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the last great american dynasty

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„My parents are selling me off like a piece of meat,” Joey says and Scratch starts laughing so hard, he almost drops the Starbucks cup Joey has so graciously placed into his waiting hands just two seconds ago. “I also got you that pumpkin flavored monstrosity and I want you to know that I do not approve of this at all. Just FYI. Like, there’s a difference between a cheat day and just completely obliterating your diet plan.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah – but you still asked for the extra shot of espresso and the cinnamon dolce syrup, right?” Scratch asks, still laughing a bit but his eyes are also lit up so hopefully that Joey doesn’t even mind that Scratch has apparently ignored everything else he’s just said.

“Obviously,” Joe says and yeah, Scratch is full on beaming now. It’s way too easy to make Scratch happy.

They start walking slowly through the streets of Kansas City towards the campus. The weather was super nice over the weekend when Joey was either in practice or in a conference call or cooped up with a heavy book called A Critical Introduction into something and something (Joey did read the book, okay? He just can’t remember titles for shit even if apparently, they’re critical). And now the sunshine is gone again, and it’s full-on gloomy fall – with wet leaves sticking to the sole of Joey’s boots and a drizzle of rain that hasn’t stopped since the morning. It feels like they’re already on the cusp of fall turning into winter and Joey just wants to scream at this stupid Earth to stop moving so fucking quickly.

“So what was that about you getting sold off like a piece of meat?” Scratch asks as Joey pulls his jacket closer. The chirps would be endless if the guys knew he was shivering this bad in late November already.

“I have a date next weekend. Well, not really a date, his people told my people that it’s a ‘friendly evening out’– but how “friendly” can an evening out be with two out gay dudes. But his grandma will be there, too, so… you know. I’m not entirely sure.”

Scratch snorts again. “You’ll have his grandma to chaperone you on your date?”

“Honestly, I’d like to say no but now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t actually know why else his grandma would need to be there. It’s obviously a setup from my parents’ side. And I’m pretty sure from his parents’ side, too.”

“So who is he anyway?” Scratch asks.

He seems a bit distracted and also like he doesn’t really care but Joey knows Scratch’s been busy with hockey and school and life lately so he doesn’t call him out on it. His dating life is also simply not that interesting – so really, he gets Scratch’s nonchalance.

“Owen something. He’s British. In line for the throne but he needs like ten people to die first so he probably won’t be the King of England any time soon.”

“Someone’s getting posh,” Scratch says teasingly with the worst British acent. “Is he… like, handsome or something at least?”

Joey rolls his eyes at Scratch. Visibly.

“You’re way too straight, man. You’re not going to catch the gay cooties by asking if he’s hot or not,” Joey asks and he even shoves Scratch sideways a bit to make sure he knows Joey’s joking.

Because Joey’s actually joking but he also knows that if his best friend of like fifteen or something years would start acting weird about Joey’s gayness, he’d have a mental breakdown that would require him to take at least three consecutive self-care days. Joey has a midterm and a game this week, he doesn’t have time for a stupid little mental breakdown now.

“So he’s hot,” Scratch says because he’s a moron.

He’s also kind of right.

“He’s actually really hot and it freaks me out a bit,” Joey says in a rush and he can’t stop the blush that spreads on his face afterwards.

Scratch rolls his eyes at that and shoves Joey away a bit. He doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t need to – Joey knows what he thinks. He knows what that eye-roll and that playful shove means because Scratch has said it out loud before, so many goddamn times. After the pictures leaked, after that shit really hit the fan. It’s the silent I’m here for you and you can talk to me but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s the we’re in this together.

“You’ll charm him in a minute,” he says eventually. “Thai for dinner?”

Joey smiles almost involuntarily. “Thai for dinner.”

*

Joey and Scratch met when they were seven on the first day of school and it took them about five minutes and twenty seconds to establish the fact that they would be best friends forever and ever.

“Your jersey is really cool,” seven-year-old Scratch said.

Joey beamed at him with a toothless smile. He lost one of his front teeth two days earlier and he was immensely proud of his achievement.

“You like the Capitals?” Joey asked.

“They’re my favorite. My dad lets me stay up on the weekends to watch the game.”

“Do you want to go to their game next time me and my dad are going?”

Scratch’s eyes grew at least two size bigger.

“Can I?”

“Of course. And we’re friends now,” Joey added. Not because he was that insecure (not back then, that came a bit later) but because he felt that it should be said out loud.

“Best friends,” Scratch nodded seriously.

Years passed, friends came and left, hockey came and stayed, girls and boys appeared in both their respective lives and wrecked the havoc they were supposed to. One thing did stay, though: a lanky boy with a kind smile.

*

“Please, tell me you’re not wearing that.”

Scratch is lying on Joey’s bed, casually scrolling through his phone with one hand, using the other to methodically pop Sour Patch Kids into his mouth. He barely even chews on them, just swallows them down like the human food hoover he is. Joey is disgusted and resigned.

“Yes, I am,” Joey tells him as he quickly buttons up his shirt. “And don’t even pretend that you have a better fashion sense than I do.”

He’s wearing a dark blue shirt with his favorite light grey, chequered dress pants and brown Oxfords and he feels ridiculously and uncomfortably overdressed for a date. Well, semi-date – that grandma thing is still kind of throwing Joey off. Joey likes casual dates. He likes going out for pizza in jeans and picking up a coffee in a hoodie. He genuinely likes long walks on the beach wearing no shoes and comfy clothes. He doesn’t like this restaurant nonsense they’re apparently doing.

“Please, don’t give me the ‘I’m royalty so I know how to dress’ bullshit. You people wear the most ridiculous outfits,” Scratch says like he himself has never attended a royal event wearing one of those ridiculous outfits. The absolute liar.

“If you start with the stupid hat argument again, I swear to God, I’ll make sure you choke on your candy.”

Scratch raises an eyebrow. “Kinky.”

And Joey blushes. Because of course, he does. It’s kind of terrible how Scratch chooses the worst moments possible to drop his ‘I love you, dude, but no homo’ attitude.

Joey turns back to his mirror to hide the flush on his face and busies his hand with his buttons again.

“Don’t leave two open. One is enough,” Scratch says after a couple seconds of silence and Joey is so surprised that he even forgets about his embarrassment.

“Yeah?”

“You don’t want to give him the wrong impression,” Scratch grins but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Like I could give him the wrong impression with his grandma sitting there,” Joey says, and he means it in a joking way but it comes out a bit too high-pitched.

Scratch lowers his phone. That’s never a good sign.

“You’re freaking out,” he says and Joey groans.

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

And the annoying thing about Scratch is that he asks zero follow-up questions. Offers no insights. He just stares until Joey gives in.

They’re engaged in a stare-off for exactly twenty-two seconds. Joey counts them.

“I talked to my mom this morning,” Joey says eventually.

“And there we go,” Scratch murmurs. “What did she say?”

Joey gives up on fixing his hair and instead throws himself on his bed next to Scratch. Scratch silently offers him his bag of candy, and after careful consideration, Joey takes two.

“It wasn’t exactly that she’s said something. She was just telling me how excited she was for me. Like, Owen is apparently this superhot and super smart and super nice and gay royalty who is supposed to be a perfect fit for me.”

“And you’re worried you won’t like him?” Scratch asks.

Joey doesn’t say anything. The silence stretches between them.

“Money,” Scratch says, and his voice is so low and so full of something suddenly that Joey can’t even look at him. “Please tell me this is not one of your stupid insecurity moments.”

“It’s…”

“You’re the goddamn prince of the United States of America. You’re an amazing guy and you’re an even better hockey player. And you’re smart. And patient. He’d be lucky to have you – no matter how superhot he is,” Scratch says, interrupting Joey’s half-ass excuse.

Joey is blushing so hard right now, it’s not even funny.

“You’re my best friend, you’re supposed to say nice things about me,” he murmurs and throws both Sour Patch Kids into his mouth.

“I’m your best friend so I know all the nice things about you,” Scratch retorts immediately.

And Joey just – he doesn’t know what he could even say to that.

“And what if he asks about the pictures?”

“He’s not going to ask about the pictures,” Scratch says immediately.

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“Why would he?” Scratch parrots his question back and Joey just wants to growl at him. “He’s royalty, Joey. You guys are amazingly talented at tiptoeing around awkward topics you know you are not supposed to mention.”

Okay, Scratch does have a point there. Scratch and his stupid insights about royalty – he’s not even royal himself, how does he know so much?

(Maybe spending half of his life glued to Joey’s side helped in that regard.)

“What is his grandma even going to do there?” Joey asks instead of admitting that Scratch is right. He doesn’t want to give him a big head or something.

Scratch snorts, not even the tiniest bit thrown by Joey’s sudden change of topic.

“I have a pretty great idea about that actually,” he says and his grin looks dangerous.

“Please, don’t say anything dirty about my date’s grandma like an hour before I go and meet her,” Joey whispers immediately.

“Oh my god, Money.”

“What?”

“Why would you even say that?”

“What? It’s a perfectly reasonable fear!”

“Yeah, with like Shithead or Willy maybe. I don’t disrespect grandmas. My grandma would murder me.”

“Okay, then what was your great idea then?”

“I wanted to say that she’s only going because she wants to eat something super good since you guys are going to that great restaurant.”

Oh god, Joey is in idiot.

“Oh god, I am an idiot,” Joey says quietly. “I am a terrible person. I assume the worst. They’re going to absolutely hate me.”

“Nah, you’re alright,” Scratch waves him off. “But… now that you mention, there is one thing that you could do that would make you an even better person.”

“Yeah?” Joey asks.

Scratch is lying horizontally on his bed now, his shirt riding up high on his stomach. Joey sees his happy trail, dark hair pronounced against soft skin, and for a second, all he wants to do is reach out and touch.

Damn, this date is really messing with his head.

“You want to bring me a plate of the good steak with the cranberry sauce and two servings of crème brûlée? And oh, wait, they do that great brownie there, too, I need that.”

Joey rolls his eyes at him. Then laughs. Then nods. He should have known.

*

Joey’s love affair with the University of Kansas City started the moment he saw a picture of the main building in one of those shiny pamphlets Carol has shoved into his hands when he was about to enter his sophomore year of high school. Carol usually didn’t spend a lot of time harassing Joey with all the princely things he was supposed to do (it was Casey who got most of Carol’s attention as the next in line for the throne) but apparently choosing which university Joey wanted to attend was of utmost importance to the Royal Advisors.

“I’m only a sophomore, you know. In case your forgot,” Joey said, full of fake teenage smug. Joey was mostly a good kid but even he went through a phase of ‘I’m the prince of the United States of America and I could probably have you beheaded or something’. It was a short phase that Joey desperately wants to forget – and that Scratch loves to tell everyone about.

“Yes, Joey, I am aware,” Carol said, her voice slightly annoyed, and the ‘you should call me Your Highness, peasant’ was again on the tip of Joey’s tongue.

(Carol was one of the most trusted members of the Royal Advisors, and she was so close to the family she was basically one of them. Literally the whole royal family would have made fun of Joey if he told Carol to call him Your Highness behind closed doors.)

“But you can’t just expect to fluke your way into a university because you happen to be the prince of the USA. You’re going to choose a college now and then we’ll prepare a plan for you to make sure you pass the admission requirements with flying colors.”

“I just want to play hockey,” Joey said. “But oh yeah, I forget, it’s not like anyone cares about that.”

Carols sighed. This was not the first time Joey has uttered this very sentence. This was very definitely not the first time Joey has bitched about the fact that they wouldn’t let him enter the draft when he finally became 18.

“We can prioritize the schools with a good hockey program. But you’re going to have to realize, rather sooner than later, that hockey can’t be your future, Joey. We have talked about this. Extensively.”

Joey has always hated when people talked to him like he was some stupid little kid – even if he was actually only fifteen. If they expected him to talk and walk and act like an adult then why couldn’t they treat him like one?

“Then I’ll just go wherever Scratch goes,” Joey said.

He was mostly saying that to annoy Carol with his non-cooperation. But it was also true: Joey was not going to live without Scratch for four years, what the hell.

Carol was somehow sighing with her entire face. Joey almost heard the noise her expression made. “Please just look at the pamphlets, okay?”

Joey looked at three before he stumbled upon the University of Kansas City with its beautiful, ivy-covered stone buildings. It looked a lot like the old buildings of Harvard or Yale or any one the old colleges of the East Coast so it shouldn’t have been that special – but there was also something more to the school that Joey couldn’t quite put into words. It also had one of the best hockey programs in the entire country and its PolSci department was a quite respectable one. When Joey told Carol where he wanted to go, she almost looked surprised at his choice, then she quickly started planning before Joey could change his mind.

Joey didn’t tell anyone that he only moderately cared about the athletic opportunities and that he didn’t even look at the Political Science courses. What Joey cared about was the vast expanse of the green lawn in front of the old building with a scatter of oak trees surrounding it from almost all sides. Joey only cared about the high piles of colorful leaves under the trees where he could so clearly picture lying down on empty afternoons, a good book in his hand, Scratch by his side, and no duties weighing him down, far and far and so far away from the palace. For once in his life.

So Joey chose his school, and his parents were happy, and the advisors were even happier. (It also played into their plan to send Joey somewhere other than Harvard or Yale or Stanford because the rumblings about the elitist American educational system were getting louder and louder by the day.) And as the day of graduation approached, Joey was getting more and more excited to actually get to Kansas City.

Obviously, after the Summer (with its bitterly capitalized S), things changed. But the U of KC remained the one thing Joey was looking forward to and kept looking forward to during the summers – a safe haven from all the royal bullshit and contingency plans and emergency media meetings. A new place for a new life. A new place for a new Joey.

*

The restaurant they go to is one of the most lavish and expensive ones in Kansas City but it’s also one of Joey’s personal favorites. He doesn’t know if the facts are related or not but it’s a beautiful place with genuinely good food and the sizes are actually reasonable (not those tiny little servings that Joey and Scratch – especially Scratch – would need at least four of to satisfy their hockey player hunger). It’s a great place, okay? Trust Joey on that.

Joey gets there early, and the maître d' immediately shows him to a little, mostly secluded table at the back. It’s not the table he and Scratch usually go for and Joey doesn’t know if that makes him more uneasy or happy.

“Let me know if you need anything, Your Highness,” the guy says and he even moves a bit forward like he’s preparing for a curtsey. He’s a tall guy, probably in his early 30s, and Joey has seen him a bunch of times already but every time the guy pretends that it’s the first time Joey has ever addressed him in his life. There’s already a sheen of sweat on his forehead and Joey just wants to tell him to chill out and to treat him like a normal dude because all this your highness this and your highness that is starting to freak Joey out, too.

“Thank you,” Joey says and he even tries to smile at the guy to put him at ease (all his etiquette classes taught him that smiling at people is probably to best way to go about any situation), but the guy hurries away with a worried expression on his face, so Joey’s not sure he succeeded.

Joey, stop thinking about the maître d' and start mentally preparing for your date and his grandma.

He spends two minutes fidgeting and playing with his napkin (which he should not do, what if someone takes a photograph, Joseph – he can literally hear his etiquette teacher’s voice in his head) and he’s just about to pull his phone out to send a totally chill, not at all panicky text to Scratch when a deep (very deep) and British (very British) voice starts talking right behind him.

“Please tell me I haven’t kept you waiting for too long.”

Joey almost drops his phone into his lap but manages to catch it in the very last moment (thank you, hockey reflexes). But that doesn’t even matter at the moment, at least not to him, because as he finally looks up, he sees that the most beautiful pair of eyes are staring back at him conveying the most apologetic look he’s ever seen in his life, and Joey – well, Joey doesn’t melt exactly, but suddenly, completely out of the blue, he starts blushing so hard, he can feel the heat coming off his skin.

Because Owen Thomson looks even better in person which means that he’s not only one of the most beautiful people Joey has ever laid eyes on. But it also means that Joey is about to go on a date with a guy who’s one of the most beautiful people Joey has ever laid eyes on – and at that point, Joey’s brain just gives up. It’s gone. Goodbye.

Which is why after staring up at Owen’s face for approximately ten whole seconds, Joey manages to open his mouth and say, “I… no. Waiting.”

Like that was something even remotely resembling an English sentence. Like Joey didn’t take freaking speech classes almost every single year since the age of six.

“Pardon me?”

Joey takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, you just startled me. But no, I got here, like, three minutes ago? Yeah, four minutes tops.”

Owen looks confused for a bit but then a small smile spreads on his lips. “That’s a relief then. Still, sorry about being late. It wasn’t very gentlemanly of me.”

Well, Joey has never felt less of a gentleman in his entire life so it would actually be a good thing if Owen could take it down a notch. Or two. Or ten. Maybe then Joey would feel like less of a human failure.

Owen finally takes a seat next to him and Joey is suddenly really glad for the relatively big tables the restaurant has in the back because if he’d accidently touch Owen’s arm or – God forbid – his leg, Joey would die a painful and very awkward death right here in the restaurant.

Joey also finally notices the fact that Owen came into the restaurant completely and very visibly alone and grandma-free.

“Oh wait, where’s Lady Thomson? Is she okay?”

“Oh yes, she’s alright – she’s only a bit tired, so she decided to go back to her hotel and asked me to relay her apologies. She’s visiting me for a couple days before she joins a good friend of hers at a conference in Seattle, and she has tried to cram every single activity we both like into two days. So today, we’ve already been to the zoo, to see a matinée production in one of the local theaters and had tea with another good friend of hers.”

“How British of you.”

Owen laughs and Joey is prepared to write a sonnet about the sound. “Well, we did complain about the quality of the cucumber sandwiches so…”

And that’s it. Joey’s in love. How can someone this gorgeous be this funny, too? This is not fair – this is some kind of dark sorcery that Joey would like to take part in. Preferably with Owen by his side.

“I hope you don’t mind, though, that it’s just the two of us. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time now.”

Oh god. It really is going to be just the two of them. It’s not a casual royal meeting anymore, not a friendly night out with a grandma by their side – it is a date.

“It’s okay,” Joey says, a couple seconds too late to be polite but Joey is still thrown by the fact that he’s on a date with a hot guy. He knows he was upset the Owen’s grandma would crash their date but now that she’s not actually crashing it, Joey almost misses her. He is not prepared for this at all.

Owen looks like he totally noticed Joey’s brain freeze there but also decided to ignore it. Because Owen is apparently not only beautiful and funny but kind as well. Joey is feeling more and more lightheaded by the minute here.

“Are you gentlemen ready to order?” the waiter asks, appearing out of nowhere and Joey is almost grateful for the pause in their conversation. Joey needs to regroup here.

Owen orders some prosciutto-wrapped chicken while Joey opts for the smoked salmon with three different side salads and plain brown rice. Owen raises one eyebrow at Joey’s order, then he raises the other one when the waiter, upon hearing Joey’s request, acknowledges it with a polite ‘we’ll bring you your usual, Your Highness.’

“You come here often?” Owen asks when the waiter finally leaves with their orders.

“That sounded like a really bad pick-up line,” Joey says before he could stop himself, and then he continues with, once again, a furious blush on his cheeks. “My best friend loves their steak. And their risotto. And now that I’m thinking about it, he loves pretty much everything they make except for the eggplants. So we come here pretty often, yeah.”

“He’s a hockey friend? Because I’m going to be honest with you, my hockey knowledge is seriously lacking, so apologies for that in advance.”

Joey would pretty much forgive this man anything.

“I’m sure you make up for it in like… cricket?”

Owen’s laugh is a beautiful, beautiful sound. Joey doesn’t want to compare it to angels’ singing because Joey is not a cliché but he is tempted. Like, he almost sees the gloria around Owen’s head level tempted.

“Sure, I’m extremely knowledgeable about cricket,” Owen says, and Joey knows he’s kind of making fun of Joey but he also finds that he doesn’t really mind. “But really, tell me about hockey. How’s your team?”

And look, Joey knows about all the etiquette rules. He knows how much he’s supposed to talk in a conversation, and how much he’s supposed to ask to appear polite and engaged. And Joey’s an introvert, too, so it’s not like he usually hogs a conversation. But ask Joey about hockey, and you’ll hear about hockey. Ask Joey about his team and you won’t get to talk for the rest of the evening – maybe the next morning, too.

So Joey tells Owen about how the NCAA works, and he tells him about Scratch and Willy and Trigger and Shithead. He tells him what it was like last year to get into the Frozen Final and then lose it in the last five minutes. He tells him about the rest of the Scouts too and some of the more PG shenanigans. (He also very carefully leaves out all the stories that could make him look like an idiot. Frankly, there are a lot of those and Joey is ashamed).

And throughout it all, Owen listens. And he asks and laughs and offers a funny quip here and there – all sharp and witty remarks that make Joey laugh out loud, surprising even himself with how easy it is to keep the conversation flowing with Owen. When it’s finally Owen’s turn, he tells Joey about his university coursework (he’s majoring in bioengineering which makes Joey feel really stupid compared to him) and also how a British royalty like himself ended up in Kansas City of all places. Then he tells him about the charity he’s working with and the startup he’s setting up with his buddies.

Owen Thomson, practically perfect in every way.

He also tells Joey that the Queen of England and his grandma are super close and that even though he usually sees her (the Queen, not his grandma) at least two or three times a year, she still freaks him out. Joey can relate honestly. He’s met the Queen maybe twice his entire life and he’s pretty sure he has managed to embarrass himself both times. Her Majesty is one scary lady.

But really, all in all, Joey’s having a great time. A grand ol’ time. Until he’s not, of course.

“I mean, I know the British and the American royal families are not the same, and that you’re really in the inner circle while I don’t have that many obligations but it’s really nice to talk to someone who really gets it.”

“Gets what?” Joey asks as he takes the last bite of his sugar-free brownie. He didn’t even have to order it – Simon, the waiter just brought it for him as part of his usual order.

“What it’s like being gay and royal at the same time,” Owen clarifies and Joey nods. He totally agrees. He doesn’t have a lot of gay buddies (hockey, for all his homoerotic rituals, is still a painfully straight sport) and he knows absolutely no one who’s both royal and gay. It’s 2020, sure, but the royal traditions are still not all on board with the dudes liking dudes thing.

Except that then Owen goes on. “I’m just really happy we finally had the chance to meet. I needed a friend like you, I’ll be honest with you.”

Joey doesn’t choke on his brownie because Joey has already finished his stupid brownie but he knows he would have totally choked otherwise. Because he hears the word ‘friend’ come out of Owen’s mouth and he – well, he just. Fuck. Fuck.

Because of course, this wasn’t a date. Why would Joey even think that? Fuck, his grandma was supposed to be here. And probably not even to chaperone but to, like, maintain good relations with the American royal family. This was a nice diplomatic dinner. Nothing else. Joey’s such an idiot.

Joey’s only saving grace is that he didn’t attend all those stupid meeting with the royal advisors for long, long years for nothing. He’s prepared for almost any situation – including but not limited to what to do if he gets outed when his ex-boyfriend posts his nudes all over the internet or in case of an assassination attempt on his life happens or if the president of US does some problematic shit like declare a nuclear war on Russia. Just the usual stuff.

He’s also pretty sure they’ve covered what to do if the guy you’re on a date with tells you that you guys are definitely not on a date.

“Even though I talked about hockey for like two hours?” Joey asks and maybe it comes out a bit choked but well, the brownie was a tad bit dry, so Joey’s blaming it on that.

“It was fun,” Owen smiles. He’s still devastatingly beautiful but now it makes Joey’s stomach uneasy instead of setting off a flurry of butterflies.

Joey pays for their bill after a bit of polite bickering over who invited who. They’re just about to leave when the waiter comes out with Scratch’s wrapped up food that Joey made sure to order before he was even seated and he’s glad for that now because in his complete daze, he totally would have forgotten about it.

“Already thinking about tomorrow?” Owen asks teasingly, and why does he have to be so damn charming? Joey kind of hates him for it.

“Scratch would kill me if I came here and not bring him back anything. I value my life more than that.”

“He’s lucky to have you,” Owen says as they take their coat.

The ‘I could make you lucky, too’ is on the tip of Joey’s tongue but he’s way too well-trained to let anything like that slip.

When they step out to the cold December air, Joey almost wants to ask Owen if he’d like some coffee to wind the night down. But now that Joey’s thinking about it, he really doesn’t want to. Owen’s a fun guy but the only thing Joey wants to do now is to go home, crawl under his blanket and lick his non-existent wounds in peace. Joey’s ego was hurt today – he deserves a bit of Joey time.

“I have an early class tomorrow, so I’ll head back to my place if you don’t mind,” Owen says.

And Joey’s glad. Really. He literally just said how much he wants to go home. He is also definitely not thinking things like ‘of course, you’d want to go and leave me as soon as possible’ because that would be just ridiculous.

“But I’ll be in touch. I’ve had a really fun time. We should do it again.”

“Sure,” Joey says and returns Owen’s smile like his life depends on it.

Sure. Joey’s an idiot.

*

Joey got outed the summer after high school by the only guy he has ever been in love with. And by got outed, he means the worst kind of outing – the one that showed Joey’s literal dick from at least four different angles to the whole nation of America. (Probably a bunch of other nations, too. When the prince of USA has his nudes leaked all over the internet, it usually makes the front page of both the Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung and The Japan Times. Joey tore up the papers in a blinding fit of rage but he’s sure he could find a copy in less than a minute even now).

So Joey got outed and instead of a summer of shenanigans that he and Scratch had been planning for literal years, filled with roadtrips and concerts and shotgunning beer (like any decent 18 year-old would do after high school) they cooped up in Joey’s room and the left-wing of the palace that only the family and close advisors were allowed to visit, and basically stayed there for weeks.

They played FIFA and Chel and CoD until they get bored of it all. Then they started playing floor hockey but Scratch almost sprained his ankle, so they had to stop that, too, considering Nick was literally going to the U of KC on an athletic scholarship. They even came up with a game that was just a really bad version of Never Have I Ever that included making up stories from their childhood and convincing the other that they really did the thing together or not. It was and still is alarming how much stupid shit they’d done together.

Joey wasn’t allowed to even log onto the internet. He definitely wasn’t allowed to peek at the headlines. But Joey was also 18 and stupid and had this crawling feeling under his skin that he just had to know what people were saying because if he didn’t – well, fuck, he just needed to know it.

When Scratch found him staring at his laptop screen sitting on the bathroom floor, Joey didn’t even fight him, just handed over the laptop and let himself be manhandled by Scratch. Scratch led him to his bed, wiped his tears off and tucked him in, covering him up to his chin with his heavy blanket. Joey didn’t want him to leave but he was also too scared to ask because fuck, he’s going to think that Joey wants to –

When Scratch got into his bed without even saying a word, all Joey felt was a bone-deep relief that was almost more powerful than his heavy shame and hurt and fears.

It was a long and hot summer with never ending days, the sunlight filtering in for so long, Joey almost believed that things were okay and happy and calm outside.

But the nights were long too, with starless skies and a cold breeze, and only Scratch’s hand to hold onto when Joey couldn’t fall asleep. They haven’t held hands in years, but Joey can still vividly remember the touch of Scratch’s skin on his own.

*

“How was your date?”

Joey groans. Then groans again. Then puts the food containers down. Then kicks his shoes down and plunges head-first into his couch. Scratch lets out a hurt little yelp and Joey thinks he feels a knee twist uncomfortably under his, but then it’s gone, Scratch pulling all his unnecessarily long limbs from under Joey’s useless body.

“Money?”

“I hate everything. And everyone. I really, really hate royal people. But also non-royal people, too?”

“That doesn’t leave a lot of options for you, buddy.”

“Har-har,” Joey says, still talking into the gap between his couch cushions. They smell funny and Joey is not sure he wants to know the reason behind that.

He slowly turns onto his back and he’s suddenly faced with a concerned looking Scratch, hovering almost above him. He looks so big from here, all broad shoulders and solid muscle, and he smells safe and familiar. He’s probably been using the same shampoo and body wash combination since high school – something that Joey would never wear himself but finds it almost soothing on Scratch’s skin.

“Put your face away,” Joey says eventually when Scratch keeps looking at him like he’s dying or something.

“No. I’m rather attached to it,” the smartass says, and Joey can’t help but snort at that. It’s a sad, pathetic, little snort – but it dissipates a bit of Joey’s lingering bad mood.

Joey groans again but he sits up to rest his head against Scratch’s shoulder. He puts his arm around Joey, almost pulling him into his chest and Joey goes because he’s a needy fucker – he’s a needy fucker all the damn time but he’s definitely one today.

“I take the date wasn’t a success?”

“No shit, Sherlock. Though, now that I’m thinking about it, you probably knew it wouldn’t be a success even before I did.”

Scratch makes a confused sound. Joey can’t describe it any other way, but it’s almost like a little whine that sounds just… confused. “Man, don’t even front it. You’re literally chilling in the living room wearing nothing but underwear. What if I brought Owen back here?”

“You wouldn’t have brought him here on a first date,” Scratch says and there’s no trace of hesitation in his voice.

“Because the date with the hot guy was never supposed to be a success.”

“No. Because you never bring back anyone after the first date. Not even after the third. You might go to their place, but you wouldn’t bring them here. This is your Joey space. You don’t just bring people here.”

Which makes sense. It does. Joey knows that.

(He also doesn’t point out that Scratch is literally living with him and that Joey really doesn’t mind that, so there is a bit of a hole in Scratch’s argument. Even if it’s mostly true. Scratch is usually the exception to Joey’s rules.)

“It doesn’t even matter. It wasn’t even a date.”

“Oh,” is all Scratch says. Nothing more. Nothing less.

So then it all comes out, Joey telling him about the whole night – the missing grandma, Owen’s gorgeous face and excellent sense of humor and the gloria around his head, and then how it all turned to shit.

“I never had a chance with him. I knew that. It still sucks.”

“He’s an idiot, Joey,” Scratch says immediately, and his words sound forceful. Like he really means them.

“The annoying thing is that he’s actually a really nice human being.”

“Being an idiot and being nice are not mutually exclusive.”

Joey sighs. Maybe. “Do you want to watch something?”

“Netflix has a new docuseries out. True crime,” Scratch says with a hopeful grin.

“We have snacks?”

Scratch pulls out two bags of popcorns and a box of chocolate chip cookie from literally behind the couch. Joey lets out the first real laugh since he’s left the restaurant.

Because Joey might have a slightly bruised ego and an even more rattled self-esteem, but you know what? Fuck royal people, and fuck gorgeous guys who don’t want him back. He has a bag of popcorn in his lap, his feet up on the couch and Scratch’s warm body pressed next to his – and what more could he really want?

*

Joey wants one thing and one thing only in his life: to pass this class. He’s not aiming for a good grade here, no flashy results that his mummy and daddy could put on the fridge. He just wants to pass it, to complete it, to leave it the fuck behind.

The annoying thing is that it’s not even that bad of a class. (As far as Algebra can be anything but bad. Joey’s not so sure that’s possible anymore.) The prof is not horribly boring and his voice is not even that monotonous. And Joey’s not stupid, okay? He didn’t get into the U of KC only because he’s the prince of the United States or because the school appreciates his abilities as a hockey player. Sure, those things helped – but Joey didn’t fluke his way in. He’s smart – definitely smarter than to let a stupid Algebra class defeat him.

But he has absolutely no idea what those symbols even mean. Hell, he’s not even attempting to get what the equation is supposed to be about. Joey gives up now. He’s waving bye to ever passing this class. He’s bidding farewell to his diploma. The good thing about being royalty is that he’ll probably always have a job. He can smile and wave like the best of them. He doesn’t need Algebra for that.

His phone buzzes in his pocket and Joey welcomes the distraction like the good student he is.

Owen: look we’re already on the cover of us weekly

Joey finds it fascinating how a single text can make him feel touched and pissed off at the same time.

‘pls tell me they’re shipping us’ Joey texts back and his only defense is that Algebra is fucking with his head. He should be avoiding this topic like the plague – why is he even doing it? Does Joey like torturing himself? Doesn’t Algebra torture him enough already?

Okay, no, this is going to stop. Joey is going to treat this friendship as any other friendship he has. It doesn’t matter that Owen is gay and gorgeous. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to date Joey. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be friends, right? Joey is going to befriend Owen so hard, he won’t even know what has happened to him.

Owen: lol of course they are. but they actually took a very nice picture of us look

The picture Owen texts him is actually really nice and Joey almost forgets about his ‘befriend Owen so hard’ plan for a second, because they just look so nice together.

Owen is almost as tall as Joey is but his lean frame complements Joey’s broader shoulders, and even their stupid clothes match – Owen’s dark blue pants and Joey’s shirt making them the picture-perfect version of what they could be. If stupid Owen would want it – if stupid Owen would want Joey.

Joseph, you have literally spent one evening together with the dude, chill the fuck out.

Joey: okay, this picture is super nice. should have asked the pap to take my next profile pic.

Owen: lol and how’s your day going?

Joey: i’m dying

Owen: ?

Joey: Algebra was specifically created to torture me

Owen: self-centered a bit? :D but seriously, lmk if I can help with anything, you know what my major is

Joey: something math-y

Owen: … sure, let’s go with math-y

Joey can almost picture his face saying that – a little smile playing on his face, barely able to contain his glee at getting to tease the hell out of Joey.

(Joseph. One evening. That was all it took, really?)

His phone buzzes again but this time it’s with a text from Scratch. It’s a screenshot from his conversation with Willy about their tentative plans for the evening, accompanied with a single question mark.

Joey: sure, I’m in. just don’t let me stay out too long, I have like three video calls tomorrow

Scratch: royal shit?

Joey: yupp

Scratch: I’ll make sure to tuck you in before midnight

Joey: knew you had my back <3

Scratch: <3

Joey turns his phone off after that. He’s totally paying attention here. He’ll defeat this Algebra class even if it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. And if he’s defeating his Algebra class with a smile on his face – well, that’s no one’s business.

(Mike, his bodyguard, sure acts like it’s his business with all the knowing grins he’s sending Joey’s way. Mike’s been Joey’s bodyguard for at least seven years now. He probably knows by now that Joey can’t actually have him beheaded but it also doesn’t stop Joey from hissing ‘stop fucking smirking like that or I’ll make sure you lose your head’ at him.

Mike just laughs at him. That asshole.)

*

“How was your date?” Willy asks the moment Joey and Scratch plops down on the opposite side of the table.

It’s Friday night so the bar they usually frequent after the games is buzzing with people. It’s not the most popular place in KC, far from it, but it’s quite close to campus and the alcohol is cheap, so there’s always a fair number of students (and even faculty members) crammed around the little tables and the bar. Mike and Liam, Joey’s other bodyguard (who is probably secretly dating Mike – or at least, Joey hopes so, because there’s some serious sexual tension between the two of them), absolutely despise the place because it’s apparently a terrible place for… bodyguarding? (Guarding Joey? Something like that.) And it’s not like Joey couldn’t afford to go to a more high-end bar with a smaller crowd but Joey’s friends are broke-ass motherfuckers who whine when they miss happy hour and have to pay full price for their drinks. Every. Damn. Time.

(Joey knows he’s being bitchy but he’s also the one who has to deal with a bitchy and sexually frustrated Mike and Liam. Neither of them is fun then, no matter how much Joey actually likes them.)

“I’ll get us drinks,” Scratch says, placing a big, comforting hand on Joey’s shoulder as he stands up, and Joey wants to make grabby hands towards him as he leaves because he really, really does not want to be alone with Willy after the question he’s just asked.

Joey loves Willy, okay? He does, truly. Willy’s an awesome guy. He’s funny and kind and he always has Joey’s back. Joey would come to Willy if he had a problem he needed to solve. Joey trusts Willy.

But Willy’s also someone who, when he smells blood, just leeches onto the topic and never ever lets go of it. If Joey tells him how his date was not even a date, Willy would hound Joey down until he’d tell him every single juicy detail.

“Wait, how did you even know I was on a date?”

“Scratch told me the other day,” Willy says immediately then waves Joey off with his beer in his hand. He doesn’t even spill a drop and Joey’s almost impressed. “But don’t change the topic. How was it?”

“That snitch,” Joey murmurs. “It wasn’t a date.”

“Oh, the grandma thing.”

“No, she wasn’t even there,” Joey says without thinking, then mentally smacks himself on his head. Why couldn’t he have lied and say she was there? Maybe Willy would have stopped sniffing around. Joey’s an idiot.

“Oh,” Willy says with an evil grin. “Then did you have a fun night, Joseph?”

Joey groans. He wants a beer. And probably three shots of tequila like right the fuck now.

“Why do you even care?”

“Money, you wound me. I care about your happiness. We all do. And you deserve to find your prince,” Willy says and makes a fake cooing sound so loud that the two girls from the neighboring table immediately look over to them. They do the typical double take when they spot Joey. Fantastic. That’s exactly what he needed.

“I am a prince myself. I don’t need another prince.”

“Sure, sure,” Willy waves him off. “You are a strong, independent prince who doesn’t need no man with the white horse and all that. Now tell me about your hot date with the Brit guy. Was his accent everything you’ve ever dreamt about?”

Why is Scratch taking so damn long with their drinks? Alcohol, Joey needs alcohol.

“It wasn’t a date. I thought it was, and I had a super fun time and he was superhot but then at the end of the night, he was like ‘I’m so happy we get to be friends, Joey, you’re such a good friend’. End of story. You happy now?” Joey says, maybe a bit too forcefully.

He wants this conversation to just fucking end. He doesn’t want to talk about Owen. Never again.

The smile falters from Willy’s face. “Oh, buddy.”

“Yeah,” Joey says but the heat’s gone from his voice now. He feels deflated.

Before Willy could say anything else, Scratch finally gets back to their table with a pitcher of beer and a line of shots.

“My hero,” Joey says and grabs a shot glass.

“Someone’s eager,” Scratch says with a raised eyebrow as he settles back next to Joey. His thigh is a long line of muscle pressed firmly against Joey’s leg. Joey hasn’t even had a drop of alcohol but he’s already feeling too hot. “What the hell did you do to him, Willy?”

“Asked him about his non-date.”

Joey takes a shot. It burns his throat in the best way possible.

“Ouch,” Scratch says and makes a sympathetic face at Joey. Joey wants to touch his cheeks. He takes a second shot instead.

“Ouch indeed,” he says as the alcohol makes its way down his throat.

When he looks back up at Willy and Scratch, they’re wearing the same slightly scared, slightly worried expression on their faces.

“Maybe you want to slow down a bit? Drink some water too?” Scratch says and his voice is so gentle, Joey thinks it’s exactly what velvet would sound like.

He shakes his head. And groans. And sighs probably, because that’s all Joey’s been doing lately.

At least they don’t talk about Owen after that. Small victories.

He does slow down a bit – but he doesn’t stop – and he also definitely feels the shots he took in quick succession. The room is crowded and loud and so, so hot and Joey finds himself leaning into Scratch more often than not. At one point, when Joey is leaning out of their booth to tell a very animated story to Shithead, Scratch also places his left hand carefully on Joey’s elbow to stop him from falling out. Then his hand just stays there, even after Shithead is long gone, and Joey feel Scratch’s soft fingerprints on his skin like they are burning him.

“It just sucks, you know. There’s like basically no other gay royals out there,” Joey whines to Willy and Scratch. He doesn’t even know how they ended up talking about this again but here they go. Joey’s about the drop some truth bombs here. “Like, sure, Owen can be picky and choose-y because he’s like a minor royalty or something. He could probably just marry anyone – no matter their social status and their bloodline and the what the fuck ever. But I can’t do that. And I’m running out of options. And it sucks.”

“Wait. Are you only allowed to marry another royal?” Willy asks.

“Drink your water,” Scratch says and pushes a glass into Joey hands. Joey drinks half of it dutifully before he returns to Willy with his answer.

“Oh yeah, it’s literally a written rule. I mean I don’t know what would happen if you decided not to do it but it’s heavily hinted at. Like, ‘we’ll disown you if you don’t’ level of heavily hinted at. Casey’s potential husbands were basically picked out the moment she was born. I’m pretty sure they had a line of pretty noble ladies lined up for me to choose from but then…”

“Then you announced you liked dicks.”

“Don’t be transphobic, Willy. And it’s also not just about the dicks.”

Willy grins like Christmas came early and Joey doesn’t know what made him so happy suddenly but even through his alcohol haze, he gets a little scared. That smile on Willy’s face is evil.

“Oh, really? So what is it about?” he asks innocently.

“Like, I want to find a guy who really gets me? Who sees me for who I am and still wants me? Like, I know I’d be lucky to just find someone who’d be willing to put up with all the bullshit that comes with being the prince but… I want someone I can fall in love with. Not just a dick, you know. I want to love. And be loved.”

Joey is distinctly aware of the fact that he should definitely not be saying this. But suddenly the only thing he can concentrate on is the lack of Scratch by his side.

“I need some air,” Scratch says as he abruptly stands up, and it’s so quick and disorienting that Joey feels even more light-headed than he was before.

And then Scratch is just gone and Joey’s left with only Willy looking at him with curious eyes.

“Interesting,” Willy says after a long minute of silence that Joey has spent staring into his beer. He’s not even feeling like drinking anymore, he just wants the spinning around him to stop.

“Very interesting,” Willy repeats it, but then when Joey looks up at him, he doesn’t elaborate. He just watches Joey with his baby blue eyes and Joey doesn’t have the energy to probe. Willy will tell him eventually if it’s important.

Joey doesn’t know how much time passes (maybe five minutes but a half an hour is also possible, Joey is really out of it) but then Scratch is back and he’s holding Joey’s coat out for him. Mike’s also behind him, looking ready and happy to be going, so Scratch has probably already told him they’d be leaving soon.

“Come on, Cinderella, your pumpkin’s awaiting you,” Scratch says gently, and Joey goes without a fight. He wants his bed – his non-spinning bed with non-spinning duvet in his non-spinning room.

They say bye to Willy who’s still uncharacteristically silent as they leave, and then Scratch and Mike are herding him into the black Jeep Mike usually drives Joey around in. He and Scratch settle onto the backseat and by the time Mike shuts the door behind them, Joey’s head’s spinning so hard, he can barely keep it together. He pushes his forehead against Scratch’s shoulder, trying to find something to anchor him.

“Fuck, I’m really drunk.”

“You don’t say, Money,” Scratch says and normally, he’d sound sarcastic but now it’s almost like he’s hurt or mad or a mixture of both. He doesn’t move away from Joey at least, so Joey’s taking that as a good sign.

Joey also has no idea what he did to piss Scratch off. Like, zero clue.

“Please, don’t be mad at me,” Joey whispers into his shoulder eventually when he gives up on trying to figure it out. He’s usually stupid about things like that but his drunk brain had never had a chance of making sense of Scratch’s behavior.

“Come on, Money. I’m not mad.”

“You are. But please don’t be,” Joey says and he lifts his head up to look at Scratch’s face.

It’s like he’s wearing a mask and Joey doesn’t know what he’s trying to hide from him. Is he embarrassed by Joey? But it’s not like it’s the first time he’s seen him drunk.

Scratch places a careful hand on Joey’s left cheek. His hand is so cold and it feels soothing on Joey’s hot skin.

“I’m not mad. I promise. Now, try to stay awake so Mike and I won’t have to lug you up to the fourth floor.”

And Joey doesn’t know if he believes him or not, but he nods. He places his head against Scratch’s shoulder and closes his eyes, the low buzz of the car calming him down. Scratch smells like smoke and beer and Joey’s laundry detergent (that fucker always forgets to do laundry and then just chucks his dirty clothes in with Joey’s).

Joey falls asleep within seconds, feeling drunk and hot and safe.

*

Joey starts worrying about going home for Christmas on exactly the first day of December. The snow has just started falling outside – all these big snowflakes fluttering around in the cold wind looking picturesque as fuck. Their annual Teddy Bear toss earlier tonight was a huge success too and just mere hours ago Joey was pretending to be swimming in a pile of soft plushies with Trigger. Willy took so many pictures of them while Scratch was posing with this ridiculously big and ridiculously pink unicorn. It was fun and easy and wonderful.

It feels like a lifetime ago as Joey is listening to the Skype session with the royal advisors and he stares out of the window, watching the snowflakes collide outside. The words Christmas speech and guest lists and the French ambassador and rehearsal dinner and charity ruffle float around him soundlessly and forcefully at the same time, almost like the storm does outside, and all Joey can think about is that he doesn’t want to go, that he doesn’t want to leave and that he doesn’t, doesn’t want to go home when this place has felt more like home than the palace ever did.

*

Joey and his parents don’t have a bad relationship. They don’t fight constantly or even really disagree about things. Sometimes they even get along. Sometimes they even have fun at whichever royal function or charity gala they make Joey attend all the time he’s back in Washington.

Sometimes they are even proud of Joey and his accomplishments.

But not having a bad relationship doesn’t mean they have a particularly good one. And it’s not really because they are not okay with Joey’s gayness, because they totally are. They have voiced their support for him literally in front of the whole nation – it doesn’t really get more vocally supportive than that. But they’re also not exactly happy about Joey’s gayness – and that’s kind of what makes their relationship weird.

Don’t get Joey wrong, he knows he’s lucky. Not just because of all the privilege and money he has, but because his parents are genuinely supportive of him. He never doubted that they wouldn’t be okay with his coming out; he never really had to fear that they’d disown him or throw him out.

But if they could make Joey straight, he’s a hundred percent sure they’d do it. Not out of malice or anything, but just because it would make things easier for Joey. And for them, naturally. And for the nation of America – because it always comes down to the goddamn nation of America with his parents.

His parents don’t pretend Joey’s not gay. But they never ask about it, never really acknowledge it, and gradually, over the years, Joey has learnt to just not mention it. But the thing is, when you start policing your words over something that is so innately you, you just simply start saying less. Until one day, you just stop calling because you have nothing more to offer. Being gay is not all that Joey is but it’s a big part of him, connected to him in ways he doesn’t realize up until he starts denying himself the privilege of acknowledging it in front of his family.

So yeah, Joey and his parents don’t have a bad relationship. But sometimes Joey wonders if they have a relationship at all.

*

Joey’s head is out to murder him. It’s pounding with these deep and low and forceful thumps just beneath his ear and an almost too sharp pain that makes Joey scared for a second, thinking it might be the sign of something bigger than just a simple hungover.

He takes a couple painkillers and downs a whole bottle of water. He even manages to brew the strong as hell coffee that Scratch insists on buying and starts making some eggs and bacon.

And just when he’s on the verge of maybe not dying from his hangover, his phone starts ringing, his mom’s name flashing on the screen.

Joey’s not proud of the fact that he’s first reaction is to let out the longest groan he can manage.

“Hi, mom,” he says faking the cheeriest voice he can.

“Joey,” his mom says, sounding cheerful too, and for a second, Joey entertains the idea that she’s just calling to check in. “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay,” Joey says. “I have an assignment I need to proofread but then Scratch and I will…”

But of course, this is not actually a ‘let’s ask my only son how he’s doing’ call. Joey should have grown out of his naivety years ago.

“That’s great, sweetheart,” his mom says, interrupting him in the middle of his sentence. “How did your date go with Owen?”

This time, at least, Joey’s not even surprised.

“It was nice. He’s a lovely guy,” Joey says.

“And?”

“And what, mom?” Joey asks, and if he’s being a little more bitchy than necessary, he’ll blame it on his hangover.

Joey’s mom makes a sound that is painfully close to sighing at Joey. But of course, a Queen never actually sighs.

“I was just wondering if you’ve made any more plans to continue seeing each other. He really is a lovely young man.”

The thumping in Joey’s head gets louder. His bacons are already way too crispy for his liking and he quickly turns the stove off with a resigned huff.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I told you. He is a lovely dude,” he says eventually.

“That didn’t really answer my question,” his mom says, sounding anything but cheerful this time.

“Yeah, maybe that was the point.”

His mom is quiet for a second.

“Joey. I know you don’t like it when I meddle in your personal life and I respect that…”

Joey lets out a dark laugh because his head is killing him, and he can’t help himself. “Like you even care about my personal life.”

The line is completely silent for a long second.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Princes aren’t allowed to sigh either but Joey’s not feeling really princely right now.

“Nothing, mom. Absolutely nothing.”

“So I’m guessing your date with Owen was not a success?” she asks, the cheerfulness long gone, and suddenly she’s sounding so businesslike that Joey just –

He wants to shake her to act like a mom and not a fucking Queen just once.

“Sorry for not managing to charm the pants off the cute British nobleman. I guess I’m not even good for that.”

“Joey.”

“I don’t hear you disagreeing.”

“Joey. I’m certainly sorry if I gave you the impression that you had to pursue Owen. That was never my intention. I just thought that the two of you would make a lovely match.”

“And why’s that mom?”

“Well, firstly, you’re both…” his mom starts and there’s the oh-so familiar pause before she goes on, “interested in gentlemen.”

This time Joey definitely sighs. It’s a sad, sad sigh.

“Just say gay, mom. It’s not going kill you. It might even make you earn a couple brownie points from your subjects,” Joey says with a bitter little laugh.

“Joey, I get that you’re upset,” she says firmly, and Joey shuts up on instinct. “I do get that. But lately I always feel like I’m saying the bad thing with you and I don’t understand where we went wrong. You never talk to me anymore.”

Joey thinks about all those moment after his outing when his mom would look at him, the disapproval almost wafting off of her. The long nights she had to spend doing damage control because of he was stupid enough to send dick pics to a guy who asked for them. The silent looks, the unsaid disappointment, the almost heavy smell of failure.

“I don’t know, mom,” Joey says quietly. “Life’s been busy.”

“Busy, yeah,” his mom says, almost as quiet now as Joey is.

For a long moment, they don’t say anything else. Joey doesn’t know if it’s because they have nothing to say, or because they have too much.

“How’s Nick?” his mum asks eventually, and despite everything, a small smile escapes onto Joey’s face.

“He’s doing okay,” Joey says.

And nothing is solved, not really, but it’s not something that a phone call could ever fix.

*

Nick is not actually okay, though.

He’s not sick or anything, he looks healthy and ripped as fuck when Joey shows up to practice.

It’s just the fact that he’s been pretty much ignoring Joey for the least two days now. Barely answering his texts, never being in the apartment when Joey is, ducking out of dinner plans with half-assed excuses. He even leaves to study in the library once which might be the weirdest thing of them all. Scratch has always hated studying in public places and Joey doesn’t think he developed a taste for it in the past couple days.

At first, Joey thought it was just all in his head. He’s been really caught up in this whole drama with Owen and his mum and with Christmas looming over his head, and he wouldn’t blame Scratch if he’s just had enough of Joey’s shit.

But then Joey realizes that it’s definitely not only in his head. And by realizes, he means Willy literally tells it to his face.

“Scratch’s being weird,” Willy says and comes to a stop right beside Joey on the ice.

Joey finishes the stretch he was doing. “What do you mean he’s being weird?”

Willy rolls his eyes. It’s a very visible eye-roll despite the fact that he’s wearing a visor and has half of his sweaty blonde mane falling into his eyes.

“Joey,” he says.

Joey sighs. This seems like a quite frequent occurrence in his life lately.

“I don’t know. But do let me know if you figure out what his problem is.”

“Oh, I know what his problem is,” Willy says casually, like it’s nothing more than a throw-away problem.

“Oh really?” Joey asks mockingly. “Please share it with the rest of the class then.”

Willy takes a long look at him. “You really have no idea, do you?”

Joey really does not have the energy for Willy’s mind games.

“No fucking clue,” he admits because fuck it, maybe he’s stupid or a terrible friend or something but he’s so done with everything lately.

“Oh Joey,” Willy says.

And then he skates away.

That absolute fucker.

*

“Nothing’s wrong,” Scratch says and he sounds totally convincing.

Joey doesn’t believe him for a second.

“It’s just that I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages,” Joey says, trying from a different angle.

“Money, I had three midterms this week and a hockey game. You’ve had like three assignments you needed to finish and a bunch of royal shit. You know what December is usually like.”

Joey knows. He also knows Scratch’s lying.

“We’ll have some fun over Christmas,” he says eventually when Joey doesn’t say anything. “We’ll survive the stupid dinner with all those boring people and then we’ll do something fun.”

“Yeah,” Joey says, but it’s half-hearted at best.

“I promise,” Scratch says.

But he’s not even looking into Joey’s eyes as the words leave his mouth.

It’s not like it’s a new thing, though – Scratch never seems to be looking into his eyes lately.

*

Joey has absolutely no idea why he’s sitting in a café waiting for one Owen Thomson just a week after their disastrous (at least from Joey’s point of view) non-date.

Or like, he obviously knows why he’s here. He was the one who accepted Owen’s invitation to meet up for a very platonic coffee date. It shouldn’t be that surprising that he’s here. And the thing is, right now all Joey knows is that after his semi-fight with his mum, and Willy being cryptic, and especially after Scratch being so goddamn weird, Joey needed something to just… not suck in his day. He doesn’t think it’s too much to ask for.

And ever since Owen friend-zoned him, it’s been chill between them, just exchanging a couple laid-back texts and chirps. It’s been chill and not-sucky and comfortable and that’s exactly what Joey needs right now – just someone who does what Joey expects him to do. Not like a certain someone who’s still being weird and distant as fuck. Joey’s, of course, not naming names here.

“You look like you’ve had a rough day.”

Joey is apparently capable of getting startled by the literal person he was waiting for. That’s Joey Munroe in a nutshell.

“I…” Joey starts as Owen takes a seat on the opposite side of the booth, but before he could come up with a polite lie, the truth just slips out. “I’ve had a very rough day.”

“It’s a good thing I’ve been told several times that I’m an excellent listener. So, lay it on me, buddy,” Owen says, not even missing a beat after Joey’s blurted out confession. And bless his heart, him saying buddy in his perfect British accent is literally the first thing today that made Joey smile.

It wasn’t a full-on smile sure, but Owen got close. The closest anyone got to making him smile today, and fuck, okay, now Joey’s depressed again.

So Joey tells Owen everything. And when he says he tells him everything, he really does mean everything. And maybe he should feel ashamed that he started his whole monologue with a slightly embarrassing ‘so get this, this whole thing started when I thought that you and me went on a date because I am apparently an idiot’ (which is, undoubtedly, one of the cringiest thing Joey has ever said in his life – and he’s said a lot of cringy things) but then the words keep flowing and it feels so damn good to just finally tell someone that Joey doesn’t even feel that embarrassed by the end.

It's not like Joey doesn’t have friends – he has. Several of them, even. But keeping silent on certain issues (like, not telling people that an ex-President of the United States was once roaringly drunk at a royal dinner or that his Mum is totally rude with their staff when she’s tired) was something he knew he wasn’t allowed to advertise to his friends. And yeah, Scratch’s been an exception to most of those rules, sure, but it’s not like Joey can tell him this.

But Owen’s a royal, too, and as royalty, you just know when you need to keep your mouth firmly shut about certain confessions.

“So yeah. That’s basically it. He’s being weird and I don’t get why, and my parents are upset that you’re apparently not even in love with me because I’m a fuck up – a gay fuck-up – who’s never going to find a worthy match. Or whatever.”

Owen’s completely silent for a long second. It was a lot to process, Joey will give him that. Or he might be already thinking about the politest way of excusing himself from the conversation because Joey’s a wacko who overshares the moment people ask how he’s doing.

“Are you actually telling me that you and Scratch are not dating?”

What the fuck.

“What?” Joey asks, sounding just as dumbfounded as he feels.

“I… I never realized you guys were not already together,” Owen says and even he sounds dumbfounded. Everyone’s being just so very dumbfounded in this café right now. “Are you sure you guys are not dating?”

“I… I am pretty sure I would have noticed that.”

Owen lets out a little snort. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. But… can I ask why you guys are not together? Because literally every story you’ve shared with me was about you guys being together and doing everything together. I’m pretty sure every single story has included Scratch. And… I don’t even know how to put this but he – seems completely and utterly smitten with you?”

“We are best friends. We hang out a lot. And you’ve never even met him. But believe me, he’s not gay and he is very definitely not smitten with me. And I’m supposed to marry another prince or something,” Joey says.

Now, the he’s getting with the program, he’s starting to realize just how utterly ridiculous Owen’s assumption is. Like… how? What? Scratch being smitten with Joey? Scratch is everything but smitten.

“So that’s the only reason you guys are not together?” Owen asks.

Joey’s confused. So very confused. “What?”

“The only reason you guys are not together is because your parents want you to shack up with another prince?”

“No,” Joey says slowly. “Also because Scratch’s not gay.”

Owen lifts an eyebrow. Oh wait –

“And it’s not like that between us. I’m not like in love with him or anything,” Joey adds hastily when he realizes that Scratch not being gay is obviously not the only reason for them not being together.

Like. Obviously, right? Even if he was, Joey wouldn’t –

Or – Could it – But no. God no. Fuck. No.

Owen’s other eyebrow shoots up.

“Interesting,” he says, and Joey has the worst feeling of déjà vu as he feels his stomach drop.

He also doesn’t say anything – he probably couldn’t open his mouth even if he wanted to. His brain gives up on him, sitting in Joey’s skull feeling overheated and useless.

He doesn’t say anything for almost a minute and it’s probably the exact answer Owen was looking for.

“Can we shelf this conversation for a bit?” Joey asks eventually because he’s not going to have an existential crisis with Owen sitting right in front of him.

He’s more than relieved when Owen starts talking about a terribly boring class he’s had today.

And maybe Owen was cool and didn’t probe further, but the conversation stays with Joey. He thinks about it even as he says his goodbyes to Owen, and even when he goes home and attempts to work on an assignment for one of his classes. It stays with him long into the night, making him toss and turn for way longer than he usually does. He falls asleep eventually but when he dreams, he dreams of Scratch and it scares the living hell out of him.

When he wakes up, he has a text from Owen waiting for him.

Owen: you want to go out with my friends tmrw?

Joey doesn’t even think before he answers.

Joey: already got plans with the team. but ditch your friends and join us. let me prove you that scratch is straight

Because he has to be. Joey doesn’t know what he would even do if he wasn’t.

What he’d even allow himself to feel if Scratch wasn’t.

*

(Realizing he’s in love with Scratch should not be this obvious.

Hell, it took him fifteen years to finally get it – it should be everything but obvious.

But he knows. He knows he’s in love with Scratch because how could he not be?)

*

They end up in a different bar this time, a more high-end one in the middle of a bustling street downtown. Joey is probably going to have to end up using his shiny platinum card because he knows that the guys really can’t afford to party at this place. And even if they could, they shouldn’t when Joey has an inheritance he’ll never burn through.

Scratch texted Joey about two hours ago, telling him that he’d meet up with him at the bar. Which would be fucking weird normally, except for the fact that Scratch himself has been fucking weird lately, so Joey guesses him being fucking weird is the new normal? So, yeah, Joey’s not even surprised at this point. Scratch can go and be fucking weird for all he wants. Joey is out of fucks to give.

(Joey has also maybe realized that he has possibly been in love with Scratch his whole fucking life. Possibly. Potentially. With a very huge question mark and a huge-ass asterisk marking the discovery with like fifteen footnotes explaining the controversy behind his feelings.

But yeah, Joey’s totally out of fucks to give here.)

Joey gets to the bar way too early (now that he doesn’t have to wait for Scratch’s lazy ass, he can actually get to places on time, who would have guessed? Not Joey, who’s apparently in love with that dude), so he’s expecting the place to be dead and empty.

Which naturally means, that when Joey walks into the bar with Liam following him close behind, he spots Owen and Willy huddled close together talking animatedly.

Joey promptly walks into a table and hisses at the sharp pain blooming from his hip. Owen and Willy immediately look up from their gossiping session and smile the almost exact devilish smile that makes Joey want to turn around and run away as fast as he can.

“Joseph, my friend, I’m so happy to see you,” Willy bellows and a couple people turn towards them with visible interest. Fantastic.

Joey makes his way to them quickly before Willy could announce his arrival to the whole freaking place.

“Hey, you’re doing okay, buddy?” Owen asks immediately as Joey takes a seat. He even pours him a glass of beer from the pitcher and Joey gulps half of it down before he even attempts an answer.

“Why wouldn’t he be doing okay?” Willy asks, latching onto the topic like the bloodhound he is.

Owen freezes a little. Gosh, he must be a terrible liar.

“No reason?” he says with the most horrible faux-innocent look on his face.

Joey groans.

“Oh, is this about the Scratch thing? Are we finally talking about the Scratch thing?” Willy asks.

Joey’s groan is even louder this time. “There is no Scratch thing, so it can’t possibly be about the Scratch thing. Let’s talk about how you guys don’t even know each other. Let me do introductions or something.”

“Please,” Willy sighs. “We have already covered our thoughts on the state of gay rights in both the US and the UK, the clusterfuck that is Brexit and the Syrian conflict. You’re really late with the introductions.”

“And don’t forget about how you have already explained to me – in detail – how both the British and American royalty is just completely and utterly fucked up and not only useless but also detrimental to the fabrics of our society,” Owen adds with an easy smile.

Joey doesn’t know what it says about them that he genuinely can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a joke or not.

“Oh yeah, that too,” Willy nods. “So now we can talk about how you and Scratch are being idiots and should finally get your shit together before I make you? It will be painful if I have to do it, just FYI.”

“Or we could just not talk about my private life when I specifically told you I don’t want to talk about it?”

Willy makes a really sad face. It’s emotional blackmail at its finest. (And yeah, okay, maybe Joey also kind of wants to talk it out a little. Maybe.)

“I just think you’re both being stupid. Like, okay, I totally admit that Scratch is hot, like, objectively, he’s hot, right? You guys do agree with that,” Joey says because his thoughts are very definitely not organized about this.

“Sure. Totally objectively, Money, he’s hot,” Willy says, and Joey gets the distant feeling that he’s being made fun of.

“And like. He’s also just great.”

Because he is, god dammit, just so fucking great. Like, Joey is sure there are so many more eloquent ways he could put it, using grand words – no, beautiful words to describe what Scratch means and what Scratch means to Joey. But Joey can’t find them. His feelings are too big to put into words.

“Care to elaborate on that, dear Money?” Willy prompts after Joey just leaves it at that and stares into his beer for a bit.

“No. Yes? I don’t know. I’m confused.”

“Never would have guessed,” Willy says, and okay, Joey is definitely being made fun of.

But Joey is also really done with being the butt of the joke. Not about this. Not about something this real and this painful and this important. Not about Scratch.

“Oh, like it’s so easy to realize that you’re in love with your straight best friend,” Joey snaps, louder than he means to, but he doesn’t even care at this point. He doesn’t even need to be drunk to make a scene and bring shame to his family. Merry fucking Christmas, mom and dad, here comes Joey.

Joey slams down his beer glass with a little too much force.

“Like what sort of cliché am I? It’s one thing to fall in love with my best friend because I’m still probably some sort emotionally damaged fuck up after my stupid ex leaked my fucking nudes all over the internet, but then it’s a completely different thing to fall in love with a straight fucking guy who’s probably going to be so grossed out when he finds out about it!”

“Joey,” Willy says, looking almost scared and he’s clearly trying to placate Joey because shit, Joey really is making a scene here.

Joey also really, really doesn’t care about that at the moment because when he looks at Willy and Owen, both of them almost looking embarrassed by Joey’s outbreak and just – How dare they. How fucking dare they.

“But also fuck you guys,” Joey adds because he’s pretty sure if he’s having a mental breakdown the day before Christmas in the middle of a very public bar, seemingly out of fucking nowhere because Joey’s life is a joke, then he might as well make it a good one. “Because you guys knew that Scratch is not gay and he doesn’t fucking want me. And you knew that thinking about this would fuck me up. You fucking knew. So why would you tell me all this? Why would you make me realize this when I was doing completely fine? Why would you let me hope and believe? He doesn’t want me just like no one else fucking wants me. No one wants the baggage of a stupid prince, but guess what? I’m not even princely enough for the stupid royalty. So, okay, here you have it: I’m in love with Scratch. Like, really, really in love with him. But he doesn’t want me. So can we fucking drop it before I lose my best friend over your stupid gossiping?”

Willy and Owen stare back him with wide eyes. The chatter around them is still low and buzzing so maybe Joey wasn’t as loud as he felt his piercing words were and that’s the only good thing about the situation.

“Joey.”

And –

No. This is not happening. Absolutely the fuck not.

“Joey,” Scratch says again, this time a little louder, a little more desperate.

Maybe if Joey doesn’t turn around. Maybe if he just stays like that then he can pretend that this is not real life, not the here and now.

Joey takes a deep breath. He looks into Willy’s panicky eyes one last time that offer him absolutely no help. He takes one more deep breath. Then he turns around.

(He’s moving carefully, almost like he’s afraid that the crown on top of his moppy brown hair might fall down. Because the invisible crown is always there, the weight of it a pressure of reminder of who Joey is.)

When Joey finally looks into Scratch’s eyes, he sees fear in them and his stomach curls around itself in a deep suffocating hold. He has dark circles under his eyes, and he looks tired and upset and Joey hates it.

“Can we talk? Please?” Scratch asks. The desperate edge is back to his voice, and he almost sounds like he’s terrified that Joey would ever say no to him.

Maybe he’s not even that wrong though because right now, Joey really wants to say no.

“I’m so sorry,” is what leaves Joey’s mouth instead. “I didn’t mean to…”

“You didn’t mean it? You didn’t mean what you said?”

But no, Joey can’t look into Scratch’s eyes and lie about this. Joey wasn’t built like that.

“I… I know you don’t feel the same way and it’s completely okay but…”

Scratch lets out a laugh that sounds anything but happy. “Fucking hell, Money. You don’t know that.”

The breath catches in Joey’s throat. “What do you mean I don’t know that?”

“You…” Scratch starts, then shakes his head a little. “You always put yourself down.”

“Scratch,” Joey says. It is so not the point right now.

“I just… can we please talk somewhere? Come back to our place? Please?”

“I… sure,” Joey breathes out, not even knowing what he’s really agreeing to.

Scratch nods, looking slightly less worried for a second, then the anxious look is back on his face and Joey can’t look at him anymore. He shakes himself, visibly and mentally, too, then he raises his hand to get Mike’s attention. He doesn’t even have to try, really, because Mike’s watching him like he always does. Joey’s glad about that. And also angry about that. He’s so fucking disoriented and scared, he can barely focus on any of his feelings at all, all of them swirling around, aimlessly, too forcefully and too mildly at the same time.

They take the car back, and he and Scratch don’t talk. They walk up to their apartment, and they are still silent. Joey grabs a bottle of water and takes a couple small sips, and Scratch just stands there, watches him do it without moving himself, and they don’t fucking say a word.

“Please say something,” Joey says finally, feeling defeated as he takes a seat on the couch.

“I’m trying to, it’s just my thoughts are all messed up,” Scratch admits quietly.

“Please say something,” Joey tells him again.

Because he gets that Scratch was not prepared for his words either, and he gets that he’s confused and he doesn’t know how to go on – but fuck, Joey’s already said his piece and he needs something back. Anything, just fucking anything.

“Did you really mean all that?” Scratch asks again, seemingly hung upon the same fucking thing he was hung upon half an hour ago too.

“Of course, I did,” Joey snaps at him.

“All of it? Like… the part you’re in love with me?”

“Yeah,” Joey says and he hates how small he sounds.

Scratch says nothing. He laces his fingers together in his lap and when Joey looks over, he sees that his hands are shaking.

And Joey’s had enough.

“I know you don’t feel the same. I get that. And I didn’t want you to know all this because now it’s going to be weird as hell. And you’re going to act weird as hell even if you tell me that you’re not going to because how could you not? It’s weird as hell. So can we just… pretend this didn’t happen? Or just… acknowledge that it did happen and move the fuck on as quickly as possible?”

“I can’t do that, Joey.”

Because of fucking course, he can’t.

“I can’t do that,” Scratch tells him again before Joey could offer anything back, “because it’s mutual.”

“What’s mutual?”

“Joey,” Scratch sighs.

“What’s mutual?” Joey asks again, and this time at least, he doesn’t sound small or unsure. No, now he sounds pissed.

“I love you,” Scratch says immediately.

He’s looking into Joey’s eyes and he’s sitting only a couple inches from him and he tells him he loves him.

He tells him he loves him.

He tells him he loves him.

“What?”

Scratch lets out a laugh that sounds anything but happy.

“I love you.”

“But you’re straight,” Joey says. Because he knows that Scratch is straight. He can’t be anything but straight. Joey has no idea what he’d even do if he found out that Scratch wasn’t straight.

Which he maybe just did. But he also didn’t because Scratch is decidedly straight.

“I’m… not though?”

“And you love me,” Joey says, sounding as disbelieving as he feels.

“Uhmm… yeah?”

“What the actual fuck, Scratch?”

Maybe Joey is not handling this as well as he should be but also, what the actual fuck, Scratch.

“You didn’t think to mention the act that you’re also gay in the last, I don’t know, fifteen years?”

Okay, maybe Joey should turn down this weird mixture of anger and frustration and sarcasm he’s projecting all over the room, but he is feeling angry and frustrated and sarcastic at the same time so it’s not that easy.

For the first time, though, Scratch looks more hurt than unsure.

“It wasn’t that simple, Joey. And you know it.”

“What do I know though? I don’t know anything apparently.”

“Joey, fuck, you know what I’m talking about,” Scratch snaps.

Joey’s not proud of himself for thinking ‘fucking finally’. Because at least now Scratch is talking. At least now Joey can finally understand something here.

“I really, really don’t, Scratch. Because, sure, whatever, you don’t have to come out to anyone you don’t want to but still, all I’m hearing here is that for years I thought I was all alone in this. For years I feared what my friends’, and my family’s and this whole stupid nation’s reaction would be… and it wasn’t even true. Because apparently I could have shared things with you if only you told me.”

“You did share things with me. I was there with you, Joey. I was there.”

“Were you though? When you didn’t even trust me with this?”

Scratch takes a sharp breath. And fuck, Joey knows that was a low blow. He knows he shouldn’t have said that last part because it’s not only hypocritical, it’s also simply cruel.

“Fuck, Joey, I realized I was bi because of you,” Scratch says eventually.

“You… oh,” is all Joey is able to say because – oh.

Scratch looks away from him when he starts talking again.

“I realized I was bi when I realized that I was in love with you. Which was already a clusterfuck because you’ve just come out to me, and you were so relieved that I was okay with it and shit, and then I went and fell in love you. I went and fell in love with the prince of the United fucking States of America.”

He stays silent for a bit there, and Joey doesn’t know if it’s because he doesn’t want to tell Joey the rest or because he doesn’t know how he should put it into words but, by God, Joey wishes desperately for the latter.

“But that was not even the worst part, you know,” Scratch says eventually. “Like, sure I fell in love with my best friend. I fell in love with the prince. I’d have to come out to my mom. I’d have to come out to my dad. But okay, I’d deal with all those. But the worst part was that I knew I could never tell you.”

“But… why?” Joey says before he could stop himself.

Scratch finally looks into his eyes.

“Because it doesn’t change anything. Because you’re going to marry a pretty prince like you are supposed to,” he says simply.

Joey feels like he’s been pushed into the boards during a particularly rough game.

“So you just… thought you’d ignore this? Hope it might go away?” he asks eventually.

Because he sees Scratch’s point. He knows he’s right. To some extent, at least.

“I guess,” Scratch shrugs.

“Great plan,” Joey bites out.

Scratch raises an eyebrow at him. “Oh, because I’ve had an abundance of choices here. Do you know how many times you moaned about the fact that you’d have to marry a foreign prince or princess or whatever? Do you know, Joey?”

Joey can’t listen to this anymore.

Anger, which has been already boiling in him, is suddenly everywhere, clouding his vision like he’s some sort of animal with no self-control. One second, it’s just simmering. The next, it’s erupting, completely unstoppable.

“Fuck your sob story, Scratch,” he snaps so loudly, Scratch literally flinches away from him. It should be a sign, a big and loud and huge-ass neon sign, telling Joey to stop before he does something stupid, but that train is long gone. “You were supposed to be my best friend. Best friends don’t fuck each other over like this. Do you know what it would have meant to me if someone – and not even just someone, you of all people – would have told me ‘me too buddy’? If I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling like this? But no. You couldn’t tell me because of course, we “never had a chance” or something. You couldn’t tell me because if you did, you’d actually have to try something with me. And why would you even want that, right?”

“Joey, this wasn’t…”

And a part of Joey knows that Scratch might be telling him the truth. That he’d want Joey if it wasn’t for all the other issues. But at that moment, all Joey feels is useless and alone and not fucking enough.

(It’s familiar, so achingly familiar.)

Joey is not going to cry. Fucking hell, Joey is not a crier. Why are his eyes hurting like that? Are these fucking tears? No – Joey’s pushing his tears back. They’re not coming out. He won’t let them.

“I think I should go,” Scratch says. His voice comes out kind of scratchy and Joey wants to snort at the joke because it’s just the kind of shitty humor he’d usually appreciate but he’s too busy fighting back his tears. “I think we need… we need a bit of time to figure this out. Some time and space to calm down and think this through, right?”

“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea,” Joey says, and it comes out weirdly put together and calm despite his still present anger.

And then Scratch just stays there, standing in front of Joey, looking unsure and small despite his broad shoulders.

“Okay,” Scratch says again. “I’ll… I’ll call you a bit later?”

Joey doesn’t know if that was supposed to be a question or a statement or a suggestion. He makes an abrupt movement with his shoulder without even really knowing what he means by that. Sure, Scratch will call him. Or Joey will call him. Or they’ll be in touch. Like the great buddies they are.

Isn’t it just wonderful how everybody wants to be Joey’s friend these days?

(The thought is so bitter he can almost taste the bile at the back of his tongue.)

Scratch’s boots clank noisily on the hardwood floor as he finally leaves for the door. Joey doesn’t even look up. He does want to be alone but he also wants to see nothing less than Scratch’s retreating back.

He’s waiting for the sound of the door opening and then closing but it doesn’t come.

“Joey,” Scratch says finally, and Joey feels a surge of anger in him. Why can’t he just fucking leave?

When Joey looks up, he sees Scratch standing by the door, one hand hovering just above the doorknob. He looks worried and Joey hates that. Joey hates pretty much everything and everyone right now.

“I know I asked for some… space and time and whatever but. If it gets too much over Christmas, you can always call me. Or text me. I’m not gone. And I never will be,” he says eventually after he realizes that Joey is probably not going to prompt him to say anything.

Joey loves him but he also wants to punch him in the middle of his pretty face. The two emotion should be confusing but they’re also so familiarly Scratch-like – him being the best but also annoying the hell out of Joe.

And it hurts Joey almost more than him turning Joey down does because fuck, Scratch still cares about him. He still knows that Christmas with his family is always this stupid thing that Joey dreads and the fact that he still wants to be there for Joey, it just – it makes something ache deep in Joey’s chest.

“Sure,” Joey snorts because he’s so done with everything he might as well laugh at it.

“Joey,” Scratch says, sounding almost like he’s in pain.

“I’ll be fine, Scratch. I’m a big boy.”

Scratch looks like Joey just kicked him. He also looks like he wants to say something else too but then he shakes his head like he’s decided against saying it. At least one of them can act like a fucking adult even if Joseph is apparently incapable of doing such things.

And then he just leaves. The door opens and then it closes without Scratch ever looking back at Joey.

Joey stands there for a long time, staring at the back of the door, frozen in place, frozen in time.

He only moves when his tears finally stop. Then he takes a deep breath and goes to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. He grips the edge of the sink, holding onto it almost painfully hard while he looks up at his reflection, his slightly bloodshot eyes and the slowly disappearing blotchiness of his skin. And he takes another deep breath.

Then he puts on a clean shirt, takes a painkiller and goes the bed. Because he’s the goddamn prince of the United States. And when you’re a goddamn prince, you better act like it.

*

Joey leaves early the next day. He doesn’t know where Scratch has spent the night, but his room is still empty when Joey wakes up from his almost completely sleepless night. He feels like he’s been run over by a very large vehicle and he doesn’t even know if it’s because he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks or because he’s dreading to go home as always.

Or maybe it’s because his heart got broken to pieces just a couple hours before. Joey feels like that’s also a pretty safe bet.

Joey allows one tear to sneak a small path from his eyes to his cheek while he looks at Scratch’s empty bed.

Then he doesn’t have time to cry and whine or even think about his broken heart. Mike brings the car around, and they take Joey to the airport, and then he has a Skype call with Carol about his schedule and duties over Christmas, and then two more calls with two more people he’s not even sure he knows the name of.

Then it’s getting on the private plane with an empty seat Scratch was supposed to be sitting in. Then it’s getting in the dark limo with the tinted glasses with another empty seat. Then it’s walking through lines and lines of bodyguards. Then it’s stepping into the palace with a plastered on smile and a heavy feeling in his stomach.

It’s meaningless hellos and how are you’s and your highnesses. It’s a two-minute conversation with his mom, snatched between her meetings, rushed through, meaningless.

It’s finally Joey’s room with heavy blankets that keep you safe and suffocate you at the same time.

And it’s the same goddamn starless Washington sky that, if Joey pretends hard enough, is the only thing that’s looks the same as it does in Kansas City.

It’s a shame that Joey is just starting to realize that maybe it was never about Kansas City or about the front lawn of the main building or even just being far away from his stupid crown.

Maybe it has always been about the people – the people here and the people there and the person who has always been where Joey was.

*

Joey’s feeling miserable as hell and he does not appreciate all this stupid Christmas cheer around him.

(Which double sucks because Joey is usually a sucker for Christmas. He starts listening to Christmas songs on November 1st and he starts wearing his Christmas sweater maybe two days later and then he puts cinnamon in literally everything. Pancakes. Waffles. There was one time he even sprinkled them on his fries but that was something Joey does not talk about anymore.

Scratch still laughs at the story – this full, loud, beautiful laugh of his and wow, Joey was already miserable, he doesn’t need to think about Scratch laughing.)

“Could you look a little less like someone whose cat’s been murdered?” Casey asks as she sashays over to Joey with two glasses of champagne.

They are standing in the middle of the big hall of the White Castle, and there are at least twenty servers hurrying around them, putting the finishing touches up in preparation for the annual Christmas dinner. The guests (a bunch of faceless royalty and important fuckers Joey needs to schmooze with) are supposed to arrive in about fifteen minutes and Joey is not about to badmouth the staff because they’re working hard as hell but he’s also pretty sure literally the whole event is running late.

Joey also doesn’t feel like talking to Casey right now but she’s still standing there next to him, wearing an undoubtedly expensive red evening gown with the back cut low. She looks really beautiful – stunning even – but Joey is also in a bad mood and he’s feeling just on the wrong side of asshole-y not to say this out loud.

“I look completely fine,” Joey mutters. He takes the champagne offered up, nods a bitter thank you and downs the whole thing in one go.

Casey raises a carefully plucked eyebrow and the eyeshadow in the crease of her eye sparkles.

“Joseph,” she says.

Joey groans. “Look, I’m here. You all should be happy about that.”

Joey spends a couple seconds swirling the last couple drops of champagne around in his glass. When he finally looks up, he sees a very concerned looking Casey blinking back at him.

“Joey, what’s going on?”

“Like you don’t know.”

“Joey, I genuinely do not know.”

Joey takes a long look at her. She looks concerned and a little annoyed but not like she’s lying to Joey.

“Guess you haven’t been talking to mom and dad?”

“About?”

“Me? And how I’m the biggest disappointment to this family?”

“What on Earth are you talking about?”

Joey sighs. There’s a waiter behind Casey dropping a whole tray of champagne glasses. Joey sees the whole thing unfold, almost in slow motion, but he still winces at the crushing sound as the glasses hit the ground. He also pretty much relates to the sound – that’s what his life’s been like lately.

“Joey. You are not a disappointment. Why would you think that?”

“I don’t think that. I’m quoting my dear ol’ mother.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that,” Casey says immediately, and Joey barely keeps his eye-roll in.

“Of course, you’d say that,” he says bitterly. He needs like three more glasses of champagne even if it tasted kind of shitty.

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come on, Casey. You’ve always been the favorite. Don’t even front it.”

Casey opens her mouth. Then she closes it and takes a deep breath. Joey’s seen her do it a thousand times before – she does the same thing whenever she has to remind herself that she’s going to be the next Queen of America and needs to keep herself in check.

Joey wants to shout at her to just once, just fucking once say what she actually wants to say and when she wants it.

“Joey, what’s wrong?”

And maybe she’s asking this out of genuine concern. After all, he and Casey used to be close. How could you not be close to the only person who had to go through to same shit you did? The only person who truly, truly got what it was like growing up as the Prince of this stupid country? Scratch has been there for a lot of it but not like this, never like Casey was. And it’s also not like Joey and Casey have drifted apart in the past couple years – no, they’re still kind of close, but they both changed and their relationship changed too as a result of that.

It’s one thing to make fun of the boring receptions your parents made you attend when you and your sister were 10 and 13 – it’s a whole different thing when you realize that the boring receptions do actually matter and that one day, you’ll have to be the one holding them. When you realize that being royalty is not just boring or glamourous or weird – it’s also a responsibility you must carry with you all the damn time.

So yeah, maybe it’s genuine concern in her voice. But she’s also asking because she can’t afford to have Joey and their parents fighting on Christmas Eve when they’re entertaining at least two hundred people in their home. It must be tiring to always have to deal with their family drama as almost a side dish to the main course of a diplomatic disaster waiting to happen.

“We had a slight disagreement.”

“I heard about you and Owen. I’m sorry he wasn’t the one for you,” Casey says which is a very diplomatic way of saying ‘I’m sorry he didn’t fucking want you, little brother’.

“I was never interested in Owen,” Joey says. Which is a lie, but Joey thinks it doesn’t even matter anymore. Joey also feels like it was ages ago when he was actually interested in Owen, even though their “date” was barely two weeks ago.

Casey at least seems surprised by that so Joey is starting to really believe that she didn’t know about Joey’s fight with their parents.

“Oh. Then…”

But before Joey could answer her, one of the event organizers show up at their side and very politely clears her throat. “Your Highnesses, if I may interrupt.”

“Go ahead,” Casey motions for her to continue. Joey has always been amazed how easily she was able to switch between her roles as a sister and as the Queen-to-be – he’s still in awe, even after all these years.

“The first guests are here. We’ll start letting them in if you are all ready for them, Your Highness.”

“Of course, let them in,” she says and the woman courtesies and then disappears as quickly as she came.

Casey looks at Joey for one long moment before she goes to follow her. “This conversation is not over. We’ll fix whatever is causing you this trouble. Trust me on that.”

But the sad thing is, Joey knows that this is the end of their conversation. Because Casey might want to look out for Joey, she might truly want the best for him, but there’s a whole damn nation she has to put above him.

And he knows she will. He’s sure of that, because he’d been taught to do the exact same thing.

*

Scratch’s family is the furthest thing away from royalty but Scratch has probably taken part in more royal functions than any actual royal person has. (Okay, any actual royal person apart from the Munroes.)

He’s been to charity galas, and award shows and even diplomatic dinners – which he really was not supposed to be attending but which were always so atrociously boring that Joey was not above whining to Carol and his mum until they let Scratch come with him.

But if there was one event that Scratch has never missed, one event that he always made time for, it was the annual Royal Christmas Dinner. Joey was never really sure why that particular event was so high up on Scratch’s list of priorites and he never really asked – he just appreciated that he didn’t have to do it alone. Because Christmas has never been traumatic for Joey nor was it even particularly hard, but it’s always been like a phantom limb – something that was supposed to be there but never really was. A family holiday that Joey’s always had to spend with hundreds of people, the majority of who he didn’t even like. A family holiday where instead of getting to open presents and have a movie marathon like Scratch’s family did, Joey was forced to open the festivities by dancing with girls he didn’t like.

But Scratch was there. He was always there, making goofy faces behind the photographer while Joey was supposed to be posing in front of the Christmas tree. He was always there, firing off whispered innuendo after innuendo during the speeches made by all the important people. He was always there, sneaking food from Joey’s plate and cackling loudly when Joey caught him in the act.

He was always there at the end of the night, too, when Joey was tired and worn out with all his pent up, residual anxiety, unable to fall asleep, unable to get rest, unable to switch off from his role. He was there, with made up stories about pirates when they were ten, and inappropriate jokes when they were thirteen. He was there when they were sixteen, offering Joey his hockey stick and rollerblade silently, leading him to the basketball court behind the palace, shooting pucks into the dark until Joey was almost ready to fall asleep right there and then in the middle of the court. He was there the year Joey got outed, when the annual Christmas dinner was full of whispers and barely disguised shocks of disappointment and fleeting looks to his crotch. He was there, offering a silent hug that Joey sagged into at the end of the day, neither of them saying anything, just holding on the other for long, silent seconds.

He was always there.

Until he wasn’t.

*

Joey might be drunker than he intended on becoming. But he has a really, really good excuse for it. No, actually he has four really, really good excuses.

One, the champagne just kept coming. Joey has absolutely no idea what sort of rookie waiter was appointed as his for the night, but they were very definitely not warned that Joey must be cut off after three glasses to prevent a scene from happening.

Two, he was seated next to her aunt, Lady Agatha, who was and has always been a bitch.

Three, Scratch was not there to stop him from drinking himself under the table

Four – well, Joey doesn’t actually remember what the fourth reason was but he’s damn sure that he had a fourth one.

(His fourth reason for drinking came in the shape of a pretty girl being introduced to him as his dance partner. Every year since Joey can remember, the Royal family has opened the post-dinner festivities with their first dance, a cliché-y slow-dance to some cheesy Christmas song that the people of America seemed to adore. All Joey knows is that every year, it was the most hated part of his Christmas – being forced to slow-dance with a random girl his parents deemed worthy and who was always annoyingly happy to be dancing with the prince.

The year of his outing, his parents thought it was best that he danced with his sister.

God forbid he was dancing with a man. God fucking forbid.)

Joey also realizes that he is drunker than he intended on becoming only when his mother’s hissing “Why do you reek of alcohol?” into his ears as they gather up for the annual family Christmas photo.

It’s been another Christmas tradition to have the royal family’s picture taken in front of the huge-ass Christmas tree while all the guests watch them with misty eyes or polite but definitely bored smiles (the ratio between the two highly depending on how many old ladies are attending that year and also on the amount of alcohol they serve up at the party). The tree turned out very beautifully this year, though Joey’s not surprised – they’ve had professionals decorate the tree ever since he can remember. At least when he was little, he and Casey got to put a couple of their favorites on the lower branches but they stopped doing that after Joey started high school. He’s pretty sure the home-made decorations haven’t made it to the tree ever since.

And sure, they were objectively very ugly. Joey totally knows they wouldn’t look nice on the pictures.

(Joey still kind of misses them.)

He’s also not thinking about the decorations for too long because it’s kind of hard to reminisce about fond childhood memories when your mother is holding your arm in a death grip and she is also hissing into your ears about your champagne breath.

“Sorry to be a disappointment. I thought you’d be used to it by now.”

“Joey,” his mum mutters and Joey’s too buzzed to decide whether she’s exasperated or worried.

But then she doesn’t have the chance to add anything because the photographer starts to rearrange them to her liking. She moves Joey first to one side, then she scowls a bit, then she grabs him by the arm and moves him to the other side. Joey doesn’t think she’s supposed to push him around this roughly but he doesn’t even mind being manhandled by this petite woman. He’s just going with the flow here, feeling completely peachy. Utterly peachy.

Okay, Joey’s mum might have been right about the alcohol thing. Joey’s a bit woozy.

A flash goes off and then three more in quick succession, and then they’re done apparently, the photographer and her staff moving around and packing up everything quickly and effectively. Casey and his mum move away from Joey, already busy with something else, but he just keeps standing there, smile frozen on his face because the flash has blinded him a bit, sure, but he’s also probably hallucinating because he looks over and –

“Hey,” Scratch says quietly.

He’s wearing a tux like Joey is, all shiny lapels and buttons, but his is definitely not tailored, the sleeves looking way too short for his gigantic body. He has a flush on his face like he came here in a rush and his hair is slightly disheveled, and he reminds Joey so much of what home is supposed to be like that he almost kneels over from the force of the feeling.

“You made it,” Joey whispers.

“I did,” Scratch agrees.

“I…” Joey starts. It hasn’t even been two full days since the last time he saw Scratch, but he still missed him so much. He was so worried that he fucked up the best thing to ever happen to him but – Scratch is here, finally standing in front of him, and it can’t be that bad if he still wants to see Joey after all this stupid shit.

He’s so glad to see him that it makes even less sense when he says:

“Why are you here?”

“Do you not want me to be here?” Scratch asks, and he sounds so unsure that Joey wants to wrap him up in his arms and hide him.

“Fuck, no, of course I want you to be here.”

From the corner of his eyes, he sees that they’re getting ready for that stupid annual dance thing Joey’s supposed to do with that stupid girl (Joey’s sure she’s nice and all but not in this stupid fucking moment) and Joey doesn’t want to be dramatic but he’s pretty sure he’ll die if he has to leave Scratch here in this moment.

“Can we talk maybe? I know you’re supposed to be mingling with people or some other shit but… I really need to talk to you and…”

And Joey would probably never say no to Scratch but he sounds so desperate that Joey’s opening his mouth before Scratch could even finish his sentence.

“Of course, let’s just…”

But naturally, that’s exactly when Carol appears by his side with a scary fake smile plastered onto her face.

“Joey, we’ll have to start the dance in one minute.”

“Carol, I’m sorry but I really can’t…”

Carol sighs. “Joey, this is not up for debate here.”

“Well, maybe for fucking once, it could be,” Joey snaps.

Carol does not look impressed.

“Joey, it’s okay, we can talk after,” Scratch add quickly but Joey’s not having this tonight.

And of course, that’s when her mom decides to show up.

“Nick, how nice of you to come,” she says with a quick smile, then waits for no answer and turns to Carol and Joey. “Everything okay here?”

“I need to talk to Scratch, so we’ll be on our way now,” Joey says before Carol could explain the situation.

“We need to do the dance first, Joey. You can go after.”

“Can we just skip the dance one fucking year, please?”

“It’s a ten-minute long dance, Joey, I promise you and Nick can do whatever you want to do after that. Please, you know it’s important to me.”

“Scratch is more important,” Joey says without even thinking.

And fuck, who even cares by this point. Scratch already knows Joey’s in love with him. Of course, he knows he’s more important than a stupid royal tradition, and this stupid royal family and this stupid royal country. Scratch has always been more important.

“Oh,” his mom says, then looks at Scratch, then at Joey, then at Scratch again, almost like she’s trying to figure something out real hard here.

One day, Joey should probably entertain the idea of developing a brain-to-mouth filter. Just maybe.

His mom takes a deep breath. The film crew seems ready to go behind them, and Joey swears he can feel more and more eyes turning to their little quartet.

“In that case, I’m sure Nick would love to dance with you instead of Lilith.”

Joey chokes on nothing. Scratch pretty much does the same thing, but he even manages to suffocate more gracefully than Joey does.

“What?” he says.

“What?” Carol says, too, looking just as confused.

“Yes,” his mum says, and now she looks like she’s on a mission or something. “You don’t mind, Nick, do you? I’ll let Lilith now that we’ve had a last-minute change of plans.”

And she just turns around leaving the other three staring at her back with wide open eyes.

“You don’t have to,” Joey says when he finally seems to find his voice. “You really, really don’t have to. I don’t want to put you in this situation when I know you don’t want this and me and…”

“Joey,” Scratch says, and Joey is so prepared for his polite rejection. “I want to dance with you.”

“You… really?”

Scratch carefully takes his hand in his.

“I really want to dance with you. Please,” he adds, or at least, Joey thinks he does, but he’s also having trouble hearing the words that leave Scratch’s mouth because there’s so much blood pumping in his ears, blocking everything out.

And Joey doesn’t know how he doesn’t just faint right then and there, and he really doesn’t know how he manages to nod at Scratch and lead him to the where his family is waiting. He’d say he was in a complete daze, just going through the motions – but he’s not, because he feels the warmth of Scratch’s hand on his and he hears the way Scratch’s breath speeds up as they take their places on the dance floor.

Joey knows his parents and Casey with her partner is somewhere next to them, but he only has eyes for one person and one person only.

I’ll be home for Christmas starts playing in the background. Scratch places his hand on Joey’s waist and Joey moves to place his hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t know what people will think that the Prince is letting someone else lead him.

Truth be told, he doesn’t really care either.

Their first steps are almost clumsy, both of them too afraid to move with enough confidence but then as the song picks up, they get better at it, and then it suddenly takes over and then it’s just Joey looking up into Scratch’s eyes and Scratch looking down into his and them moving and dancing and swaying from left to right then back again and –

It’s magical.

It’s the best Joey’s ever felt.

It feels like it’s everything Joey could ever want.

They don’t talk while they dance but they also don’t take their eyes off of each other and when the song comes to an end, Joey feels like he’s just woken up from a dream. A beautiful one, sure, but a dream regardless.

And even if Scratch tells him that he can’t ever be with him, even if all his hopes are lost and stomped upon, Joey will always have this moment.

“I… can we talk, please? Some place where it’s more private?”

“We can get out of here and go up to my room if that’s okay.” 

“Yeah, dude, I missed your room,” Scratch says immediately, and Joey finally laughs, probably for the first time that night, because that little ‘dude’, that one little word sounds so out of place here but also like something so achingly familiar and so them.

So they quickly make their exit (Joey definitely doesn’t miss the knowing look on his mom’s face but she doesn’t stop them so Joey thinks he’s allowed to deal with all this tomorrow), and walk through at least four lines of security to get to Joey’s old room. Well, technically it’s not old because it’s the place he still always stays when he comes home, but compared to his room in KC, it definitely feels old – filled to the brim with childhood memorabilia and stupid shit from his teenage years.

Joey immediately sits down on his bed but Scratch lingers in front of Joey’s door for a bit, almost looking like he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing here. It’s the first time Scratch has probably looked unsure standing in Joey’s room, and Joey’s heart starts hammering his ribcage even more forcefully than it did before. There’s something monumental in the air that stays even when Scratch starts messing with Joey’s old action figures.

It feels like that time when Joey and Scratch were on holiday in Mallorca and they found a fairly deserted cliff to jump off from. Scratch plunged into the water without a care in the world, barely even looking back. But Joey has always been more afraid, more cautious, more of a chicken, afraid to fuck things up, so he stayed on the edge of the cliff for a couple long seconds. And he just stared into the water, and Scratch’s body floating already on top, the sun glistening off of his pale white skin, sunbathing while shouting up at Joey to just fucking jump in.

And it feels exactly like that moment when he finally decided to jump, that split second of jumping but not quite arriving yet, that one frozen moment that’s neither here nor there. When you know a huge thing is coming and you know you can’t escape but the impact is still just out of reach.

Realistically, Joey knows that Scratch is not here to declare his undying love for him and to beg for forgiveness. But he is here, and he does want to talk, so Joey is going to finally act like the man he’s supposed to be. He will fight for this man’s stupid friendship like it’s the last thing he’ll ever get to do.

“How was your Christmas?” Joey asks when he can’t take the silence anymore.

Scratch smiles. “It was alright. I kind of cut it short but it was fun.”

“Why… why did you cut it short?” Joey asks when Scratch doesn’t go on, even though he feels like he already knows the answer.

He does know the answer but he also needs to hear Scratch say it.

“I needed to talk to you. And I needed to see you,” Scratch says without a moment of hesitation.

Joey’s heart is in his throat, almost suffocating him.

“About…” he says when Scratch still doesn’t fucking go on.

“About what an idiot I am,” Scratch says eventually.

“You’re not an idiot,” Joey says immediately.

“I kind of am, though. I owe you an apology, at least.”

But Joey’s already shaking his head. “But no, you don’t. You never owed a coming out to me. Sure, it would have made me feel better but you were right, too: you were there for me as much as possible. I was being ungrateful and only thinking of myself.”

“I should have been brave, though. I should have told you and I should have tried… something.”

They’re sitting side by side, shoulder pressing into shoulder, and Joey’s scared to look into Scratch’s eyes but he keeps his arm firmly next to his.

“I just need us to be okay, Scratch,” Joey says quietly. “Like… I don’t even care about our fight anymore. I hated that you weren’t there and I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“So you’d be okay with just pretending this never happened?” Scratch asks, sounding disbelieving.

Joey shrugs his shoulder. He’s still not looking up, even though he can feel Scratch’s eyes on him.

“You told me it doesn’t change anything and I’m not willing to lose you over this. So yeah. Let’s get pretending or something,” Joey says and the smile he forces onto his face even has traces of truth in it.

“But you love me.”

The smile is getting harder to maintain. “Yeah. It makes things a little fucked-up but… well, that’s my brand, really.”

Scratch moves so suddenly that it completely startles Joey. He puts both his hands on Joey’s cheek, angling his face up so he can finally look into his eyes. Joey falls silent the moment he feels the pressure of his long fingers on his skin.

“You are not a fuck-up, Joseph Munroe, and have never been one. You are the kindest, most compassionate and hard-working person I have ever met. And if I could, I’d burn everyone to the ground who has ever made you feel anything less than that. Because they were so lucky to have you in their life and they didn’t appreciate it. Because you are amazing and I love you. Fuck, I’ve loved you for so long, it took me forever to realize that it was what it was. Love.”

Joey is speechless. He hears the words and he thinks he understands them but it’s just too fucking much.

“And I’m so glad that it’s you I fell in love with. Because, Joey, even if you don’t want me anymore, or if we can’t be together, I still need you to know that I’m glad it was you – that it is you. Because you’re amazing and I’m lucky to just have you in my life, in any capacity you’ll have me.”

“You mean…”

“Yeah,” Scratch says, sounding so sure and so solid and so unstoppable.

So Joey does the only thing he can: he kisses him.

Scratch clearly wasn’t expecting a mouthful of Joey this soon after his pretty speech, and for a couple seconds he’s all frozen up but – fuck, then he kisses back and Joey’s pretty sure he died and went to heaven because this is some holy good kissing he’s getting here.

It’s even better than their dancing was, because he has all of Scratch underneath his hands, holding him and touching him, and Scratch is returning the favor, too, seemingly surrounding Joey from everywhere. It’s just the two of them, and Scratch’s chapped lips and his warm, big hands and Joey loves him. Adores him. Treasures him.

When Joey finally pulls away to breathe, he feels lightheaded. He presses his forehead against Scratch’s and when he peeks a look, he sees that Scratch’s eyes are still closed.

“Hi,” he says eventually and his heart flutters when he sees Scratch’s smile that breaks out on his face immediately.

“Hi,” Scratch says too and he finally opens his eyes.

His eyes are so incredibly shiny and so incredibly blue, Joey wants to swim in them until eternity comes and goes.

“I feel like we’re in a movie or something. One of those shitty romcoms you like so much.”

Joey is hurt and he absolutely despises this man. “You have no taste. Those movies are masterpieces.”

“Well, if I have no taste then that’s kind of awkward for you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re also my taste,” Scratch says with the smile of the devil on his face.

Joey groans. “You’re going to milk this love thing for a long time, eh?”

Scratch rolls his eyes at his fake Canadian eh like he always does.

“As long as I can,” he says, and his voice is light and teasing but it’s also so truthful, Joey’s heart skips a beat.

He also feels a dribble of the outside world enter their bubble and he doesn’t want it to ruin their moment but it’s also something he needs to say.

“I can’t promise you this is going to be easy. We’re… kind of going against the rules here.”

“We’ll get the people on our side. We’ll convince everyone they’re stupid and that it’s 2020 and that this royal marriage bullshit is simply that: bullshit. People love a good love story. They’ll understand. We’ll make them understand,” Scratch says.

He sounds like he’s thought about this a lot already.

“You sound so sure.”

Scratch cocks an eyebrow at him. “I’ve wanted this for a long time.”

“You sure didn’t seem like that when you shot me down,” Joey says and he almost hisses at how bad that sounds. But – isn’t it the truth too?

“Touché. But I told you I was an idiot. And even then, I knew that I wanted you. I’ve known that for a long time. But just because you seem to have dibs on this whole insecurity thing, it doesn’t mean I’ve never felt insecure, you know. I also didn’t know your feelings and I… the thing is, when I heard you say all those things out loud in the bar, when you said that you loved me like it was not most obvious thing in the world… That finally tilted something in me. Something I might have hoped for but never really thought to be an actual possibility.”

“Oh,” is all Joey lets out.

He still has Scratch’s hand in his. It reminds him of the summer of his outing, when they were in this exact same room, on this exact same bed, holding hands exactly the same way. But it’s also different – different in the best sense possible.

“Okay,” Joey says eventually.

“Okay to what?”

“Okay to just… everything. Okay to loving you. Okay to you loving me. Okay to fighting for this.”

“Very poetic, Joey. Good thing you’re not planning on becoming a writer,” Scratch says with a grin, but his voice is so light, so carefree, so full of love that –

Yeah, Joey’s kissing him again. And he can feel the smile on Scratch’s lips, feel the dimples on his cheek. Then he feels his body on top of his, all those layers of his tux and shirt and dress pants getting in the way. Then he feels his skin, and he feels his warmth, and he feels him all. He feels nothing else just him and it’s exhilarating and happy and so, so worth it.

It’s much later when he’s finally gazing out his window with a sound asleep Scratch by his side, when he feels it all sink it. And he’s a little worried because he doesn’t know how this will play out, and he’s a little hopeful because he remembers the look on his mom’s face when he let him dance with Scratch. And he’s stressed because he’ll probably have to suffer through a bunch of meetings tomorrow but he’s also excited because he’ll get to do it with Scratch by his side.

And he’s scared as fuck when he looks down onto the man in his bed because there’ll never be a day when he won’t worry that he’ll fuck this up.

But what feels the most can’t be put into words. Because he’ll forever have a complicated relationship with his family and with the nation of America and with the crown but this moment here, this moment now, is the lightest he’s ever felt in his life.

*

Joey gets to take one sip of his drink before Willy ambushes him.

“So how new is this thing?” Willy asks as he catches Joey watching Scratch as he’s trying to get them drinks from the kitchen in Trigger’s place.

(Joey probably had a dumb smile on his face, too, but he thinks it’s allowed now.)

Joey would ask him what he means but it’s glaringly obvious after he and Scratch literally walked into their New Year’s Eve celebrations holding hands.

“Let’s call it a Christmas miracle.”

“Very fancy, Money. You needed to wait for the perfect moment? Christmas lights glistening and choirs singing?”

Well, Joey’s not going to tell Willy just how painfully right he is about that, that’s for sure. Willy does not deserve any more vindication here.

“I mean, I’ve always loved him,” Joey shrugs his shoulder and it’s surprising how easy it is to admit all this out loud. “I just never thought I’d get to be in love with him too, you know? It’s new but not that new?”

And he’s not even sure why he says it, really. He knows it’s something he’s for sure going to get chirped for and laughed at. But it’s also something he needs to say out loud. Declare it to the world, because it’s so goddamn true.

“Bro, I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. I just wanted to know when you banged. But good for you, guys.”

Joey snorts. And blushes a little. “You approve?”

Willy rolls his eyes dramatically. “I basically got you guys together. Of course, I approve. But seriously. You look happy – and believe it or not, my friend, I actually really like it when you’re happy.”

Joey makes a fake cooing noise but he’s also, like, actually touched.

“Thanks. Really. For this and for just being you,” Joey says eventually.

Willy smiles and pats Joey’s shoulders. “Any time, Your Highness. Now, for the real issue here: when are you setting me up with a nice princess cousin of yours? Or any nice princes?”

“I literally do not have a princess cousin. Or a prince. Don’t act like you know nothing about the American royal family. And no, before you ask, I’m not setting you up with my sister. I can’t have you be the future King of America – the people don’t deserve that.”

“I’m so amazing that they don’t deserve me?”

Joey snorts. “Sure. That’s exactly what I meant.”

“And are your parents okay with this?” Willy asks, jumping between topics so fast that for a second there, Joey almost doesn’t get what he’s talking about.

“They’re okay with Scratch. They love him. We’ll… we’ll figure out the rest. It kind of goes against protocol but it’s not something that’s set in stone. And even if it was… well, stone crumbles.”

“That was… really deep.”

Joey laughs. “Don’t worry, I didn’t come up with it. I read it somewhere.”

“Good, I was worried for a second that you might actually have a working brain cell.”

Joey rolls his eyes.

“So is this your rebel phase now?”

“I guess,” Joey shrugs. “I think I’ve just had enough. I’ve given up so much for that stupid crown. And sure, I got things in return but… They took my childhood away. They took hockey from me. They’re not taking Scratch, too.”

“Wow. Fierce. You’re badass, man,” Willy says and does a mock-salute, but Joey is also pretty sure that Willy doesn’t mean it in a mocking way. Quite the opposite, he thinks.

Scratch appears with two bottles of beer in one hand, sneaking his other warm arm around Joey’s waist. Joey sags into his frame almost as a reflex.

“What are we talking about?” he asks as he offers one of the beers to Joey.

“About Joey being badass,” Willy says immediately and Joey blushes. Again. He can’t even blame the alcohol now.

Scratch has a soft smile on his face. “Cool. My favorite topic then.”

Okay, Joey’s definitely blushing now. “Well. I am the prince of the United States of America. That’s pretty badass.”

“No,” Scratch says and he presses a soft kiss on top of Joey’s head without even thinking or caring about Willy watching them. “You’re a badass because you’re Joey Munroe.”

And standing there with his team surrounding him on all sides and Scratch’s body a solid weight against his, for probably the first time in his life, Joey actually believes that.

***

Chapter Text

Joey is laying in the grass, his head resting on Scratch’s chest that heaves soothingly with every breath he takes. The sun is high up in the June sky and there’s not a single cloud in sight. Two cups of coffee are discarded in the grass by their feet, the condensation slowly covering the plastic. Even the birds are tweeting around them, singing to accompany the slow rumbling of student happiness in their post-exam, post-semester, see you in September chatter.

It’s as perfect as it gets, really.

“Did you know Willy has a new boyfriend?” Scratch asks apropos of nothing.

“What? No, I didn’t. Who is it?”

Scratch’s chest starts rumbling beneath Joey’s head and when he looks up, he sees that he’s barely containing his laughter.

“It’s your British bestie,” Scratch says, grinning as widely as his face lets him.

“WHAT?” Joey shouts.

“Oh, yeah. Apparently, they’re keeping it on the down low so maybe – okay, never mind, you’re already texting them.”

“Of course, I’m texting them,” Joey says, not even looking up from his phone. “Those fuckers lied to me.”

“Have you ever actually asked them whether they were dating or not?”

“Well, no, but… I don’t care, they lied to me.”

Scratch doesn’t say anything and when Joey finally looks up from staring at his screen, he sees that Scratch’s laughing at him.

He pouts at him. Scratch just starts laughing at him harder.

“Let them be,” he says eventually when he calmed down. “Enjoy the day and let them enjoy theirs.”

Joey is still not convinced. He needs details right now.

“Come on. It’s the summer. We’re done with every possible responsibility we’ve had. And I want to enjoy the day with you,” Scratch says again, and he starts slurping his coffee down in the most obnoxious way possible when Joey’s still clutching his phone.

Joey rolls his eyes. He loves this idiot so fucking much.

(He’ll get all the details later. Those fuckers won’t escape him.)