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love is all that I can give to you (love was made for me and you)

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Cause there's no better love

That beckons above me, there's no better love

That ever has loved me, there's no better love

So darling, feel better love

That's laid beside me, there's no better love

That justifies me, there's no better love

So darling, darling, feel better love

Feel better love

-Hozier, Better Love

 

Marti and Nico have finally slipped into bed after a evening hanging out with the visiting Contrabbandieri and Filippo, Elia's boyfriend of a couple of years, now, and Marti's still dwelling a bit on a joke Filippo made earlier, a teasing remark about Marti being "still as boring as always."

Marti's not boring, really. He may prefer quiet moments and staying in, but he’s definitely gone to parties in his time. He gets up to plenty of shit with his counterparts in Antwerp, from swimming at midnight to lazer tag to common rooms in the middle of the night to going out to drinking with their versions of the Contrabbandieri.

He knows that. He really does. It's just that sometimes, when Filippo makes a comment like that (even though Marti knows he's teasing), Marti thinks about old conversations. Old doubts. A comment made by Nico, years ago, before they'd even gotten together, about "boring gay people." And Marti can't help but dwell on it.

“Do you find me boring?” Marti mutters into Nico’s neck as they’re laying in bed that night. Flippo and Elia are in the guest bedroom, while Gio and Luca are crashed on the sofa in the living room. Marti and Nico are curled up in their bed, Marti as the big spoon and Nico as the little spoon- generally their usual going to sleep, while they're the opposite way around on the couch.

Nico turns to Marti, brow furrowed. “Of course not,” he says, tone beautifully and reassuringly firm. “Why would you think that?”

Marti looks over Nico. Looks at his boyfriend, with his interesting career and gym-defined abs and his excellence at everything he tries and his charming personality and talent. Looks and wonders about himself and what Nico is attracted to, in him, what he doesn't find boring about him.

They’ve been together for four years. These doubts shouldn't be here anymore. He knows that he's loved and appreciated for his personality and who he is by both Nico and the Contrabbandieri and even the squad here in Antwerp.

“It’s just…” Marti starts, "Sometimes I wonder, that's all."

Nico props his head up on his elbow, staring Marti right in the eye. “You know,” Nico says, “I was just talking with my counterparts about this last week.”

Marti’s heart drops, just a little. They were talking about Marti being boring? “You were?”

Nico nods. “I was the one worried that I was too boring for you.”

Marti’s eyes go wide. Now that- that’s not something he’d ever fucking contemplated. Nico, with everything he’s ever done for Marti, from the pool to the red strings to the Last Man on Earth gifts and drawings to even hunting down this apartment to fucking driving to Bracciano- he’s nothing boring at all. “How?” His disbelief is clear in his voice, he knows- and it should be.

Nico shrugs, just a little. “We’d gone out to see Sander’s mural for Robbe and I started thinking about how I’d never done anything that large or grand for you.”

Marti raises an incredulous eyebrow. "What?"

Nico's gaze falls away from Marti's, just a little. "Sometimes I wish I'd done something a bit bigger for you, back then. Something less quiet, a bit more to show just how much I felt about you."

Marti- he hadn’t realized that Nico felt that way. Nico’s always been really good at covering up the way he feels and not letting his doubts show through.

Over the years, they’ve gotten a lot better at sharing their fears and anxieties with each other. At being there for each other, whenever one of Nico’s episodes hits or Marti's having a hard time with his studies or whenever one of them is feeling down.

"They all talked me out of that, and helped me realize that what I did was just fine for you," Nico says, giving Marti a smile, and something in Marti's chest melts, just a little, because Nico's counterparts are compltely correct in their assessment.

Marti tries to imagine getting a mural of his face somewhere on a wall in Antwerp or even Rome. He gets why Robbe might like the idea, but it would honestly make him a little uncomfortable.

Marti thinks that it might be a combination of things, that causes him to prefer the quieter expressions of love, the more intimate things that Nico does for him.

First off is that he’s always been a bit quiet. Introverted. Never really a bit fan of the sweeping, grand romantic gestures that involved screaming about your love to the high heavens. He’s never dreamed about someone proving that they loved him like that. 

Everything Nico’s done for him- it’s been quiet. It’s been domestic or indoors or some other comfortable, contained, safe area. Even the dramatic moments have been in safe spaces, like when Nico drove all the way to Bracciano. Even Milan, looking back- save for the running around naked, all of that was in safe, indoor spaces where Marti wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or exposed.

And then there's a second reason that sort of reinforced his aversion to public, dramatic displays of love.

Those two nights at Edoardo’s parties, after he and Nico got together- Marti was terrified of what might have happened to him. To Nico. What might have happened if Nico had been with him.

After those incidents, him and Nico didn’t really do a lot of affection in public. Their dates were usually to one of their houses, or to the flat that Nico then lived in, that his grandmother had given him, or on double dates with one of the Contrabbandieri. Never just the two of them, and certainly never to the same grand extent that any of their counterparts got up to sometimes.

In the years since then, Marti's gotten better at affection in public. At going on dates with Nico. At kissing him when they’re with their friends. At being more open with Nico, getting back up to that sense of safety in public they had back near the beginning.

But the grand displays? A mural? Fucking in paint? None of that is what Marti really wants. He never really has.

The fact that Nico’s grand artistic tribute to Marti, within the past few years since they got everything out in the open, was an EP he wrote, with each song practiced a thousand times in their living room, in front of Marti, before they got recorded for the actual thing- that’s the most romantic thing that Marti could possibly think of.

For Marti, it’s the small things that Nico does. The practicing of his music. The red strings (that wasn’t just a one time thing, either- Nico did that again the first morning they lived in their Antwerp apartment, as well). The cuddles after a long day at school. The foosball and video games with the Contrabbandieri, or the common room nights with the squad in Antwerp.

As long as he has Nico, Marti’s happy. Nico’s never been too boring for Marti- in fact, Marti’s always felt like Nico’s style of flirting and wooing has been utterly perfect for Marti. He knows he would never be able to handle the kind of grand shit that Eliott or Sander pull. David is nice, but too introverted. (Too much like Marti himself, in personality, if he’s honest.) And Joana, well- she’s a girl, but even beyond that she's still not exactly what would have worked for Marti. Even is too self-confident (not that that's a bad thing), and rarely as vulnerable as Nico can get. What Nico does- who Nico is- fits perfectly for Marti.

Marti just hopes that what he does for Nico, in turn, does the same for him. That his cooking, being there during Nico’s episodes, movie watching, date planning, and everything else he does is enough for Nico, just as Nico’s romantic efforts are always enough for Marti.

Marti leans in a little, places a hand on Nico's cheek, staring right into Nico's dark eyes. "They're right. You're absolutely perfect for me," he says, because Nico's not perfect, no one is, but he's perfect for Marti.

“It looks like we’re both worried about something that we shouldn’t be,” Nico says, leaning forward just enough to kiss Marti’s nose. Marti can’t help but smile at this little tradition of theirs, begun years ago on the morning after the balcony, and return a kiss to Nico’s nose.

“No,” Marti says, “We really shouldn’t.” Because both he and Nico are a bit quieter than the others, and Marti’s definitely a little "boring," but he's not boring to Nico and Nico's not boring to him, either.

-

The next morning, when everyone wakes up, it’s almost like Bracciano all over again. The boys in the living room, having waken up first and started making breakfast, singing along to the radio, while Marti and Nico take their time exiting the main bedroom.

Except there are small changes, here. For one thing, Elia’s not in the living room. Him and Filippo come out of the guest bedroom, Filippo in a bathrobe and Elia in his tank top and flannel pants. It’s only Luca and Gio in the living room, instead of all of the boys sleeping on the floor like Gio's cabin in Bracciano.

But Marti and Nico are the last to arrive in the living room, just like they did years ago. They arrive in the kitchen to witness Filippo sitting at the table, sipping at his coffee, while the boys make breakfast and singing to the radio, Elia occasionally dancing over to give Filippo a kiss in a casual way that Marti can't ever imagine happening back in school, all of those years ago.

Filippo's the first to notice them, too- carrying on a years-long trend of the Contrabbandieri being a bit oblivious to anything Nico and Marti related.

“Rose,” Filippo says with a smirk, “You and Prince Charming are finally awake!”

“Stayed up late last night,” Marti says with a similar smirk, not taking care to mention that they stayed up late last night talking, not having sex. Let the boys assume what they want, after all.

“Well, then, any updates since we last visited?” Elia asks as he plops down in the seat next to Filippo, mug in hand for each of them. Filippo greets him with yet another kiss.

“Well, Robbe and Sander joined the squad," Marti says as he steps to the counter to get a mug of coffee for Nico and him. He passes Nico's to him first, earning himself a kiss, before grabbing his own. "We have official Flemish counterparts, now."

"You guys pop up everywhere, don't you?" Elia jokes, half-exasperated.

"You guys have counterparts, too, don't forget," Nico points out.

"Couldn't possibly," Gio says, "I still text Yann and the Jonases on a decent basis."

"And I talk to Basile all the time," Luca says, which is no surprise at all.

Filippo has visited a lot less often, as do the other Martis' gurus, so he's only met Eskild in his time- a damn shame, as Marti's pretty sure he'd get along with Mika, Lucas Rubio, and Hans like a house on fire.

(And Milan, too, but the plan's for them to meet this time around, so that's not much of an issue.)

"But other than Robbe and Sander," Marti continues, "Arthur, Elia's French counterpart, started dating Jens, Gio’s Flemish counterpart.”

Elia looks to Gio, a slightly confused, slightly appraising look in his eyes, while Luca’s eyes go wide. “A Gio and an Elia dating? But Gio’s straight.”

Filippo snorts. “I’m guessing not all Gios are straight, just like not all Elias are apparently bi.”

“Elia’s Flemish counterpart’s definitely straight,” Nico mutters, a bit of a dark undertone to his words, and Marti can’t help but grimace as he thinks of Sander and Robbe talking about Moyo, who is the furthest from Elia that he could possibly imagine anyone being.

“And not all Gios are straight,” Marti agrees with a nod. “Jens isn’t, and I’m pretty sure that Matteo’s Jonas isn’t, either. Just like Elia and Arthur aren’t straight. Pretty sure all Luchinos are, though.”

“Quite unfortunate,” Filippo says with a wink that has Elia rolling his eyes, then leaning in and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“Eyes over here, signor,” he says, and Filippo just grins at his boyfriend.

“No need to worry. They’re only ever there,” Filippo says, a bit sappy, and Elia kisses him again, this time on the lips.

Which means that Marti can’t really resist saying: “Also, apparently Arthur once had a crush on Elia, too, but he was already dating you, so he moved on quick."

Instead of having any sort of shocked reaction, Elia instead grins. “That means I’m at the top of two people’s fuck lists. Suck that, Gio.”

Nico laughs, leaning into Marti’s side against the counter, as Gio just arches an eyebrow.

“Two?” Luca questions even as Filippo sinks back into his seat, the corners of his lips quirking upward fondly at his boyfriend.

“Arthur’s and Filippo’s, obviously," Elia says, with a wink at his boyfriend.

“Filippo doesn’t count- he’s your boyfriend," Luca says, "That’d be like counting Nico at the top of Marti’s list. Doesn’t count.”

Nico shrugs. “I think it counts,” he says into Marti’s ear- the ear that has a piercing at the top- the one that matches the one in Nico’s ear, the earring Nico got a few months after they got together, just to match Marti.

“It definitely does," Marti mutters back, "You're on the top of mine, after all."

"As I should be," Nico says with a smile, leaning in and giving Marti a coffee-soaked kiss.

“Wait a minute,” Gio says, turning to Marti with a look in his eyes that Marti doesn’t quite trust. “Who’s at the top of your list, Marti?”

“What list?” Marti asks, playing just a little bit dumb as he avoids the question just a little.

“Your “I’m in a relationship, but if I was hypothetically fucking people, here’s who I’d do first” list. We already know Nico’s, so what’s yours?”

“How do you know that mine hasn’t changed?” Nico asks, thankfully distracting from Marti, and Gio sits up a bit in his chair.

“I’m not at the top anymore?” he asks, sounding a bit amused and a little curious, as well, in a way that makes Marti grin into his coffee.

Nico shrugs. “Among the Contrabbandieri? Yeah, probably. But if you include our friends here in Antwerp, well…”

Now this is interesting. Marti lowers his mug just a little to turn and look his boyfriend in the eyes. “One of our counterparts is on your “hypothetical fuck” list?” He’s honestly rather curious as to which ones, whether they’re his counterparts or Nico’s.

“Going just by looks and how I think they’d be in bed, hypothetically, why not?” Nico answers even as he leans in a little and kisses Marti, almost in a reassurance that Marti doesn’t quite need but still appreciates.

“Which ones?” Filippo asks, leaning forward with a rather interested look in his eyes.

“Well, not gonna lie, Isak, Joana, and David are pretty high," Nico says, casual as all get out, and Marti nearly laughs because he can see why Nico would rate them high.

"Gio still on top of them, though?" Luca asks.

Nico takes about two seconds to flick his gaze up and down Gio before shrugging and saying, "Yeah, probably."

Gio pumps a fist in the air. "Fuck yeah," he says, and Marti nearly snorts into his drink.

Nico looks to Marti, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “And I know that you, cuore mio, have a few of them on your list, as well."

Well, Nico’s not exactly wrong. Though he could never imagine himself in a relationship with any of them, the whole group’s played Fuck, Marry, Kill enough times for him to know exactly which ones of the group would be his “hypothetical fuck” list.

(Gio is long gone as the top name on Marti’s list.)

“Now this I’ve gotta hear,” Filippo says, leaning in a little bit.

“I mean," Marti says, feeling his own cheeks go hot, "If not Nico, then I guess Even or maybe Matteo." Then he glances at Nico. His boyfriend's the one who dragged him back into this conversation, so he feels justified ending with: "Eliott can definitely cook as badly as you, Ni, so I'm pretty sure he'd go high on the list."

Nico rolls his eyes. "I haven't added honey or Tabasco to something it shouldn't have gone in since our first dinner together."

"Wait a moment," Luca says, "You added honey and Tabasco to the same dish? And didn't die?"

"I've gotta hear this story," Filippo says with a smirk, and Marti is all too willing to explain the details of the first meal of Nico's he had the misfortune of eating.

-

When they all arrive at the common room that night, the Contrabbandieri just slips in like they’ve been there the whole time. Gio instantly heads for Isak and Cris, who are talking about their biotech schoolwork- the same subject that Gio's studying, actually. Luca strikes up a conversation with Even and Joana, who are at one of the desks, discussing something about movies that Marti can never follow, while Filippo and Elia plop down on the couch next to Matteo and David, slumped against each other like always, and start to talk about whatever.

To be honest, the only hiccup of sorts is Filippo. He's the strange addition, after all, still finding his way into the mix. He and Marti have a bit of a different relationship than most of their counterparts do, a bit less fatherly or brotherly than just two decent friends, with a bit of a mentor relationship thrown in.

(Marti is nearly certain that is has to do with the fact that he never lived with Filippo, unlike the rest of his counterparts save Cris, who even herself had a not quite relationship with her mom. It's the same reason why his mother's one trip to visit him and Nico last year was so strange for the rest of Marti's counterparts, who might have spent some parts of her visit looking at her like she wasn't quite real.)

Still, Filippo seems to be having a pretty good time sitting halfway into Elia's lap, talking with Matteo and David, a sight which makes Marti smile. He's happy that Filippo's more comfortable than he was the last time he visited.

As for Marti and Nico's other counterparts, Robbe and Sander are at home having dinner with the flatshare, but they'll get to see the Contrabbandieri and Filippo tomorrow when they visit for dinner. Milan had invited all of the Italians over, wanting to meet all of the counterparts. Eliott and Lucas, on the other hand, are out on a date, and Marti's not sure when exactly they'll see the Contrabbandieri this weekend. The plan is mostly to play it by ear and figure it out before the Contrabbandieri have to head back to Italy on Monday.

In the meantime, Marti's happy to be able to plop down on a bean bag together with his boyfriend, watching his friends have fun with the Antwerp squad as he and Nico talk.

They’re relaxed here in a way that the Contrabbandieri aren’t otherwise, sometimes, at other parties. (Even all of these years later, Marti knows that the Contrabbandieri is protective of him and Nico. Whenever they’re out at a bar or even at a party that isn’t hosted at one of their houses or apartments, Elia and Gio still keep an eye out for them, just like they did at Edoardo’s parties.)

Here, though, Elia, Gio, Luca, and even Filippo are at ease, in this sanctuary that Marti, Nico, and their counterparts constructed, a year ago. They talk easily with Marti and Nico's counterparts as if they've been friends for years, a sense of comfort among them that Marti's associated with them for fucking years.

"Marti," Cris calls him, and Marti looks up from Nico's fingers twirling one of his curls around.

"Si?" he asks, and she gestures him over.

"I know you love flirting with Nico, but Gio's got some good ideas for that electromagnetism project you, Isak, and I have been working on."

"Gio has good ideas?" Marti asks, tone teasing, and Gio rolls his eyes at Marti even as Marti peels himself away from Nico (though rather reluctantly) to head over to the table. He presses a kiss to Nico's forehead as he gets up, knowing that moments after he leaves the beanbag Nico will most likely leave the beanbag to go talk to Even, Luca, and Joana about movies- a suspicion that is proven rather quickly, before Marti even sits down at the table with Gio, Cris, and Isak.

"So," Marti says, "Lay your best ideas on us, Gio."

Before speaking, Gio gives him a brief, fond smile, of the same sort he's been giving Marti since they were kids, the kind that promises unwavering love and support. The kind of brotherly love that has supported Marti for years, through some of the worst times in his life, and continues to support him to this day.

"Alright," he says, "Here's what Dr. Rossi's been teaching us about currents and their affects on cells."

As Gio explains, eyes lighting up as he details what he's been learning back at university in Italy, talking with Isak, Marti can't help his smile. Can't help the sheer joy he experiences watching his best friend talk with his counterparts, watching his counterparts smile at Gio like they're talking to their own best friends- Cris' Amira, Isak's Jonas.

Marti's really happy, here in Antwerp, but sometimes he misses back home, just a little. He misses his friends and his Mamma, misses the small family he had back in Rome. Them getting to visit him in Antwerp, being able to visit the family Nico and him have built here in Antwerp- it means a lot, really, and Marti is all too glad to watch his two worlds collide with such beautiful harmony.