them a seat, so they just stand there while Andy leans back against her desk.
“Normally I’d have handled this with a simple disciplinary, but the new boss wants to make a bit of an example of you, I’m afraid.”
Joe’s heart sinks. The ink on the acquisition contracts has barely dried, he knows layoffs aren’t completely off the table yet. Are they both fired? He glances over at the other man, who is taking this in with a face of stoic indifference, jaw clenched. Joe resists the urge to roll his eyes. Ignoring the morning, he actually had a very successful first day. Most of his new colleagues seem lovely and it hadn’t taken him long at all to get used to the new company software. It would be a shame if they were being let go over something so… petty.
“You’re not getting fired or suspended, but Merrick wants you to do a couple of sessions of reconciliation therapy.”
Joe frowns. He knows their new boss has a reputation for some unusual working methods, which Joe had always put down to the fact that people also call him a “visionary”. He had just never assumed the talking cure would be one of them. But if venting his feelings is all he’ll have to do, that’s barely an inconvenience at all. And all while on the clock? It almost seems like a treat.
As if she's reading his mind, Andy adds: “After work.”
That explains it.
Their first counselling session is set later that week on Thursday, with a counsellor Merrick has recommended personally. Since Joe isn’t paying for it, he doesn’t really think too hard about who is getting what out of this arrangement.
He doesn’t purposefully set out to be late for the appointment – Joe never sets out to be late for anything, it’s something that just happens – but it’s his first week working for pretty much a new company, he’s still getting to grips with things. And if him doing some unpaid overtime means he’s a little late to the session, he’s sure no one will mind.
He’s fully prepared to ruefully knock on the door and apologise profusely for being late but just as he rounds the corner to the street of the counsellor’s office, he sees the other guy crossing the street in front of it. When he spots Joe, he waits for him in front of the office.
He doesn’t say anything when Joe does a little jog to catch-up – why does he do that, they’re already late, this isn’t going to change anything – just slightly narrows his eyebrows.
Joe nods at him but otherwise forgoes a greeting because they’re not exactly on speaking terms and makes to open the door. His efforts are hindered by the other guy’s hand coming out to stop him, blocking the door handle with his arm.
Joe‘s about to shoot the guy a confused-to-annoyed glare when he catches the guy’s eyes. He clenches his jaw again as he thrusts his hand out for Joe to shake.
“Nicky,” he says, his voice rasping. On instinct, Joe shakes his hand. It’s very broad and very soft and very warm. Joe doesn’t know why he keeps noticing these things.
“Joe,” he introduces himself.
Nicky nods, once, like this is a somehow satisfactory answer. Which is just as well, because Joe isn’t sure what else he’d say, exactly. After another second, Nicky takes his arm away and gestures for Joe to open the door with the universal “after you” gesture. Joe very nearly rolls his eyes again.
Their counsellor – James Copley is his name, if Joe remembers correctly from the business card Andy gave him – looks more or less pointedly at his watch when Nicky and Joe shuffle into his tastefully decorated office, mumbling their apologies. He has a notepad open on top of his crossed legs and Joe and Nicky both sink into the armchairs in front of him. They’re very comfortable and Joe can just picture himself picking up a book from one of the shelves and relaxing for a moment. Maybe this whole thing isn’t going to be so bad after all.
Copley clears his throat. “Thank you so much for making the time to come in today.”
Joe can’t help the scoff that escapes his throat, but it’s Nicky who says: “Well, it wasn’t exactly a choice.”
He’s looking at his knees when both Copley and Joe glance over at him, so Copley smiles sympathetically at Joe.
“We’ll get to that in a second. But I am glad that you’re both here and have made the decision to support your partner that way.”
“Partner?” Nicky’s head snaps up.
“Or whatever term you prefer. Would you like me to use a different one? Boyfriend? Husband?”
Joe would think this is an elaborate joke from their new boss, only Joe’s heard him make jokes in meetings and this doesn’t really seem like his humour at all. He looks at Nicky. It’s obvious that some wires got crossed somewhere and Joe thinks that maybe he should correct Copley, only he can’t do that, because then he’d have to tell him why he’s actually here and he really doesn’t want to do that. Things were said that he isn’t proud of and he’s almost willing to bet Nicky feels the same.
He glances over at the other man. It takes him a moment to recognise Nicky’s shit-eating grin for what it is but when he does, he smiles. And hopes that this time, they are on the same page.
“No, no, ‘partner’ is fine,” Joe says.
“Great,” Copley says. “Let’s start with an easy one: How long have you been together?”
Joe flicks his eyes up at the ceiling as if he needs to think about this for a moment. Which he does, because he’s known Nicky all of four days.
“It’s been nearly four.”
It’s the same sound Nicky made after Joe admonished him for being clumsy with a printer but now Joe detects a hint of humour in his tone.
“I was rounding down.”
“Oh, now you’re rounding down? I’m sure you were rounding up when—”
“Okay, let’s stop there,” Copley interrupts him, eyes a little wider as he scribbles down on his notepad.
Joe bites his lip and stares at his hands. If he looks at Nicky now, he’ll do something stupid, like burst into laughter or notice how pretty the curve of Nicky's mouth is when he’s trying not to smile.
Copley looks back up at them. “Now, you’ve been referred to me by a friend, which is an unusual situation. It’s normally at least one partner who seeks counselling when troubles first appear, so can I ask, other than the recommendation from your friend, what brought you in today?”
Joe tries to keep his face carefully neutral when he glances over at Nicky again, trying to figure out how far he’s willing to take this without giving anything away to Copley.
“I feel like we’ve been fighting half the time we’ve known each other,” Joe says.
Nicky nods in affirmation. “We keep misunderstanding each other.”
Copley smiles empathetically. “Great, let’s explore that. And then maybe we’ll spend a few sessions trying some methods on how you can fight more productively and be more attuned to your partner’s communication style. How does that sound?”
All things considered, the session isn’t too bad – they chat a bit more about themselves individually and Copley says he will mail them a therapeutic agreement with what they said they want to accomplish.
Joe continues to sneak sly glances at Nicky when the other man is speaking. By the time he’s shaking Copley’s hand good-bye, he’s barely holding it together anymore.
They make it out of the door and onto the street, both looking at the window and then at each other before Joe cracks completely. It’s a mix of the mirth in Nicky’s eyes and the ridiculousness of the situation that has him shaking with laughter.
Copley’s face! And Nicky’s absolute audacity to suggest—well. He wouldn’t know, really.
They somehow make it to the closest bus stop but when they finally calm down, Nicky is giving Joe a look he can’t quite read.
“That was much more fun than I expected it to be.”
Nicky ducks his head in assent, only the hint of a smile on his lips. “How long do you think until he realises?”
Joe shrugs. “He’ll probably re-read his e-mails and send us a stern letter later. Or if not, probably when one of us slips up next time.”
Nicky nods distractedly but when he looks back at Joe, there's a new glint in his eyes that makes the hairs on Joe’s neck stand up in-- not fear, exactly. But it’s also not quite in delight and Joe doesn’t know Nicky well enough to know what to expect yet. (And anything else he might feel he doesn’t care to look at too closely.)
“Want to bet?”
“Bet what?” Joe asks. “When he notices or who is going to slip up first?”
“I was going to say when he notices. But now I think I prefer betting on who slips up first.”
And it’s not like Joe would’ve said no, anyway, but there is no way that he could
have now that Nicky is smiling at him. It’s a great smile. Maybe he should’ve just done that after he’d dropped the printer on Joe’s foot instead of huffing angrily. Joe thinks he might’ve been unable to complain at all if that had been the case. But then they wouldn’t be here at all, so there’s no point dwelling on it. (And Nicky could’ve at least apologised.)
Joe grins back. “You’re on.”
The next week passes by in a blur, but it gives Joe time to consider whatever had possessed him to be so distracted by Nicky that he decided to not just lie to their counsellor, but also bet on when he’d notice. (Joe deliberately ignores the fact that if Nicky hadn’t suggested it, the chances that he would have done it are quite high.)
The way Joe sees it, Nicky has a wicked sense of humour and is very handsome and probably a bit of an asshole and they just happened to have two very unfortunate first encounters that highlighted all these qualities in equal measure. Although not so much an asshole as to have a problem with someone assuming he’s gay. Well, everyone has some redeeming qualities.
But Joe doesn’t need to concern himself with any of these things. He can just have fun in the therapy sessions and after that he will have a collegial relationship with Nicky that won’t extend beyond the odd small talk at all-company meetings. He hasn’t even seen Nicky at work all week. It can’t be too hard to avoid him in the future.
When Thursday rolls around again, Joe is almost excited to go to therapy. He hangs around the entrance of their office building for a bit - it would make sense for him and Nicky to go there together, wouldn’t it? - but when Nicky doesn’t show after five minutes and he is going to be late again, Joe leaves without him. When he gets to Copley’s office, Nicky is already there, sitting in the same armchair as last time. Joe’s apologies for his lateness earn him a stern look from Copley and a sheepish smile from Nicky. He sits down.
“I’d like to focus today’s session on how you both see your relationship at the moment so we can work out where your communication problems stem from. So, I would like to hear from both of you, in your own words, how you would tell the story of your relationship.” Copley looks at both of them. “Nicolò, why don’t you start this time?”
Joe would like to pretend that Nicky looks like a deer caught in headlights because that is very much how Joe feels at the prospect of having to make up a whole relationship history on the spot. And on the first day of their bet in action, when it's all about who is going to slip up first. He should have come prepared, because Nicky just smiles, barely more than a curl of the corner of his mouth, before he clears his throat.
“Yeah, so, it all started four years ago,” he says. “I’d just finished my PhD in London and decided I would try and look for a job there instead of going back home.”
“Hm. Where are you from originally?” Copley asks.
“Italy,” Nicky says, his vowels long and elegant. Joe feels like he should’ve noticed this sooner, the way Nicky's accent stretches around words but he doesn’t think he’s heard Nicky speak this much in one go before.
"But when my current boss offered me a job he said he was trying to open a second office in Edinburgh and asked if I could see myself moving to Scotland. I didn’t know anything about the city at the time but I said yes immediately. I moved here a month later, all by myself. I met Joe, or maybe I should say I ran into Joe when I was carrying boxes up into my flat at the top of the house. I didn’t see him coming down the stairs and he startled me when he bumped into me so I dropped the box I was carrying on him. He said, ‘what have you got in there, bricks?’ ‘Some of these books might as well be, yeah.’ But then he helped me with the rest of my boxes and after I’d told him I was new to the city he showed up to my flat with some flowers as a housewarming gift a day later and decided he’d take it on himself to show me around; to the Botanical Gardens, Arthur’s Seat, Dean Village, The Castle, something else every weekend. It was in the zoo where we had our first kiss.”
Joe is reminded of Andy’s comment when she pulled them apart the first day they met and doesn’t stifle his snort in time. If the look of reproach on Copley’s face is anything to go by, he’s selling the asshole boyfriend part at least, so it doesn’t count as a slip up.
"That sounds very romantic," Copley observes.
"So when did you first start having issues?"
"It's—It's not really an issue. Or not a big issue. He doesn't cheat on me or anything."
Good, Joe thinks, because he would have walked out if Nicky had said he did. Instead, Nicky sighs, long and drawn out, a tactic to buy himself time to think if Joe's ever seen one.
"It just feels like we're not going anywhere. It's been four years and we still haven't met each other's family. We still live apart, even though it's the same building and sometimes I don't hear from him for days unless I literally knock on his door. I don't mean that we need to get married but I feel like we should be a little further by now."
"Do you think Joe is afraid to commit?"
“I’m not commitment-phobic!” Joe interrupts and Nicky levels a cool stare at him. He’s soft-spoken but there’s a calm earnestness to his voice that had momentarily made Joe forget that this is not, actually, the story of how they had met each other.
“Please don’t interrupt your partner, you will get your chance in a moment,” Copley chides.
“No, that’s okay. I’m done.” Nicky’s tone is polite, for Copley, but the look he shoots Joe is unmistakable. Let’s see if you can top this.
“Thank you, Nicolò.” Copley makes some notes on his pad. “Now, Yusuf. Please describe your relationship to me, in your own words.”
Joe swallows, now that he feels both of their eyes on him. “Well, it’s—it’s like Nicky said, I met him because he dropped his—books on my foot. And I was annoyed at first, I’d been having a terrible day although I can’t remember why and this seemed like it was just the cherry on top. So I was very close to giving him a piece of my mind, but then I saw what he looked like behind that box...and I was a man in love.”
Copley gives him a small smile. Maybe he’s back in the good books.
“So I set my mind to finding out what he was doing in the city, hoping that he was new so I’d have an excuse to see him again. He was, so I made use of that excuse and asked him out. And then we went from there."
Copley nods, seemingly unconvinced by this. “So where would you say the problems in your relationship actually lie?”
“Well it’s not that I’m a commitment-phobe,” Joe says and he hates how defensive he sounds, even though none of this is actually real.
But Copley is still waiting for an answer, so Joe roots around in his brain for something that he could blame Nicky for. Their eyes meet for a moment and there is that cool stare combined with the curl of his mouth again.
“But it’s been four years and I still don’t know how to read this man,” Joe says. “I took him onto five dates before I worked up the nerve to kiss him because I couldn’t be sure if my advances were returned. I didn’t even know if he was interested in men!”
Copley frowns. “How did you expect to know?”
“You just know,” they both say at once, and Joe is fighting down a smile again. It is… increasingly less likely that Nicky is straight.
“And he never communicates anything!” Joe launches back into his monologue. “How am I supposed to know he wants to move in with me if he doesn’t tell me? No, he just makes assumptions about what I want and doesn’t tell me how he feels.”
Nicky rolls his eyes. “Oh, of course, because telling others how we feel at all times is the only way to get through life.”
“At least I’ve never given anyone the silent treatment!”
“Oh, you’re going to wish the silent treatment is all I give you,” Nicky says and Copley uses the pause in which Joe swallows, again, to interrupt them.
“Right, let’s take a breather there. If I may make an observation, it seems to me that while you are both still committed to this relationship, you struggle with communicating this effectively to one another. Is that fair?"
Joe glances over at Nicky. He can still feel the weight of his "You wish” deep in his gut. He can also still remember Nicky calling him an imbecile two weeks ago. Both sentences have a very different feeling attached to them.
He nods at Copley, who looks happy to have gotten somewhere.
"Great, thank you. We can work from here."
After the session, Nicky walks with Joe to the bus stop again.
"I liked the bit with the flowers," Joe hears himself saying to break the silence. "That was a nice touch."
"I thought so, too. Was very romantic of you."
Joe can't help the little laugh that escapes him at that. If he didn’t know any better, he’d almost think that Nicky is flirting with him. But Nicky isn’t even looking at him, just smiling that small smile of his to himself. No, he’s beginning to learn that this is just Nicky’s sense of humour. A little strange, but charming in its own way.
“We never said what the bet was about, by the way.”
Nicky looks like he considers this for a moment. “Whoever slips up first has to tell Merrick that Copley has been giving us the wrong kind of therapy?”
Joe smiles, both at the suggestion and because he was right: Nicky just has a strange sense of humour.
“You’re a twisted man, Nicky.”
It takes Joe a moment to realise ‘John’ is supposed to be him.
Merrick has materialised in front of his desk, but he is barely looking at Joe, instead scrolling through something on his phone. In short, he doesn’t look like someone who’d take kindly to being corrected right now, so Joe decides to let it slide.
“There’s a little… hmm, it’s like a typo.” Merrick zooms in on something on his phone and shoves it into Joe’s face. It’s the company website, and he has highlighted a few words in a paragraph at the bottom of the about section.
“It looks like the font is just wrong, there?”
Joe looks at the phone, then back at Merrick, then back at the phone. The font is wrong, sort of. He’s just not quite sure why Merrick is telling him.
He clears his throat. “Okay?”
Merrick takes his phone back and begins scrolling again. “So I need you to fix that please.”
Ah. Joe had a feeling it would come to this, but it’s always the same flavour of mild annoyance.
“Uhm. I’m not—I don’t usually do the front end stuff,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t—I build the websites, but I don’t design them. I don’t fix… typos.”
Merrick looks up from his phone. “But Andromache assured me she had a great team of UX Developers.”
“Yes, my team is great, they—”
“And UX stands for User Experience, does it not?”
“And this font problem impacts the experience our users have of the website. So. Fix. It.”
Joe breathes out once, through his mouth. He kind of wants to argue but he’s not sure what it would accomplish. The last time he argued with someone it got him signed up to therapy and worse, this is his boss.
“Sure. I’ll get right on that.”
He waits for Merrick to saunter off before he pulls open the employee database to look for a web designer. If they don’t have anyone on staff he’ll have to ask someone from his team to figure it out, which he’d rather not do. Most of them are already swamped and would look at him the same way he’s just looked at Merrick if he asked them.
“I can fix that for you,” a voice in front of him says.
Joe looks up. It belongs to the blond man who Joe vaguely remembers holding Nicky back from him on his first day in the office.
“I couldn’t help overhear your conversation with Merrick,” the man says. “My name’s Booker, I sit just over there. I’ve been doing some of the web design for Merrick but apparently not enough for him to know the difference between a developer and a designer.”
Joe snorts, but not too loudly. Apparently it’s quite easy to be overheard here.
“Joe,” he introduces himself. “And that would be amazing, thank you.”
“No problem.” Booker steps around his desk and lets Joe show him what Merrick wants fixed. “I’ll get that done just after lunch. Speaking of: Wanna head out to grab something?”
“Sure, that sounds great. Let me grab my stuff.”
They head out to the chippy round the corner for some chips and gravy and commiserate about shared work experiences and the various ineptitudes of their boss. Which is how Joe ends up making his first friend from the new company who isn’t Nicky. Not that Nicky is his friend, exactly, but he’s not quite sure what else to call him, anymore.
Joe doesn’t wait for Nicky ahead of the next counselling session, but he’s still late because the bus he took to speed up his journey gets stuck in the commuter traffic on Princes Street. Nicky somehow gets there even later than him.
“You do realise you’re paying for the full session regardless?” It’s the first time Copley’s said anything about it and they both twist in their seats like schoolboys.
“My apologies,” Copley says immediately after, “I didn’t mean to overstep, although I would like to point out that you may want to consider whether you both have a tendency to prioritise your own time over your partner’s and whether this has led to fights in the past.”
Joe opens his mouth to reply, but Copley has already moved on.
“Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to focus today’s session on.” He leans back in his chair and staples his fingers in front of him. “Why don’t you tell me about your sex life?”
Joe doesn’t get round to closing his mouth again.
Nicky clears his throat. “I’m sorry?”
“Your sex life.”
If their ruse weren't about to come crashing down on them, Joe would envy Copley for the warm maturity with which he asks the question.
“Do you have sex with each other? Are you content with how often you have sex? The kind of sex you’re having?”
The way Copley phrases the question, it almost sounds like he’s offering them a way out: they could pretend they’re asexual. Joe glances over at Nicky. If Copley already suspects them of lying to him, then saying they don’t sleep with each other now is surely as good as a confirmation.
And Joe is not going to be the one to tell Merrick about the mix-up, not after Booker told him how the man reacted to an intern getting his coffee order wrong.
“Yes,” he hears himself say, “one hundred percent. The sex is amazing.”
Joe almost feels Nicky’s head whip around to stare at him; he ignores that this makes heat crawl up his collar. He’s aware that he could leave it at that, should probably leave it at that. He doubles down.
“When we’re intimate with each other, it’s like we have this... special connection. When I have him naked in front of me and his eyes light up with the heat of a thousand suns, it’s like nothing else matters.”
Joe is not entirely sure where these words are coming from, but he’s decided he’s going to care about that later.
“I’ve never known anything like it. Sleeping with Nicky is not just having sex, it’s more than making love, it’s a dance that makes me feel connected not just to him, but all of humankind. It’s sensual beyond compare.”
Nicky clenches his jaw. Joe is beginning to consider that this may or may not get him punched and just hopes that Nicky is better than that. At least he’d have won the bet, in that case.
“Early in our relationship, there were days when we wouldn’t leave the bed at all, spending hours wringing pleasure out of each other’s bodies. I kept thinking, ‘this is just a phase, the passion will wane, it has to,’ but somehow it never did. We still have sex almost every day.”
Joe is sure that as a counsellor, Copley has heard all sorts of things, but the incredulous stare he gives him is still priceless. He doesn’t even notice the shit-eating grin that’s wormed its way onto Nicky’s face.
“It’s true,” he backs Joe up. “And not just the bed. Sometimes I will see him have his coffee in the kitchen and I just have to have him right then and there.”
Joe tries very hard not to picture this, Nicky’s broad hands on his hips, pushing him up against a counter—He fails.
Copley clears his throat. A small line has appeared between his eyebrows. “So when you sleep with each other, you don’t have any of the usual communication issues? No… problems with intimacy?”
Nicky shakes his head, smirking at Joe. “No. When he takes my clothes off, I know exactly what he wants.”
“And he gives it to me.”
“Many times a night, usually.”
Joe has to look away, not sure who he’s hiding his smile from – Copley or Nicky.
“I admit, this is a curious case,” Copley says. “I’m not quite sure I understand.”
Nicky shrugs. “It’s quite simple: he kisses me and I’m at ease. It’s when he doesn’t throw away his empty shampoo bottles that the problems start.”
Copley nods, like this clears things up. Joe’s not sure it does, but there’s one conclusion he reaches nonetheless: Nicky is definitely not straight.
Andy takes Joe out for lunch the week after. This is not, in itself, a bad sign – she used to take Joe out for lunch all the time. They’ve been working with each other for so long that even though she is technically his boss, Joe can’t help but also think of her as a friend.
That’s why he only laughs when Andy orders a bottle of wine with an eyebrow quirk that tells him she has no intentions of returning to the office later that day.
“How is the counselling going?” Andy asks, looking at him over the rim of her glass.
Joe doesn’t answer immediately. He’s not really sure how it happened, but suddenly, Nicky is everywhere. He’s run into him in the staff kitchen eight times this week already and it’s only Tuesday. They don’t really make small talk, just sort of… awkwardly, conspiratorially smile at each other, but Joe’s beginning to think his plan of avoiding Nicky after the whole therapy thing is not going to work out.
“Yeah,” is all Joe says.
Andy sighs. “Listen. I don’t want to put pressure on you, but for your own benefit, I think you should use this opportunity to make the most of it.”
And the worst thing, arguably, is that Nicky isn’t just everywhere in the office, he also won’t leave Joe’s thoughts. Two days ago, he’d woken up in the middle of the night from a rather vivid dream of Nicky manhandling him the way he’d described in Copley’s office. When Joe closes his eyes, he can still replay Nicky’s exact intonation of the words in his mind, and it’s been driving him slowly insane. It feels wrong to touch himself thinking of a colleague, but if this goes on, he might have to.
Too late, he notices that Andy is waiting for a reaction of some sort.
She fondly rolls her eyes at him. “Okay, Joe. You didn’t hear this from me, but Merrick is planning to combine a few departments into bigger ones, including the UX Development department and the Research & Development department.”
Joe sighs, long and deep, because he knows that at least Andy will understand. “Have you told him that that kind of development is entirely different?”
Andy regards him with another look over her wine glass, which he knows means he needn’t have even asked.
“Thank you,” he says instead. “But why tell me already?”
Andy wipes her mouth. “Because it would mean you and Nicky would probably head up this department together. So I’m really hoping this counselling works.”
Nicky jogs up after him just as Joe leaves the office for their next counselling session. It shouldn’t have the effect it has on Joe, the awkward ripple of his muscles stiffening as Nicky catches up with him, but Joe can’t help it. He knew he’d see Nicky at counselling today, but he had planned to use the walk there to prepare himself for it.
Joe thought he might embarrass Nicky in the way he described their fake sex life to Copley, but instead, he’s the one who’s ended up embarrassed.
Whenever he sees Nicky know he feels like he’s touched a hot iron, thoughts of what it would be like to actually have Nicky spread out on his sheets, towering over him, wrapping his arms and legs around his torso. Would they have that kind of chemistry together? Joe’s not sure and he doesn’t know why he’s considering it. These are lies they’re telling Copley, Joe wasn’t supposed to believe them himself.
“How are you?” he asks when Nicky catches up with him.
“I’m okay, thank you. Feel like I’ve finally, what’s the word you use, settled a bit.”
Joe looks over to him with a question on his face.
“Oh, uh,” Nicky starts, not quite meeting his eyes, “I’m new to Edinburgh. I moved here a few weeks ago when Merrick offered to relocate my job from London.”
“And let me guess, you’ve just finished your PhD?”
Nicky chuckles at the reference. “Ah, no, not quite. I finished four years ago, in London and then I started working for Merrick there. Only relocated a little over a month ago.”
“Well, now you probably won’t leave again,” Joe says with a smile so it doesn’t come off as a threat. “I only came for university and suddenly it’s ten years later and I still live here. But why wouldn’t I? I’ve got a nice life here, and it’s a beautiful city.”
“It is. I took a week off a few weeks ago to do all the life admin and all the tourist attractions.”
Shame. I could have shown you around, you know, Joe thinks but stops himself from saying. Maybe this is why he doesn’t talk to Nicky in the office, because somehow he always says things that are more flirtatious than he means them. It also explains why Joe is suddenly seeing him everywhere; Nicky simply hadn’t been in the office when Joe was still trying to fool himself that he could avoid him. Only that means—
“Wait, you had time off and still came to the session? We could have pushed it!”
Nicky shrugs. “Seemed like more hassle than it was worth at the time. I still learned something about the city, didn’t I?”
Joe decides that this is another thing he is not going to think about. He walks a little faster, and it’s the first time they’re on time for their session.
Instead of the armchairs they are greeted by a dark green couch in the middle of Copley’s office. It’s not small, exactly, but they’re both tall men and when Copley motions for them to sit it’s impossible to do so without touching.
Joe tries not to focus on the point where Nicky’s knee is pressing into his. He fails.
“We’re going to work on a few strategies that will help you communicate better with each other, today,” Copley tells them. “From what you’ve told me so far, it seems that you both struggle to articulate and show each other what it is that you want from this in the future, but the physical component of your relationship is very strong, so I thought it might help if you were closer.”
They… had said that.
“So, what we’re going to do is, I’m going to ask you to have an argument, the kind of argument you always seem to keep coming back to. Any ideas?”
Joe shifts in his seat. They haven’t had any real argument since their very first meeting. If they had actually gone to reconciliation therapy about it, they’d probably have talked it through in one session, apologised, then laughed about it the next day. Instead, they now enter a parallel universe every time they step into Copley’s office, one in which Nicky is emotionally unavailable and Joe is scared of commitment. Oh, and in which they’ve not managed to sort that out in four years of relationship.
He looks at Nicky. “What about… you not being able to get a hold of me?”
Nicky shrugs in assent, and Copley smiles.
“Great. Now, when you’re having this argument I would like you to pay attention to your body language in particular. Not just your own, but specifically your partner’s. What is he signalling to you? What is it that he may not be saying, and how can you tell him that you hear him without using words? I want you to try and combine physical aspects of communication that you know work for you with verbal communication to better articulate your feelings and needs.”
“Like what?” Nicky asks. He sounds a little hoarse.
“Anything that works, there are no rules here. You might want to start by holding hands and then going from there.”
Joe almost flinches when Nicky lightly rests his palm on top of his hand. It’s warm and Joe is feeling very hot all of a sudden. He clears his throat and turns to Nicky, a motion that makes their knees press even closer.
“Why are you not answering your phone?” Nicky asks. He sounds more hurt than accusatory.
“I was painting; I didn’t want to be interrupted. Why? Did you need anything?”
“Do I have to need anything to call you?”
“I don’t know if you don’t tell me.”
Nicky’s staring at him intently and Joe is beginning to hate how blithe he sounds. If this was a real fight, he’d never brush someone’s concerns under the carpet like that.
“Don’t—” Nicky starts but interrupts himself, turning on the couch so he’s facing Joe head on, shoulders open. “Don’t make me sound like I’m being unreasonable. You were the one who stopped replying to my texts. You could have told me you were turning your phone off.”
“Were you worried about me?” Joe leans in, but Nicky turns away. There is a strain in his cheek from where he is grinding his teeth against each other and Joe let’s go of his hand to reach out and touch it. He’s almost surprised when it works, Nicky’s tension melting under his fingers.
“Great, you’re doing great,” Copley tells them.
But Joe doesn’t think he knows just how great they actually are at this, responding to each other’s cues about the web of lies they were telling Copley ever since they walked through his doors.
“Now try and use the physical connection you have with each other to understand what your partner isn’t telling you: Why might Nicky have been worried? Why did Joe not see an issue turning off his phone?”
They look at each other. Joe is still cupping Nicky’s jaw and he’s not sure where to take this scene from here. If this was a real problem they were having, he feels like this exercise could be helpful, cathartic even, but as it is, he feels like he’s treading water, trying not to overstep while selling a lie.
“I can tell that this is getting a little uncomfortable for both of you, so I will turn around in my chair to give you some more space with the exercise," Copley says.
Nicky looks back at Joe once Copley has fully turned around, and Joe tries not to crumble under the weight of his stare. Belatedly, he thinks he might take his hand away now that Copley is not looking anymore, but Nicky is already pressing his cheek back into it.
“Of course I was worried,” Nicky says, much more firmly this time. “How does it not occur to you that I care about you? That I might think bad things have happened to you, or—or feel like you’ve lost interest in me when I don’t hear from you for hours?”
“How does it not occur to me? How would I know, if you don’t tell me these things! I’m not going to assume that you care what I do with my time if you never show an interest.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true! When was the last time you’ve shown me—”
Joe never learns how he was going to finish that sentence, because before he can, Nicky leans in to kiss him. It’s quick and awkward, he doesn’t get the angle quite right, but it’s more than enough to distract Joe from what he was saying.
“There. Just now,” Nicky says. Bright red is staining his cheeks, but Joe is only looking at his mouth. His lips are softer than Joe imagined they’d be, because he’d be lying if he said that he hadn’t. He wants to kiss Nicky again.
Joe is almost leaning back in when Copley turns around again, a bright smile on his face.
“Great work, both of you. I feel like we’ve made great progress today.”
Joe nods, absent-mindedly, as he untangles himself from Nicky.
They’ve certainly come far.
Joe does sort of try to avoid Nicky after that. He knows it’s futile, their office isn’t that big and they do still have the counselling sessions together, but he had hoped he’d at least make it through Friday. And not for Merrick, of all people, to force them into the same room. Literally.
Most people leave early on Friday, so when Joe receives an invitation for a five pm meeting he knows something bad is about to happen.
If Andy hadn’t already told him about Merrick’s plans to make him a department head, he would have spent the entire day panicking that he’s about to get fired; instead, he only catches on when it’s ten to five and he and Nicky are the only people left in the office.
Copley must’ve had a chat with Merrick, Joe thinks when they both get up at the same time to approach Merrick’s office. His heart sinks.
“Ah, gentlemen. Take a seat.” Merrick turns in his seat to look at them like a Bond villain, expression somewhere between exceedingly cheery and threatening. Joe can’t get a read on him. “May I ask – and I take this quite literally – what the fuck your problem is?”
Joe swallows. Betting about having to tell Merrick about the mix-up with Copley had been all fun and games, but the reality of having him spewing in their faces makes Joe want to bail.
“A whole month of reconciliation therapy? What can this conflict possibly be that you still need to see Copley about this?”
“I can explain—” Nicky starts, but is cut off by Merrick.
“I sure hope you can, but I don’t want to hear it. No, gentlemen, this ends tonight.” He gets up and pulls a blazer over his jumper. “I hope you didn’t have any evening plans, because I’m going to leave you in this office until 8pm and by that point I want this issue sorted once and for all. I don’t care how you sort this out, if you have to yell or punch each other, as long as when you set foot in this office on Monday, I never have to hear about it again. Understood?”
Joe feels like he should argue, but the sheer relief that Merrick didn’t find out about the fact that they’ve been going to couples instead of reconciliation therapy is too stark, so he just nods.
“My secretary will let you out later,” Merrick says and locks his office door behind him.
The air he leaves behind in the office feels strangely deflated. Joe looks around for something to distract him but can’t find anything, the walls are bare apart from some soulless shapes he’s supposed to think is modern art and the desk is almost comically sterile apart from the computer, some hand sanitiser and a box of tissues. It’s like Merrick doesn’t want anybody to think he’s actually working here.
Joe huffs a laugh to himself. Unconventional methods, alright. But locking two people into an office after hours?
“Can he do that?” he says out loud, almost to himself.
Nicky pushes off his chair and starts walking around the office. “Hasn’t stopped him in the past.”
He starts looking through some of the shelves in the corner but stops when he notices Joe’s questioning eyebrow.
“He’s a terrible boss. I took the transfer to Edinburgh because I hoped it would mean working less with him, but I think his father - the founder of this company, I don’t know if you know - has also had enough of his ‘unconventional methods’. Which are really just workplace bullying and harassment, by the way.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe says. He’s started to suspect as much. Merrick never stopped calling him ‘John’.
Nicky shrugs. “You learn to deal. In my old team most of the guys told me they just pictured jizzing on his desk if he was going too much, and that apparently… helps.”
“Classy.” Joe snorts, then gestures to the desk in front of them. “Well, now you have the opportunity to do what they always dreamed of.”
Nicky sits on the edge of the desk, a slight spread in his legs. But maybe Joe only imagines that. “All by myself?”
Joe’s mouth is suddenly very dry. “What are you saying?”
“You could fuck my thighs. If you wanted.”
Joe’s brain takes a moment to come back online after that. “But I—we don’t. Have anything.”
Nicky walks over to where his messenger bag sits on the floor and produces a small blue bottle.
“Who in their right mind brings lube to an office?” Joe internally cringes. That is the first thing he decides to protest?
“Don’t worry. I’m seeing somebody about it.”
Joe laughs despite himself, ignoring the heat in his cheeks, the rising light-headedness. “I don't think that joke is politically correct.”
“And this from the man who called me a ‘flat-faced fuck’ the first time he met me…” Nicky laughs and sits back down on his chair, but he leaves the lube out, resting precariously on the edge of the desk. If it were to fall, Joe has to catch it.
“I know, I'm sorry,” Joe says, tempted to hide his face in his hands.
“What does that even mean?”
“I don't know, I got carried away on the alliteration. You don't even have a flat face.”
“I'm aware.” Nicky rolls his eyes, but there’s still a certain… glint in them. Whatever it is, it’s enough to make Joe blame everything that comes next on it.
He waits until Nicky is looking at him again, then he says, slowly: “You might be a good fuck though.”
“Only one way to find out.”
Joe doesn’t remember getting up, nor when they started kissing. Nicky is a solid weight against him as he moulds himself against Joe, hips and chest and mouth.
There is hysterical laughter lurking somewhere in Joe’s throat – how is this really happening? – as he slides his hands over the broad expanse of Nicky’s shoulders and into his hair, but it’s replaced by a moan when Nicky works a hand under his shirt and pulls them flush against each other.
“Not sure this is what Merrick had in mind when he said ‘I don’t care how you sort this out,’” Joe mumbles against Nicky’s lips as Nicky makes quick work of his belt.
Nicky kisses the line of Joe’s beard up to his ear. “Would you rather talk about it first?”
His fingers hesitate over the buttons of Joe’s trousers, but that means they are also resting just where Joe’s dick is aching to spring free.
“No,” Joe agrees – as if he had to think about it for more than a second – and makes good on Nicky’s request by turning him around and pressing himself up against him from behind. Nicky makes a sound somewhere low in his throat as he makes quick work of his own trousers and slides them down along with his underwear.
The key to fucking someone over your boss’s desk, Joe decides, is to not stop and think about it for too long. He reaches for the lube once his own underwear is out of the way, then presses against Nicky, his cock snug against his ass.
Nicky gasps when Joe’s slick fingers close around his dick. He shifts his hips so Joe’s dick slides between the cheeks of his ass, and Joe needs to take a deep breath. Nothing is happening yet, not really, but he can’t help it, a mixture of the anticipation and how illicit it all feels is really doing it for him somehow.
He continues jerking Nicky off, relishing in how thick his cock feels between Joe’s fingers, until Nicky bats his hand away. He twists, but only so Joe can see the side of his face, pupils in big eyes already blown wide.
“Thighs. Please?” It’s somewhere between a request and a command, but Joe doesn’t care, he would do whatever Nicky asks for anyway.
He liberally slicks up his own cock, sliding it along the cleft of Nicky’s ass and to his thighs just once to hear Nicky moan. It’s like his entire body is on fire. Fingers coated in more lube, he reaches down to where Nicky has slightly spread his thighs and slicks him up as well. He’s careful not to touch Nicky’s balls, but when he draws another sound out of Nicky by grazing his perineum he can’t resist, crooking two of his fingers and massaging the spot until Nicky’s head falls back on his shoulder.
“I don’t—mean to stop you.” Nicky sounds delightfully debauched already. “But this is still not—you fucking my thighs.”
Joe chuckles, presses a kiss to Nicky’s head as he replaces his fingers with his dick. He’s not sure about the sound he makes when Nicky’s thighs close around him, enveloping him in richly smooth heat, but he doesn’t care, he’s still busy not trying to think too hard about what they’re doing.
The slap of skin on skin together as he starts to move sounds almost obscene. Joe isn’t one to keep quiet during sex, he loves telling his partners how good it feels, how turned on he is, how hot they are, but what he hadn’t expected was how loud Nicky gets. He can’t help but hope that there’s no one else left in the office, or that the doors are at least somewhat soundproof. He doesn’t want anyone else to hear these noises, Joe realises. The thought alone is enough to speed up the movement of his hips.
“God, Nicky,” he breathes, as his hand still slick with lube reaches for Nicky’s dick again. He catches a glimpse of the two of them fucking in the reflection of the window, and he has to close his eyes, suddenly determined to get Nicky off first.
He clamps his other hand down on Nicky’s hip and sets a punishing rhythm that has Nicky fucking up into his hand every time he pushes between his thighs, and Nicky all but screams as he comes into Joe’s hand.
Joe sinks his teeth into the cloth of Nicky’s shirt at the jut of his shoulder, nose against his neck. He breathes in, and as all his senses flood with nothing but NickyNickyNicky, he comes all over his thighs.
They slump against each other, catching their breath. Torn between holding himself upright and holding Nicky, Joe is glad when Nicky leans down onto his forearms, because it means he can snake his arm around his waist, press him against his chest.
After a few moments, a hand comes to cover his. It’s Nicky, who’s gently prising Joe’s fingers off his dick, wiping the come away with a tissue.
“Didn’t actually jizz all over Merrick’s desk there,” Joe murmurs into Nicky’s neck. He feels the rumble of his laugh all the way down his body.
“I’d say it’s been pretty cathartic, regardless.”
Joe slips free from his thighs as Nicky turns to kiss him. They’re still a little out of breath and have to take breaks, resting their foreheads against each.
“Do we talk now?” Joe whispers. He traces his nose against Nicky’s.
“Clean up first.” Nicky smiles. “Then we can find out if Copley was right.”
It’s dark already when Merrick’s secretary lets them out of the office, and they stand next to each other on the curb for a long moment, their breath fogging up in the cold.
Joe looks at Nicky and tries to see him as if he was meeting him for the time. Without a printer being dropped on his foot, or an imaginary case of books, without the tired, sleep-addled fury. He doesn’t quite manage it.
Nicky turns to find Joe looking and raises an eyebrow at him. At some point in the past weeks Nicky stopped being his rude colleague, who he was going to ignore again the first chance he got and became—well. Joe isn’t quite sure there’s a name for someone you prank medical professionals with only to then screw them over your boss’s desk.. Joe kind of wishes there were.
“I’m sorry,” Nicky says. “For dropping the printer on you, and then being an asshole about it. I should have apologised right away, but I missed the opportunity and then you were already shouting at me—"
“No, no, I should be sorry,” Joe interrupts him. “I was the one who ran into you. I shouldn’t have--I said some very unkind things to you. Please forgive me.”
“It’s okay. I should’ve said something earlier.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Nicky turns away to the street as cars rush past them. “I enjoyed going to Copley with you. It was fun. I—I liked pretending.”
“Me too.” Joe can’t quite hide that he has to swallow when Nicky looks back up at him. He feels peeled open, like he’s baring his soft insides to Nicky, more naked somehow than he was in the office earlier.
Nicky smiles at him. It’s that small smile that Joe has become so fond of. “Look at us, communicating. Copley would be proud.”
Joe laughs, and the sound almost startles him. Then, he decides to take Nicky’s hand. “I’m not a commitment-phobe, by the way. I know this was all just part of the make-believe, but in light of what’s happened tonight, I—I thought you should know.”
Nicky shakes his head. “I know. I think. I just said that to Copley because my ex was, not because I thought you were.”
“Good. Because I’m sort of the opposite, actually.”
Nicky’s smile widens. “What was it that I needed to do, again? To show you that that was exactly what I wanted to hear.”
He takes Joe’s hand and presses the knuckles against his mouth, not taking his eyes off Joe. It’s sort of suggestive, but it’s also the sweetest thing that’s ever happened to Joe.
“You’re a much better communicator than I gave you credit for.”
They smile at each other, stupidly, for a moment longer, until Joe can barely take it anymore.
“I really want to kiss you,” he admits, “but I feel bad that it would be just in the street and not in the zoo.”
“We kissed the first time because our therapist told us to.” Nicky laughs. “I think any kiss is going to be better, after that.”
He’s right, of course. Kissing Nicky on the curb outside their office is sweet and a little sharp and made all the better by the fact that they got their awkward-nose-bumping and fuelled-by-nothing-but-passion kisses out of the way already. It’s a gentler, kinder version of those kisses. If Joe could, he’d lose himself in it for a few days, but when Nicky pulls back with a nip to his bottom lip, it still tastes like a promise of more.
“Want to come home with me?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
They are late for their last counselling appointment. It is definitely not Joe’s fault this time – it was Nicky who decided that making out in the last row of the bus like teenagers was a good idea, meaning they missed their stop – but at this point in time, he’s sure Copley would find it weird if they did show up on time.
Nicky glances over at him in front of the office. “Ready?”
Joe squeezes his hand. In the less-than-a-week they’ve been dating, they’ve tried to speedrun the story of their “relationship” they had told Copley. They went to Stockbridge Market on the weekend, got up ridiculously early to climb Arthur’s Seat at dawn, had ice cream at Portobello Beach after work, and kissed in front of the penguins at the zoo. True to make-believe, they also haven’t moved in with each other yet, but it’s a close call - out of the last five days, Joe went to sleep in Nicky’s bed on four. (And if Nicky keeps waking him with coffee and the occasional blowjob, he’s not going back to his own any time soon.)
When they walk into Copley’s office, the two armchairs are back. Joe is almost disappointed.
“Gentlemen,” Copley acknowledges them as they come in. He doesn’t even do the judgy look at his watch anymore. “Is there anything in particular you’d like to cover today?”
“Yes,” Nicky says, in the same tone a parent-to-be might announce they’re pregnant. “We’d like you to discharge us, please.”
Copley blinks at him.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Joe chimes in.
“We’re—We’re doing better as a couple now. This has all been very helpful, is all.”
“Oh.” Copley looks almost crestfallen at the announcement. “Well, I shan’t keep you, it’s your choice and I’m glad the exercises have been useful for both of you.”
Joe nods and smiles at him, but he thinks he hears Nicky mumble “You have no idea,” under his breath.
“And if you ever face any troubles again, well, you know how to find me now.”
They both get up and thank him, and he walks them out this time.
“Really, I’m happy to see that you’ve turned things around,” Copley tells them as they shake his hand good-bye, before resuming to hold hands. “Looking at you, I could almost think you’re a couple that’s newly in love.”
“The power of therapy,” Nicky says, and Joe is not looking at him, he’s not. He’s held out so long. But he can’t help it.
He starts to laugh.
Andy shoots Joe a curious glance as he and Nicky duck into her office. She’s sitting at her desk, and so, this time, he and Nicky sit down in the chairs in front of her. They’re not quite as comfortable as Copley’s, but that’s alright. Joe isn’t planning on spending quite as much time in these.
“Everything all right?”
Joe fights down a grin. “Yeah, boss.”
“We have something to tell you,” Nicky says.
Andy leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. “If it’s not: ‘The therapy was worth it and we’ll never cause you problems again,’ I don’t want to hear it.”
“The therapy was worth it,” they both say in unison, and then Joe has to look at his hands again, because even just the small smile he caught on Nicky’s face out of the corner of his eye is too much. He is so happy.
“Can’t promise we’re never going to cause you problems again, though,” Joe adds.
Andy narrows her eyes at them. “What’s going on?”
“Andy,” Nicky leans forward, “did you know you sent us to couples therapy?”
Andy looks at him in bewilderment. “I did no such thing. I’ve got the e-mail here, I said: ‘Have a new case for you, could you do a couple reconciliation sessions.’”
It takes her exactly two seconds to catch on.
“Oh no,” she says, now stricken. “I’m so sorry I put you in this position, that’s—But that was five weeks ago. Why are you only telling me this now?”
“Well,” Joe starts, but before he can finish the sentence, Nicky reaches over, takes his hand. He doesn’t bother keeping the smile off his face this time. “You know, when we said the therapy worked—”
“Oh no,” Andy interrupts him. She has her head in her hands. “Not that I’m not happy for you, but—I’ll have to talk to HR. Again.”