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to love is to sacrifice, to sacrifice is to love

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i: the beginning

 

“Nicolo, tell me you’re still not angry.”

 

Nicolo hums, biting into a pear quite soundly, knowing that it grinds at his grandmother’s gears quite well. Sure enough, she winces and gives him a stare, which he meets with his own, blinking once.

 

“Oh I am, Grandmother.”

 

“No, he’s not, gramma! He’s teasing you.”

 

He rolls his eyes then and turns in front of him, raising an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be on my side of this, Princess Amelia.”

 

Mia frowns, scrunching her nose up at him, and she points her knife straight to his face, only putting it down with when their grandmother physically pushes her knife down.

 

“Nicky, ew. Don’t call me that,” she says, and he sighs, shrugging.

 

“As you wish, cousin,” he says, turning back towards their grandmother. “I am though. You should’ve introduced us sooner!” he says, voice going low.

 

“It’s been three months. She’s here now, isn’t she?” his grandmother admonishes, and Nicolo hates it. He really does. He puts down his fruit, and looks at her then, and meets her gaze. He can see Mia at the corner of his eye, staring at them and chewing at her lip.

 

It’s only been three months since Mia relocated to Genovia.

 

Nicolo’s father was their grandparents’ first born, who abdicated the throne with every intention to join the church. But instead, he fell in love, and had Nicolo. The love between his father and his uncle, Mia’s father, was strong enough that it created no hard-feelings between the two of them, and his uncle treated Nicolo with nothing but love and kindness.

 

He always thought that his uncle held him in such a way that felt like he was yearning for something. And in the end, it all made sense.

 

Losing his parents and his uncle in that one accident took a toll on him, and he hid himself from the world. He buried himself in his studies, and while he was always subdued, and quiet, Nicolo never thought he’d be successful enough at hiding himself in his grief that his living family would forget about him.

 

Because yeah, he had to find out about Mia through tabloid clippings and trash magazines from the United States. And later from news articles talking of her kindness as a future queen and a leader. Not through his grandmother, or Charlotte. Not even Joseph.

 

And it hurt, so much that he functioned like he never knew. He continued being numb, like he had been since he lost everyone in his life that cared that Nicolo existed.

 

By the time anyone thought to let him know, Mia had already been on her way, and he was back from his studies. He had expected to hate her.

 

But then Mia met him with a smile, and a squeezing hug and a gasping, “I didn’t know I had a cousin! Who else are they hiding!?”

 

And nothing in the world could make him hate her from then on.

 

Everyone else though?

 

“Nicky?” he hears, and Nicolo blinks, looking up at Mia, whose eyes are soft, and sad. “Are you okay?”

 

He gulps, and shakes his head, taking his napkin from his lap and putting it on the table. “I know she is, grandmother,” he whispers. “Maybe at least now someone’s going to remember that I’m part of this family now that everyone that did are dead.”

 

His grandmother’s eyes widen a fraction, ever the schooled and careful woman. But then there’s tears, and Nicolo won’t stay for that. He stands then, and moves straight towards his quarters, barely hearing someone following him.

 

When he gets to his room, he doesn’t bother closing the door behind him, and Nicolo feels arms around his waist and he doesn’t need to turn to know that it’s Mia. So he stops, shaking at the foot of his own bed.

 

“I’m here now, Nicky,” Mia whispers, and Nicolo gasps, turning in her arms, and allowing himself to bow over in his grief. She moves, and she’s standing in front of him then, moving him towards the bed. Mia’s kind, and quick with her friendship, and love, and Nicolo allows himself to burrow in the warmth it provides, after months of suffocating in his pain.

 

“Come on, here, let’s lay down, okay? C’mon Nicky,” she mutters and Nicolo moves with her, as the tears continue and soon, he’s sobbing. He really thought he’d be out of tears by now. But he misses all of them so, so, much.

 

“Gramma didn’t forget you, you know?” Mia says, stroking his hair as they lay beside each other on the bed. Nicolo snorts into his pillow, and sniffles.

 

“Genovia was just too important,” he mutters, and he understands that. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Mia shrugs then, because she gets it too. Her whole life changed in a year because of Genovia. If anyone understands secrets and recent changes, it’ll be her.

 

“No one ever said they were sorry. Not to me. Not for those I’ve lost. No one.”

 

Mia reaches for his hand and squeezes it. Then she smiles, humming softly. “She’s sorry. I’m really sorry. But I know she is Nicky. So is everyone else, and if they’re not, I’ll make sure they know that they should be.”

 

Nicolo smiles then, laughing softly at how her eyes, usually kind and wide and sweet, flashes with something a little fiercer, and it warms his heart to know it’s all for him.

 

“You promise, princess?” he whispers, and Mia nods, leaning in and pressing her forehead against his, and Nicolo closes his eyes then.

 

“I got your back, Nicky. I promise,” Mia whispers, and Nicolo sighs, and lets himself believe.

 

***

 

In the end, they apologize. In their own way. And by they, Nicolo means Joseph, and he means Charlotte. They heard what he said, during dinner, and had separately gone to his rooms that same night, with Mia still there, to offer their apologies.

 

Charlotte offers him the truth, that with everything going on, he had slipped her mind. Joseph just pulls him in his arms and holds him and lets him cry.

 

It takes his grandmother another day to come to him. And when she does, she’s her forever regal self, while Nicolo is rumpled with sleep and grief, Mia snoring behind him in his bed because she refuses to leave him. They sit in the hallway together, and she reaches to hold him, and he lets her.

 

“Nicolo, please understand that I never forgot you,” she whispers, and he nods then, because he understands.

 

“You needed to think of our country,” he whispers. The idea of him taking the throne has come up, again and again, even after his father had abdicated the throne. A month after his uncle passed, someone immediately mentioned it, and Nicolo responded with a furious glare because how dare they, and he knows people still talk about it to this day.  A week later, his grandmother had left to get Mia.

 

“But I shouldn’t have left you,” grandmother whispers, her lips in his hair and Nicolo sniffles. “I took getting Mia as an excuse to run away from my grief. We all did, and that was selfish of us. It’s not excuse, but you remind us so much of them all,” she mutters, and Nicolo closes his eyes, clutching at the skirt of her sleep gown tighter.

 

She ran from him because he reminded her too much of the sons she lost. He knows he’s a spitting image of them, and his whole disposition is entirely that of his mother. He is an embodiment of the raw ache of their loss.

 

So he had to suffer alone.

 

“I wish you would’ve told me,” he mutters, after a moment, tears running down his cheeks. “I wish I wasn’t alone. I wish you let me be there for you,” he mutters, and he hears her sob, and he sits up, only to have her pull him in her arms, and Nicolo buries his face in her neck.

 

“Please let me be here now,” she mutters. “Please let me be your grandmother now,” and Nicolo lets out a shaky sigh, nodding against her and squeezing her close.

 

“Don’t leave me, please,” he mutters, feeling exposed as he knows he’s begging. She hushes him softly, and kisses his forehead.

 

“Sleep, little prince. I have you, my darling,” she mutters, and it feels like coming home.

 

They sit there until Mia finds them, and brings them all in his bed to sleep. And for the first time since his uncle and parents’ passing, he feels like he has family again to hold him close.

 

***

 

ii: to be twenty-one

 

“So I have to dance with strangers? I can’t meet them first?!”

 

Nicky hums, looking up at Mia as she stomps around between one railing of gown to another, trying to pick one for her twenty-first birthday.

 

“You may simply stomp on their feet if you wish?” he asks, and Mia snorts.

 

“I’ll step on their feet, whether or not I want to, I’m sure,” she says, sighing softly and hurrying over to him. She’s wearing a massive periwinkle number that makes her look like a blossoming lily in the night, and as adorable as it is, Nicky knows that on Mia, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

 

“Careful, cousin. I don’t like this one. Go for the third one, the red one,” he says, as she drops on her knees in front of him, her hands on his thighs, curled into fists, breathing out heavily.

 

“Nicky, I can’t just go in, dance with strangers and pick a husband from them! What if they all suck?” she asks, and Nicolo smirks.

 

“Some of them do, in both good ways and bad,” he says, and god bless Mia, she takes his rare lecherous comments with a stride. If grandma were to hear him, she’d have a proper heart attack.

 

“Yeah, I know, everyone loves you,” Mia mutters, and Nicky blinks, looking down. Was she mocking him? Because his escapades are just that, escapades. No one truly loves him. Mia doesn’t notice, thankfully, because she’s way too focused in her misery, pouting. And then, she blinks, gasping and smacking his thigh, again and again.

 

“Mia, stop it,” he whines out, grabbing her wrist, and she’s practically vibrating. “Use your words.”

 

“You know them! All of them!” she says, and Nicky blinks, frowning.

 

“Uh, yeah. Well, not all, but most of the ones invited, I do know. I went to school with some of them, some I saw in other events,” he mutters, and Mia claps her hands.

 

“Invite them for your birthday! It’s this month, right? I know you wanted something small, but Nicky, I can meet them there first! Please? Please?” she asks, putting her hands together and pouting and Nicky moans, shaking his head.

 

“It was just going to be a small gathering. Just you, me, Asana…I don’t know, Mia—oh please don’t give me that look,” he pleads, and goddammit, Mia’s won already.

 

“Just the ones you really like, the good ones? So at least I know them when I see them, you know?” she says, and Nicky sighs softly, shaking his head, even though he’s already thinking of who he wants there.

 

“Mia…”

 

“Please Nicky?” she begs and he just sighs.

 

“Fine, but you’re asking grandmother—oh be careful!” he yells, as Mia tackles him into a hug, still wearing the gown. They hear a rip, and Nicky just sighs.

 

“At least it’s not the red one.”

 

***

 

Grandma ended up liking the idea, and that’s how Nicky found himself preparing for a bigger twenty-first birthday that he had expected. He had created a list, like Mia wanted, and hoped to god that none of them would come.  

 

What he didn’t expect is for it to become some sort of fanfare. And now he’s sandwiched between Mia and his grandmother, eating popcorn.

 

“I gave you a list, how in the world do you have a slide presentation?” Nicky asks, sighing softly.

 

“Charlotte made it!” Mia exclaims, and Nicky looks back at Charlotte, who just blinks at him.

 

“You enable her,” he mutters, and the woman just smiles.

 

“I enable you both.” And it’s true. They truly do. Nicky turns back to the presentation, just as they started squealing about Prince William.

 

“I like Harry better,” he says, and he feels his grandmother’s hand squeeze him on the shoulder.

 

“Harry is a gentleman. But he’s too young,” she says, and Nicky shrugs, staring at the screen.

 

“And William was not on my list, why is he—” he continues, only to look back and see all the women in his life looking dreamily at the screen, including his grandmother, and he sighs, sharing a look of exasperation with Joseph.

 

They’re lucky he loves them all.

 

“Ooooh, he’s dreamy too,” Mia says, and Nicky looks back to see a familiar face that makes him smile, and his heart jump, only to calm almost immediately.

 

“Prince Yusuf Al-Kaysani,” Charlotte says, and she’s sighing dreamily again and Yusuf definitely has that effect on people.

 

“That young man gets my vote,” Joseph says from behind him. “He goes by Joe sometimes, so he’s definitely of good stock,” he says, and Nicky snorts. “A brilliant one, amazing artist, charismatic. He’s dedicated himself as the right-hand and advisor to his queen mother, and has fully supported his younger sister taking the throne instead of him. He’s friends with Nicolo,” he says, and Nicky blinks, shrugging a little and his heart starts to go wild in his chest in a way he doesn’t want to understand.

 

“We spent two years of secondary together,” he whispers, glancing at Mia. “Uh…just before they passed, he had to move back home, and I…” he trails off, sighing.

 

Because there’s really nothing to say. Secondary school was uneventful until Yusuf transferred and they became fast friends. And Joseph is right: Yusuf is very kind. Charming. A light that everyone gravitated to. Everyone adored him, and Nicky was one of them, especially since Yusuf had always been kind to him. Because he’s kind to everyone.

 

But then in their last year, he had to move back to accept the duties of his home, and Nicky accepted it with an ache in his heart that may very well mean it had been broken. He felt pathetic, because Yusuf never directed affection to him, he was just so very kind, and Nicky can only guess that his heart thought, yearned, that it was something more.

 

“Nicolo, I’ll see you again?” Yusuf whispered to him, and he gulped, just staring at him, before nodding his head, even though he didn’t really believe it, no matter how much his heart is screaming at him that he should give the man the credit he deserved.

 

A month later, he lost his parents and uncle, and everyone else left just like Yusuf did and nothing else mattered for quite some time. And Nicky felt right not believing that he’ll ever see him again, even though it hurt so much. But still, a part of him hoped. Dreamed. And as the years went on, Nicky accepted Yusuf was never coming back, not for him, and he threw himself in his studies and meaningless rendezvous that left him empty and aching.

 

Still, when the idea of marriage came up for Mia, and he thought of perfect people that’ll love his cousin the most, that will cherish her and adore her like the treasure that she is, Yusuf had been the first person to come to mind, even when it came with an ache.

 

“I haven’t seen him in years,” he whispers, after a moment, staring at the slide, and at Yusuf’s bright smile on his face. Unlike the other photos of the other eligible suitors, this one was candid, and Nicky can almost hear the sound of his laugh.

 

“Then we’ll be sure to have him in all the guest lists,” Nicky hears his grandmother say, and he glances at Mia, who stares at him for a moment until he himself looks away, and the rest of the night passes on with a blur.

 

***

 

“Charlotte, please tell me everyone said no,” he asks, a few days after the invitations were sent out, while he sits outside with some tea and Fat Louie on his lap. The woman humours him for a moment, but then shakes her head, damn her.

 

“Everyone’s already replied with a confirmation, Nicolo. I’m already arranging suites for them,” she says, smiling at him. “Even Yusuf,” she adds, before walking away and Nicky blinks, face going pink as he slumps against the seat. While he knows it’s for his birthday, he’s not a fool. Everyone knows Mia is going to be there. They’re coming for her.

 

Even Yusuf.

 

“Are you alright, prince?”

 

He opens one eye and finds Joseph looking at him.

 

“I think I need a hug,” he admits, and melts when the man sits beside him and pulls him into his arms. He burrows in it with a sigh.

 

“For someone throwing himself such a celebration, you seem distraught,” he hears, and Nicky sighs.

 

“You know it’s for Mia,” he mutters tiredly. “You were there, Joseph.”

 

Joseph blinks. “I had thought it’d been for both. All those young men were your friends. So it’s not for you? Then why have it?” he asks, and Nicky blinks.

 

“Because it’s for Mia,” he says simply, because she asked. Joseph stares at him for a moment.

 

“And what about you?”

 

Nicky frowns. What about him?

 

Joseph just continues to stare at him when he doesn’t answer, before pulling him back into his arms and squeezing him.

 

“We did you wrong, Nicolo,” he whispers into his hair, and Nicky finds himself thinking of the words for a very long time afterwards.

 

***

 

Nicolo’s birthday starts pleasantly enough.

 

If you call being body slammed in your own bed by a princess pleasant.

 

But Mia does it out of love, even though she’s singing the birthday song off key, while squeezing him until he wheezed.

 

“Mia, I’d like to live past twenty-one,” he gasps, making her squeak and let go, before she immediately grabs his wrist and pulls him off the bed.

 

“We’re going to spoil the living daylights out of you!” she exclaims, and honestly, they do. Breakfast is filled with his favourite food, and there are gifts upon gifts from both grandma and Mia. Even Asana sent him one, with a cute note promising that she’ll be at his party tonight.

 

As soon as he reads it though, his breath hitches enough that both Mia and his grandma pauses.

 

“Darling, are you alright?” grandma asks, and Nicky gulps, looking up at her. He sees her worried eyes, like he has many times ever since things started to get better for the again. His words five years ago had clearly stuck with his grandmother to the point that she’s just perpetual worried for him.

 

But he’ll never regret speaking his mind, of letting them know that he was in pain all those years ago. But he’s fine now. Truly, he is.

 

“I’m…just excited,” he whispers, and he gives them a smile that he hopes sticks. But they look at each other, and then back at him, so he makes a point to open Asana’s gift then, gasping softly at the beautiful silk scarf that she’s sent.

 

“Oh how beautiful…” he whispers, running his hand on the fabric, and Mia claps her hands just as he looks up.

 

“It’s perfect for you, Nicky! I’m not even mad that you opened her present first,” she says, and Nicky flushes red then, looking down, and he feels grandma’s hand on his.

 

“Happy birthday, Nicolo,” she whispers, staring at him in a way that he knows that she’s just wishing for him to be happy.

 

And he is. Truly. He is.

 

***

 

The night goes on as expected. It takes an hour after introduction for it to be clear: everyone is there for Mia, not him. They don’t even try to pretend. Even as Mia keeps running to him, but Nicky expected it, so he lets her engage them. She feels bad enough, judging by the pout on her face, but he’s not going to make her feel awful about it. Asana gives him a drink, and a toast, kissing his cheek.

 

“I’m here for you Nicky,” she says, ever the sweetheart she is, and Nicky looks around, gulping.

 

No Yusuf.

 

And there’s that ache again and Nicky hates it.

 

He tosses the drink back before he can stop himself, and goes to turn for another when he runs smack straight to someone’s chest, and yep, he’s falling.

 

Except there’s an arm around his waist catching him expertly, pulling him up and close.

 

“Nicolo! Are you alright?” he hears, and his breath hitches, blinking up.

 

Yusuf’s staring at him with worried eyes, his arm around him still even though he’s standing on his own two feet.

 

“Yusuf!” His name comes out as a gasp, and he’s wrapping his arms around him tightly before he can help it. The man laughs softly against his ear, pulling him close, and there’s a kiss on his forehead.

 

“Oh how I’ve missed you,” he hears, and Nicky pulls away then, smiling at him. Yusuf keeps his hands on his arms, still staring at him.

 

“Happy Birthday, Nicolo,” Yusuf whispers, taking his hand and squeezing it and the familiarity of his kindness, that one that made him yearn sinks in again and he gulps, squeezing once before letting go.

 

“You know Asana, right?” he says, side-stepping to the right and Asana gives him a wide-eyed “are you serious?!” look that he’ll never understand. Then she blinks, and together they look back at Yusuf, who looks a little discombobulated for a second, but then he’s smiling that bright smile of his.

 

“Yes, of course I remember Asana, how are you princess?” he asks, leaning in and kissing her cheek just as Asana hugs him.

 

“Oh, you know, same thing. I came early for Nicky’s birthday,” she says, and Yusuf blinks at “Nicky,” but then gives him a smile.

 

“Aren’t we all here for that?” he asks with a gentle tilt of the head, tucking one hand into his pocket, and Nicky stares for a moment before blinking. Remembering.

 

“You’ve yet to meet Mia,” he says, and both Asana and Yusuf frown at him. Nicky doesn’t really understand it, so he moves forward, grabbing at Yusuf’s wrist. Because the whole purpose of this was for Mia to know all the ones on the list, including Yusuf.

 

“Nicky, wait—” he hears Asana say, but he’s already walking. Yusuf follows for one step, two, before he pulls back.

 

“Nicolo, stop.”

 

Nicky blinks then, and pauses, looking back to find Yusuf frowning at him, and Nicky lets go of his wrist abruptly. He takes a step back, but Yusuf is there, taking his hand gently and pulling him, towards the doors, towards the garden.

 

“But Mia’s inside,” he reasons, and Yusuf gives him an incredulous look as he pulls him. “I wanted to—"

 

“I do not care, we are going outside!” he yells, and Nicky shakes his head, pulling his wrist away just as they get to the fountains.

 

“I know you don’t!” Nicky bites back, and he knows it’s so much more than just introducing Mia. He looks down on the ground, gasping softly and running his hands through his hair.

 

He knows Yusuf doesn’t care of what he wants. He doesn’t care. He left, just like everyone did. He left.

 

“I know you don’t care…” he repeats again, and he sounds so pathetic, and he resigns himself to it. Because he is. It’s his birthday and he feels awful, and he knows that no one cares.

 

Just like no one cared when everyone that did care for him passed. God, he thought he was alright. It’s been years, and yet. And yet he still feels this, and it aches.

 

“Nicolo,” Yusuf whispers, and he’s in front of him now, taking Nicky’s hands in both of his and squeezing them gently. “Nicolo, please look at me.”

 

Nicky sniffs, and he looks up and Yusuf is staring at him with glassy eyes, lit by the moonlight above them. He lets go of his hands with a gentle squeeze and moves to frame them his face with them.

 

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Nicolo,” he whispers, and he gasps, not expecting it. He stares, his eyes widening just as Yusuf bows his head, and Nicky can see that there are tears down his cheeks.

 

He doesn’t remember if anyone ever said that to him. At least, anyone that mattered.

 

“And I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.”

 

Nicky blinks at the words, and shrugs then, wanting to make him feel better. He puts a hand on his arm, sighing. “It’s alright, no one was,” he whispers, because it’s fact. It’s the truth.

 

Yusuf’s head snaps up at his words, and he looks at Nicky in horror then, like he had just revealed something truly awful. Then his face crumples, and he’s sobbing, and pulling Nicky in his arms, squeezing him, holding him so, so close.

 

Nicky blinks at the abruptness of it, and there are tears in his eyes even though he is so, so confused. “Yusuf?” he whispers, voice down to a whimper. “Yusuf?”

 

“I am so sorry. I am so sorry,” Yusuf repeats, crying as he held him.

 

“It’s alright,” he whispers, his own arms finally wrapping around Yusuf, just as he shakes his head.

 

“It’s not, I wasn’t—Nicolo. I promise, I am here now, I’m here,” he says, and Nicky takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes, pressing his face on his shoulder.

 

“I know,” he mutters, because it’s true. Yusuf is here. He has to be. It’s part of his duties. But right now, Nicky can pretend that it’s all for him, and just him alone.

 

“Thank you for being here, Yusuf,” he whispers, and he swears he feels a kiss on his forehead, loving and sweet, and Nicky’s tries not to cry at what he yearns for, at what he’s eventually, still, going to lose.

 

But for now, Yusuf is here, and for no one else.

 

“Happy Birthday, Nicolo.”

 

***

 

“I can’t believe you’re only meeting Mia now,” Nicky hisses, and Yusuf just gives him a look, tilting his head, waiting for his turn. It’s finally Mia’s twenty-first birthday, just three weeks after his.

 

“We’ve talked about this, it was your birthday. And I was staying here, I had plenty of other chances to meet her,” Yusuf explains, grinning at Asana as she comes through with drinks for both of them.

 

“Thank you lovely,” Nicky whispers, before rolling his eyes at Yusuf. “And yet you didn’t meet her once.”

 

“I had duties,” Yusuf says simply, putting up his glass to toast with the two of them. Asana grins then, nodding.

 

“Oh, and you went with me to help with mine! You know, Baba appreciated you there,” she says, and Nicky hums. Because it is true. Yusuf’s duties didn’t change because he was staying here instead of home, but still.

 

“Not even once, Yusuf. One would think you’re avoiding my lovely cousin,” he says, and Yusuf shakes his head.

 

“I was not avoiding a lovely cousin at all,” he says, glancing at him then from over his glass. “I was with you, wasn’t I?” he says, and Nicky blinks, just as Asana chokes on her drink.

 

“Yes, I know,” he mutters, frowning a little when Asana’s eyes widen, and she shares another look with Yusuf and he knows it’s about him.

 

“Don’t mock me,” Nicky hisses, and Yusuf looks properly admonished, while Asana just takes another drink, rolling her eyes and forever unaffected.

 

“Never, darling,” he says, before sighing and putting down his drink. “Well, it’s time to meet the Princess of Genovia then,” Yusuf declares. He gives Nicky a wink before walking towards her, and taking her hand with a bow.

 

Mia bows and takes his hand gracefully, and it doesn’t take long until he’s speaking to her in soft tones, and she’s laughing wildly, and yeah, he knows how that feels. He watches as Yusuf leans in, and whispers something in her ear. And Mia responds with a gasp, a wide smile, and her arms being thrown around the man, whispering something back that makes Yusuf throw his head back in unabashed joy.

 

“At least he knows what he’s doing,” Asana whispers, and Nicky smile, staring, ignoring the ache in his chest.

 

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Of course he does.”

 

***

 

Nicky could only watch them for a few more moments before he had to get another drink. He blames it on being tired of balls altogether, and ignores the look that Asana gives him.

 

He’s drinks about two by himself right at the bar, before making his way back with a third one.

 

That’s when he hears familiar women speaking about the princess. Talking about if she’s nice, the only hellos and goodbyes that she apparently has offered. And he hates how familiar they are to him, for all the wrong reasons. Nicky frowns and steps forward, fueled by protectiveness and probably too much drink, hearing their jeering tones, and he hums, moving to stand beside them then.

 

“Well, aren’t you ladies having a lovely evening?” he asks, and watches with barely sustained glee when the women pause and pale even further upon seeing him. He smiles and takes a quick drink, meeting each of their gazes.

 

“Prince Nicolo!” says one of them, and really he can’t be bothered to know which one. He stares at the three of them for a moment before taking a step forward.

 

“Let’s make sure we don’t spread gossip now, alright?” he says, and the women’s eyes widen. “Why don’t you go back of talking about me instead?” Nicky adds, trying not to smirk when their jaws drop.

 

“We’ve never—” one starts, and Nicky narrows his eyes.

 

“I remember you love talking about me, and how I was, what was it? Not a proper prince? Because of my incompatibility with other royals?” he asks, waving a hand, and yeah, he has had too much drink.

 

They look properly terrified now. “Prince Nicolo—we—” they try again and Nicky glares.

 

“You’ll find I’m not as nice as my cousin, so I suggest you do not question what I know I’ve heard from you prior,” he hisses out, taking a step forward before he feels a hand on his shoulder. Then he sees the women’s eyes flicker behind him.

 

“Prince Yusuf!” they all exclaim and Nicky frowns, looking back to see Yusuf behind him. The man meets him with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, nodding over his shoulder for a moment.

 

“Ladies, have a great night. Come Nicolo, we’ll be this way,” he says, grabbing Nicky’s arm and moving him away from the women, but really, that’s not important right now.

 

“Where’s Mia? Weren’t you dancing?” he asks, looking over his shoulder and blinking at who he finds with her.

 

“You left her with Nicholas?!” he hisses, turning his wide eyes towards Yusuf, who frowns, still steering him away.

 

“It was his turn, and wasn’t he one of your schoolmates from elementary?” he asks, and Nicky shakes his head, barely noticing that Yusuf has taken his drink out of his hand, trying to turn back towards Mia. But he does feel strong arm around his waist.

 

“He did! But he—I don’t trust him,” Nicky starts, whirling around to look at Yusuf, who cradles his face in his hand.

 

“She’ll be alright, Nicolo,” he whispers, and he sounds so sweet and gentle that he melts at the sound, and he sighs. The feeling brings him back to his school days, where he’d be overwhelmed by his studies and Yusuf would be there and calm him.

 

“You, on the other hand, had way too much to drink.”

 

As soon as he hears the words, Nicky feels shame wash over him, and then there’s tears in his eyes before he can help it. Yusuf’s eyes widen for a moment, and he can’t take that, so he pulls away, bowing his head.

 

Yusuf sounds disappointed. Of course, he’s disappointed. And the ache becomes so much more and he can’t be here. He can’t.

 

“Nicolo…”

 

“Apologies,” Nicky mutters, looking up at him to meet his gaze for a moment, before bowing his head gently, hand to his chest. Yusuf makes a noise then, frowning.

 

“What? Nicolo—”

 

“Apologies, Prince Yusuf,” he finally gets out, and he takes a deep breath, looking up to find Mia exiting, clearly looking for someone. Then she looks towards their direction and hurries forward.

 

“Yusuf!” she calls, and Nicky gulps, blinking rapidly. Of course.

 

He glances at Yusuf again and gives him a hurried smile, before turning and walking quickly towards the terrace overlooking the garden. He hears hurried footsteps after him, his name being called, and no, he can’t be here.

 

As soon as he makes it to the terrace, he places both hands on the marble and jumps forward, gliding his legs over it, and bends his knees as he lands on the plush grass. He presses himself against the wall immediately, and hides amongst the many trees, closing his eyes tight.

 

“Yusuf? Yusuf! Hey—” he hears, and Mia sounds worried, and Nicky puts his hand on his lips, trying to stifle his gasp.

 

“Mia…” Yusuf says, and his voice is soft, worried. “Nicolo, he was just—”

 

“I thought he was with you!”

 

“He was! He was just here!”

 

“Oh…it’s alright. Yusuf, it’s alright, come with me. We’ll find him together, okay?” she says, so kind and soft, and Nicky hears Yusuf sigh.

 

“Yeah…yeah, together.”

 

Nicky gulps, and slides against the wall, sliding on his back until he’s sitting within the greens, pressing both hands against his ears, but even then he can hear them walking away. His heart is racing and he feels like a wire pulled taut and held against the heat.

 

Together. Together. Together.

 

***

 

iii: engagement and confusion

 

“Nicolo, stop inching towards the window.”

 

Nicky glares and stares at the councilmen around the room, glancing at his grandmother, who looks so incredibly distraught, her eyes wide.

 

“Then they can stop talking about me being king!” he yells, because he is so tired of it. “I care for Genovia, I do, but I have no interest and my father abdicated!”

 

“But something can—” one of the councilmen starts and Nicky shakes his head, putting a hand up.

 

“No! If you are more than happy to flip and twist the laws for me, and then you can do the same for Mia who wants to rule! Just admit that you don’t want another woman showing you how to do things properly like my grandmother has for years! Don’t use me to heighten your sexism!” Nicky growls.

 

Afterwards, Nicky swears he hears a muffled squeal of agreement, but he’s honestly too angry to think of it right now.

 

“Nicolo—” one starts, and he glares.

 

“That’s Prince Nicolo. You want to twist laws, fine. You address me as such, but I am not ruling,” he hisses, walking over to his grandmother then to stand by her side. She smiles at him and takes his hand, intertwining their fingers, and he brings it to his lips, kissing her knuckles.

 

“Thank you Nicolo,” she whispers, kissing his forehead, and he sighs.

 

“I’m by your side, grandmother,” he mutters. He watches as the councilmen starts to argue amongst themselves, and has to close their eyes when they put down the decree that she has to find a husband or else she loses the crown.

 

In thirty days.

 

“You are a piece of work, aren’t you, Viscount Mabrey,” he hisses, and the man growls at him, and Nicky meets his gaze.

 

“How dare you?” he yells, and Nicky grins then, stepping forward and meeting him step to step.

 

“Oh, I dare,” he says. “You cling to whatever clout that you must because you have nothing but name,” he hisses, before smirking and scrunching his nose, laughing weakly when the man turns red. “And you barely even have that.”

 

“Nicolo,” he hears his grandmother say, but Nicky doesn’t care. He doesn’t.

 

“It is not about me, you insolent brat! It is about what my nephew deserves, and what his parents wanted, because they wanted the best for him,” Mabrey yells, before grinning and giving him a look. Then he steps forward, voice down to a hiss, a whisper for him and him alone.

 

“Just because his parents loved and cared enough for him before leaving him orphaned, doesn’t give you a right to be jealous, boy. We all know no one really cares for you. If you were my son, I wouldn’t love you either,” he says, putting a hand on Nicky’s shoulder and squeezing painfully. His breath hitches at the words, but before he can say anything, the man pulls away and is walking towards the door, and the other councilmen are staring at Nicky now.

 

“I think I’m agreement with your Prince Nicolo,” Mabrey says, as he pauses at the door, turning to look at him, and then his grandmother.

 

“I don’t think you’re fit to be king. Let’s hope your dear cousin finds a husband that does.”

 

Nicky stares at the man, and doesn’t notice his grandmother’s hand on him until he feels it. He turns at the sound of his name, and frowns when her eyes widen, her hands framing his face as he looks at her.

 

“Grandma?” he whispers, and she just pulls him into her arms, asking him why he’s crying and he just sighs, Mabrey’s words ringing in his ears.

 

***

 

Nicky finds himself curled up in his grandmother’s arms after that, hating how the vile man’s words are just echoing in his mind again and again.

 

“Mia, please stop pacing, you’re giving me a headache,” he whispers, curling up tighter and sighing at the feeling of his grandmother’s fingers running through his hair.

 

“How am I expected to fall in love in thirty days?!” Mia asks, her voice half annoyed, half defeated and he understands that.

 

Nicky closes his eyes when she raises her voice, the headache truly sitting in. He lets their words wash over him, because what could he offer. The council has made up their mind. In the end, he knows that Mia would either have to accept it, if she wants to rule or not.

 

Eventually, she sits beside Nicky and sighs. “I guess I have to find a husband,” Mia mutters, throwing herself on him, and Nicky turns to wrap his arms around him instead.

 

“Who though?” she asks, and his grandmother hums.

 

“Surely at least one of eligible bachelors at both of your birthdays would suffice. Oh! How about Prince Yusuf?” his grandmother says, and Nicky freezes at the mention of Yusuf’s name.

 

Mia pauses and she squeezes her arms around Nicky then.

 

“Yusuf Al-Kaysani?” Mia whispers, and his grandmother makes a noise of agreement.

 

“He is definitely impressive. The fact that he’s been here since Nicolo’s birthday hasn’t had him skimming from his duties back home. I spoke to his mother recently. She’s very proud that remains motivated and driven is simply impressive. I think it’d be a fine partnership. And you know…it may go beyond fondness?” his grandmother asks, and Mia moves then.

 

“Nicky?” she whispers, and Nicky gulps, before opening his eyes. He sees Mia staring down at him, her eyes soft. “What do you think?” she asks, and Nicky smiles through the ache in his chest.

 

If there is a person in the world that you can fall in love with in thirty days, it’d be Yusuf. And he knows that that he will love Mia just as fiercely in return. At least he knows that they’ll both be taken care of, and they would both deserve it. And he can love them both the same, in the space and time he is allowed.

 

“I think it’d be amazing, Mia,” Nicky whispers, and he feels his grandmother’s hand pause in his hair as he continues, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Mia frowns at him, and he doesn’t understand it, not really, but at the moment, he doesn’t really care. With Mabrey’s words, and this, the pain is almost too much and he just wants the night to end.

 

“There is no better person in the world I can think of,” he whispers, and when Mia wraps her arms around him, and asks if he’s sure, asks him ‘really,’ he just nods, ignores the confusion in her voice, because he doesn’t trust that his heart won’t scream out the truth.

 

He introduced them for this very purpose, after all.

 

Though he really wishes he didn’t succeed.

 

***

 

Nicky doesn’t see Yusuf until after his first public excursion with Mia. Which is a feat. But then again, Yusuf did manage to not meet Mia until her own birthday, after living with them for three weeks.

 

And honestly, he really shouldn’t be upset. He did this. He set this up entirely. Nicky’s been somewhat avoiding him too, really, since Mia’s birthday. Which wasn’t so hard because Yusuf had a lot of duties, and have been locked up in his suite trying to deal with all of them as much as he could while living in Genovia.

 

Even then, the ache never fades and Nicky does not expect it to.

 

He’s sitting in the library, nursing a headache and running a hand on the back of his neck when he hears the doors open. Nicky looks up and blinks when he sees Yusuf entering the room. Their gazes meet, and Yusuf just stares at him for a few moments, before stepping forward.

 

“May I share this space?” he asks, voice uncharacteristically small. He’s so incredibly used to Yusuf being the beam that directs everyone’s attention to him. He’s always so sure of himself, body poised to accept everything like it would never phase him. He takes everything with such grace in a way that Nicky should be envious of, but he just admires him for it. He’ll make a great leader. A great king. Mia’s king.

 

“Of course,” he croaks out after a moment, the ache in his chest back in full force, and he rubs at it with a wince, glancing back at the pages of his book. He hasn’t really paid attention since the headache started crawling at his temples.

 

Yusuf takes the seat directly across from him, settling heavy in a way that Nicky doesn’t understand. The man’s always been light on his feet. He’s never seen him like this.

 

“Are you alright?” Nicky whispers, and the prince turns to him then, eyes widening a fraction, before he shakes his head, sitting back.

 

“Just taking it all in,” he mutters, waving a vague hand towards the window. “I didn’t expect any of it,” he says, and Nicky tilts his head.

 

Yusuf stares at him. And he stares back. Eventually, Yusuf breathes out.

 

“Mia, Nicolo,” he mutters, voice soft. “When my mother called saying that she, that your grandmother said that she, that Mia wanted to be mine…” he trails off, gulping, staring into Nicky’s eyes now.

 

“Did I misunderstand? This whole thing?” he mutters, and there’s something in his tone that Nicky can’t place.

 

“What do you mean, Yusuf?” he whispers, putting his book down and leaning forward, suppressing a wince when his head throbbed at the movement and his vision stuttered. Yusuf frowns, moving forward to reach for him then, sitting beside him.

 

“Nicolo? Are you alright?” he mutters and Nicky stares at him, nodding weakly, grabbing his wrist and squeezing it gently. The feeling of his skin against his finger tips create an illusion of no pain, and his headache dissipates for a moment. He lets go, before he becomes too selfish.

 

“Tell me what you mean.”

 

Yusuf bites his lip then and sighs, settling beside him. He throws an easy arm at the back of his seat, and pulls Nicky close. The movement is familiar. Welcomed. Missed, even.

 

“Was this…your intention? The whole time? When you invited me here, for your birthday?” Yusuf asks, eventually. The words are slow to come out, like he’s trying to figure it out, and Nicky closes his eyes for a moment.

 

He sighs softly then. “Mia wanted meet everyone I thought worth her time and spirit before her birthday. So, she’s not meeting them as strangers,” he says, snorting a little. “I didn’t really succeed with you, on that.”

 

He opens his eyes and glances at Yusuf who just stares back, eyebrows a little furrowed and he looks unsure. And he can’t have that. He needs to set him straight. It’ll only be fair for him and for Mia.

 

“When I thought of anyone who would be deserving of such love that I know my cousin can offer, I only thought of you,” he whispers honestly. “You are so kind, Yusuf. Loving and amazing, and I think you’d make an amazing king, one day,” he says, smiling weakly, and there’s truth in it for once. Because all of these words are true.

 

Yusuf blinks, his shoulders slumping. “You thought that? Of me…and Mia,” he mutters, and Nicolo nods.

 

“I think, this is for the best, don’t you think?” he asks, tilting his head softly, and reaching for his hand. Yusuf reaches for his, and he squeezes his hand, looking down at their hands, taking a deep breath.

 

“For the best,” Yusuf whispers, and Nicolo smiles, blinking rapidly.

 

“Yes, you get to love her. And she gets to love you. And I know…I know that you would have the best to offer each other, and I would never have to worry about either of you,” he says, grinning now, tugging on Yusuf’s hand. “Selfish of me, I know, but I want the best for the both of you!”

 

“And what about you?”

 

Nicky blinks.

 

“What about me?” he whispers, and it’s as if he yelled the words out by the way Yusuf’s head snaps up, squeezing his hand tightly.

 

“Yes, Nicolo. What about you?” he whispers. “Do you do all of this knowing that we are sorry for leaving you in your grief, that I—that we love you just the same?” he asks, and Nicky feels himself shake at the words.

 

“Don’t mock me,” he gasps, and Yusuf shakes his head.

 

“I’m not, it is an honest question. Do you understand all of that, and with that understanding, is this still what you want?” he asks, and Nicky doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t want this. Mia would be loved, and so would be Yusuf, and they would deserve all of that and more.

 

They can make each other happy, the complete souls they are.

 

“Yes,” he whispers, nodding his head, and closing his eyes at the pain it jars through the back of his skull. “This is for the best, Yusuf,” he adds, and then he takes a deep breath, opening his eyes and meeting his gaze, taking in his wide eyes, glassy with emotion.

 

“And I’ll be there for both of you, if you’d let me?” Nicky adds, unable to help it. “I’ll be your friend, your confidante, as well as her cousin. I care for you both, I won’t let anything harm you.”

 

“That’ll be enough, for you?” he hears, and Nicky bites his lip. It’s what he deserved, of course it’s enough.

 

When he nods, Yusuf immediately pulls him into his arms, and he squeezes Nicky against his chest. He moves his head and lays it on the prince’s shoulder, arms settling around his waist as Yusuf kisses his forehead.

 

“Of course I want you by my side, Nicolo,” he whispers, sighing against his hair, and Nicky allows himself to melt into it.

 

“If that’s what you truly want,” Yusuf mutters and Nicky nods, tears coming to his eyes. And when Yusuf sees them eventually, he blames it on his headache, and Nicky convinces them both that he’s fine and that his presence is enough.

 

***

 

When the news of the engagement broke the next few days, Nicky spends that day in his room, convincing himself that it’s impossible to die of a broken heart.

 

***

 

iv: to love and not be loved

 

“What are you playing at, Nicholas?”

 

Nicholas spins, and gives Nicky a hearty wave that makes him roll his eyes, walking beside him now. How can this man be so energetic when he feels like he’s been zapped of all his energy, with another headache crawling up his skull?

 

“If I remember correctly, Nicolo, I’m not the one that likes to play with people,” he says, smirking at him, and Nicky wants to throw him off the balcony.

 

“Just because you never got to play with me, Nicholas, there’s no need to be jealous, Nicholas,” he bites back, humming, grinning when the man turns bright red. He pauses then, gasping.

 

“You did! You did want to play, oh Nicholas. You should’ve just asked!” he yells, and Nicholas meets him with a grin then, shaking a finger at him.

 

“You flatter yourself!”

 

“No, I do not!” Nicky sing-songs back, and laughs when Nicolas puts his hands up, sighing.

 

“Fine, fine. A tiny crush. But it was eighth grade, and you…well, you’re you!” he says, and Nicky blinks then, frowning.

 

“I don’t know what you mean by that,” he says, and Nicky gives him a look then, before shaking his head, and motioning for him to follow.

 

Nicky sighs, and starts to walk with him again. He doesn’t even push him off when he puts an arm around his shoulders.

 

“Get off me. I’m still angry at you,” he hisses and Nicholas, thankfully, does listen.

 

“I really like Mia, you know,” Nicholas starts, and Nicky snorts, looking at him sideways as they walk through the garden.

 

“If you like her, you’d respect her enough to leave her alone when she’s engaged!” he hisses. “And I know this is just another one of your uncle’s schemes,” he growls.

 

He sees the man frown. “My uncle has nothing to do with this,” he mutters, but he’s sliding his gaze away, and Nicky just shakes his head.

 

“Do you forget that I accompany my grandmother in parliament meetings? Because I was there when he said you deserved the throne. That you wanted it. So, forgive me if I say I think you’re full of it,” he hisses, smirking when Nicholas looks properly admonished.

 

“I am not my uncle, Nicolo,” he mutters, and he looks at him then. He looks properly distraught at the comparison, but Nicky needs him to understand.

 

“I won’t let you hurt them. Not Mia. Not Yusuf,” he whispers. “I love Mia, I can’t have you. You won’t ruin this for her, and Yusuf…” he continues, before shaking his head.

 

Nicholas stares at him then, before sitting down. Nicky looks down at him.

 

“Come on prince, sit with me. Don’t be like this,” he mutters, and he sounds tired, and Nicky can relate. He’s been exhausted lately.

 

He sits beside him heavily. “Please don’t hurt them, Nicholas,” he whispers, eyes to the ground.

 

“You love them, huh,” he hears and he shrugs.

 

“Of course I love Mia,” he says simply, because that’s dumb. He loves Mia. Mia is his cousin, and he’ll love her always.

 

“And Yusuf?”

 

Nicky bites his lip, gulping. What about Yusuf? Why is Nicholas even asking?

 

“What about Yusuf, Nicholas,” he mutters, and he’s so tired. Nicholas moves, and when he puts an arm around him and squeezes, Nicky closes his eyes.

 

“You know what I’m asking.”

 

“No, I don’t,” he whispers, and he looks at Nicholas then, and hates the look in his eyes. Like he’s sad for him, like he pities him.

 

“Do you love him?”

 

Nicky blinks rapidly, gulping. He looks down and clenches his fist, but doesn’t pull away from Nicholas when he starts to rub his shoulder, offering comfort in a way that he didn’t expect.

 

“It doesn’t matter what I want, Nicholas. This is for the best. For them. For Genovia,” he whispers. Then he shakes his head, standing up, and looking back at Nicholas, who meets his gaze.

 

“I ask you again. Do not hurt them, please. Do not interfere.”

 

And Nicholas just stares at him, his shoulders slumping. But then he speaks, and Nicky hates him for it. He hates him, because he can see right through him, and he has no right to do so.

 

“I can’t lie to myself like you do, Nicolo.

 

***

 

“Are you ill, little prince?”

 

Nicky blinks, and turns to see Joseph standing at his door. He frowns, sitting up on the bed.

 

“Why are you here? Is grandmother okay? How about Mia?” he asks, and Joseph frowns, entering the room completely and walking towards him in hurried steps.

 

“They’re fine, prince. Having a moment, after one of them fell into the fountains,” the man says, standing by his bed, and Nicky pats the space beside him.

 

“Do you want a hug, prince?” he whispers, and Nicky nods softly, smiling when Joseph gets in the bed and pulls him into his arms.

 

“I’m not ill,” he whispers, promises. Because he’s not. He’s just tired. “I just want to get some rest before the parade, and the slumber party.”

 

“You’re staying for the party?” he asks, and Nicky gives Joseph a look.

 

“They’re mattress surfing.”

 

Joseph snorts, and he brings his hand into Nicolo’s hair, stroking it. “I do remember you love that,” he says, and Nicky smiles, laying his head back on Joseph’s shoulder.

 

“Papa and Uncle loved it so much,” he says, smiling wider in memory. “Mama too. She would always hold me to her, and when I got older, I’d hold her. And gramma…grandmother would do that thing she does because she’s dramatic,” he says.

 

“Your grandmother is something else,” he says, and Nicky pauses then, looking up at him again. Joseph looks down at him, and smiles weakly.

 

“You love her?” he asks, voice soft, and Joseph does not hesitate. He nods, his eyes shining.

 

“With all the heart I can give and have given.”

 

“All these years?” he mutters, and if he sounds in awe, it’s because he is. To know that Joseph loves her, and stayed by her side without being the one she loved back…it must have been so sorrowful. And yet, Joseph loves and he smiles and he cares. For his grandmother, for him, and for Mia.

 

How?

 

“All of these years, and many more,” Joseph continues, and Nicky doesn’t understand. He doesn’t.

 

“How? How do you get over it?” he asks, and he’s crying but he can’t help it. It hurts, so much, and if Joseph loves his grandmother now, and had loved her for long, then he might know this. He might know how to get rid of it.

 

Joseph sits up then, pulling him up and looking at him with kind, but sad eyes. He stares at him, before sighing.

 

“Oh Nicolo,” he whispers, and Nicky knows that he knows. He knows, and he looks down, ashamed.

 

“I’m sorry,” he gasps, putting a hand on his own chest, and Joseph hushes him, pulling him into his arms as he starts to cry, feeling the weight of finally crashing and it’s like he can’t breathe.

 

“Never apologize for what you feel in your heart, Prince Nicolo. If you love, then you feel, and that is a gift. It may not feel it now, but it is a gift,” he whispers against his temple, and Nicky whimpers.

 

“He’s not mine to have. How do you get over it when it feels like you can’t breathe. It hurts Joseph, please,” he moans out, and Joseph takes in a deep, shaky breath.

 

“Oh, I am so sorry, Nicolo. But you don’t. My prince, I will never steer you wrong, so I will be honest. If you love him, and you love him as much as I love your grandmother, then you will love him forever. And eventually, the ache will fade, because when you love someone, all your care is for them to be happy and well,” he whispers, pulling away and looking at Nicky, wiping his tears.

 

“You promise?” he asks, and Joseph smiles weakly.

 

“I promise. You will live through this and you will feel better. And if you’re lucky, you get to love him from afar. Keep him safe,” he says, and Nicky sniffles, wiping at his tears.

 

“Keep loving him, as a friend,” he says, trying to swallow the pain in his chest.

 

“The best he can ask for,” Joseph says, moving away from the bed and tucking him in. “I’ll tell everyone you’re indisposed. Is this the pain you’ve been feeling?” he asks, voice soft, and sad. When he nods, Joseph nods weakly, and he reaches for his hand, squeezing it.

 

“You’re not alone, little prince. I’m here for you. You know we love you,” he says, and Nicky gulps, nodding weakly, because yeah, he wants to believe it. Joseph’s eyes sadden even more at his lack of words and he looks down the blankets.

 

Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door, and Joseph straightens, frowning. Nicky watches as he walks to the door, and opens it a little.

 

“Prince Yusuf?” he asks, and Nicky blinks, sitting up.

 

“Joseph? Nicolo, is he alright?” he hears Yusuf ask, and Joseph sighs.

 

“I’m afraid that he’s indisposed, Prince Yusuf. He needs—” he starts, only to pause when the door opens even more.

 

“Indisposed? What? What’s the matter?” Yusuf asks, and there’s panic. Nicky can hear the panic in his voice and he can’t have that.

 

“Joseph, it’s alright,” he calls from the bed, and Joseph turns back to him, before nodding once, firmly. Then he opens the door, and Yusuf barely even thanks him before he’s running towards his bed.

 

Immediately, Nicky’s hand is in his, and the other’s on his forehead, and he can’t help but laugh, at how earnest and worried Yusuf looks.

 

“I’m alright, I’m here, Yusuf,” he mutters, glancing at Joseph, who coughs, as Yusuf starts to get in the bed, to take his former spot.

 

“Prince Yusuf, where, pray tell, is your betrothed?” he asks, and he doesn’t sound mad, just curious. The way Yusuf doesn’t even turn back to him, keeping his hands and eyes on Nicky floods him with warmth.

 

“The princess was a handful this morning, and still being a handful. The queen has her,” he says, and Joseph laughs weakly.

 

“And you have our prince?” Joseph asks, and Yusuf nods, without hesitation, tucking him in the blankets and holding him, meeting the man’s gaze now as he does, Nicky’s head on his chest.

 

“Always.”

 

Joseph gives them a look then and smiles, nodding his head minutely.

 

“Then I shall leave you to it. Make sure he gets some rest. I shall inform the queen and princess.”

 

“Thank you, Joseph.”

 

“You’re welcome, princes.”

 

When the door closes, Yusuf is looking down at Nicky again, frowning. Then his hand is on his face, fingers gently wiping at his cheeks.

 

“You’ve been crying,” he mutters, and Nicky leans into the touch. “Were you in pain?” he asks, and his voice is shaking.

 

Nicky takes in a deep breath and lets it out shakily. Then he nods, gulping. “It’s fading already,” he mutters, trying not to think of the reasons why. Of why he’s in so much pain. Of why the tears just come unbidden now, and the pain in his heart eases when Yusuf holds him. He sniffles, and wants to curse when more tears escape, and Yusuf makes a soft, pained noise.

 

“Is it? Or do you lie? Nicolo, do we need a doctor? You shouldn’t be in this much pain,” Yusuf whispers, and Nicky just shakes his head, opening his eyes.

 

“Just hold me, please,” he begs, allowing himself a moment. “I just need rest. The parade is coming soon and I only have today and tomorrow, and I can’t…I don’t want to miss it,” Nicky whispers, and Yusuf sighs, leaning in to kiss his forehead, before pulling him close.

 

“Then I shall hold you,” Yusuf says, rubbing his back as he holds his head to his chest. He sighs, burrowing in his embrace. “I’ll look after you, Nicolo.”

 

And regardless of everything, Nicky believes him.

 

***

 

In the end, everyone agreed, including Yusuf the traitor, that even after resting, that Nicky should not strain himself by being part of the parade for the next day.

 

“All I have to do is stand there, and even I’m not allowed to do that?” Nicky asks, and yes, he’s crossing his arms over his chest, and glaring at everyone, including Joseph and Yusuf, who share a look that he doesn’t appreciate.

 

“You’re still not well. You’re looking pale,” Joseph says, and Yusuf agrees, immediately.

 

How does he tell them that it’s because Mia asked his opinion on her wedding dress as soon as he woke up, and he smiled through it all while his heart hurt, and Charlotte took notes?

 

Nicky ended up skipping breakfast altogether afterwards, and had been feeling off since, like his heart was going to skip out of his chest, making it hard to breathe.

 

“I feel fine,” he mutters. He has never missed the parade for as long as it’s been around, and he doesn’t want to start now.

 

“You don’t have to miss it,” his grandmother says, after a moment, staring at him with worried eyes, and he can’t take it. Everyone’s so worried about him, and it’s like he can’t even do anything about it. “But maybe then…” she starts, biting her lip.

 

“Then what? Sit at the side like I’m not part of the family?” he bites out, and everyone’s eyes widen at his words, and Nicky blinks. Damn it. He shakes his head and pushes off the table. As soon as he stands, however, the world splits in two. His hand shoots towards the table, gripping tight.

 

“Nicolo?” Yusuf asks, and he’s out of his seat, and so was Mia. Actually, everyone’s on their feet, and he puts his free hand up.

 

“I’m alright—I didn’t mean that. I…” Nicky gasps, and his chest hurts and what’s happening?

 

“Nicolo! Joseph—call someone. Here, let’s sit you down.” Why was Yusuf yelling?

 

He blinks, and suddenly, Yusuf is there, so close. His arms are around Nicky for a moment, squeezing around his waist before he’s sitting him down, Mia hovering just behind him. His grandmother’s beside him then, her hand against his neck. He vaguely hears Joseph calling for the doctor, and he whimpers, shaking his head.

 

“I can’t miss it, grandma, please,” he whispers, leaning towards her touch.

 

He gulps, hating the whole thing, hating how worried she is, and how tired he is, but it’s important. It’s so important to Nicky. “I’ve never missed it. I always went with Mama and Papa and Uncle and I come back every year after because I feel them there. Please let me,” he begs, and Mia whimpers beside him.

 

He turns to find her clinging to Yusuf’s arm, the prince’s hand on hers gently, squeezing. They’re looking at him worriedly, their eyes wide and scared. And he hates it, for so many reasons. Nicky gulps, and turns back to his grandmother.

 

“Please,” he repeats, and she sighs, nodding and kissing his forehead.

 

“If the doctor clears you, you can come. And you sit by my side, nowhere else, alright?” the queen says, voice firm and loving and Nicky nods, leaning in to embrace her.

 

“I love you, grandma,” he mutters, and she rubs his back, sighing.

 

“And I you, Nicolo. We love you, very much.”

 

When she pulls away, she then turns to Yusuf and Mia. “Help your dear cousin to his bedroom?” he asks, and Mia nods immediately, and then she turns to Yusuf.

 

“Can you carry him, Yusuf?” she asks, and Nicky blinks.

 

What?

 

“No, no, no, I can walk,” he starts, already standing up, but Yusuf is there, already placing one arm on his back, and the other behind his legs, and lifting.

 

“Yusuf! Put me down! Mia!” Nicky squawks, as Mia walks ahead, leading the way to his room. He tries to look over Yusuf’s shoulder, but he just hushes him.

 

“Just take it easy, Nicolo,” he whispers, kissing his forehead, and Nicky flushes red, and closes his eyes, wanting the world to swallow him whole.  

 

“The doctor will be there shortly,” he hears behind them from Joseph and closes his eyes when Mia gives her affirmative.

 

“Just stay still, cousin,” Mia says as hurries down the hall.

 

“I can walk, you know. I’m fine. I don’t need the doctor, I don’t need help,” he mutters, but he doesn’t struggle. He feels another kiss on his forehead just as he hears his doors open.

 

“Let’s tuck you in, Nicky,” he hears Mia say, and he opens his eyes then, and finds Yusuf staring down at him with such worried eyes.

 

“You said you were feeling better,” he mutters, and he sounds scared, and distraught. “Were you hiding from me?” he asks, and Nicky shakes his head.

 

Yusuf had spent the last day with him, keeping him company in bed when he was free from his duties, and so did Mia, really, in between planning for the parade and planning for the wedding. They doted on him, and he truly felt better.

 

But that morning happened, and it’s like his heart has been wrung hard enough that he’s feeling it physically, and he’s not sure how to cope with it.

 

“I was, I promise you,” Nicky explains, just as Yusuf lays him down on the bed, gently moving pillows under his head. He vaguely feels Mia pulling off his shoes, before kicking off her own as she gets on the bed with him.

 

“Go on Yusuf, you made him feel better before, do it again,” Mia says, and Nicky turns to his cousin then, who tilts her head at him.

 

“What? I just want you better, okay? We’re going to stay here and wait for the doctor. I want you at the parade too, cousin. It’s my first one, and I want you there,” she says, taking his hand and squeezing it. Nicky smiles then, and nods, blinking when Yusuf moves him on the bed to make room for himself.

 

“This is highly inappropriate, I’m sure,” he comments, and blinks when both Mia and Yusuf snort, sharing a look.

 

“Let them think what they want,” Mia says, shrugging and throwing an arm over his waist. “If they have a problem with us loving you, then that is on them. You need us, Nicky,” she says, and he feels Yusuf’s fingers through his hair then, and he looks up just in time to see him smile.

 

“She’s right,” he whispers, before leaning in and kissing Nicky gently on the forehead so tenderly and softly that the kiss lingers. “We love you, Nicolo. And we’re here for you,” he whispers against his skin and Nicky sighs, closing his eyes, just as he hears a knock on the door.

 

He opens his eyes for just a moment to see Joseph coming in with the palace doctor, and just shakes his head gently when they stare wide-eyed at them, before burrowing back into the blankets, to let his family take care of him for a while.

 

***

 

When the doctor’s go silent, after he gives his symptoms, and listens to his heart for a moment, and takes his blood pressure, Nicky asks everyone else to leave him in private to receive the diagnosis. And everyone does, except Joseph.

 

Not that he expects anything less.

 

“Prince Nicolo…how long have you been feeling this way?” the doctor asks, her voice soft and gentle. He shrugs then, sighing.

 

“Since my birthday,” he whispers, avoiding Joseph’s gaze as he stands by the bed.

 

“Have there been any significant events since, that may cause such stress?” she continues, and Nicky frowns then, staring at her.

 

“What are you saying, doctor?” Joseph asks, instead, and the woman sighs.

 

“Your body is reacting as a way to cope with a severe amount of stress, and is straining your heart. Identifying the source of the stress would be the best way to tackle it,” she says, and Nicky gulps, glancing at Joseph, whose eyes sadden.

 

“Nicolo…” he starts, and Nicky shakes his head, looking up at the doctor with a wry smile.

 

“I’m a prince of a country whose leadership is shifting as we speak,” he says, voice soft. “Of course… of course I’m stressed,” he whispers, sighing. Then he closes his eyes for a moment, sighing.

 

“Once the wedding is done, I should be fine,” he whispers, hoping and wishing that he can believe his own words. The doctor seems satisfied of his answer then, and he starts to talk to Joseph about possible beta blockers if the symptoms continue even after. He lets it go over him, and just curls up in his bed.

 

“May I go to the parade, please?” he asks, after she finished, opening his eyes then, pointedly avoiding Joseph’s gaze. The doctor stares at him for a moment, before nodding, her eyes kind.

 

He joins the parade the next day, sitting between his grandmother and his cousin. He holds either of their hands when they grab at his, and squeezes them, whispering soft words to them both as they wave to the people of Genovia.

 

Mia is amazing through it all, graceful and kind. When she stops the parade, she stops it for all the right reasons that make Nicky so proud of her.

 

For a moment, the world is perfect.

 

“She’ll be an amazing queen,” his grandmother whispers, and Nicky nods, smiling.

 

“I know…Genovia is in amazing hands,” he says.

 

“Oh, will you look at that. Princess Mia is now rejoining the parade with all the children. Oh she’s going to be an amazing queen, with king Yusuf Al-Kaysani at her side…” Nicky hears a reporter say, and he gulps, jolting slightly when the parade starts to move again.

 

He feels a hand on his shoulder, and Nicky blinks, looking up at Joseph.

 

“Are you alright, Nicolo?” he whispers, and his grandmother is looking at him now too. He gulps, and meets both of their gazes.

 

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” Nicky says, after a moment, and Joseph just stares at him, for a moment, before letting go, and when his grandmother grabs his hand and squeezes it, and whispers his name, he doesn’t respond, and just stares ahead. Let’s his eyes land on Mia as she walks into a future with Genovia.

 

To a future with Yusuf at her side.

 

***

 

“Where is Prince Nicolo?” Mia calls, and Nicky drowns in a sea of giggles.

 

“I’m here, cousin! I’m here,” he gasps, under at least four different future dignitaries and rulers. He moves a pillow from his face and sighs, melting against the mattress he’s on.

 

“Save yourself, cousin. Save Genovia for us, I’ve been taken over my giggling princesses,” he says, putting a hand on his chest.

 

Mia gasps, kneeling beside them, taking Nicky’s hand and squeezing.

 

“Oh no, dear cousin! I shall save you. Now ladies, please let my cousin breathe,” she asks, and they all whine in protest, audible and high-pitched ‘awwws’ escaping them, but thankfully, they all get off.

 

“I still get to slide down with you, Prince Nicolo?” says one of them though, and Nicky smiles, sitting up, and nodding at her.

 

“Of course, princess. Just give me a few moments to catch my breath,” he says, and smiles, staying where he is, as the rest of the princess starts sliding down again, screaming and cheering the whole time.

 

Mia sits beside him then, laying a head on his shoulder. Nicky smiles, and kisses her temple.

 

“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asks, and Mia grins then, nodding.

 

“Oh, I am. We still gotta slide together!” she says, and Nicky grins then, standing up and extending his hand towards her.

 

“What are we waiting for then, cousin?” he says, and Mia grabs his hand with a squeal, pulling him up the stairs.

 

The guards place a mattress in front of them, and Mia lays on her stomach on one side, and Nicky follows her, laying on his stomach as well, grinning when she grabs his hand.

 

“Ready?” Mia calls, and Nicky laughs softly.

 

“Lead the way, princess,” he says, and they both yell in glee as they slide down, Nicky’s stomach rolling in a way that is wanted and pleasant, and he’s so glad to feel it, after everything.

 

There are cheers, all around them, and Mia rolls on Nicky after they settle, laughing when she cheers, clapping her hands as she does.

 

“Would you like to go again?” he asks, just as Mia jumps back to her feet, Nicky following her, half way up when he hears a familiar voice.

 

“Oh I’d love to join you for cookies—” Yusuf starts, only to stop, as he walks in the hall, his grandmother on his arm.

 

“Quite a party you’re having!” his grandmother exclaims, upon seeing Mia, who yelps and drops Nicky’s hand in shock, sending him sprawling on his back on the mattress.

 

“Nicolo!” he hears, and Nicky sighs, throwing a hand over his face, feeling himself flush with embarrassment.

 

“Oops, Nicky, I’m sorry!” Mia yells, and she’s helping him on his feet again, and Nicky sighs, looking at Yusuf now, who’s looking at him with wide eyes.

 

“Hello, Prince Yusuf,” he mutters, stepping off the mattress just as his grandmother starts telling Mia how much their parents love to do this.

 

“Hello Nicolo,” Yusuf says, putting a hand on his arm, grinning now.

 

“You look comfortable,” he comments, and Nicky tilts his head with a shrug.

 

“It’s a slumber party, Prince Yusuf,” he says, pulling at the sleeve of his sleepwear, and the man just grins even more.

 

“That it is…” he mutters, before blinking, looking over Nicky’s shoulder. “What is she doing?” he asks, and Nicky turns to find his grandmother standing on a mattress herself.

 

“Oh you know,” Nicky says, smirking at Yusuf as he watches in awe, as she slides off the stairs gracefully. “Just showing us all how it’s done.”

 

Yusuf laughs then, shaking his head. “A true queen,” he says, voice so serious that it makes Nicky snort.

 

Then, he feels a slight tug on his pant leg and sees one of the princesses looking up at him.

 

“It’s your turn now, Nicolo!” she squeaks, and Nicky blinks.

 

“Aw, must I?” he asks, crouching in front of her, and then she nods, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

 

“Yes! And Prince Yusuf should join you, he hasn’t done it yet!” she exclaims, and Nicky blinks. He looks up to find Yusuf smiling at him then, offering his hand.

 

“Come on Nicolo, it’s not wise to keep future queens waiting,” he says, winking at the little princess, who giggles, clapping her hands.

 

“Go, go!” she yells, and Nicky just lets Yusuf pull him to his feet and lead him up the stairs. When they get atop of it, Asana and Mia turn to the both of them, and grin, pulling a mattress forward.

 

“Sit Nicky!” Asana yells, and Nicky yelps as she basically makes him sit on the mattress, and Yusuf’s behind him before he can even get another word. He feels his arms around his waist, holding him close, and he blinks.

 

“Ready Nicolo?” Yusuf whispers into his ear, and Nicky gulps, before nodding.

 

“Yes,” he whispers, and that feeling in his stomach is back as they slide. And with Yusuf’s laughter, and his fingers tightening over Nicky’s arms as he holds him close to him, his breath peppering his neck s they go down, Nicky can’t help but think, if the world allowed him happiness, that this is what it feels like to fall in love with Yusuf, and rejoice.

 

And he allows himself to bask in it, just for a little while.

 

***

 

v: to decide who we love

 

Honestly, Nicky is impressed by Nicholas’ resilience. And if it weren’t clear to him that Mia was enabling him, he’d be angrier.

 

But right now, he’s just angry enough because their antics not only affect them, but Yusuf as well. And that, he won’t stand for.

 

Except Yusuf’s outside, staring after Mia and Nicholas as they sneak away on their horses into the night.

 

“Tell me you at least tried to stop them,” Nicky mutters, looking at Yusuf, who snorts, staring at him now.

 

“Your cousin just scaled the palace walls to meet that man, and you think I could stop her?” he asks, and he doesn’t sound upset. If anything, he’s amused. He takes in a deep breath then, before sighing loudly.

 

“She’s definitely going to be a handful, that’s for sure,” he says, turning around to go back in, and extending a hand towards him. Nicky takes it, because he’s so confused.

 

“How are you not upset? She’s your fiancée, and she’s…” he trails off, waving behind him, just as Yusuf shrugs his shoulders. And truly, he doesn’t look bothered at all.  


But he doesn’t look happy either.

 

“Yusuf?” he whispers, and the man just sighs, squeezing his hand.

 

“Whatever happens, I am a man of my word, I promise you that,” Yusuf whispers, turning to him now.

 

“I won’t shame my family that way. And I won’t insult yours by going back on my word,” he continues, and Nicky takes a deep breath then, shaking his head.


Because not once did he think that of Yusuf. He is a kind, and amazing man, who deserves nothing but the best. And that includes a fiancée that doesn’t run off with another, even if she was his cousin.

 

“I know you would never. I just…I don’t want you getting hurt, and she’s…with him,” he finishes, lamely, and he looks down. Yusuf chuckles softly, and wraps his arms around him gently.

 

Nicky blinks, pressing his face on his shoulder.

 

“Nothing can hurt me, Nicolo,” he whispers, and it sounds like a promise that he hates making. “And I am not angry at her either. She’s a victim of circumstance. If she finds happiness in this, then I will not blame her. You cannot blame someone who is brave enough to find happiness.”

 

Nicky closes his eyes as the words sink in, then he shakes his head, pulling away. He stares at Yusuf then, and finds him looking at him with glassy eyes, and yeah, he knows the words are for him.

 

“Brave?” he mutters, breathing out softly. “You think me cowardly, Yusuf?” he asks, and watches as his eyes widen a fraction, before he starts to shake his head.

 

“Nicolo, that is not—of course I don’t,” he starts, and Nicky steps back when he steps forward, putting a hand up.

 

“What she is doing, call it what you want, but it is foolish. If they are to get caught, it’ll not only be her she’s besmirching herself but you! Don’t you understand? I don’t want her to hurt you!” he yells, and Yusuf growls then.

 

“She’s not the one hurting me, Nicolo!” he bites out, making Nicky jump. Then he lets out a groan of frustration, running his hands through his own hair.

 

“Don’t you understand? I am already hurt. I have been, since this started, so nothing can hurt me any longer,” Yusuf says, turning to him again, throwing his arms up.

 

“But you get that, right? You set this up. You said this is for the best, so here we are, Nicolo. You did this,” he gasps out and Nicky feels like his chest is being ripped apart from the inside at his words.

 

“You said yes,” Nicky whispers, shaking his head. “You agreed it was for the best.”

 

Yusuf laughs then, and it’s dark and wrong and suffering. He looks up at Nicky with tears down his cheeks and sighs.

 

“I’ll always agree with you, Nicky. Even if it means ending my world,” he whispers, and Nicky feels like he can’t breathe.

 

“You mock my pain,” he whimpers, shaking his head, because this can’t be real. But Yusuf just sighs, and turns away from him, shoulders shaking as he walks away.

 

“No Nicolo. I understand it.”

 

And the grief Nicky feels threatens to swallow him whole that he collapses on his knees long after Yusuf’s left, barely hearing the maids, and then Joseph’s panic calls when they find him, hours after.

 

***

 

Nicky doesn’t know how he convinces everyone who found him that he’s fine, but he does. They leave him alone for the night, and he wallows in his misery, trying to calm his breathing when the pain in his chest doesn’t go away.

 

Soon enough, morning breaks, and Charlotte is knocking on his door frantically. He stumbles out of bed and follows her to Mia’s room and watches she turns on the news.

 

And he feels adrenaline shoot through him.

 

“I am going to kill him,” he whispers as he kneels beside Mia, glaring at Nicholas’ face on the television. His grandmother hushes him, but he can tell her heart’s not in it.

 

“I got played,” Mia whimpers, sniffling as she curls up. Nicky bites his lip, and glances at their grandmother, who sighs.

 

“The question is…do we still have a wedding?” she asks, and Mia slumps then. Nicky gulps, and ignores the pain in his chest when he reaches over, and squeezes his arm.

 

“Talk to Yusuf, cousin,” he whispers. “He won’t steer you wrong.”

 

And a few hours later, she listens to Nicky, and does as she’s told. He catches them at the terrace through the window, the very same one he had hopped over, trying to get away from the two of them at the start of this whole thing.

 

There wasn’t much funfare as one would expect. But then again, Yusuf is very kind.

 

He can see them exchanging a few words, before Yusuf frames her face and kisses her gently. When Mia returns the kiss, and Nicky walks away from the window, and makes his way back to his room to nurse his aching heart.

 

It looks like the wedding is still on.

 

***

 

“You look beautiful, cousin.”

 

Mia turns to him, as she continues to pace at the entrance of the church. Nicky’s walking her down the aisle, per her request. And no matter how much it hurt, he couldn’t bring himself to say no.

 

“Thank you, Nicky,” she whispers, before biting her lip, and putting a finger up. “Excuse me,” she says, before slowly opening the entrance, and he knows she’s talking to Joseph on the other side. Nicky watches her then, frowning when she stiffens, before pulling away. When she closes the door, there’s a soft knock, and again, she’s speaking softly.

 

When she finally pulls away completely, Nicky hums, watching her closely.

 

“Cousin?” he asks, and Mia spins around to face him.

 

“The heart does things for reasons that reason cannot understand,” she whispers, and Nicky’s breath hitches.

 

“Mia?” he whispers, and she goes to him then, taking his hands. “Why are you quoting Blaise Pascal?” he asks, and she just squeezes his hands.

 

“Nicky, is this for the best? Truly?” she whispers, and Nicky’s eyes widen, watching her face. He wants to say yes, because they’re finally here. They’re finally at the end of the line, doing what they must for their country.

 

And yet.

 

“I do not know, Mia,” he admits, gulping. Then he remembers Yusuf kissing Mia, and how he waits at the other side, and his words from the night before.

 

 Nicky blinks rapidly then. “But I know…if you decide to come out of this married, that you would be wonderfully blessed by the most amazing man as your partner. Because Yusuf will love you…like it is how he breathes and you’d be so lucky to have him by your side.”

 

Mia’s eyes soften and she takes a deep breath then, letting go of his hands to grab his face and kiss his forehead. She looks like she wants to say something, but in the end, she bites her lip, and nods.

 

He stares at her for a second, before taking his place at her side, extending his arm for her to take.

 

“Thank you for being by my side, cousin,” she whispers, just as the doors open, and Nicky catches Yusuf’s figure far ahead, and his heart aches, and aches, and aches.

 

“Always, cousin.”

 

***

 

They make it about ten feet in before Mia’s asking for a moment and bolting out in her wedding dress, giving her flowers to a random attendee. Nicky’s after her in a flash, and he can hear his grandmother and Charlotte running somewhere behind him.

 

Unlike Mia, he hangs left as soon as he gets out of the church doors, and immediately avoids any sort of cameras being pointed at his face, running towards Mia when he sees her curled up, clutching her stomach.

 

“Oh cousin,” he whispers, kneeling beside her. “Hey, you’re alright, I have you,” he mutters, pulling her up and stroking her back. She gasps, letting out a soft whimper, before pulling away.

 

“Nicky, you know it’s not me he loves, right?”

 

What?

 

“Huh?” he whispers, staring at her with wide eyes, and she meets it with that smile of hers, her eyes glistening.

 

“Yusuf does not love me. He doesn’t do this for me. He does this for Genovia,” she starts, and Nicky whimpers because of course it’s for Genovia, why did he anticipate otherwise. He ignores the pain in his chest, but pulls away from Mia then.

 

“Right,” he mutters, but then Mia is shaking her head, chasing his hand and gripping it.

 

“I’m not done, cousin,” she says, firming her voice that it makes Nicky meet her gaze. “Yusuf does this for Genovia because he loves you.”

 

Nicky stares at her, his face paling.

 

“What?”

 

Mia’s shoulders slump, and she stares at him with a sad sigh. “He does it because you love Genovia to the point of sacrifice. Because you thought it was a good idea. He never…he never loved me. You know what he said to me on my birthday?”

 

And of course he doesn’t. But he remembers them whispering and laughing and looking like they were having the best time, and it’s the first time they were meeting.

 

He shakes his head. Mia hums, and she steps closer, wrapping her arms around him now, and Nicky sniffles.

 

“He said, ‘Forgive me for waiting for so long, but you are not the cousin I want to spend the rest of my life with,’” she says, going as far to lower her voice in a poor, hilarious imitation of Yusuf, and Nicky short circuits.

 

“Please don’t mock me,” he whimpers, and Mia shakes her head fiercely then, squeezing him.

 

“We love you, Nicky. I know we’ve done you wrong. I know that we have a long way to go for you to believe is, but we do not mock you. We love you. He loves you, and the only reason he stands on the end of that aisle is because he knows how much you care for our country. He does it out of duty, and he stays because he loves you. Everyone knows it,” she says, and Nicky closes his eyes then.

 

“Everyone?” he whispers. “Grandmother?”

 

“Yes. She hasn’t…explicitly said, but I know she knows of Nicholas,” he hears Mia say.

 

Nicky opens his eyes then, and he doesn’t care that tears are streaming down his cheeks freely.

 

“But you agreed,” he whispers, and Mia’s breath hitches as she sighs. “And so did he,” he adds, and if it’s possible for his heart to keep breaking, then it does, again and again.

 

“We know. We did. For Genovia,” she whispers, and Nicky nods, repeating the words bitterly.

 

All of this, for their country.

 

Eventually, she pulls away, and Nicky does too, taking a deep breath, and reaching over to wipe any remnants of tears on her face, and she does the same thing for him.

 

His grandmother gets there then, and she sees them both.

 

“Oh darlings,” she whispers, and she pulls not only Mia in her arms, but Nicky as well. He barely sees Joseph behind her, always there, always watching and keeping them safe.

 

Mia whimpers then, taking in a shaky breath. “I just…I just need a moment, I can do this,” she hisses, and Nicky gulps, staring at her. Then, after a second, she shakes her head, and turns to both of them.

 

“I can’t do this,” she gasps. “I can’t. I can’t do this. And I can’t do this to you, Nicky,” she whispers, and Nicky looks down, feeling tears in his eyes.

 

But do they have a choice.

 

“Listen to me,” he hears, and Nicky finds his grandmother looking at both of them, her eyes sad. "Both of you."

 

“I made my choice,” she starts, and her voice is shaking just a little. “Duty to my country, over love. And now I’ve lost the only man I ever really loved.”

 

And Nicky thinks of Joseph, who has accepted the same, who thinks that his love from afar is enough, and how he thinks he will be like him in the future, with Yusuf and Mia. And it hurts. He moves towards his grandmother then, and takes her hand.

 

“Mia, I want you to make your choices, and make your own mistakes. There will be plenty of them,” she says, and Nicky snorts, making Mia laugh weakly, her eyes wide.

 

“Now you can go back to that church and get married, or walk away. Whatever choice you make, make it from the heart,” his grandmother says, and Nicky sniffles, staring at Mia then, his own heart beating wildly in his chest.

 

“At your side, cousin. Whatever you choose,” he promises. Mia whimpers, and then makes a frustrated noise, before she’s throwing herself on both of them, and Nicky closes his eyes, hugging them both close.

 

As soon as they pull away, Mia motions to take his arm, and Nicky pats her hand gently, and together, they make their way to the church. Charlotte’s there, scrambling with a bouquet, but Mia doesn’t take it.

 

Then she squeezes Nicky’s arm, and lets go, turning to him.

 

“Mia?” he whispers, tilting his head, and she smiles, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

 

“No more sacrifices, cousin.”

 

And with that, she turns and walks down the aisle so fast, that the world scrambles after her. Including him, because he follows her down the aisle, only to stop when Yusuf sees him, as he takes Mia’s hand in his. Nicky gulps, and nods to him, smiling tearily when Yusuf nods back.

 

He goes to sit when he hears Mia telling Yusuf wait, and he blinks, pausing.

 

“Everyone deserves to find true love, right?” Mia whispers, but she might as well have yelled it because of the echo, and Nicky freezes. Yusuf stares at her, breathing out a soft yes, immediately.

 

Mia smiles, and holds up the ring Yusuf gave her. “Including us?” she whispers, and Yusuf laughs weakly, and he sounds like he’s going to cry. He takes the ring. Then he glances at Nicky for a moment, and Nicky stares at him, eyes widening.

 

But then he turns back to Mia. “Thank you. Thank you for doing this,” he says, and Mia grins, before she leans in and whispers something to him. Yusuf throws his head back then in laughter, and takes her hands, squeezing it.

 

“Mama and Baba are going to be so excited,” he says, for everyone to hear, and Mia grins.

 

Then they pull away, and Mia makes her way to the podium while Yusuf runs down the stairs and beelines straight to him. He grabs Nicky’s hand and pulls him towards the doors, and he squawks, stumbling after him.

 

What was happening?

 

“Prince Yusuf?” he gasps, and Yusuf grins, at him. They meet Joseph and his grandmother, and Yusuf bows his head gently.

 

“May we be excused, dear queen?” Yusuf asks, and his grandmother smiles, but straightens her back.

 

“For what reasons, Prince Yusuf?” she asks, and Yusuf grins again, happy and soft, squeezing his hand and looking back at him.

 

“Love, your highness,” he says, and Nicky feels like he might melt.

 

Love?

 

His grandmother’s face softens and she nods, a wide smile on her face, and Joseph is clapping Yusuf’s arm with glee.

 

“You may go. But please, do not exit the church,” she says, and Yusuf nods, and he’s pulling Nicky again just as Mia starts to speak at the podium.

 

They go down a pair of stairs on the left, and as soon as they get to the landing, Nicky’s back is on the wall, and Yusuf is on him, pressed close.

 

“I love you, Nicolo.”

 

Nicky’s eyes widen as he stares up at Yusuf, his breath hitching at the words. The man smiles, and frames his face in his hands.

 

“Everything I did, everything I will do, is because I love you,” Yusuf whispers, and Nicky feels tears in his eyes then. His breath comes out in gasps, and he whimpers, wrapping his arms around Yusuf then.

 

“Me?” he whispers, and Yusuf laughs then, his eyes glistening. And his heart breathes out, instead of hurt.

 

Nicky doesn’t remember the last time his heart felt fine.

 

“Yes. Not for Genovia. Not for Mia. Not for my parents. Even my parents were confused. They thought I came here to pursue my heart, and instead I pursued duty. But I didn’t. I pursued heart, because my heart is yours. It has been, for quite some time now, and I promised you when we were reunited that I am here now, Nicolo. And to me, it mattered not what capacity. I am here how you need me, and it won’t matter because I love you,” he says, and the words are soft, and yet it pierces his heart fully.

 

Then he moves, forcing Nicky to meet his gaze as he does. “I love you. I love you, Prince Nicolo. And I was willing the sacrifice my life for you,” he says, and that spurs Nicky on.

 

“No more sacrifices,” he gasps, throwing his arms around Yusuf. “No more.”

 

There’s commotion up at the church now, but Nicky doesn’t care. They’ll take care of it. Right now, he has to take care of this, of Yusuf.

 

“Then let me love you, Prince Nicolo,” Yusuf gasps against him. “Believe that you are loved. By your family. By me. Especially me.”

 

Nicky stares up at him, and smiles, his hand framing Yusuf’s face, and the way the man just leans into his touch heats him up in ways that is inappropriate for the building the currently stand in.

 

“I love you the most, Nicolo,” Yusuf whispers, and Nicky believes him. He believes him, and his heart feels calm in his chest for the first time in a long time.

 

He leans into him, and presses his lips against Yusuf’s, and sighs because he feels like he’s melting. Like he finally fits in a place that wanted him, that craves for him, and more. When Yusuf pulls away, he chases him, whispers “I love you,” against his lips at every breath, and bites the bottom of his lip.

 

It’s him that pulls away for breath after a moment, and Yusuf laughs, his face flush.

 

“Oh you’re going to be more of a handful, I just know it,” he says, and Nicky grins then. An honest grin that he knows registers because Yusuf laughs loudly and wraps his arms around him, before pressing him against the wall once again.

 

There’s cheers erupting above them, but right now, Nicky can’t bring himself to care.

 

“I love you, Yusuf,” he whispers, as he presses close and Yusuf sighs against his mouth and he breaths him in.

 

“And I you, Nicolo.”