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i will hold your heart together in mine

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i: please protect my love, for i am afraid

 

“Oh habibi, you’re alright…”

 

Joe gasps, whimpering softly as he holds phone tighter, walking to the other room in their wing, looking back at the bed, at Nicolo’s sleeping form as he closes the door behind him.

 

“Tell me why you cry, my love. Do you want me to get Mama?” he hears, and Joe bites his lip, to stop himself from sobbing, as his chest heaves with suppressed sobs.

 

“No…Baba. I’m… thank you for being with me, Baba,” he says, and his father laughs softly on the other line.

 

“Always, Yusuf. We can be there again, just let us know.”

 

Joe laughs softly, wiping at his tears, and sighing.

 

“You were just here.”

 

And they were. They just left. After things have settled down a little, Joe’s parents had come over to Genovia, and was welcomed with open arms by Nicolo’s family. They spent good month with them, and they doted on Joe and Nicolo altogether.

 

The image of his parents holding Nicolo like he was one of their own will forever stay with him. And that included them sitting with him in the moments where Nicolo was not feeling his best in the short month of their stay.

 

Because there are way too many moments now where Nicolo doesn’t feel his best, and it tugs on his heart to see it.

 

“Is Nicolo still not well, habibi?” his father whispers, and Joe sits on the floor, his back to the door and he leans his head against it, pulling at his curls.

 

“He’s so tired all the time, Baba.”

 

His father sighs. “You’ll figure it out, Yusuf. And all will be well, and you’ll make that kind man your husband,” he says, and Joe flushes red at the words.

 

“I will Baba.”

 

“You promise?” his father asks, voice teasing. “Because the man is amazing, and he deserves the world as much as you deserve it, my son. And I know he makes you very, very happy.”

 

Joe smiles then, tears springing into his eyes anew for a whole different reason. He lives the life of a blessed son, and he doesn’t know what he did to deserve it.

 

“I will make him mine, Baba. I promise. I’ll make you proud.”

 

***

 

When Joe collects himself and goes back to their bedroom, Nicolo remains asleep, and he finds himself staring.

 

It’s been six months, since his wedding to Mia didn’t happen, and he gave his all to his love for Nicolo. Joe feels like he could breathe again. There was no longer any confusion, or fear and pain for the unknown. There was just Nicolo, and how Nicolo makes him happy.  

 

And it was good, at the beginning.

 

A part of him will always be somewhat angry at himself for letting Nicolo slip away all those years ago. For letting his duties take too much of his time, and leaving his friend, his best friend at the time, so alone. He had been bitter, at being made to move away back home, and had thrown himself in his responsibilities with vigor to try and finish earlier than planned, out of spite and anger.

 

And he succeeded. But in his focus, he had removed himself from everything. By the time he emerged, and the news of Nicolo’s parents and uncle passing had reached him, it had been so long that reaching out when he finally had time felt disrespectful, and wrong.

 

Foolishly, Joe had also thought that Nicolo’s family would be there for him. That they would care for him, make sure that he’s alright. To know he was wrong, years later, felt like a knife to the heart.

 

He can still see Nicolo’s face that night, when he saw him again, despondent and accepting, factually stating that of course Joe wasn’t there, because no one was. It hurt so much to hear that Joe burst into tears, and he felt no shame. He deserved that pain. He deserved Nicolo’s bitterness and anger.

 

And yet, he got none of it. Instead, Nicolo hugged him. And held him. Like he had never been wronged. Because that’s who Nicolo was, hurt and disbelieving of the fact that he deserved love.

 

Even from Joe.

 

Because like everyone else, he had left Nicolo alone to the point that he didn’t think he was worthy of anything. May it be love or companionship or friendship, Joe had made him believe that he deserved none of it when he left all those years ago. He’d been hurt to the point of sacrifice, for his country and his cousin, and Joe just let him do it, foolishly believing he himself was doing it out of love.

 

Joe never wants his love for Nicolo to be a double-edged sword ever again.

 

To be fair, it hasn’t been, for six months. Their love isn’t the problem. Far from it.

 

But Nicolo’s not well. It’s clear to Joe that he isn’t. The moments like the ones during his past engagement when Joseph told him he was indisposed, and then again during their meal the next day where he was once again unwell. But it’s happening more frequently now. Except, every time, Nicolo just tells him he’s alright, and smiles through it all and tells him he loves him.

 

Is he hiding from Joe because he thinks he doesn’t deserve to be taken cared of?

 

The very idea hurts.

 

Nicolo shifts in the bed with a soft sigh, and Joe takes a deep breath, slipping under the covers and wrapping his arms around him, kissing his shoulder.

 

“I love you,” he whispers, feeling tears in eyes as he stares at his beloved. Nicolo hums in his sleep, and he smiles, sweetly, before turning on his back. Joe pulls back then to look down at him, smiling when his eyes open.

 

Joe stares at his face, and for a moment, he thinks the world is perfect. Because Nicolo loves him, and he loves Nicolo and there are no more sacrifices between them. His love is clear and understood. A mutual understanding full of affection and truth that will last their whole lifetime. And his beloved wakes and sees him and smiles so brightly even half-asleep and he is so beautiful.

 

Any other time, he’d be with his charcoal and paper, taking it all in.

 

“Good morning my love,” Nicolo whispers, and Joe smiles, shakily. He leans in and presses a kiss on his forehead.

 

Except the universe has other ideas and reality hits him so hard he feels breathless, and he knows there would’ve been no way he could hold the charcoal steady, without shaking.

 

“Good afternoon, beloved,” Joe gasps against his skin, and Nicky pauses under him.

 

“Did I sleep the whole day again?” he asks, and Joe sniffles.

 

“Yes. My love, are you alright?” Joe whispers, and he feels like he asks it every time.

 

And every time, Nicolo gives him the same answer.

 

He pauses, just for a moment, and then he smiles. And it’s a smile reserved only for Joe, and it’s one of the many blessings he gives him. It’s not the soft, barely there smile that everyone is privy too, but a full grin, pearly whites on display, iridescent and lovely.

 

Nicolo glows every time he smiles at Joe, and he falls in love again and again each time.

 

“I am in a world where I am now allowed to be happy,” Nicolo whispers, like he knows what Joe wants or needs to hear, and he leans for a kiss that Joe gladly gives.

 

“Why wouldn’t I be alright?”

 

Joe sniffles then, and takes a deep breath.

 

A few months ago, he probably would let it go. He probably would have let Nicolo’s words wash over him again until he forgets his concerns.

 

But then he remembers his parents sitting with Nicolo just last month when he could only spend time with them while sitting in the gardens instead of their planned horseback ride.

 

Or how he has to pause when he stands up too fast from his seat, or else he’d keel over or his knees would go weak.

 

And how he continually nods off during dinner, when he thinks no one’s attention is on him.

 

He hates every moment, and Joe wants to fix it. Like his Baba had said, he will figure it out.

 

“Beloved,” he whispers, and Nicolo blinks, tilting his had slightly to meet his gaze. Then it’s clear when he sees that Joe’s serious, because his eyes soften and he takes Joe’s hand, squeezing it. And the words are hard to find. What does he say? Stop hiding from me? Tell me what’s wrong?

 

“I don’t think you’re alright,” he gasps out, instead, blinking rapidly to stop the tears he’s already feeling. Joe expects Nicolo to frown, to say no, he’s wrong. A part of him hopes that this is the case.

 

But instead Nicolo’s eyes widen for a moment, then he’s biting his lip with a sigh. He squeezes Joe’s hand in his and lays his head on his chest, closing his eyes. And when he sighs again, it’s like he deflates, and Joe swallows down a whimper, moving to wrap his arms around him now, because Nicolo looks weak. He looks ill, and Joe is so, so afraid.

 

“I have something to tell you,” Nicolo mutters after a moment, and Joe just closes his eyes, and braces himself for the worst, tears finally streaming down his face.

 

***

 

Fuck.

 

“Your…heart?” Joe whispers, and he feels like his own is about to burst, after he hears of Nicolo’s explanation. A heart strained by severe amount of stress, causing all of the symptoms his beloved has been exhibiting. Nicolo hums, and shrugs, like it’s not a big deal.

 

“It’s not a big deal,” he even says aloud and Joe whimpers, making him look up at him.

 

“It really isn’t, Yusuf,” Nicolo says, squeezing his hand. “My heart is fine, it just needs rest,” he says, and he sounds like he believes it. If only Joe can say the same thing.

 

“You don’t know that for sure. You’re exhausted, Nicolo. You sleep the day away whenever you’re allowed! If it was meant to fade away, why hasn’t it?” he asks, and Nicolo sighs, biting his lip.

 

“I figured…it just takes long? The doctor said that the symptoms should die down, once the source of the stress is gone,” he says and Joe whimpers.

 

“The source of stress—” he starts, shaking his head. “You mean me, being an idiot,” he gasps, and Nicolo tuts at him, reaching up and tugging on his curls, and he doesn’t even wince.

 

“Don’t talk about my heart that way,” he says, leaning up and kissing his chin. “I love you. And it wasn’t you. It was…everything,” he says with a shrug and Joe has to stop himself from actively wailing.

 

“So me!” he repeats, and Nicolo just sighs, wrapping his arms around him and squeezing him.

 

“It’s not your fault,” his beloved says, because he is kind, his voice is firm. “I think my heart broke when my parents and uncle passed,” he mutters, and Joe feels it tug on his heart. It broke when they all left him alone. And he has to actively stop himself from blaming himself, not wanting to upset Nicolo. “Everything just exasperated my heart that it finally gave…” he mutters with a shrug and it doesn’t help.

 

When Joe doesn’t speak, Nicolo shifts his hold and presses his face on his shoulder.

 

“You love me now, right?” he whispers against his neck and Joe closes his eyes.

 

“Forever more, my darling,” Joe chokes out, and it takes on a whole new meaning that makes his own ache.

 

“Then my heart will heal,” Nicolo says, and his voice is firm, and fierce, under the exhaustion. “The symptoms will fade, in time. They will,” he adds, his voice muffled against his shoulder. He pulls away and looks up at Joe with wide, glassy eyes.

 

“The universe won’t be so cruel to me to take me away now, when I am finally happy, right?” he says, and Joe burst into tears then, shaking his head, grabbing Nicolo’s face and kissing him, deeply. No. No. He won’t think of it. He won’t think of losing Nicolo. Not again. Not like this.

 

“I won’t let it, my love,” he gasps against his lips as they fall into bed, and Nicolo just arches to his touch, and shakes, and Joe holds him through it and loves him, again and again.

 

***

 

ii: our glow and crown, guide us

 

“Why does this have my name?”

 

Joe blinks, and looks up from his own work, eying Nicolo as he leans over to his cousin, pointing at the final layout of the brand-new orphanage. Nicholas is nowhere to be found, after Nicky threw a bread roll at him at breakfast for stealing a roasted potato from his plate.

 

So obviously, it’s been a good day so far.

 

A good week, even. Nicolo had energy, more than enough to joke and jest. He did his duties with no problem, and right now they’re all sharing the library space to tackle their own tasks individually.

 

Mia hums then, and glances at where Nicolo’s pointing on the blueprint and shrugs. Joe watches them with a smile. Queen is a good look on Mia, especially since she seems so confident in her skin, learning the ways of guiding a country to success, while Nicholas continues his courtship of her.

 

“Because it’s named after you,” Mia says simply, and Joe turns in time to see Nicolo freeze.

 

“Huh?”

 

Joe snorts, and he smiles sheepishly when Nicolo turns to him with a glare, before looking back to his cousin, who just ignores him.

 

“I said ‘huh,’ cousin!” Nicolo says, reaching over and tugging on her earring, making her yelp.

 

“Nicky, ow! What do you mean, ‘huh’? It’s named after you! I named it after you. It’s the main residence wing for the youngest kids!” Mia exclaims, reaching over and pinching Nicolo at the side, who yelps.

 

“Stop!”

 

“It doesn’t feel good now, does it?!”

 

“Mia, you didn’t answer me!” Nicolo continues, before he just sighs, looking down at the blue print again. “Why would you name this children’s wing after me?”

 

Joe sees Mia’s eyes soften then, and she puts down her work.

 

“Because it’ll house many children who need love, so it needed to be named after the most loving person I know,” Mia says, and Joe feels like he might cry by the way Nicolo’s eyes just widen at her words.

 

“Truly?” he gasps softly, and Mia shakes her head with a fond smile, moving from her spot to wrap her arm around her cousin.

 

“Of course, Nicky,” she says, squeezing him, and Joe can melt at the sight of them both. Soon after that, they settle into their work again, Nicolo going back to reviewing the blueprints.

 

“I like where you put residential baths and commodes, Mia,” he comments, after a moment, and Joe looks up then, hearing the change in his tone.

 

His beloved winks, just as Mia hums.

 

“Thank you, cousin,” she says, and Nicolo smirks.

 

“You should name that wing ‘Nicholas,’” he starts. “Because you know, he’s such a piece of—”

 

“Nicky!”

 

***

 

Naturally, Nicolo continues takes advantage of his good health and throws himself fully into his duties.

 

Which means he visits the current orphanage regularly and drags Joe with him. And truly, there’s no dragging involved. He wants to be there just as much as his beloved. If not only to look after him and make sure he doesn’t push himself too far.

 

Upon entering the building, they catch one of the governesses running as she comes down the hall. She meets them with a smile, motioning for them to follow.

 

“We’re a little busy today, princes,” she says, sounding apologetic.

 

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Nicolo offers immediately, because of course he does. That’s just who his beloved is.

 

The governess blinks at them, before smiling, leading them to the nurseries. They’ve been there many times, and Joe’s spent many of his free days holding little ones and rocking them to sleep with Nicolo.

 

“We got two new ones,” the governess starts, her voice soft to not disturb any sleeping babies around them. She leads them to the backrooms, and as soon as she opens the door to the hallway, they hear the piercing cry of a child. “Twins. Their mother had complications during their birth, and they thought she’d recover but months after…” she trails off, eyes sad.

 

Joe gulps, following her, as he takes Nicolo’s hand in his and squeezes it. “How old are they?”

 

“Just turned five months. Born a month after Independence Day,” the governess whispers, leading them to a room, where another awaits, gently trying to hush a screaming child in their pram, with another oppositely quiet beside it. She looks up at them then, and the relief in her eyes are so clear that no one comments on how quickly she left the room once she was excused.

 

“May I?” Joe asks, letting go of Nicolo’s hand.

 

The governess smiles, nodding at him, and Joe immediately makes his way back out the room, and he knows that his Nicolo follows him.

 

He enters the bathroom on the right, and goes straight to the sink, washing his hands up to the arms thoroughly, like they have many times before interacting with the children. After he’s done, he waits for Nicolo to finish and together they make their way back to the room.

 

Something in his heart tugs when he hears the child crying and Joe goes straight to the pram. The governess smiles, and as always, he’s directed and encourage to take the child slowly, carefully.

 

He sees Nicolo sit beside the other pram, looking over the quiet little one in it, before he turns his full attention to the one in his arms. The child looks healthy enough, cheeks all plump and rosy, their hair dark and wavy and full already.

 

“There you are,” Joe whispers, as he holds the little one, and it’s like his world focuses on them.

 

“Her name is Ayla,” the governess says, over the baby’s cries. “She hasn’t been able to sleep because of colic, the poor baby.”

 

“Oh we can’t have that, can we?” Joe mutters, moving the little one as gently as he could, gently laying her on her stomach over his forearm, making sure to cradle her head against his chest, so that Ayla can nuzzle her chubby little cheek against the inside of his elbow.

 

The little one’s arms fall on either side of his forearm, and he puts his free arm under the one where she lays, and pulls her close.

 

Slowly, Ayla’s cries start to dissipate, and her cries turn into soft little sniffles, her little lips smacking gently, and Joe laughs weakly at how her chubby little cheek just squishes so perfectly against his arm.

 

He turns to find Nicolo staring up at him with a gentle, knowing, smile, and the governess blinking in shock. He shrugs, looking back down at the baby.

 

“I have little cousins that had colic,” he say simply, walking over slowly towards Nicolo. “Say hi to Ayla, beloved.”

 

“Hello, beautiful,” Nicolo says, smiling at Ayla and gently running a careful finger over her little arm. She moves, only a little, and effectively keeps cuddling Joe’s arm then. He lets the satisfaction sink into his heart, and watches as Nicolo smiles, then turns back to the pram.

 

The other baby is there, still asleep, and so, so quiet. Nicolo’s eyebrows furrow as he reaches down and runs a finger down the baby’s arm, his shoulders effectively slumping in relief when the little one moves in response, tiny fist rubbing at his little nose.

 

“What’s their name?” Nicolo asks, and the governess steps forward.

 

“Elio,” she says. “He’s been really quiet, since we got him.” But she doesn’t sound worried, and there shouldn’t be any reason to be. Some babies are just quieter than others. They are, after all, very, very complicated.

 

“Elio,” Joe repeats. “Such beautiful names,” he whispers, and Nicolo nods, and he can see that he’s mouthing the name silently. Then, he pauses.

 

“Is he alright?” his beloved whispers, after a moment, his hand gently moving to stroke Elio’s hair. Like his twin, he has a full head of it already, but his locks are more curled.

 

“We have no reason to believe he isn’t,” the governess admits, and Joe sees her frowning a little at the corner of his eye. “But we’ll find out soon. They’re scheduled for their mandatory check-up,” she says, and Nicolo smiles then.

 

“I’d like to know the results, please,” he whispers, and Joe sees him leaning towards the pram, watching Elio closely as the child snuffles in their sleep, the governess nodding her head.

 

“Nicolo?” Joe whispers, and his beloved just sighs, eyes on no one else, but Elio.

 

“You’ll be alright, darling,” he says, and something in those words both warm and worry him. Then Nicolo smiles weakly, and reaches for Ayla again, tapping her little hand with his finger until her little digits curl over it.

 

“We’ll look after you both.”

 

***

 

Nicolo is quiet on their way back home after they got a chance to feed the little ones after they awoke. Joe takes his hand and squeezes it.

 

“Beloved, your mind is beautiful. Share your thoughts,” he says, and smiles when his love snorts, tugging at his hand slightly, and looking at him.

 

“I want them, Yusuf,” he whispers, after a moment, and Joe blinks, and he stops walking before he even realizes it. Nicolo had been adamant before leaving, that the governess keep her word and tell them of the medical results as soon as it’s available. And the governess had promised them, with a firm nod and an easy smile.

 

“You have my word,” she said, and Nicolo was so glad that she hugged the woman, who takes it to stride.

 

To think there is so much more to it, shouldn’t come as a shock, really.

 

“Them,” Joe repeats, squeezing Nicolo’s hand as he looks down. “Ayla and Elio,” he says, and Nicolo nods.

 

“Yes, heart. I want children,” he says, and Joe bites his lip.

 

“Ayla and Elio,” he repeats, and Nicolo smiles, letting go of his hands to wrap his arms around Joe's waist.

 

“Ayla and Elio,” he whispers against his chin, planting a soft kiss there. Joe returns it with a kiss on Nicolo’s forehead, and lets out a sigh.

 

“Should we get married first?” Joe asks, before groaning. “Ai, I should’ve listened to Baba! He keeps telling me to marry you, and I said of course I will!”

 

Nicolo shrugs then, putting his chin on his shoulder. “We’re practically married, Yusuf,” he mutters against his ear. “My heart knows you’re already mine,” he says, and Joe feels like he’s flying at the words.

 

“That’s exactly it! I haven’t because I have to surprise you,” he moans out, and Nicolo just laughs, and squeezes him, and Joe knows exactly what he’s doing as Nicolo moves against him.

 

“You can still do it, but right now, I want babies,” he says, and Joe chuckles, pulling back to look at Nicolo.

 

“You do, huh?” he asks, and Nicolo nods again, his hands sliding at the back of Joe's neck, squeezing gently.

 

“Babies, Joe,” he says, firmly, and Joe knows then that he’s starting to get ticked that he hasn’t given his answer yet.

 

“Joe, huh? Aw, darling Nicky, don’t be mad,” he starts, and Nicolo just growls, and one hand is moving, tugging sharply at his curls, no longer gentle and sweet, but urgent and annoyed.

 

“Babies,” he hisses, and Joe just smiles, shaking his head and pulling him into a soft kiss, nodding softly.

 

“Fine then, beloved. Babies it is.”

 

That night, Joe draws a portrait of the little ones from memory in bed, while Nicolo watches on with a smile.

 

***

 

They’re back at the orphanage by the end of the week, voicing their intentions and without a word to anyone else.

 

Joe knows, at the back of his mind, that it’s probably not the wisest decision he’s made, but Nicolo is smiling so bright and excited at the idea of them becoming parents. And the governess, bless her heart, matches his enthusiasm completely.

 

He’ll take any reprimand that may come from either of their families for skipping on their duties for once.

 

“I think this is amazing, Prince Nicolo,” she starts, and she sounds like she means it. Then, she turns to Joe with a smile. “Prince Yusuf, do you know that Prince Nicolo has been helping here since he’s been young?” he asks, and Joe blinks, looking at Nicolo, who looks down.

 

“No, I did not,” he says, reaching for his hand and squeezing. The governess looks at them with a smile.

 

“That’s how I know this is the perfect fit for him,” she says, and Joe is so thankful for her, especially since Nicolo looks up with wide, glassy eyes.

 

“Really?” he whispers, and the governess’ eyes soften.

 

“Of course, Prince Nicolo. I want the best for these children, and this…this would be the best for the twins,” she says, before she pauses.

 

Joe frowns then, watching her expression.

 

“What is it?” he asks, and the governess sighs.

 

“Before you fully make the decision,” she starts, and Nicolo’s already shakes his head.

 

“It’s already been made. They’re ours,” Nicolo says, and Joe smiles weakly.

 

Theirs. The children are theirs. Ayla and Elio are theirs.

 

“Tell us. Are they alright?” his beloved continues, and Joe feels his hand shaking in his hold, and he moves closer, intertwining their fingers now, kissing his temple.

 

The governess gives them a soft look and simply moves to open her desk drawer, and pulls out a folder.

 

“The doctor found something when they were listening to little Elio’s heart,” she says, opening the folder, and Joe swears that the world goes hazy at her words. “So, we reached out to their birth hospital and it looks like he has a congenital heart defect.”

 

Joe turns to see Nicolo looking to him, and his eyes are wide and skin pale. And he just knows that he looks the same, judging by the way Nicolo pulls at him to come closer.

 

“It’s not critical,” the governess continues. “But it is there. The first year of his life would be the most crucial, and we have to make sure that we’re keeping track of it. We lucked out, really, having detected it so early.”

 

“So it doesn’t require surgery?” Joe breathes out. He knows very little of heart defects, and for someone so tiny to have it breaks his own. And with Nicolo’s…

 

The tears come before he can stop them. The governess looks at him then, and shakes her head.

 

“Not at the moment, Prince Yusuf. Unless there is a reason to, and even if he has episode, it might still not be required. Right now, he’s an agreeable little boy, just quiet, and a little tired,” she says, and her words hit too close to home.

 

Quiet and a little tired. Just like how Nicolo has been and fuck.

 

“But he’ll be fine, right?” Nicolo whispers beside him, and Joe bows his head, unable to stop his tears, and just squeezes his beloved’s hand, grounding himself at the feeling of him returning his grip.

 

“As long as we take care of him, bring him to his doctor’s appointments, and we love him, he’ll be alright, yes?” Nicolo continues, and Joe looks up then, and sees that Nicolo’s crying as well, tears streaming down his cheeks as he stares at the governess, who nods, her breath hitching.

 

“Of course, princes,” she whispers, and Joe nods shakily, gulping. “And Ayla? How is she?” he hears Nicolo ask, and it’s shaking.

 

“We didn’t find anything ailing her, no,” the governess whispers, and Nicolo breaks into a smile then.

 

“That’s good to hear,” he whispers, and he trembles as he speaks. “I’m so happy,” he whispers, and he sounds breathless.

 

Joe moves even closer and wraps an arm around him, hating how much he’s shaking as he leans into him.

 

“Nicolo?” he whispers into his hair, and Nicolo just sighs, pulling at his hand and placing it against his chest, looking up at him.

 

“They’re ours, right Yusuf?” he asks, eyes wide, and Joe tries not to think of how he’s just shaking in his arms. Instead, he nods, and presses a soft kiss on his forehead, before turning to the governess.

 

“When can we bring them home?”

 

***

 

iii: my love, stay strong

 

Even as a royal, the process is long, but they were excited. In less than a month, Ayla and Elio would get to be able to come home with them.

 

Nicolo is especially happy. After the agreement is signed, he goes about his duties and making arrangements with a perpetual lightness on his step, and a smile on his face. He orders things for the children with grin and a bounce, asking Joe’s opinion of each one. He looks and acts like he has more energy, and spends more days on his feet than in bed, and Joe is so glad.

 

His beloved is absolutely enchanting this way, and he’s blessed to witness it. And for a few days, no one else in the world exists for Joe except Nicolo, Ayla and Elio. He finds himself missing the children more and more, even though they’ve been seeing them almost every day.

 

Which is to say, they should’ve expected this.

 

“So, we’re clearly missing something,” Clarisse says, during dinner that night, and Joe looks up to find her staring right at him. He pauses, mid-salad, and blinks.

 

“I’m here, I’m not missing,” he says, glancing at Nicolo who doesn’t even look up, humming a little as he gets into his meal. It’s been days since they made this new life choice, and still, he’s still humming a little, and Joe just stares with shining eyes.

 

“Hey, love birds, wanna share?” Nicholas says, and Joe turns to him just as Nicolo flings another dinner roll to his head, making him yelp.

 

“Nicky!” Mia gasps, even though her shoulders are shaking, and she’s never really angry. She’s probably not capable of ever being angry at Nicolo.

 

“Ask nicely,” Nicolo says, and Joe snorts then, finally eating the bite of salad on his fork.

 

Clarisse sighs, and nods. “Fine. Why, pray tell, is one of the rooms in your wing being transformed into a nursery?”

 

Joe freezes then, glancing at Nicolo who just makes a soft noise after taking another bite.

 

“Oh, because we’re adopting babies,” he says, in between bites, and the clanging of Joseph’s utensils echoes when he drops it.

 

Babies?” Joseph asks, and his eyes are wide, but Nicolo just meets his gaze, finally putting down his own utensils, his movements much more graceful.

 

“Yes. Twins,” he continues, and Joe puts down his fork as well, looking at everyone at the table. All their mouths were agape, jaw dropped and staring. He frowns then, but before he can continue, it’s like they all explode.

 

“Are you serious?!” Clarisse.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Nicholas.

 

“Twins? Two?” Mia.

 

“Well, this is a surprise.” Joseph.

 

And so much more, but right now, Joe only has eyes on Nicolo.

 

Nicolo stares back at all of them, and he doesn’t say a word, even as the volume reach an all-time high.

 

“Nicolo?” he calls, and that’s when the rest of them seem to get some sense, as he reaches for his hand, and frowns when he feels him shaking.

 

“Ni—”

 

“We are serious,” Nicolo says, before he can get anything out, and Joe turns his palm up then, squeezing his beloved’s hand when it expertly slides over his, fingers intertwining.

 

“Yes,” Joe adds, looking at everyone else on the table, who all look like they embody different levels of incredulousness. But it doesn’t matter. They can bring it. Because he decided this with his Nicolo, and he needs them to get that. He needs them to understand that.

 

“We’re not kidding,” Nicolo continues, and Joe squeezes his hand then. “Yes, they are twins, and it’s only a surprise to you. So, surprise!” he says, and when he smiles, it doesn’t reach his eyes.

 

Clarisse lets out a sound, and she sits back, shaking her head, and Joe understands she’s worried. And thoroughly confused. “Surely you jest?” she asks, turning to Joseph in time to miss how Nicolo flinches.

 

“You’re so young Nicolo,” Clarisse continues and she’s too far to see that Nicolo’s eyes dim, and his hand starts to shake as he squeezes Joe’s hand.

 

“Mia’s ruling a whole country and she’s younger,” Nicolo bites out, and Clarisse just scoffs, shaking her head.

 

“That’s entirely different and you know it! What were you thinking?”

 

Nicolo lets out a bitter laugh then, meeting his grandmother with a smirk, his eyes narrowed. It’s really terrifying to see.

 

“I don’t know? That you would be happy for me? And even if you’re not that you’d be glad that I am finally happy?! That I’m finally getting something I want, for once in this damn life? That I have someone who loves me and supports me, so much that he wants a family with me?” he says, and his voice is still biting as Clarisse deflates, her face paling. She looks hurt by the words, and Joe understands that. He also understands that she’s probably saying all of this because she’s worried for them. Nicolo is young, and he is only three years older.

 

But Nicolo gulps then, and there’s tears in his eyes as he looks at his family, his eyes flicking as they take them all on.

 

“I deserve a happy life too, don’t I? Not just you guys?” he moans out, and his gaze falls to his plate. It breaks Joe’s heart to pieces to see him like this. Then he sees Nicolo’s other hand going to his chest, like he’s rubbing it, and yeah. Worried or not due to age or whatever other reason, this can’t continue. Not when they’re being like this.

 

“With all due respect,” Joe starts, turning, raising his voice enough to makes all of them stop completely, their eyes widening because yeah, they’ve never heard anything above a whisper from him, unless he’s laughing or agreeable. He makes a point to meet Clarisse’s gaze, before he does the same to everyone else.

 

Then he squeezes Nicolo’s hand, all the while looking at all of them.

 

“He’s not asking. We’re not asking,” he says, firmly. Because how dare they soil this news. How dare they do this to Nicolo? After everything he’s done to try and save this damn country, something that they are now all aware of? Joe won’t have it. He won’t have them snuff his fire and light out again.

 

Joe narrows his eyes at all of them. “We adopted them,” he continues, smirking as Mia’s eyes widen. “That’s right, it’s done. We adopted the twins and they are ours. And pardon us for not saying anything until you had to find out for yourselves, but we were very excited and had many arrangements to prepare for our little ones,” he says, squeezing Nicolo’s hand, and he tries not to think about how Nicolo doesn’t return it, and he just keeps shaking.

 

He glances at him and finds that his beloved’s head is down, his hair falling over his eyes, shadowing his expression, and anger shoots through him like no other. When Joe turns to the rest of them again, he knows that his anger is showing in his eyes, by the looks of shock on their faces.

 

“You told me when you welcomed me here that our residential wing is our home, so we wanted to make changes to it so it can fit our lives as we need,” he starts, shaking his head. “But, your majesties, if these changes render us no longer fit to stay in Genovia, need I remind you? That I am a prince in my own right, and I can assure you, I only have to make one phone call to parents to make a move that will suit all four of us.”

 

Clarisse’s eyes widen at the suggestion, and Mia shakes her head, her eyes sad and somewhat panicked. “Prince Yusuf, there’s no need for that,” she starts, and Joe puts his hand up, firmly.

 

“I will see what is needed for my family, dearest queen. And right now? It’s not any of this,” he says, before looking back at Nicolo, and tugging gently at his hand.

 

“Beloved?” he whispers, moving so that he’s effectively shielding the man from the rest of his family. He crouches over his seat, and reaches over to tilt his chin upwards. “Nicolo?” he mutters, and finally, he hears a soft sniffle, and when Nicolo looks up, there’s tears down his face, and his bottom lip is shaking. His breath hitches, and a soft whimper escapes him, his own hand going to his chest again. And Joe swears that the fresh anger he feels is ripping at his very soul.

 

“Prince Yusuf—” he hears, and Joe feels it come to a halt, standing up and turning to them and pointing a finger at Joseph as he spoke.

 

“You’ve done enough!” he yells, making all of them jump, and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a damn. “All of you have done enough!”

 

Nicolo tugs at his hand then and stands abruptly, almost falling against Joe as he did so.

 

“Let’s go, Yusuf,” he whispers, and he sounds so weak and he hates it. He hates it so much because Nicolo was just starting to get his energy back. Joe bites back a swear, wrapping a careful arm around his waist, looking at his face. He needs to get him out of here. Nicolo looks too pale, and his eyes are on the floor like he’s ashamed and he hates it because there shouldn’t have been any shame associated to this.

 

“Alright, beloved,” Joe whispers, kissing him gently on the temple, walking away from the dinner table, and ignoring everyone else in the room. Because no one else matters. Not a single one.

 

“Let’s call your parents, Yusuf” Nicolo says, and he’s speaking normally enough that Joe knows everyone can hear him. “Maybe they’ll be happy for us,” he says, as they step into the hall. Joe looks back at the Nicolo’s family then, and sees Mia on her feet, Nicholas holding onto her arm as if to stop her, and Clarisse with her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking, with Joseph speaking to her softly.

 

Joe turns back then, and reaches for Nicolo’s face, wiping at his tears.

 

“I have no doubt in my heart, Nicolo,” he mutters, because that is what he truly believes, and blinks back tears when Nicolo’s face crumples then, and he sobs, and Joe has no choice but to hold him together until they get into their rooms.

 

***

 

Nicolo pretty much collapses in bed as soon as they get inside, and it takes everything in Joe’s power to not call for the doctors at how his beloved closes his eyes for a long moment, his hand on his chest, breathing deeply.

 

“Promise me you’re alright, Nicolo,” he whispers, and his beloved just nods, sniffling and squeezing his hand.

 

“We’re gonna be parents, Yusuf. Of course I am,” he says, even though the smile still hasn’t reached his eyes. Joe stares at him for a long while and kisses away his tears, wiping most of them away with his thumb. Then he reaches for his phone and dials his parents’ number immediately, and his heart starts beating out of his chest.

 

What if they weren’t happy either? Joe doesn’t think he can take another heartbreak today.  

 

His Mama answers this time, and like always, it’s full of endearments and enthusiasm that makes him ache for home. After a few minutes of catching up, he asks for his Mama to bring his Baba to the phone as well, as they have news.

 

“Oooh, news!” Mama says, her voice very intrigued, and Nicolo bites his lip, chewing on it. Joe looks at him and shakes his head, gently running his thumb over it, the anxiety practically bleeding out of him.

 

And bless his heart, but it’s making him so anxious too.

 

“Well, habibi? Yusuf? Nicolo? What’s the news?” Baba asks, and it’s clear he’s amused, and Joe goes for it, desperate to quell all of their anxieties.

 

“We’re pregnant!” he yells, and Nicolo freezes as Joe feels his whole body heat up with mortification.

 

“My son, I know you are blessed, but you are not that blessed,” Mama says, her voice soft and tutting.

 

“Unless those Genovians have secrets they are not sharing?” his Baba continues, and Nicolo snorts then, throwing his head back against the pillows as he bursts into genuine, fruitful laughter.

 

Joe swears his face is going to split from the smile that comes to him at the sight.

 

“Baba, Mama,” he starts, taking Nicolo’s hand and squeezing as his laughter tapers off. “We’re adopting twins,” he breathes out, and the squeal that comes out of is Mama is inhuman, as his Baba cheers, and they can hear them both clapping.

 

“Oh, bless you, habibi! Twins? Oh, tell us! Tell us!” his Mama gasps out, before they hear his Baba yelping.

 

Nicolo makes a soft noise then.

 

“Baba, are you alright?” he asks, and then he flushes red, like it just hit him that he called Joe’s father Baba. The man addressed lets out a whoop and a laugh, while his Mama lets out a soft noise that’s most definitely whining.

 

“Dear Nicolo, why did you call him Baba first? Now he’s going to be insufferable,” she grumbles, and Nicolo has the decency to look sheepish, and Joe’s kissing him softly, finding him adorable.

 

“Sorry Mama,” he says, and then he giggles when Joe’s mother cheers, and again, his Baba is yelping.

 

“Watch the hands, my love! I know you’re excited, but I’d like to live long enough to be grandfather!” he says, and Joe chuckles at their antics, and he feels so happy, hearing his father address himself as grandfather.

 

“Hush! Now habibi, tell us. Tell us about the babies,” Mama says, and Nicolo smiles then, and there’s tears in his eyes again, and Joe just holds him close, kissing his temple as he begins.

 

“Their names are Ayla, and Elio,” his beloved says with a sigh. “And they’re beautiful.”

 

***

 

Of course, his parents also bring up their age, and are concerned, but they do it in such a way that Joe didn’t feel like they have to defend themselves. Also, they offer a hand, almost immediately, telling them that they’ll be at Genovia soon to visit and welcome their grandchildren with love and kisses.

 

And Joe tries not to think of how long it’ll be until that actually happens, because his mother is queen and they have a country to take care of, and if he thinks of it too long, his thoughts becomes a little selfish and he ends up missing them all too much.

 

Joe glances at Nicolo then, and bites his lip when he tells them that he’ll be glad to welcome them, like always. They end the call that night without mentioning what happened with Nicolo’s family.

 

“I’m hoping they’ll be happy for me, once the shock fades,” Nicolo admits, when Joe asks, and truly, there’s no one in the world that deserves him and his forgiving and loving heart.

 

Because it’s clear that is weighing hard on Nicolo, that when he gets out of bed to get ready for sleep, his hand is on the wall, the other on his chest, and his steps are slow and careful. He doesn’t even complain when Joe stands behind him the whole time upon seeing this, and effectively holds him up as he brushes his teeth.

 

“Do I have to call the doctors, Nicolo?” he whispers, as pulls him into his arms when they get into bed and Nicolo just sighs.

 

“I just want to rest,” he whispers, eyes already close as he lays his head on chest. “I want to see the babies,” he mutters, and Joe nods, kissing his forehead.

 

“Then rest, my love. And we’ll see them tomorrow.”

 

***

 

They’re getting ready to leave the next morning when he hears Nicolo calling him as he walks out of the bathroom.

 

“Yusuf.”

 

“Yes, my love?” Joe asks, as he straightens his shirt, back to him as he faces the mirror.

 

“Yusuf,” Nicolo says again, but this time, it makes Joe freeze because his beloved sounds scared and confused. He spins around and finds him staring blankly ahead of him.

 

“Nicolo?” he asks, walking quickly over to him as the man blinks slowly, and Joe can hear him panting, like he can’t breathe. “Nicolo, what is it?”

 

Nicolo looks up then, and Joe’s eyes widen when he realizes that Nicolo’s usually pale skin is not as it is, but rather grey.

 

“I think something’s wrong,” Nicolo mutters, voice barely there, and then his eyes are sliding close, and his knees are buckling.

 

“Nicolo!” Joe yells, just as his beloved starts to gasp, gulping hard. He watches as he curls his fist on his chest, a soft whimper escaping him, eyes opening slowly, but they’re staring at nothing. Joe turns his head towards the door then, and yells for help, before looking back at Nicolo, whose head is already heavy against his chest.

 

“You’re alright, Nicolo, you’ll be alright,” he says, cradling Nicolo in his arms as his eyes slide close again, and his whole body trembles, and his skin feels so cold under Joe’s touch. “No, no. Open your eyes, beloved. Open them please.

 

“I’ll be okay, my heart,” Nicolo gasps after a beat, even though eyes remain close, his hand curling, tugging at his shirt above his chest, eyebrows furrowing in pain. Joe shakes his head and screams for help again, his voice breaking.

 

“I—I’ll be okay,” his beloved says, and he sounds so scared while he’s still trying to comfort Joe even now, and he shakes his head, a sob escaping him, just as the doors open behind him, and the world explodes around them.

 

 

***

 

“Low blood pressure?”

 

“Extremely low,” the doctor mutters, one hand still on Nicolo’s wrist, as she listens to his chest.

 

And Joe’s really trying hard not to shake as he speaks, but he does. He knows he does.

 

The doctor glances at him, and then looks at Nicolo who nods softly. “You can tell him, he knows,” he mutters, and his thumb is gently running over Joe’s knuckles, and it’s so wrong that he seems to be the one comforting him instead.

 

“Yes,” the doctor answers, pulling her stethoscope from Nicolo’s chest. “A side effect of your strained heart. Prince Nicolo, like I said before, if this continues, we really should consider putting you on some beta blockers to circumvent these stress hormones from further damaging your heart.”

 

“I’m not stressed,” Nicolo says, and Joe frowns.

 

“My love…”

 

Nicolo shakes his head, looking up at the doctor and his eyes are wide, and begging.

 

“You said that if the source of stress goes away, I’ll get better. The love of my life loves me back, I am happy, doctor,” he chokes out, and he’s crying, his breath hitching. “I’m going to be a father with my Yusuf. I’m not stressed, I am happy. So why is this still happening?”

 

Joe whimpers then, squeezing Nicolo’s hand, leaning in to kiss his forehead, stroking his hair.

 

“Nicolo, it’s alright,” he whispers, and Nicolo just shakes his head, whimpering.

 

“It’s not,” he gasps out. “It’s not alright. I don’t understand! I’m happy. I’m so happy. I don’t care that my family’s not happy for me, but I still am, and I have you by my side. There’s no reason for this, and it’s not fair!” he yells, and Joe swears his own heart is breaking.

 

The doctor moves forward then, pressing her fingers over his pulse on his neck, and Nicolo whimpers, leaning against Joe and closing his eyes.

 

“Prince Nicolo,” she says urgently and Joe finds himself moving, looking down at Nicolo.

 

“You need to breathe deeply for us,” the doctor says, and her voice is firm enough that it scares Joe.

 

“Beloved, please. You’re alright, you’re alright,” Joe whispers, and he doesn’t care that there are tears in his eyes. He doesn’t care that he’s crying. His beloved shouldn’t be hurting like this.

 

“We’re happy, right? We’re so happy. And we’re going to see the little ones very soon, as soon as you’re alright,” Joe mutters, and it has the effect that he wants, because Nicolo nods shakily, then he’s attempting to slow his breathing, inhaling deeply.

 

“That’s right,” he mutters into his hair, sending prayers up above as he speaks, moving to press a kiss on his forehead. “We’re going to see Ayla and Elio. And everything will be alright,” he keeps whispering, even as the doctor smiles and nods, finally moving her finger off Nicolo’s neck.

 

“Well, now I know who we need to have around you at all times. The little ones sound amazing,” she comments, and Joe smiles, as Nicolo opens his eyes, nodding weakly. “They seem to be working their magic already on their Papa,” she says, and Joe laughs then, even as he continues to cry.

 

“They are. They’re amazing and they’re ours,” Nicolo says, and the doctor nods again, meeting Joe’s gaze.

 

“Then let’s make sure you’re around for them for a really, really long time, okay? Prince Nicolo? Will you let me help you with that?” she asks, and Joe looks at Nicolo then as he nods, eyes glassy.

 

“Yes please. I’d like that very much,” he mutters, and the doctor smiles.

 

“Then we’ll do our best to keep you healthy and happy.”

 

Nicolo looks up at Joe then, kissing his chin, and smiling back at the doctor.

 

“I’m already happy,” he says with a sigh and he never cease to amaze.

 

Nicolo is truly, the best of them all.

 

***

 

“Do I need to talk to the rest of his family?”

 

Joe blinks, and looks up from Nicolo’s sleeping form. He fell asleep while they talked of an action plan, and his doctor had a very blunt conversation of other complications that may arise if they do not keep this in check.

 

The words heart failure is still ringing in his mind, and it makes him want to scream and cry to his Mama and Baba. It’s just not fair that this is happening to Nicolo. The only thing that stopped him from having a panic attack about it was Nicolo squeezing his hand, and reassuring him while he fought sleep.

 

“It won’t get there, my love,” he whispers, smiling. “The good doctor will help me,” he says, confidently, and the doctor smiles at him, but it’s strained. Because they all know that this is a possibility, if they are not careful.

 

“It’s alright,” Joe says, leaning in and kissing Nicolo’s forehead softly, then stands up. “Let me walk you out?” he asks, and the doctor smiles, nodding.

 

Together, they exit their rooms, and make their way down the hall. There are maids lying in wait, and as soon as they see them, they scramble off, no doubt to let the rest of Nicolo’s family know.

 

“Did you come into much fanfare?” he whispers, without humour and the doctor nods.

 

“Joseph was the one that called me. He sounded really worried, but he didn’t follow when you told me you didn’t want any of them there,” she says, and Joe snorts.

 

“Must’ve been a feat to follow such orders,” he mutters, and the doctor bites her lip, looking up at him as they walk. “Prince Yusuf,” she says, after a moment. “I can talk to them. This is not something that you should handle alone with Prince Nicolo,” he says, and Joe sighs.

 

“Thank you again, but I will talk to them,” he says, and he looks up when he hears movement, and sure enough, Mia is there, with Clarisse. So that means Joseph’s not far behind. He turns from them for a moment and smiles at the doctor.

 

“You’ll be sending his medications first thing in the morning?” he asks, and the doctor smiles.

 

“It’ll be here before he wakes. And get the children near him, if you can,” she says, and Joe smiles, blinking rapidly.

 

“They helped as soon as I mentioned their names to him,” he whispers, and the doctor nods.

 

“Some people are just meant to be parents,” she says, reaching over and squeezing his hand and it’s terrifying how much Joe needed to hear that be said out loud. Then she glances at Mia and Clarisse, finally noticing them. She stiffens for a moment, and Joe smiles.

 

“I’ll talk to them, I promise. If I need you, I’ll call,” he says, and she gives him a smile, excusing herself, and making her way to the door, politely. As soon as she’s gone, Joe turns his full attention to Mia and Clarisse, walking towards them as they hurry towards him.

 

“Joe says that something happened to Nicky, but you didn’t want us there, Yusuf?” Mia asks hurriedly, grabbing at his arm, and Joe nods, and the tears come unbidden, his hands in fists behind him.

 

“I didn’t,” he whispers, taking a deep breath, blinking rapidly as he fails to keep the tears at bay, looking at Clarisse. “You hurt him, and I can’t…I didn’t want you to keep upsetting him,” he says, and holds his gaze when Clarisse’s eyes turn glassy at his words.

 

“Prince Yusuf…” she starts, and Joe shakes his head.

 

“You hurt him. With what you said. Do you understand that?” he says, turning to both of them. “Please tell me you do, or else this conversation is not happening.”

 

“Of course we do, and we are sorry, Yusuf, please,” Mia says, squeezing his arm now. “We should’ve listened, it just…it felt like such an abrupt decision, and we reacted very poorly.”

 

“Very poorly,” Clarisse gasps, nodding quickly, looking up at him and she’s crying. And Joe should feel bad, but he doesn’t.

 

“Yes,” Joe mutters, staring at them for a moment before he feels something inside him crumble and a sob bubbles out of him.

 

“Oh Yusuf…”

 

There’s arms around him now, and he doesn’t know if it’s Mia or Clarisse, and he just lets himself be held, bowing slightly at the pain of his grief, thinking of Nicolo and everything he’s going through.

 

“What have we done to Nicolo now, Yusuf?” Clarisse whispers, and her voice is thick with tears. “What’s happening to my little prince?”

 

And Joe knows then that has no choice but to break their hearts.

 

***

 

In the end, Joe leads them to the library to wait for Joseph before he tells them everything. And they all share a good cry about it, Joseph pretty much holding the two women in his arms. Nicholas had excused himself before Joe could tell them, not sure if Nicolo would want him to know. And Joe didn’t disagree.

 

Joseph sighs, looking at him now. “I regret not getting him on medication when this started,” he mutters, and he snorts, shaking his head.

 

“Everyone in this room knows that if Nicolo makes up his mind on something, it’s really hard to shake him from it,” he says and Mia laughs then, wiping at her eyes.

 

“You were nearly my husband because of it,” she says, and Joe laughs, still pacing a little.

 

“Ah, but we are blessed as now I ended up with the right cousin,” he says with a wink and a smile, making Mia grin through her tears.

 

“I just hate how there’s no guarantee that the medication will work…” Clarisse whispers, and Joseph just sighs.

 

“The heart is a complicated thing, physically or otherwise.”

 

Joe just hates how true it all is. This whole thing terrifies him.

 

“It’s why he can’t be stressed. Because if he’s not careful…his heart can still…” he trails off, gulping, not wanting to think of it. “We can’t…do what we did prior,” he says instead, and it’s nice to see that they all nod, without arguing.

 

“And the babies?” Mia starts. “The doctor said they’ll help?”

 

Joe smiles then, sniffling. “Yeah…he calmed down when I told him that we’d get to see them soon…” he whispers, and Mia smiles tearily. “And the good doctor thinks they’ll help.”

 

“What are their names again?” she whispers, and Joe hums, running a hand through his hair.

 

“Ayla and Elio,” he whispers, and Joseph smiles then.

 

“Beautiful names. Are they healthy?” he asks, and Joe gulps, looking down. His hands start to shake, and he hears someone standing, before there are hands grabbing his.

 

“Yusuf?” Mia whispers, and he looks up at her.

 

“Elio…his heart. We found out that he has a heart defect. We had already wanted to adopt him before, and it changed nothing…but I had just found…found out about Nicolo’s heart then, and I…” he trails off, taking a deep breath.

 

“You’re scared,” Mia says, squeezing his hand and Joe closes his eyes.

 

“The governess says Elio is fine. It’s not critical, but we have to bring him in regularly to hospital to keep an eye on his heart. He’s a little quiet and tired compared to his sister, and we love him,” he gasps out, and Mia sighs.

 

“They sound amazing, Joe. What do you need, to get them here?” she says, and Joe opens his eyes then.

 

“I’m sorry?” he asks as he looks her, and she smiles.

 

“Nicky’s doctor said that the babies would help, right? And you’ve adopted them?” she asks.

 

“Yes,” Joe breathes out, feeling tears come anew. “We didn’t know when things would be prepared, so we’ve just been seeing them at the orphanage for now,” he says, and Mia smiles, tugging on his hands, and looking back at Clarisse, who smiles.

 

“Well, we can’t have that. I’m sure we can think of something,” she says, and Joe blinks, as she walks over to him.

 

“Your majesty?” he whispers, and Clarisse just sighs, pulling him into her arms now.

 

“What better way to ask for forgiveness of how foolish I’ve been, don’t you think?” she says, and Joe sighs, shaking his head, pulling away to look at all of them.

 

“He said that he hopes you’d be happy for him, once the shock wears off,” he says, smiling weakly. “I think my Nicolo has already forgiven you.”

 

“That child is too kind,” Joseph whispers, and he sounds teary as he does, pulling Clarisse to him, who nods shakily.

 

“He is, and we don’t deserve him. We have to make it up to him,” she says, before she’s nodding determinedly then. “Now who do we know that’ll get this done for us, sooner rather than later?”

 

Joseph smiles and he already has his phone to his ear. “I’ll call Charlotte.”

 

Joe blinks then, eyes widening a little as Mia reaches for his face and wipe at his tears. “You’re calling a councilwoman?”

 

“We’re calling a friend, Prince Yusuf,” Mia says, humming now. “A friend who loves Nicky. Now let us take care of it, okay?”

 

And Joe stares at her for a moment, his brain making an effort to catch up on what just happened. But all he can think of his Ayla and Elio and how Nicolo will get to hold them soon, and he’d be alright, and if Joe bursts into a new bout of tears, no one says a word about it, and Mia just holds him.

 

***

 

Joe grants them access to their wing the next day, and he lets Nicolo and his family and all those they see fit to work on their surprise for his beloved. They work fast, and are quite quiet, and he knows that it’s due to Mia’s orders. And for that, Joe his thankful.

 

He spends the day in bed with his beloved, excusing himself from his studies and only leaving to get some sustenance and a shower.

 

Because Nicolo sleeps the whole day, as to be expected, but he also sleeps through everything. When afternoon rolls on and he continues to sleep, Joe sneaks out to call his doctor who reassures him that this is fine. That his body is forcing him to rest from the stress it felt the day before. She even tells him that it’ll be alright for Nicolo to start his medications the next day. Joe comes back feeling a little better afterwards, and curls beside him after.

 

But he still stays by his side and watches, and worries.

 

It’s evening when Nicolo opens his eyes, and Joe’s there to see him.

 

“Hello my love,” he whispers, and Nicolo smiles, rolling on his back and reaching for him, hand on the back of Joe’s neck.

 

“What time is it?” he whispers, and laughs softly when Joe leans in and kisses his neck.

 

“Evening, darling,” Joe whispers against his skin, kissing down his collar and Nicolo sighs, his hands on his head and making him look up at him.

 

“Too late for the babies?” he whines out with a soft pout, and Joe smiles, leaning in to kiss him softly.

 

“Too late, Nicolo. Tomorrow?” he asks, and Nicky sighs.

 

“Fine, fine…” he hums, before his arms are around Joe now. “Just because you’re kissing me so sweetly.”

 

“I can do more than that, my Nicolo,” he says, and wraps his arms around his waist fully, and Joe presses close to him, kissing deeply, and sighing when Nicolo laughs against him and falls for his touches, like his body is made for him.

 

“I love you, so much Nicolo,” he whispers, looking into his eyes and stroking his hair.

 

And his beloved just smiles that beautiful smile of his. “I love you too, Yusuf. You make me so happy,” he whispers, so simply like his words doesn’t destroy him in the best of ways.

 

“I need to make you my husband, beloved,” he says, and Nicolo just laughs, throwing his arms around him.

 

“It doesn’t matter to me, I am already yours,” Nicolo whispers, arching towards him and pressing a kiss against his lips, watching his face. “And we get to be Papa and Baba,” he mutters, fingers trailing on Joe’s lips as his breath hitches.

 

Baba? Him? He gets to be Baba?

 

“Baba,” he whimpers, and there’s tears in his eyes and Nicolo coos, holding his face now.

 

“Oh my heart, yes Yusuf. You’re Baba. Of course you are,” he says, and Joe just grabs his face then, and kisses him deep, hoping and praying that they can to be just that, together, with their children for a very long time.

 

***

 

iv: beloved, my sun and my moon

 

“Yusuf.”

 

Joe freezes, his heart thumping in his chest, as a sense of déjà vu rolls over him as he straightens his shirt in front of the mirror. Did he forget to make sure that Nicolo took his medication? He’s made it part of his routine. Joe gulps and turns, begging everything and anything that he won’t see Nicolo staring at him with blank eyes this time.

 

But instead, the room is empty, and Nicolo’s actually calling him from outside of their bedroom and into the suite.

 

“Yes, darling?” he calls, following his voice. He finds him standing by the entrance, looking down one of the hallways. “That door is different,” he says, narrowing his eyes and Joe hums, looking at the door.

 

It was a single door, at one point, going into a spare office that Nicolo opened up for him when they moved into that wing of the palace. They never used it because every time they had to work, they would go to the library together, or share Nicolo’s and get very little work done there.

 

Now it had double doors that match that of their bedroom, and Yusuf follows Nicolo as he starts for it.

 

“Is it really?” he says, and Nicolo freezes, turning to him with a frown, his eyebrows furrowing.

 

“What are you up to, dear heart?” he asks, and Joe isn’t really sure. He hasn’t had a chance to even look at the room himself, so Nicolo’s comment was a surprise to him more than anything else.

 

“Yusuf…” he hears, and the difference in tone is almost terrifying and he turns and grins at the love of his life.

 

“Yes my love?” he asks, backing away when Nicolo stalks over to him, and really, if this is how Joe leaves this world, then he wouldn’t mind it.

 

Except there’s a knock on the door and he’s, thankfully, saved. It repeats, excited and hurried.

 

He turns and goes straight to the door, unsure of who it’ll be, but expecting it to be Mia, judging by the knocking.

 

“Good morning M—” he starts, opening the door only to pause, his mouth dropping open.

 

The governess is there, smiling up at him, and in her arms are Ayla and Elio, awake, and bright and cooing. And it’s like his breath leaves him, tears coming to his eyes immediately.

 

“Hi Prince Yusuf,” the governess whispers. “Is this a bad time?” she asks, with a smile on her face, and Joe shakes his head, already reaching for Elio, who coos in his arms, wide awake and squirming and just so adorable. He didn’t even care that he was literally half way out the door.

 

“Yusuf?” he hears behind him, and Joe blinks, eyes widening, putting a finger over his lips, and the governess nods. He glances up and only notices then that Nicolo’s family is there, waiting, their hands clasped together.

 

“Yes beloved?” he calls back.

 

“Did gramma do this? The door?” Nicolo asks, and he sounds confused, but hopeful, and Joe's eyes flicker to Clarisse, whose eyes widen, hearing Nicolo’s words.

 

“What makes you say that?” he implores, moving Elio on one arm, and bending his knees to motion for Ayla, who the governess gently drapes over his free arm. She presses close to his chest immediately, little nose scrunching a little as she rubs it against his chest, and Joe bites its lip from sobbing out loud, the tears continuing.

 

“It has a quote…from the Little Prince,” Nicolo continues, and he’s sniffling now. “It is only with heart that one can see rightly…” he starts, and Joe gulps, looking at Clarisse then.

 

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Joe says, his voice an echo to Nicolo’s, who laughs weakly, and he’s just so glad his beloved can’t hear the tears in his voice. They can all hear him sniffling, and Clarisse’s hand are on her lips, her own eyes glassy, and Joseph’s kissing her forehead.

 

“They are happy for me,” they hear him say, after a beat and Mia’s crying then, nodding her head like Nicolo can see her. Even Nicholas is looking a little teary eyed behind her.

 

“They are, my love. They’re so happy for you,” he says, eyes now on his children. His children and Ayla makes a soft noise, eyes on him, while Elio’s little head is turning, left, and then right,  large eyes just at everything, taking it all in, tiny fist in his mouth, which the governess gently coaxes out, with no success.

 

Nicolo lets out a soft laugh then, and god, it’s a blessed sound, and Joe adores him.

 

“Happy, dear Nicolo?” he calls.

 

“Very happy, so I don’t understand why you’re not here to be happy with me!” Nicolo says, and Joe snorts, hearing footsteps behind him now.

 

“My arms are rather full, can you get the door for me?” he asks, and Nicolo makes a soft noise.

 

“Full, what in the world—” he starts, and the door is moving from Joe’s back, so he takes that moment to turn around slowly.

 

And he swears the emotions on Nicolo’s face overwhelms him, because Joe is bursting into sobs at the sight of him, as his beloved lets out a gasping whimper.

 

“Yusuf, what are our babies doing here?” he asks, still frozen in his spot and Joe laughs weakly, walking towards him, and kissing his forehead as Nicolo gently reaches out for Ayla, pulling her close and pressing his nose into her hair.

 

“Hi Ayla, hello my baby girl,” Nicolo whispers, before he looks at Elio and leans against Joe as he presses a kiss on Elio’s curls. “Elio, my baby boy, oh…” he mutters, looking up at Joe, his eyes still wide and confused.

 

“They’re here for you, Papa,” he says, and Nicolo’s crying then, just like he is, but much more graceful than his ugly sobs, and he’s looking back down at Ayla for a moment like he can’t help it, and turns to the door.

 

Joe looks up then too, and leans into Nicolo. “They got the nursery ready for us after I told them,” he reveals. “They’re sorry, Nicolo,” he mutters, and Nicolo nods, moving towards where Mia and the rest of them are, Ayla in his arms.

 

He pulls Elio close to him then, and sighs when the little one looks up at him. He moves his hand gently over his cheek, gasping when the little one nuzzles it, eyes still on him, his cheek squishing in that best way against his hand.

 

“I’ve missed you too, baby,” he says gently, as the baby coos, and grabs at his finger, staring so attentively at him. “Are you taking it all in?” he asks, and Elio coos again, and Joe can’t help but laugh, feeling so warm as he rocks his baby boy, bringing his face closer to the little one.

 

“I love you, Elio,” he whispers, and smiles when Elio’s little hand just pats at his nose and at his lips, and he kisses his little fingers gently, and he swears he’s melting from the inside in the best of ways.

 

He glances at the governess then, smiling at her. “Thank you for bringing them,” he mutters, and she smiles, eyes to Nicolo now.

 

“As I said, some people are just meant to be parents,” she says, and Joe smiles when Nicolo moves Ayla to face Mia, holding that squirming baby’s back against to his chest. The little one babbling and grabbing at Mia’s hair and pulling, Nicholas grinning behind her as Ayla squeals.

 

Joe laughs loudly then. “Takes after her Papa already,” he comments, and blinks when both Ayla and Nicolo turn to him in unison, an unbidden laugh escaping him again, Elio coo against his own chest. Ayla squeals afterwards, and Nicolo grins, as Mia claps her hands.

 

“Aw, she knows Yusuf’s laugh!” she says, and Joe’s heart warms at the words, Nicolo humming.

 

“Of course she does,” he says, kissing Ayla’s forehead as he walks towards them again, and Joe meets him in the middle. “Ayla knows where home is.”

 

Joe blinks then, freezing as he stares at Nicolo. “Home?” he whispers, and the tears just don’t stop as Ayla starts to babble, reaching for her twin now that that she’s close enough, and Elio leans into it, not at least bit bothered that his sister is tugging on his curls, little fist back in his mouth.

 

His beloved hums, and just nods, looking at him. “Yes, home,” he whispers, kissing him gently. “It’s where Baba is.”

 

And when Joe just bows over and weeps, it’s due to happiness, surrounded by the warmth of his entire world in his arms.

 

***

 

Joe’s life comes in a haze that fills him with warmth afterwards. The babies turn six months old with them, and are just so full of milestones. And some heartbreaking ones that Joe doesn’t like to think about, his mind constantly reminding him to make sure Nicolo doesn’t miss his medication. Either way, there are so many moments that he wishes he looked to the left just far enough to see more, or walked into the room at the right time. But everything he does notice fully is a blessing, that gives on giving and giving and giving.

 

Even if his beloved Nicolo can be such a little shit.

 

“Elio, we need to work on that habit of yours,” Joe whispers, and Elio looks up, his full fist in his mouth, gnawing at it.

 

“He’s teething,” Nicolo reasons, his face lighting up with a large grin as Ayla reaches for his hands as he claps it in front of her face.  “You want to hold hands my darling? I’ll hold your hand,” he says, taking both of Ayla’s hands in his, gentle and sweet and Ayla lets out a squeal, grinning toothlessly and bouncing. Unlike her brother, her gums are free of any little nubs.

 

Elio makes a noise and that’s when Joe realizes that he’s been staring, and turns back to his son, who is looking at him with wide, doe eyes, that little fist still in his mouth.

 

“Aw, look at your sweet face,” Joe says, leaning over and putting his face close to Elio whose face then changes and he’s moving his fist from his mouth, pouting.

 

“He’s mirroring you,” Nicolo hums from beside him, smiling at him before looking back at Ayla, swinging her little hands and making her giggle loudly.

 

Joe turns back to Elio who blinks at him. “You think?” he asks, tilting his head slightly, and snorts when baby does the same. Then he scrunches his nose up and makes a noise that sounds like a very poor imitation of a snort, before grinning and showing off two bottom teeth.

 

“Nicolo help, I’m going to melt,” he says, sighing as he leans face up to his child again, pursing his lips and grinning when Elio does the same. “He’s too cute.”

 

“Don’t melt. I need help feeding them soon,” he hears, and Joe just laughs, reaching for his baby’s tiny fist and nudging it out of his mouth.

 

“Why don’t you imitate Baba, hm? I don’t put body parts in my mouth,” he says, and Nicolo makes a noise.

 

“Don’t lie to him,” his beloved says, and Joe feels his whole body heat up, his ears warm.

 

“Nicolo!” he gasps, turning to him to find him laughing with his face pressed on Ayla’s table, his whole body shaking with mirth, Ayla just patting his head. When he looks up, his cheeks are pink and he’s grinning.

 

“I want to raise them honest, Yusuf,” he starts and Joe just shakes his head, turning back to Elio.

 

“There are things that you’ll learn, my Elio,” Joe says, nudging the tiny fist out of his mouth again. “That your Papa is beautiful, and he is grace, and he is love personified. But he can also be a little nightmare in this dream of mine, if he so chooses,” he says, and Elio just hums around, his fist, and effectively blows a spit bubble and has it dribbling down his chin.

 

“Ah look, Yusuf. You do that too,” Nicolo says, and mortification he feels threatens to swallow him hole, and he gives him a glare, squinting when his beloved just grins, taking Ayla in his arms now, and spinning her in a circle, making her giggle wildly.

 

And Elio, bless his little heart, reaches over with his free hand and pats Joe’s nose and coos around his fist, producing more drool, and he just sighs, smiling.

 

“I know, I know, I suffer because I love him,” he mutters, kissing the little fingers. “I really, really do.”

 

***

 

Joe is convinced that his blessings are overflowing because the twins’ teething experiences are staggered. At least, it seems like they are. Because Elio’s at a pause, with his two bottom teeth, and is satisfied to gnaw on his fist, much to his chagrin and Nicolo’s amusement.

 

Meanwhile, Ayla’s just at the beginning.

 

“You’re alright, it’s alright baby girl. You’re alright,” Joe whispers against Ayla’s hair as she squirms and sobs, Elio echoing her from the other room, where Nicolo had him. He started crying as soon as he heard his sister, and honestly, Joe gets it. He understands it.

 

He swears he’s crying with them, since the little ones have been at it for a whole morning, and taking them into different rooms have been an unconscious decision on their parts, he’s sure. Because the sound of two babies crying in one room can be a lot for anyone. Even to the parents that love them with all their hearts.

 

Ayla’s cries only pause when she gets a little tired from crying, or when she has her bottle. Any other times she’s whining and crying and sobbing her little heart out, and Joe feels like his heart breaks every time.

 

They’re so preoccupied that people come in go in their suite, only realizing when one of them taps Joe on his shoulder, and motions for the table, where a number of things were waiting.

 

“Your majesties thought this would help,” she says, and that’s when Joe sees a number of little soothers, dunked in ice and he swears he could kiss her, he was so thankful. But he could only nod, and smile, and turns back to Ayla immediately as she excuses herself.

 

He moves and grabs a pacifier filled with frozen fruit. Pears of course, because what else would it be? “Here, here, let’s try this, okay my love?” he says, kissing her forehead as he puts it near her mouth, nudging her lips.

 

Ayla whimpers, feeling the cold, but she opens her mouth and as soon as it touches her sore gums, her cries start to die down, reducing to little sniffles. Joe breathes out then, not even realizing he was holding his breath as he stares at his daughter.

 

Daughter.

 

He doesn’t know when he’ll get used to that.

 

Soon enough, the little one’s cry fully reduces to just sniffles, and her little chest is heaving, so Joe holds her close, and kisses her forehead, rocking her gently.

 

“Let’s go see Papa and Elio, okay?” he whispers into her waves, walking to where Nicolo was with their son, only noticing then that they’ve been quiet. And he frowns.

 

“Nicolo?” he calls as he enters the nursery his beloved chose to stay while he took Ayla. It’s indeed beautiful, a room full of rooms. There’s a playroom. And a mini library filled with low bookshelves just too adorable. He continues on to the main bedroom and the first thing you see when you enter is Ayla’s crib, intricately designed. Beside it is Elio’s, just slightly obscured, standing six feet apart.

 

Joe walks forward, and frowns when he sees the top of Nicolo’s head in between the cribs, head bowed and eyes closed as his hair shadows his face, and his eyes widen.

 

“Nicolo?” he breathes out, afraid. But then Nicolo lifts his head as he opens his eyes, smiling weakly. Then he puts a finger against his lips. Joe gulps, and tries to calm his racing heart, walking around Ayla’s crib so he can see fully.

 

In front of Nicolo was Elio, looking like he’s fighting sleep as lays on his Papa’s outstretched legs, his head nestled gently on a pillow carefully. The man’s stroking the baby’s curls, gently pushing at his forehead, before letting his hand glide over his eyes once for a moment, then does it again. Each time Elio’s eyes are revealed, they look heavier and heavier with sleep.

 

He looks down at Ayla in his own arms and finds her asleep, cheek squished against his chest, the pacifier moving as she sucks on it.

 

Joe sits down beside beloved then, and nuzzles his forehead until the man looks up. When he does, Joe kisses him softly, sighing shakily.

 

“My heart?” Nicolo whispers against his lips, looking up. Elio’s asleep now, little fists curled over his little chest, and Joe feels tears in his eyes and he finds himself watching carefully, only breathing out when the little’s one’s chest rises and falls, smoothly.

 

“Yusuf? What is it?” he hears, and turns to Nicolo to find him frowning, his eyes staring into his.

 

“You took your medication, yes?” he asks, and he knows he sounds desparate.

 

“Of course, you gave it to me this morning,” Nicolo whispers. Joe sniffles, and gulps.

 

“Yusuf? My heart, what is it?”

 

“I got scared,” he admits, blinking, and he feels tears falling down his cheeks. “You got quiet, and when I got here, you were on the floor and I…” he trails off, not wanting to think of what he thought. Sniffling, he looks at Elio again, gulping.

 

“Does he really have to sleep like that?” he whimpers, and Nicolo moves one hand from Elio to put it on his knee, squeezing. But he keeps staring at Elio’s little fists, curled into himself.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Holding his heart,” he gasps, and he swears he hears Nicolo audibly gulp. When Joe looks up, his beloved is staring at him still. And it takes everything in his power to not just collapse in tears.

 

Their hearts. Their hearts. Why do they have to be so cruel to his beloved? To his Elio?

 

“We’re alright, Yusuf,” he says. “I’m fine. I was worried too, him crying so, but the doctor said it’s not a worry. It’s when he’s quiet that we should be afraid,” he says, voice soft.

 

“Quiet and tired,” he gasps out, leaning in and nuzzling Nicolo’s neck. “I hate it when you’re quiet and tired,” he whimpers, and a sob escapes him before he can stop it, jostling Ayla. The little one whimpers, and Joe shakes his head, pulling her close.

 

“My love I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he cries, and feels Nicolo’s hand on his hair, a kiss on his temple while he hushes Ayla until she settles again against his chest, and he tries to ignore how much he himself can’t stop shaking.

 

“We’re alright, Yusuf,” Nicolo repeats, and Joe has to bite back a sob. “We’ll be just fine.”

 

And he has no choice but to trust and believe him to be right. So Joe calms his heart and presses another kiss on Nicolo’s forehead.

 

He can’t be afraid.

 

***

 

“Where’s the baby?” Mia asks, hands in front of her face, before moving them, gasping. “There he is!”

 

Elio squeals high and long, bouncing from his spot, propped up by so many pillows on the play area that was created for them. He’s so incredibly happy that both of his tiny hands are splayed and he’s putting it above his head in glee, when Joe enters the nursery, arms hooked with Nicolo.

 

It took a good month, but they finally felt comfortable enough to leave the babies with someone else. When they voiced the interest of having a day to themselves, Mia jumped at the opportunity, and Nicholas with it. The babies are over seven months old now, and comfortable with the rest of Nicolo’s family.

 

But he’d be lying if he said that they didn’t rush back to get to their babies.

 

“Still the best sounds,” Joe says, humming, already letting go so he can go to his son, who turns to him and squeals anew as he gets on the floor.

 

“Where’s our daughter?” he hears Nicolo behind him.

 

“With Nicholas,” Mia says, still playing with Elio, who’s now cooing and grabbing her nose. Joe turns to his beloved and blinks when he sees him turning around on the spot, and that’s when he looks around.

 

The playroom is entry.

 

“Yeah Mia, where?” Nicolo repeats, and that’s when Nicholas comes out with Ayla in her arms from the babies’ bedroom. She’s bouncing, and looking around, her eyes wide.

 

“She’s here, she’s here Papa bear,” Nicholas says, and he’s smiling so sweetly at Ayla, the little girl looking back at him and smiling, before pressing her face in his shoulder with a little squirm.

 

“Uh, what’s that?” Joe says, blinking at the large pillow that’s almost the baby’s size, gripped in tight, tiny fists, white and brown.

 

“It’s Nicky!” Nicholas exclaims, bouncing Ayla once and making her giggle. Mia snorts beside him, shaking her head as she takes Elio in her arms, and passes him to Joe. “It’s a chubby stuffed corgi,” she explains, and Joe just blinks at her.

 

“Why?” he asks, and when Mia just shrugs, he turns back to Nicolo who is now glowering at Nicholas.

 

“You’re kidding,” he says. “You gave her this…what is it? And it’s named after me?” he asks, and Nicholas snorts, waving him off whne he tries to take Ayla, and the baby just blinks, not moving to Nicolo.

 

“It’s a corgi, Nicolo,” Nicholas says, rolling his eyes. Then he grins, and Joe knows that it means trouble. At least for his beloved. “And you flatter yourself, it’s named after me!” he says and in a sing-song voice, walking away. Nicolo squawks and just follows, stomping now.

 

“You’re kidding, Nicholas!”

 

“No, I am not, Nicolo!”

 

And if Mia didn’t look so amused, Joe would be terrified that he’d have to help his beloved hide the queen’s future husband’s dead body later on. He shakes his head with a sigh, and looks down at Elio, who is staring up at him, his eyebrows furrowed, making soft sounds, reaching up his face.

 

“I know baby, I don’t know what to do with them either,” he says, kissing his little fingers, and Mia just laughs, leaning against him now, and playing a clapping game with Elio this time, while their partners chase after each other in the room, Ayla giggling the entire time.

 

That night when they’re putting the babies to bed, Nicolo sits in the space between the cribs, pouting with his arms crossed. A favourite spot for him, much to the chagrin of Joe’s heart, due to what he thought when he first found him there. He sits across from him this time, his back to Ayla’s crib.

 

As soon as he settles, Nicolo throws his leg over his, and scrunches his nose. “I don’t like it,” he says, and he’s glaring at what Joe knows is the little corgi settled with Ayla in her crib. Joe laughs softly then, making Elio turn to him, looking a little sleepy, holding his own corgi, but his was grey and white.

 

“Yes Elio, Papa is silly,” he says, smiling when the little one’s little fist goes through the gap of the crib and smacks Nicolo on the face, and the love of his life doesn’t even flinch. Elio retreats then and Joe sees the baby curling up around his corgi, little bum wiggling as he settles.

 

“Well, our son likes Joe,” he whispers, with a grin.

 

Joe and Nicky, the stuffed, chubby corgis. Nicholas is a little shit.

 

“I don’t like it,” Nicky repeats, and Joe just smiles.

 

“I know, my love.”

 

“I’m going to hide it from them,” he mutters, but there’s no heat, and Joe can see him looking at Ayla. He turns a little and finds Ayla pressing her cheek on Nicky the corgi, sighing in her sleep.

 

He turns back to Nicolo and smiles.

 

“No you’re not,” he says, voice soft.

 

Nicolo looks at him and pouts, before sighing.

 

“No I’m not.”

 

***

 

A little baby has no business getting an ECG done on them. And yet their little Elio is whimpering in fear, reaching out for them as he lays in a tiny examination bed in an unfamiliar room. And Joe’s trying really hard to stop himself from grabbing his son and running away with him from the hospital.

 

He hates this so damn much.

 

“Shhhh. Baby, Elio my darling, you’re okay,” he whispers, and once Elio seems to realize that Joe wasn’t going to take him into his arms, he starts to sob, his whole body shaking, little fist tight around his finger.

 

There’s so many things stuck to their child right now, while a machine reads their heart, for the second time. Joe knows that no matter how many times, and no matter how old Elio grows, he’ll never get used to it.

 

Nicolo couldn’t stop crying throughout the whole thing the first time, just a few days after Ayla and Elio turned six months. He was incredibly worried, even when he tried not to be, holding Elio’s little hand and the child wasn’t even upset, looking around curiously. But seeing him attached to a machine pushed Nicolo to the edge somehow, and he couldn’t calm down.

 

He had spent the next day exhausted in bed, with his own doctor leaning over him, and discussing a change in medication, and scheduling him for his own series of tests. The fact that he took it all to stride, and did all that he was told without fighting anything was a testament to his commitment to be healthy, for his Joe, and for his children.

 

“I won’t ever leave you if I can help it, my hearts,” Nicolo whispered to them all as the two babies laid on his chest after a day of tests and new medications, while Joe watched over them all, tears in his eyes, nose in Nicolo’s hair, doing his best to keep it all together. He had his own cry, when they all fell asleep after.

 

When the results came, Elio’s doctor reassured them that the little one is fine.

 

Nicolo’s doctor on the other hand, reminded them once again how important it is to not stress him out. That he really needed to be careful, and Joe listened and accepted and let himself weep about it, but he really didn’t like thinking about the whole thing.

 

So when Elio had to come back for his test for the month after he turned seven months, he insisted that he go alone, telling him he’d take care of their son.

 

Nicolo frowned, Ayla in his arms as the little girl tried to grab a handful of Joe’s curls, while Elio rolled around in his crib still, nuzzling Joe the corgi.

 

“You don’t want me to come?” Nicolo whispered, and his voice had been small, so Joe kissed his lips then his forehead, and his cheeks until the man laughed, shaking his head.

 

“Yusuf…”

 

“I don’t want you unwell again,” he admitted, and Nicolo bit his lip then, and nodded.

 

“But if there is anything, you do not hide it from me,” he demanded, and Joe smiled, tearily.

 

“Never, my beloved,” he promised, and together they turn to Elio, who is babbling at Joe the corgi, and Nicolo sighed.

 

“He loves that thing so much.”

 

Joe blinks, sniffling and leaning over his son as he continued to cry, Joe the corgi in his free hand. “Baby love, please. You’re alright,” he whispers, wiggling his finger that is in Elio’s hand, and the baby whimpers.

 

“We’re nearly done, Prince Yusuf,” the technician says behind Joe, and he gulps, nodding.

 

“You hear that my light?” Joe says, before he moves the stuffed corgi into Elio’s view, just as the little one’s cries start to get louder. But as soon as his eyes land on the corgi, the cries start to reduce, and he whines, reaching for it with his free hand, still holding onto Joe with another.

 

“Of course,” he croaks out, laughing weakly. “I swear you like this Joe over me,” he mutters, and the technician snorts, but doesn’t say anything.

 

Elio just coos at the Joe the corgi, making what seems to be a triumphant noise when his hand touches it, grinning.

 

“Oh, I see more teeth I think,” Joe whispers, trying to distract himself really from his little one’s current plight. The baby just keeps smiling, and he wants to think that it’s because of him, instead of the corgi, as he reaches with gentle fingers to wipe tears from chubby cheeks.

 

“Prince Yusuf, he’s done. But I’d like to do an x-ray as well,” the technician says, and Joe freezes. They didn’t have to do an x-ray before.

 

“You found something,” he whispers, not turning around as tears come to his eyes. The technician is quiet for a moment.

 

“It’s just precaution, Prince Yusuf. We’ll do all of them, and I’ll forward it to his doctor right away,” he hears and all he could do is nod.

 

***

 

v: do not let the sun set on us

 

They do a lot more than just an x-rays. And a diagnosis arrives to meet their tears.

 

A narrow aorta, a missing valve. Everyone’s supposed to have three. Elio has two. Bicuspid valve, they call it.

 

They learn of what can happen when he gets older, and what to watch out for while he’s still so little to tell them if he’s in discomfort.

 

“When he gets quiet and tired,” Nicolo whispers, holding Elio to himself as he sits there, Joe beside him with Ayla, as they talk to Elio’s doctor. The doctor nods, glancing at the babies. The twins are lively and sweet, babbling to each other on their laps, and Joe wants them to be like that all the time.

 

“How quiet and tired?” Clarisse asks, because she wanted to be there for them, sitting on Nicolo’s other side.

 

Quiet and tired. Joe is starting to hate that combination of words.

 

When Joe came home with Elio, he was barely holding himself together, having spent the whole day with his son going through tests, and Clarisse had been the first to see him. He had burst into tears as soon she came, and he stuttered his way through what had happened.

 

She was there when he told Nicolo about what needed to happen, especially since the man was so worried that he took longer than he’s supposed to, and now she’s here, receiving the diagnosis with them.

 

“When it comes with loss of appetite, or you see him being lethargic. Elio’s a very lively child,” the doctor says, and Joe looks down to find Elio giggling at Ayla as his daughter claps her hands at his face.

 

“He cries when he’s supposed to, when he’s trying to communicate. It’s when he doesn’t, when he’s not being like how he is now, do we have to worry,” she continues, her voice kind, but firm.

 

Clarisse takes a deep breath and nods, and Joe glances at her. Her shoulders are stiff, and she looks incredibly worried. Nicolo does as well. And he’s sure he looks the same. The doctor obviously notices as well, so she tries to give them an encouraging smile.

 

“I’m here when you need me to be, your majesties,” she says. “If you’re ever worried, you tell me. There is no such thing as an overreaction.”

 

Nicolo gulps, and he nods then, looking down at Elio, whose now holding his twin’s hand, and swinging it, making Ayla bounce. The fact that they enjoy playing with each other makes Joe’s own heart very happy. He finds himself smiling through his worries.

 

“Ayla might also be able to help,” the doctor says, and Joe blinks then.

 

“How so?” Nicolo whispers, and he sounds curious. Hopeful.

 

“Look at how they play,” the doctor instructs, and they all turn to the babies. Elio still has Ayla’s hand in his, and Ayla’s babbling at him, and it almost looks like Elio’s listening.

 

“Prince Yusuf, please move Ayla slightly so Elio has to let go,” she instructs, and Joe does as he’s told, moving Ayla from one thigh to another. His son’s little hand loses hold, and his eyes widen, little lips already quivering.

 

But it’s Ayla that screams, squirming wildly in Joe's arms and trying to reach for her twin, babbling. It’s only when Joe moves her back does she calm down, when Elio’s hand is in hers again. Clarisse lets out a soft laugh.

 

“Your dad and your uncle were like that too,” she says, and Nicolo’s eyes widen then.

 

“Really?” he whispers, looking at Clarisse just as Joe turns to her as well.

 

“Very much so. Your dad wouldn’t let go of uncle, after we brought him home. He kept wanting to hold him. And if he wasn’t, he’d ask when would be the next time. When your uncle was old enough to recognize, he’d cry every time he couldn’t see your dad in the room,” she explains, and her eyes are fond, if not a little melancholy.

 

Joe smiles, and looks down at his daughter then. He tries to move her, but this time she turns around immediately and looks up at him. Then her free hand not holding Elio’s go up, curled into a fist, making a soft babble noise, eyebrows furrowed, yeah, she’s definitely shaking it.

 

His daughter is shaking her fist at him.

 

“Oh, uh oh, Yusuf. Don’t do it,” Nicolo whispers and he sounds so, so proud. And he definitely understands this. Joe grins then, settling her down and kissing the waves in her hair.

 

“Alright my little fire, I won’t. I won’t move you darling,” he whispers, and Ayla turns back to Elio, the little fist now relaxed, one hand still holding on her brother’s, swinging it.

 

Already watching out over her brother. It’s so amazing to see.

 

“We’ll look after Elio,” the doctor says, after a moment, and Joe meets Nicolo’s gaze then, kissing him gently when he leans in. Then he sighs, and nods his head, just prays.

 

***

 

Joe thinks that they should tell the rest of the family. Nicolo agrees.

 

“The more people know, the more we can track him,” Nicolo whispers, and he sounds tired. Ever since the doctor visit, his beloved has been tired, worried out of his mind, even though Elio continues to be happy cooing child, and a darkness settles a little over him.

 

“We should tell the ones that don’t know about you as well,” he whispers, and Nicolo frowns.

 

“Like who?”

 

“My parents,” he starts, and his beloved’s eyes sadden.

 

“We’ll break their hearts twice?” he asks, and Joe whimpers, holding Nicolo tighter at the idea of breaking his parents’ hearts. He would never want to do that, but he knows he must. They need to know this. It would not be fair for them to find out only if something were to happen.

 

“They’d want to know, my love,” Joe gasps out, and Nicolo sighs nodding.

 

After a moment, Joe looks down at him, kissing his forehead. “Nicholas should know,” he whispers, and Nicolo pulls away with a frown. Then he bites his lip, gulping.

 

“Do you think he’d care?” he asks, and it hurts Joe that he has to ask.

 

Especially since, it turns out, Nicholas does care.

 

Immensely so.

 

“Did you think I wouldn’t give shit, Nicolo?” Nicholas gasps out, and he’s standing from the couch in their suite, pacing now, his back turned to them.

 

Nicolo looks genuinely confused by his reaction, watching him while Joe holds his hand, staying silent. This is between his beloved and Nicholas, but he didn’t want to leave him alone. He watches as the man turns and moves towards them, sitting on Nicolo’s other side now, and Joe watches him carefully, catching his gaze.

 

Nicholas has good sense to glance at him, and takes a deep breath, obviously trying to calm himself. Good. It means he’s been listening.

 

“I care, in case it’s not clear,” Nicholas starts, and Nicolo smirks.

 

“It’s not.”

 

Nicholas sighs, and presses his forehead on Nicolo’s shoulder, who just looks at him, frowning even more when he doesn’t move. Joe watches as he starts to poke him on the shoulder.

 

“Nicholas?” his beloved whispers, and when the man finally looks up, he’s sniffling and there’s tears in his eyes. And Joe feels Nicolo exhale, sighing.

 

“We’re going to take care of you, okay?” Nicholas says, sniffling and nodding his head. “Right Joe? We’re going to take care of Nicolo, we promise” he says, and Joe smiles at him then, and he knows there’s a reason why he never minded the man.

 

“Right,” he says, and Nicolo gulps, just looking at Nicholas then. It takes him a moment, but he’s nodding, leaning in and letting himself be hugged, hugging back just as fiercely when Nicholas squeezes him.

 

“Tell me that’s it,” Joe hears him say, and Nicolo takes in a deep breath, pulling away. Nicholas’ eyes are wide and afraid, as Joe bites his lip.

 

“We should get Mia and Joseph,” he starts, and Nicolo shakes his head.

 

“Gramma’s going to tell Joseph.”

 

Joe nods and sighs, squeezes his beloved gently against his side, before standing up.

 

“Let me get Mia then.”

 

***

 

Joe makes a point to not be unkind to anyone in his life. But after telling Mia and Nicholas, as well as his parents exactly what ails their Elio, he felt like the cruelest man alive, having to witness every single one of them be reduced to tears.

 

He’s selfishly glad when Joseph spared him feeling the same about him, when the man just talks to Nicolo in private for what seems like hours, and Joe finds them later on, with his Nicolo asleep in Joseph’s arms, as the man cries in silence.

 

***

 

“Ayla, no, do not—Elio please, get that out—Nicolo, stop laughing!”

 

Joe loves them. He loves them. So, so, so much.

 

But sometimes he just wants to melt to the floor and let the floor swallow him. Joe sighs, and stares at Ayla as she starts to crawl away from him yet again because his daughter is crawling now, making her way to the tiniest nook beside her crib just because she wants to, and Elio’s sitting there with his fist in his mouth once again, gnawing on it.

 

And Nicolo, his sweet, sweet Nicolo, is laying on the floor laughing at him.

 

“Are you just going to stay there?” Joe asks, and his beloved just grins.

 

“The view is nice from down here,” he says, wiggling his eyebrows as Joe shakes his head, and gets down on the floor, laying beside him, looking straight ahead.

 

“Ah yes, the ceiling looks rather nice, doesn’t it?” he mutters lowly and squawks Nicolo throws an arm around hard, before pulling him towards him by the waist.

 

“Let her explore,” Nicolo whispers against his neck, and Joe turns to face him then, glancing at Elio who is still in his throne of pillows, Joe the corgi on his left, Nicky the corgi on his right. Unlike his sister, he’s yet to crawl, but so satisfied to just stay put with nothing but his fist for company, babbling to himself, eyes forever darting around curiously.

 

“Hi Elio. Hello my light,” Joe calls, and the baby just tilts his head at him and grins around his fist, bouncing. Nicolo moves then, waving at their son too, and again, Elio bounces and giggles around his fist, before turning to Nicky the corgi and nuzzling it, then doing the same to Joe the corgi.

 

“I really hate Nicholas,” Nicolo says with a smile, before turning to where Ayla is and finds her crawling towards them now. She’s going straight for them, grinning when she sees them both, half of her face covered by her hair. They haven’t even thought of cutting either of their hair, and honestly, Joe doesn’t know if he even wants to.

 

“Hi, my fire,” Joe coos, rolling on his front to meet her, and she just grins and stops right in front of his face and grabs at his nose, squealing when he kisses her hand, reaching over to brush her hair back. Then he feels, rather than sees, Nicolo crawling atop of his back, settling on his stomach over him, his chin on his head.

 

“Hi Ayla,” his beloved whispers, and Ayla looks up and squeals then, throwing her arms up. Then, with another pat on Joe’s nose, she gets on her hands and knees again, and crawls over to Elio, who starts to squeal at her coming, already reaching for her.

 

“We’ve been effectively dismissed,” Joe whispers, and he feels Nicolo getting up above him, so he takes the moment to roll on his back, smiling when his beloved just slots in and lays his head on his chest.

 

“You’re okay to watch them?” Nicolo whispers, and of course, he nods, stroking his hair. He can already hear that he’s tired, and he tries not to think too hard about it.

 

“Yeah, of course,” he says, kissing his forehead. “Rest, my darling.”

 

When he doesn’t get a reply, he just turns to his kids playing in their corner, trying not to focus on the fact that Nicolo slid into sleep way too easily.

 

***

 

“Please don’t worry,” Joe begs, after two days of Nicolo barely having any energy to get out of bed, that the babies had to spend majority of their time in bed with them, with their corgis.

 

Nicolo gulps, and avoids his gaze, looking down. When he doesn’t say a word, Joe whimpers, pulling him into his arms and holding him tight. This is not the answer he wants. He needs Nicolo to understand that this is not alright.

 

“Please, Nicolo. I beg of you. Elio…Elio will be fine,” he gasps, and Nicolo shakes his head, his hand going to his own chest, before he’s turning into his arms and burying his face into his neck.

 

“You can’t promise me that, Yusuf,” he whispers. “No one can.”

 

***

 

“She’s fine, Yusuf.”

 

“Hush Nicolo,” Joe sniffles, rocking Ayla in his arms as the little one sniffles, sucking on her pacifier, the only thing to placate her after Nicolo had been very, very mean to her.

 

His beloved sighs, and shakes his head, looking at Elio who just meets his gaze with a toothy grin. “You like your bracelet, baby?” he hears him ask, and Joe turns just as Elio giggles, waving his chubby arms, his left wrist now glinting with a tiny chain bracelet. Ayla has a matching one as well.

 

“I wanted to show Mama and Baba we appreciated their gifts, Yusuf,” Nicolo says in way that Joe just knows he’s rolling his eyes.

 

“But Nicolo!” he calls, whimpering and turning around with Ayla, stroking her hair back. “She cried so much,” he says, sighing. “All for gold on her earlobes.”

 

“Yusuf, it’s tradition for your family,” he hears after a moment, and Joe sighs then, walking over and finally settling beside his husband.

 

“I know, I’m being ridiculous,” he mutters, because really, Ayla’s not even upset anymore. She burst into tears, obviously, when each earlobe was pierced, and Joe hated it. The idea of hurting his children with something that they could’ve helped broke something in him, because he definitely burst into tears with her, which made her cry more, much to Nicolo’s chagrin.

 

“You are,” his beloved agrees with no hesitation, shaking his head, already looking down at Elio. “Isn’t that right, Elio? Your Baba is so silly,” he says, and Elio just giggles and waves his hand, his eyes on the gold on his wrist.

 

“Elio doesn’t agree because he loves Baba,” Joe says, leaning down to kiss the little boy’s curls, and smiling when he just looks up and nuzzles him back. Honestly, this little boy is the sweetest to ever exist, with almost like a perpetual grin every time he hears his name called.

 

Nicolo reaches over and gently coaxes the pacifier off Ayla’s mouth, whose no longer crying, wiping at her tears. “Hi beautiful,” he says, and Ayla presses her cheek against Joe’s shoulders, tugging at his collar.  

 

“Oh, that reminds me,” Joe hears him say, and he looks up to see Nicolo standing up and walking into the bedroom. When he comes back, he’s holding a jewellery box. Then he hands it to him, and Joe tilts his head.

 

“Mama said you need to open it,” Nicolo says with a shrug, and Joe nods. Nicolo takes Ayla from him, holding the twins in his now, and they’re already babbling at each other, Ayla leaning in and laying her head on Elio’s, who just lets her do it.

 

Joe focuses then on the box, and opens it. He sees a number of things. A necklace with his family crest on the pendant, small and rectangular, and three silver rings. He used to wear all of it pretty regularly, but had forgotten it at home, in his haste and excitement to got to Genovia. Then there’s another a box, with a simple note.

 

When you’re ready.

 

He doesn’t need to open it to know what it’d be. When he pursued Mia, his parents asked if he wanted to take their heirloom to propose to her, and Joe didn’t even hesitate when he said no. It didn’t feel right at the time, because he knew then that he was pursuing the wrong Renaldi. So, his family got a new ring made, and he used that.

 

But in that box, was the right ring. The perfect ring.


“Well?”

 

Joe blinks and looks up to see Nicolo looking at him curiously. “Are we going to see?” he asks, and he smiles, taking out the necklace, and the rings, before closing the box, and putting it on his lap.

 

“I used to wear these all the time, and I forgot them…when I hurried over here for your birthday,” Joe mutters, looking down as he feels his cheeks heat up at the admission. He slips the rings on his fingers like he had never paused, and goes to put the necklace on when Nicolo stops him.

 

“Let me,” he whispers, and he takes the necklace from Joe’s hand, before unclasping it and carefully putting it over him, and around his neck, making sure it didn’t get caught on his hair. When it settles on his chest, it feels like a piece of home had been sent back to him.


“Family crest?” Nicolo asks, pressing a gentle hand on the pendant, and Joe nods, smiling, Elio already reaching for it, whimpering when he can’t reach, so Joe takes him and moves him closer, wincing when Elio tugs on it a little.

 

“And the rings?” his beloved continues, taking his hand gently and tracing one of them with his thumb.


“Mama got them made for me,” Joe whispers with a smile. “When I was young. They grew with me, just like how the bracelets they sent are meant to grow with the babies. I’m meant to pass them on to my children when they’re older,” he says, smiling.

 

Nicolo brightens then, looking up at him with a grin.

 

“So we need a third child?” he asks, and Joe just laughs, pressing a soft kiss against his lips, sighing against him.

 

“Whatever you wish, beloved.”

 

“These make you look complete,” Nicolo says against his lips, and Joe shakes his head, adjusting Elio just as Ayla starts to tug on the necklace as well.

 

“I’ve been complete for a while, my love,” he says, glancing at the box still in his lap, promising himself to do something about what’s inside it, very, very soon.

 

***

 

“I will never leave you.”

 

Joe blinks, pausing by the doors, outside the babies room. He had been pulled away by his duties for most of the day, and Nicolo had been left alone with the babies. He didn’t really want to leave Nicolo by himself, after everything, but the man looked better in the past few days, and he had promised.

 

He peeks through the door, and he can’t see Nicolo anywhere, so he knows exactly where he is. Sitting in between the cribs again. He can see Ayla standing in hers, supporting herself fully with the bars, his back turned to him, while Elio was laying on his side, sucking on his pacifier. Good, as long as it’s not his fist.

 

“Not if I can help it, my babies, please understand,” Nicolo continues, and he sounds incredibly sad. Then Joe hears him take a deep breath, before letting it out shakily.

 

“Please know I’m doing my best to stay around, for as long as I can be here. But if the universe were to be cruel, and take me away now, when I am happy,” he gasps, and Joe just knows he’s crying. Because Nicolo is doing his best, trying to stay calm when he feels himself getting stressed out, taking his medications, listening to his doctor.

 

It doesn’t take long before Joe is crying too. To hear his beloved’s fears be laid out like this, it’s too much. It’s way too much and he wants to run to him, but knows it won’t be productive.

 

“Then please know that I love you. So much, and your Baba…your Baba will love you for us both, forever,” Nicolo says, trailing off, and the babies are silent throughout. Like they were listening, and understanding their Papa.

 

And nothing breaks the heart more than that.

 

***

 

The little ones turned eight months and apparently have been planning a gift for them instead.

 

“Papa.”

 

Joe blinks, his pencil slipping on his sketchbook.

 

They’re all in bed together, Nicolo laying on his side facing him, the two babies between them. Ayla has her legs on Joe’s thigh, bouncing a little. She’s all over now, using whatever she can as purchase, trying to stand, but she’s yet to walk. Elio’s able to sit with minimal support, his back on Nicolo’s stomach.

 

Not that this all matters right now, as he breathes out. “Ayla, what was that?” he asks, and he feels like his face is splitting into a grin.

 

Ayla gives him a side look, pouting. and Joe tilts his head. He’s put his little girl’s hair in two braids, to get it out of her face, since she loves to move so much. She looks adorable, and getting way too adult.

 

“Oh I’m sorry, my little fire,” he whispers. “Continue,” he says with a motion of his hand, and Ayla looks like she’s nodding, like she understood exactly what he said, and faces Nicolo, who is watching with his mouth dropped open, keeping quiet.

 

“Papa,” she repeats, giggling. Elio looks up then, his giggles with her, turning towards Nicolo and reaching over to pat what he could reach, which was Nicolo’s cheek.

 

“Papa,” Elio repeats and just grins that precious one of his, giggling wildly when Nicolo kisses his hand, sitting up. Joe’s clapping now, in glee, and he’s bouncing like a little child and he doesn’t care.

 

“Yusuf, they’re calling me,” Nicolo whimpers, and he’s crying, holding Elio in his arms now, and reaching for Ayla, who bounces from his leg to her Papa’s waiting arms, laughing.

 

“I know my love,” he says, pressing his hands to his lips, and it feels like his face is going to split from how much he’s smiling.

 

“You’re so brilliant, my darlings, so brilliant," Nicolo whispers, kissing both of their little chubby cheeks, and their laughter blends with each other’s perfectly, as they squirm and bounce in their Papa’s arms.

 

“Papa, Papa!” they squeal and Joe feels like he’s going to melt, feeling so warm and happy at the sight.

 

“Yes, yes my loves, yes I’m here. I’m here.”

 

***

 

Joe’s gift comes that same night, when they’re putting the little ones in bed. Nicolo’s in his favourite spot, back to Elio’s crib, legs outstretched, in front of him.

 

This time he sits perfectly in the middle of the two cribs, legs crossed, so he can see them all. He smiles, feeling so light at the sight of all of them.

 

“A front seat to my entire world,” he whispers, and Nicolo smiles, at him, tilting his head.

 

“Enjoying the show, Baba?” he asks, and Joe laughs.

 

“Immensely.”

 

“Baba!”

 

He freezes then, and blinks, turning towards Elio’s crib, his eyes going wide.

 

“My light?” he gasps, and Elio just grins at him, Joe the corgi in his arms as always, still sitting up on his crib. Then he sticks a hand out through the bar and waves.

 

“Baba!” he squeals again, and Joe’s on his feet immediately, plucking his son out of crib and swinging him around, making the boy laugh wildly.

 

“Oh, so much for putting them to bed,” Nicolo teases, but he’s not bad. He can’t be. His beloved loves him happy and right now, he’s so happy.

 

“My little light! Yes, Elio, it’s Baba, it’s Baba,” he says, and his son just keeps giggling. When they pass by Ayla’s crib, she’s bouncing as well, grinning around her pacifier and squealing. Then she’s putting her hand hands up, and Joe smiles.

 

“Your turn? Oh alright, let’s me get that for you though,” he says to Ayla as it looks like the pacifier is nearly slipping from her mouth. As soon as he removes to adjust it, she squeals.

 

“Baba! Baba! Baba!” she says, very clearly, extending her arms for him, and Nicolo disappears from his periphery as he falls on his back, laughing wildly at Joe taking his daughter in his arms as well, and cheering.

 

“Yes, my fire! I’m Baba, that’s me!” he coos, and as soon as the twins settle into his arms, like the always perfectly do because they are his and they fit, he spins them around together, Nicolo’s laughter washing over them.

 

“They are never going to bed,” he says, and Joe doesn’t mind, because his babies are still saying Baba to him, their little hands on his face, in his hair, and there is no better feeling.

 

***

 

Two weeks after Elio was cleared for his nine-month check-up, he falls asleep while eating.

 

“Elio?” Joe hears Nicolo say, and he sounds confused at first. Then, he gasps, his voice a soft whimper. “Elio, baby, please.”

 

Joe stands then, walking immediately to where Nicolo’s feeding their son, and finds him taking him in his arms. Because Elio looked like he was fighting to stay awake, the food dribbling out of his mouth.

 

Then Ayla whimpers in his arms, trying to reach for her twin, and he feels the breath knocked out of him, feeling cold.

 

And for the second time in a few months, he found himself screaming for help in their own home.

 

***

 

Everything is sharply focused and a blur at the same time.

 

He distinctly remembers his daughter being taken away from him and nearly lashing out to whoever did it, but can’t remember who it was exactly. Whoever it was, they tell him to go, to be with Nicolo. To be with Elio.

 

Elio. Elio who is so, so, quiet in Nicolo’s arms as they rush him to the hospital.

 

He doesn’t remember how exactly they got there. But Joe remembers the doctors and nurses swarming in, Elio’s specialist taking the lead and taking the baby from his beloved’s arms.

 

Joe remembers Nicolo protesting, shaking his head, his eyes wide and teary, struggling against those pulling him back.

 

“No! No, let me stay with him! Yusuf! Yusuf tell them I have to stay—please!” Nicolo gasps, and Joe shakes his head, wrapping his arms around his beloved and squeezing, looking at the specialist and nodding to them sharply.

 

As soon as he does, they take Elio away without another word, and brings him deeper into the hospital, and Nicolo collapses into himself and screams, and fights him, asking him why. Why did he not let him go to Elio.

 

And Joe thinks he’ll never be able to forget it for as long as he lives.

 

***

 

vi: do not let his light dim

 

That narrow aorta, with a missing valve struggled to open fully and decreased blood flow to their baby’s heart. It needs minimal surgery to be fixed, but it’s surgery nonetheless.

 

Joe wants to throw up.

 

But they trust their son’s specialist. They say yes to the surgery.

 

Joe signs what he needs to sign, holding his Nicolo at his side, who hasn’t stopped crying, clutching Joe the corgi in his arms tightly. He didn’t even realize that they brought Elio’s favourite toy, but of course Nicolo did. Because Nicolo is amazing. He’s just so happy that his beloved is no longer fighting him.

 

They’re left alone, in the family waiting room.

 

And Nicolo is shaking. He’s shaking so much and Joe knows that he shouldn’t be. He shouldn’t be. Joe’s crying too, his ears ringing, and now that there are no doctor’s around to hyper-focus on, he can feel every emotion, and hear every difficult hitch as his beloved struggles.

 

“C’mon Nicolo, come here,” Joe hears before he can say anything, and turns to find Nicholas, already pulling his beloved from him, pulling him in his chest and rubbing his back. Nicolo goes without protest, pressing his face in Nicholas' shoulder.

 

When did Nicholas get here?

 

“Prince Yusuf,” he hears and suddenly, Clarisse is beside him, wrapping him in her arms immediately and that’s when Joe realizes, his eyes sliding close.

 

“You came with us,” he whispers, remembering, and Clarisse sniffles, pulling away.

 

“We did.”

 

“You’ve been here the whole time.”

 

Clarisse smiles weakly. “Yes.”

 

Slowly, Joseph remembers more. “Mia has Ayla,” he whispers, eyes widening as he remembers how he reacted when he felt his daughter be taken from him. “I lashed out on the queen.”

 

A snort escapes Clarisse then, and she shakes her head, and Joe doesn’t understand. He should be arrested.

 

“I should be arrested,” he mutters, and the woman just looks at him with sad eyes, before pulling him back into her arms.

 

“You’re where you need to be. And we’re right here with you, alright, Prince Yusuf. We have you,” she whispers, and Joe lets out a shaky breath and allows himself to cry.

 

***

 

“I saw his doctor.”

 

Joe looks up, his hand in Nicolo’s hair. He finally got him to sleep, his beloved’s head on his lap, with Joe the corgi pressed against his chest as he hugs it close.

 

Nicholas smiles at him, sitting down on his other side to not disturb Nicolo. He’s carrying a bag with him.

 

“Nicolo’s?” he whispers, and the man nods, smiling weakly, and his eyes flicker over to Nicolo’s sleeping form. Joe takes a deep breath then.

 

“Didn’t I say it’d work?” he whispers, and Nicholas shrugs, looking at him now.

 

“Yusuf…he didn’t even think I’d care,” he says, and Joe just sighs, smiling weakly.

 

“Him adding you as next of kin with Mia is his way of telling you that he knows that you care,” he replies, remembering the day that Nicolo told him so casually that he updated his medical contacts to have him, Nicholas and Mia. It’d only been a few days after they told everyone about Elio.

 

Joe wasn’t even surprised. Because that’s how his beloved works.

 

“She gave me his prescription,” Nicholas says, after a moment, and sure enough, he has new bottles of familiar pills that Joe both loves and hates.

 

Joe watches as he sets it down, and takes in how tired he looks. How exhausted, really. “Nicholas?”

 

“She told me he needs to be careful,” he whispers, looking up at him now and there’s fear in his eyes. “I told her what happened, and…Yusuf. This is the kind of stress we said he can’t have,” he mutters, and Joe sniffles, and he feels tears in his eyes as he just nods.

 

“I know, Nicholas,” he moans out, stroking his beloved’s hair, hating how his eyebrows are furrowed even in sleep, his skin pale. He wants to take him away, from all of this. But that’s not an option.

 

“But what am I supposed to do?”

 

***

 

The surgery is successful. Of course it is. It still doesn’t stop Joe from nearly collapsing into himself in relief that Nicholas holds him up, while Clarisse squeezes her grandson to her, kissing his forehead in relief.

 

***

 

Elio has to stay in the pediatric intensive care unit for a couple of days. They say it’s precaution, but they know better. Heart surgeries are complicated, especially for children. When Joe and Nicolo sees their son for the first time, Nicolo folds over in grief.

 

There are so many machines attached to their baby, his little body just covered in electrodes, and he looks so damn small in a too big bed, and Joe has to hold Nicolo as he sobs.

 

It takes him a while to calm, and when he does, he settles on Joe’s lap, his head pressed on his shoulder, holding Joe the corgi to his chest. It’s then that Joe coaxes him to take his own medication, and thankfully, Nicky doesn’t fight him.

 

“Yusuf,” he whispers, and he sounds so small, after a while of just staring at Elio’s sleeping form.

 

“My beloved?” he asks, pressing a kiss into Nicolo’s forehead, hating how clammy his skin feels against his lips.

 

“When I lost my parents, they called me an orphan,” Nicolo gasps out, and Joe sniffles, closing his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, because he doesn’t know what to say, pressing his face into Nicolo’s neck.

 

“What do they call it when parents lose their child?” he asks, and a sob rips itself out of his chest before he can do anything, like his grief needed to be heard. He doesn’t want to think of it, but he’d be lying if he said he never did.

 

“We won’t have to find out, beloved—” he starts, and Nicolo sniffles, shaking his head.

 

“I don’t think there’s a word for it,” he moans out, like he didn’t even hear him, and Joe just presses closer, sobbing, as Nicolo sighs, turning to face him. Joe opens his eyes then.

 

His beloved is crying just as much as him, and he looks like he’s in so much pain that is too familiar and fuck.

 

“Calm your heart, beloved,” he begs, and Nicolo whimpers, and Joe puts a hand on his chest, and he feels it then. It scares him how loud it feels under his hand, and he shakes his head.

 

“There’s no word for it,” he gasps out. “And we’d never have to name it,” Joe promises. He hopes, he prays that it’s a promise. Nicolo’s hand goes atop of his weakly, even as his face continues to crumble, nodding shakily. Then he turns to look at where Elio is, Joe doing the same, his beloved’s heart thumping under his hand.

 

“Good,” his beloved gasps. “Because I don’t think I can ever do so, if this is already so painful.”

 

And Joe doesn’t think he can ever do so, either.

 

***

 

When Elio awakes, and sees Nicolo and Joe leaning over his bed, he grins, sleepy and sweet. The nurse, checking on him, laughs softly, but Joe only has eyes on his son.

 

“Hello my light, how are you my baby love?” he whispers, just as Nicolo laughs, gently cooing over him.

 

“Such beautiful eyes, Elio. So glad you’re awake.”

 

The nurse leaves them then, one of her colleagues passing by.

 

“What’s got you smiling so much?” Joe hears behind them, and the nurse just laughs softly.

 

“I thought they were too young, to have a child,” she starts, before sighing, and he just knows that she’s smiling.

 

“But some people are just meant to be parents.”

 

And Joe lets the words fuel him, reaching over and gently stroking Elio’s hair, sighing, hoping that Nicolo heard them too.

 

But his beloved only has eyes for their son.

 

***

 

They get him home in five days. By the end of it, Joe felt like he’s floating, and he’s pretty sure it’s not a good thing.

 

Elio’s to recover the rest of the time at home. There are lot of instructions. Restrictions really.  Recovery is meant to be around four weeks, at most. They go back to holding him like an infant, supporting the back of his head and his bottom, always scooping, never pulling.

 

The incisions are so small they can barely see it. But to know that it’s there makes Joe’s heart still hurt so much. When he first tries to clean it, he starts to sob, and effectively scares Elio enough that the little one cries.

 

And Elio can’t cry. So Nicolo does it. Has been doing it. And Joe selfishly lets him. Plus, even when he tried again, his hands couldn’t stop shaking.

 

Joe felt like a failure about the whole thing, and Nicolo holds him as he cries, forever reassuring him.

 

They’re all so careful, handling him. Most of the time, it’s only Joe and Nicky. Occasionally, and surprisingly, Nicolo lets Nicholas hold Elio. The man’s been helping around a lot, since Elio came home. Joe doesn’t think he’s seen him this much since coming to Genovia.

 

Like he is now, just over a week after Elio’s gone home. Joe has Ayla on his hip, walking her around to entertain her, or else she’d want to be near Elio, and they can’t play. Not for another few weeks, so they spend the first days of their ten-months apart.

 

“Nicolo, did you take your meds yet?” Nicholas asks, turning to Nicolo who’s laying on his favourite spot in between the cribs, even though neither of the babies are there, holding Joe the corgi close to him. Whether he’s hiding it from Elio, because they can’t excite him, or if he’s using it for his own comfort has become quite unclear.

 

“I have, you bother,” Nicolo says softly to Nicholas, shaking his head with a smile. There’s no heat in his words, and Joe is so, so thankful for Nicholas, really.

 

“Good. That’s right, Elio, your Papa took his meds like a good boy he is,” he says, and Elio coos softly, while Nicolo just rolls his eyes.

 

Their son is not as lively, but he’s awake, and looking around, making sure to not move him as much. It’s clear that the baby knows he’s not at his best state, and isn’t as bouncy at he is. He’s back to baby formula, while Ayla has since moved on to solid foods.

 

“Baba.”

 

Joe turns to Ayla and smiles at her, kissing her forehead. “Yes, baby love?” he asks, and smiles when the little one just hugs his head, pressing close.

 

“Oh, thank you my love. Would you like to share this with Papa?” he asks, already moving to sit beside his husband.

 

“Papa,” Ayla says simply, turning to Nicolo with a smile. They switch, and Nicolo takes their daughter in his arms, and Joe takes his corgi counterpart.

 

“Hi my little darling,” Nicolo whispers, kissing Ayla’s cheeks. “She’s quiet,” he whispers, pulling the little one close, and smiles weakly when she cuddles against him, pressing her face on his neck.

 

“Of course,” Joe whispers, because it’s so clear to all of them. Ayla usually is the first to crawl to her twin, but she hasn’t been, just watching him from where she is. It’s like she knows, that he needed to be away from her.

 

“You’ll get to play with Elio soon, Ayla,” Nicolo whispers into her hair, stroking her back. “So very soon, baby love,” he says, meeting Joe’s eyes, sighing.

 

“So very soon.”

 

***

 

When Elio steadily starts to get more energy, and his laughs and giggles start to increase, they hold their breaths, but their little boy just keeps getting stronger and stronger.

 

One morning, he squeals in delight so loud and throws his arms up so abruptly that Nicolo stumbles in shock, eyes widening, hand to his chest. But before Joe can say anything, his beloved is already on the phone, scheduling a visit with Elio’s specialist the same day.

 

“Congratulations,” she says, grinning, her hands gentle on Elio. “He’s doing very well,” she continues and Joe feels like he can start dancing in happiness then, wrapping his arms around Nicolo’s waist and lifting him in his glee.

 

“Everything’s going to be alright, Yusuf,” Nicolo whispers in his ear, and Joe smiles, closing his eyes and squeezing him.

 

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he hears again, and Joe can never be thankful enough for his blessings.

 

***

 

After the news, Joe spends the following day in bed with Nicolo.

 

Of course they need to be careful, of course Elio needs to go to more doctor’s appointments. But with the right care and regime and action plan, their little one is expected to live a relatively normal life, as long as no red flags arise.

 

“Adrenaline’s finally fading,” Mia says, bouncing Ayla in her arms, glad to have a rare downtime that she can spend time with the little ones. “Of course, you’re exhausted. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of them, I promise,” she says, and she turns to Nicholas, who’s talking to Elio in a soft voice, on his throne of pillows, Joe the corgi back at the baby’s side.

 

So they take that chance to rest, and Joe holds Nicolo in his arms, sighing softly, smiling.

 

“You know,” he starts, making Nicolo look up at him with half-lidded eyes. “It’s good that this happened now.”

 

Nicolo blinks, tilting his head slightly. “What do you mean?” he asks, voice soft and small. Joe leans down to kiss his hair, and then his temple.

 

“Well, they’re not even a year old. The likelihood of them remembering this, Elio being ill, Ayla being separated from him, is very little. And that’s a good thing, right?” he asks, and Nicolo takes a deep breath, nodding.

 

“It is a good thing,” he says, voice soft, before he presses his head back on Joe’s chest, sighing. He goes back to laying there, quietly, just running his hand through his hair, his eyes starting to feel heavy.

 

“Yusuf?” Nicolo whispers, after a moment.

 

“They’ll really forget it all?” he continues, and Joe just hums, feeling himself slowly slide into sleep.

 

“They just might,” he slurs out, pressing his face into the pillow, barely noticing then that Nicolo just went quiet, rubbing his own chest as he sighs, melting against Joe.

 

***

 

vii: you love me, even as i fail?

 

Nicolo has the most beautiful laugh, and Joe wants to hear it, again and again.

 

He lets his charcoal glide over paper, taking in the picture-perfect scene in front of him: Nicolo with his back to the headboard, each twin balanced on his thighs, and they seem to be having the world’s cutest staring contest.

 

That is, until Elio reaches out and grabs Nicolo’s nose.

 

“Papa!” he squeals, and Ayla giggles into her hands, bouncing, copying her brother.

 

“Papa!”

 

“That’s right, Papa’s here and Papa loves you,” Nicolo says, and he smiles so brightly at his own words. Like there’s a part of him that is still so amazingly shocked by it. Then he leans in and kisses their faces interchangeably that they squeal in delight.

 

“Never forget that I love you, little ones,” he says, and he’s nuzzling their faces, holding them close throughout.

 

“Your Papa will tell you every day and night, and your Baba will tell you every afternoon and evening,” Joe says in a sing-song voice afterwards, and glances to find Nicolo smiling weakly, sighing.

 

“Must we go back to our duties, Yusuf?” he asks, and Joe stops then putting down his work.

 

“I have to, my love,” Joe says, biting his lip. His parents have been kind, and they never asked him to come back, but he knows that he is needed, even all the way from Genovia. “You don’t want to?”

 

Nicolo shakes his head, shrugging a little as he faces their children again. They’re babbling to each other as they stay in their Papa’s arms, satisfied and happy. “I want to stay with them, I want to spend as much time as I can with them,” he says, looking down.

 

Joe watches him then, and sees that he’s looking down, chewing at his lip. “Nicolo,” he starts, moving so that he’s closer to them now. Then he reaches over and grabs his hand, frowning when it feels clammy under his touch. “Are you not well?” he asks.

 

His beloved avoids his gaze, taking a deep breath. Then he shakes his head, minutely and Joe’s heart drops.

 

“What ails you?” he asks, trying to stay calm, squeezing his hand, making Nicolo finally look up at him.

 

“I believe I just need rest?” Nicolo mutters, tilting his head back a little towards the headboard, sighing. The little ones follow him, and Ayla lays her head on Nicolo’s chest now, Elio leaning against his twin. His beloved just laughs, letting go of Joe’s hand to rub the twins’ back with both of his.

 

“Please be honest with me, Nicolo,” Joe whispers softly, and frowns when his beloved flinches, turning to him then.

 

“I am, Yusuf,” he says, and his voice is low, and it’s clear that he’s unhappy, staring at him now. “I’m tired, and I want to stay with the little ones.”

                

“Do you need me to call your doctor?” he asks, and Nicolo turns to him then.

 

“I’ve been communicating with her regularly,” he says, and Joe blinks. Nicolo has been communicating with his doctor regularly? What? Surely that’s not true, he’d know.

 

When he keeps quiet, Nicolo frowns. “I’m not lying to you,” he says, and Joe bites his lip, feeling ashamed.

 

“I didn’t say that,” he starts, but Nicolo shakes his head, lifting his hand from Elio’s back to put a hand in front of his face.

 

“Then say it. We are not misunderstanding each other. We are past that and I will not do it again. What are you thinking, Yusuf?” he asks, making Joe blink. Nicolo puts his and down then and raises an eyebrow.

 

“I didn’t know that you’ve been in touch with your doctor. Were you not feeling well?” he asks, and Nicolo sighs, taking a deep breath.

 

“Ever since Elio fell ill, I haven’t been feeling well. You know this, but I’ve been trying. Once he came home from the hospital, my doctor had been calling me, checking on me weekly, making sure that my medication is on point,” Nicolo explains and Joe tries to think back of the past few weeks, the past month.

 

And nothing comes up.

 

“Have I been missing things?” he whispers, and Nicolo looks at him then, one hand grabbing his and squeezing it.

 

“It’s been overwhelming, but no, not really,” his beloved says, smiling weakly.

 

“Not really?” he asks, and Nicolo smiles.

 

“Yes,” Nicolo says, tugging on his hand now, and demanding him to come closer. So, Joe does as he’s told, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, and tangling their legs together, Elio spilling over to him instead, laying his tiny head on his chest now, Ayla reaching over for Elio’s hand, and they settle, once connected.

 

Nicolo sighs softly, laying his head on his shoulder. “I could see that it overwhelmed you. You were focused on everything that had to do with the children. Then when we had a little downtime, you’d get quiet, and have a blank stare,” he says, and Joe gulps.

 

What?

 

“I missed things?” he asks, and Nicolo shakes his head. “No. Not at all. I just…noticed a difference,” he says and Joe whimpers, unable to help it.

 

Nicolo turns to him then, and kisses him softly. “I will tell you, but do not let it crowd your heart. There is no reason. I am not angry, nor upset. It makes sense, okay? Promise me, my heart,” Nicolo says, and Joe shakes his head, kissing him softly.

 

“You know I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” he whispers, gasping against his lips. “Have I broken my promise to be there for you, Nicolo?”

 

“Never, my love,” Nicolo says, and it’s a comfort that he said it without hesitation. For if he had, every millisecond would stab at Joe, again and again. But there was none of that. Never. 

 

For his Nicolo is too kind.

 

“What have I done?” he asks, and Nicolo growls, shaking his head, and biting at his bottom lip, and tugging and Joe snorts.

 

“Not in front of little eyes, beloved,” he says, and laughs again when Nicolo’s face scrunches up in dismay.

 

“Yusuf,” he says simply, and Elio looks up at Nicolo then, and when he turns to look up at Joe, his tiny little features were scrunched up the exact same way.

 

“Baba,” he squeaks out in the exact same tone as Nicolo, and Joe loses it, then.

 

“Oh! Oh I cannot take this. Two adorable faces, trying to be angry. It’s just…” he says, stroking his hand in Elio’s curls until the little one settles on his chest again, facing Nicolo now.

 

The man is just shaking his head, smiling weakly.

 

“Are you done?”

 

“Yes,” Joe promises, taking his hand and squeezing. “Please, tell me.”

 

Nicolo stares at him for a little bit, before taking his hand, and carefully intertwining his fingers with him.

 

“What did I do, beloved?” he asks, keeping his voice soft, because he can hear Elio breathing softly against him, and it may very well mean he’s fallen asleep. Ayla’s the same, her cheek squished against Nicolo’s own chest, already drooling. But she still has Elio’s hand in hers, ever her brother’s protector.

 

“You watched over our world,” Nicolo says, smiling at him as Joe looks up. “So you didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

Joe stares, before he takes a deep breath. Oh.

 

“But something changed,” he mutters, and Nicolo nods then, looking down at the hands and squeezing his hand.

 

“You’d notice if I even so much do this,” he says, putting his free hand on his chest, and Joe’s heart drops. “But when Elio was ill at the hospital…it’s like your focused shifted. I noticed, because it was on me before, and then it wasn’t,” he says, smiling, looking at Joe with kind eyes.

 

“I had thought at first that it was overwhelming you, everything that had been happening. Like it couldn’t hold your attention because you were worried, but then you remembered everything that Elio needed, every step in his recovery, every appointment from now till later into the next six months. It was holding your attention, but it’s shifted,” he says, squeezing his hand.

 

Shifted?

 

“You’re a Baba now,” Nicolo whispers, bringing Joe’s hand to kiss his fingers, his lips brushing against his rings, and he sighs. “I was so glad to have you by my side to watch over our Elio. Even when you couldn’t change his bandages, you knew exactly when I needed to, or when we needed to call his specialist. You’re amazing Yusuf.”

 

Oh.

 

Joe gulps, taking a deep breath. “I don’t…remember the last time I asked you if you took your medication,” he whispers, and Nicolo just smiles, laying his head on his shoulder.

 

“It’s alright, my heart. I’ve been taking it every day,” he says. “I promise.”

 

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve talked to your specialist,” he adds, gulping, tears coming to his eyes. Joe had made a point to always keep her in the loop, so that they’re always in the same page when it comes to Nicolo’s health. He doesn’t remember doing that, since Elio got sick.

 

“Remember, my love? I’ve been talking to her,” Nicolo says, glancing up at him now, and Joe catches just as he frowns, sitting up, putting a gentle hand on Ayla’s back as he does. “Oh my love, please don’t cry.”

 

“How could I?” he moans out, and Nicolo reaches up to wipe at his tears.

 

“What? Love me?” his beloved says with a smile because he is too precious, too sweet. He is underserving of this.

 

“Nicolo…please. Are you alright? I’ve left you alone with this, how could I?” he asks, his voice hurried now, and his tears won’t stop. Nicolo just shakes his head again, kissing him softly.

 

“As I said, I need rest. I feel tired, but that’s to be expected. We continue to change medications, when we must. Just one dose up, since the last time you talked to her,” he says and Joe whimpers. He missed a dosage change, fuck.

 

“Nicolo—” he starts, and his beloved just shakes his head, putting a finger to his lips.

 

“My love. I am being honest. That’s why I don’t want to go back to my duties. I want to stay here, and rest, and be with my children,” he continues, smiling at him. Joe nods then, leaning in and sighing, pressing his forehead against his.

 

“I left you alone,” he whispers, and Nicolo shakes his head.

 

“You were by my side, caring for our son.”

 

“To deal with all of this, Nicolo. You shouldn’t have been alone,” he whimpers, and Nicolo sighs against his lips, kissing him gently.

 

When he pulls away, he smiles. “I wasn’t alone,” he says, and Joe blinks.

 

Huh?

 

“That insufferable bother, was with me the whole time,” Nicolo says, rolling his eyes fondly, and laying his head on his shoulder again. Joe’s eyes widen.

 

“Nicholas.”

 

Nicholas who has been with them a lot since Elio came home. Who is the only person who held Elio while he was recovering? Who would ask Nicolo, out loud, without fail, if he had taken his medications, regardless of whoever was in the room.

 

Then Joe remembers the first time Nicholas found out, and how he was in near tears, not understanding why Nicolo would hide such a thing from him, and his words to him afterwards. Joe feels a smile on his face then, letting out a breathy laugh.

 

“He kept his promise,” he whispers, and Nicolo hums then, kissing his cheek.

 

“The insufferable one said to me, ‘I promised that husband of yours I’ll look after you. He might not notice right now, but I do, so you have to keep going,’” Nicolo whispers, shaking his head.

 

“Husband?” Joe whispers, smiling.

 

“You are my husband, Yusuf,” Nicolo says factually. “And my husband is allowed to be a father when life overwhelms, because I know he’ll be there to catch me if I ever fall.”

 

“I will never let you fall,” he whispers, reaching to tilt his chin towards him, kissing him softly. “You willingly marry a mess like myself, beloved?” he asks, and Nicolo just leans in to kiss him.

 

“I willingly marry my heart, my world, my life,” he says, against his lips, and Joe sighs.

 

“I don’t deserve you, my love,” he whispers, kissing his beloved Nicolo again.

 

“Dearest Nicolo, of all the things you say, kind heart,” he sighs out, after a breath, taking a moment to look into his eyes.

 

“You’re all, and you’re more.”

 

***

 

When he calls his Mama and Baba to tell them that he’s finally going to ask for Nicolo’s hand, they tease him for taking so long, and tell them that they love him even though he’s been so slow about the whole thing.

 

Mia screams his ear off and hugs him so tight that Joe swears he bruised a rib. Nicholas just rolls his eyes and just smirks.

 

“Finally,” he says, the little shit, so Joe raises an eyebrow, glancing at Mia, and then back at him. The man flushes red and puts his hands up. “Touché.”

 

Clarisse gives her blessing of course, her eyes teary.

 

“That boy deserves the world,” she says, and Joseph snorts as he lets go of Joe’s hand after he shook it, smiling.

 

“And he’s getting it,” he says, confidently, smiling at Joe. “Prince Yusuf is that boy’s world,” he says, and Joe flushes red as Clarisse just smiles, and just agrees.

 

***

 

A few nights later, Joe hears Nicolo coughing from the nursery as he finishes getting ready for bed, walking over.

 

“Did you catch a cold, beloved?” he asks, frowning when Nicolo just keeps coughing, hurrying now when he hears him gasp.

 

He finds him standing between the crib, bent over at the waist, coughing into his hand. When he looks up, Nicolo’s eyes are wide, and his hand is wet, his lips are wet with something, and he’s gasping so hard like he can’t breathe.

 

Joe runs to his side in time to catch him, scrambling to sit him up as he chokes when he starts to go on his back.

 

“Y—You caught me,” Nicolo gasps out, smiling at him, and there’s foam on the side of his mouth, and he looks so pale, and what’s happening to his beloved?

 

“Nicolo, just hold on, okay, please hold on,” Joe whimpers, placing his hand under his back, and under his legs, hearing Ayla and Elio on either side of them, whimpering and fuck, he can’t. He can’t.

 

“Y—Yusuf,” Nicolo says, voice so soft, gasping when Joe lifts him in his arms, hand going to his chest. “Yusuf pr—promise me,” he says, and there’s tears and he looks so, so scared. He’s not trying to make him feel better, so it’s bad. It’s so bad.

 

“No. No Nicolo, stop this, stop,” he says, crying out when Nicolo starts to cough up more foam, and it’s pink and it’s on his shirt, and Nicolo’s and the babies are making noises beside them. The babies are crying behind him as he tries to get Nicolo out the hall, to get help from there.

 

“Yus—suf please,” Nicolo cries out, clutching his chest, and Joe stumbles, falling against the doors of their rooms, and a maid is at the hall, startling. Her eyes go wide, and Joe shakes his head, sobbing.

 

“Get help!” he screams, barely seeing her running as he looks down at Nicolo. “My love, you’ll be fine, please you’ll be alright.”

 

Nicolo just stares at him, smiling weakly with tears down his cheeks, shivering. “Promise me,” he starts, and his hand is shakily grabbing for his, squeezing so weakly.

 

“Don’t let them forget me,” he moans out, a sob ripping from him, and his back arches in pain and he coughs up more foam, choking.

 

“Nicolo…shh. Don’t, stop talking please stop,” Joe sobs now, feeling like his whole world is falling apart. He can hear his children screaming in their rooms, and there’s still no one coming. There’s no one coming.

 

“Yusuf don’t let A—Ayla and Elio forget me,” Nicolo begs. “I know y—you—” he stops, shaking his head. “Just don’t let them forget me. D—Don’t let them forget Papa loves them, please.”

 

And because Joe’s heart and mind is treacherous, he remembers his words to his beloved. Of how he was glad that Elio got sick when he did, because they won’t remember of this. Any of it. He remembers then that Nicolo went quiet, and just carried his words with him.

 

Until then.

 

“No—No they won’t ever forget you. Don’t listen to me, I was foolish, they’ll remember you, Nicolo, and they wouldn’t have to, because you’ll be here, you’ll be here!” he screams as Nicolo’s eyes start to go blank, staring up at him, gasping.

 

“I don’t want to go,” Nicolo gasps out, his head sliding over Joe’s shoulder, like he has many times before. “Yusuf, please…”

 

“You’re not leaving, my love,” Joe yells, looking up when he sees people rushing down the hall, rushing over to them. Nicolo gasps, and his body shivers for a moment, a soft whimper escaping him.

 

“I am finally happy, Yusuf,” he whimpers, frowning, his wet hand reaching over to Joe’s face, pressing shakily against his cheek. Joe grabs it, and squeezes it, shaking his head when Nicolo stares into his eyes.

 

“Am I not allowed to be?” Nicolo gasps out. Then, he exhales, his eyes sliding close, and Joe screams and he feels so raw, rocking him in his arms, just as people try to take him away, sobbing. “No, no, no!”

 

“Prince Yusuf—”

 

“Nicolo!”

 

***

 

viii: he’s all and he’s more

 

Heart failure. Cardiac asthma, resulting in sudden coughing up of pink foam. Fluid backing up from the heart to the lungs as the heart started to get weak, and couldn’t keep up at pumping blood to the rest of the body.

 

It’s bad enough that he needed surgery right away, after they stabilized him. They run tests; they find blockages. Within a day, he’s under the knife, and Joe’s waits, left with the memory of his beloved going limp in his arms.

 

No one says anything to him except to update him about his children, Mia and Nicholas quiet on either side of him. Clarisse and Joseph are with them. Someone says someone being on the way, but Joe stops listening then.

 

Mia takes his hand, and squeezes it gently. Joe doesn’t return it. Nicholas’ hand is grounding on his shoulder. He takes a deep breath and sighs, tears coming to his eyes.

 

“He knew something was wrong,” he gasps out, closing his eyes and seeing Nicolo’s face in his mind’s eye, so afraid. “He wanted me to make sure that Ayla and Elio didn’t forget him.”

 

The hand behind Joe’s shoulder moves to grip, and Nicholas lets out a shaky sigh, before sniffling. But he doesn’t say anything else. Mia moves closer, and hooks arms with him now, clinging close.

 

Joe shivers, opening his eyes and looking up at the ceiling, a sob ripping out of him before he could help it. He remembers his husband’s fear, so viscerally felt that he feels like it’s clawing at his chest.

 

“He asked why he wasn’t allowed to be happy,” Joe sobs out, and Nicholas is crying then, Mia whimpering beside him. Joe sniffles, and shakes his head, keeping his eyes up as he closes them.

 

“Please…I beg of you,” he sobs out, finally squeezing Mia’s hand, and leaning into Nicholas’ touch. As soon as he does, they come forward, and the hold him as he prays.

 

“You’ve kept me blessed, please extend your kindness to my beloved,” he gasps, gulping. “He is the most deserving out of all of us, and he deserves happiness. He deserves to grow old and guide his children to the path of goodness. My Nicolo deserves love for he gives it so freely. Please allow us to hold him. Please bring him back to us,” he sobs.

 

Joe doesn’t even know if this is a prayer. He just knows he needs to say it, he needs the world, the universe to hear it. And if it will keep his Nicolo by his side, then it shall be a prayer, to anyone who is willing to listen. “Please,” he says, sniffling and bowing his head, opening it blearily.

 

He turns to see Mia’s head down, and so is Nicholas’. They’re both crying, holding onto him. “Please,” Nicholas whispers, and so does Mia, and Joe knows then that they are begging along with him.

 

“Nicolo is loved,” he says, after a moment, closing his eyes again. “And he deserves to live to know it.”

 

***

 

They find out that the surgery is successful through Nicolo’s specialist. She greets them with a gentle smile, taking a deep breath.

 

“Prince Nicolo is resilient,” she says, smiling. “And that works in our favour. We’ve done the bypasses, and we’ve cleared it all. This is a new lease,” she says, and Joe feels like he might black out in relief.

 

“Woah, Yusuf, sit,” Nicholas says, and he blinks, and yeah, he nearly did black out. Nicolo’s doctor is frowning above him, the same with Mia, and he waves off the concern.

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine. My heart survived surgery,” he says, laughing to himself, and Mia snorts, shaking her head, while Nicholas laughs.

 

“Oh god it feels good to laugh,” he says, and Joe laughs then, looking at Nicolo’s doctor.

 

“A new lease? Truly?” he says, and the woman smiles softly. “A new lease. We still need to be careful, and we need to be conscious of his health, but as long as he remains as he mitigates his stress, and does what he’s been doing, then he should be fine.”

 

“So why? Why did it happen if he’s been so good at keeping up with his health?” Nicholas asks, and the doctor takes a deep breath then, looking at all of them.

 

“His heart had been strained for some time…it was only a matter of time. And with the tests before Elio got sick, he found nothing. It is very likely that the blockages happened during the whole thing,” she explains. She understands this, and so does Joe, remembering his confession that his heart might’ve broken when his parents and uncle passed.

 

“So, no one is at fault here. And that includes all of you,” she continues, and Joe blinks, wondering if his guilt was showing on his face.

 

“Hear that? You didn’t do anything wrong, Yusuf,” Mia says, and yeah, his guilt is definitely on his face.

 

He opts to nod instead. The doctor smiles back, and hums. “Also, there’s another thing,” she says, and Joe tilts his head. “Remember when I said he’s resilient?” she asks, and Joe nods, eyes widening, already knowing. She catches his expression and grins.

 

“Your husband’s already awake.”

 

And Joe’s so amazing ecstatic that he doesn’t even correct her.

 

***

 

Nicolo gives him a weak wave from the bed when Joe smacks straight onto the door, having ran and lipped as soon as he was able to get the room number.

 

His beloved is on oxygen, a tube down his throat. He’s not fighting it, which means he clearly needs it, his eyes still mostly closed. Joe runs to his bedside and grabs his hand, squeezing.

 

“I told you, you weren’t leaving,” Joe says, kissing his hand, just as the attending doctor enters, smiling.

 

“Prince Yusuf, I thought I heard a bang,” he says simply, and Joe flushes red.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and the doctor just shakes his head, walking over, and checking on the machines. There are way too many things attached to his beloved and he hates it so much.

 

“It’s no worries. I understand,” he says, and Joe is just glad that everyone in the hospital seems to care enough. “I’ll bring a cot for you,” he hears, and Joe just smiles, watching Nicolo’s face as his beloved falls asleep, like he’d only waken up to see him.  

 

***

 

The next morning, they take the tube out. Nicolo has to cough his way through and Joe nearly loses it, especially when he gasps out “Yusuf,” as soon as it’s over.

 

He feels like something’s going to swallow him from the inside when he feels a hand on his shoulder. A familiar, but long missed hand, that he hasn’t felt in so, so long. He sees Nicolo look up then, his eyes widening.

 

“Do not weep, habibi, for your beloved breathes,” he hears, and Joe turns, bursting into tears when he sees his Baba and Mama, and feels their arms around him, before his Baba’s words even sunk in.

 

“You’re alright now. Everything’s alright my love,” his Mama whispers against his chest. His Mama, their queen mother, is a tiny woman. Tiny and fierce and a formidable force. He pulls away then, and smiles at them, sniffling when his Baba wipes at his tears.

 

“What of home? Who—how are you here?” he asks, and his Mama smiles then.

 

“You said to me last that you thought Nasima is ready to lead. Well, this is her first trial,” he says, and Joe’s eyes widen, thinking of his sister.

 

“I am so proud of her,” he gasps, and Baba smiles at him then. Then he steps to the left, and laughs. “Now Yusuf, my love, get out of my way, I’d like to say hello to my other son,” he says, fondly as always, and Joe does as he’s told, making away.

 

“Hello Baba,” Nicolo whispers, smiling tiredly when the man presses a kiss on his hair. “What brings you here?” he asks, voice genuine, and his Baba just snorts.

 

“Nicolo asks why we’re here, Mama, why don’t you tell this boy then huh?” he says, rolling his eyes as Mama just slaps him on the arm and leans over Nicolo then, taking his hand.

 

“We’re here for family, child. I am so glad you’re alright,” she sas, and Nicolo hums, blinking slowy. Every time he blinks, he seems to be closer to sleep, so Joe stands then.

 

“He needs rest,” he whispers, and Mama lets go of Nicolo’s hand then, nodding.

 

“Alright. Baba will stay. Yusuf, you come with me,” she says, and Joe blinks, before leaning over and pressing a kiss on Nicolo’s forehead. “I will be back, beloved. Watch Baba for me,” he says, and Nicolo opens his eyes tiredly to look into his.

 

“I love you,” his beloved says, like he just knows that he needs to hear it. He gulps, and kisses him gently. “And I you,” he says, before moving away to hug his father, missing the man so much.

 

“I have him, habibi.”

 

***

 

“If you must weep, child, I am here to hold you.”

 

Joe blinks, looking at his mother. They’re outside, in the courtyards of the hospital. He didn’t even realize there were courtyards at the hospital. Whenever they were here, he had stayed inside, so this was the first time he’s seeing this side of it.

 

“Thank you, Mama,” he says, taking a deep breath, and sure enough, the tears start again.

 

His mother shifts, and she’s pulling him down so he can put his head on her shoulder. It’s a little awkward, since he’s so tall in comparison to her, but he finds comfort in it. He feels her familiar fingers through his curls, a memory from childhood.

 

“I might fall asleep if you continue,” he whispers, and his mother just hums.

 

“Something tells me that’s a good thing.”

 

They sit quietly for a long moment after that, with Joe just returning back to the feeling of being safe in his mother’s arms. He’s always been close to his family, and he was raised to understand what it’s like to be the man he is, without compromising his feelings. There is no such thing as feeling too much, and there is no such thing as being ashamed of said feelings.

 

Joe grew up healthy and beloved and adored, all the way to his young adult hood. To know that Nicolo’s childhood was not the same will forever break his heart.

 

“His heart broke to the point it failed, Mama,” he whimpers, taking a deep breath. “I wish my love could’ve prevented it.”

 

His mother sighs into his hair, and takes a deep breath. “But it is brand new now, yes?” she asks, and Joe nods, sighing.

 

“Yusuf, then this is a blessing. Yes, it hurt him, and he suffered, but there is no other way to go but up. And you will keep being by his side throughout, like you have from the beginning since you fell for him,” she says, and Joe closes his eyes then.

 

“He’s my beloved, Mama,” he whispers, and his Mama just sighs, squeezing him.

 

“And what do we do with our beloveds, Yusuf?” she asks, and Joe opens his eyes and looks down at his hands, at the rings on his fingers. He thinks of the ring that lays dormant in a box, under his bed because it originally fell there when he scrambled to hide it, then he ended up just leaving it.

 

“We cherish them. And make them ours, forevermore,” he whispers, and his Mama just kisses his forehead, and Joe knows, she’s smiling.

 

“There’s my clever boy.”

 

***

 

Nicolo comes home to much fanfare, and refuses to be in a room without his little ones close to him. He can’t hold them just yet, and won’t be able to hold them for quiet sometime since they are getting heavier by the day, so Joe holds them for him.

 

That is, if his parents ever let go.

 

“Mama, it’s my turn to hold my daughter,” he asks, sighing when he finds his daughter in his mother’s arms. “Nicolo is asking for them,” he adds, and smiles when she sighs, letting go.

 

“Fine, fine. Anything for Nicolo,” his Mama says, and Joe squawks.

 

“What about me—are these new earrings on Ayla again, Mama? Stop, you are spoiling her,” he says, shaking his head as he takes his daughter, who just giggles, looking back and forth between the two of them, before looking ahead as Joe brings her to their bedroom, leaving his parents behind, closing the door behind him.

 

“I found the other one, getting spoiled again,” Joe says, sighing as he sits. Elio is sitting in a throne of pillows beside Nicolo, hugging Joe the corgi. He then places his daughter in front of him, and moves Nicky the corgi in between them as well, making Ayla sigh and press his face on it.

 

Nicolo watches them with fond expressions, reaching over to stroke Ayla’s hair, smiling. “I like them, they suit her,” he says, voice soft.

 

Joe stares at him then, and takes him in, sitting in bed, his movements careful, as he watches his children, how he reaches for Ayla’s hair, or taps on Elio’s little hand as it curls in little fists over his toy. And he thinks, perfect.

 

He moves and reaches under the bed then, patting for the little box, and smiles when he feels it. Joe pulls it close and checks inside, smiling softly. It’s one of his father’s rings, one Joe was to inherit into adulthood. When he first saw it on him when he was a lot younger, he had asked, quite nervously, if he could instead give it to his future beloved. A ring passed onto him by his father, and his father before him, boasting of a large emerald stone.

 

His Baba had just blinked and smiled, kissed his forehead and told him when he’s ready, it’ll be there for him.

 

Joe smiles, and takes a deep breath, turning back to Nicolo, who was smiling at their children, leaning down so carefully to kiss their foreheads, hugging a pillow to his chest to support himself as he does.

 

“Beloved,” Joe calls, and getting back on the bed, his legs folded under him. Nicolo hums, and looks back at him, freezing when he sees him, eyes flickering down to the box in his hand.

 

“Yusuf?” he whispers, voice small. Joe smiles and leans in, taking his hand and squeezing it. Then he takes a deep breath and flicks the box open, holding it out.

 

“Nicolo, please forgive me for being a fool and waiting for so long to do this,” he starts, making the love of his life laugh weakly, pressing his chin against the pillow on his chest. “You said that it didn’t matter to you, that you already considered us husbands, and that we are good as married because you brought these angels into my life.”

 

He glances at the little ones and finds them looking up, Elio cooing at the box in his hand, Ayla moving her head a little, as if trying to see. Joe laughs, and turns back to his beloved.

 

“You are my beloved, Nicolo. You are my everything. My soul calls for you in the dark, and you are the star that guides me home, no matter how much I’ve lost my way. I have proven that I will lose myself if it means your happiness, but allow me to be selfish and ask that you be happy with me? That you give me the honour of being your husband? Forever and truly, Nicolo, I want you mine, not as considered but as fact. I want you as my husband, if you give me the honour,” he says, before sniffling, squeezing the hand in his again.

 

“You call me your heart when truly, you are mine. You are ours. You are the heart of this family, Nicolo, and I am honoured to call it mine,” he gets out, tears in his eyes now. “Will you marry me, Prince Nicolo Renaldi? Will you be mine?”

 

Nicolo lets out a soft laugh that sounds strained, tears streaming down his cheeks as soon as the sound escapes him, and he’s leaning in and his lips are on Joe’s and he’s kissing him so deeply. When he pulls away to gasp for breath, Nicolo grins, and looks at his lips, before looking up to him. “Yes, Prince Yusuf,” he says, sniffling. “I will marry you.”

 

Joe kisses him again then, and then gently slips the ring into Nicolo’s finger, it’s like it’s made for him. He intertwines their fingers then and laughs weakly at how perfect it looks against his hand, with his rings, and brings it to his lips, kissing his knuckles.

 

“I can’t wait to be your husband,” Nicolo whispers, staring at his hand, a few moments after they settle in bed with the little ones, after they squawked in protest after they went too long without attention due to their kissing.

 

Ayla’s playing with the ring already, while Elio’s grabbing Joe’s hand, and is currently trying to gnaw at his fingers. And honestly, Joe still thinks everything is perfect, leaning over Nicolo and kissing him again.

 

“I am your husband, my beloved Nicolo,” he says against his lips, smiling at his confused face, kissing him again with a sigh.

 

“But now, the whole world is to know.”