Nicky sighed as he watched the puddle of coffee spread across the paving stones, stepping back when it started creeping ever closer to his boots. He'd put himself at the risk of running even later for his lecture in order to dive into the coffee shop on campus and grab the latte that was going to substitute itself for the breakfast he hadn't had time to have that morning.
Only just managing to keep the books he was carrying under his arm, Nicky bent down and picked the now empty paper cup up, cursing softly when he managed to drip some of the coffee still clinging to it onto his jeans.
Throwing the cup into one of the bins lining the walkway, Nicky glanced at his watch before breaking into a jog. The class he was meant to be in started in five minutes and he was at least ten minutes away from the building.
It wasn't even as though he could blame anyone but himself. He stayed up last night sorting through the boxes that had arrived from Italy with his mother's things in. It had been seven months since the funeral, since he'd watched as her coffin was lowered into the ground, placing her next to his father. Seven months since he'd locked up the home he'd grown up in and got on a plane back to the States in order to try and continue his life. There had been letters from the lawyers looking after the estate and Nicky had finally had them ship her personal belongings over, and told them that he'd let them know if he was keeping the house or if he wanted it put on the market.
Part of him thought selling it would be the best option. He didn't think he'd ever be able to walk in there without seeing his Mamma with flour on her hands as she pulled yet another pie out of the oven and the entire house smelling of the cherries from the trees growing in the orchard.
He hadn't planned on opening the boxes, had thought they could stay stacked next to the bookcase until he was finished with his Masters, and he had both the time and the mental energy to go through them.
He'd managed to ignore them for two days before he'd been unable to walk past them yet another time. He'd been in a haze when he'd packed the boxes, and could barely remember what he'd put in each of them. Had he been thinking clearly, he'd have made a list to put on top of each box, detailing exactly what was in there, but his only thoughts at the time had just been to pack it all away and sort it out later.
The first box had contained his mother's jewellery, amongst other things, all kept in a battered box that had seen better days. The diamond ring she'd inherited when her grandmother had passed was next to the macaroni bracelet Nicky had made for her when he was seven. He knew the stories behind some of the pieces, and others, he couldn't even remember having ever seen before. He wasn't even sure which pieces were real and which were costume jewellery. There were some gold pieces in there that he'd never seen his mother wear, which didn't surprise him, as she'd always preferred silver.
Under the jewellery box had been several photo albums. He'd made coffee and settled on the couch with the albums. He'd run his fingers over the photo taken just after they'd got married. His mother and father standing on the steps of the town hall, arms wrapped around each other and both smiling like they'd just been given the world. His mother had told him once that they hadn't planned on getting married, but circumstances had changed. Nicky had been born seven months later, so it wasn't hard to work out exactly what those circumstances were.
There were photos of him being held by his parents, a small bundle wrapped in a blanket with both of them smiling down at him. Photos of his first birthdays and Christmases, of him being held by his father like he was the most precious thing the man had ever been given.
It was strange looking at the photos, seeing him being held by this man with the same shade hair, and a nose that Nicky definitely inherited. He barely remembered his father; he was only three when the car crash that took him from them happened. There was a memory of a low voice, and being held against a strong chest as the man sang lullabies, but Nicky didn't know how much of it was an actual memory, and how much of it was filled in by the stories his mother used to tell him.
He'd carried on looking through the boxes, memories surfacing as he did so, and by the time he'd thought to look up at the clock it was nearly three in the morning, and he was looking at less than four hours sleep in order to be up in time to make it to his early lecture.
Which had led him to where he was, without breakfast, without coffee, and hurriedly pushing open the door to the lecture hall, and anticipating everyone turning round to see who had just interrupted them. So he was surprised when the only thing that greeted him was the sound of chattering voices and Nile waving at him from her spot on the front row with the seat next to her still empty.
"You're lucky," she said, as Nicky slid into the empty seat, shrugging out of his jacket and pulling his notebook out of his bag, "he's running later than you are." Her nod towards the empty podium at the front of the room telling Nicky which he Nile was referring to. "Oh, and the two messages waiting on your phone are both from me, asking where you are," she added with a grin. "Why were you late, anyway? It's not like you sleep through your alarm? Unless you had a hot date last night." She paused. "I hope it was a hot date; it's been too long since you've been on one of those."
"I wish," Nicky replied. The last date he'd been on had been six months previously and his then boyfriend of a year had taken him out with the express intention of telling Nicky he didn't think it was working out and maybe they should call it quits before they got any more involved. "No, Nile, no hot date." He paused. "I ended up going through some of the boxes from my mother's house last night and simply lost track of time."
Nile reached out, placing a hand on his arm. "Oh, Nicky, I'm sorry. That must have been rough."
Nile had only transferred in a month ago, moving from Chicago, where she'd used to live. She'd sat next to Nicky on her first day there, and invited him for coffee afterwards. "My treat," she'd said, "so you can catch me up on which professors to avoid."
They'd ended up talking for hours, Nile telling him that she'd lost her father when she was only 11 after he'd told her about losing his mother, and saying that if he ever needed someone to talk to, especially someone who'd been there, then she was there for him.
"It was the photo albums that got me," Nicky said. "There were photos of my parents I'd never seen before, taken before I was born. And the ones of my father. He died when I was so young, and I never realised how much I look like him."
Nile looked at him sympathetically, but whatever she was about to say was stolen by the door opening and their errant professor finally arriving.
Nicky blinked as he walked out into the sunlight, his eyes trying to adjust from spending the morning in a room with no windows and muted light.
"What are your plans for this afternoon?" Nile asked, as they headed down the steps, away from the building, and trying to avoid the groups of people heading inside for the next round of lectures and classes.
"The library," Nicky answered. He had a late meeting with his advisor, but not for another few hours. He could head home and come back to the campus later, but his mind was still on those boxes, and he knew that if he went home, his laptop would be put to one side, and he'd end up trying to sort through more of his mother's things. At least in the library, he wouldn't be tempted by anything apart from the truly terrible coffee that the cafe in the library basement sold. "You?"
"I'm meeting a friend for lunch, and then I'll see what the afternoon brings," Nile said. "Which is probably going through the last set of comments I got on that damn paper."
Nicky smiled in sympathy. It was the same for him, just when he thought he'd worded a section of his thesis exactly how he needed to, he got notes back saying expand this-- or clarify that--
He walked with Nile, both of them heading towards the library, until Nile stopped, a smile on her face as she waved to someone.
Following the direction she was looking Nicky found himself wanting to congratulate Nile on her choice of friends. The man who had raised his hand in response to Nile's wave was leaning against a black car, apparently ignoring the glances that were being thrown in his direction by some of the people walking past him. His legs were crossed at the ankle, which was possibly the reason the dark jeans he was wearing were showing thighs that blatantly belonged to someone who worked out. The t-shirt under the leather jacket that stretched across broad shoulders almost had Nicky asking if Nile's friend was a) single, b) into men, and c) into perpetually tired Masters students who gave amazing blowjobs. (Nicky didn't feel like he was bragging, but he'd sucked enough cock by this point in his life that he was pretty good at it.)
"Hey, Joe," Nile called, heading towards her friend and not saying anything about Nicky trailing after her, even though the library was in the opposite direction.
"Nile." Joe smiled as he took off the sunglasses he was wearing, and oh, that was just unfair. Dark eyes and a tidy beard and curls that looked so soft Nicky had to clench his hand to stop himself from reaching out and running his fingers through a total stranger's hair. And maybe Nile had been right with her comment earlier. It really was too long since Nicky had been on a date.
"Joe, this is Nicky," Nile said, waving absently in Nicky's direction. "Nicky, Joe, one of my friends."
"Hello." Joe turned his smile in Nicky's direction, and, yes, definitely unfair.
"Nice to meet you," replied Nicky, hoping his tone didn't sound like the only thing he was thinking was how Joe's beard would feel on his thighs.
A beat passed, the moment stretching into awkwardness before Nicky stepped back, waving behind him. "Anyway, I should head to the library. I need books. From the library." Just stop, Nicky thought, just stop talking.
"Libraries do tend to be good for that sort of thing," Joe commented lightly, the teasing lilt in his voice taking any sting out of the words.
"Yes, right." Nicky pointed his thumb behind him. "Library."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Nicky," Nile said, resting her hand briefly on Nicky's arm.
Nicky nodded, taking the opportunity to turn and flee from the car crash he was leaving behind him. He could almost imagine the conversation going on. "Seriously, Nile," Nicky muttered to himself, knowing that he was nowhere near the ridiculously attractive timbre of Joe's voice, "out of every other candidate, you chose to be friends with that one? Well, you see, Joe," Nicky responded to himself, pitching his voice slightly higher in an approximation of Nile, "I'm a good person and he looked like a sad panda in the corner, all alone and friendless."
Stopping for a moment, Nicky closed his eyes briefly. Maybe he should take some time off. Between losing his mother, and writing and re-writing and re-re-writing parts of his thesis, it felt like he hadn't stopped these past months, the days just blending into one long stretch of having to do everything and do it by yesterday.
It was tempting just to put it all down, just move it all to the side and take a week for just him. A week of actually cooking, instead of living on takeout, and going to that new club that had opened so he could dance the night away under flashing lights and a pulsing beat. Maybe he'd find someone to take him home and fuck him hard, to lose himself in the solid planes of a hard body. (Nicky tried to ignore that the first image that came to mind when he thought of that was a friendly face with a dark beard and brown eyes.)
Yes, he decided. He'd get the rest of the week out of the way and then take a few days for himself. Some good food and some, hopefully, good sex, and Nicky would come back refreshed and ready to face everything that would still be waiting for him.
Happy with his decision, Nicky climbed the steps to the library and prepared to lose himself in the books until it was time to meet with his advisor.
Kicking the door closed behind him, Nicky dropped his backpack to the floor. He really needed to go shopping, but he couldn't face going out again. Between the hours he'd spent at the library and then the meeting with his Masters advisor, which had managed to stretch out into over two hours, all Nicky wanted was to crawl onto the couch and forget the world existed for a while.
Scrubbing a hand over his eyes, and hoping that the pinched feeling at the back of his head wasn't going to bloom into a full-blown headache, Nicky headed into the kitchen. The front of the fridge was the most decorated part of the apartment, covered in magnets and postcards.
He reached out to open the fridge, his hand stopping in mid-air when he saw the picture of the Basilica of St. Anthony. His mother had gone there the previous year and sent him a postcard that had taken a month to reach him. The only thing she'd written on the back was So beautiful!. It was still strange, having to wrap his mind around the fact that he'd never get random postcards from her again. He'd never answer his phone at 3:00am because she'd seen something she just had to tell him about and had completely forgot about time zones being a thing.
Tearing his gaze away, he opened the fridge and looked inside at the open jar of olives, the pot of yoghurt, and the remains of the pizza he'd ordered two days previously.
Pizza it was, then.
Pulling the box out of the fridge, he headed back towards the couch. Dropping the box onto the table, Nicky toed off his boots before letting himself sink into the comfort of a couch that had seen better days.
He could already hear his mother's voice in his head, berating him for not only eating the travesty that Americans deigned to call pizza, but for eating it cold. Ignoring the Nicolò, really-- in his mind, he took a slice out of the box and held it in his mouth while he leaned over the couch to grab his backpack. Glancing at the clock while he got his laptop out and started to boot it up, he chewed on the slightly rubbery pizza, figuring he could get at least another page added to his thesis before bed.
Groaning softly as he turned over, Nicky reached out to turn the alarm off on his phone, the beeping steadily getting louder the longer Nicky ignored it. Untangling himself from the duvet and kicking it to the bottom of the bed, he swung his legs out of bed and sat up, rubbing the back of his neck.
He was grateful that he had a slightly later start than normal, as it meant it didn't have to rush his shower, and could let his hair air dry as he drank his coffee. The last two slices of bread went into the toaster. Of course, since he hadn't done any shopping, he didn't have anything to put on the toast, but it was still better than nothing, and meant he didn't have to pay the ridiculous prices that the campus coffee shop kept trying to charge for breakfast. (Especially when the people that worked there kept trying to get him to add avocado toast to his coffee order whenever Nicky went in. It didn’t matter how many times he told them he didn't like avocados, they still kept trying to get him to buy it. He wasn't sure how they could remember that he ordered a caramel latte in the morning, but that he preferred vanilla chai if he called in on his way home, but consistently forgot his hatred of avocado.)
Shoving the last bite of toast in his mouth, Nicky looked at the laptop, sitting on the small desk, where he'd left it the previous night. He should really take it with him. He only had one class, and he should be out of that by 1:00pm. He could grab lunch (also avoiding the avocado salad, thank you) and then spend the afternoon in the library, outside of the still tempting reach of his mother's belongings.
Only, it wasn't as though he could avoid his apartment forever. No matter how many afternoons or evenings he spent in the library those boxes were still going to be there. Making a decision, Nicky left the laptop on the desk as he grabbed his bag and headed out with a plan already in mind. He'd come back that afternoon, work on his thesis for a couple of hours, before taking a break and sorting through one, just one, of his mother's boxes.
Nicky grimaced as he glanced down at his watch, wondering why it was lying and telling him that only 10 minutes had passed since he'd last looked at it, and not the 37 hours that it had felt like.
"Everything okay?" Nile asked quietly.
Nicky nodded. There was nothing wrong beyond the fact that he simply didn't want to be in that room, and certainly wasn't in the frame of mind to be sitting there for another two hours while his advisor answered questions from his other candidates that Nicky neither cared about nor needed to hear. (Even if Nicky was aware that it wasn't an entirely accurate assessment. Other workshops his advisor had held had been useful, with some questions being asked that Nicky hadn't thought about and could take and apply to his own work. There was just too much else going on in Nicky's life for him to be able to focus.)
He glanced back down at his watch. Four minutes. Damn it. Maybe he should have chosen to do his Masters in the phenomenon of time dilation fields instead of comparative religions and the shared origins within.
"Shit--" Nicky looked over at Nile, wondering what had caused the muttered curse. Her eyes were fixed on her phone, whatever she was reading on the screen obviously causing the frown on her face. "Shit, shit, shit--"
"Pack your stuff away," she replied. "We need to go."
Nicky shook his head in confusion. "Nile, you're not making any sense."
Her phone buzzed in her hand, and the frown got worse as she read the new message. "Now, Nicky, please." Her own things hastily thrown into her bag, she reached out and started grabbing the things in front of Nicky and shove them into his backpack.
The "Nile, what--" from Nicky clashed with the "Ms Freeman, is everything okay?" from their advisor, who had noticed the hurried packing.
Nile didn't answer either of them, the sudden noise outside of the door taking her attention.
"Damn it." Her thumb moved rapidly over her phone as she typed out a message with one hand and threw the last of Nicky's things into his backpack with the other. "We're leaving now," she said, picking up Nicky's bag and pushing it at him before grabbing her own and slinging it over her shoulder.
The commotion outside the room got steadily louder until the door slammed open and several people piled in, cameras and microphones in their hands.
"What the hell!" Their advisor reached the door in a few steps, trying to push the intruders out of his room, but there were too many, and they were too focused to do anything except slip around the sudden barrier in their way.
"Where--" "Prince Nicolò!" "There he is!" "Nicolò, how do you--"
Nile pushed away the microphone that had been shoved into Nicky's face, holding a hand up against the lights that had started to flash. Grabbing Nicky's hand, she tugged him towards the fire exit, slamming open the door and pulling him through.
"Come on!" she urged, never letting go of his hand as she all but dragged him down the steps of the building.
"Nile, what's going on?" Why were these people after them? And why were some of them calling him 'Prince'?
"I'll explain it all later, but for now, we've got to move." She looked behind them, a soft curse falling from her lips as people tumbled out of the fire exit after them, still calling and waving cameras.
A hand grabbed at Nicky's arm, tugging him back as he was momentarily blinded by the bright flash in his face.
"I'll take that, thank you," a gruff voice with a French lilt came from next to him, ignoring the Hey! from the man who had just had his camera plucked out of his hands.
"Nice of you to join us, Booker," Nile commented, as the newcomer - Booker, apparently - pulled the memory card out of the camera and snapped it in half, before handing the camera back to its owner.
"Pardon, Nile," Booker replied, falling in next to them, "but it took some time to get through the pests swarming around the library. It seems like the entire campus has been invaded." He neatly side-stepped another reporter, pushing the microphone that had been thrust at Nicky away. "No comment!" he snapped.
Nicky's gaze whipped between the two of them as they expertly manoeuvred him past the throng of people trying to get to him.
"Joe texted to say he was on his way," Nile said, but Nicky was sure she was talking to Booker more than she was to him.
"There!" Booker pointed to where the black car Nicky had seen the day before pulled up sharply and Joe leaned out of the window, waving at them to hurry over and get in.
Tugging Nicky the last few steps, Nile pulled open the rear door and half shoved him inside the car, slamming the door before running around to the other side and getting in. She leaned over him to lock the door just as another reporter reached them and tried to open the car door to get to Nicky.
"Go, Joe," Booker urged, clicking his seatbelt closed just as Joe peeled away from the sidewalk in a screech of tyres that had at least two of the people who'd been chasing them jumping out of the way to avoid getting hit.
Once his heart rate had dropped back down, Nicky looked at the other three people in the car with him. Joe was focusing on the road, and cursing about the three news vans that had decided to follow them.
Booker was on the phone to someone, telling them that they were "on their way back, should be--" He looked at Joe.
"Ten minutes, maybe less if this jackass gets the hell out of my way!" Joe's utter ire at the car in front of him had Booker rolling his eyes, like it was something he'd seen a thousand times before.
Who knew, maybe he had, Nicky thought. Maybe these three people who had decided to kidnap a broke Masters student did this on a regular basis.
"Ten minutes," Booker continued, "give or take Joe's driving." He ended the call and slipped the phone into his jeans pocket, looking back at Nile.
Nicky was tempted to ask them if they thought the look was subtle, because it certainly wasn't. "Can someone now please explain what's going on?"
"We will, I promise," Nile replied. "Just let us get where we're going, and everything will be explained."
Nicky huffed. Nile was lucky that he both liked her and had no desire to see if throwing oneself out of a moving vehicle was something that actually worked. (Knowing Nicky's luck, if he even tried it, he'd probably end up in hospital with a broken leg and a concussion.)
"Fine," he said, turning to look out of the window and watch the streets speed past, the residential area around the campus soon giving way to the suburban streets of one of the nearby areas. A community full of large houses behind cast iron gates that no doubt held middle aged people sipping mimosas by the pool and complaining that they only had 12 bedrooms.
A few more turns later, and they'd gone from the big houses to the really big houses, and the car pulled up in front of large, black gates with a brightly coloured crest attached. The guard standing there nodded at Joe before pressing a button on the intercom next to him. The gates slowly opened, allowing Joe to drive through.
Twisting in the seat, Nicky looked out of the rear window, watching the news vans that had been following them pull up before the gates closed and blocked them from his sight.
Nicky couldn't help but feel a little out of place as he followed Joe and Booker into the house, as Nile brought up the rear. The only words that he could think of to describe the place were assolutamente fottutamente enorme. The polished hardwood floor looked buffed to perfection and Nicky was sure every piece of art and pottery that he was walking past were all worth more than the yearly rent on his apartment.
The young man behind the desk near the door looked up as they approached. "Quynh's on her way down, and Andy--"
"Is already down."
Nicky almost took a step back as the woman who had spoken walked up to them. Her gaze moved over them all and Nicky felt like he should apologise for something. He didn't know what, but it didn't stop the feeling.
Her hand ran through her short, dark hair as Andy obviously decided she'd seen what she needed to and nodded at the other three. "The gate reports more news vans arriving."
"I think we're up to twelve, at the moment." The words were accompanied by the click of heels on the floor as another woman arrived.
The look on Andy's face softened at the newcomer, before she registered the words. She turned her attention to the man behind the desk. "David, tell the gate to double security."
The young man nodded and picked up the phone, already talking quietly into the handset when Andy turned back to them. "Quynh? The Queen?"
Quynh didn't need to answer, a set of footsteps heralding another arrival.
"I thought I'd let Quynh come down first, Andy. You do know how I like to make an entrance."
Nicky watched as everyone around him, with the exception of Andy and Quynh, stood a little straighter.
"Does that mean you just send me to check the lay of the land, Majesty?" Quynh asked, a small smile on her face.
"Of course, my dear," came the reply from the woman who had just entered, her hand reaching out to rest on Quynh's arm. "Between you and Andy, I never need to worry about a thing." She looked over at Nicky. "Well," she amended, "almost never."
Nicky stared at her as she spoke, feeling a hint of recognition. Something inside him said he should know who she was, but he didn't know why, or where he'd seen her before.
"I'm sorry for today," she continued, either unaware of Nicky's scrutiny or simply ignoring it. Nicky was pretty sure it was the latter. "Please believe me when I say this wasn't how I wanted this to go."
Which still didn't explain to Nicky what this was. "I don't understand," he said. "Why am I here and why am I being chased by reporters? Please, someone just tell me what is going on."
"My apologies, Nicolò. It's been a long time since we last met; I doubt you remember me." She stepped forward, holding her hand out. "I'm Catherine, Queen of Genovia." She paused. "Your grandmother."
"So, you're telling me that my father was a prince," Nicky said, absently thanking Quynh when she handed him a cup of tea.
The group had moved into one of the reception rooms, and Nicky wasn't sure if it was get them out of the way or if they'd taken one look at him after his grandmother - his grandmother - had made her pronouncement and decided they needed to get him to a seat before his knees gave out.
"Prince Antonio of Genovia." Catherine's voice softened as she said the name. "My only child."
Quynh reached out a hand from her position behind his grandmother's chair, laying a hand on the older woman's shoulder. Turning briefly to smile at her, Catherine patted Quynh's hand.
Catherine looked back at Nicky. "And since you are his only child, Nicolò, that makes you heir apparent to the throne of Genovia."
Nicky hoped he managed to hold back the squeak that seemed to want to make its way out of him, but the look both Nile and Joe threw him, as they stood against the opposite wall, told him he hadn't been entirely successful.
"I understand this is a lot to take in," Catherine commented, pointedly ignoring the huffed cough Nicky gave, "and you certainly didn't find out in the best way." She stood up and walked over to Nicky, waiting until he put the untouched cup of tea he was still holding on the table in front of him, and took his hands in hers. "One of the team will take you home while we work out how to best handle the reporters. Get some rest, and I'll send a car tomorrow. We can have dinner and I'll answer any questions you have." She looked over at Quynh as she stepped away from Nicky, waiting for the other woman to join her. "Well, then, Quynh, let's work out how to deal with those vultures outside, shall we?"
Their voices trailed off as the two women left the room, leaving silence behind them.
Only able to bear the awkward silence for a moment, Nicky looked up at Nile. "So, I take it you're not actually a Masters student, then."
"Not exactly," she replied, pushing herself away from the wall and taking a seat on the second sofa in the room.
"Nile, Joe, and Booker all work on my security team," Andy said. "We've been the ones watching over you these past weeks. Nile and Booker at the campus, with me and Joe taking the evening shifts."
"We got the better end of the deal," Joe commented. "It was pretty much sitting in cars, watching your apartment. Which reminds me, you really should socialise more often. Sitting at home every evening is not good for you."
Nicky laughed self-deprecatingly. "I'm in the final stretch of my Masters with plans to go straight into my PhD, and my boyfriend dumped me six months ago. Believe me when I say there is no socialising in my near future. Not unless you count a hot date with many, many library books."
"Never say never, Your Highness," Joe replied, with a grin.
Nicky winced at the words. "Oh, that is going to take some getting used to."
"Also, some of those books weren't too bad," Booker commented. "The librarian, on the other hand…" he trailed off slightly. "She side-eyed me every day I was in there. Pretty sure she thought I was going to steal every book I took off the shelf."
"Booker tended to keep an eye on you whenever you were in the library," explained Nile.
"I never noticed," admitted Nicky, a little worried that someone had apparently kept watch over him for nearly a month and he hadn't noticed a thing.
Booker shrugged. "Most of the time your head was down and you were frantically writing or typing. You probably wouldn't have noticed a bomb going off next to you. Luckily, one didn't."
"Also," Joe added, a delighted grin on his face as he nodded at Booker, "this one tends to blend in with the books. Get it? Booker. Books." He snorted at his own joke, ignoring the many eye rolls in his direction and focusing on the slight smile Nicky couldn't stop. The joke had been terrible, but fitted in perfectly with the rest of Nicky's day.
Joe held a hand to his heart. "You all wound me."
Andy smirked as she nodded towards Nicky. "At least you're brightening Nicolò's day."
"Nicky, please." Nicky's voice trailed off as everyone turned towards him. Meeting the confused looks on everyone's face but Nile's, he explained further. "Nicolò makes me think of my mother yelling at me when I ran through the house with muddy shoes." He smiled at the memory of the exasperated tone tinged with amusement whenever he came tearing into the house from the garden, leaving muddy footprints on the tile floor as he went. "Everyone calls me Nicky." Not Nicolò, and certainly not Your Highness.
Joe nodded. "Nicky," he said, his lips wrapping around Nicky's name in a way that made Nicky wonder what his lips would look like wrapped around other things.
Standing up from the sofa, Nile clapped her hands together, nodding her head towards the door. "You driving, Joe?" she asked.
Nicky shook his head. "No need. I can walk back, it might help clear my head a bit."
"Nicky," Andy said patiently, "if you go out, you'll be surrounded by reporters as soon as you step foot outside the gates." She paused slightly. "If I'm being honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with you going home." She waved a hand in the general direction of outside. "If they tracked you down to the campus, the odds are they know where you live."
Andy had a point. But it's not like anyone would be able to get into the apartment block without a key, and Nicky couldn't see any of his neighbours letting a bunch of reporters in. Hell, he'd lived there for nearly two years and the one time he forgot his key, it took him 20 minutes to persuade someone to let him in.
"I don't have any clothes with me, and my laptop is still at my apartment." Nicky had no problem staying for the night, in theory, but he tried to live his life with a few simple rules, two of which were 'don't tempt fate with deadlines' and 'don't wear other peoples' underwear'. He needed to send a thesis update to his advisor tonight, and he couldn't do that without his laptop. He also wasn't exactly dressed for dinner with a Queen, regardless of whether or not she was his grandmother.
"I can always take him out the back way," Joe suggested. "I doubt if any of the news vans will have been able to get close. I'll only leave him if it looks safe to do so."
Andy pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Please," Nicky said. He knew they couldn't exactly keep him there against his will, but he also didn't relish trying to leave through the throng of reporters that had been gathering. "I need to send some updates for my thesis off tonight, and academia waits for no one. Not even royalty."
"Fine," Andy agreed finally. She looked at Joe. "Take one of the cars without diplomatic plates, keep a low profile, and if there's even a hint of reporters, bring him back here."
Joe grinned. "You got it, boss."
Nicky hunched down in the car as they pulled out of the garage and drove around the back of the house. Joe had handed Nicky the baseball cap he'd been wearing and his sunglasses, and told him to put them on.
Joe had been correct in that there were no news crews near the back entrance.
"It's all private property around here, so none of them will have been able to get down here. Add to that the multiple ways to get out and it means we're home free," Joe commented, as he pulled off into one of the streets.
There was silence for a few minutes, and Nicky could see Joe keeping one eye on him and one eye on the road.
"So, today's been a bit of a ride," Joe said eventually, and Nicky couldn't stop the snort of laughter.
"You can say that again," he replied. "This morning, I woke up wondering if I can last another two days before having to go and buy groceries, and now I'm heading back home to google the country I may become king of some day." Nicky looked out of the car window, watching as the houses went by. "I hadn't even heard of Genovia before today," he admitted, glancing at Joe to see how his revelation went down.
Joe shrugged. "Not entirely surprising, we're a pretty small country. Most people probably couldn't find us on a map."
"What's it like? Genovia?" Nicky asked. He wondered if his father would have told him about the country he was from, if he'd lived. There was so much he didn't know about that side of his family. His mother had never said that he couldn't ask about his father, but the few times he's tried talking about him, she'd get a faraway look in her eyes and try to hide the tears that sprang up at the thought of him. All Nicky knew was that his father had been estranged from his family. His mother's own parents had passed before Nicky was born, so it had really only ever been the two of them when he was growing up.
"It's beautiful," Joe replied. "Green and hills and countryside you can get lost in for miles. Sometimes, I'll take a couple of days and ride out to the lakes and watch the stars."
"It sounds wonderful."
Joe laughed. "It's also the kind of place where everyone in town knows everyone else, which means there's very little opportunity for a teenager to get into trouble without his parents knowing about it within minutes."
"There sounds like there's a story behind that," Nicky smiled, wondering what kind of havoc a teenaged Joe caused.
"Several," Joe admitted lightly, "and if you ever meet my mother, she'll be happy to tell you the embarrassing details of every single one."
Nicky was pretty sure that was the role of all mothers, to embarrass their children. He knows that his own had often taken pleasure in regaling friends in the village they lived in with all of Nicky's exploits as a child. The thought he had about asking Joe more about his apparent teenage tearaway years trailed off as he started to recognise the buildings they were passing.
They were only a couple of streets away from the building that housed Nicky's apartment, and he couldn't exactly ask Joe to take a longer way around, just because he wanted to chat some more.
Any thoughts of talking more fled as the car turned the corner into Nicky's street.
"Damn it," Joe muttered.
"Oh," Nicky said quietly, looking at what had Joe swearing. There were already several news vans parked in the street and journalists surrounding the gate to the steps to Nicky's building. Off to the side, someone with a microphone was speaking to the woman who lived in the apartment below his, and Nicky wondered what she was telling them, considering the only time Nicky had spoken to her since she'd moved in three months ago was thanking her for holding the door for him one day when he'd been carrying shopping bags and she'd been on the way out somewhere.
Joe drove past the throng of people, pulling into a side street. Scrolling through the display on the car's dashboard, he pressed a name, and the sound of a phone ringing came through the speakers before the call connected.
"What's up, Joe?" The voice Nicky recognised as Andy's almost sounded like she'd been expecting Joe's call.
"You were right, Andy," Joe said. "The building's surrounded by new crews already. I can't leave him here, it's not secure."
There was silence for a moment, and then another voice - Quynh, Nicky thought - came over the line.
"Bring him back here, Joe. I'll get one of the rooms made up. Nicolò, are you allergic to feathers?"
It was only when Joe raised an eyebrow at him that Nicky realised he'd been asked a question. "Sorry, what was that?"
"Feathers, Nicolò, are you allergic to them?" Quynh repeated, and Nicky wasn't sure if the tone in her voice was amusement or exasperation. "If you are, I'll get the pillows changed out."
"Not that I'm aware of," Nicky answered. He'd never actually had a feather pillow, so he wasn't entirely sure. He did, however, once stroke a duck and was fine with that, so he assumed it was all good.
"And any dietary requirements?" Quynh continued. "Vegetarian? Gluten or lactose intolerance? Allergies? Anything we should tell the kitchen to avoid?"
"I don't like avocado!" Nicky blurted out, part of him still stuck on the fact that there was a kitchen that needed to be informed of what to avoid.
There was a pause before Quynh's voice came back over the phone. "Okay, I'll tell the chefs to avoid avocado."
There was some muffled talking and then Andy was back on the line. "Quynh's gone to let the Queen know you're heading back. Bring him straight back, Joe. Don't antagonise the news crews."
Joe snorted. "When have you ever known me to do anything like that, Andy?"
There was a silence that spoke a thousand words. "Straight back, Joe," she reiterated before cutting the call.
"Well, you heard the boss," Joe commented, reaching out to start the car.
Only they couldn't go straight back. "I need clothes," Nicky said. "And my laptop." He'd only planned on being in for that one class, and hadn't wanted to drag the laptop to and fro, especially not since he'd been planning on coming straight back and working on his thesis some more. Only, his laptop was now being held hostage by the news crews surrounding the front of his building, and it was the only place he had his thesis. Except for the copy he had on a back up USB drive. Unfortunately, said USB drive was currently in the drawer of the desk his laptop was sitting on. (He could hear the voice of every important person in his life telling him how much of an idiot he was for not carrying a back up with him. And he agreed. But agreeing that he was an idiot still didn't get his laptop and the thesis he'd dedicated the last year and a half of his life to in his hands.)
Joe looked at him, and Nicky could almost hear the thoughts going through his head. Andy didn't sound like the kind of boss people made a habit of ignoring, but there was no way Nicky was leaving here without his laptop, and he'd push his way through any crowd of reporters, if he had to.
Sighing, Joe held out his hand. "Fine. Give me your keys. I'll go in and pack a bag for you. They don't know who I am. You stay here and lock the doors until I get back."
"I'd rather pack one myself," Nicky countered, all too aware that he hadn't made the bed that morning, and there was probably still the remains of the previous night's pizza on the coffee table. Besides, he hated other people packing for him; the last time someone had done so, it was his mother and he'd been twelve.
"Are you always this contrary?" Joe asked, the exasperation in his tone only pulling back at the last moment.
"No," answered Nicky, refusing to look away as Joe's eyebrow raised in disbelief.
"Well, you may not have grown up with her, but damn if you don't have your grandmother's stubbornness," Joe muttered. "I'm not taking you through the front," he said, his tone brooking no argument from Nicky, who didn't really fancy pushing his way through the throng of press they'd passed. "Is there another way in to the building?"
Nicky winced. "Yes," he replied, knowing he'd drawn the word out for far longer than it needed at the look on Joe's face.
"You have got to be kidding me," Joe said, staring at Nicky as they stood next to the high fence.
Nicky shrugged. Joe has only asked if there was another way into the building. He hadn't asked if it was an elegant way in.
"And no one thought to put a gate into the eight foot high fence?" Joe asked, obviously aiming the question to no one in particular. "No, of course they didn't. That would make life far too easy." He glanced at the car before nodding decisively to himself. "Right, I'll pull the car up to the fence, we get on the car, climb over, up to your apartment, get your stuff, and back. Yes?" He didn't actually let Nicky reply to the rapidly decided plan before getting back into the car and manoeuvring it as close to the fence as he could.
Getting out of the car, Joe paused for a moment before hopping up onto the trunk and then stepping onto the roof, beckoning Nicky to follow him.
"Are you sure it's okay to climb on the car," Nicky asked, scrambling up with far less grace than Joe had shown.
"Trust me, our feet are not the worst thing that's been on this car," Joe replied, looking over the fence and then back at Nicky. "There's nothing on the other side to climb down to, so it's going to be the full eight feet. You're, what, five eleven? Six foot?" he asked, continuing at Nicky's nod. "Put one hand on the top of the fence, hold onto me with the other and lower yourself carefully, then just drop the rest of the way."
Attempting to do what Joe said, and not focus on the way his muscles felt under that jacket as Nicky gripped his arm, Nicky was grateful there was no one watching, and that most, if not all, of his neighbours were probably at the front of the building being interviewed and saying god knows what about him.
Once he was safely over the fence, he looked up, about to ask Joe if he needed any help, when Joe landed quietly beside him, having simply jumped the full eight feet down to the ground.
"Which floor are you?" Joe asked, heading over to the old fire escape that snaked its way up the back of the building.
"Fourth," Nicky answered.
"After you." Joe motioned at Nicky to go ahead of him. It only took them a couple of minutes to get up to Nicky's floor, the window in his lounge next to the fire escape.
Gripping the window sill, he wiggled it slightly, then smacked it sharply on the top left, smiling when the latch released and let him open the window.
"The latch doesn't close properly," he explained as he climbed in the window, narrowly avoiding the half-dead ficus that Nicky was still hoping wouldn't become fully-dead.
"Nice place," Joe said, as he climbed him after him, his tone suggesting his words weren't entirely truthful.
"Thanks," Nicky replied, quickly grabbing the pizza box off the table and taking it through to the kitchen to stuff in the trash. Heading back through into the lounge, he waved in the direction of the bedroom as he walked past Joe. "I'll just go and grab some stuff."
Joe nodded, glancing at the books on Nicky's bookcase before taking one out and starting to flick through it. "Don't pack too much," Joe called after him. "We still need to get it back over that fence."
In the bedroom, Nicky took a minute to quickly straighten the duvet that was still at the bottom of the bed where he had kicked it that morning. Once the bed was sorted, he pulled his duffel bag out of the bottom of the wardrobe and threw it onto the bed. Grabbing his spare jeans and a couple of shirts, he stuffed them into the bag, not worrying about folding them. He threw in underwear and socks, as well a t-shirt and some shorts to sleep in, following it all with his hoodie. He probably didn't need the hoodie, but it was soft and warm, and the one item of clothing he usually wore when he wanted to feel surrounded by home.
Taking the bag into the lounge with him, he glanced at Joe, who was apparently still engrossed in the book about comparative religions in Europe in the middle ages that he'd pulled off Nicky's shelves. Retrieving his laptop from his desk, Nicky slid it down the side of the duffel, before going back and also grabbing the charger, the USB with his thesis back-up, as well as the three notebooks he'd half filled in with notes and comments. His gaze drifted to the coffee table, and the three photo albums sitting there. Before he could change his mind, he picked the top one up and added it to the bag.
"You done?" Joe asked, carefully returning the book back to its place in the book case.
"I just need some things out of the bathroom," Nicky answered, already walking in that direction.
"We can supply toothpaste," Joe commented loudly, and Nicky could hear the soft smirk in his tone. "We even stretch to body wash for people we like."
Ignoring him, Nicky quickly threw the bits he needed into a travel bag. (It was bright green and floral, and the only word Nicky could think to describe it was hideous. His mother had bought it for his birthday a few years ago. She'd handed it to him and told him that she'd seen it and thought immediately of him, and then burst out laughing at the look on his face before giving him the books she'd bought as his actual present.)
"All done," Nicky declared, waving the travel kit in the air as he walked out of the bathroom and ignoring the look of horror Joe gave it as he put it in the duffel and pulled the bag closed.
"Then let’s get out of here before one of those sharks out the front decides to try their luck getting in the back way," Joe said. He grabbed the duffel bag before Nicky had a chance to and swung it over his shoulder, heading to the still open window and climbing through it onto the fire escape.
Taking a quick final glance around to make sure he had everything, Nicky followed Joe out of the window, carefully closing it behind him and smacking the frame in the corner until the latch fell. It wouldn't keep out anyone determined, but it at least gave the impression of security.
Joe was already half way down the fire escape and Nicky hurried down the stairs to catch up, hoping there was no one in the apartments they were going past to notice the two of them had snuck into Nicky's.
Joe was looking around the back garden when Nicky got to the fence, quietly cursing to himself. "There's nothing to stand on to use to climb over the wall," he commented, carefully putting Nicky's bag on the ground beside him. "So, I'll boost you up and then pass the bag up to you once you're over."
Linking his hands together, Joe lowered them, indicating for Nicky to step on them.
"Are you sure?" Nicky asked, not entirely happy about effectively clambering over Joe.
Joe's only answer was a look that probably said more than words could, anyway.
Stepping up, Nicky put a foot into Joe's hands, only to discover he wasn't quite as ready for Joe to boost him up as he thought he'd been and totally missed grabbing the top of the fence. The yelp Nicky gave turned into a high-pitched yell as he kicked at Joe's hands without thinking about it, causing Joe to curse quietly and grab Nicky in the easiest place there was to lay his hands on, which turned out to be Nicky's ass.
"Hold the fence," Joe ground out, and Nicky could almost see the gritted teeth without even looking. Finally, Nicky managed to wrap his fingers around the top of the fence, and tried to ignore the heat from Joe's hands sinking through the seat of his jeans.
Shoving at Nicky's ass, Joe pushed him far enough up that Nicky was able to get a leg over the fence and all but fall over the other side and onto the roof of the car. Quickly getting to his feet, Nicky looked over the fence.
"I am so sorry," Nicky said, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt. The words trailing off slightly as Joe waved his apology away, leaning down to pick Nicky's bag up and hefting it above his head for Nicky to take.
Taking the bag off Joe and putting it next to him, Nicky leaned over the fence. "Do you--" But his question as to whether Joe needed any help died in his throat as he watched Joe jump and catch the top of the fence easily with his fingers.
The jacket strained over Joe's shoulders slightly as he lifted himself up enough to get a leg up and over the fence, pulling himself the rest of the way until he cleared it and dropped lightly onto the roof of the car.
Stepping onto the trunk and jumping down, Joe pulled Nicky's bag off the car roof and put it in the car, waiting until Nicky had climbed down before sliding into the driver's seat and moving the car far enough away from the fence for Nicky to get in as well.
Waiting for Nicky to fasten his seatbelt, Joe took a pair of sunglasses out of the glove compartment and put them on. Neither of them bothered to look at the news crews, still outside Nicky's apartment building and still talking to his neighbours, as they sped past, the haul from their successful breaking and entering on the back seat.
"I said 'straight back,' Joe." Andy frowned at the two of them. "Since when does breaking into the prince's apartment fall under 'straight back?'"
"It was my fault," Nicky said, flushing slightly at being called 'prince', although he supposed that's what he was now. "I wouldn't let Joe bring me back without getting some things I needed."
"I'm sure he could have got you back somehow," Andy pointed out, dryly.
"Pretty sure not manhandling the newest member of the royal family comes as part of the job, boss," Joe retorted. "Unless it's an emergency, of course."
Quynh rolled her eyes and shook her head in what was obviously fond exasperation at Joe's grin. "We've set you up in the Buckingham Suite," she told Nicky. "Andy and I are just across the hall, and if you need anything, ring 0 on the phone and it comes through to the reception desk down here, which always has someone on it. Since you're with us tonight, the Queen hoped you didn't mind having dinner with her, although you're also welcome to eat in your room, if you prefer."
"No, dinner with her is fine," Nicky answered. There were several things he wanted to ask his grandmother already, and it wasn't like he could avoid it forever.
Quynh smiled at him before looking over at Nile. "Nile, would you mind showing Nicky where his room is, please."
Nicky noticed the use of his nickname and wondered who had mentioned to her his preference for not being called Nicolò.
"No problem," Nile said, grabbing Nicky's duffel bag from where it was on the floor, and motioning for him to follow her.
When Quynh had said 'suite', Nicky's brain hadn't made the connection to a room bigger than his apartment was. The huge bed that would have dominated any normal sized bedroom looked ridiculously inviting, and part of Nicky was tempted to just sink down into it and nap, but he also knew that there was a better than good chance of him just sleeping through dinner if he did.
The lounge part of the suite had a full sized desk that looked more like it should have some 17th century noble using it, and Nicky was sure that if the wood could talk, it would no doubt object to Nicky sitting at it.
He wasn't sure if the notepad and variety of pens had been placed there for him, but he moved them to one side to make way for his laptop, keeping hold of the post-it note that had been stuck on top with the password to the wifi written on it so he could get onto the network.
Opening up his university e-mail, he ignored the 64 Unread Messages that greeted him. Usually, it was only his advisor who messaged him, or e-mails from the library telling him that a book he had put an inter-library loan request in for had come in. The past month, he and Nile had also taken to e-mailing each other random cat memes to brighten their days. Nicky couldn't help but feel sad that the day's events had most likely ended any further links to cats falling off walls or knocking things off tables like the little fuzzy assholes they were.
Quickly sending off the e-mail to his advisor that he needed to send, Nicky took a deep breath and started to check his inbox.
As he'd suspected, a lot of the e-mails had come in from reporters or magazines or TV networks. He barely had to read the first lines of most of them before sending them straight into the trash.
Prince Nicolò, we would love offer you exclusive…
Dear Mr di Genova, yours is a story the world wants to…
Nicolò, I work for NBC and we'd love to have you…
Your Highness, we will be publishing an article on you and we'd like to…
Clearing out all of the offers for him to 'tell his story' or 'give his side' dropped the number of unread e-mails in his inbox to a far more manageable level. Deleting the spam e-mails that seemed to always find him with the offers for both Viagra and bank loans, dropped it down even further.
He opened the one from the Dean of the university, skim reading the apology for both Nicky being confronted on campus and for not telling Nicky of the situation. But, apparently, when the Queen of a country asks you to keep something to yourself, it's seen as the done thing to oblige her.
In hindsight, it was obvious that the Dean had to know what was going on, if just to okay Nile transferring in. But if the Dean knew, then who else? Was he walking around the campus completely oblivious to dozens of people looking at him and knowing that his life was about to be upended and deciding not to tell him?
"Don't be so dramatic, Nicky," he muttered to himself, running a hand over his eyes. Yes, the Dean had to know, but that didn't mean that anyone else did.
Hitting 'Reply', he typed out a quick note saying he appreciated the Dean's situation (he did) and that he understood why he couldn't tell him what was going on (he didn't, but he was too polite to say that). He ended the e-mail saying that he probably wouldn't be back at the campus for a little while, given the situation (he didn't relish dodging reporters between buildings or being harassed for interviews in the library), and could they have a quick call to discuss the options.
And that left him with the last unread e-mail, the one he'd been wondering about since he saw the sender's name when he first opened his e-mail. Clicking on it, he started to read.
Nicky, my love…
Nicky couldn't stop the slight scoff. Michael certainly hadn't been calling Nicky that when they'd been sitting in a restaurant six months ago and Michael was telling him it wasn't going to work out.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about you since that night we decided to take a break…
Nicky blinked, re-reading the line. The utter nerve of him. They hadn't decided to do a damn thing, never mind take a break. Nicky had sat there while Michael had said that it was obvious they just 'wanted different things from life' and that it was best to break it off now before they got more invested in the relationship. It had been a year, Nicky was already pretty fucking invested.
We should meet up and have dinner. We can go to that little Italian restaurant you like…
Nicky frowned. The only Italian restaurant they'd ever been to was the one Michael's cousin owned, and Nicky hated it. From the overcooked gnocchi to the burned besciamella, it was obvious that every option on the menu was cooked by someone who had never set foot in Italy.
I'm sure you've missed me as much as I've missed you…
He missed the hoodie that Michael had borrowed and never returned, but that was about it.
Hitting the 'Delete' button with an obscene amount of force and gratification, Nicky watched as the e-mail from his ex-boyfriend vanished from the screen the same way the man himself had vanished from Nicky's life those months ago. Funny how something like discovering you were a Prince brought people scurrying out from the dark.
Closing the laptop, Nicky headed back towards the bed, grabbing his duffel bag from where he'd left it. There was still an hour until dinner, and spending the time under what he hoped would be amazing water pressure in the shower sounded like the ideal way to pass the time.
Nicky looked down at the table and frowned at the ridiculous amount of cutlery staring back at him. When Quynh had mentioned joining his grandmother for dinner, Nicky hadn't realised it was a multi-course affair that apparently needed three forks. He was starting to think that he should have told them he'd have a sandwich in his room and spent the evening googling Genovia, like he'd mentioned to Joe in the car earlier.
"Thank you for agreeing to have dinner with me, Nicolò," his grandmother said, from her position at the head of the table. It was large enough to hold about twenty people, but it was only the two of them there, Nicky sitting directly to her right. "I'm sure you must have a lot of questions."
That was the understatement of the century. He'd had questions running through his head ever since she'd held out a hand to introduce herself to him. But they really all pared down into-- "How?"
"I assume you're not asking about the mechanics of how you got here," Catherine teased lightly, laughing a small apology at Nicky's blush.
"I barely remember my father," Nicky admitted. "Mamma didn't like talking about him, after he passed. There were a couple of photos around the house, but the only thing she ever really told me about him was that they met on holiday."
"Yes," Catherine nodded. "She was on holiday in Genovia. Antonio used to like going into town, and from what I understand she literally ran into him in the street." Catherine got a wistful look in her eyes. "He came back to the palace, his shirt covered in the coffee she'd spilled on him, and talking about how he'd met the most wonderful woman. They spent every day of the rest of her holiday here together. When she went back to Italy, they carried on talking; letters, calls. He flew over to see her several times." She paused for a moment. "A year later he told me he was going to propose to her."
There was an undercurrent to his grandmother's tone that told Nicky she hadn't been entirely happy about that announcement. "And you didn't approve?"
"When he first told me, I assumed that your mother would move to Genovia. That they would get married here and Antonio would become king one day."
"What happened?" Nicky asked, because what his grandmother had thought would happen blatantly didn't.
"Elena didn't want that. She said that she could never see herself as a princess or a queen," Catherine said.
It didn't surprise Nicky. His mother was more the kind of person to have her hands covered in soil or paint, than to want to live in a palace.
"It came down to your mother or Genovia," Catherine said, "and he chose your mother." She glanced down. "The last time I saw him, spoke to him, was the day he left Genovia, after officially renouncing his title."
"You didn't stay in contact with him?" Nicky asked.
Catherine shook her head. "He asked me not to. Said that if I couldn't accept his decision, then I had no right to keep track of him. And I was angry at him, and your mother. Him, for turning his back on Genovia, and her for asking him to. I didn't understand why them falling in love meant that he had to move away, to start an entire new life." She looked at Nicky, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "I thought I would have time to get over my anger, and then it was too late, and I was on a flight to Italy for my only child's funeral."
Nicky reached out, taking her hand in his. He wasn't sure if she'd accept the comfort at first, wondering if he should pull his hand away when his grandmother didn't do anything, and then her hand turned in his, gripping it tightly.
"I didn't even know about you," she said. "I'd agreed to his request not to keep tabs on him. I suppose part of it was for me, as well," she admitted. "Not knowing what he was doing meant I could ignore that he'd walked away." She paused for a moment. "I was expecting to just see Elena at his funeral, and then I saw a little boy with his father's eyes and my grandfather's name."
Nicky's brow wrinkled in confusion.
"Nicolò was my grandfather's name," Catherine expanded. "He passed when Antonio was ten."
"Why didn't you let me know you were my grandmother? Why not keep in contact after the funeral?" Nicky asked. He barely remembered his father's funeral, too young to recall it as anything but his mother being sad, and a group of people at the house. There was part of him that wanted to say he recognised his grandmother from that day, but he knew that it was just as likely that he didn't.
"Your mother asked me to stay away," Catherine said. "I didn't want to. I'd lost Antonio to my own stubbornness, and in that grief, I found out that I was a grandmother, that he lived on in you." She patted his hand. "I think she was scared, worried that I would try to take you away, and no amount of reassurance on my part would soothe that fear."
Nicky felt cheated about that. So many of his friends at school spent weekends or holidays with their grandparents, talking about the amazing times they had and the presents they got, but Nicky grew up without grandparents on either side, and he can't help but feel a little bitter towards his mother that it was apparently due to the choice she made.
"After some discussions, I agreed with Elena that I would stay away until you were 25, and then we'd tell you everything about your father, Genovia, all of it."
Only, Nicky's 25th wasn't for another three months, and he doubted if him finding out by being swarmed by journalists was part of the plan. "What happened that caused today? Were plans moved forward due to my mother dying?"
His grandmother shook her head. "No, I still intended to keep my word. We had plans to invite you to the embassy, and everything would be explained. The timetable was moved up when someone found out about you."
"Who?" Nicky asked.
"Someone who worked at our Prime Minister's office," Catherine said. "Sebastien would be able to explain it better, but he discovered an e-mail had been sent to an American newspaper, claiming that there was a missing prince in their city, and asking for money for the information."
"Sebastien?" Nicky was sure he hadn't met anyone with that name.
Catherine smiled. "He wasn't christened Booker."
Right, Booker. One of the security team.
"Sebastien told Andy, who told Quynh, and the two of them brought it to me. Since the newspaper didn't have any names, Andy put together a plan. We spoke to the Dean of the university and put Nile in place, as well as Andy, Booker, and Joe." Catherine paused a moment. "We would have kept it that way, but there were indications that someone in the paper was close to finding out who you were. Quynh and I flew in a few days ago, and we'd made the decision to tell you, and then today happened."
It seemed like so much had happened that day that the morning seemed like weeks ago.
"I really am sorry for how this happened. I never intended for your entire life to be turned upside down," Catherine said.
Nicky wasn't sure how to respond. He was sure his grandmother wasn't so naïve as to assume there would be no fallout to Nicky's life, even if he'd found out the way she wanted him to instead of the way he had. He shrugged. "What's done is done," he said lightly. "The only thing to do now is move forward."
He glanced down to the seat next to him, his gaze falling on the photo album he'd brought down with him. It had been a snap decision to bring the album from his apartment, and then again to bring it down with him. He'd had to move it out of his duffel to get to the clothes under it after he'd come out of the shower earlier, and part of him thought his grandmother might like to see it.
Reaching out, he picked it up off the chair. "You said you didn't keep tabs on my father?"
Catherine shook her head. "No, I didn't."
He held the album out. "These aren't all of the photos; there are other albums, but maybe it's a start?" he offers.
Catherine's eyes were bright as she took the album off Nicky, the tears spilling over as she opened it to see the photo of his father holding him when he'd just been born.
She was still looking at the album when dinner was brought out.
Nicky stared at the ceiling, the ambient light from outside enough to cast shadows across the room. Rolling over in the, admittedly ridiculously comfortable, bed, he reached out to the bedside table, grabbing his phone from where it was lying. Thumbing the side, Nicky winced as the display lit up in the dark, blinking before he checked the time.
Putting his phone back, he rolled back over, kneading the pillows before flopping back down onto them. Dinner with his grandmother had gone surprisingly well, and he hadn't even made an idiot of himself by not knowing which fork to use. Or, at least, she hadn't mentioned it if he had. He'd come back to the room they'd given him, and spent some time deleting more e-mails from various news agencies and reporters, before he'd felt sleep creeping up on him.
He'd been yawning up until he'd got into bed, and then been wide awake and unable to sleep. His mind had just kept going over what had happened, how much his life had been turned upside down in less than 24 hours.
Turning over, he grabbed his phone again, already squinting against the light before it lit up.
Pushing the covers off him, Nicky got out of bed. Quynh had said that if he needed anything to ring down to the reception desk and whoever was manning it would get him whatever he needed. But it seemed a bit over the top to ring them just because he couldn't sleep. When he was a child and he couldn't sleep, his mother would make hot chocolate. She'd make two mugs, and they'd sit on the sofa, wrapped in blankets. Nicky could never remember how the nights ended, but he always woke up in his own bed the next morning.
Padding over to the door, Nicky slowly opened it. The lights in the hallway were low, but still more than enough to see by. He headed to the end of the hall and around the corner, passing a multitude of doors before he came to the stairs. The carpet was plush under his feet, and Nicky couldn't help but wiggle his toes in it before heading downstairs. Stepping onto the hardwood of the ground floor, Nicky couldn't stop the small noise of displeasure as he realised how cold it was.
The noise was loud enough in the silence to attract the attention of the person sitting at the reception desk. Lowering the book he'd been reading, the young man got to his feet. "Prince Nicolò? Is everything all right?"
Nicky nodded, as he headed over. "Yes, it's fine," he said. "I'm sorry for disturbing you, but I was wondering where the kitchen was."
"If you need anything, I can get one of the staff to get it," came the response.
"No, no, that's okay, I don't want to put anyone out. I just wanted a drink." Nicky hoped he'd just point out where he needed to go, as he really didn't want anyone fussing over him.
"Of course, Your Highness, I'll get--"
"Don't worry about it, Jack, I'll get the prince what he needs."
Nicky turned to see Joe walking over to the desk.
Jack nodded. "Is that okay, Your Highness?"
"Yes," Nicky replied, wincing a little inside. "That's fine." He'd come down hoping to get to the kitchen without disturbing anyone and now it looked like he was taking Joe away from his duties.
Joe motioned to a set of doors Nicky hadn't been through yet. "Kitchen's this way. That was where you wanted, yes?"
"Yes, thank you," Nicky said, following Joe to the doors.
Two more doors, a corner, and a couple of hallways later, they finally reached the kitchen.
"It seems every room in this place is bigger than my apartment," Nicky commented as Joe flicked the lights on.
Joe snorted a quiet laugh. "The downside of royalty, too much room." He stepped further into the kitchen, waving Nicky over to one of the stools next to the huge island in the middle of the room. "Why did you want to see the kitchen at," he glanced down at his watch, "three in the morning?"
"I couldn't sleep," Nicky said," and whenever I couldn't sleep as a child, Mamma would make me hot chocolate." It seemed silly now, saying it out loud. "I thought maybe if I had a cup, it would help me." He paused, waving a hand around to encompass the room. "I didn't think about not knowing where anything is." The amount of cupboards in the kitchen meant that Nicky may have still been looking for mugs when everyone got up for breakfast.
"Well, luckily, you're with someone who not only makes amazing hot chocolate, but who also knows where the ingredients are." Joe winked at him as he headed over to the refrigerator, opening it and pulling out a jug of milk.
"You don't need to do that. I don't want to take you away from what you need to be doing," Nicky said. Joe was still in the same clothes he was wearing earlier, so he obviously hadn't been to bed yet. "Or stop you from going to bed."
Joe shrugged. "One of the team covers the night shift, just in case. It's my night tonight. But, Andy also tripled the security outside, so I think we're good." He carried on pulling things out of cupboards until he had two mugs, a pan, and what looked like several spices on a bench.
Opening another cupboard, Joe muttered quietly to himself. "I know it's in here some-- ah, there you are." He pulled his hand out, clutching a bar of chocolate. "This is the good stuff," Joe said, looking at Nicky.
Watching Joe put the pan on the stove and pour milk in reminded Nicky of being back in the kitchen with his mother. The lights would be low in the kitchen, and she'd sing softly under her breath as she made the hot chocolate.
Joe wasn't singing, but was switching between a low, melodic humming, and commenting softly every time he did something.
Nicky could stop the smile from spreading at the quiet "Oh yeah, that's the right kind of heat," and "Oh, milk, not too fast--"
"You see," Joe said, his voice a little louder as he glanced back at Nicky, "it's all in the chocolate." He waved the chocolate bar in the air for a moment, before opening it and breaking it up into chunks.
Joe dropped the chocolate into the pan chunk by chunk, before reaching out for two of the spice jars next to him. "Cinnamon and nutmeg," he informed Nicky, as he added a dash of each, and continued stirring.
When Joe finally deemed it ready, he poured the mix into two mugs, bringing both to the island counter and holding one out to Nicky.
Taking the mug, Nicky wrapped his hands around it and took a sip, smiling when the taste washed over his tongue. "This is amazing."
"Maryam al-Kaysani's own recipe," Joe replied. "My mother," he explained further at the confused look on Nicky's face. "As she took great pleasure in telling us, when you've been through the teenage angst of three children, you learn to make good hot chocolate."
Nicky laughed softly, taking another drink. "Three children? You have siblings?"
Joe nodded. "An older brother and a younger sister. I'm the middle child."
Nicky had always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling, someone else who was always there, someone to always have your back. He looked at Joe, trying to imagine the man as a teenager and remembering what he'd said in the car about everyone knowing what he did as soon as it happened. "The one who always got into trouble, I think. Yes?"
Joe gave an exaggerated gasp as he held a hand to his heart. "Nicky! You wound me. And to think I was going to share Andy's secret stash of baklava with you."
Even though dinner had been amazing, Nicky couldn't help but perk up at the mention of baklava.
Joe laughed at what Nicky realised must be the look of longing on his face. "Well, how can anyone resist that look," Joe said, putting his mug on the countertop and walking over to one of the kitchen cupboards, retrieving a storage box out of it before heading back. Placing the box on the island, Joe slid it across the counter to Nicky.
Nicky could already see the shapes inside through the slightly transparent plastic of the tub. Opening it up, he gave a soft mmm-- at the subtle scent of pistachio and honey that wafted out. "Oh, that smells good."
Joe leaned over, snagging a piece out of the tub. "Tastes good, as well," he grinned, before taking a bite.
Picking a piece out of the box, Nicky lifted it to his lips, closing his eyes as the scent of honey got stronger. Taking a bite, he couldn't stop the moan that rose in him as he chewed it, savouring the way the flavour washed over his tongue before he swallowed. "Oh, that is good," he said, opening his eyes to see Joe staring at him.
A moment passed before Joe shook his head slightly, looking down at the remaining baklava in his hand. "One of the cooks makes it to her own recipe," he said, finally looking up and meeting Nicky's eyes again. "Just be warned, you'll need to fight Andy for every piece."
"Unless someone sneaks me into the kitchen at 3:00 am, you mean," Nicky teased gently, loving the way a slight blush rose to Joe's cheeks.
"Yeah, unless that," Joe agreed with a smile.
Nicky looked at the people already waiting for him at breakfast as he and Nile walked into the dining room. She'd knocked on his door just as he was pulling a shirt over his head and offered to accompany him down. He felt like he'd had a full night's sleep, even though he and Joe had ended up chatting in the kitchen until 5:00 in the morning, before Nicky's yawns overtook him and Joe accompanied him back to his room, the piece of baklava resting on a plate on the desk when Nicky woke up the only indication that the early morning kitchen run had happened.
"This doesn't look good," Nicky commented, wondering if Andy and the security team being at breakfast with them meant that something had happened that he should be worried about.
Catherine smiled at him as she put her cup of tea down. "Nicolò, I invited the team to have breakfast with us, so we could go over some things."
Nicky nodded as he sat, noticing that Joe wasn't at the table.
"Joe covered last night, so he's getting some sleep," Andy said, not explaining how she knew Nicky had noticed the other man's absence.
Nicky sat at the empty seat adjacent to his grandmother and opposite to Andy, smiling when a cup of tea was placed in front of him. "What do we need to go over?" he asked, wrapping his hands around the cup and lifting it to his lips to take a sip.
Andy glanced at the Queen, who made a 'go on' motion with her hand. "I sent Booker to check out your place this morning," she said, looking at Nicky.
"And?" Nicky asked, half of him already knowing what the answer was going to be.
Booker looked at them, his hand paused in mid-air from where he'd been reaching out to snag another piece of bacon from the plate in front of him. Eyeing the bacon a little forlornly for a moment, Booker turned his attention away from his breakfast. "Not good, I'm afraid," he said. "There were still a lot of news vans hanging around."
"Which we anticipated," Andy interjected, "so not a surprise there."
"I also swung by the university before coming back here," Booker added, "and that's the same. They're not on the campus--"
"We offered to pay for extra security to make sure the campus wasn't too disturbed by any reporters," Catherine commented, apologising to Booker for the interruption. "It was the least we could do."
"They're still milling about outside the campus, though," Booker added.
"No matter where I go, they're going to be there, as well," Nicky surmised. At least until they got what they wanted, Nicky thought. He just wasn't sure if what they wanted was an interview or a pound of flesh. Maybe it was both. "So, what are my options? I avoid going to classes? I run the gauntlet into my apartment and never leave it again?" It sounded like his life was going to be nothing but online learning and ordering in from now on. At least he liked his apartment, he was probably going to be seeing nothing else for the next few weeks.
"There is one more option, Nicolò," Catherine said. "Quynh suggested it and I think she has something." She reached out and took Nicky's hand. "Come back with us to Genovia. See the country, meet our people." She paused for a moment. "Find out if you could consider Genovia your home."
Nicky glanced down at where her hand held his. He thought about his life there and what he would be leaving behind.
He really didn't want arrange a temporary withdrawal for his Masters, not after all of the work he'd put into it. If he needed to, he could probably complete it online, but there was something about being in the library, surrounded by the books and the sounds of people writing, that spurred Nicky on. He didn't know if being in Genovia would mean he'd put his Masters to one side and end up never picking it up again. But he also didn't know if it was enough to stay just because of his Masters.
He didn't really have any friends in the city. He'd moved there because of Michael, and look how that turned out.
Then, between studying and losing his mother and then the break-up, making new friends had been the last thing on his mind. Nile was really the only person Nicky had counted as a friend in what seemed like ages, which was sort of sad when he thought about it, given she had only started speaking to him because she'd been told to get close to him as part of her job. And it wasn't like he had family there. Now that his mother was gone, the only family he had was the woman holding his hand in hers.
Looking up at her, he nodded. "Yes, I think I'd like that."
Once Nicky agreed to go back to Genovia with them, activity in the house increased. Quynh sent a team to Nicky's apartment to pack it up and bring everything back to the consulate. Most of the furniture had come with the apartment, which left Nicky looking at six large boxes when the team got back, including one that contained all of the boxes from his mother's house.
"Are you okay?" Nile asked, as they watched the last box put on the floor in Nicky's room.
"I suppose it just drives home how little I really have, that my entire life fits into those boxes," Nicky told her.
Any reply Nile could have given was cut off by a knock on the still open door.
"Mind if I come in," Quynh asked, holding a small plant pot in her hands.
"Please do," Nicky replied.
"The team didn't want to put it in any of the boxes in case it got knocked around and the soil spilled out," Quynh said, as she walked over and handed over the ficus to him. "I took the liberty of watering it before I brought it up," she added, which explained the droplets of water Nicky could see on the leaves.
"Thank you," he said, putting the plant on the desk before turning back to the two women now standing in his room. "I'm not entirely sure what to do with this, what to take with me."
Quynh walked over to him. "You don't need to make a decision about everything now, Nicky. This is the Genovian consulate; it's Genovian sovereign territory. The boxes can stay here for as long as you need them to. If you want them shipped out to Genovia, we'll do that. If, on the other hand, you decide to come back here, then this room will be yours for as long as you want it."
Nicky nodded. His grandmother - and, oh, he was still getting used to that - had already told him that she would love for him to decide to stay with them in Genovia. If he decided to accept the crown that his father had abdicated, then he would have a coronation, officially declaring him as heir apparent to the throne of Genovia. If, however, he wanted to come back and continue his life over as it had been - with a few changes, of course - then he would have a home at the consulate. Whatever decision he made, his life was going to change irrevocably.
"There was one other reason I came to see you," Quynh said. "It wasn't just to drop off your plant." She looked at him. "We need to put a statement out to the press, Give them something to tide them over and hopefully stop them from camping outside hoping to catch a glimpse of you."
"Do I need to speak to them?" Nicky asked, hoping the answer was no. He didn't relish microphones being stuck in his face with people yelling questions at him.
Quynh shook her head. "No, this would just be a statement that we give them. It'll have some background as to who you are, the fact that your father decided to turn away from the crown because he fell in love. It will explain that you were raised not knowing you were royalty, and asking for some privacy while you come to terms with that." She raised an eyebrow at that last part. "They'll ignore that bit, of course, but we'll put it in anyway."
"It sounds almost like a fairy tale, when you put it like that," Nile pointed out. "A prince, rejecting his throne for love, and the child who was raised never knowing he was born to be a king."
Nicky winced slightly at Nile's words. Although she was right that Quynh managed to make it sound like the plot of a Disney movie, it was a little more real when you were right in the middle of it.
"Are you happy for us to put that out, or would you like to see it before we do?" Quynh asked.
"No, that's fine," Nicky said. He may have only known her for a couple of days, but Quynh gave the impression of being fully on top of anything she needed to be. And it wasn't as though Nicky would be any use in determining what was best to give out as a press statement, since he'd never in his life given any thought to the kind of things someone would have to say to journalists.
Quynh nodded. "In that case, we'll get the statement out this afternoon, which means it'll be online by this evening and probably in tomorrow's papers. They'll most likely use their own photos that their photographers have taken, or ones that the paparazzi have sold them. We can put out a photo with the statement, but, in all honesty, it's unlikely they'd use it. Photos of you escaping the campus and being bundled into a car are far more exciting." Quynh turned to leave the room before pausing and looking back at Nicky. "I know it's tempting, but it might be best not to google yourself. I've been told doing that leads to a black hole of comments you wish you'd never read."
Nicky didn't respond as Quynh left, not willing to admit that he'd already thought about searching for himself online, if just to see what people were saying, that he'd typed his name into the search bar, just to delete it and close the laptop.
"Do you want me to stay and give you a hand?" Nile offered, nodding towards the boxes.
"Thank you, Nile, but no." It felt like something Nicky should do himself, going through not only his life but his mother's.
"If you change your mind, just text me," she said, giving him a brief hug as she walked past him on the way to the door.
It took a few moments after Nile left for Nicky to actually move, for him to open the first box and start taking the things out.
After a few hours, Nicky stepped back after placing the last item into a box, rolling his shoulders and groaning slightly. He still had six boxes, but now they were sorted into one box to take to Genovia with him, three to stay at the consulate, and two that were currently in limbo, depending on what happened.
Nicky knew that his grandmother ultimately wanted him to stay in Genovia, to give himself a chance to get to know the country and the people and, hopefully, accept himself as their Prince. Nicky wasn't lying to himself, it was tempting. The loans he'd had to take out for his Masters made him wince every time he thought about them, especially studying in a country that wasn't his own. Add to that the weeks where he'd lived off of ramen and beans, and the thought of stepping into a life where none of that needed to be worried about had its appeal.
If he decided that he was going to stay in Genovia, if Nicky became Prince Nicolò, then he doubted he'd need his spare bedsheets, towels, and the multitude of beaten up pots and pans that he seemed to own - hence the two limbo boxes. It almost seemed sacrilegious to consider putting the sheets he'd bought on sale at Walmart on a bed that had a better than good chance of being one that actual kings and queens had slept in.
Distracted from his thoughts of sacrilegious sheets by a rap on the door to his room, Nicky turned to see Joe leaning against the door jamb.
"You've been sequestered away in here all afternoon," Joe said. "Quynh wanted me to make sure you didn't forget dinner."
Nicky glanced up at the clock on the wall, any response he could have given to Joe derailed by his stomach deciding to growl as he realised just how hungry he was.
Joe laughed. "That sounded like I have perfect timing."
"I could eat," Nicky admitted, burying the thought that he should probably check his e-mail before he went downstairs. He'd been granted the temporary withdrawal he'd requested for his Masters, which meant he didn't have to worry about getting his thesis finished within the next six months. He was cynical enough to admit to himself that the generous donation his grandmother had given the university in 'recompense for the trouble,' as Quynh had put it, had most likely gone a long way to smooth over any issues that might have arisen with that, but also grateful that he didn't have to worry about it. The Dean had e-mailed Nicky to say that if there were any problems, Nicky shouldn't hesitate in contacting him. Which meant he'd had more e-mails from the man in the previous week than he'd had since starting at the university.
"Nicky?" Joe had a soft smile on his face when Nicky looked over. "Sort of lost you there, for a moment," Joe said.
"Sorry," Nicky replied, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. "Just thinking about, well, everything."
A look of understanding crossed Joe's features. "I can't imagine how this past week has been for you."
There were so many words Nicky could use to describe the past few days, but in the end, he settled on, "Weird; it's been weird." He headed over to the door, closing it behind him, as he followed Joe towards the stairs.
"Maybe once we're back in Genovia, it'll all settle down for you," Joe suggested.
Nicky nodded, as he'd been hoping the same. He'd discussed Genovia a few times with his grandmother, and it sounded like a beautiful place, and definitely somewhere Catherine loved. It currently felt a little like Nicky was still in the middle of everything, and it all still seemed like a dream he was going to wake up from. Nicky was hoping those feelings would ease once they landed in Genovia.
Nicky looked at the Departures board, but couldn't see any flights going to Genovia. "Are we transferring somewhere?"
Quynh glanced at him. "We're not flying commercial," she commented, managing to make commercial sound like the worst thing in the world. Although, considering the last flight Nicky had been on involved a guy next to him snoring for six hours and a child somewhere in the back screaming for just as long, she probably wasn't wrong.
Within minutes, they were being shown through the airport security lines by a staid looking man wearing a tie with the airport name on it. He kept trying to talk to the Queen, and Quynh and Andy kept up a double act of intercepting him.
Nicky could hear the murmurs of the crowd around them, could hear his own name interspersed with the clicks of at least three camera phones, and he wondered if this was his life now. To be photographed and talked about wherever he went, or if the interest in the Lost Prince Found! as one of the newspapers had declared him would soon wane. He felt the warmth of a hand on the small of his back, and turned to look at Joe next to him.
"Today, it's Nicolò, the new prince; tomorrow, Taylor Swift starts dating someone else," Joe said quietly.
Nicky huffed a laugh. He only hoped Joe was right.
Turning his attention back to the rest of their group, he saw that Nile and Booker had already gone through security, and were waiting for them on the other side. His grandmother was up next, and she glided through with a raised eyebrow, as though daring the detector to even try to beep at her. It, sensibly, kept its silence.
The plane waiting for them on the tarmac was bigger than Nicky expected, the colours of the flag of Genovia splashed across its tail. And, god, his previously-unknown-and-just-discovered family owned their own plane. Or maybe it was just his grandmother. Was that better, that one person got to own an entire plane. Did this now mean that he owned the plane? Just last week he'd been eating ramen and three day old pizza in his apartment and now he was about to fly in his own plane.
"Nicolò?" The look his grandmother was giving him said that he hadn't been as successful in keeping the noise of surprise as quiet as he'd hoped.
"I was just thinking that it's a nice plane." Nicky winced as soon as the words left his mouth. But it wasn't as though he'd ever known people who owned their own plane before.
"There's even a TV," Joe commented, obviously trying to hide the smirk on his face. Nicky wanted to tell him he was failing miserably.
The flight crew that were waiting for them at the foot of the steps heading up to the plane nodded at Nicky as he went past, a quiet "Your Highness--" coming from the Captain as he passed her. He followed his grandmother up the steps and into the plane, Quynh and Joe behind him.
"Once everyone is settled, the Captain will get permission to take off," Quynh told him. "Sit anywhere you want."
Nicky nodded, heading over to one of the tables and sitting in a seat next to a window, absently looking out. There were planes all around theirs, some of them taxiing to whichever runway they'd be taking off from, and some of them sitting while passengers boarded and disembarked, no doubt either excited to be flying off on holiday or depressed to be home and back to the normality of life.
It wasn't until the Captain's announcement to fasten all seatbelts was announced that Nicky realised long minutes had passed and they were ready to take off.
They'd only been in the air for about 20 minutes when a cup was placed on the table in front of him, the smell of coffee reaching him.
"You look like you need it," Nile said, sitting in the seat opposite him.
"Thank you," he said, wrapping his hands around the cup and lifting it up, inhaling the bitter aroma before taking a sip.
"How are you feeling?" she asked. "It's been a crazy few days--"
"Was any of what you told me real?" Nicky's eyes widened as he realised what he'd just said. The thought had been troubling him since Nile had pulled him out of the classroom, but he hadn't planned on just dropping it on Nile. "I'm sorry--"
"No," she said. "No, you deserve to know. Most of it was. I was born in Chicago, I was in the Marines. Everything I told you about my family, it's all true. The bit I didn't tell you was I was injured and ending up leaving the army. My old CO put me in contact with someone he said would be able to 'use someone with my skillset.'" She laughed slightly as she lowered her voice. "That person turned out to be Andy." She paused for a moment, taking a drink of her own coffee. "I met her, met Quynh, went through possibly the weirdest interview I've ever had in my life, and got offered a job on Andy's security team. I technically work for the Genovian Security and Intelligence Department."
"You must have hated having to babysit me," Nicky said. He can't imagine it was something Nile signed up for. Thinking she'd be going into a job where she's protecting a Queen and ending up sitting in 8:00am discussion groups surrounded by chronically tired students.
"Nicky, no," Nile replied. "The friendship? That was all real. Not gonna lie, I went into this assignment not knowing what you were going to be like. I went in with a dossier of information and a photo and came out with a friend." She met his gaze. "At least, I hope we're still friends."
Nicky thought about the afternoons they'd spent in the coffee shop on campus, talking through issues and the mornings in the library pulling obscure text after obscure text from the archives. He thought about how easy Nile was to talk to and the stories she shared about her family that, at one point, had Nicky laughing until he'd hiccupped. "Si, Nile, of course we are." He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently before letting go.
"Sorry to interrupt," Joe's shadow fell over the table as he approached. "Nile, Andy asked if you can go and see her. She's got some things she wants to clarify with you about Nicky's extraction from the campus."
Extraction. Nicky hid his small smile at the word behind his cup as he took another drink of his coffee. Such a serious word for what Nicky could now look back on with amusement, thinking about Nile's hand in his as she pulled him through the journalists, and the look on that photographer's face as Booker had calmly snapped his memory card in half in the name of Genovian national security.
"Of course," Nile said, looking back at Nicky after replying to Joe. "Will you be okay?"
"Don't worry, Nile," Joe said, before Nicky could answer, "I'll keep Nicky company."
Nile smiled at Joe as she pushed herself out of the seat, picking up her coffee and heading down the plane to where Andy and Quynh were sitting as Joe slid into the newly vacated seat, putting the mug he was carrying on the table.
"Are you tag-teaming me?" Nicky asked, wondering if they'd been told not to leave him alone.
Joe laughed. "No, just thought you might prefer the company, but I can find somewhere else to sit, if you'd like."
"No, please, stay," Nicky said. "You can tell me about Genovia. I looked it up online, but reading Wikipedia is hardly the same as talking to someone who lives there."
"Nicky, Nicky, Nicky," Joe shook his head as he laughed. "Are you just using me for my knowledge of Genovia?" he teased.
"Maybe," Nicky replied. He also wouldn't mind using Joe for his deep brown eyes and his amazing biceps, but Nicky kept that part to himself. "Do all your family live in Genovia?" he asked.
Joe nodded. "Yes, we've been there for generations, both on my mother's and father's sides." Joe paused for a bit to take a drink of his tea, the soft scent of cardamom and vanilla coming from the mug. "When we were young, my siblings and I would run between our home and our grandparents' homes."
Nicky wondered what that was like. Both his grandparents on his mother's side had passed away before Nicky was born, and she never spoke about his father's parents - for obvious reasons now, Nicky thought. "What does your family do?" Nicky asked. "If you don't mind me asking." Given that Joe worked security for the palace, maybe the rest of his family did the same. "Do they work for - how did Nile put it? - Genovian Security and Intelligence? The same as you?"
Joe shook his head. "No, they don't. I'm actually the black sheep of the family," he said, with a wry smile, "the only one whose job doesn't involve history or academia in some way."
"Really?" Nicky's mother had never really been interested in history, although she'd supported Nicky's love of it, and taken him to various museums and let him wander around the older parts of the city.
Joe nodded. "My father used to be curator of the Museum of Genovia, until he retired a couple of years ago. My sister took over. My brother teaches history at the high school, and my mother used to lecture at the university. She retired last year." A small smile crossed his face. "Believe me, studying in a department where your mother is one of the professors? More than a little unnerving at times."
"What did she teach?" Nicky asked. He had his suspicions, given what the rest of Joe's family did, but he could be totally wrong.
"Medieval History," Joe answered.
Nicky smiled, mentally congratulating himself for being right. "I should have known better than to ask. So your entire family are historians in some way?"
"Like I said," Joe commented, pointing to himself. "Black sheep."
But, if Joe's mother lectured in History, and Joe was in the same department--
"Art History," Joe said, apparently not needing the question Nicky hadn't even fully thought.
"So, if your degree was Art History, then how did you end up working security in the palace?" Nicky asked. "It seems a bit of a jump from one to the other." He wondered what had caused the change, what had sent Joe from studying the way art had evolved and developed to a career that saw him boosting apparent errant princes over walls and helping them to break into their own apartments.
Nicky couldn't stop the laugh that interrupted Joe as he thought back to what Nile had said about how she ended up on the team. "Sorry," Nicky said at Joe's curious look. "It just seems that Andy is the reason for both you and Nile being where you are right now."
Joe turned his head, glancing down the plane to where Andy was sitting with Nile, before looking back at Nicky. "Let's just say Andy can be very persuasive when she sets her mind to it."
That didn't surprise Nicky. Andy seemed like a force of nature, and Nicky wasn't afraid to admit to himself that there was a little voice inside him that wondered what he'd done every time she turned her attention to him.
"Do you think you'll stay?" Joe asked suddenly. "In Genovia, I mean."
Nicky wasn't sure how to answer Joe's question. He'd done a lot of thinking since he'd found out about his link to Genovia, and he wasn't ashamed to admit to himself that it was tempting. He remembered standing in the cemetery, watching as his mother's coffin was lowered. There had been people there, from the village, but none of them were family, and all Nicky could think, even in the midst of black outfits and sad faces and hands that reached out to pat his shoulder in consolation, was that he was so very alone. His mother's grandparents both passed before he was born (and were buried in the same cemetery as his parents were), and he'd never had any answers about his father's family, regardless of how many times he'd asked the questions.
When he'd lost his mother, Nicky had assumed that was it, he had no other given family, and when Michael had ended their relationship, and taken most of their joined friends with him, he'd watched as his found family had fallen away, as well. Italy no longer felt like home, and his apartment felt like a stop-gap, no matter how he tried to fill it with the books and trinkets that should have made it his. Maybe that was why he'd been so willing and eager to accept Nile's friendship when she'd offered it.
Now, with his grandmother and Genovia, it seemed like fate was giving Nicky a second chance at having a family and a home. He glanced at Joe. Maybe a second chance at some other things, as well.
"I don't know," Nicky finally said, "but I think I want to."
Nicky kept his face almost pressed to the window next to him as they came in to land. The mountains gave way to trees, which finally gave way to houses. There were clusters of buildings, hints of civilisation spread amongst the green of the land.
The plane banked softly, and before Nicky knew it, there was the gentle bump of landing and the plane was rolling to a stop. Getting out of his seat, Nicky grabbed his backpack out of the overhead locker just as Quynh headed over to him.
"Don't worry if you leave anything," she told him. "We have a team go through the plane after each flight and anything that's been left behind gets sent to the palace." She led him over to where his grandmother was standing, waiting for the door to be opened.
"It feels good to be home," Catherine said. "There is always something about coming over the mountains just before we arrive in Genovia. That's the point it feels like coming home."
Nicky understood what she meant. When he'd gone home after his mother had passed, there was a point where he'd looked out the window of the plane as they were descending expecting to feel that tug that he'd felt every other time he'd flown back. He'd been surprised to find there wasn't anything. At the time he'd put it down to grief, knowing that he was going to walk into the house that had been his home for so long and it would be silent, dark. But maybe his heart had known before his head that it simply wasn't home any more. Maybe Genovia was that second chance in more ways than one.
There were three cars waiting for them as soon as they disembarked from the plane. Quynh directed Nicky towards the one in the middle, getting into the back, along with him and his grandmother, while Andy took the passenger seat. Joe, Nile, and Booker had split themselves between the other two cars.
"Everyone ready?" Andy asked, through the divide between the front and back seats.
"We are," Catherine replied. "Let's go home, shall we?"
The road out of the small airport led through fields with forests running alongside, until more and more buildings started to appear.
They took a turn into the town, and Nicky was surprised to see people lining the streets, waving as the car passed. The window next to Catherine lowered, letting a chill into the car as she waved back.
"You should wave, Nicolò," Catherine said, turning to him for a moment, before her attention was back on the people the car was slowly driving past.
Nicky waved, feeling a little self-conscious. The last time he'd waved at someone out of a car window, he'd been six, and in the passenger seat of his mother's car as they'd driven past a fire engine. His past self had been as excited as only a six year old could be when faced with a big red fire truck and firefighters who were more than happy to wave back.
"They're here for you as much as they are the Queen," Quynh said softly. "It's not every day we get a new prince."
"I suppose not," Nicky admitted, smiling at what looked like a group of school children all gathered around their teacher and waving frantically at him. "It's just--" he trailed off, not knowing exactly what to say.
"Going to be a little while until you're used to it all?" Quynh said.
"Si, yes," nodded Nicky, wondering if he was ever going to get to the point where he was used to it.
Nicky looked at the palace as he stepped out of the car, the slightly off-white stonework of the building drawing his eye to the small splashes of colour in the windows, and the red and pinks of the flowers that ran up one of the trellises along a wall. It was a huge building, but had a sense of serenity about it that didn't make it overwhelming.
Next to him, his grandmother was smiling. "I've arranged for the main suite in the second east wing to be yours," she said. "I'm in the other east wing, so you'll have some privacy, as none of the other suites are currently in use in that wing. You have the rest of the day free, and we'll introduce you to the Prime Minister and the Council tomorrow."
Nicky nodded as he followed her into the palace. "Prime Minister Nazari, yes?"
Catherine's smile widened. "Yes. Arif has been Prime Minister for nine years now, and before that he was Minister for Development, so there really is no one who knows Genovia better than he does."
Several staff nodded at them as they walked through the hall and up the stairs, heading down another hall, until Catherine came to a stop. "Here you go," she said, pausing slightly before she reached out and lay a hand on his arm. "I want you to know that I am very happy you decided to come back with us. I hope you can come to see Genovia as your home." She pulled her hand back, and Nicky didn't mention the bright wetness of her eyes. "If there is anything you wish to change about the suite, please let Quynh know, and she'll arrange it. Now, if you don't mind me leaving you, there are a few things I need to see to now that we're home. I'll see you for dinner, yes?"
Leaning forward, Nicky placed a quick kiss on her cheek, hiding his smile at the delighted surprise on her face. "Thank you," he said.
Nicky waited until his grandmother was out of sight before heading into the room, his eyes widening as he realised it was even bigger than the rooms he'd been given at the consulate. Dropping his backpack onto the couch in the lounge area, Nicky started to explore. The office that was through an archway had a window that overlooked the courtyard. Running his fingers along the varnished hardwood of the desk, Nicky imagined himself sitting there, laptop in front of him. The shelves that were currently empty would be full to the brim of books that would have bookmarks and pieces of paper with hastily scribbled notes on them sticking out from between the pages. There was even a place on the windowsill for the ficus that was still stubbornly clinging onto life, no matter Nicky's unintended attempts to kill it.
As soon as he laid eyes on the bed, after heading into the bedroom, Nicky knew that his decision not to grace it with his Walmart sheets had been the right one. He had little doubt that, if he had, whoever had hand-carved the gorgeous bed would have crept into the room and murdered him in his sleep for allowing such a travesty. ('Here lies Nicolò di Genova', his epitaph would read, 'Killed because of shitty sheets.')
Another archway led from the bedroom to the walk-in closet, although Nicky wasn't sure if he could justifiably call it that, given its size. He was pretty sure he'd never owned enough clothes in his entire life to fill even a quarter of the space, and wondered just how pathetic the clothes he currently owned would look hanging there, all sad and alone and surrounded by masses of space. Slots for shoes and ties sat alongside drawers for watches and cufflinks. (Nicky had only ever owned one tie, having had to hastily purchase one for his mother's funeral.)
Across the room was the door that led to the bathroom, and Nicky nearly had an orgasm at the size of the gorgeous claw-footed tub sitting along one wall. His apartment (old apartment? Current apartment? Apartment he kind of hoped never to see again for the rest of his life?) only had a shower in it (with the added disappointment of terrible water pressure) and Nicky wondered if anyone would miss him if he just filled the tub and sank down in water hot enough to turn his skin dark pink, and blocked out the world for a couple of hours.
Nicky had pretty much decided to do exactly that when a knock on the door distracted him. "Come in!" he called, casting a final glance at the tub before heading back into the lounge area of the suite, to see Joe coming in through the now open door.
"Hey, Nicky, just thought I'd accompany these up and see how you're settling in." Joe motioned to where the boxes of his things that had come to Genovia with him were being wheeled in on a cart by people he didn't recognise. "Where do you want them?"
"Just here, thanks." Nicky pointed to the area behind the couch, moving out of the way as the large box of things he'd sorted out to bring over was carefully put down, along with the smaller box that he'd made up from the items he'd originally planned on leaving at the consulate, before changing his mind.
"Quynh also asked me to give you this," Joe said, holding out the ficus that was in his hands, as the other men left, leaving the two of them alone. "She says she's watered it."
Smiling, Nicky took the plant, heading straight into the office to place it on the windowsill, exactly where he'd envisioned it being.
"What do you think?" Joe asked, waving his hand around to encompass the room as Nicky walked back into the lounge.
"I'm thinking I'll never fill all of the closet space," Nicky replied with a smile. "I'm also wondering just how good I was in a past life to rate getting that amazing bath tub."
"Oh, I'm sure you were very good," Joe said, a soft smirk on his face.
Turning away quickly before he could say something he couldn't take back (Nicky's pretty sure asking Joe if he fancied trying out the bed with him probably wasn't the sort of thing he should be saying), Nicky bent down and pulled the tape off the larger box, opening it up. Moving some of the bits on the top of the box out of the way, Nicky picked up a handful of the books that were under them, and took them through to the office. Putting them on one of the bookcases, he turned back to go and get the rest of them, only to see Joe, standing in the archway with his arms full of books.
"Just here?" Joe nodded towards the bookcase Nicky was standing next to.
"Please," replied Nicky, taking some of the books from Joe, so he didn't have to juggle to get them on the shelves.
"So, does filling the bookcases mean you're planning on sticking around?" Joe asked, his voice light.
Nicky glanced over at him, as he continued to slot books onto the shelf in front of him. "I haven't decided yet," Nicky answered. "I don't have any family left, and all of the people I used to socialise with were actually my ex's friends, so--" he trailed off as the last book went on the shelf. "And you yourself said I had very little social life," Nicky said, thinking back to the comment Joe had made when they were back at the consulate.
A soft wince crossed Joe's face. "I didn't mean it to sound harsh."
"Oh, I know," Nicky said. After all, Joe had only told the truth. "But, the truth is, there is very little to go back for," he continued honestly.
There was silence for long moments, before Nicky turned away, his gaze falling to the window, and the garden visible just beyond the courtyard, with splashes of colour where flowers were growing. A warm weight on his arm had Nicky looking back at Joe, his eyes flicking down to where Joe's hand was resting.
"There are people who want you to stay, Nicky," he said, the undercurrent in his tone nothing but sincere.
Nicky nodded. "I know," he answered. "And maybe I should be grateful to those journalists. If they hadn't tracked me down, I wouldn't have known that I still had family until another few months."
"I don't just mean your grandmother." Joe's gaze on him was heavy, heated, and Nicky wondered if what he was seeing in Joe's eyes was really there, or if it was just his own desire for the other man making him see something more than it actually was.
Nicky felt his body lean forward, like he was caught in Joe's gravity. "Joe--" he murmured.
Joe's eyes darkened as Nicky licked at his suddenly dry lower lip. Moving closer, Joe's grip on Nicky's arm tightened, until there was barely any distance between them, until they were so close Nicky could feel Joe's breath, until--
The two of them pulled back sharply at a sudden knocking, and the shout of Nicky's name accompanying it.
Skirting around Joe, Nicky headed back into the lounge area, smiling at Nile when he saw her standing just inside the doorway.
"Hi, Nicky," she grinned. "Door was open, hope you don't mind. I just thought I'd see what you thought of your room and if you needed any help unpacking."
"Of course I don't mind, Nile; you're always welcome," Nicky replied, not looking back when he felt Joe behind him.
"Oh, hey, Joe, I didn't realise you were here." Nile glanced between the two of them, the look on her face saying more than any words could.
"I just came to see if Nicky needed anything after the boxes were brought up," Joe said lightly.
Nicky didn't look at him as Joe moved from where he was standing, heading towards the door. He kept his gaze on Nile, thinking that if he turned his attention to Joe, he'd ask the other man to stay, ask if they could finish what Nicky thought they'd started in the office.
"Now that you're here, though, Nile, I'll leave Nicky in your capable hands."
"Thank you for your help, Joe," Nicky said, finally looking over at him.
Joe grinned, and it almost felt like there was no more air in the room. "Nile, Highness," Joe nodded his goodbyes to both of them before he left, and the air rushed back in to fill the vacuum his absence created, allowing Nicky to breathe again.
"Nicky? Everything okay?" Nile asked.
"Everything's fine," Nicky replied, grateful that even if the slight rise of her eyebrow said that she didn't believe him in the slightest, she didn't call him on it.
"Come on, then," Nile clapped her hands together. "Let's get these boxes unpacked, and then it's done. You don't want to be like I was when I moved over here, with boxes still unpacked and stacked in a corner a month after you've moved in."
"No, Nile, you're right." Nicky met her at the box and started to take things out, smiling as Nile took some of them off him to place around the room, starting to make it look more like a home and less like a hotel room. (Even if the hotel room would have been one Nicky couldn't have afforded in a thousand years. Probably one where the concierge had a look on his face as soon as Nicky walked through the doors.)
The Parliament building wasn't as huge as the palace was, but it was certainly as ornate, Nicky thought as they were led through the corridors until they reached the Prime Minister's office. He was already waiting for them at the door, a smile on his face, as he took Catherine's hand.
"Your Majesty, always a pleasure," he greeted her.
"Arif, you charmer," Catherine smiled back. "Tell me, how are Rosette and the family."
Minister Nazari laughed. "Rosette is good, although still wondering why she ever agreed to marry me."
Quynh leaned towards Nicky. "They've been married for nearly 30 years and still adore each other," she said, not bothering to lower her voice.
"Ah, Quynh, are you giving all of my secrets away?" Nazari teased, as they headed into his office, offering them seats around a low table, as he asked the young man who had brought them there to bring tea.
"Or do you prefer coffee, Your Highness?" he asked, looking at Nicky.
"Oh, no, tea will be lovely, thank you," Nicky replied.
"Well," the Queen said, as the office door closed behind the staffer tasked with the drinks order, "let me make the official introductions. Nicolò, please meet Genovia's Prime Minister, Arif Nazari. Arif, my grandson, Nicolò."
Nicky took the hand that Nazari held out. The other man's grip was strong, but not overpowering.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," Nazari said. "You've caused quite the wave of curiosity and excitement."
Nicky wasn't too sure exactly what there was for people to get excited about.
Nazari laughed when Nicky voiced that very thought. "I love Genovia, and am proud to be its Prime Minister, but when you consider that the biggest excitement last month was a duck sitting in the road and refusing to move, I'm sure you can understand everyone's reactions to a hitherto undiscovered prince." There was fondness in Nazari's tone as he spoke.
"I suppose when you put it like that," Nicky conceded, meeting Nazari's smile.
The conversation paused when there was a brief knock on the office door, and the young man from earlier brought tea in for everyone.
"Thank you, Jean," Nazari said, as full cups and spoons were handed out around the table, while milk, sugar, and a second teapot was placed in the middle, alongside a plate of biscuits. "Can you let the cabinet ministers know that the Queen and Prince are here, and that I'll be bringing them around once we're finished in here to introduce everyone."
Jean nodded. "Of course," he replied, before quietly slipping back out of the office.
"So," Nazari said, clapping his hands together, "I thought tea all around, and then we can take a walk through the halls and I will introduce you to the other ministers."
The Queen nodded approvingly.
"There's a cabinet meeting this afternoon, which you're also welcome to stay for," Nazari added, picking up his tea cup and taking a sip.
"I often sit in on the meetings, although not always," Catherine commented.
"Any changes to any of the current laws need to be signed off by both the cabinet ministers and the reigning monarch," Nazari explained.
"Although the monarchy signature is more a tradition than anything else." Catherine smiled at Nicky. "Luckily, everyone's concern is for the people of Genovia. I don't think there's been a disagreement between monarchy and parliament in more than a century."
"A good thing, too, Majesty," Nazari laughed. "If there were any disagreements, all you'd have to do was send in Quynh and she'd have the entire cabinet on its knees in no time." The teasing was light and Quynh laughed along with Nazari.
"So long as you keep that in mind, Prime Minister," Quynh said, the smile on her face telling Nicky that wasn't the first time the comment had been made.
"Well, drink up, everyone," the Queen urged, "we've got cabinet ministers to introduce."
Nicky smiled at the tinge of excitement in his grandmother's voice, but he did as bade, and picked up his cup and started to drink.
Nicky flopped back onto the bed, his arms outstretched, as he stared at the ceiling, his gaze following the swirls that made the shadows dance when he just had the lamp by the bed switched on. He hadn't realised being a prince would involve so much work. Not that he'd thought it was going to be all visiting hospital wings and parties, but part of him had absolutely thought it was going to be all visiting hospital wings and parties.
Instead, he'd been spending his days between sitting with his grandmother and learning about Genovia's history and its people, and shadowing Quynh to understand the administrative side to running a country. (And if Nicky had thought Quynh was amazing before, then his awe just increased at the sheer amount she seemed to effortlessly juggle. He was also impressed with the fact that Andy, who he'd been told guarded any baklava with her life, would come in and not only drop off some for Quynh, but also brought some for Nicky, once she realised he was also going to be there. Quynh just grinned and tapped her wedding band. "It was in the vows," she said. "To love, cherish, and share all the baklava with. She breaks that vow and she's on the sofa." From what Joe had said, anyone who got Andy to voluntarily share baklava was someone to be reckoned with.)
He'd also been sitting in on the cabinet meetings, making copious notes on anything he wasn't sure about so he could ask afterwards. Quynh had been accompanying him, explaining things quietly to him as the meetings went on, while either Joe, Booker, or Nile stood to one side. Nicky had doubted that he'd need a security detail, and hadn't wanted to take anyone away from anything important, but his grandmother had insisted. ("Nicolò, you are currently the most important thing in my eyes right now.")
The bodyguard for that day had been Joe, leaning against the wall in a deceptively relaxed pose. He hadn’t been directly in Nicky's line of sight, but had chosen a position just far enough to the right that Nicky could just see him out of the corner of his gaze. Every time Nicky had caught a glimpse of black he'd remembered the almost kiss that had happened and felt himself flushing red, first with the memory, and then with the possibility of what could have happened. He loved Nile dearly, but she'd had the worst timing.
Closing his eyes, Nicky put an arm over his face. Even though he was exhausted, he'd loved the past few days. Genovia was an amazing country, and everyone he'd met so far, from all of the staff in the palace to each of the ministers, had been so welcoming to him. The big question Nicky had to answer for himself, though, was whether he could see himself living in Genovia, ruling it. The thought terrified him, if he was being honest with himself. What if he made a mistake? He hardly wanted to go down in history as King Nicolò II (apparently, there had been another Nicolò back in the 18th century), the one who started a bloody civil war and destroyed a country purely by being totally and utterly inept.
Not that it was likely, but it was still a possibility. Only, what was his other choice? Going back to Italy, to a country that hadn't felt like home for a while now, and where his only relatives were buried next to each other in the local cemetery. Or going back to the States, where, again, he had no family and the only person he'd really considered a friend was Nile, who was actually downstairs in the very building he was in at that precise moment.
Then there was Joe. Joe, with his warm eyes and his gentle laugh and that near kiss they'd had in Nicky's office. Joe, with his leather jacket and his black jeans, and those biceps that made Nicky wonder just how easy it would be for the other man to pick him up and throw him on the bed before utterly wrecking him.
Moving his arm away from his face, Nicky opened his eyes and looked back at the ceiling before pushing himself off the bed and heading out of the room.
It only took a couple of minutes for him to reach his grandmother's office, and he was rather proud of himself that he'd done it without a single wrong turn. Knocking on the door, he waited for the call to go in before heading inside, stopping when he saw Quynh also in there.
"Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. I can come back later?" he offered.
"Nonsense, Nicolò," Catherine said, waving him in. "You're always welcome. Was it myself or Quynh you wanted to see?"
"You," Nicky answered, walking further into the room. "Although, I suppose it's going to affect Quynh, as well." He glanced at the chairs in front of the desk, wondering if he should sit down, but there was a buzz running through him that kept him on his feet. He looked at his grandmother. "I've made a decision, about whether to stay or not."
The slight stiffening in his grandmother's shoulders was subtle, but obvious. She'd made no secret of the fact that she wanted him to stay, to accept the crown and become heir apparent to the throne of Genovia. But more than that, she'd told him that she wanted to get to know him. Told him that she'd missed so many years of his, and she looked forward to getting to know him as her grandchild.
"And?" Catherine asked, an almost hesitation in her voice that Nicky had never heard before.
"I want to stay," he said, feeling a weight lift off him as soon as he said the words. "I want Genovia to be my home."
"Oh, you don't know how happy I am to hear that." His grandmother's eyes were bright as she stood up, coming around the desk, and wrapping her arms around him in a hug. "And the crown?" she asked, pulling back. "Are you staying as my grandson, or as my grandson and my heir?"
"I will be your heir," he replied. "Although I will probably need a lot of help."
"We'll make sure you have it," Quynh smiled. "And let me be the first to congratulate you on your decision, Prince Nicolò of Genovia."
Her eyes widening, Catherine turned and looked at Quynh. "Quynh, clear everything off the calendar for the next two weeks. We'll need to get the invitations out today, and call Andre, see if he can come to the palace this afternoon for a first measurement."
Quynh was already writing things down.
"Pull up a chair," Catherine said, patting Nicky's arm, "there's work to do." She looked back to Quynh. "Can you get some tea for all three of us sent up, please? Actually, make it for four, and see if Andy is available, so we can go through any security requirements, as well."
Quynh nodded, still writing as she walked out of the office, telling them she'd be back as soon as she tracked down tea and her errant wife.
"What are we organising?" Nicky asked, a little confused.
Catherine smiled as she looked at him. "Your Coronation, my dear, and the Coronation Ball for after. Since your father abdicated his position as heir, we need to have one to bring you back into the family, as it were."
"I mean, there won't be many people there, probably just a couple of hundred." Catherine was scribbling things on a pad on her desk as she spoke, and Nicky could see music, and catering, as well as Crown jewels.
A couple of hundred people. Only 'not many people' to him meant him and a handful of others. He supposed this was how life was going to be from now on, and it was the life he had chosen.
Tugging the sleeves of his shirt up, Nicky walked over to the desk. "What do you need me to do?"
Nicky took a deep breath as he hid behind the pillar, hoping that he hadn't been seen. If he'd thought the days after they arrived in Genovia had been busy, it was nothing compared with how it had been since he'd told his grandmother he wanted to stay and accept the crown. He'd been poked and prodded, and measured in places a person just shouldn't be. The chef wanted Nicky to sign off on everything for the buffet table for the Coronation Ball, and Nicky had tasted more versions of finger food than he'd even thought possible.
Every day, someone was asking him something, or wanting him to sign off on another thing. According to Quynh, there was usually months to plan for a coronation. The heir apparent would usually have two coronations - one when they reached 21, to accept the crown, and then a second, full, coronation when they became the reigning monarch. Since Nicky's father had effectively abdicated when he was 20, and because coronations weren't an every week kind of thing, there were only a handful of people still on staff who had been around when Catherine had had her coronation as Queen of Genovia. Given that Nicky's grandmother had decided she wanted the coronation for Nicky as soon as possible, they were trying to condense months of preparation and planning into two weeks. (Nicky sort of thought that his grandmother was still a little worried that he'd change his mind and jump back on a plane to the United States, so she was trying to pin him down as Prince as quickly as she could.)
Peeking around the pillar, Nicky let out a sigh of relief as he realised he hadn't been seen, slumping back against the wall.
"Are you hiding for a reason?"
Nicky bit back the yelp as he spun around, eyeing the smirk on Joe's face as the other man stood there. (When asked about it later, Nicky emphatically denied that he'd jumped and squeaked in a very unmanly fashion at the sudden words.)
Grabbing Joe's arm, Nicky tugged him behind the pillar, quickly checking to make sure his hiding place hadn't been given away. "Do you know how many tiny cakes I ate yesterday?"
Joe frowned. "Is that a trick question?"
"24, Joe!" Nicky hissed. "24 tiny, perfect cakes, all of which tasted amazing. Except for the lavender and peach one. That just tasted weird."
Joe looked confused. "I still have no idea what you're talking about."
Scrubbing a hand over his eyes, Nicky took a deep breath. "The coronation," he said.
"Ah," Joe replied, suddenly looking a lot more understanding.
"Ever since I told my grandmother I was staying, it seems like I've been asked a million questions about flower colours and buffet choices. And the tailor." Nicky pinned Joe with his stare. "I've been measured in places I didn't even know needed measuring." He paused, resting back against the wall. "But, I shouldn't be dropping all this on you. You probably have much more important things to do than listen to me rant."
When there was no response, Nicky turned to see Joe studying him. Not that he minded being pinned by Joe's gaze, necessarily, but it really wasn't the place to realise that there were about four different shades of brown in Joe's eyes.
Without saying anything, Joe reached out and wrapped his fingers around Nicky's wrist, tugging him away from the wall, and towards the door.
Ignoring Nicky unspoken question of What are you doing and where are you taking me?, Joe took his phone out of his jeans pocket, pressing the screen a couple of times.
It was when Nicky heard the ring that he realised Joe must have put the phone on speaker. It was only a few seconds before the call connected, and Andy's voice came through, asking "Problem, Joe?"
"Nope, no problem, Boss," Joe replied. "Just thought I should let you know that I'm taking Nicky out of the palace."
"Why?" came the response. (It had taken Nicky a while to realise that Andy didn't speak like she was angry most of the time because she was actually angry. She just didn't see the point in banal small talk. Once he'd understood that, Andy had gone from completely terrifying to only mostly terrifying. Mainly because Nicky absolutely recognised that it didn't matter whether Andy was 70% terrifying or 90% terrifying, because she was always 100% capable of breaking him in half.)
"There's been a lot going on in the last couple of weeks," Joe said. "I think Nicky could do with some time away from it, that's all."
"Okay," Andy replied. There was a pause before, "Just don't do anything stupid, Joe."
Joe's gaze flicked back to Nicky quickly before he answered. "Don't know what you mean, Andy," he said lightly. "When have I ever done anything stupid?"
The small hmph-- that Nicky heard over the phone said everything. Joe rolled his eyes and Nicky couldn't help the smile that came to his face.
"We good, Boss?" Joe asked, motioning for Nicky to go through the front doors, ahead of him.
The sun was shining as Nicky stepped out of the palace and just being outside brought a sense of calm that seemed to have been missing the past few days, like all of the manic energy was being left behind, even if just for a moment.
Nicky headed down the steps, turning back to face Joe once he got to the bottom of them to find that he must have missed part of the conversation, given that Joe was now speaking to Quynh, instead of Andy.
"Just have him back by four this afternoon, Joe. There's a final fitting for his coronation suit that he can't miss."
"Back by four; yes, ma'am." Joe winked at Nicky as the exasperated snort from Quynh reached both of them.
Joe said a quick goodbye before thumbing the phone off and sliding it back into his pocket, as he placed a hand on Nicky's back and guided him to turn left, away from the main driveway.
"Do you ride?"
It wasn't until Joe asked the question that Nicky realised they were heading towards the stables. "Once," Nicky answered. "My mother took me to a travelling rodeo. I was ten. It didn't end well." It actually ended up with Nicky's arm in a cast thanks to the two broken bones after the horse he'd been on had emphatically decided it didn't want Nicky on it anymore.
Joe's eyes crinkled as he tried to mask the smile. "And that's a story I want to hear one day, but I didn't mean horses."
The stables were still some way in the distance as Joe led Nicky into one of the garages. He bypassed several cars, all bearing the diplomatic plates of Genovia, and a couple with the flags attached to their hoods.
"So, as I was saying," Joe said, stopping beside a motorbike, "do you ride?"
Nicky shook his head. "Can't say I do." He'd never been on a motorbike. Given that it had taken him three attempts before he'd passed his test allowing him to drive things with four wheels, he'd always figured he'd leave the two wheels for other people.
"First time for everything, then," Joe commented, taking two helmets off the wall next to the bike and handing one to Nicky, before hanging the second on the handlebars. Knocking the bike's kickstand up with his foot, Joe started to roll the bike out of the garage.
Nicky watched him for a moment, before jogging after him, catching up just as Joe turned to him, the second helmet back in his hand.
"I won't be able to hear you once we're wearing these and riding," Joe said. "It's about 20 minutes into the town. Settle in, hold on tight, and don't lean too much on the corners; it can overbalance the bike, and I really don't want to have to tell the Queen I wiped out with her grandson the first time I took him out."
There was something about the way Joe said the first time that had Nicky flushing, like there were going to be other times with Nicky holding tight to Joe and the open road ahead of them.
Joe grinned at Nicky as he lifted his helmet and slid it over his head, completely unaware of how much of a travesty Nicky thought it was to hide those wonderful curls away. Flicking the face visor up as he straddled the bike, Joe looked at Nicky, raising a single eyebrow and not having to say a word.
Glancing at the helmet as he lifted it, Nicky started to push it onto his head, not entirely expecting it to go on and surprised when the helmet slid on easily, cushioning his head.
Joe lowered the face visor on his helmet and patted the seat behind him.
Lowering his own visor, Nicky placed a hand on Joe's shoulder to balance himself as he got onto the bike behind Joe. He was still internally debating on how close he was meant to get, when Joe reached back, twisting a hand behind him to press on Nicky's back and urge him closer. Pressing up to Joe's back, Nicky could feel the coolness of the other man's jacket quickly warm against his chest. Wrapping his hands around Joe's waist, he felt a little awkward until Joe took Nicky's hands in his, pressing them to his stomach, encouraging Nicky to hold tighter.
Once Joe had apparently deemed them good to go, he started the bike. The roar of the bike between his legs as they started to move surprised Nicky slightly, and he tightened his hold on Joe automatically. Nicky couldn't hear the laugh, but he could feel it rumbling through Joe's body as the bike picked up speed and they sped out of the palace gates and onto the road that led into the town.
Unwrapping his arms from around Joe, Nicky rolled his shoulders, wondering if should still be feeling the tingles of the engine between his legs. He was just grateful that the ride hadn't been longer. Between the vibrations of the bike and being pressed close to Joe, it had been a near thing as to whether he was going to end up with his hard cock pressing into Joe's back.
Getting off the bike, Nicky took a step back, allowing Joe to do the same, the other man pulling his helmet off as he did so, and hanging it on one of the handlebars.
Nicky pulled off his own helmet and handed it to Joe, not able to hide the smile on his lips quickly enough while Joe turned away to hang Nicky's helmet on the bike, as well.
"What?" Joe asked.
Nicky pointed up at Joe's hair. "It's a little… smooshed," he finally ended with, figuring it was the best way to describe Joe's current state of helmet hair.
Joe grinned. "Always happens." Lifting his hands to his hair, he ran his fingers through the strands. "Less smooshed?" he asked.
Nicky nodded. "Much better."
"Glad to hear it," Joe said, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a baseball cap.
"But you just un-smooshed," Nicky pointed out, wondering why Joe had gone to the trouble if he was just going to cover his hair with the cap straight after.
Joe held the cap out. "It's not for me," he said.
Nicky looked at the cap in Joe's hand.
"Nicky, with the exception of the Queen and the Prime Minister, you're probably the most recognisable person in the country right now," Joe said.
Ah, yes. That.
Nicky took the cap out of Joe's hand, shaking it out before putting it on, although he doubted it would make much difference. "What's the plan?" he asked. Now that he'd escaped the palace with Joe, he wasn't entirely sure what they were going to do.
Joe reached out and took Nicky's hand, tugging him across the road and down one of the side streets. A couple of people glanced at them as Joe led Nicky down the street and across another road, until they were standing in front of a building, the grey stone of the front blending it in with the others next to it.
Joe looked over at Nicky, following his gaze down to their still joined hands. "Sorry." Joe pulled his hand back, and Nicky immediately missed the warmth of Joe's fingers, missed the slightly rough calluses that said Joe worked with his hands. "Here we are," Joe said quickly.
Turning his attention back to the building, Nicky looked at the sign above the door, declaring Museum of Genovia. He smiled at the thought that Joe had remembered him mentioning wanting to learn more about Genovia and its history. And he'd always loved museums. Whenever he went to one with his mother, he would spend hours going from exhibit to exhibit, reading every word about each display, and trying to take in as much as he could.
"It looks closed," Nicky said.
Joe just grinned, pushing open the door and motioning Nicky inside. "That's okay, I have an in with the curator."
Nicky thought back to their discussion on the plane, about how Joe had told him his sister was now curator of the museum.
The door banged as it closed behind them, the sound ringing out through the silence.
"We're closed!" A voice yelled from somewhere.
"Even for your favourite brother?" Joe yelled back.
There was a scrambling noise, and the sound of something heavy hitting the ground.
"I hope that wasn't breakable," Joe commented, as a young woman came around the corner, a wide smile on her face. "Or that it was at least inexpensive, if it was."
"Yusuf!" She crossed the distance between them in easy strides and threw her arms around Joe. "Baba told me you were back." Breaking the hug, she then frowned and smacked him on the arm. "Why haven't you been to see us before now?"
"I've been a little busy," Joe commented, rubbing his arm where she hit him.
"Following the new prince?" she asked, a teasing smile on her face.
Joe rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, about that," he said, motioning over to where Nicky was standing.
The young woman's eyes widened, like she hadn't even noticed Nicky was there.
"Nicky, meet Tala, my sister. Tala, this is--"
"Your Highness," Tala interrupted Joe, her eyes widening as Nicky took Joe's cap off.
Oh, seriously, never getting used to that. "Please, call me Nicky," he asked, holding a hand out.
She took his hand, shaking it while throwing Joe a look that said there would be words later. Nicky couldn't stop himself from smiling, as it was a look he'd seen on his own mother's face many times before.
"Your brother was kind enough to rescue me from the palace for the day. It's been a little overwhelming," he said, wondering if either of them could hear the understatement in his voice as much as he could. He knew it was something he'd have to get used to, but the sheer amount of people telling him where he needed to be and what he needed to wear was exhausting.
"I can imagine," Tala replied. "I mean, I can't imagine, but--"
Nicky laughed softly at her attempt at a quick backtrack, even though it wasn't necessary and Tala blushed slightly.
"So, why here?" Tala asked. "The most activity we usually see are a few patrons through the day and the usual school trips. Or was that the point? Somewhere quiet?" She didn't seem put out by the thought that Joe had brought Nicky here to hide him from the world.
"Twofold," Joe answered. "Nicky here said he wanted to learn more about Genovia, and where better to learn the history of our country than here, and also I felt it was my duty to introduce two history nerds to each other."
Joe grinned at the shocked look Tala threw him, although Nicky wasn't sure if it was at her brother calling her a nerd, or calling Nicky one. She opened her mouth to say something, but snapped her lips shut as she turned her focus to Nicky.
"History nerd?" she said.
Nicky nodded. "Currently partway through my Masters on the shared history of comparative religions."
A grin disturbingly reminiscent of Joe's crossed her face, and Nicky could absolutely see the family resemblance. "Oh," she said, linking her arm with Nicky's and starting to tug him across the room, "you and I are going to get on just fine."
Nicky looked back at Joe, not sure if he should be letting Tala lead him further into the museum, but Joe was just laughing.
"Trust me, it's best to just go with it," he said, following them. "Be grateful the rest of my family aren't here, you'd never get away without at least seven different discussions about various periods of history."
"Ignore him," Tala said, with the kind of tone that said she was quite used to doing exactly that to her brother. "He gets just as involved in those discussions as any of us do."
"Really?" Nicky replied, glancing over at where Joe was now walking next to them. "Joe said he was the black sheep of the family for not being in the same kind of career as the rest of you."
There was surprise in Joe's eyes as he met Nicky's gaze, as though he hadn't expected Nicky to remember that.
Tala hit Joe on the arm with her free hand, ignoring Joe's plaintive What's with the hitting today?. "Yes, we're all terribly embarrassed by the person who protects literal queen and country." The eye roll was accompanied by a laugh that told Nicky this wasn't the first time the argument had been had. "So, no, Yusuf, no matter how much you want it to be, you are not the black sheep." Tala turned to Nicky, a little conspiratorially, as she grinned. "Although he's maybe a little dark grey on his best days."
Nicky laughed at the look of betrayal on Joe's face.
"My sister, you wound me. And to think, you used to be my favourite sister."
"I'm your only sister," Tala pointed out, as they came to a set of double doors. Unlinking her arm with Nicky's, Tala pushed open the doors. "Our history," she said, stepping inside. "If you want to know anything about Genovia's past, this is the best place to start."
Nicky stepped into the room, the tapestries and artwork on the wall reminding him of the way he felt in every museum, like the history is just waiting there to be discovered and shared.
"I was in the middle of something I need to finish," Tala said, "but I'll leave you in Yusuf's very capable hands. Black sheep comment aside, he knows the pieces in this room nearly as well as I do."
Nicky looked at her as she spoke.
"When we were children, we'd be here every weekend, while Baba worked," she continued. "Both helping him and listening to every story he told around each piece. If you have any questions, Yusuf will be able to answer them."
Nicky reached out and laid a hand on Tala's arm. "Thank you," he said, appreciation in his tone. He hadn't lied earlier when he'd said he felt overwhelmed at the palace, but stepping into the museum was calming, restful.
Tala smiled. "I'll be in the archive room, if you need me. Yusuf knows where it is." She turned to leave, lighting smacking her brother's arm as she walked past him, her soft laughter at his pouted objection cutting off as she closed the doors to the room behind her, leaving Joe and Nicky alone.
The silence settled around them, heavy but not oppressive. The kind of silence Nicky loved to sink into when he was researching. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and he knew he was imaging it, but it was almost like he could taste something in the air. Taste the inks on the books and the dust that covered them until they were carefully unearthed and displayed for people centuries after a careful hand had scribed each of the words.
Opening his eyes, he met Joe's gaze, feeling the heat come to his cheeks at Joe's softly scrutinising look. "So, Yusuf?" he asked quickly, cutting off whatever Joe had been about to say.
"Joe's a nickname," Joe replied. "Yusuf's my actual name, but it's mainly just my family that calls me that. Pretty much everyone else calls me Joe."
"What do you prefer to be called?" Nicky asked, not wanting to carry on calling him Joe, if he preferred Yusuf.
"Joe is fine," came the response.
"So, tell me," Nicky said, "about Genovia."
Joe grinned as he motioned Nicky over to one of the paintings on the wall. "This is where Genovia started."
"The siege of Jerusalem?" Nicky said questioningly. He recognised the scene the painting was depicting, but he couldn't see a name anywhere on it. It looked aged, a few hundred years, Nicky thought, as he leaned closer, taking in the details of the soldiers lying on the ground, and the redness of the mud under them.
"Genovia was first settled by a group who fled the First Crusade," Joe explained. "There isn't a lot of documentation from that time, but enough that we know that this group travelled together until they reached what is now Genovia."
"That can't have been an easy journey." Certainly not one Nicky would have wanted to make, but desperate people do desperate things to get their families to safety.
Joe rested a hand on Nicky's lower back, urging him onto the next piece. "The special thing about this group is that they were a mixture of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. People from both sides of the conflict banded together to flee the fighting. There are records of invading Crusaders who realised that they weren't fighting a holy war, but one for land, and turned their backs on the Church, putting down their swords. Records of those who were defending Jerusalem who helped protect families who left the city, looking for an escape to safety."
As he listened, part of Nicky thought it was a shame Joe hadn't gone into teaching, like his mother and brother, thought that he had the kind of voice Nicky could listen to for hours.
"A whole caravan of people moving away from the war behind them and finding a home here. They built homes to live in and places to worship and schools to teach their children in. It was one of your ancestors who brokered the ownership of the land with the country Genovia used to belong to." Joe pointed to the treaty on the wall, paper curled and ink faded into the gold gilt that ran around the edges.
When they'd been driving to the palace from the airport, the day they landed in Genovia, the cars had come through the town. We always come back through the town, his grandmother had explained. It's a bit of a tradition if I've been out of the country for longer than a week.
He'd watched the streets go by as Catherine had waved out of the window at people. Quynh had mentioned that the streets weren't usually that busy, but it was a bit of an unusual homecoming, and the people were out in force to see the new Prince. One of the streets they'd gone down Nicky had noticed a church next to a mosque next to a synagogue. He'd meant to ask about it at the time, but then there had been more people and more places, and it had entirely slipped his mind. Although hearing about the mixed group of people who had settled Genovia, the places of worship being next to each other seemed apt.
"Tala was right, I used to love coming here every weekend." Joe's voice had a wistful tone Nicky had never heard with the other man before.
"What drew you here?" Nicky asked, wanting to know that part of Joe, the part that apparently sat in museums and connected to the art, the history.
Taking Nicky's hand in his, Joe led him across the room, stopping in front of a tapestry. Some of the threads were worn and broken, but that didn't take away from what Nicky was looking at. His hand was inches from the fabric before he realised what he was doing, lightly clenching his fist and pulling it back.
"The group that settled here was led by two men, a Catholic and a Muslim," Joe told him, as Nicky took in the depictions of the two men, the clothes they were wearing putting them on opposite sides of the conflict, but the way they were reaching out for each other saying far more than any words could.
"Their names are lost to time," Joe said, "but not their love."
"They fell in love?" Nicky pulled his attention away from the tapestry to look at Joe. He couldn't even imagine what it would have been like for them, the amount of obstacles they would have had to overcome.
"Yes," Joe answered, his gaze still on the tapestry. "They were on opposite sides and they fell in love. The writings that we still have from that journey don't mention them by name, only that they led the group to safety."
It was only when Joe softly tugged Nicky along to the next piece that Nicky realised their hands were still joined. The parchment in the carefully sealed frame was browning and ripped at the bottom, but the ink was still sharp and clear, black strokes across the paper. Someone had taken effort to preserve it as much as they could.
"Arabic?" Nicky asked. He couldn't read the writing, but Arabic made sense.
Joe nodded, shifting slightly out of the way so Nicky could get a closer look. "It's not one of the languages you speak, is it."
The words were more statement than question, and it took Nicky a moment to connect that to Joe most likely having read a dossier on him at some point. "No," Nicky confirmed. "Italian, French and English." He paused for a moment. "I can also tell someone to fuck off in Spanish." He shrugged at Joe's huff of laughter. "It seemed like it might come in useful at some point."
Nicky looked back at the frame, the words written flowing together in a beautiful script. "What is it?" he asked, hoping he wasn't waxing lyrical about a shopping list telling someone to get three tomatoes and some spices at the market.
"It's a poem," Joe said, making Nicky feel slightly relieved.
"Written by--" Nicky waved a hand over to the tapestry, to the images of the two men who had fought so much to be together.
"Yes," Joe confirmed. "There are no names, but it's his. He started off defending his land from invaders and ended up falling in love with one of them."
"Can you--" Nicky's words trailed off as Joe stepped closer, close enough that if Nicky leaned back his shoulder would be against Joe's chest.
"Translate?" Joe's voice was soft, low, like he was telling a secret only Nicky was meant to hear.
Nicky nodded, not wanting to speak, feeling like any words would be too loud, even though they were the only two in the room.
"He is the moon when I'm lost in darkness, and warmth when I shiver in cold. The kindness of his heart overflows in all he does, and my love for him is beyond measure and reason."
Nicky wished he could blame the cold for the shiver that ran through him, wished he could blame anything else apart from Joe's voice and the words that were being spoken. "How do you know it was one of the men who wrote the poem," he asked, "and not one of the women who travelled with them?"
A soft smirk crossed Joe's face. "This wasn't the only poem written. Some of the others are less... family friendly, shall we say. The writing made it pretty obvious it's two men." He paused. "Two men with a very healthy and quite adventurous sex life, if the writing is to be believed."
"Oh." Nicky could feel the blush on his cheeks, and part of him wanted to ask Joe if the other poems are displayed in the museum as well, wanted to ask him to translate the words, to speak them in that low tone that sends shivers down Nicky's spine.
"When I was younger," Joe's voice was quiet, like he was sharing something secret with Nicky, something that he didn't want anyone else to hear, "I'd read this over and over and wonder what it would be like to be that in love with someone."
"I wouldn't know," Nicky replied, matching Joe's low tone with his own. "My last boyfriend left me because he thought I was emotionally unavailable." Never mind that his mother had just died. Never mind that Nicky's entire life had been pulled out from under him, Michael had still expected him to put his grief to the side and listen while he ranted about how he wasn't appreciated in his job.
"Your last boyfriend was a moron."
Nicky turned his head at Joe's words, at the edge of steel in his tone. He met Joe's eyes, his breath stuttering slightly at how close the other man was.
"Joe--" Nicky's voice trailed off, not exactly sure what he could say, what he should say.
"I like the way you say my name." Joe said.
"Joe--" Nicky couldn't help saying it again, his eyes drawn to the way Joe's gaze dropped to his lips for a moment, before lifting back up to meet Nicky's eyes.
Nicky didn't know which one of them moved first, which one of them closed the gap between them. All he knew was Joe's lips were on his, and he was twisting around to keep it that way. One of Joe's hands cupped his face, as his tongue lapped at Nicky's lower lip, encouraging Nicky's mouth to open.
Nicky could taste the hint of coffee on Joe's breath, and he chased the taste against Joe's tongue, groaning into Joe's mouth as a hand dropped to his lower back to press them closer. Lifting a hand, Nicky gave into the temptation to tangle his fingers in the curls of Joe's hair, his hips hitching against Joe's as Nicky felt the hardness behind Joe's jeans pressing into him, felt his own pressing back. He wondered if the museum had a closet or toilets or anywhere they could go where Nicky could get to his knees and suck Joe's cock down.
There was a whine in the air, a sound full of need and want, and Nicky didn't realise it was him making it, until Joe broke the kiss, pulling back, his eyes wide.
Nicky moved forward, wanting to catch Joe's lips again, wanting to feel the roughness of Joe's beard against his skin. But all he caught was a frown as Joe stepped back, his hands pulling away from Nicky's body and Nicky's fingers falling from Joe's hair.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness, I shouldn't have done that."
But those weren't the words Nicky wanted to hear, not then, not from Joe. Joe had nothing to be sorry about, except for the fact that he wasn't still kissing Nicky. "Joe--"
There must have been something fascinating on the wall behind him, Nicky thought, because Joe's eyes hadn't moved from a point over Nicky's shoulder since he's taken a step back, moving away from Nicky.
"I should get you back to the palace. Quynh will have my hide if you miss that fitting."
Nicky glanced at his watch, not pointing out that it was another two hours until the fitting, and only a 20 minute ride back to the palace. "Of course."
Quynh was waiting for them when Joe pulled the bike up to the palace, and he didn't even look at Nicky as Nicky got off the bike and handed his helmet over.
"Since you're back earlier," Quynh said, taking Nicky's arm and starting to lead him into the palace, "we may as well start the final fitting now. The tailor's waiting for us."
Nicky nodded. "That's fine." He didn't look back at Joe as he heard the roar of the bike starting up and speeding back out of the palace grounds.
Nicky looked at his reflection in the mirror, looked at the person staring back at him, the person wearing a perfectly tailored white suit that was probably worth more than the rest of his wardrobe put together. The sash over one shoulder held the crest of Genovia and part of Nicky didn't even recognise himself.
"What do you think, Your Highness?" the tailor, Andre, asked.
"It's perfect, Andre," Quynh answered, filling the silence coming from Nicky, as she stepped forward. "As always."
"Si, si, thank you," added Nicky, not wanting Andre, who had been wonderful through the entire process of fitting and adjusting and refitting, to take his silence for anything negative against the work he'd done.
Quynh glanced at him, and Nicky turned away from the knowing look in her eyes.
Nothing further was said as Andre packed away his tools, finally saying that if he was needed for any readjustments between then and the coronation in four days to just give him a call.
Quynh smiled, showing Andre to the door, and handing him into the care of the security guard who would see him out of the palace.
Coming back after seeing her charge safely off with someone else, Quynh sat in the soft armchair against the wall, looking at Nicky. The look she gave him reminded Nicky of the one he'd see on his mother's face when she was trying to get him to admit to some wrongdoing as a child. It kind of made him want to admit to everything he'd ever done.
"You should take the suit off before--"
"I kissed Joe!"
"--it gets creased," she ended, simply raising an eyebrow at Nicky's outburst.
Nicky glanced down, half wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut and not mentioned anything. The sound of soft footfalls on the plush carpet brought a pair of red high heels into his view, and he looked back up at Quynh.
"Yeah," he said, even though she hadn't asked any question. She hadn't needed to, he could pretty much read what she thought in the look on her face.
"Get changed," she told him. "This needs ice cream and I'm not risking that suit around mint chocolate chip."
Or, Nicky thought, maybe he had no idea what she was thinking.
There were people walking through the small anteroom on their way in and out of the kitchen, but they ignored the table in the corner where Nicky and Quynh were sitting across from each other, both holding spoons in their hands and a tub of ice cream between them.
"Talk to him about it, Nicky," Quynh said, waving her spoon in his general direction before pushing it back into the tub for another scoop.
Nicky pulled his spoon out of his mouth, the chill of the ice cream spreading over his tongue. "What do I say to him, though?" he asked, after swallowing the mouthful of mint and chocolate. "Oh, hey, Joe, I really wished you'd continued kissing me in the museum so I could have dragged you into a closet and sucked you off..."
Quynh paused, her spoon halfway to her mouth, looking at Nicky like she wasn't expecting him to be quite so blunt. A green drip falling from the spoon to splatter on the table broke the moment, and Quynh laughed as she ate the ice cream, catching another drip on her finger and licking it off. "Well, that would probably work," she admitted. "Let me tell you something, Joe is very much like Andy in their personalities, and Andy didn't even realise I was interested in her until I literally told her that the two times I'd asked her to dinner had actually been me asking her on a date, and not chances to go over the Queen's itinerary so she could make sure the security teams were briefed."
Nicky thought back to the museum, to the way Joe's lips felt on his. Thought back to how there was no way Joe didn't feel how hard Nicky was against him. "I'm pretty sure Joe knows how I feel about this," Nicky said.
"Then you're back to talking to him about it," Quynh replied, almost apologetically. "Just remember, Nicky, that Joe's job is to protect the Genovian royal family; a royal family that you are now a part of."
Nicky sighed, digging his spoon back into the tub and scraping up the remains of the ice cream and getting it into his mouth before it could melt further. Logically, he knew Quynh was right. There was no way Nicky was going to know why Joe kissed him and, more importantly, why he'd pulled away once he'd realised Nicky was into it as much as Joe had been, unless he actually spoke to the man.
The problem, Nicky found, was that apparently being a member of the security team also gave Joe ninja skills in avoiding Nicky. When Nicky had had no luck in tracking Joe down for two days, he finally gave in and asked Quynh.
Quynh told him to leave it with her. If she had as much success as Nicky had, he wasn't going to be seeing Joe again until after the Coronation.
Or, Nicky thought, as his phone buzzed in his hand, she was going to text him less than five minutes after he'd spoken to her informing him that Joe was in the garage and likely to be there for at least the next 30 minutes.
Steeling himself, Nicky headed over to the garage, finding Joe in the corner, crouched next to his motorbike with a rag in his hand and smudges of grease on his t-shirt, working over the chrome.
"I think you can see your face in it," Nicky commented, hoping the look on his face was a smile and not a grimace when Joe got to his feet as he turned to look at him, the rag tossed over the bike's handlebars.
"Nicky," Joe nodded, his gaze flicking towards the door, and Nicky knew the only reason Joe wasn't striding out of the garage there and then was that Nicky was in his way.
"Hey, Joe," Nicky started, "it feels a little like you've been avoiding me." If by 'a little' Nicky actually meant 'a lot', and that avoidance had absolutely been happening.
"I just thought it was best to take a step back after what happened in the museum," Joe said.
After we kissed, Nicky didn't say. We kissed and it felt perfect until you pulled away. The words sat heavy in his throat, but Nicky didn't let them out. "Is it that you're not interested?" he asked instead.
Because while he didn't want to hear that was the reason, it was at least something Nicky would get over. It wouldn't be the first time Nicky was attracted to someone who didn't return his feelings. That was just part of life. And while he might have felt a twinge of regret when he saw Joe around the palace, they were both adults, could both exist in the same space without making it awkward.
"No, Nicky, I'm very interested." Joe looked at Nicky with a heat in his eyes, the kind of heat that said Joe was a few seconds from finding the nearest closet and bundling Nicky into it so they could do highly inappropriate things to each other. Or maybe just bend him over the bike. Nicky was good with that, too.
"Then what's the problem?"
Joe stalked forward under they were barely inches apart. "The problem is that I want to pin you down and fuck you until you can't remember your own name. And I shouldn't be thinking that."
Nicky very much disagreed. Joe should think things like that. Joe should very much think things like that. The only problem was Joe not following them up. "I would be up for that," Nicky said, hoping the hitch in his breath at both Joe's closeness and the mental image his words brought up wasn't too noticeable. "Many times," he added.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Joe stepped back, and it took everything in Nicky not to follow him, not to press up against him and see exactly how far he could push Joe until the other man did exactly what he'd said he wanted to do.
"You don't get it," Joe said, an undertone of defeat in his voice that Nicky never wanted to hear coming from Joe's lips ever again. "You're a prince, Nicky."
"Only for the last few weeks!" Hell, most of the time he still thought of himself as a poor student and had to pinch himself when he woke up in palace that had staff.
Joe just looked at him. "You're a prince," he repeated, "and I'm--" Joe paused for a moment, "not."
But Joe just carried on. "It's my job to protect you, and I can't do that properly, if all I can think about when I look at you is how much I want to kiss you, how much I want to press you into a bed and sink right into you."
He didn't wait for a response before he left, leaving Nicky behind him, alone in the garage.
Nicky stared at the reflection in the mirror. He knew he should be focused on the fact that in about three hours, he was going to be the prince of an actual country, but his mind was stuck on a loop, replaying the conversation with Joe from the day previously. He hadn't seen Joe since the other man had walked out on him in the garage, and half of him was telling him to find Joe, to make him see that they both wanted the same thing. But there was that devil on his other shoulder, the one murmuring that Joe had made his decision and that decision was obviously that Nicky wasn't worth the effort. It was depressing how many people in his life seemed to make that same decision.
Pulled from his thoughts, Nicky turned at the sound of his grandmother's voice.
"You look wonderful."
He looked down at himself, taking in the suit and the sash, the shoes that probably cost more than the rent on his previous apartment. The barber Quynh had sat him down with that morning had made sure that his hair didn't look like he'd just rolled out of bed and run his fingers through it because he couldn't find his comb.
He looked like a prince. Looked like maybe Prince Nicolò wasn't someone he had to become, but rather, was a part of Nicky that was just settling in.
"Thank you," he replied, the manners drummed into him by his mother coming to the fore.
"I have something for you," Catherine said, stepping closer and holding out the box in her hands, smiling at Nicky when he took it and opened it. "It's the watch my father wore to his coronation," she explained, as she reached into the box and took the watch out. "I'd be honoured if you'd wear it."
"Of course," Nicky said, putting the box down so he could take off the watch he was already wearing. He'd been debating on whether or not to wear it, knowing that the beaten-up timepiece with the worn leather strap hardly matched the clothes he was wearing. Part of him that thought that maybe he shouldn't wear one at all. After all, it was just his luck that he'd end up getting caught glancing down at the time during the ceremony.
"May I?" Catherine asked, motioning towards his wrist.
Nicky held his arm out, the cool metal of the back of the watch face resting heavy against his wrist as she fastened the strap.
Running her hands down the front of his jacket after she'd put the watch on his wrist, Queen Catherine of Genovia took a step back and looked at her grandson. "Perfect."
The entire population of the country seemed to be lining the streets as the carriage took Nicky and his grandmother to Parliament House. Flags were hanging off buildings, as well as being waved by the people they were passing.
Nicky felt his nervousness dip and rise as they got closer to Parliament House, running over everything he'd been told about the coronation in his mind. The coronation was taking place in one of the large function rooms, with everyone there to witness it already being seated before Nicky and his grandmother got there. Prime Minister Nazari was going to meet them outside the room. An announcement would be made, and the Prime Minister would go in first, followed by Nicky and the Queen.
The coronation ceremony itself would be led by the Prime Minister, where he'd ask Nicky if he was taking the crown of his own free will (he was), and if he understood his responsibilities to the people and land of Genovia (he did). There would then be an interfaith blessing from the priest, imam, and rabbi from the town's church, mosque, and synagogue, respectively. The crown would then be placed on Nicky's head, and he'd be announced as the Prince.
Nicky just hoped he didn't do anything stupid like trip over his own feet on the way down the aisle, or throw up during the ceremony.
"Stop looking so nervous, Nicolò; you'll be fine," his grandmother chuckled as she patted his knee.
They were soon at Parliament House, with Prime Minister Nazari waiting for them. He offered his hand to the Queen, helping her down from the carriage, before Nicky stepped out. He could see Andy and Quynh at the doors, both of them sending him encouraging smiles as they approached.
The two women joined the group, as they headed into Parliament House, the Prime Minister leading the way through the corridors, until they reached the corridor that led into the function room. Nicky's heart sank a bit when he saw the two people standing on either side of the door. Booker was tall enough to be instantly recognisable, but Nicky's gaze slid straight past the Frenchman to focus on the black-clad figure on the other side.
Joe nodded subtly at him, and Nicky wished he knew what it meant. Was it a 'Hi', or a 'Looking good?' Maybe it was an 'Oh, hey, sorry I walked out on you yesterday, but I've been thinking and I'd really like to give it a go, actually.' Nicky wished he could ask him, but didn't think the people waiting on the other side of the door would appreciate him holding up the ceremony in order to sort out his currently non-existing love-life. (Although Nicky may have been willing to delay for a few minutes if he could guarantee said non-existing love-life would change into an existing, preferably very active, love life.)
"Everyone ready?" Quynh asked, throwing Nicky a reassuring smile when they all turned to look at him.
Closing his eyes for a brief moment, Nicky nodded. "Si, yes, let's do this."
Joe and Booker opened the doors, and the undercurrent of chatter that Nicky had been able to hear even through the thick wood quietened down almost instantly.
Bowing briefly to the Queen and then to Nicky, Prime Minister Nazari headed into the room, making his way to the slightly raised stage at the front.
Resting a hand on Nicky's arm, his grandmother looked at him. "Shall we?" she said.
Nicky smiled as he lay a hand on top of hers, and the two of them stepped through the doors.
Nicky took a deep breath as he stood at the top of the staircase.
"The hard part's over," Quynh commented, motioning to the crown atop his head as she stood beside him.
Lifting a hand, he felt the cool gold under his fingertips. "I don't need to wear this all the time, do I?" he asked, suddenly worried about having to take it everywhere and leaving it behind. He'd been bad enough when he was younger, always putting things down and then walking away from them without remembering to pick them up again. He didn't really want to gain notoriety for leaving his crown behind everywhere he went.
Quynh smiled. "Only for today and a small number of official functions," she reassured him. "Otherwise, it will be safe inside the vault with the rest of the crown jewels."
The historian in him sat up at the thought of a vault, wondering what else was in there, if he'd be allowed to go and have a look.
Quynh laughed lightly. "You know, Nicky, your face gives everything away, and yes, you can look in the vault to see what's there," she said, answering the question Nicky hadn't even spoken.
He smiled back, deprecatingly.
"But," she continued, "tonight, we have other places to be."
She glanced down the stairs, nodding as Andy appeared at the bottom of them, giving a thumbs up.
"I believe that's your cue," Quynh said.
Taking another breath, Nicky walked down the stairs, smiling at Andy as he passed her, just before two of the staff opened the large double doors, letting Nicky step through them.
The low hum of chatter in the ballroom stopped as Nicky stepped inside, as everyone in there focused their attention on him. Prime Minister Nazari was already waiting for him, no doubt informed of his imminent arrival by Booker, who was standing a few steps behind the politician.
"Your Majesty," the Prime Minister's voice rang through the room, "ladies and gentlemen, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Nicolò of Genovia."
Nicky glanced down at his hand, surprised his fingers weren't swollen from shaking that many hands. It seemed to have taken him an age to actually make it through the room, and that was with Quynh by his side both making introductions and making sure no one monopolized his time for too long. Andy stood behind them, a shadow in black, keeping an eye on everyone who approached Nicky.
Every so often, Nicky saw Nile moving through the throng of people or Booker standing against one of the walls, deceptively casual.
Nicky knew Joe was out there, as well, even if he hadn't seen him.
"You look a little shell-shocked, Nicolò," his grandmother said, laying her hand on his arm.
Nicky smiled at her, flexing his fingers. "I may have shaken more hands tonight than I have in the entire rest of my life," he commented.
Catherine laughed quietly. "Ah, yes, the downside of being royalty," she said. "Everybody wants to shake your hand and talk to you about donations and patronage. I'd say it gets better, but it really doesn't." She glanced over to where Quynh was standing. "But that's why I have Quynh. She's far better at handling that side than anyone I've ever met."
Nicky didn't disagree. He'd seen the way Quynh had organised his coronation, from getting him to all of the fittings with the tailor, to checking he approved of the font on the invitations (Nicky had suggested Comic Sans, just to see Quynh's eye twitch before she'd realised he was kidding), to making sure he was okay with the dancing and asking if he'd needed any lessons. His mother had loved to waltz him around the house when he was younger. He'd stand on her feet while music played on the radio and she danced them both around the kitchen. So, while Nicky didn't think he'd be the best dancer there, he also didn't think he'd totally embarrass himself out amongst the couples on the dancefloor.
Although, that didn't seem to be an issue, as Nicky looked out to see people talking, and people laughing, and people drinking the what was probably ridiculously priced champagne that was being carried on trays by the servers. What he didn't see was people dancing. The string quartet in the corner of the room was playing, but no one seemed to have given in to the urge to dance.
"No one's dancing," he said, glancing over to his grandmother.
She looked at him. "Of course they aren't," she replied, like this was something he should know. "It's a ball in your honour, Nicolò. The first dance is yours. For someone to dance before you do would be seen as terribly bad mannered."
He was pretty sure Quynh hadn't mentioned that when she'd gone through everything with him - who people were, how to greet them, which of the dignitaries from attending countries weren't speaking to dignitaries from other attending countries. Although there had been a lot of information, so it was also entirely possible that Quynh had, in fact, mentioned this exact thing and Nicky had just forgotten.
"Who am I meant to dance with?" he asked, not wanting to start an international incident by asking the wrong person.
Catherine smiled at him. "Anyone you choose."
"Anyone?" It couldn't be that easy. There had to be some sort of unspoken rule about a Queen coming before a Princess coming before a Prime Minister, and if Nicky asked the wrong one then there would be arguments and broken trade agreements and possibly all out war. Nicky was sure he didn't want the epitaph on his grave to read: "Here lies Prince Nicolò of Genovia. He started a war by asking the wrong person to dance."
Catherine nodded. "As I said, Nicolò, it's your ball."
Anyone. Which meant--
Nicky looked out at the people there, most of them trying not to look like they were keeping an eye on the dais he and his grandmother were on. He could see Andy, standing slightly to the side, her eyes constantly scanning the group of dignitaries to make sure there was no trouble. Not that there would be. Nicky had utter faith in Andy and her team.
He could see Nile and Booker standing by the double doors leading out of the room, black suits fitting in perfectly with the rest of the guests and yet letting them fade effortlessly into the background. So that only left--
Joe was next to the open glass doors leading to the balcony, dressed in the same black as the rest of the security team. Even though Nicky knew there was a gun under Joe's jacket, he couldn't tell just by looking at him.
Taking a deep breath, Nicky stepped down from the dais and started to walk across the room, trying to ignore the gazes that followed him and the silence he left in his wake. There were quiet murmurs and Nicky could make out the occasional word wondering if he was about to ask someone to dance. The walk across the ballroom seemed both ridiculously long and yet over in an instant, and soon he was standing in front of Joe.
"Yusuf al-Kaysani," Nicky said quietly, hoping his voice wasn't carrying too much to the people closest to them, "I would be honoured if you would have this dance with me."
Joe's gaze darted around the room before settling back on Nicky's. "Nicky, you should ask someone else."
"I don't want to ask anyone else," Nicky replied. Since he'd walked into the room, he'd been introduced to princes and dukes and ladies and dames. Introduced to a hundred different people from a dozen different countries, and the only one he wanted to dance with was Joe. "Please. Dance with me, Joe."
"Nicky--" Joe's voice was hesitant, like he wanted to say yes, but didn't think he should. He sounded like he had in the garage the day previously. Well, fuck that, thought Nicky. Life was too damn short not to dance with the man he thought he could easily fall in love with. (There was a good chance Nicky was already half in love with Joe, a good chance he had been since that night in the kitchens when Joe made him hot chocolate and fed him baklava.)
"I can't promise this'll work out. I may hate the way you snore and you may hate the way I leave towels on the bathroom floor. But I'd like to give it a try." Nicky held out a hand. "I'd like to give us a try."
There was a moment, a horrible moment, when Nicky thought Joe was going to leave him hanging. A moment when he could almost see Joe walking away from him, and leaving Nicky there with his hand stretched out and nothing reaching back. But then he reached out and took Nicky's hand. "This isn't going to be easy," Joe said. "I'm part of the security team; I'm used to being in the background. And you're the prince, so very much not in the background."
Nicky glanced down at their joined hands. The last thing he wanted to do was make Joe's job harder for him. Joe was more used to getting people away from the paparazzi, not being in front of them. Maybe Joe was right, maybe this was a bad idea, and Nicky had no right to ask Joe to possibly change his life in such a dramatic way. Nicky started to pull his hand away, his head jerking up to meet Joe's eyes as Joe's grip tightened, keeping their hands together.
"But," Joe said quietly, a slow smile coming to his face, "I'm willing to give us a try, if you are. Also, I don't snore," he teased.
"I'd like the chance to find that out for myself," Nicky replied, meeting Joe's smile, and his own widening at the suddenly heated look in Joe's eyes. "Although, I should tell you, I do leave towels on the bathroom floor," he admitted. Even if it was a terrible habit and he'd been trying to get better at it.
Joe leaned forward, his hand still in Nicky's and his thumb rubbing over Nicky's wrist, with his lips close to Nicky's ear as he murmured, "Oh, I'm sure I can give you some incentive not to."
Nicky swallowed heavily at the thought of what exactly Joe could give him as an 'incentive'. Shifting on his feet, and willing his cock to stay down ('Prince Nicolò goes through coronation ball with erection' was hardly a headline he wanted to see in the news), Nicky pulled back slightly, the softness of Joe's beard rubbing over his cheek as he moved. "Dance!" he exclaimed, feeling a hot flush rise to his face at Joe's amused look. Like Joe knew exactly what Nicky was thinking. "We should dance."
"After you," Joe motioned with the hand not in Nicky's, "Your Highness."
And maybe Nicky had been wrong those times he'd thought that he'd never get used to being called that. Because there was something about hearing those words in Joe's soft tone, with the undercurrent of heat and wanting, that made Nicky think he could hear them for the rest of his life.
Leading Joe back through the parting in the crowd towards the dancefloor, Nicky smiled as he saw Nile and the very unsubtle thumbs up she was giving them.
It felt strange to Nicky, taking that first step onto dancefloor, his hand in Joe's and knowing everyone in the room was watching them. Joe's fingers tightened, squeezing Nicky's hand reassuringly, and Nicky couldn't help but look at him and smile.
There was silence for a brief moment when they reached the middle of the dancefloor, before the band started playing a new song. Joe's soft laugh joined Nicky's as they both reached for the other's waist to try and lead. Meeting Joe's gaze, Nicky placed his hand on Joe's shoulder, content to let the other man lead, content to follow where Joe took him.
Unfortunately, Nicky's feet thought otherwise.
After the third misstep and Nicky staring at his feet, willing them to either go in the right direction or let the ground open up and swallow him, Joe placed two fingers under Nicky's chin, gently lifting his head.
"Nicky, just breathe and follow me. Imagine there's no one here but the two of us," he said softly, making Nicky wonder if his discomfort at everyone watching was really that obvious. "Imagine it's just us, our bodies pressed against each other, as you follow where I go," he continued.
Nicky licked at his dry lips as the mental image of the two of them pressed close, but wearing considerably less clothing sprang to mind. "I maybe shouldn't think about that too much," he admitted.
"Maybe not," Joe smiled, "but it worked."
Nicky laughed in delight when he realised Joe was right, that they were moving around the dancefloor without a misstep in sight. (Nicky mentally crossed his fingers hoping he really hadn't just jinxed them.)
Now that Nicky was dancing, it seemed to open the floodgates for other couples to join them until the dancefloor was filled with people.
"I'm glad you agreed to dance," Nicky said quietly, as Joe led him deftly around a couple who Nicky thought were the Duke and Duchess of somewhere beginning with a D, if he was remembering correctly.
"Well," Joe grinned, "when you're asked to dance by a beautiful man, what else can you do but say yes?"
Nicky wondered if everything Joe was going to say to him was going to make him flush a shade of red. There was a part of him that hoped yes, part of him that wanted to carry on hearing those words in Joe's soft tone. Nicky's body heated slightly as he thought back to the museum, back to the careful murmurs as Joe translated the poetry written so long ago.
"How long do you think we need to stay down here?" Nicky asked, quickly glancing at his grandfather's watch, where it lay on his wrist. It was less than an hour since he'd walked through the doors into the ballroom and, if he had his way, it would be less than another minute before he walked back out.
"Unfortunately, I think the person whose coronation ball this actually is probably has to stay for a little while longer, why?" Joe asked.
Nicky looked at him, looked at the dark eyes that held so much in them, and the curls that Nicky just wanted to run his fingers through. "Because I want to do things with you that would definitely get us on the front page of tomorrow's newspapers."
Joe laughed as they came to a stop, the music fading out of the air for only a moment before a different arrangement began. "How can I say no to an offer like that?"
You can't, hopefully, went through Nicky's mind, because he wanted Joe in the visceral kind of way that made Nicky want to drop to his knees. He wanted to take the other man's hand and run out of the room, drag him up to Nicky's bedroom and lock out the coronation and the people surrounding them. He wanted it to be just him and Joe, and a lot less clothing than both of them were wearing. "Joe--"
"And what are you offering, Nicolò?" an amused voice next to them asked.
Nicky turned to his grandmother, wondering just how much she'd heard, as well as whether or not it was appropriate to be standing in front of the person who was both your grandmother and a queen while thinking of sucking the cock of the man you'd just been dancing with.
Apparently taking pity on the panicked look on Nicky's face, she rested a hand on his arm while she spoke to Joe. "Joe, do you mind if I steal my grandson for a dance?"
"Of course not, Your Majesty," Joe replied, stepping back and letting Nicky's hand slide from his shoulder.
Nicky's fingers flexed, almost involuntarily, like he wanted to keep a hold of Joe, wanted to feel the warmth of his body through the clothes. Tamping down on the urge to follow Joe as he moved away, giving a squeeze to Nicky's hand before he let go, Nicky looked at his grandmother as she stepped into Joe's place and put her hand on Nicky's shoulder, allowing him to lead her as they started to dance.
After his grandmother, there was a Genovian marquise to dance with, and then a princess from one of the neighbouring countries. She was beautiful and funny, and probably thought Nicky was either an idiot or just plain rude, after he'd had to ask her to repeat herself for the third time because he'd been too busy trying to spot where Joe was instead of listening to her.
Luckily for Nicky, once the dance was over, she'd simply smiled and commented He's with the slightly scary looking woman in the corner, before she moved away to dance with one of the princes from a different neighbouring country than her own.
Knowing exactly who was meant by the slightly scary woman Nicky glanced over to the dais, where he knew Andy was standing. Quynh was just behind her, and next to her, as Princess Marina (Maria? Nicky was sure it began with M) had mentioned, was Joe.
Noticing Nicky looking at them, Andy motioned towards him, and the eye roll she gave at the wide grin that appeared on Joe's face was enough that even Nicky noticed it from where he was standing. He couldn't tell what she was saying to Joe as she held out her hand, obviously encouraging him to hand something over.
Nicky watched as Joe slipped out of his jacket, handing it to Quynh before he slid his shoulder holster off and gave it over to Andy. A hand went to Joe's ear and Nicky assumed it was his comms device that got dropped into Andy's palm. Taking his jacket from Quynh, Joe shrugged it back on, laughing as Andy shook her head in exasperation and pushed him back into the throng of people.
Nicky felt his heart stutter as he met Joe's gaze across the dancefloor. He wanted to bury his hands in Joe's hair and press their lips together, wanted to feel Joe against him, wanted to hear him moan Nicky's name.
He took a step towards Joe, ready to ask the other man to escape with him, to leave everyone else to the music and the dancing and the champagne, and come with him to Nicky's room. But before he could take another step, before he could ask Joe to run away with him, there was someone else in front of Joe, her hand on Joe's arm.
"--to dance?" Nicky heard the end of the request as he walked over, and if he was a better man, he would stay silent, would let someone else experience the pure joy it was to be in Joe's arms.
But Nicky was past silent, past polite, and if he didn't get Joe's hands on him, he thought he would die from need.
"Apologies, Duchess, but I was hoping to steal Joe for a dance myself," Nicky said.
"Of course, Your Highness," the Duchess replied, moving away with good grace and a smile to both of them, leaving them alone amongst a sea of people.
"So," Joe said, his gaze flicking to Andy for a second before moving back to Nicky, "it would seem I have the rest of the night off." He paused, a teasing smile coming to his lips. "I don't suppose you have any thoughts on what I could do with my suddenly free evening?"
"I have some thoughts on who you could do," Nicky replied, snapping his mouth closed as he realised his lips had worked faster than his brain.
But Joe just barked a laugh, joyous and carefree, as he took a step and closed the distance between them. His hand cupped Nicky's cheek as their mouths met, Nicky's opening to let Joe inside.
Nicky was barely aware of the people around them, only half noticing that some of them had stopped dancing and were looking at them. He didn't care that the music was still playing or that the murmurs had increased. All he cared about was Joe's lips on his and the heat of Joe's body against him. Nicky dug his fingers into Joe's bicep, feeling his cock twitch as Joe's teeth nipped at his lower lip.
Breaking the kiss Nicky rested his forehead against Joe's. "Please tell me you're still up for what you wanted to do to me?" Nicky asked, his body thrumming with the memory of Joe's voice telling him how much he wanted to pin you down and fuck you until you can't remember your own name.
Joe frowned slightly, and Nicky found himself wanting to lick the groove between Joe's eyebrows. "What I wanted to-- oh." Joe's eyes darkened as he obviously remembered exactly what he'd said to Nicky, exactly what he'd wanted to do. "Yes," he replied. "Yes, I am very much up for that." He leaned in, so close to Nicky's ear that his breath was a warm caress across Nicky's skin. "I'm going to make you scream for me, Nicky," he promised softly, the words not carrying any further than the two of them. "I'm going to fuck you so hard you'll be feeling me for weeks."
Yes. That. Definitely.
Shifting slightly and willing his cock to not get hard in front of everyone, Nicky pulled back slightly and held up a finger. "Hold that thought," he said, unable to stop himself from darting forward and pressing a quick kiss to Joe's mouth before he walked the few steps to where his grandmother was standing.
"Nicolò," she greeted him, taking one of his hands in hers, an amused and knowing smile on her face. "I'd ask if you were enjoying your coronation ball, but I think that kiss just told me everything."
Nicky met her smile, unashamed about the blush he knew was on his cheeks. "Would it be terrible if I left now?" he asked. Having never gone through a coronation before, he didn't know if it was like hosting a party, where you were expected to be the last one standing with the clean-up still to do, and as much as he wanted to ride Joe's cock (and he really wanted to ride Joe's cock) he'd feel awful if he caused a diplomatic incident to do so.
His grandmother laughed. "Oh, I remember being your age. Tomas and I had just become engaged and we kept sneaking off, finding corners and rooms where we could be alone, just the two of us with no careful eyes watching." She patted the back of his hand. "Go, enjoy the rest of your night with Joe."
Nicky leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, hoping she wasn't thinking about exactly how he'd be enjoying the rest of the evening. "Grazie, nonna," he murmured, pulling back at the small noise of surprise she made.
"That's the first time you've called me that," she said, her eyes a little brighter than they had been. She lifted a hand to his face, gently cradling his cheek. "I don't know if I've said this, but I am very happy that you have come into my life, Nicky."
Nicky smiled, covering the hand on his cheek with one of his own. "You called me Nicky."
Catherine's reply was a smile and the hand still holding his squeezing a little tighter for a second. "You shouldn't keep your young man waiting," she said, nodding to where Joe was still standing a few steps behind him.
Pressing another kiss to her cheek before pulling away, Nicky turned and headed back to Joe, reaching out as soon as he was within distance. "Come on," he urged, reminding himself that he was now a Prince and therefore it was unseemly to simply grab Joe's hand and run out of the room.
The crowd parted for them as they walked towards the doors, hand in hand. There seemed to be a few scandalized faces amongst the people, but most of them wore looks that ranged from amused to understanding.
When they got to the doors, Nile and Booker were waiting for them, hands on the already open doors and the actual doormen standing off to the side.
"Your Highness." The reverent nod Nile gave Nicky was undermined completely by the amused smirk on her face and the hand she held out for him to fistbump.
Meeting her grin, Nicky gently bumped his own fist against hers, before seeing movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to look at Joe. Joe was pulling his hand out of his jacket pocket while Booker slapped him on the shoulder.
"Joe, Prince Nicolò, enjoy the rest of your night," Booker commented, a knowing smile on his lips.
"I'm still Nicky," Nicky said, suddenly worried that the friends he'd made would look at him differently now there was a crown on his head.
"He knows that, Nicky," Joe reassured him, squeezing his hand as he ran his thumb over the inside of Nicky's wrist. "Booker's just being his usual dickish self," Joe said, pointedly looking at Booker while Nile snorted in amusement.
"Oui, Nicky," Booker agreed, glaring at Joe for his comment before throwing an apologetic smile in Nicky's direction. "But you will hopefully allow us a little bit of teasing."
Nicky nodded, smiling at Booker as he and Joe walked through into the hallway, the music and chatter coming from the ballroom muting as the doors were closed behind them.
Without dropping Nicky's hand, Joe led the way up the stairs and through the hall until they were standing outside of Nicky's rooms. Reaching out to open the door, Nicky yelped in surprise as Joe grabbed his ass and squeezed before pressing up against Nicky's back.
"Fuck, Nicky, your ass looks amazing in these," he murmured. "I wanted to rip them off you as soon as I saw you in them."
Nicky tried to bite back the moan he felt rising in him as Joe's hands moved over his ass, massaging and squeezing. "Please don't," he managed to get out, "I think Quynh will kill me if this suit gets damaged."
Joe laughed. "Then hurry up and open the door, or whoever next comes around the corner will see me fucking you against the wall."
The two of them all but tumbled into the room as Nicky opened the door, barely remembering to kick it closed behind him as Joe grabbed his arm and pulled him closer, pressing their lips together.
Nicky could taste mint and coffee on Joe's breath as his tongue dipped inside Nicky's mouth and it just made him want more, made him want to taste all of Joe. Breaking the kiss, Nicky pulled back gripping Joe's biceps as he turned them, pushing Joe until his back was against the wall.
Joe's eyes widened as Nicky sank to his knees, his hands sliding up the black fabric that covered Joe's thighs until he reached Joe's belt. The trousers were already tented at the front and Nicky couldn't resist sliding his thumb over the bulge as he opened the belt.
"Fuck--" Joe groaned. Lifting his hands, he took the crown that Nicky was still wearing off his head and threw it over to the couch before carding his fingers through Nicky's hair.
Keeping his gaze on Joe's, Nicky took his time slowly popping open the buttons on Joe's trousers.
"C'mon, Nicky, you're killing me here." Joe's voice was low, deep and it made Nicky's cock twitch, knowing he was the one causing it.
Steadily peeling back Joe's trousers once they were undone, Nicky grinned at the hard cock, now only trapped behind the dark blue boxer briefs Joe was wearing. Leaning forward, Nicky licked over the cotton before taking the fabric covered cockhead into his mouth.
The groan Joe gave was accompanied by a soft thud as Joe's head fell back to hit the wall.
Nicky sucked hard at the head until he could taste the precome seeping through the cotton. Satisfied with himself, Nicky pulled back, letting Joe's cockhead slip from between his lips. He trailed a finger over the wet patch, loving that the dampness darkening the fabric was a combination of both him and Joe.
"Please, Nicky--" The words cracked in the middle, giving Nicky the heady rush of knowing he was the one reducing Joe to this.
Reaching out, Nicky carefully eased Joe's boxers over his hard cock, finally freeing the trapped flesh. A bead of precome sat on the slit of Joe's cockhead, having escaped being absorbed into the cotton that now sat bunched under Joe's dick.
Wrapping a hand around the base of Joe's cock to steady the twitching column, Nicky rested his other hand on Joe's thigh, feeling hard muscle under his fingers. Leaning forward, he met Joe's eyes as he lapped the bead of moisture up before continuing with tiny kitten-licks over Joe's cock.
The fingers tangled in his hair tightened and Nicky couldn't stop the moan that rose in him at the prick of pain that came with it. Joe's eyes widened momentarily in surprise, and Nicky had a brief flash of panic that quickly vanished at the smile that crossed Joe's face.
"Oh, we are definitely exploring that later," Joe commented, as he slowly tightened his grip further and tugged at Nicky's hair, his eyes darkening at the shiver that ran through Nicky when he did so.
Using the hand in Nicky's hair, Joe gently pulled Nicky closer to his cock, as he wrapped his other around the fingers already holding his cock.
Joe's hand was warm as it covered Nicky's, holding himself steady as he drew Nicky close enough to swipe his cockhead over Nicky's lips, covering them with precome.
Nicky moaned as the heat from Joe's cockhead moved over his mouth, his tongue darting out to taste the slick left behind before opening his lips for Joe's cock to slip inside.
"Damn, Nicky, your mouth," Joe said roughly.
Sucking at Joe's cockhead, Nicky dipped his tongue into the slit gathering the precome leaking out and letting it run down his throat. Moving his head, he took Joe in deeper, his cock thick and heavy on Nicky's tongue.
Nicky always loved being on his knees, loved the weight of a cock in his mouth. There was something about knowing that he could reduce a partner to wordless moans with just a flick of his tongue. That it was Joe he was holding in his mouth just made it better. He felt Joe's cockhead slip further into his mouth, felt it as it moved into his throat and Nicky's lips touched Joe's thumb where his hand was wrapped around the base of his cock, still covering Nicky's own fingers.
Nicky swallowed past his gag reflex, feeling Joe's cock block the air for a brief moment, before he pulled back, letting the spit-slick hardness slip from his lips until only the head was still in his mouth. Without pausing, Nicky moved forward again, taking Joe in as far as he could once more before resting his teeth against the hardness in his mouth and lightly scraping them over the skin as he slowly moved back.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck--"
Nicky felt Joe's fingers squeeze down on his as Joe pinched at the base of his cock, his other hand detangling itself from Nicky's hair to wrap around his arm and tug him up.
"Didn't like it?" Nicky asked, as he got to his feet, thinking he probably should have asked Joe whether or not he was okay with it before introducing teeth into a blowjob.
"Liked it a little too much," Joe replied, reassuring Nicky with his words. "And while I absolutely want to watch you swallow me down, I seem to recall promising to fuck you so hard you forgot your own name."
Nicky was torn. On one hand, he wanted to drop back to his knees and suck Joe's cock until he spilled, wanted to know what Joe tasted like. But on the other hand, he really wanted Joe to fuck him. Except--
"I don't have anything," Nicky said. Because the two condoms that had been in the drawer of his bedside cabinet of his old apartment and the half used tube of lube that had been with them hadn't made it into the boxes that had come back to the Genovian Embassy, and it hadn't been as though Nicky could ask someone. After all "Hey, while packing up my apartment, did you throw away the condoms and the sticky tube of lubricant that I obviously only use to jerk off with since my boyfriend dumped me--" wasn't exactly the kind of thing Nicky wanted to say to anyone. Better to just let it go and try to ignore that someone employed by his grandmother had looked in that drawer and decided that Nicky's lack of a sex life simply didn't need opened lube and out of date condoms.
But Joe just smiled at Nicky's declaration, putting his hand into his jacket pocket to fetch what was there. "Present from Booker," he told Nicky as he held up the brand new tube of lube and box of condoms, which explained the knowing smirk the Frenchman had been wearing as he'd slapped Joe's shoulder, and made Nicky wonder if he'd prefer whiskey or wine as a thank you present.
"Now," Joe continued, "didn't you say that Quynh would kill you if the suit gets damaged?"
Nicky nodded, even though he'd already been on his knees for Joe, would crawl over dirt and dust to get his mouth back on Joe's cock.
Joe pushed them away from the wall, his hands around Nicky's arms as he manoeuvred them towards the middle of the room. "Then we'd better be careful in getting it off you, shouldn't we." He slowly undid the buttons on Nicky's suit jacket before he slipped his hands under the fabric, carefully sliding them up Nicky's shirt until he could push the jacket off Nicky's shoulders.
Letting the jacket fall down his arms, Nicky caught it before it hit the ground, laying it over the back of the couch. Joe's hands tugged Nicky's shirt out of his trousers, before working their way upwards, flicking open each button as he went, as Nicky pulled out the cufflinks, tossing them carelessly over the couch to land with a clatter on the coffee table. The shirt followed them, Nicky hissing as Joe leaned down and gently bit one of his now revealed nipples.
"I'm-- ah-- feeling at a disadvantage," Nicky commented, the words breaking in the middle as Joe soothed the bitten nipple for a moment before pinching it between his fingers, with a wry smirk.
Joe stepped back, and Nicky thought that he should look ridiculous, fully dressed with just his hard cock jutting out from his open trousers. But if there was anything Joe didn't look, it was ridiculous. Taking the condoms and lube back out of his pocket, Joe balanced them on the back of the couch before shrugging out of his jacket, lying it next to Nicky's. The shirt followed, and all Nicky could think was he wanted to get his hands on Joe's chest, wanted to drag his fingers down Joe's stomach and follow the trail of hair that led to his cock.
Nicky toed his shoes and socks off, as Joe did the same with his boots, until they were both standing there in just their trousers. Joe winked at him as he hooked his thumbs into his trousers, pulling both them and his boxers off at the same time, until he was standing naked in front of Nicky, his cock hard and proud as it stood out in front of him.
"And now it's you that has me at the disadvantage," Joe commented, motioning to the trousers Nicky was still wearing.
Nicky started to undo his trousers, stopping when Joe walked towards him. He glanced down as Joe reached out, resting a hand on Nicky's stomach for a brief moment, before walking around him, trailing his fingertips over Nicky's side, until he was behind Nicky.
"Take your trousers off, Nicky."
Joe's hand was still on his side as Nicky followed Joe's request. As soon as his trousers were underneath his ass, Joe pressed close to Nicky's back, the hard column of Joe's dick pushing against him. The shock of heat from Joe's body had Nicky forgetting all about his intention to be careful with the clothes he was wearing. He let the trousers fall down his legs, lifting his feet out and kicking the fabric to one side.
"Get the lube," Joe said, moving his hand to palm Nicky's ass, as Nicky reached over to the couch for the lube.
Pressing a kiss to Nicky's shoulder, Joe stopped fondling Nicky's ass to reach around Nicky's side and hold his hand out, wiggling two fingers. "Slick me up."
Twisting the cap off the brand new tube, Nicky squeezed viscous gel over Joe's fingers, wanting them inside him, stretching him open to take Joe's cock.
Sliding a knee between Nicky's legs, Joe nudged them apart. Nicky's breath hitched as Joe's fingers rubbed over his asshole, slicking it with the lube before pushing inside. Joe's other hand was on Nicky's stomach, holding him back against Joe's chest while his fingers fucked in and out of Nicky's hole.
Nicky moaned at the stretch of his muscles around Joe's fingers. The last time he'd been fucked was back when he was still with Michael, back before he'd ever even heard of Genovia or met Joe. And now Joe's fingers were inside him, all Nicky could think was that he wanted more.
"Please--" The plea fell from Nicky's lips as he gripped the arm that was cradling him. "Joe--"
"What is it, Nicky?" Joe murmured, his voice low and teasing. "What do you want?"
Stepping out of Joe's grip, and biting back a mewl of loss as the movement caused Joe's fingers to dislodge from his ass, Nicky grabbed the box of condoms from where it was still balanced on the back of the couch. Spinning around, he slapped the box against Joe's chest. "Fuck me," he said.
Joe laughed in delight. "Your wish is my command, Your Highness," he answered, taking the condoms and motioning for Nicky to lead the way to the bed.
Turning, Nicky headed toward the bed, yelping as Joe scooped him up just before he reached it. Nicky's laughter rang through the air as Joe tossed him the last few inches to land on his back, bouncing slightly as he hit. "Well," he said, pushing himself onto his elbows as he looked at Joe, still standing next to the bed, "now you're just showing off."
Joe glanced pointedly at Nicky's rock hard cock. "You don't seem to be complaining."
Nicky grinned. Anything but, he thought, ridiculously turned on by how easy it was for Joe to manhandle him. He'd always liked when his partners had the ability to hold him down. It wasn't something Nicky needed, but it was certainly something he'd never say no to. Wriggling across the bed until he was sitting next to where Joe was standing, Nicky plucked the box of condoms out of Joe's hand, opening it to take one of the foil packets out, before dropping the box to the floor. Tearing the packet open, he pulled the condom out, reaching out to jerk Joe's cock a couple of times, before deftly rolling the condom down the hard length.
Looking around him, Joe moved away briefly to grab the tube of lubricant from where Nicky had dropped it on the floor. Squeezing some of the lube out, Joe slicked the condom as he headed back towards the bed, tossing the still open tube to land next to the condom box.
Shifting himself back up the bed, Nicky smiled at Joe as the other man climbed on, settling himself between Nicky's open legs. Wrapping a hand gently around one of Nicky's ankles, Joe lifted Nicky's leg until it was resting on his shoulder, opening Nicky up to his gaze.
Nicky flushed as Joe's fingers rubbed over his still slick asshole, dipping inside to stretch him a little more. But Nicky didn't need it, didn't want it. He didn't want anything but Joe to push his way into his body, wanting to feel every solid inch as Joe fucked him.
"Joe--" Nicky would deny later that he whined out Joe's name, although he would admit that he came close.
Joe grinned, twisting his head to drop a kiss onto Nicky's ankle, before he shifted, taking his cock in his hand and steadying himself as he pressed against the entrance to Nicky's body.
Nicky bit his lower lip as he felt Joe against him, hard and hot and there. There was a moment, a breath, and then Joe pushed and Nicky arched off the bed, his leg dropping from Joe's shoulder to wrap around his waist, as Joe's cockhead slipped into his body. Joe paused, letting Nicky adjust to the sensation of being stretched around the cock inside him, before he moved, pressing forward in a steady, inexorable crawl until Nicky felt wiry hair against his ass and Joe was all the way in.
Joe was looking down at him, and Nicky couldn't resist lifting his hands to run his fingers through the soft curls of Joe's hair, tugging Joe down until he was close enough to kiss.
The groan Nicky made as Joe started to move his hips, started to fuck him, was swallowed by Joe's lips, neither of them breaking the kiss until they had to, until Nicky had no more breath in his body to give.
"Joe, Joe, Joe--" The name dropped from Nicky in a mantra, unable to keep it inside him. Each word fell on the beat of Joe's hips, on the hard slide of Joe's cock cleaving into his body. Nicky kept his fingers tangled in Joe's hair as Joe lowered his head, resting his forehead against Nicky's.
"You're so tight around me, like you were made to take my cock," Joe murmured as his forearms bracketed Nicky's head on the pillow.
It felt like Joe was all around him, cocooning him, cradling him. Felt like the two of them were locked away in their own world of want and need and desire.
"Please--" Nicky didn't know what he was pleading for, just knew that he wanted more, wanted everything. His own cock throbbed between their bodies, twitching with each thrust into his ass.
"What do you need, Nicky?" Joe asked, shifting his weight to balance on one arm, so he could lift a hand to trail fingertips down Nicky's arm.
Nicky shivered at the sensation, opening eyes he hadn't even realised he'd closed when Joe laughed softly. "What?" he queried, feeling a tiny frisson of embarrassment at being so flayed open by this man, like all Joe had to do was look at him and he'd see straight into Nicky's soul.
Joe slowed his thrusts into Nicky's body down to a near crawl, careful and steady and utterly, infuriatingly slow. The fingertips that had trailed down his arm moved to his face, Joe's thumb brushing over Nicky's cheek. "I want to spend years pulling every sound of pleasure out of you that I can," he said.
"Si," Nicky replied. Because that sounded very much like something Nicky wanted, like it was something he'd wanted since Joe handed him a mug of hot chocolate and asked him how he was coping. "Please, Joe, touch me." Nicky hunched his hips up, trying to get Joe to move faster, but Joe just smirked, leaning down to nip quickly at Nicky's lower lip with his teeth.
"How do you want me to touch you, Nicky," Joe teased. "You want me to touch you here?" He ran a finger along Nicky's lips, laughing when Nicky took the opportunity to get his own back and quickly bite at Joe's fingertip. "Or maybe here?" He moved to Nicky's neck, the back of his fingers carefully trailing over the sensitive skin. "Or how about here?" Joe leaned down to murmur the words into Nicky's ear as fingers pinched at one of Nicky's nipples, making Nicky moan in pleasure at the sharp pain before gentle fingers soothed out the hurt.
"God, please, Joe!" Nicky wasn't sure where he wanted Joe's hands next, just knew he wanted them on him. Gripping Joe's hips tighter with his legs, Nicky drummed a foot against Joe's ass, trying to urge him into moving faster. He wanted to see Joe succumb to his pleasure, knowing that he was the one causing it.
"Look at me, Nicky," Joe asked, waiting until Nicky's gaze was on his, waiting until Nicky was pinned by the warmth and heat in Joe's brown eyes.
Shifting slightly, Joe gripped Nicky's cock, his fingers wrapping around the hardness.
"Yes--" Nicky hissed, forcing himself to keep his eyes open, instead of dropping his head back into the pillow.
Joe pressed their mouths together as he started to jerk Nicky, his own thrusts in Nicky's body finally speeding up.
Nicky was close, had been half on edge since Joe took his hand down in the ballroom. Stripping Nicky's cock roughly as they kissed, Joe licked at Nicky's lips, urging them open.
Dropping one of his hands from Joe's hair, Nicky dug his fingers into Joe's biceps. The breathy moans forced out of him with each slap of Joe's hips into him were swallowed by Joe's mouth, and Nicky thought that maybe Joe could taste the need on his tongue. Everywhere Joe was touching him was ablaze with heat, with the kind of hot longing that Nicky had never felt before with any other person.
Joe's grip on Nicky's cock tightened, and Nicky could feel the fire building in him, feel the wide ball of want sitting low in his belly.
Tugging Joe's head up with the hand still buried in dark curls, Nicky gasped out Joe's name, unable to keep it inside him. "Joe, please--" He didn't know what question he was asking, just knew that he needed to voice it.
"Anything," Joe answered, and Nicky wondered if he heard the question Nicky had been unable to ask.
"You, please, just you," Nicky begged, as Joe's thumb rubbed over the head of his cock and his prostate was hit head on. Nicky yelled as the ball of fire churning in him spread through his entire body, his cock jumping in Joe's hand as he came, slicking his stomach and Joe's fingers in white.
Panting heavily, Nicky released the grip he had on Joe's arm, his own feeling like lead as he dropped it back to the bed.
"Nicky, can I?" There were lines at the corners of Joe's eyes, each of them telling Nicky of the strain Joe felt at holding off while Nicky came apart around him.
Carefully loosening the iron grip he still had on Joe's hair, Nicky brushed his fingers over Joe's scalp before cupping his cheek, Joe's beard soft in his palm. "Yes," he replied, the word clear and steady, and giving Joe the permission he apparently needed.
Shifting onto his knees without dislodging his cock from Nicky's ass, Joe put his hands under Nicky's thighs, holding him nearly bent double as he started to thrust, fast and hard.
Each movement into his body made Nicky feel like he was flayed open, laid bare to anything and everything Joe was willing to give. The sensitive walls of his ass hugged Joe's cock, and the quick touches over his prostate as Joe fucked him had Nicky's spent cock twitching. A drop of sweat crept out from Joe's hairline and started to make its way down Joe's cheek, and all Nicky wanted to follow it with his tongue, wanted to taste the strength of Joe's thrusts in the salt on his skin.
"Fuck, Nicky--" Joe panted out, the rhythm of his hips starting to stutter. He thrust hard, once, twice, and then stilled as he groaned.
Nicky moaned as Joe kissed him. He could feel the pulsing of Joe's cock, even through the condom, and part of him wanted to feel more, wanted to feel the wet heat of Joe filling him up. The tiny aftershocks of his orgasm had Joe twitching in Nicky's ass for long moments, until Joe pressed another kiss to Nicky's lips before carefully kneeling up and pulling out of Nicky's body.
Holding the base of the condom, Joe slowly got off the bed. "I'm just going to get rid of this," he said, heading towards the bathroom. There was an unsteady lilt to Joe's steps, and Nicky was amused to note it obviously wasn't just him whose legs felt like jelly.
Nicky stretched as the sound of taps running from the bathroom reached him. He clenched his ass, smiling to himself as the dull ache flared up, sending sparks through him.
"That looks like a satisfied smile?" Joe teased, as he came out of the bathroom and headed back over to the bed, a towel in his hands.
"Very satisfied," Nicky agreed. "I want to feel like this forever."
"Well then," Joe murmured, as he got on the bed, "I'll just have to keep fucking it into you."
"I'd like that," Nicky replied, as Joe swept the warm, damp towel over Nicky's stomach, wiping away the tacky come that was starting to dry onto his skin. Urging Nicky onto his side, Joe then ran the towel over his ass, completing the clean up.
"Just going to drop this back in the bathroom," Joe said, nodding towards the towel as he climbed back off the bed and took the few steps towards the bathroom that took him close enough to throw the towel so it landed in the doorway.
Nicky watched the muscles in Joe's back shift, his gaze never leaving Joe's form as he kicked the covers down and manoeuvred until he was under them.
Turning back to Nicky, Joe stepped towards the bed, hesitating slightly as he glanced from the bed to the door to Nicky's suite. And Nicky knew what that look meant, he'd had it on his own face more than once. The look that was caused by the sudden thought of what happened now, of whether he should pick up his clothes and leave, and he didn't want to see that look on Joe's face, never wanted to see that look on Joe's face.
Nicky reached out a hand. "Stay, Joe, please," he said. Maybe forever, his mind added silently. "I want you to. Besides," he continued, a soft smile on his face, "I need to see if I hate the way you snore, remember."
"I told you, I don't snore," Joe grinned as he closed the distance between them, taking Nicky's hand in his own and lifting it to press a soft kiss to Nicky's inner wrist, before releasing it. Walking around the bed, he climbed in behind Nicky, his arm coming over Nicky's side to pull him back against Joe's chest. "Is this okay?" Joe asked, like being spooned by the amazing man who had just fucked him to within an inch of his life was something Nicky would object to.
"More than," Nicky replied, pressing back into Joe, the hair on Joe's chest slightly ticklish against him and the heat of Joe's body sinking into Nicky's own. Yawning as he wrapped his fingers around Joe's forearm, Nicky closed his eyes, the lethargy he was feeling settling through him, the light touch of a soft kiss against his shoulder the last thing he felt as sleep claimed him.
Nicky opened his eyes slowly, the soft ache running through parts of his body a testament to the evening before. Joe's body was a band of heat against Nicky's back, with soft puffs of breath across Nicky's skin as Joe slept on. The arm that was hugging him when he'd fallen asleep had moved, with Joe's hand cupping Nicky's hip in a faintly possessive gesture that made Nicky smile.
The room was darker than Nicky had expected, with only a small sliver of morning light shining through a gap in the heavy curtains. Only, he was sure that they'd been open when they'd got back to the suite after escaping the coronation ball, and he knew that neither of them had thought about turning off the lights after they'd got into bed. Nicky wasn't sure what disturbed him the most, that someone had come in to draw the curtains and turn off the lights, or that he'd apparently slept through it.
The fullness of his bladder making itself known now that he was awake, Nicky carefully slipped out from under Joe's touch and slid out of the bed, smiling as Joe immediately curled into the space Nicky had left.
Quickly seeing to what he needed to in the bathroom, Nicky grabbed one of the robes hanging next to the door and put it on, covering his naked body before padding over to the balcony doors. (He absolutely remembered the conversation he'd had with Quynh about paparazzi and telephoto lenses, and while it was unlikely someone would stake out the palace in the hope of catching the new prince in flagrante, there was no point in tempting fate.)
Slipping behind the curtains, he quietly opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony, the bright sun and crisp air greeting him. There was movement on the palace grounds, people in the gardens and vehicles along the wide driveway that Nicky assumed belonged to some of the dignitaries from yesterday's coronation, but there was still an air of silence and calm that soothed Nicky with each breath.
The soft click of the balcony doors opening and closing heralded Joe's arrival a second before arms wrapped around Nicky's body and Joe's chin rested on his shoulder.
"Good morning," Joe said quietly, catching Nicky's lips in a kiss when he turned his head to return the greeting.
"Morning, Joe," Nicky smiled, not caring that both of them had morning breath. "Did you sleep well?"
"With you in my arms?" Joe replied. "I slept perfectly." He snaked a hand into Nicky's robe, resting it against Nicky's stomach, his thumb stroking lightly over Nicky's skin. "You?"
Nicky laughed. "I apparently slept a little too well, given that we totally missed someone coming in to close the curtains and turn off the lights."
"It was Nile, and you slept through it, not me." There was a teasing tone to Joe's voice. "She just came in to check everything was okay."
Nicky could feel the heat rise to his face, and wondered if Nile had known of the 'gifts' Booker had given to Joe. Given that she undoubtedly knew exactly why Nicky and Joe had left the ball early, it wouldn't surprise Nicky if she did.
"Booker apparently offered to check on us, but given that, and I'm quoting Nile directly here, 'he stomps through rooms like a very French bull in a very non-French china shop,' she made him stay in the hall." Joe looked far too amused at that, and Nicky knew that he would absolutely be teasing Booker about it the next time Joe saw him. "I also woke up to a dozen messages from my mother on my phone," Joe added.
"Is everything okay?" Nicky asked, hoping everything was fine with Joe's family. Tala may have been the only one of Joe relatives that Nicky had met so far, but he felt that anyone who raised someone like Joe couldn't be anything other than good people.
"Oh, everything's fine," Joe reassured him. "My mother was just asking what she should cook when I bring you to dinner next Sunday." Joe paused. "I did tell you this was the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, and information gets back to parents at the speed of sound." There was another paused. "Well, the speed of gossip, anyway."
Which meant, Nicky translated, that Maryam al-Kaysani wanted to make sure Nicky was good enough for her son. He felt a sudden rush of panic. "Do you think she'll like me?" he asked.
Joe laughed lightly. "She'll fall in love with you, habibi," he responded, before softly adding. "Just like I'm doing."
Nicky wasn't sure what to say to that, wasn't sure there was anything he could say to that. Turning in Joe's arms, Nicky kissed him, pressing every drop of care and love into the action. Joe wasn't the only one feeling it. Being with Joe felt right, like Nicky was exactly where he was meant to be.
Breaking the kiss and twisting back around, Nicky looked out to where the sun was climbing higher in the sky, reflecting off the snow on the mountains in the distance and the shadows of the trees in the forest. Resting his hands on the balustrade, Nicky closed his eyes and took a deep breath, opening them again when he felt one of Joe's hands cover his. The day was spreading over the land and the buildings, lighting up the country that Nicky had taken as his own. Lighting up the country that he'd chosen to call home.
"No regrets?" Joe asked, his voice low.
Nicky glanced down at where Joe's fingers were entwined with his, and thought back to sleeping soundly in Joe's arms.
"No," Nicky replied, turning his head and catching Joe's lips with his own. "No regrets at all."