The first issue with Nicky and Joe’s weekend trip to Genoa, after the revelation about who Joe really is, is the matter of accommodation. There isn’t enough room for them to stay with Nicky’s mother, who lives with one of her sisters and Nicky’s next-oldest brother Marco. Before, Nicky had been planning for them to stay somewhere cheap; they are, after all, both students. He had been aware, as Nile had pointed out, that Joe was perhaps not as limited in budget as he was. But he hadn’t wanted to assume. One of the things that he has always liked about Joe is that he pays attention to Nicky’s suggestions about things like where they could eat, or explicitly offers to pay, if he wants to go somewhere that Nicky couldn’t normally afford. And respects it when Nicky, as he often does, says no anyway. He doesn’t need fancy meals to have a good time with Joe. So he had thought that there would be no problem with them staying somewhere within Nicky’s limited budget.
“It has to be somewhere it’s easy for us to secure,” Booker says. “Like a hotel. Sorry, Nicky.”
“How,” Nile wants to know, “were you planning to explain that?” She looks pointedly at Joe.
Joe shrugs, like it’s not a big deal, but Nicky can see him drumming his fingers on his leg. “I was going to say it would be my treat, to stay somewhere nice.”
“That would have been a fun three-hour argument,” says Andy.
“It still could be,” says Nicky. They’re all at his and Nile’s place, spread out around the living room, negotiating the logistics of a weekend trip to Genoa to introduce his boyfriend to his family. Which, because his boyfriend now turns out to be a real live prince, involves his bodyguards.
(Nile is here because she lives here and because, she had said, Nicky deserved to have someone on his side.
“Shouldn’t you be on my side?” Andy had asked.
“Exactly the same way as Joe is on Nicky’s,” Nile had replied.)
“It can’t be,” Andy says, in response to Nicky. “Book’s right. We can compromise on which hotel, but…”
“Okay, but,” Nile says, to Andy now. “You would have had to go along.”
“Coincidence,” says Joe. “If Nicky had spotted them.”
“And you would have told me that you were going to Genoa for the weekend because…?”
“You already knew, sort of,” Andy says, but even she isn’t really maintaining an air of insouciance.
“You are so lucky your tissue of lies fell apart now and not three weeks from now,” says Nile. It isn’t obvious who she’s addressing.
“It wasn’t lies,” Joe and Nicky say at the same time.
“We’re agreeing to disagree on that point.” Nile folds her arms. Nicky feels like she is being extra-defensive of him, because he is not being as defensive of himself as she thinks is reasonable, as well as because she is annoyed with her girlfriend.
It would be much easier if it wasn’t Joe, or if Joe hadn’t been so guiltily apologetic, answering every question Nicky had asked him. He doesn’t feel lied to, exactly. He just feels…unmoored, from his understanding of what their future together might look like. Have looked like.
“Also,” Andy says, holding out a hand for Booker to give her a folder, “we’re going to need an itinerary. Not a hard one, but no spontaneous sneaking away for gelato on the other side of the city.”
“That was one time,” Joe says, a little sulkily.
“That was my fault, if it’s the time I’m thinking of,” says Nicky.
“Nah, it was his, you didn’t know.” Andy is flicking through the folder. “So your sister Bernadetta lives in Croatia, but –”
“Have you put together a file on Nicky?” Joe says, sounding genuinely upset.
“I started the first day you came home and said ‘I met the most interesting person today’ and then wandered around the house for the rest of the evening with a dopey smile on your face,” Andy says. “It is, literally, my job. Yes, I have a file.”
“The most interesting person?” Nicky says, not sure how he’s supposed to feel about this and honing in on the part of it that lets him lovingly mock his boyfriend.
“I didn’t say the most interesting person over what time period,” Joe says, but takes his hand under the table. A disturbing thought occurs to Nicky, even as he tangles his fingers with Joe’s; he looks at Nile.
“If there’s anything in there from me,” Nile says, “it’s not with my knowledge or my permission.” She narrows her eyes at her girlfriend.
“There’s a section about you,” Booker says, when Andy says nothing.
“Joe stays the night here!” Andy folds her arms. “Look – shit, Nile, don’t look at me like – we’re the personal security for the crown prince of a small North African monarchy that doesn’t have any known oil reserves, okay? We’re not the fucking CIA or the Saudis or some bullshit like that. There is nothing in here that a halfway-competent personal investigator couldn’t find out. It’s all public information.”
“We’re going to talk about this later,” Nile says. Andy winces.
“You should have told me about this,” Joe says to Andy and Booker, quietly. “Because it affects the choices I will make about who I spend time with, if this is a necessary corollary of me doing so.”
“You should have known about this,” Andy returns. “It wasn’t a secret; it wasn’t out of line. You chose not to think about it because you were enjoying pretending to be an ordinary person and you didn’t want to remember the consequences of that.”
“Now we all feel equally terrible,” Nicky says, “what, exactly, do you need to know about our plans?”
“Fuck,” Nile mutters under her breath, and draws her knees up to her body. Joe squeezes Nicky’s hand. Andy glowers at her file. Booker looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.
“I really didn’t know,” Joe says into Nicky’s chest, much later that evening. They’re just cuddling, both exhausted by the long discussion and the slow process of feeling out what everybody is expecting and requiring, in this strange new situation where, as Andy so bluntly but truthfully put it, Joe is not pretending to be an ordinary person. “About the file. But I should have.”
“I know,” Nicky says. “And I don’t even think Andy was wrong. It’s just…another thing to think about.”
Nicky does not think of himself as a particularly private person. He does not tell new acquaintances everything about himself, but he has nothing to hide, and makes no particular effort to do so. Before he let go of the idea that he would be a priest, he had expected that his personal life would be a matter of public interest, on a certain small scale. That’s how congregations work. But he can tell already that this is a completely different playing field, that it doesn’t matter what he chooses or does not choose to tell, that discretion will only be so useful. It is another thing to weigh up, against Joe.
“I’ve given you a lot of things to think about, haven’t I,” Joe agrees, and turns his head. He is listening to Nicky’s heartbeat.
Nicky holds him, and hopes it is not beating as restlessly as his brain.
Despite everything, the train ride to Genoa is much as it always is, and Nicky gets the things he wanted from it; seeing Joe, the first time he sees Nicky’s home city. He can’t complain, really, either, about staying at a much nicer hotel than he ever has before. A very small part of him that is still stuck in seminary chokes at it, but if he must put up with the obvious inconveniences of Joe’s status, he thinks it is fair to enjoy the other side of it. The larger part of him that has its opinions about the value and morality of monarchs is harder to quiet.
They are due to visit his mother this afternoon, just the two of them. His aunt and brother will be at work. Nicky thought it would feel awkward, knowing what he now does, walking with Joe into the building where he grew up. It is shabby around the edges in a way he never noticed before. But it is just Joe, still, dressed no more neatly than Nicky has seen him at home or on the university campus a dozen times, and it makes something simultaneously painful and warm clench around Nicky’s heart to take his hand and lead him up the stairs.
His mother greets them warmly. Nicky introduces Joe as Joe, and nothing else. He wonders if this now makes him complicit in a kind of deception. In a fragment of a way, he supposes it does. The following interrogation – polite but detailed – is all on Joe’s shoulders, however. He answers questions openly, but Nicky can now see the obvious gaps, the delicate omissions. His mother is in politics, he says. His father is a scholar. He has two younger sisters, Noor and Amina, who are at university back home.
At some point Nicky’s mother gets out the family photo albums, and puts them in front of Joe. He accepts gleefully.
“Here is when Nicky was born,” his mother says, “and this is his first birthday –”
Joe is fascinated. Nicky tries not to groan.
“Nicolò,” his mother says. “I need a hand in the kitchen.”
“Yes, mama,” Nicky says, because he is a good son, and follows her. Joe is covering his mouth with his hand as he looks at the photo album. Nicky dreads to think what new piece of blackmail material he has just uncovered.
“Dry these dishes for me,” his mother says, handing him a tea towel. “And while you do it, tell me, I am curious. How common are the names Yusuf, Noor, and Amina in Joe’s country?”
“I think they are very common,” Nicky says, then frowns. “I didn’t tell you that his proper name was Yusuf.”
“What else would it be?”
“Mmm,” Nicky acknowledges her point, carefully drying the glasses, anxious not to leave a smudge. “Anyway, yes, very common.”
“Oh, well, that it explains it.” His mother scrubs at a smear of cream. “Because it seems such a coincidence that those are the names of their crown prince and his younger sisters.”
Nicky freezes for one crucial second. He can feel his mother’s eyes on him. She has been an office administrator since he was three years old; he knows that she has a relentless, photographic memory for names and faces.
“Are they?” he says, but it’s not fast enough.
“Yes.” His mother continues washing as if nothing is happening. “Which I only know because I was reading about Joe’s home, so that I would not ask him anything silly, or insulting, when you brought him here, and there was an article online about the royal family and how the crown prince was studying in Italy. And I thought oh, that is a curious coincidence. And then you bring home this lovely young man who also looks exactly like the crown prince. And I would think it was altogether too ridiculous to be true except that you have been cleaning the same cup for the last three minutes.”
Nicky wants to swear except that this is his mother and he absolutely cannot. “Mama. I can…explain?”
“Go on, then,” his mother says, placidly.
Three agonising seconds tick by.
“I can’t explain,” Nicky says. “Anything more than you already know. Everything I’ve told you already about Joe and how we met, it’s all true. Everything he ever told me about himself and his family, that was true as well. Everything he’s said today, also true. It is just that last month I found out he…left out an important detail.”
“I like him, you know.” His mother pulls the plug out of the sink, and the water begins to drain. “But this is the kind of thing that can’t be just between the two of you, you understand that? It affects me, and your brothers and sisters, too. It’s not a simple thing.”
“I know,” Nicky says, around the lump in his throat.
“You brought him here,” she goes on, “so I presume you are still deciding what you want to do. Or he is.”
“I don’t know,” Nicky says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I knew I still wanted you to meet him.”
“Well, I’m glad,” she says. “Now put that glass down, we’re all going to talk.”
Joe is still chuckling at the photo album, which probably means he has got to the point where Nicky had that particularly terrible haircut, but he sobers as soon as Nicky and his mother re-enter the room; he knows something is up. He knows Nicky that well. Sometimes it’s inconvenient.
“You mentioned your sisters’ names,” Nicky says, sitting back down, “and Mama was reading, so she would not ask you any silly questions about your home.”
Joe only sighs, ruefully. “Andy is going to be very annoyed with me.”
“Security,” Nicky explains to his mother. “And only if you tell her you were trying to be discreet.”
“It wasn’t just the names,” Nicky’s mother says. “I have a very good memory for faces; I worked at a large company for many years. And yours is very easy to recognise, Joe.”
“Thank you, I think.”
Nicky’s mother smiles. “I am honoured to have you here.”
“Uh, it really isn’t…I’m honoured to be here,” Joe says. Nicky has never seen him this flustered; clearly he does not know what he is supposed to do.
“It must be very strange, in a way, knowing what you are going to do, your whole life.”
“Yes,” Joe says. “And no. My mother agreed that I could do this degree because she knows how much it means to me. It wasn’t planned. She…tries very hard to give us space to be ourselves, as much as that is possible.”
“I thought I knew what I was going to do with my life, for a long time, and I was wrong,” Nicky says.
“Yes, but that wasn’t you, that was the Church,” says his mother. “And a very different thing.” She studies Joe. “I don’t think there is any need to talk to the rest of my children about this, not yet. I only ask that you don’t mislead my son about what is possible, for the two of you, and what is not.”
“Never,” Joe says, simply. “I never have and I never intend to.”
Nicky’s mother does not look convinced, at all. “Tell me. Do your parents know about this? About Nicolò.”
“Yes,” Joe says at once. “I have been trying to get him to come and visit my family, this summer. He would be welcome.”
“Hmm.” Nicky’s mother turns to Nicky. “And why haven’t you said yes yet? How often are you going to get an invitation like that?”
“Mama!” says Nicky. “It isn’t – I have been thinking about it.”
“It’s nearly Easter,” says his mother. “You can’t think forever.”
Nicky knows his mother comes across to a lot of people as easy to tell what to do; she is small and a sort of washed-out blonde, or was before she went grey. She is polite and quiet and can always be found lending a hand, never putting herself forward. But she has a core of steel. She walked away from Nicky’s father when he was very small, and took her three stepchildren with her, as well as Marco and Nicky. She brought them all up in a too-small apartment, on a too-small salary, and she never let any of them feel less than loved. She bends but she has never ever broken.
“Yes, mama,” he says. “I will…I will talk to Joe about what I would be comfortable with.” He doesn’t miss the way Joe’s eyes light up when he says that.
“Good,” his mother says. “Now, we will have fourteen for dinner tomorrow night, Franco and Giovanna are both bringing their children, so I need you two to help me with the furniture before you go. That will be one less thing to do tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Joe says, getting up, and he and Nicky spend the rest of the afternoon moving furniture around at his mother’s instruction. Nicky isn’t entirely sure it isn’t some sort of test on his mother’s part, seeing how willing Joe is to do a manual task, but it is perhaps true that Marco couldn’t move it by himself. If it is, Joe passes with flying colours. Nicky wouldn’t expect any less.
“I like your mother,” Joe says on the train back, two days later. “I can see so much of her in you.”
“Thank you,” Nicky says. All his life he’s found it easier to see the bits of himself he knows he gets from his father; the way his temper runs cold rather than hot, his need to do the right thing as he sees it, even when it hurts. They aren’t necessarily bad traits, but he doesn’t – didn’t – like his father. “And thank you for running the gauntlet of all of my siblings except one, and not flinching.”
“I’m not saying I would want to do that again too soon,” Joe admits, “but they love you, and they were trying very hard not to frighten me off. For which I give them all full credit. And your nieces and nephew were delightful.”
“We should be grateful to Bernadetta, even though she wasn’t there,” Nicky says. “She broke the ice on being the gay one, when she was twelve. By the time I came out, it wasn’t interesting anymore.”
“When she was twelve?” Joe looks like he’s counting in his head.
“And I was three,” Nicky confirms, “and yes, that was the thing that led to my mother leaving my father, when he was…unkind about it. It truly outraged her, my mother, that it was easier for her to accept her stepdaughter than for her own father to. I mean, it was not the only reason. But it was the last straw.”
Joe nods. They both look out the window for a few moments, at the countryside going past.
“So,” Joe says. “Will you come to Malta, this summer? For a few days only. Nothing too long.” He hesitates. “It doesn’t have to mean…anything, except that I would like you to meet my family.”
Nicky thinks about how much he had enjoyed it, seeing Joe there in the heart of his family, feeling like he was bringing such an important piece of himself home, and having it be accepted. He would like to give that to Joe.
“For a few days,” he says. “And you have to promise that you will tell me anything I need to know, first.”
Joe grins at him, delighted. “I promise.”
The end of the semester is very busy, and busier because Nicky is trying to put time aside to learn at least a few phrases of the derja Arabic Joe and his family speak, when they aren’t speaking French (that, at least, Nicky speaks reasonably well). The sounds are familiar; he’s heard Joe speaking it on the phone to his family more times than he can count over the last year. It was one of the things that had helped him fall in love, among so many others. The way the corners of Joe’s eyes crinkled as he spoke; the obvious affection in his voice, even though Nicky couldn’t understand most of the words.
“If you keep that up,” Joe says one evening as he is watching football and Nicky is lying on the couch with his head in Joe’s lap, going over his flashcards, and Nile is reading and taking notes at the dining table, “I won’t be able to talk about you to your face anymore.”
“You talk about me on the phone in front of me?”
“All the time.” Joe runs his fingers through Nicky’s hair. “Why do you think I would so often say that my family said hello? My mother would say, are you talking about him when he’s right there, and then she’d switch to French.”
“I always wondered why you’d do that half-way through a call.”
“Now you know.”
“It’s going to be a long time before you have to worry about me understanding you,” Nicky tells him. He had learned a little bit of Aramaic and Hebrew in his previous life, which helped, but learning languages to read them is very different from following an animated conversation, and he’s not a natural speaker of new languages like Joe is. His tongue doesn’t catch up easily with the sounds.
“Sooner than you think, I bet,” says Joe.
“Hey, you two,” Nile says. “Andy’s trying to get me to come to Malta for a bit. She says she’s going to have a little bit of downtime and it’s worth a visit. Would that be weird? I’m not going to do it if it would make it weird. I mean, probably we wouldn’t see each other, even.”
“No, not at all,” Joe says. “If you tried you could probably turn it into a research trip.” Nile’s PhD thesis is looking at the intersection between art and architecture in the medieval Mediterranean; living with her, Nicky naturally knows much more about it than he had ever planned to. He doesn’t mind. Nile’s enthusiasm is infectious.
“Ooooh,” Nile says. “I am definitely going to try that one on with Dr Copley.” She grabs another book from her pile, and starts paging through it, clearly inspired.
“I’d like it, Nile,” Nicky says. “It will give me an excuse to get away for a little bit, if you were willing to meet up at some point, not that I’m sure your family aren’t lovely, Joe…”
Joe laughs. “No, that’s fair.”
“How is it with you and Andy?” Nicky asks Nile.
Nile sighs. “It’s fine. It’s – I’m not sure she did do anything wrong. But I’m still mad. And she thinks that’s fair, which is the worst bit. I was ready to have a fight about it. I feel all wrong-footed, and then I wonder, is it fair that I’m mad?”
“Oh, hey,” Joe says. “This is reminding me of the time last year when I ate the last of Nicky’s goat cheese.”
“I was looking forward to it,” Nicky says, half-sitting up in remembered outrage.
Joe pulls him back into his lap. “I got some more! The next day!”
“I was looking forward to it that day,” Nicky mutters, but stays put.
“My point was,” Joe says, poking Nicky in the shoulder, “that sometimes you just feel things and it…is what it is. You can’t fix it, you just have to wait it out.”
Nile screws her face up. “Yeah, but I don’t like it.”
“Feelings are there to tell you things,” Nicky says. “They aren’t you. They’re information.”
“Thanks, Mister Psychology Student.”
“You’re welcome, I’m here all week.”
So, between classes, and preparing, and his friends and their own concerns, and if Nicky is honest with himself a deliberate strategy of not thinking about the whole thing unless they are specifically discussing it, Nicky manages to put off panicking until he is in an airplane bathroom, staring at himself in the smudged metal mirror. Airplane bathrooms turn out to have a certain inevitable similarity no matter what class you are flying in.
They are also inevitably small, which means that Nicky’s heels are hitting the toilet as he holds on to the sink unit and tries to remember how to breathe. He is going to Malta. He is going to Malta to meet Joe’s family. He is going to Malta to meet Joe’s family and they are royalty and absolutely nothing in Nicky’s life to date has prepared him for this. He is not unfamiliar with ritual and ceremony; he was very nearly a priest. But Joe just keeps saying useless things like “It’s going to be very casual, we’re on holiday” and “I’m taking you to meet my family, it’s not a public audience” and “you could not possibly embarrass me if you tried” and it’s not that Nicky doesn’t believe him; it’s that he knows there are things you can’t see if you grow up within a system, the way that fish don’t see the ocean. Things you compensate for automatically, things you cannot forget because you don’t know that you know them.
On the other hand, he had all these thoughts before they left and had tried to articulate them to Booker, who had seemed more likely than Andy to take him seriously, on something like this. Andy gives off a very strong air of doing as she likes, bodyguard or no. Booker had listened, and thought about it, and told Nicky “He’s right, it’s not a formal occasion, and anyway you’re not the kind of person to do all the usual silly things. You’re not English, or something.”
“The English are very formal.”
“With their lords and ladies, certainly,” Booker had said. Nicky has actually learned over the last three months that Booker is a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of la republique. How he ended up as a Crown Prince’s bodyguard, even for the monarchy of a different nation, must be a very long story, one Nicky has not yet learned. “Just, I don’t know. Think of how you would be if you met the Pope, or something.”
“I’m not sure how I would be if I met the Pope.”
Booker had scrunched up his face. “You were going to be a priest, weren’t you? And I know there isn’t anything about that which reflects badly on you, because Andy would have argued with Joe about it.”
Nicky had had to look away at that, a sour taste in his mouth at the thought of Andy – who he likes, as it happens, for herself as well as for Nile – arguing with Joe about his suitability as…his suitability.
“Hey,” Booker had said. “The point is. You’ll be fine.” He’d clapped Nicky on the shoulder. “But if it really terrifies you that badly, then don’t go.”
“I’m not terrified,” Nicky had snapped, which had not really been fair on Booker and also made Booker’s point for him. Booker had just shrugged at it, in a very French way. “Ah, I’m sorry. Thank you.”
“You won’t believe me,” Booker had said, “but you actually make my job a lot easier, because it is very predictable, where he’s going to be or what he wants to do.”
“You’re welcome,” Nicky had said. “Making your job easier is of course my ultimate goal in life.”
Remembering that conversation helps; the one thing Booker had been right about – well, he had been right mostly, the one most important thing – was that Nicky could have chosen to not go, and he has chosen to be here. So the only way out is through.
He leaves the bathroom and returns to his seat.
“Oh, good, there you are,” says Joe. “There’s just time for me to go and take my own turn panicking.” It’s not a long flight, just under one and a half hours. They are traveling in business class, but on a commercial flight; Nicky had had no idea what to expect in that regard, and Joe had explained that for this sort of short trip, like the train to Genoa, it was simpler. “And…I thought it might be easier for you.”
“Yes,” Nicky had said. “Thank you.”
“You keep saying,” Nicky says, “it’s just a holiday, nothing to worry about, I can’t believe you made Nile go clothes shopping with you, you hate clothes shopping, if it stresses you out this much we just won’t go. And now you think you get to panic?”
Joe looks at him with such fondness, written into the corners of his eyes, that Nicky can hardly stand it. He takes his hand. Joe is dressed in a way that Nicky could not describe exactly, but that would look entirely in place in a photo illustrating an article about a modern prince on summer holiday. Nicky is wearing…clothes. Nile had spent their entire shopping trip texting someone furiously and then admitted with a shrug at the end of it, when Nicky bought her gelato to apologise for spending four hours to buy three items of clothing, that all her advice had come from Booker.
“I’ve never done this, you know,” Joe says.
“Gone to Malta?”
“Taken someone to meet my family.”
Nicky’s heart hitches in his chest, entirely unprovoked. “Neither had I, before we went to Genoa. But I had watched all my siblings do it.”
“Benefits of being the youngest, huh?”
“Well, there has to be at least one,” Nicky says. In his family there are two, actually, the second of which is not remembering living with his father, but that’s a little dark to say out loud when he’s on his way to meet Joe’s father. Joe’s mother will not be there today; she had had to stay behind at the last minute, Joe had told him, but hopes to be there later in the week. Nicky is – not entirely sorry about this. It makes today a little less daunting.
“Of course,” Joe says, rubbing his thumb over the back of Nicky’s hand. “Well, since you are so experienced in this, you can help me through it.” He laughs when Nicky gives him a flat look.
It’s at the airport in Malta, where Andy meets them and guides them into the back of a car with tinted windows, that Nicky really starts to feel out of his depth. “Our luggage –”
“It will have been taken care of,” Joe says. “Sorry. I should have said.”
“This is the kind of thing I’m worried about,” Nicky confesses. “The things you don’t remember you need to tell me.” He feels awkward, because Andy is in the front passenger seat, and also there’s a driver. That had been one of the things Joe had said; that there would be staff, and the most polite thing to do was to let them do their jobs.
“I’m trying,” Joe says, with the faintest hint of impatience, but Nicky knows it is there because Joe so very badly wants him to enjoy this, to like his family, to want to accept this life. He squeezes Joe’s hand. They haven’t let go of each other, really, since the plane.
The place they are staying is bigger and smaller than Nicky anticipated. Bigger in that it is larger than any private residence that Nicky has ever been in, in his entire life; smaller, in that it is still comprehensible as a private residence, just. What is really noticeable to him is how it is carefully isolated, with a long driveway, grounds Nicky only gets a glimpse of, and far away, the shining blue of the Mediterranean. That is, somehow, grounding; it’s the same sea Nicky grew up on the shore of, and so did Joe, further south. No matter what he’s doing, he’s still connected to where he came from.
Someone opens the door for them to get out of the car. Joe doesn’t let go of Nicky’s hand. By the time Nicky thinks to look for Andy, she has vanished somewhere. Nicky feels sweat prickling on the back of his neck and he’s not sure if it’s the heat – which is not that great, with a soft sea breeze – or the situation.
“I’ll show you where we’ll be staying,” Joe is saying, “and then I expect my family will be –”
“Yusuf!” someone yells, and they are only a step or two inside the great main door when Joe is just about bowled over by a young woman moving so fast she’s nearly flying. There’s another one coming down the grand staircase. Nicky lets go of Joe’s hand to save himself. Joe is saying something to her in Derja; Nicky still can’t understand it, it’s too fast and casual, but recognises the tone from dozens of phone calls he’s heard Joe make to his family.
“So you’re Nicky,” says the second young woman, who is clearly a teenager, her resemblance to Joe muted by her rounder face. She is speaking in French.
“Yes, I’m Nicky,” Nicky says, in his carefully-practiced Derja. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Ah. Amina?”
She responds cheerfully in the same language; Nicky flushes, and answers her in French. “Ah, I’m sorry, that’s about as much as I can do.”
“Well, you’re trying,” she says, but it’s not dismissive.
“Nicky,” Joe says, sticking to French as well. “This is Noor –” he gestures at the sister who tackled him – “and Amina. They have promised to be on their best behaviour for you.”
“I don’t remember that,” says Noor. She’s four years younger than Joe, Nicky knows, and Amina two years younger again. “I remember promising to treat him the same way we would treat you.”
“Oh, no,” Nicky says, recognizing the sort of interaction that was common in his own family, “I think that’s a threat.”
“Yes it is,” Noor says, gleefully. Joe catches Nicky’s eye with a pleading look that says: please do not judge me by my younger siblings. Nicky thinks, actually, that this all reflects very well on Joe, but he smiles anyway to say that he won’t.
“I see the ambush worked,” says someone else from further away, not coming down the stairs but through a door to the right. Nicky turns to see someone who must, surely, be Joe’s father. He is a little shorter than Joe, and not dressed in European fashion, and his beard is mostly grey, but his eyes are the same. He carries himself with a dignity that Nicky has only ever seen glimpses of in Joe, not because it isn’t there, but because he has no particular need of it in the life he lives as a student in Italy. Nicky remembers with an abruptness that makes him dizzy that this isn’t just a very fancy house in Malta; that these girls teasing Joe are princesses; that this is Joe’s father and also a prince consort of an entire country. Nicky really does believe, somewhere deep in his soul, that all those things are ultimately meaningless and that monarchy is…not quite a lie; but certainly a truth that exists because people agree on it.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and in this moment, Nicky finds himself praying, and the prayer is let me do this in a way that honours how they see the world and how I do.
“Father,” Joe says, taking Nicky’s hand again, and that gesture, standing where they are, puts steel in Nicky’s spine. “This is Nicolò, uh, Nicky. I am…I’ve been wanting to introduce him to you for a long time now.”
“I know,” says his father, coming forward and giving Joe a hug. Nicky thinks he says something in Joe’s ear; he can’t make it out, or the language. Whatever it is, it makes Joe smile. He shakes Nicky’s hand; Nicky wasn’t sure whether to expect that or not and has to reach out quickly.
“Thank you,” Nicky says, sticking to French because he’s certainly lost all his carefully-rehearsed words now, and even French is proving a challenge, “for welcoming me into your home.”
“Thank you for accepting the invitation,” says Joe’s father. “Perhaps Yusuf can show you where you will be staying, and then if you could bring him to the small study, Yusuf…?”
“Of course, we’re excited to catch up.”
“Oh, no, I think you should spend some time with your sisters,” says his father. Joe’s smile dims only a faint amount.
“We’re going to go sit by the pool,” says Noor. “Come find us.”
Nicky tries very hard not to look like someone who is being consigned to a fate. Any fate.
They are staying in the same room – well, Nicky thinks room automatically, but it is a suite of rooms, larger than the entire apartment he grew up in. He hadn’t actually been entirely sure whether that would be the case, and hadn’t worked out how to ask. Their bags have mysteriously appeared there. Joe’s has already been unpacked.
“I asked them to let you do your own,” he says. “I thought you’d prefer that.”
“Yes,” Nicky says. He walks straight into Joe and stands there, burying his face in the crook of Joe’s neck. Joe takes his not at all subtle hint and holds him.
“I’m sorry my father is kidnapping you right away,” Joe says, above Nicky’s ear. “He’s just going to feed you mint tea and interrogate you. I’m pretty sure. It’ll be fine.”
“My mother did the same thing,” Nicky says. “It’s okay. I would expect that no matter who your parents were.”
“Mmm, the topics might be different, though.” Joe kisses Nicky on the temple. “I am so glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” Nicky says, and is surprised that he means it, despite everything.
The ‘small study’ proves to be a room on the third floor of the building, with a small balcony and a view of the achingly beautiful sea. It is lined with books that mostly look like they don’t ever get read except for two smaller bookshelves that are clearly well-used, with books stacked sideways and cracked spines. There are also two low couches, facing each other, and a table with the tea set on it. Joe’s father moves through it like this is his personal space. Nicky tries not to feel like this is a job interview. Except in all the horrifying ways that it sort of is.
“So, Nicky,” says Joe’s father; Nicky does actually know his name is Prince Consort Ibrahim al-Kaysani, but he really can’t think of him as anybody other than Joe’s father. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know more than a little bit about you already. You have been in a relationship with my son for some time now, and as you may have noticed, he is not generally a man who cares to keep many secrets. Aside, of course, from the background report from his security team, which if you do not know about, you should. It is the kind of thing you may have to become accustomed to.”
“No, I know. And I would say Joe is not generally a person who cares to keep many secrets, but…with one great exception.” Nicky isn’t trying to be unfair to Joe, but it’s still true; he’s never going to lose the memory of the way it felt when he clicked on that link, happily doing anything except working on the essay he was supposed to be writing, and saw a picture of Joe on the Wikipedia page of Crown Prince Yusuf al-Kaysani.
“We thought we would let him make his own mistakes, in that regard.” Joe’s father looks thoughtful. “And also that if he was serious, he would say something, and if he did not…”
“That was what I thought, too,” Nicky says. “When I…found out.”
“Hmmm,” Joe’s father says, sipping his tea. “But you’re here, all the same.”
“He gave a very honest apology.”
“He’s good at those.” The topic changes, in a way that feels random but Nicky suspects is not. “I know that you studied to be a priest, until two and a half years ago. That must have been a very great change in your life. Are you willing to talk about why you made it?”
Nicky has answered this question a lot, so he has a number of responses; some are designed to make light of it, some are designed to fend off curiosity and change the topic of conversation, some are designed to answer the questions someone is pointedly not asking. Only one is really honest. He gives it because he is quite sure that none of the others will be allowed to suffice.
“Yes. It was not – any one great reason. I did not lose my faith, for instance, although I am sure Joe has told you that I do not attend church as frequently as I could, or as I did when I was younger. I was planning on the priesthood because the Church helped my mother a great deal, when I was young, and I wanted to help people like we had been helped. And I was told very often that it was difficult to get men to join the priesthood. I didn’t mind doing something difficult. I didn’t even mind giving up the chance of a family, or I didn’t then.” Nicky pauses, to wet his lips with his own tea. It is really very good. Not that he would expect anything less. “But it simply became clearer and clearer to me that I would be expected to overlook things that should not be overlooked, and that I wouldn’t be helping young people like I had been. I would be hurting them, telling them there was something wrong with them. So I left.” He shrugs. “The Church is like any very large organisation; there are good people and bad people, good parts and bad parts. But I felt as though if I stayed I would be someone I did not like.”
He had gone home to Genoa and stayed with his mother for six months while he stared at the ruins of the life he had intended to have, and tried to figure out what on earth he was going to do now. His exit had been very abrupt. His mother had gracefully and firmly shielded him from some of the attempts to get him to change his mind, and recruited the rest of his siblings to help; he will always be intensely grateful to her and them for that.
“That is always the question, isn’t it,” says Joe’s father, which is not at all the response Nicky expected. “Whether, if you make that sort of great choice about what to do with your life, you can remain someone your younger self would like. Assuming that your younger self has any sense about the matter. I spent a lot of time wondering the same thing after I married Yasmin.” Yasmin is, of course, Joe’s mother, the queen.
“Really?” Nicky says, genuinely surprised.
“Yusuf hasn’t told you much about that, has he?” Joe’s father smiles, in an echo of his son. “Hmm, I thought not. I met his mother when I was campaigning for a republic, nearly forty years ago now.”
Nicky doesn’t choke on his tea, but it is a very near thing. “No. He hadn’t mentioned that.”
“It’s definitely on Wikipedia,” Joe’s father says, now with a grin that Joe has certainly inherited. “Which I believe you’ve looked at.”
“Yes, and then I found that picture of Joe and had a panic attack,” Nicky says, “and then I thought it was better to ask him questions, rather than rely on the internet for answers.”
“It’s quite accurate, if not always detailed. My wife has some people who take care of that.”
“That, ah,” Nicky says, “sounds like what Joe has told me of her.” Joe’s take on his mother is that she is the most frighteningly competent person I know and I am grateful she loves me.
“She has a certain style in everything, yes.” This is said very fondly. “But as I was saying. I was from a very well-connected family, but I was convinced that this was our chance; her father was elderly and dying. We could do better than kings and queens, I thought. Part of me still thinks it.”
Nicky puts his cup of tea down. The choking risk is really too great. “May I…agree with that sentiment?”
“Certainly,” said Joe’s father. “But the choice I made – and I like to think it was made intelligently, not merely because my wife is…herself – was that we would be better off as a nation if we followed a gentler course of change. I do not know how well my son has acquainted you with the politics of our country, but I think it can be fairly argued that we have done this. When my wife’s father was alive, he ruled. My wife advises. There is a chance – not the largest chance, but it is a chance – that my son will never be a king at all, and I would not be sorry for it.”
Nicky has to bite his lip to not say anything at that; he cannot hide the way he sits up straighter. He can see Joe’s father take that in.
“You would prefer that,” he says.
“Philosophically,” Nicky says. “Yes. For Joe’s sake – yes, I think so. For my own, absolutely, because I am selfish where he is concerned, and I want as much of him as I can have. If he is a king,” he stumbles over the word, “it will be less, and my life’s work would be that, as well. If I meant, in any fairness, to stay with him. And I don’t think I’m qualified for that.”
“Ah, yes, I remember that feeling.”
Nicky was not expecting, at any point in this conversation, to feel a sense of kinship. But unmistakeably he does, and is being invited to. “Did it go away?”
“Most of the time. Not always.” Joe’s father picks up his tea again. “But I will not force you to consider politics all afternoon. We have all week for that.” Oh, there’s Joe’s sense of humor. “I was curious, however. Did you ever do any translation –”
By the time Nicky’s tea is entirely cold, they are engaged in what is actually a very enjoyable discussion about translations of the Bible, and how they relate to parts of the Quran. Nicky hasn’t talked about anything like this since he left seminary, largely because he has deliberately surrounded himself with people who are not passionate about theology. He wasn’t expecting to do it here; he certainly wasn’t expecting to find it relaxing.
Nicky is midway through a guiltily enjoyable complaint about the King James Bible when there’s a knock on the door; it’s Joe.
“I wondered if – oh, no,” he says. “Are you talking about theology?”
“Technically, no,” says Joe’s father.
“I’ve created a monster,” Joe says. “I’m taking him back to Italy immediately.”
“Certainly not,” his father replies. “But you may take him away for a little while before dinner.” He nods to Nicky. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to talk this week.”
“I hope so,” Nicky says, and means it.
“So,” Joe says, after he’s finished walking Nicky around the house. Much of it looks as if it is not really meant to be lived in. But parts of it do. Nicky thinks about those two smaller bookshelves in Joe’s father’s study. The way one might carve out pieces of a human-shaped life. They are standing by doors that open to a pool. He can hear music; it’s upbeat and mostly in Arabic and sounds suspiciously like Joe’s cooking playlist, which has always given Nicky teenage girl vibes even though he doesn’t understand any of the lyrics. That feels human-shaped, too.
“So,” Nicky says. “Is there a question on the end of that?”
“How close are you to asking to go home?”
“Well.” Nicky pretends to consider this. “I am supposed to meet Nile for lunch, in town, on Wednesday. And I do want to finish complaining about the thing I was complaining to your father about, because he is the first person I’ve talked to in two years who understands exactly what my point is. And I will admit it is still unnerving that there are clearly more people here working for your family than members of your family. But no. Not close at all.”
Joe doesn’t say anything, just walks into Nicky the way Nicky had earlier. They hold each other. Nicky becomes aware Joe is shuffling him slightly backwards. “Hmmm?”
“Just…out of direct line of sight,” Joe says, nodding at the window. Nicky thinks about Franco’s first girlfriend and the way Giovanna and Bernadetta had teased him, and smiles into Joe’s hair.
“The longer answer is, I’m working on it,” Nicky says. “I like your father.”
“I thought you might. I’m sorry my mother couldn’t be here. The last thing I heard, she might not be able to come at all.”
“I think she can be excused.” Nicky sighs. “Let’s just…see how it goes.”
“All I could ask for.”
Given how wound up Nicky had been, it turns out to be a very quiet few days; almost relaxing, almost an actual holiday. He gets to walk around some of the tourist spots. He has that lunch with Nile. He sleeps in. Joe takes gleeful pleasure in blowing him in their very large bed. Nicky is left wondering how they have ever managed to have sex in either of their fairly modestly-sized beds, back home. The apartment Joe lives in is a lot nicer than Nicky and Nile’s, but it isn’t large.
He takes careful note of how many times Noor and Amina mention they are enjoying the lack of official engagements and restrictions, and even Joe’s father, once or twice. He cannot let himself fall into the illusion that any sort of future with Joe would be like this, except in stolen days.
There’s a timeline, too. Joe’s degree has a year to run. So does his own. When he had said to Joe, that first day, that he deserved to know this had a time limit…it still has, just in a different way. He tells Joe as much, on their last day in Malta. He is reading a book by the pool. Joe is sketching.
“The truth is,” Joe says, “I was putting off thinking about what happens after that, too. I go home. I know my mother has ideas about what I should be doing. I know what some of them are. I was just…giving myself two years to be someone else. Some of the time.”
“So,” Joe agrees. “And I know you know it’s a lot more complicated than this. There’s no media here, really, or not media that cares about us, as long as we mostly stay at the house. There’s no politics. There’s no…” He stares at his notebook. “My family were expecting me to bring a guy home, if I brought anybody. But it’s not going to be a generally popular decision, I suspect.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Nicky says. “I would have had all of this, in the tiniest microcosm, if I’d stayed in the Church. What the local priest does? Always worthy of gossip. Very political, in its own way. Definitely no boyfriends allowed. Also no media, however.”
“Also the vows of poverty and chastity.”
“It’s not a perfect metaphor.”
“This isn’t a perfect life.” Joe shuts his sketchbook. “I’m not complaining; I know you’d laugh at me if I did. But. I hope…” He trails off.
“You’ve shown me enough of the good side to make me willing to deal with the rest?”
“If I was going to do that, I would have arranged to come here when my family weren’t.”
“Mmmmhmm.” Nicky knows what vetting looks like, thank you very much. He knows that the point of this was that Joe’s family were here. “You like your family.”
“Guilty,” Joe says. “And you?”
“I like them,” Nicky says, and a beat later, “You haven’t scared me off yet.” It’s the most frightening thing he’s ever said to anybody, ever; but it fills up his heart because it’s true, it’s true, it’s true; and he can see Joe taking it like the gift it’s meant to be.