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Where You Are

Chapter Text

The first time Nicolò saw Joe, his first thought was that the other boy was tall.

It wasn’t fair, really. Nicolò had always wanted to be tall, just like his father. Princes were meant to be tall. And Nicolò would be, one day.

It just wasn’t fair that this other boy was tall already, that was all. Especially since, from his clothes, it was clear that he came from Mahdia. Nicolò had heard his parents talking about people from Mahdia, and he knew that they were supposed to be—well. His parents were royals, so they didn’t use bad words, but sometimes, when they were talking about Mahdians, Nicolò had heard his father say the kinds of words that should have ended with him getting his mouth washed out with soap.

But, anyway. Someone from Mahdia wasn’t allowed to be taller than Nicolò. Not at all.

“What are you staring at?”

Nicolò’s mind snapped back to focus, and he realised that the other boy had moved closer. His strangely accented Ligurian was spoken with curiosity, not annoyance—but Nicolò straightened his back and lifted his chin nonetheless.

“You,” Nicolò replied, thinking the other boy couldn’t be very clever, if he needed to ask such questions. “Obviously.”

“Right.” The boy tilted his head. He had dark hair, and his skin was dark as well—not super dark, but darker than Nicolò’s for sure. Actually, everything about him was dark, except for his pale clothes. “Then… why were you staring at me?”

“Because you’re tall.” Nicolò crossed his arms over his chest. “How come you’re so tall?”

The boy grinned—and Nicolò had to change his mind, because that smile was not dark at all. In fact, it was the exact opposite, as if just that one expression was able to light up a whole room.

“Well, I’m older than you.”

Nicolò lifted his chin even further. “I’m seven.”

“And I’m ten. So I’m three years older than you. That means, I’ve been growing for three years longer.”

Nicolò narrowed his eyes. “Then I’ll be taller than you in three years.”

The boy barked a laugh. “We’ll see, I suppose.”

Nicolò nodded sharply. “We will.”

“Then I look forward to it, Nicolò.”

And really, by all accounts, that should have been that. Nicolò had been trained for as long as he could remember to hold short conversations—in functions such as this, when so many people had come to the Palace, it was courteous and expected that Nicolò try to talk to as many people as possible. He should already be finding someone else.

Except.

Except.

“Excuse me,” Nicolò said. “But how do you know my name?”

“You’re kidding, right?” the boy asked. “This is your palace, isn’t it? I’d have to be an idiot to have come all the way here and not know who the Prince of Genoa is. And I’m sure you know who I am, as well.”

Nicolò tilted his head. “No.”

The boy blinked. “What?”

“I don’t. Should I?” Nicolò squinted. “Were you in a movie?”

“I’m Yusuf,” the boy groaned—and he was looking at Nicolò like he thought he wasn’t clever, and that just wasn’t fair. “I’m the Prince of Mahdia. Well, one of them. My brother is the crown prince, but he’s not as nice as me.”

“Oh,” said Nicolò. This prince sure did talk a lot.

“Everyone calls me Joe though, not Yusuf. You can too, if you want. You seem… nice.” Joe smiled. “Can I call you Nicky?”

“No,” Nicolò said immediately. “My name is Nicolò.

“Whatever you say, Nicky.”

Nicolò thought that Joe was really annoying, but there weren’t any other kids at the party, since Nicolò’s little sister, Maria, wasn’t old enough to join in on these kinds of events. She still tried to eat gelato with her hands. (Nicolò wasn’t even meant to be walking around by himself—his nanny was meant to be watching him, but she was no fun, so he’d escaped.)

So, it was only because he had no other options that Nicolò decided he would stay and talk to Joe.

At least… it was at first.

As the party continued, he and Joe spent the time talking, laughing, and having a competition to see who could steal the most spoons. Nicolò won, because for once, being small was an advantage. They hid all the spoons under the dessert table—it would be funny, later.

It was fun, and even though Joe was annoying, he was more fun to play with than his sister Maria had ever been, and certainly more fun than all the boys at school. They never liked to have fun around Nicolò. Because he was a prince, and no one wanted to be friends with a prince.

Except—Joe was a prince too, so really, Joe was perfect in every way.

Nicolò decided right then and there that they would be best friends for the rest of their life. He could put up with all Joe’s talking if it meant that they could have this much fun all the time.

They were by the fountain in the garden when it happened, sticking their hands in to see if they could stroke one of the fish. An attempt Nicolò had given up as too hard years ago, but one he thought might be fun with a friend at his side.

At first, he didn’t notice that the people were starting to all go back inside to the ballroom where the main party was happening, but Joe did.

“They must have signed the treaty,” Joe said, though he sounded very distracted. “That’s… good. My mother will be pleased. I hope.”

Nicolò frowned, and glanced up from where he had been stretching toward a particularly large and bright orange fish. “What treaty?”

“The one to stop our kingdoms from going to war,” Joe replied. He was already drying his hands off on his green trousers. “Maybe you’re too little to know about it.” 

“I know that my parents complain about Mahdia all the time,” Nicolò said, scrunching his nose. “I didn’t know that meant there was a war, though. I thought that meant there’d be guns and stuff.”

“There isn’t a war, but there might have been, if they didn’t talk about it.” Joe frowned. “My mother says that talking is the best way to solve a problem, not fighting or jumping in without thinking.”

“You must solve lots of problems, then,” Nicolò said. When Joe looked to him with an odd expression, Nicolò added, “You know. Because you talk so much.”

“No, I get it,” Joe said. “It’s funny.”

Joe wasn’t laughing, though, and his gaze was still on the door that was swallowing the outside crowd. Maybe Joe was just weird. Well, Nicolò had known that already. Didn’t mean they couldn’t still be friends.

“I wonder what they agreed, though,” Joe said. He definitely seemed worried about something.

“Then let’s go find out.”

Nicolò didn’t give Joe time to argue—unlike what Joe’s mother said, he’d learned that the best way to get things done was just to do them yourself. So he grabbed Joe by the hand, uncaring that his fingers were still wet, and dragged him through the door and between the press of bodies on the other side.

The people parted for them, when they noticed, and Nicolò shoved through them when they didn’t. He’d been raised to use his pleases and thank yous, of course, but these things just didn’t seem as important when there was the mystery of the treaty to solve.

Joe was tall, which meant that he couldn’t get through the crowd as easily as Nicolò could—so he was calling out enough sorrys for the both of them anyway.

They made it to the front, where both of their parents were standing on a raised dais. Nicolò almost pouted when he saw that Joe’s father was taller than his own.

Father began to say some long words that were difficult to follow, and Nicolò found it more interesting to watch Joe, who was staring up at their parents with a growing expression of horror.

“Hey,” Nicolò whispered, tugging on Joe’s hand. “Did they sign it? Is there going to be a war?”

“No,” Joe replied, equally as quiet but—his voice was somewhat scratchy.

Nicolò’s eyes widened. “They didn’t sign it?”

Dark eyes flickered down for a moment before looking back up once more. “No, there isn’t going to be a war. But they…” Joe choked, and pulled his hand from Nicolò’s so that he could curl his fingers into a tight fist. “How could they?”

Nicolò’s frown deepened, and he looked back up to the dais. His own parents had their heads held high, and Joe’s father wore the kind of expression that was difficult to discern between triumphant and angry. But Joe’s mother… she just looked upset. She held the same royal poise as Nicolò’s mother, of course, but her eyes were a bit shiny, and there was a downward curve to her lips that just wasn’t quite right. She looked a bit like Maria did, when she was trying her absolute hardest not to cry.

Something had gone wrong.

And this time, as he listened very carefully, Nicolò managed to work out what it was—

To make sure that Mahdia didn’t do anything wrong, Joe was going to live in Genoa. In the palace. With Nicolò.

Nicolò’s first reaction, of course, was excitement. He’d only just made a new friend, and now he would be able to play with Joe whenever he wanted! But—when he turned to look at Joe again, he saw that the other boy still looked rather unhappy. And Nicolò tried to imagine what it might feel like, to be told that he had to leave his family and live somewhere else.

Nicolò didn’t like the thought of that at all.

“My mother said she’d stop it,” Joe whispered—and strangely, he spoke in the language that Nicolò was learning from tutors. Arabic. “She—she promised that she’d stop it.”

Joe sounded like he was about to cry. Nicolò didn’t like that.

Trying to think about what cheered him up when he felt like crying, Nicolò reached out and took Joe’s hand again, squeezing it tight. When Joe looked back down at him, Nicolò tried a joke.

“They said they’re swapping you for that island,” he said. “The one with the pretty beaches. Are you sure you’re worth that much?”

“At least Malta is a fairer trade than if they’d swapped me for you,” Joe replied.

It took Nicolò a moment to get what he meant—but when he did, he used his free hand to shove Joe’s arm hard enough that he almost pushed him over.

“Hey!”

Joe’s lips turned up at that, only a little bit but enough that it made Nicolò feel a little bit happier in turn.

“Come on,” Nicolò said, tugging on Joe’s hand once again. “They’re probably going to talk for ages, they always do. Let’s go to the kitchens, I’ll show you where the cook hides her secret stash of chocolate.”

Joe didn’t respond, but he followed Nicolò without any complaint. It was an easy trip to the kitchens – they were right next to the ballroom, after all – but sneaking in was another matter entirely. Despite all the food already having been carried out, the kitchen was a mess of activity, and there were people everywhere.

Thankfully, the challenge was enough of a distraction that Joe stopped looking like he was about to cry. And when they got chased out of the kitchen by the cook, who shouted at them for being thieves – Nicolò knew she didn’t mean it, if she did she would have changed her hiding place ages ago – Joe almost looked like he was enjoying himself.

Nicolò led the way through a secret passageway in the wall and back out to the garden, back by the fountain. That had always been one of his favourite spots, as there was a stone bench that wasn’t too hard to sit on, and it was far enough away that he could usually be by himself without someone chasing after him, worried that he was running away.

(Honestly, that had only happened once, and only because his father said he wasn’t allowed to fly to America to watch the premiere of the new Star Wars movie. He wasn’t going to do it again.)

Sitting on the bench, they shared the bar of chocolate that they had managed to steal, fingers turning sticky and mouths smearing with sweetness. Nicolò started to tell Joe about the good things in Genoa, all the fun they could have together, but that just made Joe sad again—so instead, he asked Joe if he liked to ride horses, and from there they started planning a race.

It might have been the conversation, or the quiet that they finally found outside. Or maybe it was the chocolate. Nicolò had always thought that chocolate was better at cheering people up than the weird fancy desserts the cook served at weird fancy dinner parties.

(And besides—those desserts were going to be pretty hard to eat once everyone worked out that all the spoons were missing.)

But whatever it was that caused the change in Joe’s expression, Nicolò didn’t really care—he only cared that Joe was almost smiling again, just as he should be. Joe looked much nicer when he was wearing a smile.

And as their plans for a horse race came to their end, as Joe started to look maybe just a little bit sad again, Nicolò squeezed Joe’s hand as tightly as he could.

“Hey, Joe?” Nicolò said. “Don’t worry about staying here, okay? I’ll look after you. I promise.”

And then, finally, Joe’s smile turned bright once more.

Chapter Text

Joe found Nicky by the fountain, as he knew that he would. It had become their spot over the eight years Joe had spent living in Genoa—a place they could go where they knew they would not be bothered. The shape of the white balustrade was as ingrained in Joe’s mind just as surely as it was etched into his sketchbook, those curved lines and columns drawn over and over, though… not as many times as Joe had drawn the person pacing along the length of them.

Nicky had always been his one shining light in Genoa. They had become friends right away, bonding over stolen spoons and pilfered chocolate. And over the years, they’d only grown closer, living in each other’s pockets and spending as much time together as they possibly could. They even had their own secret language.

They’d both already known each other’s languages when they’d met, each taught it – as well as with French and English – alongside their own for diplomatic reasons. But when they were together, they often merged Arabic and Ligurian into something of a mishmash that no one else even had a hope of understanding.

It was just… like one of those little things, Joe supposed, the things that he couldn’t put his finger on that made everything feel just so much more enjoyable when he was with Nicky. They fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. Joe had always thought that the world was a bit brighter with Nicky by his side—and he knew that Nicky felt the same way about him. 

Which was why he knew Nicky was hurting so very much. Hurting just the same as the way Joe could feel his heart being pierced with a thousand shards of ice.

“Nicky?” Joe asked, his voice gentle. Nicky had run from the room at breakfast when Princess Maria had a made a rather tactless comment about Joe’s upcoming birthday, and Joe had hurried to follow without anyone trying to stop him. It was almost time for them to leave for school, but they all knew Joe would be the only one with a chance of bringing Nicky out of his sometimes-dark shell.

“Go away, Joe,” Nicky groaned, turning sharply on his heel to continue his paces. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

Nicolò,” Joe said again—and he reached out to take Nicky’s wrist, just firmly enough to stop him from leaving. “Hey. It’s going to be all right.”

Nicky grit his teeth and shook his head as if he still didn’t believe it, and Joe sighed. To be fair, he hardly believed it himself. But it wasn’t like they would never see each other again. Joe had seen his parents during these years in Genoa, as well as his brother—they met up every now and then on the island that had served as the reason for Joe’s exile to this side of the Mediterranean. He and Nicky could do the same.

The island was currently considered something of neutral ground. Genoa had held Malta for years, but they allowed Mahdia governance of it in exchange for a promise of peace—and custody of one of its princes.

Joe had hated being in Genoa at first. He hated the food, he hated the clothes, he hated the palace—but he didn’t hate Nicky. He never had, and he knew that he never could. Far from it.

Nicky really had been the only thing to make the stay bearable, at least at first. Though as time went by, things began to get a bit better. Genoa would never be his home, but it was… liveable. More than just bearable.

Joe thought he probably had Nicky to thank for that as well—for he knew very well how difficult it was to do anything that made Nicky upset, and he was sure the King and Queen had only begun to treat him equally at their son’s behest.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Nicky had done such a thing, nor even the last. Indeed, Nicky had once stood up in the middle of an a Very Important™ state dinner and directed a rather colourful speech toward the somewhat bigoted Prime Minister. It was interspersed with some very choice words about why Joe should not be spoken to in such a way, and decorated with a few subtle digs at the Minister’s own character. The memory was certainly one of Joe’s fondest.

Nicky had always been like that. In fact, Nicky had promised he’d look after Joe from the very first day they met, and Joe had done his best to return the favour. They were always together, never apart, and they’d come to know the other as well as they knew themselves.

But now, as Joe’s eighteenth birthday approached, it was time for him to go back. Time for him to leave.

He was excited to return to Mahdia, of course he was. His memories of it were not as clear as he would have liked, but it was where his family were. It was where he’d grown up—well. At least for the first ten years of his life. He belonged in Mahdia. Didn’t he?

But… Nicky wouldn’t be there, and that was something which tore at Joe’s heart.

“Nicky, it’s not a goodbye,” Joe said, his words infused with promise. “It’s not. Our kingdoms aren’t at war, we can see each other whenever we want. Meet up in Malta, spend as much time together as possible. We could even stay there, maybe.”

“You know our parents won’t allow that.”

“They won’t have to.” Joe used his grip on Nicky’s arm to pull him a little closer—and he didn’t have to pull hard. Nicky came more than willingly. “I’m almost eighteen, and soon you will be too.”

“In three years,” Nicky groaned.

“That doesn’t matter.” Joe waited until Nicky met his gaze before continuing. “They can’t boss us around forever. And in the meantime, it’s—I mean, it’s not like we can’t talk to each other. I’m pretty sure Skype was invented for this exact reason.”

Nicky let out a long sigh at that, and turned to lean against the balustrade—but he didn’t pull from Joe’s hold, merely used his free hand to rub at his face. “It won’t be enough. And I’m sorry, I know I’m being selfish, I know you want to go home—”

“No,” Joe cut in, a little unsure of why Nicky’s last word rubbed at him the wrong way. “It’s not selfish. I don’t… well. I’d be lying if I said I’m entirely happy about this as well.” He let go of Nicky’s wrist to put his hand on his friend’s back instead, and his fingers pressed firmly into the woven green vest as he lent his forehead against Nicky’s shoulder. “Wallahi, sometimes I just, I just wish that you could come with me.”

The words were born of desperation, the kind of thing one says despite knowing it can’t happen—and Joe immediately regretted saying it as Nicky’s next words infused with hope.

“Do you think they’d let me?” Nicky asked. “I could tell my parents it would be good for my education or something, and good for relations, and they’ll know that you’ll never let anything happen to me.”

“It would be the best thing ever,” Joe agreed, lifting his head to meet Nicky’s gaze. “But like you said before, no, I don’t think they would. You’re the prince, and the oldest, they’re not going to let you live in Mahdia with me. For now we'll have to make do with something smaller, and even then, we might need to wait a bit. They don’t even let you go to the cinema.”

“I’ll get there one day,” Nicky muttered.

“The screen in the palace is just as good,” Joe commented—and as per the norm whenever he was with Nicky, he felt a smile begin to make its way across his face.

“It’s not the same, Joe,” Nicky said—and although his tone started as almost a whine, it became something else as he continued. Something broken. “It’s never going to be the same.”

“No,” Joe sighed. “It’s not. But after three years, we can do whatever we want, and then maybe we’ll make it something better.”

“It’s too long. You’ll forget me.”

“I don’t even think that’s possible. I don’t think I could ever forget a single thing about you.” Joe shifted again, leaning against the balustrade at Nicky’s side and curling his arm around Nicky’s shoulders, pulling him closer still. “Do you think you’ll be taller than me by then?”

As expected, Nicky rolled his eyes, though Joe was pleased to see that some of the sadness left his expression.

It was a joke that had held firm over the years, Nicky’s first words to Joe always remaining funny. As was the fact that Nicky was still shorter, of course. It was something Joe liked to remind him of whenever he had the chance.

“I’ll get there,” Nicky muttered again—and then he leaned into Joe’s side, his head falling to Joe’s shoulder almost like Joe’s head had rested on Nicky’s moments before. “We’ll get there. Or, back here. You’re right. This isn’t a goodbye. This isn’t our last time together.”

“No,” Joe agreed, turning his head slightly so that it lay on top of Nicky’s. “It isn’t.”

They stayed wrapped together far longer than they should have, the both of them no doubt becoming late for school. But no one came to berate them, and they did not want to move.

It wouldn’t be long before Joe would need to leave, that was an unfortunately indisputable fact. But… in that place, and in that moment, they still had each other.

And with Nicky in his arms, Joe felt like he had the power to wish the moment into a forever.

Chapter Text

When they’d first talked about it on that warm, sunny morning by the fountain, Nicolò had thought that three years was a very long time.

It had seemed to stretch out before him like a too-long night, a blanket of darkness with the light so far away it was barely a pinprick at the end of the tunnel. It had seemed impossible.

He wasn’t to know that everything would end up being so much worse, and that he would one day yearn for the day he thought that it would only be three years.

Initially, it wasn’t so bad. Oh it was hard, of course it was—Nicolò kept seeing Joe out of the corner of his eye, kept turning to give him a smile only to find the space beside him void of any warmth. The empty chairs and quiet rooms taunted Nicolò’s nightmares and tore at every heartbeat, and there were so many moments he considered the plan he had concocted when he was five—the plan to just run away.

But, just as Joe had said they would, they kept in contact. Skype really was very helpful, and they used it almost every day. They texted, they talked, they were still the best of friends—

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the same.

So they started to get a little sneakier.

Nicolò managed to convince his parents to take him on diplomatic trips, and he and Joe coordinated their suggestions for any holidays to get themselves as close to each other as possible, treasuring the few moments they could steal to be together more than anything else.

It grew a little easier as they got older. Nicolò had grown rather adept at escaping from the palace guards, no matter how many his father tried to pile outside the door, and before he knew it he was old enough to be trusted to take trips on his own.

(Well, without his parents, at least. He was still made to take a bodyguard, but he hadn’t met one he couldn’t escape from yet.)

Nicolò’s eighteenth birthday came and went, but unlike when Joe had reached that age, nothing of note changed. Nicolò still lived in the palace. He still had to do as his parents told him. He graduated school and started university, he performed his duties, he did everything that was expected of him—

But the one time he brought up anything like a suggestion of living somewhere else, of moving out like the adult he had become and starting a life of his own – not to leave the life of a royal, but just to gain some freedom, any freedom at all – he was immediately shot down.

It would seem that he was to be controlled his whole entire life, without a single say in what he wanted to do.

At this rate, if he wanted to spend more than a few hours with Joe a year, he was going to have to wait until he became King of Genoa himself. Which wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought, no matter which way you looked at it.

So maybe, while he felt like there was a guillotine hanging over his head—maybe Nicolò began to get a little reckless.

But it was like, the more he saw of Joe, the harder it was to leave. Every time they met, every time their hands brushed or they pulled each other into an embrace—every time, it was harder to pull away. The moments apart felt longer, harder, colder, and Nicolò spent every spare second thinking about how he could bring them back together again.

And, yes, he should have been more careful. But he was so focused on seeing Joe as much as possible that the consequences of what they were doing slowly started to fall from his mind.

Nicolò was in Malta, having told his mother that the course he was taking at university required him to attend a field trip to Valletta in order to learn the finer points of Genoa’s history. The details weren’t so difficult to fabricate with a little bribery, and since tensions between Genoa and Mahdia were currently at an all-time low, there was no concern for Nicolò’s safety.

Joe, meanwhile, had simply told his parents he was going to Ta’ Qali for a football game. Being the second son certainly seemed to have some perks.

And they both found themselves in a cinema in Sliema during a summer midmorning, curled together as a movie played on the big screen. Nicolò couldn’t speak for Joe, but he wasn’t paying the film much attention. Despite having wanted to go to a real cinema for most of his life, Nicolò found himself far more captivated by the play of expressions over Joe’s face, the spark of laughter in his eyes and the upturn of his lips.

It was one of the best days of Nicolò’s life, but unfortunately, the fates wouldn’t let it stay that way.

They were seen. They were recognised.

And they were photographed.

It was the scandal of the century, the biggest royal story since Camilla.

Two princes of rival kingdoms, on a date.

Nicolò’s first instinct when he’d seen the headlines had been to cover his bright red face with his hands. The photograph was pretty telling—Joe looking at the screen, one arm wrapped around Nicolò’s shoulders… and Nicolò staring up at him as if he had been the one to hang the sun.

He and Joe had known for a while, of course, what they were to each other. It was something impossible to miss. But it was also something entirely impossible, something painful and raw, and Nicolò had assumed that they had silently agreed not to even acknowledge it. They were best friends, and that was perfect. But now he’d gone and blew it, gazing at Joe like a lovestruck moron for all the world to see—

And then, at that realisation Nicolò near swore up a storm.

Because, god. Joe seeing the picture was one thing, but—

Oh shit, what if his parents saw it and thought that he’d fallen in love with Joe?

He had, of course, but they didn’t need to know that.

In fact, they really, really didn’t need to know that.

Unfortunately, the fallout was about what one would expect. Nicolò was practically banned from leaving Genoa ever again, and he was told to cut all communication with Joe immediately.

(He didn’t, of course, but his parents didn’t need to know that either.)

Nicolò had fought against it, shouting and yelling and—well, he was somewhat ashamed to admit it, but he might have hurled a vase at a portrait of his great-grandfather at one point. Usually, he was able to keep a better hold on his anger, but they were trying to stop him from seeing Joe.

“It’s not that we don’t like him, Nicolò,” his mother had said, her voice soft and something close to sympathetic. “We do. Prince Yusuf has a kind soul and a good heart. But he is a Prince of Mahdia. We allowed your friendship, but this… this cannot happen. You know that.”

Logically, Nicolò did know that. But that didn’t stop him from wanting it regardless.

There were no more chances of sneaking out, no more opportunities to see each other. Skype was unceremoniously blocked on the palace wifi, but there were ways to get around that. There were other messaging apps, other means of calling each other, using fake names and VPNs and everything Nicolò and Joe could think of so that they could keep talking. 

But it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t ever enough—

And it was six years after they’d promised that they’d find a way back to each other, find a way to make things better than they had been during the best eight years of Nicolò’s life, that he finally found a chance.

For while his eighteenth birthday held nothing special, Nicolò’s twenty-first marked the age that he could officially be crowned as his father’s successor.

The ceremony was scheduled for only a month after his birthday, but Nicolò put on his best show of stubbornness and demanded that he also be allowed a birthday party. After all, it had been a while since the Palace had seen an event on a large scale, and this was the perfect chance for the cook to show off her skills.

Nicolò’s mother caved before his father did, but Nicolò knew he wouldn’t be far behind—and just like that, the biggest party the Palace had seen since the signing of the Malta Treaty was underway.

Nicolò didn’t bother to help with the preparations—he didn’t care about the decorations or the food. There was only one thing he needed for it all to be perfect. The rest he would leave in the hands of the event planners.

Because you see—an event of this scale would be open to any and all royals who wished to attend. Blacklisting any of them would result in offence, and Nicolò made sure that invitations were sent out to everyone.

And when he saw one particular name upon the final guest list, Nicolò felt like his heart was beating fast enough to explode.

Prince Yusuf of Mahdia.

This time, Nicolò would not let his chance pass him by.

—~—

Nicolò felt like his bones were trying to crawl their way out from under his skin.

It was torture, standing in that ballroom, greeting people left and right with a bright smile he didn’t mean, aching to keep looking over at the door, waiting for the only guest he actually cared about to enter through it.

He tried to distract himself. He twirled Maria around the dancefloor a few times, before a young prince came to cut in—and then Nicolò spent a couple of entertaining moments shooting the poor kid a few murderous glares.

But he couldn’t distract himself forever. It was already getting late, and he was starting to wonder whether he was even coming, or if the RSVP to the invite had been a mistake, or if Joe’s parents had somehow stopped him, or—

But just as Nicolò was on the edge of working himself into a panic, the herald at the door called the name that had imprinted itself upon Nicolò’s very soul, and he stopped midsentence to turn and stare.

Joe was at the top of the steps that led down to the ballroom floor, and maybe it was just that Nicolò hadn’t seen him in a while—but he looked exquisite. He was wearing a bright blue suit which, surely, no one else would have been able to pull off, regardless of the clear royal touch to it. Under his jacket a bright, yellow-gold sash stretched across his chest, and the whole look was topped off with a bow-tie. Nicolò didn’t think he could have torn his gaze away if he wanted to, propriety or not.

The Princess of – Prussia, maybe, Nicolò wasn’t sure – huffed, and Nicolò gave her an absent apology for stopping in the middle of their conversation. But his gaze remained entirely on the man descending the steps—

At least until a different voice sounded from his left.

“I did wonder about that, you know.”

Nicolò turned half out of surprise to find someone he knew only by reputation—the sharp-smiled Queen of Scythia, who was said to never miss a good party.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nicolò said. She had the kind of aura about her that would have made anyone uncomfortable, even if not for the topic of conversation. 

“I think the whole world would know exactly what I was talking about,” she replied. Then she lifted her glass in toast. “Good luck.”

Nicolò watched her, still a little stunned, as she downed her drink in one go. Then, she gave him one last nod before going off to join a royal Nicolò didn’t know, a striking woman with dark hair and a curious smile.

Shaking his head, Nicolò glanced back to the door, but Joe was already gone. In his place was a sight that was entirely unwelcome. Another man dressed almost the same as Joe had been, but looking not nearly as good for it—a man that Nicolò would have recognised as Crown Prince Muhammad of Mahdia even without the announcement of his name.

Nicolò could have cursed. He should have expected this—he knew that Joe had been just as berated as Nicolò was for what had happened in Malta. He should have predicted that Joe would not be permitted to come to Genoa alone.

But, no matter. Nicolò had waited so long for this chance, and he wasn’t going to let a single small hiccup get in his way. So he waved off the next woman who attempted to gain his attention, and cast his eyes over the crowd, searching for a familiar face.

Nicolò didn’t think it would take long to find him. Surely Joe would be on the dancefloor, charming every lucky person who found their way into his arms. Joe had always been like that, so bright and warm and friendly that people were just drawn to him. Even Nicolò’s parents had grown to like him, and they had been so suspicious of him at the start. As suspicious as anyone could be of a ten-year-old, anyway. In all honesty, Nicolò knew that Joe would make a terrible spy. He wore his emotions like a badge of pride, and Nicolò had never had any trouble working out what he was thinking. Even after they spent a long period of time apart from each other.

But, no matter where Nicolò cast his gaze, he couldn’t spot that bright blue suit, nor that familiar mop of dark hair. He spent another few minutes searching, but—it didn’t take him too long to realise that there was only one place that Joe would have gone.

And then, Nicolò quietly made his way outside.

The night was a cold one, the stars bright against the dark blue canvas of the late evening sky. No one else had ventured outside, and there was only one figure silhouetted against the stars, leaning back against the white balustrade with an empty glass in his hand.

Nicolò smiled and stepped closer, unable as much as unwilling to stay away when they had already been parted for so long.

“What did you do with that?” he asked by way of greeting, gesturing to Joe’s hand. 

“I didn’t give it to the fish, if you’re wondering,” Joe replied, his tone as fond as it was dry. “I’m sure the grass will appreciate it, though.”

Nicolò chuckled and leaned back at Joe’s left, his right hand resting behind him on the balustrade. It was nice, comfortable. It didn’t matter that it had been a while since they’d last seen each other. It didn’t matter that they had been pulled apart by forces not of their own making.

It was as if no time had passed since they had last stood in this very spot, no awkwardness staining the air at all. It was as easy as it had ever been to stand beside Joe, to share his space.

Yet, all the same, some things were entirely different. Nicolò was six years older, six years wiser—

And he was certainly no longer confused by the way his heart felt like it had missed a few beats when Joe slid his hand over the balustrade to press against his own. No, he knew exactly what that meant.

A quick glance proved that Joe was wearing Nicolò’s favourite smile, a soft thing that caused Nicolò’s breath to catch in his throat. Nicolò lifted his glass to his lips, hoping that the action would hide his own expression.

“You know,” Joe said, his voice low as he effortlessly captured all of Nicolò’s attention once again. “Those pictures of us in Malta—”

“I am really sorry about that,” Nicolò cut in, not caring that he’d already said it a hundred times before over the phone. Not caring that he knew Joe knew how he felt, because Joe had always been able to read him as well as he could read Joe. Just because they knew… didn’t mean they’d needed it splashed all over the world. “I know I’ve said that before, but I should have been more careful, and then the newspapers said we were on a date and I—”

“I was the one who suggested we go to the cinema,” Joe said, his voice as soothing as ever. “And you know… I was rather hoping that it was a date.”

Nicolò felt like his heart was dropping out through the soles of his shoes, like everything inside him froze and then started to work a thousand times faster in a matter of moments. He turned to Joe in shock, knowing his eyes were wide, knowing that he probably looked like a complete and total idiot—but being entirely unable to stop it.

“You what?” he whispered. He really had thought that Joe considered them just as impossible as he had.

“I had a plan,” Joe replied, his own voice equally as quiet as Nicolò’s. “You remember what we were going to do after the movie?”

“You said you wanted to go for a walk,” Nicolò replied. “We were already wearing our disguises and everything.”

Joe had tried to tell Nicolò that his hoodie was even more suspicious, given how hot it was. Nicolò had told Joe that his backwards-facing cap was just as bad. It had been a right shame that they’d both thought the disguises weren’t needed in the darkness of the movie theatre.

“We were going to walk along the beach,” Joe said, holding Nicolò’s gaze—and then, as he continued, he shifted so that he was holding Nicolò’s hand, as well. “I would have needed to work up the courage, I think, but I wanted to take your hand like this. Entwine our fingers, like this.”

Joe did as he said, and Nicolò felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“We’d walk on the sand, feel it burn between our toes. Maybe we’d share a gelato, or maybe we’d go somewhere quiet, just me and you. It wouldn’t have mattered, just so long as it was the two of us together. And when the moment was right…” Joe left his empty glass on top of the balustrade as he turned closer still, reaching up to trail his fingers in a line of fire over Nicolò’s cheek. “I would turn to you, and tell you that you’re the only one I have ever been able to think about.”

Nicolò swallowed, and tightened his grip on the hand that was still entwined with his own. “Joe…”

“Nicky,” Joe replied, leaning forward in a movement that was as old and as unmistakable as the rising of the sun. “My Nicolò.”

The press of Joe’s lips was the sweetest thing that Nicolò had ever felt, and he heard his own glass shatter on the ground as he reached up to bury his fingers in Joe’s hair, pulling him closer. Joe’s hands were at Nicolò’s waist, their bodies arching together as Joe continued to lean down. Nicolò couldn’t get enough, didn’t think that he’d ever be able to get enough, the slide of Joe’s lips and the press of his hands so utterly perfect, so firm and yet gentle, his whole body filling with a warmth that would be impossible to extinguish—

“What is the meaning of this?”

They sprang apart at the sound of the interruption, their kiss coming to a swift end—but they did not separate entirely. Joe’s hands remained at Nicolò’s waist in a manner that felt almost protective, and Nicolò’s curled around the lapels of Joe’s jacket.

Prince Muhammad was staring at them with an expression half-way between anger and horror. “Joe,” he said. “You know that you can’t—”

“I can’t believe you thought I could come here without seeing Nicky,” Joe interrupted, and the hands on Nicolò’s waist tightened.

“I thought you could come here and maintain a small level of decorum,” Muhammad hissed. “You’re lucky no one else saw you. Now, come on, we need to go.”

“No,” Joe replied.

“Joe, you must.” Muhammad took a step closer, and Nicolò felt Joe tense—

So he finally pulled from Joe’s arms and turned so that he was between the pair of Mahdian princes.

“If he doesn’t want to go, then you can’t make him.” Nicolò closed his hands into fists, and refused to back down as the older prince came closer.

“Yes, I can,” Muhammad said. “He is my younger brother—”

“And you are in Genoa,” Nicolò cut in. “Which means that at the moment, you have to do as I say.”

“Not yet, my son.”

Nicolò felt himself freeze—as did Joe, and Muhammad.

“Your majesty,” Muhammad said, bowing his head to the Queen. “It is good to see you. However, I am afraid that my brother and I were just leaving.”

“Yes,” Nicolò’s mother agreed. “I believe that would be best.”

“Mother—”

“Quiet, Nicolò,” she cut in, her arms crossing over the front of her delicately embroidered ballgown. Behind her, Maria was nibbling at her manicured nails, an expression of guilt mapped across her face—and Nicolò felt a bout of rising anger. “We cannot not risk another incident with Mahdia over this,” the Queen continued. “You know why contact between the pair of you needs to end.”

“Do I?” Nicolò asked. “Mother, all you have told me is that I can’t be with Joe, but I don’t see why us being together should do anything other than make the ties between Genoa and Mahdia grow stronger.”

“They are our—”

“What? Our enemy? We have not fought with them for centuries, the tensions between us arise from nowhere! It took you holding their prince hostage to give them free passage through the Mediterranean without them being scared of our ownership over Malta and for what? Look, mother, your plan from those years ago worked. Genoa and Mahdia can be friends, Joe and I are proving that, and you just want to end it? To tear me from the greatest happiness I have ever been able to find?”

Maria covered her mouth with her hand, but Nicolò held no sympathy for her. His eyes remained on his mother, who continued to stand firm despite the pain glistening in her eyes.

“Well done, Mother,” Nicolò growled. “If your goal was to destroy my life, then you’re doing a splendid job of it.”

“Nicky.”

“What?” Nicolò asked, his voice still a little harsh as he turned to the one who had spoken—but Joe’s expression was soft.

“Listen to me. This isn’t going to go our way, I need to leave with my brother.”

No,” Nicky insisted. “I just got you back here, and they won’t let you come back again after this. Joe, I… I need you. I love you, now and always.”

Joe let out a breath of air, and then he used both hands to gently cup Nicolò’s cheeks as he pressed their foreheads together.

“I love you too,” Joe whispered, his thumbs stroking under Nicolò’s eyes. “Now and always. And it’s okay, hayati. This still is not the end. You’ll see.”

Nicolò could no longer find his voice, but he managed something that was close to a nod.

“Come on, Joe.” Muhammad’s voice was a little softer than before. A little sadder, maybe. “We’re going home.”

“No,” Joe hissed as he finally let Nicolò go, his voice pure poison in a way that Nicolò had never heard before. “I am not going home.”

And then, without another backward glance, Joe walked straight past the group of royals and back toward the palace, his shoulders hunched over and his arms held tight at his sides.

“Nicolò,” his mother whispered, reaching out with a trembling hand.

But Nicolò pushed her away, and fought against the tears that threatened to fall from his stinging eyes. “Don’t.”

As he looked back to the palace, Nicolò saw that Joe was already gone. And he was just left with a hole in his chest where his heart should be, feeling like every part of him that mattered was being dragged back across the other side of the Mediterranean by the Crown Prince of Mahdia.

He was as broken as the shattered glass that still lay upon the ground, and in that moment, it felt like there was nothing he could do to fix it.

Chapter Text

Breaking into a Royal Palace isn’t easy, and as a courtship strategy, Joe really wouldn’t recommend it.

Unfortunately, it was literally the only option he had left.

He’d promised Nicky that they hadn’t reached their end, that they would be together again. It was a promise that he intended to keep. For a very long time, he reminded himself, placing his hand over the item resting in his pocket. 

But for that to happen, Joe had to somehow get back into a palace he was no longer welcome in.

The problem wasn’t just the guards—they were a nuisance, but they were human, and therefore fallible. The cameras, on the other hand—

Oh, what Joe would have given in that moment to have been born in a time before security cameras and electric fences. Those medieval princes didn’t know how good they had it, being able to simply jump over a wall, break into a tower and steal their love away with nothing but a soft word and a sharp sword.

The dragons might have posed a difficulty, but uh. Yeah, he was getting off topic.

Genoa’s Royal Palace, unfortunately, had some of the best security in the world—but most of it was focused on people getting inside. Once he was in, things would become far easier.

Especially since, in that area, Joe had a particular advantage. He had lived in that palace for eight years, and he had spent all of that time at the side of someone who liked to stick their nose into everything. Joe knew every corner, every cranny—and every secret passage.

It was the one thing – other than the obvious – that he had enjoyed about Genoa when he had been fostered in the palace as a kid. His palace in Mahdia used to have secret passageways, but over the centuries they had become so well known that they had turned into ordinary hallways with interesting doors. Genoa’s palace, however—that was another story entirely.

Yes, once Joe had made it through the doors, he would be able to navigate through the walls however he liked. It was just a matter of working out how to get inside in the first place.

He was about ready to just do it the old-fashioned way and charge the gates with a battering ram when he finally had the idea—because just outside the doors themselves was a teeming mass of people, all there to watch Prince Nicolò be ceremoniously given his title of Crown Prince of Genoa. It was one of those ridiculous ceremonies that stemmed from tradition, no longer needed yet followed nonetheless. But it was a gift Joe sorely needed, for while most of those people were politicians and royals, a good chunk of them were far more anonymous.

Joe was already wearing his best clothes, having already considered the possibility of blending in with the guests. (Not to mention that, uh, the occasion he was planning rather called for it.) It was easy enough to make his way through the crowd, single out a good target, and then tap her on the shoulder.

“Hello,” Joe said, giving her his brightest smile.

The reporter he’d chosen both because she was stood away from the others and because he looked friendly jumped about half a foot in the air, then turned with a nervous smile.

“Hi?” she asked. Then her gazed shifted over Joe’s face, and her eyes widened. “Oh my god, hi. You’re—”

“Someone who is not supposed to be here, yeah,” Joe said quickly. “Listen, I really need to get inside the palace, and there is no way I’m getting in there without help.”

The reporter blinked, then frowned. She wore large, square framed glasses which only heightened the effect of the expression. “Are you asking me to help you break into the palace?” she asked, her Ligurian accented in a way which suggested she had been raised speaking English. “The Royal Palace of Genoa?”

“Yes,” Joe said. “You catch on fast. Listen, I know that you need the story and your boss will probably skin you alive for this—”

“I’m hardly worried about my boss—I mean, well, yes, she will, but I’m more worried about the Genoese secret police,” she hissed.

Joe blinked. “Uh. The Genoese don’t have a secret police.”

“I’m just saying, if they did, we wouldn’t know about it.” The reporter considered him for a moment. “Are you trying to get in so that you can see Prince Nicolò? You’re dating, right? You know you’ve been labelled as the star-crossed lovers of the century.”

“Let’s just say, that if you lend me your press pass—I’ll give you the story of the century,” Joe said.

The reporter frowned, considering, clearly wondering if it was worth the chance of being arrested for helping someone break into the palace.

“I’ll dump the pass, or I’ll say I stole it,” Joe said. “Don’t worry. It won’t come back to you—I don’t even know your name.”

When she still looked unsure, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, and pressed his hand against his full pocket once more.

Leaving Mahdia and coming back to Genoa hadn’t been a rash decision, but it hadn’t been something he’d needed to think about, either. Joe’s world had been turned over and twisted inside out so many times that he could barely tell up from down, but through everything, there had always been one single truth that remained constant. One single thing that had never proven false.

Despite everything that had happened, he knew that he and Nicky deserved their happiness. He was here to fight for it, and he wouldn’t allow another door to remain slammed in his face.

“Please,” he whispered, opening his eyes and relaxing his hand. “You’re right, I need to see Nicolò. Please.”

And finally—finally, the reporter nodded, and handed him her pass.

Joe’s breath left him in a gush of air as he looped the lanyard over his head. “Thank you,” he said. “Here, give me your number. I’ll call you, I promise.”

“You’d better. Otherwise, I’m using the story of how Prince Yusuf of Mahdia stole my press pass to sneak in to see his boyfriend as my next piece.”

“Sure,” Joe said, taking the card she handed over. “Though, in that case, do you think I could borrow your glasses?”

The reporter pushed said glasses up a bit higher. “Uh, why?”

“Well, if it’s good enough for Clark Kent, it’s good enough for me,” Joe replied with a shrug. “If it helps, I can pay you?” He reached into his pocket, grabbed his wallet, and pulled out one of the purple Euro notes he had been using to pay for his hotel room. “Is this okay?”

“Um.” The woman stared, and then pulled off her glasses before plucking the note from Joe’s hand. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s, uh, more than fine. Good luck with your Prince.”

Joe sighed, and placed the glasses over his nose. “Thanks,” he said. “I think I’ll need it.”

—~—

As it turned out, Joe had been right. Getting in through the doors was the hard part. Thankfully, there were enough people with press passes that his wasn’t glanced at twice, and it seemed that the glasses did their job, for he wasn’t stopped.

The moment he was in, Joe pulled off the visually impairing glasses and made a beeline for the door just to the left side of the entrance hall. He ducked inside, and then headed for the old servants’ passage he knew was hidden behind a tapestry in the adjacent parlour.

He avoided a few people easily – they were all chatting and easy to hear coming – but as he made his way up to Nicolò’s rooms, he quite literally ran headlong into a difficulty on an unfortunately narrow staircase.

“Who the—wait. Joe?”

“Princess Maria,” Joe exclaimed, steadying her with hands on her shoulders as he covered his surprise with the brightest grin he could muster. “What an absolute pleasure it is to see you.”

Maria crossed her arms, looking down at him from her vantage point on the higher step. “You’re not meant to be here.”

“No,” Joe admitted. “Are you going to rat me out?”

If Joe were ever asked to rank the top most impressive single-raised-eyebrows in the world, Princess Maria of Genoa would most definitely take out the top spot. She had this way of staring that cut deep into the soul, that same shade of grey-blue which would normally make Joe go weak in the knees piercing through his skin and cutting through any lie.

Honestly, she was seven years younger than him, but she made him feel about three feet shorter. (Then again, that might have been the steps.)

“I shouldn’t have told my mother, when I saw you in the garden with Nicolò the other night,” she finally said. “That’s not normally who I am. But he had been acting off ever since the thing that happened between you two in Malta, and I didn’t want him to get hurt again.”

Joe drew in a small breath. “I won’t hurt him again,” he promised. “Not knowingly, anyway.”

She stared for a moment longer—then she nodded. “All right,” she said. “Nicolò has been a mess the past few days, even more so than usual. If you think you can stop him from moping around all the time, then you’ll be doing a national service.” Maria’s lips turned up into a grin that was nothing like her brother’s. “In my opinion, that means you should be allowed to go and do whatever you want.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, feeling a bit like he had been hit by a train. “I’ll just keep going then.” He gave her one last nod, and then considered his options in terms of getting past her on the stairs. It was rather tight, and uh. Well, she had already proven just how terrifying teenaged girls could be.

“Joe?” Maria said.

“Yeah?”

“You know, I saw him heading toward the garden. I think you’ll know where to find him.”

Joe smiled, thanked her, and then turned to head back down the stairs.

Thank god.

Reaching the gardens was a slightly more difficult matter than getting to Nicolò’s quarters would have been, as the lower levels of the palace were certainly busier. But Joe was nothing if not determined, and he made it all the way out to the terrace without being spotted.

Well. Without being spotted again, that is.

When Joe reached the familiar white balustrade, he had to pause for a moment at the sight. Nicky was wearing formal clothes—blue trousers, white jacket, gold sash. He looked amazing in them, but that—wasn’t what caught Joe’s gaze.

Because Nicky… he didn’t look right.

He had his elbows on the top of the balustrade, staring out to the other side of the palace, where it curved around the gardens. His face was blank in a way that Joe didn’t often see, and his usually sharp eyes had a distant kind of look to them which tore at every string in Joe’s heart.

“Well,” he said softly, feeling the need to at least try to put a smile back on that face before doing absolutely anything else. “As much as I’ve never liked this place, this is definitely a sight that I’ve always enjoyed.”

Nicky turned faster than Joe could blink, eyes widening and mouth falling open in shock.

Joe?”

“Yes, that’s—” Joe’s words cut off as he was struck by the full weight of Nicky’s body, arms wrapping around him and pulling him close. Joe clutched Nicky to him just as tightly and leaned down to press his face into Nicky’s hair, savouring the feeling of finally being close to him again.

It had only been a few weeks since Nicky’s official birthday party, but it felt far longer than that since they had been separated. Joe had stayed in Mahdia only long enough to commission a certain item and tell his parents that he was, on no uncertain terms, ever going to leave Nicolò ever again before turning tail and heading straight back over the Mediterranean.

He had decided to take the fact that there was a pilot waiting for him in the Royal Hangar as a sign that his parents had finally realised just how serious he was about this—though he’d be lying if he said he didn’t suspect his brother’s involvement. Muhammad, after all, had been with them. He’d seen what was said. He’d seen the way that Joe couldn’t take his eyes away from the love of his life, even if he had wanted to.

And standing there, finally holding Nicky in his arms once again… well, Joe could have written pages of poetry about that very moment, but he knew that he never could come close to accurately describing the sensation of pure comfort that washed over his skin, the innate sense of relief as pieces he hadn’t even been aware were out of alignment all fell into their right place.

“Joe,” Nicky said again, this time in a quiet whisper. “You came back.”

“Of course I did,” Joe replied. “I’ll always come back to you.”

Nicky smiled at that—Joe could feel the curve of his lips against the skin of his throat. “You did ruin my plan, though.”

“Oh, did I?” Joe asked.

“Yes.” Nicky looked up, and Joe’s smile warmed as he saw the happiness in Nicky’s eyes. “It was going to be very dramatic. Just before they crowned me, I was going to tell them that they could all go to hell, and then I was going to leave. I really wanted to slam the doors. I have a car waiting and everything.”

Joe couldn’t help but stare in wonder. “I am very sorry for ruining that,” he said, almost meaning it. “Had I known, I would have just waited outside.”

Nicky smothered a laugh in Joe’s shoulder before speaking again. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I missed you.”

A weight lifted from Joe’s chest at that, giving him a feeling of lightness. “I missed you, too,” he replied. And he wondered—he wondered if that was his chance, if he should make his move. A spark ran through him, one that was not unlike what he’d felt that day in Malta, the day he’d had planned out for their first kiss. It wasn’t quite nervousness, because sometimes he felt like he knew Nicky better than he knew himself, and he already knew what Nicky’s answer would be. No, it wasn’t nervousness, at least, not entirely—but it was anticipation and expectation, all wrapped up in an electric feel of excitement.

That day in Malta had not gone as planned, but this would. Joe was ready, more ready than he’d ever been for anything in his entire life—but there was something else that he needed to ask first.

Something else that he needed to be sure of.

“Nicky?” he asked, stroking a soft hand up and down Nicky’s back. “Are you entirely sure about this? Giving up your crown like that—it will affect your whole kingdom.”

“The kingdom will be fine. Maria and I talked, she’s going to take my place. If she does change her mind in four years, well, the kingdom will have to deal with the consequences of what they did to us. I doubt she will, though. We both agree she’d be better suited to ruling than me, anyway.” Nicky snorted. “Especially since, if I had to give you up to be king, I think I’d be a really shitty one on purpose. Just out of spite.”

“You wouldn’t,” Joe said, smiling softly. “You’re too kind to do something like that.”

“Maybe. But you know what? The only thing that this family, this monarchy has given me that’s worth having was the chance to meet you.”

“Well,” Joe started, trying to ignore the way his cheeks were warming. “I’m pretty sure being a prince gave you more than that. You got the best education in the world, anything money can buy.”

“That’s fair,” Nicky allowed. “But I don’t need any of that. I’d leave it all behind and live on the street, if it meant that I got to be with you for the rest of my life.”

Joe swallowed. It wasn’t often that he found himself at a loss for words—

Wait, no, that wasn’t about to happen. He had come here to talk, and he wasn’t going to let Nicky steal his thunder.

Still. He felt a little choked as he finally found something to say. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you, as well,” he said. “Every moment apart from you only ever feels like a moment wasted. It’s like I’m still moving through time, but when you’re not by my side I’m moving through water.”

“It’s the same for me,” Nicky said. “Please don’t ever doubt that.”

“I won’t,” Joe promised. And despite the fact that it had been only such a short time since they had shared their first kiss, he knew they were both aware of the feelings that had been in place so very long, held back only through circumstances far out of their own control.

They’d been in love for years, and being together was the most natural thing in the world.

“Then you won’t mind me asking if you’re sure you’re all right with this, too?” Nicky asked. “I’m not the only one who’s running the very real risk of being kicked out of their home.”

“You know… I’ve always wondered about that word. Home.” Joe closed his eyes for a moment, before meeting Nicky’s gaze again and continuing. This was his chance. “All my life, I’ve wondered where I belonged. When I was little, it was always Mahdia of course, but then… then my parents swapped me for an island. And I know now that the situation was a lot bigger than just that but, at the time, it made me feel like I was exiled. But I never really felt like I belonged here in Genoa, either.” He paused, and reached up to touch his fingers to Nicky’s cheek—and his smile deepened when Nicky leaned into the touch. “Except for when I was with you. And when I went back to Mahdia, so much time had passed that the palace there didn’t really feel like home, either. Especially since you weren’t there. There are so many reasons I could give for feeling that way—for feeling that the world is dark without you, that you’re my warmth when I shiver in cold. But the only words I want to give are that I love you, Nicolò. And I don’t ever want to be without you again.”

Nicky’s eyes were wide, and he was staring up at Joe with a raw kind of vulnerability that he didn’t often show. And Joe was just about to reach into his pocket when—

“Joe,” Nicky breathed. “If you keep saying things like that… I think I’m going to have to ask you to marry me.”

“Uh,” Joe said, hand freezing half-way out of his pocket, suddenly feeling thrown. Honestly, there was only one person in the world who could send him careening off his tracks like this. “Wallahi, Nicky, you sure do always have the best timing.”

Nicky’s eyes widened. “I. Joe, I meant it as. Well, maybe not as a joke, I know that it hasn’t been long, but I—well, I love you too.” Nicky looked a little pained, but his eyes bore into Joe’s with the intensity of a burning sun. “I mean it, I really do. I love you more than anything, and I don’t ever want to be without you, either—”

“Then, my Nicolò—will you marry me?” As he asked the question, Joe finally pulled the dark blue box out of his pocket and fell to one knee, holding the ring out to Nicky with a gentle smile.

And Nicky just stared, his eyes going wide, even wider than before, and his lips parted slightly. Joe didn’t say anything—he just waited, knowing Nicky well enough to recognise that it wouldn’t take him long.

Then, sure enough—

“Oh, god,” Nicky said, covering his now bright red face with his hand. “Joe, you’re—Joe.”

“Nicky, hayati, you’ve got to give me an answer,” Joe said. He knew that his voice was aching with fondness, and he didn’t care in the slightest. 

“An answer?” Nicky asked—and as his hand fell from his still blushing face, Joe could see that those grey-blue eyes were shining with unshed tears. “Technically, I asked you first.”

I have a ring. And I’m dirtying these white trousers for you.”

“How noble of you.”

“Nicky,” Joe whined, shifting the ring to one hand so that he could tug at the hem of his love’s jacket. “I’m not staying down here forever, you know? It’s weird, looking up at you.”

Nicky laughed at that—and then he fell to the ground in a rather ungraceful manner, disregarding the ring entirely in favour of throwing his arms around Joe’s neck and pressing their lips together.

Joe couldn’t bring himself to mind—he merely held the ring box against Nicky’s back, and fell into the kiss with all the feeling he possessed. He could feel Nicky smiling against his lips, and soon, they were both grinning, their foreheads pressed close as they basked in being together.

“When we get married, I am going to wear lifts in my shoes,” Nicky whispered. “And you are going to stand at the bottom of the stairs. At all times.”

“Wait—always?”

“I did just mean for the wedding but, if you want it to be always, I suppose that’s up to you.”

Joe would have tried to get in another word, but he was cut off as Nicky kissed him again. His eyes closed in pure bliss, and he didn’t think that any moment could ever be more perfect.

“That’s a yes, by the way,” Nicky said, his breath ghosting over Joe’s skin—

And Joe’s grin turned to a delighted laugh, pure happiness filling through his whole being.

They leaned apart only enough so that Joe could get the ring out of the box. It was relatively simple, more so than one might expect between two princes. In Joe’s opinion, everything about their lives had always been far too complex—but the love he felt for Nicky? That was the simplest truth in the world.

Joe watched as Nicky examined the plain band set with one single blue stone, holding it between two fingers and turning it in the light. There were two small shapes stamped on the inside – not an inscription, but something a little more… them – and Joe just waited for Nicky to spot them.

It didn’t take long.

“A spoon?” Nicky asked, staring at the unmistakable outline. “And… rectangles?”

“Chocolate,” Joe smiled. He took the ring from Nicky, gently held his left hand, and then slid the band onto the correct finger. “That was the first time we ran away together. And the day that you promised you’d look after me.”

“You remember that?”

“I’ve told you before,” Joe whispered, pressing his lips to the back of Nicky’s hand. “I find it very hard to forget anything about you. You live in my mind, in my heart, in my soul, and I’m never going to let you go.”

Nicky cupped Joe’s cheeks and kissed him again, and Joe felt like he was quickly learning. If romantic words got him kisses, he would recite poetry as often as he could.

“You know what?” Nicky said, not moving away a single inch. “I think I can live with being married to someone taller than me.”

“Good,” Joe replied. “Because chopping a few inches off my legs sounds painful, and there’s no other way that could go.” 

“You’re such a romantic,” Nicky said—and to be honest, Joe wasn’t actually sure if he was being serious or sarcastic.

So he took the coward’s way out.

“As much as I hate to say it, we should move,” he whispered. “They’re going to be looking for you. Unless… you want to go and talk to them? You do have a ceremony to attend.”

“Actually…” Nicky’s lips pulled into a grin that had a few too many teeth, and he stroked his fingers over the ring. “I’ve always had this dream of running away.”

Joe felt his own grin return, unable to help the fierce delight that rose in his chest. “Where will we go?”

“Malta?”

“Too obvious.”

“So? When they see us in the newspapers, they’ll know what’s happened. There won’t be any need for them to wonder.”

“If it’s publicity you want,” Joe said, “I might have made a friend earlier who could help us out with that.”

“Perfect,” Nicky replied. “And as I said before… I already have a car.”

It was certainly easier than it should have been—Nicky really had thought everything through, somehow more so than Joe had despite how insane his plan had sounded. The car was waiting on the other side of the gardens, in a camera blind spot Nicky had created by breaking into the security room while Maria had distracted a guard. The driver was paid off – not that either of them really cared, given that their plan was to let the media catch wind of them – and soon they were on the road, curled together in the back seat.

There would be complications to deal with, Joe knew. Nicky’s mother and father wouldn’t just let this lie, and his own parents surely wouldn’t just let them go either. But he and Nicky had made their decision very, very clear, and if they were clever…

Well. From the reactions Joe had seen so far, they might be able to swing the media and the world over to their side. Then, their parents may no longer have a choice.

As for the hostility between their countries… well, Nicky had been right. Alliances forged by marriage were a tale as old as time.

But all of that? That was to worry about later. In that moment, all Joe cared about was the man in his arms, and the future that they were going to forge.

“Hey, Joe?” Nicky’s voice was as soft as the way he was playing with Joe’s fingers, doing nothing to break the tranquillity of their peace. “Can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” Joe replied.

“Did you work it out?” Nicky looked up, and held Joe’s gaze. “Where you belong?”

“Yes, I believe I did.” Joe smiled, and slid a hand along the line of Nicky’s jaw. “I belong where you are.”

And when their lips touched together in their gentlest kiss yet, sweetened by the taste of their freedom, Joe finally felt comfortable claiming that this—this would be his forever.