Cast: Scott Thornton, Niklas Sundstrom, OC
Dedication: Lira, whose birthday I wrote this for. Several months later, it's done. ;)
Disclaimer: It's all lies!
Author's Notes: This is set during the lockout. Sunny played in Milan and Thorty played in Sweden.
I was in Sweden and he wasn't. That was funny.
It was funny because he's Swedish, and I'm not.
But the really funny thing is that I was in Sweden because of him, and he was in Italy because of me.
Only I was trying to go to him, and he was trying to get away from me.
You'd think going to Italy would have been enough of a hint, but I'm a persistent fucker. So I decided that I'd buy a plane ticket, go to Italy to find him, and get down on my knees and beg him to take me back.
If he didn't give in right away, I'd whip out the bouquet of flowers I'd cleverly concealed behind my back and that would wear him down and he'd give in.
And if he still didn't take me back--well, it didn't really make sense to think about that because I was already on the plane.
My Italian was limited to words like "pizza" and "espresso" for the most part, but I understood what that meant. I was standing outside the airport waiting in line for a cab, but apparently every single cab driver in Milan was on a coffee break or at the annual Milanese taxi driver convention because there were no cabs in sight.
That's what I was doing when I heard it, loud and cheerful and spoken directly into my ear. I turned to look at the speaker, a tall, dark, handsome young man who looked as if he'd stepped out of the cover of a romance novel. He had impossibly maintained hair and he was smiling broadly, looking somewhere behind me, possibly for his romance novel cover counterpart. I looked behind me for Bella in a bursting bodice. There didn't seem to be any bellas (or bodices) behind me, just two disgruntled Scandinavians and a woman in her fifties.
I turned back to the man, and he was still standing there, the grin plastered on his face. I wondered if he was about to tear his shirt open, exposing a tanned, hairless, muscular (if heavily airbrushed) chest. He was staring intently beyond me. Except that I'd already established that he wasn't staring beyond me.
That was when it dawned on me that he wasn't in fact looking beyond me, but at me.
I was Bella.
I blinked at him, giving him a "are you talking to me?" look. He replied with a "you, yes you" nod. I blinked at him again and he started laughing. It was a warm laugh, though, and it didn't seem like he was laughing at me or trying to make me feel foolish. It was just a sound that was an extension of his smile.
I did, however, start to feel a little uncomfortable because of the way he was openly staring at me. Men don't normally approach me outside of gay bars and clubs; I suppose they're worried I might react violently. Romance novel man had no trace of fear, his body language was confidence.
"Where are you going? Do you need a ride?" He glanced briefly at the road, bustling with cars--none of them taxis.
I shrugged. "I'm fine."
"You're not in a hurry then?" he asked, a smirk in his voice.
"I'm fine," I repeated, annoyed at the way he was openly appraising me. I scowled at him, looking directly into his eyes, challenging him, forcing him to back down.
But he didn't. He didn't budge an inch, just stared back at me as if I was a harmless puppy. "Really? You should probably put your bag down then, it's going to be a long wait."
I glared at him more fiercely, annoyed at the knowing tone of his voice. As soon as he mentioned my bag, I could feel the strap digging into my shoulders and I would have put it down, except that I didn't want to give him any bit of satisfaction so I left it there. It started to feel like it was burrowing its way into my skin.
He waited a while for me to respond, and when it became obvious that I wasn't going to, he shrugged and refreshed his grin. "Have a nice stay in Milan," he said, then he turned and walked away.
A nice stay. I hoped it wouldn't be a stay at all. All I had to do was talk to Nik, and he'd understand. He'd come back to Sweden with me, after he heard me out. I'd apologize and then I'd tell him... I'd say... I'd explain... I'd... I'd...
I turned my attention back to the figure moving casually away from me. He'd managed to piss me off in about two minutes flat, but as he got further away from me, I started to want him to come back. I shook my head, surprised at the feeling. There was something about him, something about the smoothness of his voice, the sure way he carried himself.
I looked the other way; finally there was a taxi in sight, speeding towards me with that wonderful taxi speed that's always two shades more dangerous than a regular car. The taxi that would take me to Nik and give me a chance to talk to him, face to face, not over a phone line that added its own delay to the awkward pauses in our conversation.
I turned around and walked away from the line, leaving a pair of less disgruntled Scandinavians behind me. I hurried and caught up to him easily. He heard me coming and turned to look, stopping and smiling as if he'd known that I would come after him. It was as if he was used to always getting what he wanted.
"My car's nearby," he said, continuing along his path. I followed him, and all the way to the car, he didn't turn once to check that I was still there.
"It's not really espresso unless it's made in Italy," he said, his accent making the words lazier as he sipped from his cup.
I leaned back in my chair, sipping my espresso too and wanting to hate it, but melting into the aroma instead. Everything felt slow, the chattering of the two young women at the table next to ours, the Vespas making their way through traffic, the clouds moving through the sky. The entire afternoon had slowed down, as if it were pushing itself through a bubble.
"I'd rather have a beer," I grunted, not really meaning it. The words just came out of my mouth; anything to piss him off, to get to him the way he got to me.
"This is not a place for beer," he said, lighting a cigarette and sending lazy puffs of smoke into the air. "Germany, Belgium, those are places for beer. If you wanted to get drunk, you should have had some wine."
"You ordered for me," I said curtly, setting my cup down.
"You didn't complain." He tilted his head at me, still that challenging look in his eyes as if we were playing some sort of game with each other.
Maybe we were.
"So where were you in such a hurry to get to? You never told me." A circle of smoke melted into the white sky and I felt like time was slowing down even more. I shouldn't have been there, not with him, not sipping coffee when there was something inside me urging me to do what I had to do, what I wanted to do. I felt hollow, unsettled, unsure, and he just sat there and smiled at me as if he already knew the answer I was going to give him.
"I wasn't in a hurry," I replied, and my tongue felt thick and foreign, like the words I'd just said weren't really mine.
He sipped more coffee and looked into the distance behind me. "People shouldn't hurry, anything they really need will be there for them when they're ready."
I remembered Nik, looking at me with shock, then anger, and the way his silence gave way to shouting. He said he never wanted to see me again.
I took a bigger gulp of coffee than I should have, given its temperature, and I swallowed painfully after, the surface of my tongue stinging with the heat. The slowest place in the world, and I'd burned my tongue drinking my espresso too fast.
"Verdi used to drink espresso at this cafe. He lost his daughter, his son and his wife while he lived here but he also found great success. And I think he must have scalded his tongue just like that." He laced his fingers, resting his hands on the table in front of him. "His death mask is at the Museo Teatrale alla Scala; would you like to go see it?"
I felt that ache inside me again, the sinking feeling that I was somewhere I shouldn't be, and that things would go very wrong if I didn't leave. And in spite of it, or maybe because of it, I nodded slowly, leaving the rest of my espresso to cool.
I stared at Verdi's death mask.
It stared back at me.
Well, no it didn't; its eyes were closed, as the eyes of death masks usually are. It just felt like it was staring at me.
Its expression was relaxed, maybe with a hint of a smirk, as if it were thinking, God, I'm glad I'm dead and I don't have to be one of you stupid, gaping tourists with your cameras around your necks.
He was standing close to me, his shoulder pressed against mine even though there was plenty of space in front of the mask. An Italian thing, I decided. If he was really Italian. We had talked in his car on the way to the museum, and as we spoke, the accent had faded mile by mile and until finally it was mostly flat, vaguely British.
Now that I was aware of it, I couldn't believe that this was the voice that had said "ciao, bella" to me. I sneaked a glance at him; he was still tanned, still dark-haired, still smoldering quietly in an intense, but vaguely inviting manner. He seemed perfectly comfortable standing there, arm up against me, the back of this hand brushing against mine. I realised that I felt comfortable too and looked away, back into the dead, closed eyes of Verdi.
"Some of his facial hair is embedded in the death mask," he said quietly into my ear, and I could feel his breath on my neck.
"That's great," I said in response, getting almost painfully aware of the contact between our bodies and the way he smelled. Like one of those fragrances that was named after water. Refreshing and clean. Another career option for him--if romance novel covers didn't pan out, he could do fragrance commercials.
"I've thought of having one made when I die." I glanced at him to see if he was joking, but he seemed to be serious.
I didn't respond, but he continued anyway. "I decided against it."
"Why?" I asked, moving my hand involuntarily against his, feeling a tingle where we touched and hating that I felt it.
He tilted his head a little, and answered matter-of-factly in that not Italian accent, "Because I'm not going to die."
He walked away and I followed him, leaving the next batch of tourists to stare into a dead man's face.
"Giovanni," he said, grinning at me.
"Scott," I said, even though he hadn't asked me my name. It was automatic. Were we supposed to shake hands now? Say "hi, nice to meet you" even though we'd spent the entire morning together? We'd stepped outside the Museo Teatrale alla Scala only a few minutes before but the noon sun was already scorching my skin, urging me to go. We shouldn't have been saying hello, we should have been saying goodbye.
"And what do you do for a living, Scott?" He got another cigarette out from his pack and lit it with a shiny silver lighter. Giovanni lit a cigarette. Giovanni. My mind couldn't get over the name; he didn't look, talk, walk, smoke like a Giovanni. Hi, Giovanni. Bye, Giovanni.
"I play hockey." He raised an eyebrow at me. "Ice hockey," I felt compelled to clarify.
"Do you play here in Milan?" He blew a puff of smoke out to his side, away from me. Giovanni smoke. I still couldn't accept it.
"No, Sweden," I answered, and I saw Nik's face in my mind. I saw his blue eyes and his blonde hair, slightly ruffled just the way I liked it, and I felt that pull again, that pull to go to him. I could go to him, I could see that face for real, I could smell Eternity on him the way it should smell, not the way it smelled in the bathroom after a few sprays from the bottle he'd left behind.
I ached to go to him, but I just stood there. I blinked as Giovanni repeated his question, a question I hadn't heard the first time he'd asked.
"So what are you doing here?"
"Visiting a friend." Going to apologise, going to explain, going to take everything back, going to promise him. That's what I was going to do.
"Not looking forward to seeing this friend?" he asked casually, tipping ash from his cigarette, his eyes on the ground.
I glared at him and snapped, "No, I'm looking forward to it a lot!" and immediately felt foolish, because he didn't even have to ask the follow up question. It was obvious what it was: then what are you doing here?
And that did it--I'd had enough. I'd been following him around all morning, watching him smoke, doing everything he'd wanted, doing everything he'd expected. I couldn't stand his attitude, the way he acted as if he knew some special secret. Maybe the secret to immortality, maybe the fucker really would never die.
But I didn't care about him any more. My mind was hazy before but anger cleared the fog. He wasn't important. Only Nik was important. I turned to go and when he grabbed my arm to stop me, I balled my hand into a fist, ready to hit him if he didn't let me go.
I faced him, raising my arm, but I stopped because of the expression on his face. Whatever assurance he'd had before was gone, and the look in his eyes was one of pleading, begging. It startled me, how abrupt the change was, how different he looked.
And then he pulled me close and he kissed me, pressed his lips hard against mine. I tasted smoke and coffee and I moved my palms to his chest, ready to push him away.
But I didn't push him away, and my hands slid down to his sides, and my insides twisted as I kissed him back.
I felt very grateful to the sun at that moment. And to the sky. And to the buildings surrounding us. And especially to the people walking down the street who turned their heads to stare at us when we kissed.
I was grateful that we weren't somewhere private, somewhere I could have done what I'd felt like doing at that moment.
He didn't seem to care that people were looking, of course. He grabbed my hand and tugged me along back to the car. Every trace of doubt and desperation was gone; he was his cocky self again, certain that I would follow him to wherever he wanted to go next. I began to think that I hadn't really seen it there, that it had been a mirage.
"What's your real name?" I asked sourly, as we threaded our way between slow-moving groups of people.
He looked back at me, surprised, and I felt a slight thrill, a tiny victory. The surprise faded away and he grinned at me broadly, teeth and laugh lines, and I could see that his eyes weren't plain brown. In the bright sunlight I could see green flecks. Beautiful.
"Wait," he said, dragging me more quickly through the throngs of people. We were moving against the flow and I wondered if he'd chosen that path intentionally. If I let go of his hand I would melt into the crowd, I'd be carried away by the flow and I would never see him again. I could go back to what I'd come to Milan to do.
I held his hand tightly and when we got in his car we kissed again. It was different the second time, he was already becoming familiar to me, and I was having a screaming match in my head, screaming that it was crazy that I was kissing him, running my hands through his hair when I didn't even like him, But I didn't stop because it felt good and I didn't want the good feeling to go away because I knew what was lurking, waiting to replace it.
He was the one who broke off the kiss. He settled back in the seat of the car and half-smirked. "You wanted to know my real name?"
I nodded and he told me. I repeated his last name automatically and he raised a finger to his lips in a silent shh.
"You mean that you're--"
"Not me, my father," he answered, cutting me off. "And I will be, one day, according to his plan."
"You don't sound like you're going along with the plan." I stared at him. It was crazy - he was crazy - enough for it to be true.
"I'm not." He shrugged and started the car. He glanced at me as he started to pull out of the parking space. "Don't call me by my real name."
"You're not a Giovanni." I opened the window to let the breeze wash over my face and clear the stifling heat from the car. My mind was racing. He was lying of course, just like Paul in the movie Six Degrees of Separation, lying that he was Sidney Poitier's son to impress the Kittredges. I watched his expression carefully, as if it would tell me whether he was who he claimed to be, but his poker face was back on. Paul only succeeded in his con because the Kittredges wanted to believe him, right?
"Then call me Nicolo," he said flippantly, and I stopped wondering about his identity. Nicolo, Nick, Niklas. Blonde hair, blue eyes, almost invisible layer of stubble. Held my heart in his hands.
"Giovanni is fine," I muttered, but my voice was drowned out by the traffic.
He didn't tell me where we were going, and I didn't know the city at all, but it felt like we were driving away from Nik.
I'd never cheated on Nik before. Never. I may have looked and fantasized and sometimes gotten a little closer to a guy than what Nik would have approved of, but at the end of the night it was just my hand on my dick, not anyone else's.
I guess I just always knew what was at stake. I knew that if I slept with anyone else and he found out, that would have been it. He would have been gone before I could even say I was sorry. He trusted me in the simplest, barest way possible. I never once saw a suspicious look from him when I came home late, or when I had to break an appointment with him, and I never betrayed his trust.
And maybe all of that made the one betrayal even more fucked up. I still couldn't think about it, didn't want to think about it. I couldn't even get past the part in my memory where I started talking to him, the beginning of our last conversation. I'd cleared my throat, forcing myself to speak even though I didn't want to. I'd been so sure up to that point that what I'd decided was right, and all it took was a look from him, a glance from those beautiful blue eyes, and it was enough to make me falter.
If only I'd stopped; if only I'd followed my instincts and just stopped right there and given him a kiss. We could have just gone to dinner, gone home, fucked, fallen asleep together sticky and happy, and then Nik wouldn't be in Milan and I wouldn't be in Milan, sitting in a car with Giovanni who wasn't Giovanni who I thought I could still taste on my tongue.
I felt a little sick from the mix of memories and regret and guilt, and I wound the window down, breathing deeply, as if the only problem was that I wasn't getting enough air. One betrayal, and then now, another; a smaller betrayal, and one that didn't matter because Nik said that we were over, and it wasn't a relationship if it was just one-way, was it?
"Is it my driving?" he asked, that perpetual smirk in his voice.
He did drive like a madman, but not any worse than any other driver there, I thought. I dangled a hand out the window, catching jets of air between my fingers. "Just not feeling very well."
He seemed to be satisfied with my answer and he rolled his window down too. I adjusted my seat, sliding it back further so I could stretch my legs out better. I would never have expected him to drive a Fiat--a Ferrari maybe, but a Fiat? Of course, that was assuming he was in fact who he said he was.
I watched him for a while, his hair swirled up by the wind, grinning as he casually flipped off a slow-moving pedestrian, and I wondered what else I expected of him. Where was he going to take me? To another museum? To the mountains? To a big house in the countryside? To the moon?
I settled back in my seat, closing my eyes, and I took a deep breath; I heard the honking, the rumble of engines, the loud hissing of a bus opening its doors, the screaming of children - joyful or terrified, it was hard to distinguish - and excited chattering in Italian; I could smell coffee faintly, which seemed kind of crazy, but there were a lot of cafes along that road and the heat made the air suck up smells like a sponge; I felt the unease, a dull point in my stomach that reminded me that I was doing something wrong, and then a fresh breeze washed over me and it muted the feeling.
I opened my mouth to ask Giovanni where we were going, but it occurred to me that I didn't actually want to know, so I asked for a cigarette instead.
"Do you ride motorcycles?" he asked abruptly. We'd been sitting in silence, smoking lazily as the buildings streaked by the window like ribbons of colour.
"Yeah, I have two Harleys back home," I answered, closing my eyes and thinking about riding, the speed, the twists and turns, the wind rushing past, the feeling of being alive.
He muttered something in Italian that sounded derogatory.
"What?" I said, opening my eyes and turning to glare at him. "What did you say?"
He just smirked and asked, "I have a couple of Ducatis. Would you like to ride?"
I was about to answer no just because I didn't like his tone, but my brain processed the question and stopped my voice before I formed the word. I was definitely a Harley man, but he'd planted the word "motorcycle" firmly in my consciousness and suddenly I was itching to be on a bike. I could almost feel the handlebars in my hands, and that jolt of feeling achingly alive you can only get when you're one skid away from death.
I answered him with a smile, and he grinned, flicking his cigarette out the window as he eased his foot down on the gas pedal. I watched the way he moved, fluid and free; he'd probably tried everything and failed at nothing his whole life. I thought about all the opportunities his background had afforded him, and the things I would have done if I'd been in his place.
Making it to the NHL had opened most of those opportunities up to me, and I didn't feel jealous of him. I just felt curious; I wondered what it was like to live his life. I looked at his face, tanned but smooth, and I guessed that he probably wasn't any older than twenty-five.
How much could a man do in twenty-five years?
We were leaving the city, the buildings getting sparser, replaced by ancient-looking trees leaning over the road as if they were trying to shade the cars passing beneath them. There was less traffic - it had seemed to fade away with the buildings - and Giovanni sped up even more. It was hotter now in the open countryside, in spite of the trees, and he turned the air conditioning on but left the windows down, so we were blasted by a steady stream of cool air that quickly rushed out of the car. The speedometer crept up steadily.
"Nervous?" he asked, breaking the silence. "Don't worry, I drive like this all the time and I've never been in an accident."
"If you had, going this fast, you probably wouldn't be alive to be talking to me right now," I said curtly. He wouldn't have been at the airport that morning, calling out "ciao, bella" and I'd have made it to Nik. That would have been a good thing, wouldn't it? I felt callous even as I thought it, that I was casually weighing the worth of his life against my need to be with Nik.
But need, that was it, that was what had started everything, that was what made me open my big mouth to Nik, and as much as it hurt him, as painful as it was to see him like that, I hadn't lied; I'd told him the truth as best as I understood it, and that had been my mistake. A mistake. It must have been a mistake.
Giovanni slowed down and turned left onto a long dusty driveway. Neat rows of vines flanked the road, and I could see tiny clusters of grapes hanging off them. The last place I'd expected to end up when I got off the plane that morning was in a vineyard.
I saw a large garage at the end of the driveway, big enough for four or five cars, and what I supposed was a modest Italian villa behind it, glowing bright under the sun.
"You own this place?" I asked, winding my window up to keep the dust out of the car.
"My father does," he answered, and I thought there was a faint trace of bitterness in his voice, but he quickly grinned and continued, "But the bikes are mine."
I saw my first glimpse of them as the garage door opened, brilliant shiny red laced with chrome. They were ugly and I told him so before I could think better of it, but he just laughed, parking on the far side of the garage from the bikes, next to a silver Mercedes sedan.
"And your car is crap," I added, getting out of the car and stretching my legs, stretching them in the direction of the Ducatis by the far wall.
"I can't always do what people expect," he said flippantly, opening a door to what seemed to be a storage closet and rummaging for something within.
I ran my hands along the frame of the motorcycle, my fingers sinking slightly into the seat. It was firmer than the ones on my Harleys, hard just like the rest of it. Cold. I almost felt repulsed by how impersonal it felt, but I couldn't wait to ride it.
Giovanni walked over to me, handing me a red helmet, a pair of gloves and a leather jacket. I slipped my arms into the jacket sleeves, and I could feel the metal plates sewn into it, hard against my shoulders and arms, and I felt a little bit like I was going to war. By the time I'd finished putting the gear on, he'd already started his motorcycle, and he sped off without waiting for me, a cloud of dust in his wake as the roar of the engine faded away from me.
I caught up with him a minute later, going much, much faster than I should have been, perched on an unfamiliar machine. He didn't even glance at me, but I didn't expect him to. We weren't on Harleys, machines for friends, dirty machines, grounded machines; we were alone on clinical steel, racing against ourselves more than against each other. The speed was amazing of course - it was incredible - but it was a high that didn't have warmth, even as the sun beat down on me and warm air rushed through the ventilation mesh of my jacket.
We were out for an hour, riding way too fucking fast, and when we got back to the garage and shed our gear, I pushed him against the wall, kissing him hard, running my hands down his body, tracing every line, every curve, tasting him, feeling him, learning him, pressing myself against him, letting him do the same to me, wanting him to, needing to be as dirty as I felt, knowing he could give me what I needed.
I've never read a romance novel, but if I ever did, chances are that I wouldn't find what we did that afternoon within its pages. It's not just that one of us wasn't a woman, it's that there was nothing romantic or passionate about what we did.
What it was really like was a porno without the cheesy music and the eight inch dicks.
He grabbed my wrist and pulled me down the hallway; we passed a room with a bed in it, almost painfully plain - pale blue bedspread and curtains with white pillows and sheets - and I stopped him, dragging him into the room with me, kissing him and eating his words up.
Five minutes later, the bedspread was on the floor, along with all of our clothes, and I was lying on my back, hands behind my head, eyes closed as he sucked my dick. I don't know what I expected from him - he couldn't very well talk with his mouth full - but I didn't feel any desire from him, just the pressure of his tongue and his hot, wet mouth sliding along my shaft almost mechanically, as if he was just doing what he was expected to do, as if he was a whore.
Like a whore, he was getting me close anyway, quietly, steadily, moving faster, and I reached down to keep his head still as I started thrusting more deeply into his mouth. I don't know why I did it - maybe I needed to know that there was still a person in there - but I shoved hard, hitting the back of his throat, making him gag.
He pushed away from me, scowling and sitting back on his heels, spit running down his chin, and seeing him like that gave me a rush, made me pull him down on me, kissing him even as he swore in Italian. I grabbed hold of him, and he took hold of me, rolled us onto our sides, and we lay there, kissing and swearing and thrusting, until we both came, and I breathed his real name into his hair.
I stretched out on one of the deck chairs by the pool behind the villa, feeling the sun warm me, drying my skin and leaving a light layer of chlorine. Giovanni was still swimming laps slowly, his powerfully muscled arms slicing through the water. His body was as good as any of the airbrushed men on the romance novel covers--better, I thought, because it had scars and tattoos, things that made it real.
I lay there and tried to remember their positions: a long, thin, faded scar that ran along his left shin, what looked like a burn scar on his left forearm, three parallel scars running diagonally down his side that made it look like he'd been slashed by an animal, a tattoo on his right shoulder of what could be a Japanese character, and just below it, an hourglass, its top half filled with sand, a few grains just starting to flow down.
The scars and ink made him feel like something less than perfect, took away his invulnerability. What was it he'd said when we were at the museum, looking at Verdi's death mask? Because I'm not going to die. He didn't seem so sure once his clothes were off, and there wasn't any arrogance in his eyes when I was inside him.
He got out of the pool, pushing the hair out of his face as water streamed down his naked body. The broad shoulders, washboard abs, strong chest, thick legs--it made me crazy when I first saw him naked, but it hadn't taken me long to become desensitized, to think of him as looking normal, typical, and of course he was, because out there at his villa, barely an hour out of Milan, we were the only two people left in the world.
He lay down on top of me skin on skin, stealing warmth and stealing kisses, and I caught him stealing glances at the tattoo on my left shoulder, the one of the grim reaper, the thing he claimed he would never see.
It didn't surprise me to walk into his bathroom to find it had a heated floor, dual showerheads, and a clay sculpture of a naked woman embedded in one of the walls. Giovanni was already in there and he didn't turn to look at me as I grabbed the bar of soap by my showerhead and started lathering up.
The showers were loud enough that they made normal conversation impossible, which was good. The last thing I felt like doing was talking to him. The sense of unease was coming back, and it was stronger than before. It had disappeared when the engine of the motorcycle had roared to life, and I didn't even remember it while I was fucking Giovanni, but now it was all I could feel, as if its absence had made it stronger somehow. I stood in the spray of water, rinsing the suds from my body, trying to wash the feeling away, but I couldn't, and I turned the water off, wrapping a towel around my waist, and I walked out of the steamy bathroom.
I opened my bag, looking for a shirt, pants, some clean underwear, and I saw the bottle of Eternity in one of the side pouches, and it made me think of Nik--the bottle might as well have been a photograph of him. I recoiled from it, feeling sick to my stomach.
What had I done?
I had spent the day with Giovanni, following him around, playing with his toys, playing with him, and all the while Nik was slipping away from me. He was slipping away. Because I still had him, at least a little bit. Because I hadn't completely lost him, despite what he'd said to me, despite him coming to Milan to get away from me. He was still mine if I just went to him.
But I'd betrayed him, and it didn't matter that according to him, we weren't together anymore--that was just a technicality. I'd gone away from, not to him, and I'd done it willingly; no matter how I tried to blame it on Giovanni, I was the one who had stayed with him, wanted to find out more about him, wanted to ride his bikes, wanted to fuck him.
I stood there, staring at that bottle, wondering why I'd done it, because now that it was all over, I knew that everything I'd done with Giovanni was wrong. Every single thing. It hadn't felt that way at all while I was doing it, as if I'd been in a dream, and all accountability and consequences would magically disappear when I woke up.
I dried myself numbly and started getting dressed just as Giovanni came out, steam billowing out of the shower behind him. He raised an eyebrow and asked, "Something wrong?"
"I have to go," I said gruffly as I buckled my belt, sitting down to put on my socks and shoes. "Take me back to Milan."
"Why?" He dried himself casually, as if he was intentionally being slow. "Are you suddenly in a hurry again?"
I swallowed hard, trying to refrain from walking over and shaking him. "I'm sorry, I had a good time with you, and I thank you for that, but there's somebody I have to get back to, and I can't wait anymore."
I finished putting on my shoes and looked up at him, and was surprised to see a hurt expression on his face. Or at least I thought that was what it was, because it was there so briefly that I might have imagined it. I blinked and he was back to his default half-smirk, looking as if he didn't take what I'd said seriously.
"If you won't take me, I'll call a cab," I said firmly, ending an argument that hadn't taken place yet.
He didn't say anything, toweling his hair for a while before he responded quietly. "I'll take you."
His quiet answer stunned me. I hadn't expected him to agree so easily, and I was already on the verge of arguing with him, to insist that he wouldn't change my mind, that I'd already decided to go regardess of what he said or did. I eyed him with suspicion, wondering if he'd add some kind of condition, or employ some kind of delaying tactic, but the only thing he added was that we could leave as soon as he finished getting dressed.
Why did I even care what he thought? I shouldered my bag, waiting for him, and I looked away from him, out the window, in what I thought was the direction of Milan. I breathed in, waiting to feel excitement that never came. Verdi used to drink espresso at this cafe. He lost his daughter, his son and his wife while he lived here but he also found great success.
"It's almost time for me to leave for the airport anyway." Giovanni's soft voice broke my reverie.
I followed him down the hallway, looking at the paintings on the walls, all of them depictions of mountains in different styles, and different media. "Where are you going?"
"Nepal. I'm going to be there for a few months," he answered, leading me down the stairs to the door to the garage. "The flight was delayed; that's why I was at the airport this morning."
We entered the garage and I waited for him to unlock the car doors so I could toss my bag into the backseat. His thumb rested on the car remote, but he didn't do anything, and I looked at him with annoyance.
"Want to come with me?" he grinned, looking exactly like he did this morning when we were still strangers.
"To the airport?" I asked, confused.
I glanced at him, and I was taken aback--he was serious. I opened my mouth to speak, but the words that came out weren't the ones I expected to say.
He didn't interrupt me, just listened as everything spilled out, everything about Nik and his stupid fucking ranch in Ornskoldsvik, that stupid fucking city of his that I couldn't even pronounce properly yet, and his stupid fucking idea that we'd retire there and raise stupid fucking horses. Horses, could you believe it? What the fuck did horses do? Just stand around all day eating hay and licking salt and galloping around a bit.
But it wasn't that I really minded the horse ranch in and of itself, because Nik loved it, and I had a high tolerance for things that Nik loved, like clubs with music so loud you could feel it vibrating in your chest, so loud that it made you deaf for three days afterwards, or strange Swedish food, like fish that had had disgusting things done to it. I just didn't want the ranch to be everything. The end of it all. Fade to black and roll credits.
I wanted more. I needed more. I wasn't like him; I couldn't just accept that there had been enough traveling and lights and crowds and noise, that it was time for quiet, that everything was winding down. Maybe it was the case for hockey, but there were other things to do, places to go, roads to explore on a Harley and a full stomach, diving to shipwrecks, and mountains to climb.
I stopped, maybe to take a breath, maybe because of the mountains I'd mentioned, and the mountains in the paintings I'd seen hanging in his hallway. Giovanni was still silent, but attentive. He wasn't rolling his eyes as if he thought I was crazy, and he wasn't laughing or frightened or anything; he was still just listening.
And of course Nik said that we could do those things and be on the ranch most of the time, because it wasn't like he was expecting me to just take root in the land and of course the people who ran the place knew their job very well and could be left alone for months without supervision, but it wasn't just that, of course. Nik didn't want just the stupid fucking horse ranch.
I took a deep breath. It was something we'd agreed on. Casually. Casual for me. Abstract. Something undeniably good. I liked the idea, of course, just like I liked the idea of ending poverty and hunger. I made my tax deductible donations every year to numerous causes that were undeniably good. But it wasn't like that for Nik, and it wasn't something he saw in an abstract idea of the future.
I saw the way he looked at them. He never stared, or made wistful sounds or anything obvious like that, but they always drew his attention. Strollers. High chairs in restaurants. Baby car seats. I knew. And maybe you could leave horses on a ranch for months, but you couldn't do that with everything.
And nothing had changed.
Not Nik, sitting in his hotel room in Milan.
Not me, standing in front of Giovanni, unable to answer his question with a simple "yes" or "no".
"So come with me," he said, prompting me because I'd stopped talking. "I can change my flight, leave another day, leave with you."
"It's not that simple." I dropped my bag on the floor and leaned against the wall, suddenly feeling exhausted.
"It is that simple," he said, contradicting me. He came to me and wrapped his arms around my waist, kissing me lightly, without warmth. It felt like I was kissing the void.
And that's what made me realize it, what the day had been like--empty. I hadn't forgotten the high of riding, or the high of fucking, that's what it had been underneath. If I went to Nepal with him, and we went trekking in the mountains or whatever it was he was going to do there, I knew I'd have a hell of a time, and I'd be doing what I wanted, but that emptiness would still be there and I wasn't sure that I could live with that.
I kissed him again, and I felt something this time. Giovanni - Nicolo, whatever I wanted to call him - was waiting for his answer, wanting to know if I would go with him. He looked up at me expectantly and I thought, how could I say no to somebody from the cover of a romance novel?
We were both quiet most of the way on the drive back. The sun was starting to set and even though we were on the same road we'd taken out of the city, the countryside looked completely different in the changing light. I could see details I hadn't been able to see earlier, in the blinding brightness of the noon sun; the varying shades of the leaves on the trees, the subtle hint of pink in the white flowers in the fields. And with every minute that passed, the landscape became something else, glowing, then fading, preparing for the night.
I tossed my cigarette out the window, leaning back as I exhaled slowly, the smoke tinged faintly with orange. Giovanni had finished his long before, and he was staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on the road. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but I was aware of the tattoos under the thin, white material. He'd told me what the character meant: mountain. So that solved that little mystery, and the meaning of the other tattoo was obvious.
I imagined myself in the mountains with him, far away from anything that resembled the world I knew, and it excited me. The thought of being somewhere new was intoxicating. Where would we go after that? Maybe to India, maybe to Vietnam, anywhere that seemed like it would be interesting, anywhere that appealed. Nothing would stop us.
Giovanni got another cigarette out from the pack and I leaned over to light it for him. He smiled at me, and there was a softness to his expression that I hadn't seen before. It could have been the changing light--he could be a different person by night.
The lights of the city were already sparkling in the distance, sparse and weak at first, but growing in number and brightness as the sky cycled through the colors of sunset and deepened to black. Somewhere in there, Nik was probably watching television, or having dinner at a restaurant, or trying to figure out what club he wanted to go to later. I closed my eyes and pictured what he looked like when he was dancing, drunk and all smiles, pulling me close for a kiss as he pressed his hips to mine.
It had been a strange day; the whole thing felt like a dream, and the closer we were drawing to the city, the closer I was to waking up. In a way, I was doing just that. I was getting the chance to shake the dream from my head and wake up to my real life.
My real life. A life that didn't involve waking up in a place any more exotic than my hotel room on a road trip. A life that included Twister's Iron Horse Tour, riding my Harley for a week through the most beautiful land in North America. A life that revolved around things that were solid and real. A life that didn't seem like it would be all that surprising, but could be, if I just gave it the chance. A life that didn't have even a touch of the emptiness I'd felt that day with Giovanni.
A life that just might mean something at the end of it all.
All the operas that Verdi wrote, all the acclaim and accolades he received--I think he would have given it all up to save his family.
We had slipped into the city, the same way we had slipped out, and the sounds of cars and and people were starting to surround us. We weaved in and out of traffic, and sooner than I expected, we came to a stop near Nik's hotel.
"You're sure that this is what you want?" he asked, his face dark in the shadowed interior of the car. "You can still change your mind and come with me."
I took a deep breath and everything that he was offering flashed through my mind again. I was tempted, perhaps even more strongly than I'd been earlier when he first asked me, but the temptation lasted for just a moment. Going with him wasn't something I was meant to do, and even though I longed to join him, I somehow knew that I would be better off not taking it beyond longing, and telling the story one day to my grandchildren. You know, once, when I was in Italy, I met...
I nodded, and he smiled, a little uncertainly at first, just a little bit disappointed, but a moment later he was back to his usual self, and he hugged me tightly, whispering in my ear, "Buona fortuna. Good luck. Name one of your sons after me."
I laughed at him, hugging him back. "Should I name him Giovanni? Or your real name?"
He shrugged. "Just don't ever tell anyone about me--my father would not be happy with the way I spend my days."
"I won't," I promised, and I never did, even though he might have been lying about everything, because it was better to believe that he wasn't. "Climb mountains until the day you die."
I got out of the car and grabbed my bag from the backseat and stood on the pavement, unwilling to look away from him or say goodbye. A part of me still wanted to go with him, and even though he'd made me want to punch him in the face a few times that day, I'd also had fun, something that I hadn't done in a while.
"Ciao, bella," he said simply, and just like that he drove off, the red from his tail lights fading into the distance, melting into the sea of traffic ahead of him, slipping away from me like the last memories of a dream.
The doorman held the door open for me and I entered the hotel lobby, heading straight for the elevators.
Nik hadn't told me what hotel he was staying at, or what room he was in--he wouldn't even answer my phone calls. I'd found out the necessary information from the right sources. I did say that I'm a persistent fucker, right?
I would have to be to win him back, because I had a lot to apologize for, and I had a lot to make up for. I was up for the challenge, though, and now that I knew that we did want the same things after all, I would be able to convince him of it. I was sure.
I thought about Giovanni briefly, already becoming just an idea in my mind, and I hoped that he would find everything that he was looking for.
The elevator doors opened and I stepped inside, waiting to ascend to the rest of my life.