Romano glanced over the top of his papers at Antonio, trying for subtlety even though his frequent glances were probably anything but.
His father Romulus said Feliciano had artist’s hands, always streaked up with paint or blackened with charcoal. Romulus insisted you could learn a lot about a person from their hands, so much so Romano didn’t listen to him anymore. he never payed much attention to little things, like the callouses and rope burn on the palms of a sailor. He hardly noticed the white chalky dust that settled like sediment beneath his own nails, slivers of moons in the night sky.
But when it came to Antonio, Romano tried to notice everything: the shape of his nails, the weathered skin of his palms brushed with oil paint. He has artist’s hands too.
Romano was probably more intrigued by Romulus’s new student than Romulus himself, yet Romano didn’t know much about him, seeing as they didn’t speak much; Antonio’s Italian was poor and Romano had never learned Spanish.
Romano wished they could speak, wanting to hear the kind of stories Antonio could tell him about Spain, of cities he’d never seen and people he’d never met. Everyone considered Feliciano the dreamer without a tether to reality, but it was Romano who ran through the piazza to watch the ships arrive from across the sea, stared up at the night sky and connected the stars with his fingers, dreamed of leaving Venice. Why he dreamed, he didn’t know. It was like a fever that wouldn’t break, his desire to get out of Venice, out of Italy.
Maybe Antonio would be the one to finally fudiull that desire
Today, though, Romano was content to sit and sketch and listen to Romulus and Antonio. There was charcoal smeared on the side of his hand, blending with the white dust of marble. Antonio caught Romano’s eyes from his easel. He smiled but quickly went back to his painting. When Antonio was particularly focused as he was now, he made a face like a child’s, all scrunched-up and too serious; it almost made Romano want to chuckle. Antonio was so careful and purposeful, painting the thinnest lines with a delicate precision it seemed he shouldn’t be capable of.
Romano propped his chin on one hand, glaring at the rough lines and only looking up when Romulus called his name.
“Yes?” Romano looked up.
“Signor Fernández Carriedo wants to see your statues. Will you take him down to the workshop?” Romulus asked. Antonio was smiling hopefully at Romano behind Romulus’s back. Romano nodded and Antonio’s pleading smile broke into a grin. He stood up and followed Romano downstairs, the stairs giving low protests underfoot.
Romano left the door of the workshop open when he wasn’t working, the windows thrown open to let the air in so the dust that suffocated the room could filter out. But it was far too stubborn for the aged summer zephyrs to take away and hung so thickly in the air Romano felt like it clung to his lungs.
Even so, the place was beautiful, brimming with daylight that made the marble shine bright and clean like the world after rain, so lovely it could make you gasp.
Antonio did, passing Romano to study the statues. The look in his eyes was so enchanted, like he was bubbling over with things to say, things that would have made Romano’s hours of work and the cuts on his fingers more worthwhile than gold.
“They’re so beautiful!” Antonio said.
“Thank you.” Romano said.
“Yes!” Antonio said hurriedly. He turned and gestured to a statue of Pallas Athena whose face wasn’t quite right. She had his mother’s hard jaw and her work-worn but gentle hands, embodying that secret part of Romano fascinated with stories of Bodicea and Judith. It was one of Romano’s personal favorites, especially since he spent so much time carving Saints and Jesuses he rarley got the chance to do anyone else.
“Thank you.” Antonio grinned and elaborated, taking his hands back from Athena’s face. Whatever he had said, Romano couldn’t understand it. “I don’t understand you. I’m sorry.” Antonio frowned, frustrated. His frown was like his serious face—it made Romano want to chuckle. “You could teach me Spanish. I somewhat understand you when you speak to my father, but I can’t use the language myself.” Romano said. “Do you understand?”
“Yes?” Antonio said. “I think.” He added, nodding.
“It is very hot during the day.”
“The evening is cooler.” Antonio nodded again. “Meet me in the back garden in the evening. With the Greek statues.”
“The garden, in evening. Greek?” Antonio said. Romano nodded.
“Yes. Statues.” Romano said slowly. Antonio nodded, pivoting towards a statue of Saint Peter when Romulus called for him from upstairs. Antonio sighed. “Sorry.” He said, heading for the stairs. He paused on the third step, turning to Romano. “Right time!” He said, then bolted up the steps for Romulus’s studio. It took Romano several minutes to realize Antonio had been trying to tell him not to be late.
Antonio lay on his back and stared at the sky. The sun was making its way down towards the treeline, leaving the sky a smooth blend of purple and yellow and blue, like watercolor bruises. A breeze that smelled like roses and aged summer heat whispered over his cheeks, tickled his lashes. He wanted to stay in the stillness of the moment forever, only sitting up when he heard footsteps in the grass.
Romano was standing beside a statue of Apollo, face just as impassive as the stone.
“Hello, Signor Vargas.” Antonio said, wishing he could say more. He must seem like a dazed idiot, especially earlier in Romano’s workshop. He’d wanted to say more, wanted to tell Romano he’d never been so impressed with a statue in his life, that the fabric around Athena’s body looked so real he would be shocked if he felt stone when he touched it instead of thread.
Romano inclined his head and sat down on the uneven grass.
“How… how do you say statue in Italian?” Antonio asked.
"Statua.” Romano said. Antonio felt even more stupid; it was practically the same word in Spanish.
“Why you want to learn Spanish?” Antonio cringed at his grammar. In fairness, he had only spent two weeks in Italy, and for one of them he spent most of his time with Romulus and only heard Spanish.
Romano didn’t reply for a moment. “I… want to.” He said. His accent was absolutely terrible, but Antonio guessed his Italian accent was probably about the same. Antonio didn’t care about Romano’s pronunciation, but he wished Romano would put more inflection in his words and make his expression less monotone.
“Okay.” Antonio said. He started off as simple as he could, pointing to plants around them in the garden, the sky, the clouds, trying to add a few anecdotes when he could.
It was a tiring conversation on both of them. Antonio spoke in broken Italian and Romano battled almost fruitlessly with Spanish. Antonio found it oddly charming how hard Romano was trying, color rising in his cheeks when he couldn’t get any words on the tip of his tongue. Antonio encouraged him the best he could, leaning back in the grass as the air continued to cool. It was such a beautiful evening Antonio wished he had his paints with him.
Romano was a less patient teacher than Antonio, quick to correct Antonio when he misspoke. Antonio was only half-irritated: he was trying his best after all, but on the other hand it did help him learn more quickly. Maybe it was because Romano really wanted to talk to him, perhaps the only other person his age beside his brother. He must get lonely wandering the halls of his family’s massive villa, spending days out in the gardens that rung with silence.
Feliciano was always sitting beside his father by a canvas, chattering to Antonio even though he couldn’t respond. He went into town to fence and snuck out in the evenings, lavishing in his privileged youth and glowing with all the compliments people threw to him.
Romano, on the other hand, was far more elusive. Before he started spending time in the studio, Antonio only saw Romano at meals. He was a model Roman son through and through, a whisper of wind through rose petals. But he always seemed to give Antonio a little too much attention, which made him feel a sort of vulnerability. It wasn’t any type of vulnerability he’d felt before, because it didn’t make him squirm or feel nervous. Perhaps he even enjoyed it in some inexplicable way.
He felt it now with Romano scrutinizing him in the dying light. “It’s late.” Romano said. “Again tomorrow?” Antonio nodded and stood up, following Romano back towards the house.
He went up to his room to change, pausing by the window to inhale the sweetened night air that smelled faintly of rot. Antonio smiled to himself while he stared at the silent, darkening gardens, his mind drifting to Romano and everything he wanted to know about him from his favorite color of the sky to what he dreamt of when the night fell and every secret he’d never been able to tell.
Romano left the curtains in his bedroom open in the summertime so he woke early with the first pale sunlight. No one ever heard him as he dressed and crept outside because he knew which floor boards not to step on because they would creak and which stairs to skip because the planks would groan. He waited to put his shoes on until he’d gotten outside and walked in the alleys and the darkest parts of the street so no one would notice him slip through the piazza to the harbor.
He paused by the docks, watching the boats drifting across the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea, trying to imagine the faraway places those ships had come from. There were a few women standing by the port too, waiting for the sailors beginning to crowd the docks. They could’ve been their wives, but Romano knew they weren’t. They were here for the same reason he was: to play dumb and give them a little satisfaction in hopes they’d get taken from their mundane lives in return.
In the stories only women were the ones rescued from the menial by handsome strangers. Romano thought it unfair he had no chance of that, that he could only lurk by one of the port buildings that smelled like stale fish and watch the ocean roll in and out. He slumped against the wall, out of sight from the early market-goers who would whisper excitedly if they knew Romulus Vargas’s son was hanging by the docks in the early hours of the dawn when Aurora had hardly woken up and shaken the sleep off her shoulders.
He never got caught, though. That was another thing that never changed.
My father is a sailor, Romano remembered Antonio telling him the night before. He thought of Antonio’s face in the dying sunlight, how his shoulders shook when he laughed. Romano suddenly felt an unprompted sense of sudden disinterest in the sailors and their ships, turning away from the harbor to walk back home.
When he returned and sequestered himself in his workshop, silence filling his ears but for the sound of metal on stone. Romano wished he could work on Athena, but he had three commissions he had yet to finish, so his only choice was to sit down and continue on yet another statue of some saint he should’ve remembered but didn’t.
The stairs behind him creaked and he turned around, seeing Antonio on the steps. “Good morning, Signor Vargas.” He said. His hair was slightly mussed though he was already dressed, and his voice was tired. “Can I stay?”
“Why?” Romano asked.
“To see.” Antonio pointed to the statues. Romano flicked his eyes up and down Antonio, landing back on his face.
“Fine. Don’t talk.” Romano faced the marble. This must have been what Antonio had felt like the past few days in the studio when Romano had been watching him none-too subtly as he made careful brushstrokes, a line between his brows and that focused face. He wondered what Antonio was noticing about him. The thought made him nervous, even though normally he would never have paid any attention to what trespassers in his studio might think of his process.
No matter how much he dreamed of change, Romano didn’t like having Antonio living with them. It was almost hard to notice the different at first; Antonio studied almost all day with Romulus and Romano only saw him at meals and the soft evenings by the fruit trees where they told chopped-up stories in the wrong tense. But Romano started feeling slightly exposed in his own home, more acutely aware of everything he did. Was what he said to Feliciano too harsh? Did Antonio think his finished piece was good? Should he have complimented Antonio more? Did he seem too aloof? Did it matter?
No amount of shaking his head or flinching or trying to shut his thoughts up could distract him from the reality of what was happening inside his head, spreading through every nerve system in his body so just brushing against Antonio’s arm on the narrow stairways made him shiver.
He took to spending more and more time working to distract himself. He finished his commissions and could finally spend time on Athena after all the days of neglecting her. At least when he was busy his mind was drained of its usual muddled fantasies, focused solely on fixing her fingers, poised beneath the curve of her hip. Even now, though, Romano’s ears strained for the sound of footsteps on the stairs behind him. His heart fluttered, mind unfocused. His hand slipped.
Romano flinched and sucked in his breath, dropping his tool to the ground with a soft clatter. He bit down on the inside of his lip to stop himself from crying out, anxiously looking at the side of his hand. He’d cut himself from the first knuckle of his thumb down to the socket, blood rising to the surface of his skin already. It dripped into the film of shimmering dust on the floor.
He swallowed, knowing what he would have to do and wincing at the thought of it. He headed upstairs to the kitchen, hoping there might be some hot water left in the pot on the stove. He was in luck.
Antonio came downstairs just in time to see Romano pouring boiling water on his hand, kicking the base of the wall at the same time, trying to distract from the pain so he wouldn’t cry out or tear up.
“Signor Vargas!” Antonio exclaimed, running across the room to him. “What are you doing?” He grabbed his arm, yanking the pot back.
“Stop!” Romano groaned. “Mamma taught me to do it. It helps you heal.”
“You’re burning your hand!” Antonio looked distraught, eyes wide and a little helpless as he continued to clutch at Romano’s sleeve. “Isn’t it hurting you really bad?”
“Yes, but this makes it so it doesn’t get worse.” Romano said, pulling his arm out of Antonio’s slackening grip. He braced himself again with Antonio watching with something between horror and fascination while Romano poured more onto his hand, kicking the wall again. Antonio caught his wrist, earning a glare form Romano.
“I’ll do it.” Antonio said in a voice that seemed too something to be his; he always sounded as if he had just been laughing, but now it was soft. “You’ll hurt your foot too.” He added, taking Romano’s hand and holding onto his fingers gently, tilting it so the water wouldn’t run onto his wrist. Romano’s skin hummed at Antonio’s touch. The pain didn’t bother him so much anymore. “How much?” Antonio asked.
“The pot.” Romano said. Antonio nodded. Romano twisted and pinched his eyes shut because dammit it hurt, and he reflexively squeezed Antonio’s hand hard, digging his blunt nails into Antonio’s palm. He didn’t even realize how hard he had until Antonio set the empty pot down.
“I…” Romano let go of Antonio’s hand and stared in horror at the bloody crescents he’d left there. “I’m sorry, Signore.”
“It’s okay. Now we both have hurt hands.” Antonio said, wiping the blood off on is smock. Romano looked away, analyzing his thumb. Antonio had done a good job of preventing too much of it from spilling out of the wound and burning him.
Romano turned to the cupboards and started rooting around, shoving pots aside. “I need cloths and honey. Mamma always put them on our wounds to help them heal.” Romano said, removing a small clay pot of raw honey that he set on the table. He scooped some out and spread it along the cut. Antonio rushed away, returning with a bundle of torn linen strips a few moments later. He held them out. Romano glanced at it. Antonio raised his eyebrows.
“Your hand.” Antonio said.
“I understand you.” Romano held it out. He hoped Antonio wouldn’t notice how badly it was shaking. Antonio’s cool fingertips were a relief on his tortured skin. He gentle bound the linen around Romano’s thumb, and Romano found himself more than a little surprised that he knew what he was doing. Most people didn’t bother to cover up cuts.
“My brother was always getting hurt.” Antonio sighed. “He’s older, but…” Antonio trailed off, still holding Romano’s hand between his own. His eyes flicked to Romano’s. Their gazes hovered there for a moment, a tense equilibrium, before Antonio said Romulus would want him in the studio and he had to go.
Romano felt the light pressure off his hands and watched Antonio go, slumping back against the wall. He slipped outside into the smallest of their four gardens, full of classical statutes carved of marble that was softened by the sun, rain, and humidity. His mother had planted rose bushes of various varieties which Romano wandered through, touching their soft velvety petals. It was a respite from the main gardens filled with their statues of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms. Romano had seen so many statues of them he could carve her with a blindfold bound over his eyes.
His father had fallen hard for the wave of science and renewal of the classics, contributing to this cluttered monument to Ancient Greece and Rome. Feliciano and Romano had both had to study them in Romulus’s stifling office with the windows shoved open despite no breeze being around. Some people thought his obsessions with science were questionable, as well as the fact his oldest son was still unmarried, and the matter of his uncomplacent wife, but Romulus’s talent had shaken the art world so badly they could almost forget his wife and son and odd ideas.
At the very edge was a statue of Apollo, weeds springing up in the shadow of the pedestal beside a large rosebush that had been small in the years Romano had run into the garden to hide. He was well past the age where he felt like he needed to go run and stash himself away, but sometimes he found himself falling back on old habits and coming back anyway. He crouched in Apollo’s shadow beside the rosebush, watching the clouds.
The sun was sinking but not quite setting behind them, the evening breeze smelling of stale summer. He glanced towards the adjacent garden where he knew Antonio would meet him in a few hours with a sigh, touching the side of his stinging hand and leaning against the stone.
He glanced up at Apollo’s still face and though he felt foolish, said, “Eros has shot my heart with a leaden arrow, and now I’m going to bleed to death.”
When Romano woke the next morning, the linen was already becoming threadbare, so he stripped it off and then went off to the docks. He sucked in air through his teeth and shivered when the wind gusted. Summer was stumbling off towards the grave, leaving the morning air tangy with cold.
He looked out over the port, watching the way the sun played on unfurled sails above the continuous back and forth of the waves. He even knew where the tide would come up this time of day. The stagnant feeling crept back into his chest as he stood there, the shame of daring to think anything would ever be different, because nothing ever changed.
But apparently something had. He felt no inclination to hang around and wait for the sailors today, either. He turned on his heel to walk back through the piazza, stopping up short when he heard “Signor Vargas!” from across the square. He pivoted to see Antonio walking towards him, his face apologetic beneath his wind-stirred curls. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted.” He didn’t sound particularly sorry. He was also smiling, which further killed the apology.
“What are you doing here?” Romano asked, his stomach starting to sour. Had Antonio followed him?
“I was at Mass, of course.” He said, inclining his head to the church behind them. Romano stared at his boots. Of course. It was Sunday. “Why are you here so early? I notice you come down here nearly everyday. Are you meeting someone here?” Romano’s shoulders tensed. He was surprised Antonio wasn’t scandalized by his blatantly skipping Mass. Antonio was always a surprise.
He looked up and gave a stiff frown to Antonio’s light smile, making it fade a little. “I like to watch the boats.” Romano said blankly.
“Me too.” Antonio said. “Maybe I’ll come with you tomorrow. I miss the sea…” Antonio said, turning his face towards the Adriatic and inhaling as the breeze tangled his hair around his temples. “When I was younger my father took me and my brother up the whole coastline of Europe. We went to Sicily and Corsica but I never got to go to Rome, which was so sad because I really wanted to go.” Antonio sighed, caught between sadness and wistfulness.
Romano raised an eyebrow. “Your Italian seems to have improved quite drastically overnight.” He noticed. Antonio shifted his weight a little, tugging at his sleeve. Shit, he thought. He hadn’t meant to slip up. (After that first evening he’d gone to Romulus and asked him to teach him the language so he could really understand Romano, but he decided to feign ignorance for fear that if Romano knew Romulus was teaching him, there wouldn’t be any more evening meetings in the back garden.)
“Um, I asked your father to speak to me in Italian the past few weeks and teach me the grammar. My art performance suffered some, but listen to how much better I can speak now! I felt so dumb talking to you before.” Antonio winced a little. “I wanted to be able to speak to you. You seem very lonely.” Antonio said, trying to sound as ernest as he felt.
“My social life is not your concern.” Romano’s voice was clipped. He didn’t want Antonio to pity him. He wanted perhaps a lot of things from Antonio, but that was not one of them. It was obvious Antonio couldn’t handle the tense silence, and quickly he changed the subject.
“Why do you like it here so much? You live in Venice . What is it about these boats that’s so enchanting to you?” Antonio looked over at Romano’s stiff profile, thinking how difficult it would be to paint the curve of his jaw perfectly or the way his nose sloped like that. What kind of brush could he use for his lashes, or the few strands of blond that interplayed with his dark hair? Antonio would use gold for those fine hairs dusting the back of his neck, perhaps some bronze on his skin, ivory and rose on his cheeks and the tip of his nose where they were kissed by the wind.
“It’s not just the boats.” Romano muttered. “I come down here to… dream, I suppose you could say.” Romano wouldn’t meet Antonio’s eyes.
As the silence spread between them, his thoughts drifted to the feeling of Romano’s hand in his. He turned his hand over and looked at the scabs left from Romano’s nails.
“I see.” Antonio said, dropping his hand back to his side.
“Does it… ever get lonely, out at sea?” Romano asked slowly, leaning against the wall Antonio had propped himself against. “I would think all those miles away from home, in the middle of the ocean… It must be. I’ve heard when you get far enough out into the ocean there’s nothing but water all around you.” His elbow was brushing Antonio’s arm. It was oddly distracting, so much so Antonio had to focus hard to think back to all those days standing on the decks of ships.
“Sometimes.” Antonio said. “But I liked it. At night I’d lay down on the deck and I could see every star you could imagine. When the sun came up and fell down it filled up the whole sky. Other times, though, I suppose it did get lonely. My brother and I never got along terribly well and he wasn’t the most terrific company. He’d rather play pirates and try to get me to jump into the ocean until Father caught him.”
The corner of Romano’s lips twitched slightly. “It must be lonely here too.” Romano said. “You must long for the touch of your wife, so far from home. Look for the girls with the yellow scarves, they can give you what you miss.” Romano waited for some outburst at what he’d said, but instead:
“I’m not wed.”
“At your age? How scandalous.” Romano said, but Antonio was sure he was joking. At least somewhat, being that he wasn’t married either. “Not that I judge you for it. I can’t seem to find any interest in marriage. The idea of being tied down to some poor girl whose family had to sell her to me so she might move up in the world is frankly sickening.” He shivered.
“Oh, yes.” Antonio said. “I hadn’t thought about that. I suppose I would just rather marry someone I loved.” Lovino scoffed.
“Love.” He said, pensive. “Love is too painful, don’t you think? Do you not hear how Petrarch cries and clutches his wounded heart because Laura does not love him back? Love is cruel.” Lovino still didn’t meet Antonio’s eyes, but Antonio wished he would.
“Love isn’t cruel.” Antonio said quietly.
“It is to me.” Romano said flatly, moving away from Antonio to start back down the street. Antonio looked after him a split second before following, though they didn’t speak on the walk back. Antonio gave a valiant effort, but every time Romano shut him down. It left him with a twisting feeling of frustration that wouldn’t leave him alone. It stayed with him all day and made him too restless to sleep, so he just stared at the criss-crossing rafters above him, wondering just what Romano thought about when he went down to the shore.
Antonio crept downstairs in the shadowy house, pausing when he saw the door of Romano’s workshop wide open in welcoming invitation to him. He hesitated on the threshold but crept inside, setting his candle on its holder down on the table in the corner on a workbench.
It should’ve been an eerie place with all the cold-faced, half-hewn statues, but Antonio didn’t feel particularly afraid. I come down here to dream, I suppose you could say. Antonio reached to touch Athena’s cheek, the stone cool beneath his fingertips. She was still unfinished, but he could already see it was done with a careful precision most people wouldn’t notice: the attention to detail in the fabric, the curve of the inside of her wrist. What do you dream about, Romano? What do you see when you close your eyes? Antonio wondered, letting his hand drop from her face.
He paced around the room, lit only by his candle and the sallow moonlight. He paused by a stack of Romano’s drawings. Most of them were strictly planning sketches for his statues, scribbled with math and notes, but others beneath them were loose-handed things he’d clearly done for the joy of them. The docks, the piazza, the statues in the classical garden, the boats on the canals. There was one of Feliciano too, with his fencing sword. He looked brave with the weapon in hand, a whole other person compared to how Antonio knew him. Antonio’s candle was going dim by the time he reached the bottom of the stack, where he paused.
The face looking up at him was his own. Something inside Antonio snapped as he picked up the paper, staring at how carefully Romano had drawn him. He was in the middle of laughing, the details perfect down to the way his eyes crinkled at the corners, like Romano had fixed every facet of Antonio’s smile to memory just for this. He leaned back, feeling an odd pain in his stomach.
No, pain wasn’t the right word for it. It was more of a longing, a want to run upstairs to Romano’s room and shake him awake and… And what? Antonio swallowed, his pulse in his throat.
He knew better than to do anything like that. Antonio settled the sketches back in their pile and went back to his room. His excursion had done nothing to help him sleep. He was possibly even more restless now.
Antonio thought sleep would never find him, but it must have eventually. He’d left the curtains open last night and sun spilled onto his sheets and his closed lids, forcing him awake. He dressed and went downstairs, catching Romano on his way out the door. Begrudgingly he agreed to let Antonio come with him on his walk to get more linseed oil.
“You said you’ve never been to Rome?” Romano asked. Antonio nodded, looking over at him as they walked. His loose shirt showed his neckline, the sensitive skin of this throat and slender indentations of his clavicle, the subtle ascension of his shoulder to his neck. The dip between his collarbones was slightly asymmetrical but clean cut.
“Signore?” Romano snapped.
“Ah, no! I haven’t.” Antonio said. “It’s true I had always hoped to go.”
“My father intend to bring you to Rome, probably to force you to draw all the architecture.” Romano said. “He’s always believed that tactical demonstration yields the best results. I’ll come too, and our family’s friend Signor Adnan may bring us part of the way. We have a small home near the heart of the city.” Antonio perked up.
“In the city center?” Antonio grinned. “When do we leave?”
“Two nights from tonight.” Romano said, turning to face the streets behind them. The wind blew his hair around his eyes, but he didn’t move to brush it aside.
Romano wondered if morning sunlight had been made for Antonio as he loitered by the back door, watching Antonio get the horses ready with Sadik. He tried not to let his gaze linger, but Antonio’s eyes glinted with gold leaf on frescoes, and his smile sweet as that of Eros clutching at Aphrodite’s skirts.
Feliciano was having an animated discussion with Sadik, complaining about not getting to go with them to Rome. “Such a beautiful city. I fell in love with it, and I miss it…” He sighed and shook his head. “Promise me you’ll tell me all about it when you get back.”
“Of course.” Antonio said, absently patting his horse. Sadik turned to him with a grin.
“So you’re Romulus’s apprentice.” Sadik gave Antonio a once-over.
“Not so much his apprentice.” Antonio said weakly. “I wrote Signor Vargas and asked if I might study under him so I could improve my paintings and sell them for my family. I’m his student, nothing else. If anyone were his apprentice, I expect it would be his son,” he said, putting a had on Feliciano’s shoulder. Feliciano beamed back. Romano felt like he’d just ripped off the scab on an old and painful wound struggling to heal. Feliciano may have fallen in love with Rome, but the whole world had fallen for him.
“He’s got his father’s talent.” Sadik nodded. “Your brother knows how to carve, though.” Feliciano perked up.
“Romano is so talented.” Feliciano grinned, looking over at him lurking by the door. He beckoned Romano over and Romano strode over. Sadik held out a hand to him and Romano shook it with a polite hello, trying to avoid the prickly feeling in his neck from Antonio’s presence. Despite the fact Feliciano had always gotten along better with Sadik, Romano missed his visits because he always brought stories and little things back from Constantinople.
“Ah, and there’s Livia.” Sadik said. Romano turned to see Aurelia coming across the lawn to bring them bread, Romulus beside her.
“Hello, Signor Adnan.” She said. Antonio idn’t know if she found Sadik’s address of her impolite or not. None of the Vargases seemed to think it odd. “Take care of them.” She said, looking over at Romano and Antonio. Sadik nodded, and Aurelia smiled. “Be safe. Enjoy Rome.” She added to Antonio.
“Thank you, Signora.” Antonio said. She nodded.
Feliciano waved to them, Aurelia watching them mount their horses with an equally saddened look, giving their goodbyes and turning to go back inside.
After three days on the road without any hindrances, they were forced to stop at an inn after a bitter rainstorm blew in. It drew color to their faces and wet strands of hair to curl around their ears. Romano and Antonio went up to their room while Sadik and Romulus lingered in the tavern, hoping for some beer and conversation to warm them up.
Antonio settled on the bed, staring at the ceiling while Romano retreated to the opposite corner, stripping off his wet clothes. Antonio turned on his side and looked away.
“Signore.” Antonio sat and forced himself to turn over, wishing he hadn’t. “Pass me my clothes.” Romano said. Antonio should have rattled off about impropriety, but he had lost his voice and no amount of searching would bring it back to him. Not until Romano was dressed, at the very least. He tried to focus on Romano’s face, but that made him feel hot and uncomfortable too, so he just grabbed Romano’s clothes and tossed them over to him, hurriedly facing the wall again.
Romano thanked him and put his dry clothes on. His hair was ruffled and Antonio tried not to watch him neatly rake it back in place, giving a soft sigh of relief. There was a flaking, knotted scab on the side of his hand from his cut.
Romano noticed him looking. “It’s healing fine.” He promised. “Are yours?” Antonio squinted. Romano knelt down and took his wrist, his fingers gentle but still cold from the rain. Antonio felt his stomach turn over. Romano sat down on the bed beside him, his hair falling in half-dried strands around his face as he bent to look at the thin scabs. Antonio felt the need to say something, anything , because the silence when Romano was staring at him in the dark, so close, with the rain overhead and the light guilding his features in white gold was too much for Antonio to take.
The world felt distant, drowned in some haze that smelled sweet of rain and roses. Romano could feel Antonio’s pulse under his thumb. They were so close Antonio could’ve timed his breathing to Romano’s, which he nearly needed to because he felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe himself. His voice was still vanished, his thoughts a mess of words tied together in fraying threads, focusing on how beautiful Romano’s pale eyes were under his dark hair.
A knock on the door.
Romano got up as if nothing had happened. Antonio had to remind himself nothing had. Romano let Sadik and Romulus in, and the three of them sat down in the corner to glance over a map, discussing the setbacks of today’s lost time.
Antonio busied himself with sketching, all the while trying not to think about all the words that had nearly fallen from his lips.
Romulus and Romano hardly needed the map and lead the way confidently, but Antonio kept checking it obsessivley. It was the only thing that could keep his mind occupied and off Romano. Forcing himself not to think of Romano was so difficult sometimes he felt physical unease from it, so he avoided being alone with him when he could, because the more moments they shared alone the more desperate he was to say the things he knew he shouldn’t say.
He found himself becoming better and better acquainted with Sadik, who stayed with them until their final stop before the last leg to Rome. They’d stopped to let their horses rest on the outskirts of a little town Antonio, sleep-deprived from traveling, had already forgotten the name of.
“Why did you agree to bring us if your home is so far away?” Antonio asked him. He was looking over a seperate map at a route marked up in black pigment. Sadik gave him a polite smile.
“For Livia.” He said, watching Antonio extracting a date pit and giving the fruit to his horse. “To make sure her husband and son were alright.”
“You mean Signora Vargas?” Antonio asked. Sadik nodded. “Why do you call her Livia?” Antonio asked, helping himself to a second date. Sadik looked back at the map without answering, which may have been the first time he had refused to respond the whole trip.
“After Livia Drusilla, I believe.” Romano said. He was sitting beneath a tree, eating a handful of dates. “You’re a little too fond of my mother, Sadik.” His voice was its typical flavor of near emotionless, despite his implications. There was something very pleasant about his voice. Antonio couldn’t explain it. Perhaps it was the cadence, or the pitch, but all he knew for sure was that it was like music.
“She is an Augusta.” Romulus said dreamily. He was sipping wine by his horse, watching the sky. “The moon’s coming up.” Sadik turned to the sky above them. Romano gazed up at the heavens.
“ Stars near the lovely moon cover their own bright faces… she lights the earth with her silver .” Romano murmured. “Sappho.” He added sweetly, resting his elbows on his knees. Antonio watched his face, trying to make out what that look was. He couldn’t describe it either. It was almost like he was waiting, waiting for the stars to fall out of the sky.
He said something softly under his breath so only Antonio, who was nearest to him, would hear.
“ You may blame Aphrodite… Soft as she is, she has almost killed me with love for that boy. ”
The two Sappho poems are “In Awe of Her Splendor” and “It’s No Use / Mother Dear…”
The wind that stumbled through Piazza del Campidoglio forced Antonio to hold down the edges of his papers as he worked with his charcoals. He was sluggish despite Romulus’s eager explanations of three-point perspective since he hadn’t been able to sleep in after the trip; instead Romano woke him early to go up to Capitoline Hill. It was the first time Antonio had been disappointed to see Romano.
They’d only been there for an hour or so before Romulus was swept away by a crowd of excited aristocrats eager to talk to him. Romano stayed beside Antonio despite the furtive glances the group gave him. “How are you liking Rome?” He asked, his attention reserved to Antonio.
“It’s beautiful.” Antonio smiled.
“I can tell. The way you draw it…” He added, tracing the lines with his finger a few centimeters from the paper so he wouldn’t smear it. “You said you came to Venice to become an artist, but you seem very talented already.”
“Thank you, Signore. I think it’s only because your father has helped me so much. I hope I’ll be able to sell my paintings, because my family needs the money. Maybe we could afford a house like yours some day.” Antonio added. “Doesn’t it get lonesome there? So many rooms to run through, but so few people. I’m sure I’d lose my mind.”
“Sometimes.” Romano said quietly. “But I have always prefered to be alone.”
Antonio leaned closer to him. “Is that true?”
“Of course it’s true. Why would I tell such a pointless lie?” Romano asked.
“If you tell a lie enough, you believe it.” Antonio stuttered a little when he spoke.
“And what lie are you convincing yourself is true?” Romano asked. Antonio stared at Romano’s pale eyes, unblinking. Was it Antonio’s imagination, or were his pupils dilated? Was it wishful thinking, or was he blushing just a bit? His lips were slightly parted, and Antonio let his eyes linger on them, but then raised them back to Romano’s eyes. Antonio didn’t answer. He thought maybe that look had been explanation enough. “When are you returning to Spain?” Romano asked abruptly.
“At the beginning of next month, I expect.” Antonio said. He shifted closer still to Romano, casting his eyes up to the blue skies above them. “I’ll be sad to go.” He said with a soft sigh, stretching his cramping hand. “Do you want me to tell you about Spain? You told me you wanted to learn Spanish so I could tell you about it.” Romano nodded. Antonio set his drawings down beside him.
As he spoke, he realized that in all their evenings meetings in the garden, Antonio had never really seen him smile beyond a little smirk or something of the like. He still didn’t now, but there was at least something less strained in his expression, a soft glow of interest that made him seem younger, sweeter, almost innocent. He was too patient and too quiet for Antonio, who wished he would speak instead of listening to his endless stories, but Antonio didn’t press him. If Romano wanted to talk, he’d talk.
When Romulus returned half an hour later he was quick to get Antonio back to work. Antonio was frustrated and tired and just wanted to keep talking to Romano. He forced himself to stay patient and was relieved when they left Capitoline Hill.
In the evening Romulus brought Romano and Antonio over to their neighbor’s for dinner. Antonio had missed being with a crowd of people and felt somehow less tired after several hours in the intoxicating ambience of laughter like champagne bubbles and honey-sweetened smiles, his eyes half shadowed by his lashes as he caught Romano’s from across the room.
At some point in the early morning Romano met up with Antonio, catching his sleeve. Antonio turned, gasping when he was only inches from Romano’s face. His eyes went back to Romano’s lips, parted like earlier, looking fuller in the low candlelight of the room.
“Come with me.” Romano said, tugging on the cuff of his shirt. Antonio followed him out the back door, through the dark streets of Rome. They settled on the grass in front of the Colosseum, sharing a bottle of wine Romano had swiped from the dinner. Antonio laid back and stared up at the stars, intoxicated by them, as if his whole body was tied in loose fibers up to the sky. Romano laid down beside him. They didn’t talk, just stared at the sky. Antonio could hear Romano’s breath, could feel him so close. He still didn’t touch him, even when they stumbled back home right before sunrise. He wanted to tell Romano the truth so badly he had to bite down on his tongue so hard the back of his throat tasted bitter of blood.
Sadik had expected the scene that met him when he appeared the following morning. Romano, Antonio, and Romulus were all passed out in bed in their rooms, dealing with varying degrees of hangovers. He woke Romulus with a cup of water to the face and despite all his protests, Romulus finally sat up, wearily pressing his fingers to his temples.
“You’re lucky I hadn’t left yet.” Sadik said, setting the cup down on Romulus’s bedside table. “Remember the Guilianis?” Sadik asked. Even though Romulus wasn’t totally sober, the name clearly caught his attention.
“I’ve been trying to get their business for years. They won’t give me a chance.” Romulus shook his head, instantly wincing. “Best give up with them.”
“I know you’ve been trying for years. I spoke to them in the town over. They want to buy your work. They’re on their way to Venice.” Romulus stared at him, throwing the covers back and getting up. “Now’s your chance to get in good in the Florentine Republic.” Romulus grinned, grabbing Sadik’s hand and shaking it.
“Bless you, Signore! Go wake the boys up, I need to tell them I’ve got to get back to Venice.” Romulus said. Sadik nodded, leaving the room to let Romulus get dressed. When he met them in the kitchen, Antonio was half-dead and Romano had rarely looked angrier. “This is so exciting, Roma! I’ve been wanting to get in with the Florentine aristocrats for a decade…” He clapped his hands. “I am sorry, though, to cut the trip short. Perhaps you can finish up Signor Fernández Carriedo's lessons?” He asked Romano, who shrugged. “He will.” Romulus promised Antonio.
“Have a safe trip home, Papà.” Romano said. “Tell Feliciano and Mamma I say hello. Have a good trip to Constantinople, Signore.” He said to Sadik, who nodded and turned to depart with Romulus. The door clicked shut, leaving them alone in the kitchen. Romano leaned back in his chair, stretching his fingertips back towards the wall before leaning on the table and looking over at Antonio.
“Right, lessons.” He said. “Let’s see your work.” Antonio nodded, forcing himself up to go get the stack of drawings from his room. He felt renewed anxiety watching Romano look them over, his hair falling in front of his face. Antonio wanted to push it back, feel the strands against his fingers. He clenched a hand in his lap to stop himself. “I’m so sorry you’ve had to keep drawing buildings. What a bore.”
He continued to scrutinize them for a few long minutes. “Your perspective is good as is. I’m not going to make you sit and draw more columns and ruins.” Romano met Antonio’s eyes. “I’ve always thought drawing people is far more fascinating. I’ll take you back up to the piazza and you can draw them there. That’s where I learned.”
“Of course, Romano.” Antonio said, quickly clapping his hands over his mouth, eyes wide. “Ah, I’m so sorry, Signore!”
Romano’s expression didn’t change. “I think it’s been time enough. You may call me Romano.”
“Alright, Romano.” Antonio said. It made a smile creep up his lips. He couldn’t help it, it just felt so good to say his name. He liked the way it sounded, and he wanted to say it again, wanted to listen to every syllable until it didn’t have any meaning anymore. “And you may do the same for me.” Antonio said. He wanted to hear Romano say his name. Not an honorific. His name.
“Okay, Antonio.” Romano said.
They had some leftover bread before walking back up to Capitoline Hill. Antonio was so tired he could hardly focus on his sketches, but he didn’t want to let Romano down so bent over backwards trying to get his artistic approval. Romano was much pickier than Romulus and quick to correct his mistakes, as with their language lessons.
“You’re being sloppier than usual.” Romano eventually pointed out.
“I know! I’m tired !” Antonio snapped. He recoiled a bit, guiltily looking back at Romano. He shouldn’t have yelled.
“Alright, let’s go back then. You’ve done plenty of work for today.” Romano said. Antonio nodded. He held his papers to his chest on the walk back so he wouldn’t let his arm dangle at his side in hopes he might brush Romano’s hand, watching with some distant disgust as Romano smiled at the women who passed them with more than politeness.
He reminded Antonio of himself in his teens, sneaking off and having clandestine encounters with strangers, living with a little too much carelessness. But Antonio couldn’t afford to live like that. He needed to provide for his family, yet here he was falling in love for the enigmatic son of one of Italy’s most famed painters. And surely Romano knew he was only making it worse when he let his gaze linger like that or leaned close to Antonio and spoke in a soft voice that made the back of his neck tingle.
Antonio slept the whole afternoon, waking to the evening sun coming in his room. He did his best to make it look like he hadn’t fallen asleep for five hours in the middle of the day and then went downstairs, finding Romano helping himself to bread and dried meat from their traveling foodstuffs. He offered Antonio some for a rather disappointing dinner. Antonio joined him by the cupboard to rearrange what was left of the food, his heartbeat going into a frenzy when his fingers brushed Romano’s hand.
“Do you feel better?” Romano asked. Antonio nodded. “I’m glad. I didn’t mean to make you upset. You worked very hard.”
Antonio smiled. “Thank you. I tried my best for you.”
“For me?” Romano raised an eyebrow. Antonio felt weak all over.
“You’re so lovely,” Antonio said, his words coming in a rush of breath. “I wish I could paint you, I’ve been wanting to for so long…” He winced suddenly. Of all the things he could have said, why had he chosen that ? “Ah, I shouldn’t have said that! I’m so sorry, Romano, I… I didn’t… I… Forgive me, please , I’ve burdened you with my own sin now…”
“Be quiet, Antonio.” Romano’s voice wasn’t scathing. He put a hand to the side of Antonio’s cheek, trailing his pointer finger in a line down Antonio’s cheekbone and brushing his thumb across Antonio’s lips. Antonio felt his whole body collapse. He didn’t understand how he was still standing upright. Romano slipped his fingers beneath Antonio’s chin and tilted his face down to his own, Antonio’s lips so sensitive just the brush of Romano’s breath was making them prickle.
Finally, finally Romano closed the distance between them. Antonio held onto his waist without thinking, trying to anchor himself back in reality, but Romano didn’t let him fall like he wanted to. He let the kiss last only for the space between one of Antonio’s rapid heartbeats, then broke away, fingers still beneath Antonio’s chin.
“Does that really feel like sin to you?”
“Kiss me again.” Antonio whispered, hoping for the murmur of Romano’s voice.
“Really?” Romano asked.
“Yes!” Antonio insisted, his fingers digging into Romano’s hip in insistence. Romano chuckled under his breath but kissed Antonio again.
Antonio was sixteen when he realized people don’t actually taste like anything when you kiss them, but he imagined Romano did, like the salty air off the Adriatic in summer and bubbly rosé.
“Did you say you wanted to paint me?” Romano whispered against Antonio’s lips, sounding amused.
“I…” Antonio glanced sideways, his face burning. He felt Romano’s hand on his forearm, his wrist, the palm of his hand.
“You can start with a sketch until we have the proper materials.” Romano said, threading his fingers through Antonio’s and leading him into the sitting room. Romano sat on the couch, crossing his legs and resting his chin on his fist. He smiled at Antonio, his expression brimming with gentle admiration. Antonio put a hand to his chest as he walked to get drawing supplies, feeling his rapid heartbeat through his shirt. His brain was so full of static he almost bumped into the wall on the return trip from his room.
“How should I sit?” Romano asked.
“However you’re comfortable.” Antonio said, sitting across from Romano in a chair by the fireplace.
Romano stood up and reached for the hem of his shirt to pull it off, the rest of his clothes joining it on the carpet. He kicked them aside, settling himself back across the cushions.
“To be blunt, your grasp on anatomy is miserable.” Romano said. “And I suppose I take after my father in thinking hands-on teaching yields the best results.” Antonio sat still, staring at him because now he could with no worry of consequence.
The slope his collarbones guided Antonio’s eye to the curve of his shoulder, the soft wrinkle of skin where his pectoral connected with his deltoid. There were moles along the underside of his elbow. His hands were work worn, dotted with scabs and pinkish scars on the undersides of his fingers and in the dips of his knuckles. Despite not carving in over a week, there was still dust from marble beneath his nails, peeking out at Antonio like nearly new moons.
Romano reached up and brushed his hair away from his face, then sat very still until Antonio asked him to turn over. He tried to copy the line of his spine perfectly, the slight ridge of his shoulderblades, the way his hair fell at the back of his neck. Antonio drew until the side of his hand was black.
“I’m getting cold.” Romano complained after nearly an hour had passed. He got up and stretched, a sight Antonio thoroughly enjoyed, then picked his clothes up off the floor and got dressed. He stood behind Antonio, leaning on the back of his chair and looking over his shoulder. “That’s not bad, but I’m sure you could take more advantage of a live model.” Antonio nodded and set the papers down on the chair beside him.
He stood up and Romano took his place, sitting with his legs swung over the arm of the chair, looking at Antonio with expectation. Antonio hesitated for a brief moment, then started undoing the laces of his jerkin, even though he almost felt embarrassed stripping in front of Romano. Almost.
The firelight dancing on the walls spilled against Antonio’s bare skin, a wan warmth sinking over him. The heat might have made Antonio feel less naked, less exposed, if Romano hadn’t been eyeing him like that, slow and roving, settling here and there.
Antonio sat down. Romano could sketch much faster, so Antonio cycled through every pose he thought of. Romano looked away from Antonio only to fine tune details, and often when he glanced up from his sketch, Antonio had switched positions.
It was a long time before Romano piled his drawings on top of Antonio’s and yawned, rubbing his face wearily. Antonio half-dressed and sat against the back of the couch, waiting for Romano to finish his sketches and join him. He kissed Antonio’s shoulder and leaned against him.
“You’re cold.” Romano muttered, running a hand down Antonio’s chest, pecked with goosebumps.
“A bit.” Antonio said. He laid down and wrapped his arms around Romano’s back. Romano draped himself over Antonio, laying his cheek on Antonio’s, his weight pleasant on Antonio’s chest. “Your cheeks are so soft, Romanito.”
“You smug bastard. Now I’ll have to grow a beard.” Romano said, rubbing his faint, uneven stubble across Antonio’s cheek. Antonio giggled, grabbing a fistful of Romano’s shirt as he hugged him. Romano started kissing his neck, letting his mouth slip down to Antonio’s clavicle.
“I never want to go back to Venice.” Antonio whispered.
“We don’t have to.” Romano muttered in a quickened voice against Antonio’s neck. “We own a cottage in the country a day from here. There’s no one around for miles and miles.”
“Let’s leave tomorrow.” Antonio said, running a finger down Romano’s nape.
“Okay.” Romano rolled onto his side so he was facing Antonio, who closed his eyes. Romano kissed him on the forehead and leaned against his chest, listening for the faint pulse of his heartbeat. “Goodnight, Antonio.”
Antonio woke two days later just as Apollo’s chariot had pulled the sun above the horizon, his legs still aching from riding. Antonio had loved traveling with Romano, but he wasn’t used to riding so much and his muscles burned and bones ached from sitting in the saddle all day.
He braced his hands on the headboard and stretched. Romano gripped tighter onto his waist and Antonio looked down to see that he had fitted himself against Antonio’s side, his head in the crook of Antonio’s arm, eyes too tightly shut for him to really be asleep. Antonio played with his hair as he leaned back against the pillows. Romano stirred, propping himself up on an elbow.
“Good morning.” Romano said. “Traveling wasn’t kind to you.” He added, looking up at Antonio’s hair. Antonio reached up and tried to flatten it, which quickly made it worse. “Let me do it. You’re just making a mess of things.” Antonio sat still while Romano did his best, flopping back on the mattress and announcing he couldn’t do anything. “Are you hungry?” He asked. Antonio nodded, drawing the blankets up to his chin. “The market should still be open. I’ll get some supplies for soup and bread.”
“You know how to cook?” Antonio mused. Romano nodded. “Don’t women usually take care of that?”
Romano propped himself back up on his elbow. “Well yes, but you may have noticed there happens to be a scarcity of women here.” Romano said, pulling the covers back. “We can both go.” Antonio lamented having to get out of bed but sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes while Romano checked his reflection in the mirror, grabbing a change of clothes from the wardrobe.
Antonio came up behind him and put his hand on Romano’s shoulder, running it down his arm. “I’ve barely touched you.” Antonio murmured, pressing his lips to Romano’s trapezius, one hand snaking around his hip. He opened his palm against Romano’s smooth stomach, his fingers settling into the slight indentation that went from the bottom of his ribcage to the top of his navel. Romano turned around to kiss Antonio, pushing himself up on his toes.
Antonio traced the outline of Romano’s lips, taking his time to appreciate how good kissing felt, how it dazed his brain and made his nerves burn with desert wildfires. He pressed his tongue against Romano’s, kneading it with his own and leaving languid strokes on the sensitive parts of his mouth.
His hands slunk to the waistband of Romano’s pants, dizzy with dopamine, but Romano caught his wrists with a surprising urgency. Antonio flinched, worried he’d upset Romano, whose face was unreadable. “Not now. We should get to the market before all the fresh produce is gone.”
Feliciano stared out the window, propping his chin on his hand. He gave a long, heavy sigh and rested his chin on his arms, watching Romulus copying something from the open book beside him. “When are Antonio and Romano getting home, Papà?”
“They’ll be back at the end of the month. And you know Romano, he’s always on time.” Romulus promised. Feliciano sat down in the chair shoved into the corner where Romulus sat to read, still staring out the windows but really fixated on his own reflection in the glass.
“I’ll miss Antonio. I liked him a lot.” Feliciano said. “He’s so kind. I always felt like he listened even though he didn’t know what I was saying.” Feliciano added with a laugh. Romulus nodded but continued his transcribing. Knowing his father wasn’t in the mood for conversation, Feliciano reached for the heavy volume of Cicero’s writings he was supposed to be translating. It bored him out of his mind, but at least Latin was easier to translate than Greek.
Feliciano went to his work and the room became silent but for the scratch of their quills until the door opened behind them. They both looked towards the doorway to see Aurelia standing there, holding a folded paper in her hand.
“I received a letter from Signor Fernández Carriedo’s mother. She needs him to go back to Spain.” She passed the letter to Romulus. Feliciano leaned across the desk to read it. Romulus faced Feliciano, then Aurelia.
“I need to finish this deal with the Guilianis.” He said. Then he smiled at Feliciano, who raised his eyebrows expectantly. “Well, Feli, it seems you’re going to Rome after all.”
“I thought you told me this is a woman’s job.” Romano said, raising an eyebrow at Antonio. He didn’t respond, too busy arranging tomatoes in the basket over his arm. He had spent the last ten minutes picking them, scrutinizing leaf quality, firmness, and every other possible quality imaginable.
“So is cooking, but that hasn’t stopped you.” Antonio said. “Where did you learn?” He asked, sidestepping a loose chicken to examine some flour beside a stand selling cheese.
“My mother.” Romano said. “Also, I doubt you’ll complain once I’ve finished baking a fresh loaf of bread.”
Romano was right. He wasted no time in starting it once they’d gotten back. Antonio sat at the table, forcing himself to draw while Romano kneaded the bread. Romano sang under his breath but stopped when Antonio pointed it out, finishing with the dough and setting it aside to rise. He pulled up a chair beside Antonio while they waited for it to finish rising, then got up to get firewood and get the oven hot.
Nothing smelled better than baking bread. It made Antonio miss home and feel at home all at once. Antonio grabbed a slice as soon as Romano cut into it even though it was still steaming and too hot to eat.
“Wait for it to cool.” Romano said. Antonio didn’t listen. Romano shook his head as Antonio complained about his burnt tongue, cautiously nibbling the crust. Romano placed the remaining loaf on a trencher with grapes, tomatoes, and goat cheese with herbs. “Here.” Romano passed him a cup of wine, which Antonio sipped as they walked out onto the veranda.
Romano set the trencher between them, staring out at the low rolling hills, grape vines from the vineyard spilling over the gentle slopes. Antonio poured the rest of the wine into their cups, helping himself to the fresh cheese. The afternoon dripped by, lazy and slow. They spent it making their way through the berries, tomatoes, bread, and cheese while the sun continued its smooth path across the sky. Antonio hadn’t been able to take second or third helpings of food back at home; he only ate a little so the rest of his family would get enough.
Thinking of his family brought back his feelings of guilt, which reminded him of the morning and how he had been too hasty with Romano. He should’ve talked to him first. Beside consent, there was also the fact that it was out of wedlock, they were both men, and Antonio didn’t even want to bother with the implications of sodomy.
“I wanted to apologize.” Antonio’s voice was stiff.
“For what?” Romano asked, finishing the last dregs of his wine.
“Being… insistent, earlier.” Antonio blushed. “I understand how the idea might appall you, given the circumstances. It was wrong of me.”
Romano half-laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, good. I thought you were upset.” Antonio said. Romano stared towards the sun, squinting against it and messing with his empty cup.
“No. I just don’t want to compromise your virtue.” Romano muttered. Antonio sat up straight and stared at Romano, but he wouldn’t look at Antonio. “I don’t want to make you feel like you’ve defiled yourself.” Romano said. His voice had his apathetic flavor back, but it sounded tight too.
“Why would I think that?” Antonio asked.
“Because you’re a loyal follower of the Church. You’re good and kind and someone God ought to love. I would grab the Devil’s hand and let him drag me down into Hell as long as I had reason to smile when I died.” Romano said. Antonio frowned.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Do I seem naïve to you?” Antonio asked. “I must.”
“No,” Romano said. “It’s not anything like that. It’s that… I really care about you and I… I don’t want you to hurt me.” He still wouldn’t look at Antonio, thinking of all those shadowy encounters across the years, giving his body in hopes he might be smuggled away from Italy. No one ever followed through with what they’d promised once they got what they wanted.
“The worst part is, you don’t even have a choice. And neither do I. We’re going to break each other’s hearts.” Romano continued. Antonio squeezed his hand.
“Break it. Shatter it until there’s nothing left,” he whispered, kissing the side Romano’s temple. “I don’t care if I burn in Hell for it,” he added. “Besides, who says God doesn’t love me anyway? Your father taught me to question things. Especially the Church.”
“He’s a terrible influence,” Romano agreed. “But I assure you, I’m worse.” Antonio laughed. He kissed Romano’s jaw up to his earlobe, nibbling it until Romano let out the smallest of laughs. “It makes me sad that you never smile. You never seem happy.” Antonio held Romano’s face in his hands, pressing his forehead to Romano’s. Romano smiled and kissed him back.
“Thank you.” Romano said.
“You’re welcome.” Antonio said. “Um, what are you thanking me for?” Romano ignored his question.
“Ah, we’re out of wine.” Romano grumbled. “Let’s go to the vineyard,” he said, offering his hand to Antonio.
They would’ve spent the remainder of the day at the vineyard if the afternoon hadn’t gotten so hot. They went back to the cottage where Antonio stretched out on the cool stone floor. He quickly forgot what Romano told him to draw, and instead he drew Romano where he stood leaning on the wall with a book in his hand.
“Can I have a break now, Roma?” Antonio muttered, setting down his charcoals and stretching much like a cat who’d finished sunbathing on a windowsill. “It’s cooling off, let’s go outside.” Antonio suggested.
“I’d rather stay in here, but yes, you can take a break.” Romano said.
“Thank you!” Antonio said. Antonio stood in front of Romano and tilted the book he was holding away from his face to kiss him. Romano set his book down and pulled Antonio against him, backing up against the wall, winding Antonio’s hair around his fingers.
“You’re eager,” Romano said.
“And you’re not?” Antonio asked. Romano chuckled under his breath, tugging at the loose laces of Antonio’s jerkin to get him closer.
Antonio slid Romano’s shirt up to his collarbones. Romano let out a soft sigh, savoring the feeling of the fabric and Antonio’s blunt nails grazing his skin. Romano was rougher in undressing Antonio, his body trembling when Antonio pressed up against him, kissing the side of his neck. He’d never felt anything as good as Antonio’s bare skin up against his own.
They broke apart for a split second, breathing each other’s oxygen with its lingering traces of wine, drinking in the balmy afternoon.
“It’s been a long time since anyone’s kissed me.” Romano murmured, his spine tingling faintly as Antonio ran his palms over the ridges of his ribs.
“It has for me too.” Antonio said, brushing a loose bit of Romano’s hair behind his ear. Romano shifted against the wall, wishing he’d gone for the couch or a bed. “Where do you like to be touched, Romano?” Antonio asked. He found it a little sad no one had ever asked him that before, but he supposed it made sense. It was easier for those strangers to feel guiltless when Romano was just a body—disposable, not someone who they might encounter again.
“I…” Romano stared at the floor, suddenly awkward. Antonio leaned over him and bent down, kissing him on the tip of his nose and on his closed eyelids, which Romano liked more than he would have expected.
Antonio traced a line along Romano’s collarbone with his tongue, then blew softly, smiling when he saw Romano’s skin flush with goosebumps. Antonio went on and experimented with his mouth while his fingers drew contour lines over Romano’s chest, his arms. Antonio trailed his mouth down Romano’s sternum, fingers so light on Romano’s sides he could have been dragging them through the very surface of sand. Antonio slid lower, running his hands down the backs of Romano’s knees, the pressure just enough to maked Romano bend them a little. Antonio kept his hands there and pushed his legs further apart to get to the inside of his thighs.
Romano sucked his breath in through his teeth as Antonio nipped at his sensitive skin, drawing his tongue over the marks. Romano shuddered, giving a ragged exhale and grabbing a fistfull of Antonio’s hair and pulling on it.
“Ow, Romanito…” Antonio complained, but he was smiling.
Antonio fell to his knees, holding onto Romano’s hips. Romano tipped the crown of his head against the wall as Antonio looped his tongue in delicate circles around his head. Antonio took him deeper until Romano could feel the soft spot at the top of his throat. Antonio bobbed his head a few times, tasting salt on his tongue, saliva gathering in the corners of his mouth. He didn’t move to wipe it away, slackening He made his jaw so Romano could fuck him in the mouth even if it made him choke.
Romano’s breaths were sharp and airy as he curled over Antonio, his legs shaking. Romano yanked on his hair again and Antonio leaned back, a string of his spit trailing on his chin.
“What?” Antonio wiped the spit off with his hand and stood up.
“I’m bruising my spine.” Romano grabbed Antonio’s wrist and pulled him into the bedroom, collapsing on the mattress to cushion Antonio’s fall. Antonio wrapped his fingers around Romano’s dick, pressing his precum-wet thumb to his head. Romano snuck his arms underneath Antonio’s armpits to hold on to his shoulders. He sunk his nails into Antonio’s shoulder blades. Antonio sucked in his breath and Romano did it again, dragging them down his back to dig them into his ass.
Romano’s chest contracted with short exhales and he slipped his hand between their stomachs, putting his hand over Antonio’s and moving it faster against himself. Antonio met his eyes for a split second, and then he smiled.
“What?” Romano snapped, unable to force too much complaint into his voice when Antonio was still working his hand against his dick.
“You’re smiling.” Antonio said. Romano reached for him, proud when he made Antonio moan and his face to deepen so red it would put the world’s most prized Bordeaux to shame. Antonio fell against Romano when he came, nuzzling up to his neck and panting. Romano pulled his hand back, wiping the cum winding around his palm onto the sheets, patting the back of Antonio’s somewhat sweaty hair. Antonio rolled over to lay beside Romano, staring up at the top of the four-poster like he was stargazing. Then he started laughing, and he looped his arm around Romano’s shoulder.
“What’s so funny?” Romano asked.
“Nothing.” Antonio said, watching Romano take his hand and raise it to his lips to kiss it. “Nothing at all.”
Antonio gasped and leaned on the table. “You got paints!” he said, reaching for a modest jar of fine pigments Romano had ground. Romano nodded.
“Call me Narcissus, but… You wanted to paint me,” Romano said with a half smile.
“Don’t think of yourself like that.” Antonio insisted, shaking his head. “You’re more Adonis than Narcissus, so beautiful even Aphrodite would fall for you,” Antonio smiled.
“I brought some prepared canvases here. Small ones, but good enough, and there’s linseed oil and a bit of turpentine if you need it.” Romano added.
“You brought all this for me?” Antonio asked.
“Well of course, seeing at the original premise of this trip was for your art. But also… I love watching you paint. You make the sweetest face.” Antonio giggled.
“Did you just say I’m sweet?” Antonio asked.
“I might have.” Romano said. “But you probably heard me wrong.” Romano went back over to the oven, checking on a second loaf of bread.
“Oo, you’re cooking. It smells amazing,” he said.
“The food won’t keep, so I figured I should, and I thought we could bring dinner up to the hill behind the house to watch the sunset. It’s a cloudless evening, and we’ll be able to see the stars. Every last one will be visible up that high.” Antonio nodded.
There was soup on the stove. It smelled like home and the promise of filling food. Antonio still wasn’t used to having so much at his fingertips, of going to the market and buying whatever he wanted and however much. New paints, the freshest vegetables, the finest cuts of meat. Anything.
Guilt gnawed at the fringes of his conscience as he imagined his parents back in Spain, waiting for him to return. His mother would be sitting by the window, wearing her beautiful gown that was faded because she wore it nearly every day. It was the last dress she kept from her wealthy childhood; the rest she’d sold. His father would be working, tiring in the heat but dreading the oncoming cold.
Antonio’s father took ill easily, and it had gotten worse as he aged. His older brother João suffered from the same problem. And since his father always got through his bouts and illness, everyone assumed João would too, especially since he was younger and fitter. They had been wrong.
So Antonio had written to Romulus, throwing all his hope in his shard of talent. He made promises to his parents, that when he got back his mother could buy herself dresses again and his father wouldn’t risk his health anymore. But maybe what he had really done was fled. Fled from Spain and from his parents so he wouldn’t have to feel the absence of his brother and all the new responsibilities on his shoulders.
He had run like a fool, like an idiot, all the way to Venice and into Romano’s arms.
Antonio buried his guilt and went about distracting himself, helping Romano chop up vegetables to add to the soup. He proved to be a loyal taste tester, burning whatever remaining part of his tongue had survived the too-hot bread.
“Let’s go. The sun will set soon.” Romano said, taking the loaf out to cool.
The hill behind the cottage was so steep they almost had to drop to all fours to scale it, the food and painting supplies adding to the treachery. Antonio collapsed with his arms flung out in the grass and weeds when he reached the top, chest rising and falling with his gasps for air. Romano sat down beside him, neatly laying out the food. Once Antonio had caught his breath, he rolled over onto his arm in the scrubby grass, smiling up at Romano.
“Why would you want to paint me in the dark?” Romano asked, leaning back on the hill.
“I don’t. I want to paint you in the sunset.” Antonio said, sitting up and starting on his soup. The carrots were soft and infused with spice, everything such a harmony of flavors Antonio couldn’t help himself from scarfing it down in a manner beyond inelegance. Romano savored his, giving Antonio a bemused look. “It’s so good!” Antonio said in a means of defense, ripping off a chunk of bread to wipe the remnants of his soup from the bowl.
“I’m glad you like it.” Romano said. He opened the wine and took a long sip from the bottle, passing it over to Antonio, drinking like they had that night in Rome while they watched the sun sink towards the trees.
The sun brought out the tint of jade in Antonio’s eyes, the bronze and copper in his hair. Romano laid back in the grass, stretching his hands above his head, fingertips straining towards the gold-dripped sky behind the hill. Antonio leaned over and smiled down at him, putting a hand on Romano’s cheek. Romano fitted his cheek into the curve of Antonio’s palm, closing his eyes against the rich brass sunlight.
The grass rustled as Antonio sat up. “Stay still!” He said in a rushed voice, grabbing the canvas and paints. Romano froze, feeling the fading sun against the side of his face. He stayed still until Antonio told him he could move again, when the sky was already turning blue with oncoming night.
“May I see?” Romano asked.
“Not until I’m finished.” Antonio said, lying down on the grass beside Romano and looking upward. The first stars began to come out. “I know you know everything, but is there any possibility you can’t know the constellations?” Antonio asked. Romano laid down beside him, hands on his stomach.
“You found my Achilles heel. It took you long enough.” Romano said. “How did you learn to read the stars?”
“From my father,” Antonio said. “He used to be a sailor.”
“Used to?” Romano echoed. “I remember you telling me about sailing around Europe with your father and brother, but you’ve never told me much else about your family.”
“Well, there’s not much to say,” Antonio insisted. “My father just doesn’t sail anymore because he gets sick often. It’s gotten worse in the past years and my mother doesn’t think he should be off sailing, so he works close to home.” Antonio said. The guilt bit down on his conscience again, but he shook it off.
Night settled fast once it had begun to fall, leaving the sky flush with lovely little stars, hundreds of them, some decipherable and others so tiny they were dust. The Milky Way stretched across the very peak of the sky like light rain confused as mist in headlights. Antonio recited the names of constellations and individual stars, tracing his fingers between them. When he glanced over at Romano, his eyes were overflowing with the heavens.
“What’s that one?” Romano asked, pointing up towards one of the dimmer sets of stars. Antonio didn’t answer. Romano turned to look at him. “You’re not paying attention.” He complained.
“It’s difficult with you here.” Antonio muttered with a half-smile. The darkness drowned them, and Antonio couldn’t see Romano’s face, but he thought he saw a smile twitch on Romano’s lips.
Insects chirped outside the window when Antonio laid down beside Romano, putting an arm over him and cuddling up against his back.
“Roma, are you asleep?” Antonio whispered.
“Yes.” Romano said. Antonio tugged at the back of his shirt.
“It’s important,” Antonio said. He heard Romano draw a long sigh.
“What?” Romano asked.
“How many days have we been here? I need to get home on time. I promised my family.” Antonio said.
“Around three?” Romano said. “If it matters to you, I promise, I’ll get you back to Venice in time to sail to Spain.” There was silence for a few moments, then, “what are we going to do when we get back?” Antonio shook his head a little, his fingers searching down Romano’s wrist for his hand.
“I don’t want to think about that.” Antonio said.
“So don’t.” Romano said, reaching to take his hand. He kissed Antonio, something he was sure he would never tire of, like hearing Antonio’s voice or seeing him smile. When Romano touched him it was with the care of someone plucking soft staccato notes on violin strings, revisiting the places he’d remembered from the day before. Antonio’s body reacted to his touch like a musician following dynamics, and it was then Romano realized how much better it was to be with someone who he wanted to make feel good.
Romano wasted no time in getting his clothes off or Antonio’s, even though Antonio laughed at him for being impatient. He steadied his hands on Romano’s thighs, which tensed underneath his hands as Antonio ran his tongue over Romano’s lye-sweetened skin. Antonio had assumed Romano would keep quiet, but he gasped and cursed, spoke Antonio’s name with so much sin it diffused through the rosy air around them.
“Do you have any olive oil around here?” Antonio asked, breathless.
“Of course I have olive oil.” Romano turned over and reached on the nightstand, earning a soft scoff from Antonio. “I was thinking ahead.” Romano said, shoving the jar into his searching fingers. Antonio rolled his eyes, a gesture that went unnoticed by Romano in the dark.
Romano gave a soft intake of surprise as Antonio pressed his finger inside him. It took him several moments to get used to it, and he sank against Antonio’s hand, tensing muscles he didn’t know he had to get more friction. Antonio kept kissing whatever inch of skin he could reach, occasionally running his teeth along Romano’s body, leaving a cluster of bruises beneath a sheen of his saliva.
When Antonio finally withdrew his fingers Romano shivered and Antonio’s lips were wet with his own spit.
“Lift your hips up.” Antonio said, slipping a pillow beneath the hollow of Romano’s lower back to brace him. In the dim night-light, Antonio saw Romano’s stomach rise as he took a low breath, relaxing his body. Antonio reached again for the olive oil, spilling more onto his fingers to run along his cock.
Romano felt Antonio press his head into him and inhaled a little sharper than he’d meant to, trying to take a deep breath in. Antonio spoke in a gentle voice, asking if he was all right and sweet things in Spanish, but he was finding it harder and harder to listen to Antonio’s voice.
Antonio returned his mouth to Romano’s body, still slowly easing himself into Romano. Romano kept his breathing low and deep, focusing on Antonio’s mouth and hands for the time being to distract himself.
For the first few minutes Antonio was slow, letting Romano get comfortable with his rhythm, but Romano was insistent. He wrapped his legs around Antonio’s back and drove his heels in Antonio’s lower back. Antonio leaned over and held Romano’s hands above his head by his wrists, fingertips going white. Antonio collapsed against Romano’s chest, rocking back and forth in time with his thrusts. He whined, shaking, his mouth open as he gasped harshly into Romano’s neck. His face was flushed deep as Malbec, sweat saturating his hairline.
Antonio fumbled for Romano’s leg, sliding a hand around to the back of his calf and sitting up to prop it up on his shoulder. “What the hell are you doing?” Romano asked.
“Taking full advantage of your flexibility.” Antonio said in a casual air, shifting his angle. Romano’s hands clenched, fingers scrabbling at Antonio’s wrist as he threw his head against the pillows with a needy moan. “There?” Romano nodded, smiling with such dazed ecstasy Antonio felt very pleased with himself.
“Let me touch you, Tonio, please…” Romano gasped. Antonio released his wrists and Romano’s hands were all over every inch of him, exploratory but clumsy. He slid his dick against the inside of Antonio’s thighs, wet with sweat and Romano’s precum.
Antonio gave a sharp exhaled as he came, breathing so hard Romano worried he might not be taking any oxygen in his lungs at all. He finished Romano off with his hand and then crumpled on the sheets.
“You must not exercise much back home.” Romano commented, rolling onto his side and pushing Antonio’s sweaty hair off his forehead.
“You just laid there.” Antonio closed his eyes.
“I had to take your cock up my ass.” Romano said calmly, running a hand through Antonio’s damp curls.
“That’s fair.” Antonio said. Romano got up to clean himself off and Antonio followed. “ Buenas noches , Romanito.” He muttered, laying back down beside him. Antonio took his hand and kissed his knuckles. Romano smiled.
“Buonanotte ,” he said.
It took Feliciano eight days to reach Rome. When he dismounted he fell against his mare and had to clutch onto his saddle and stirrups to stay upright. His legs shook, so sore it was hard for him to lead her forward towards the door. He tied her outside and knocked. There was no reply; maybe they were out.
Feliciano cooled his mare and let himself inside to be greeted with a deserted house. Upon further exploration he found all the beds made and everything clean, no food but for a bit of stale bread. Feliciano sighed, traipsing back outside and looking up at the low-hanging sun.
One of the neighbor’s sons was outside brushing a restless bay stallion, sweating in the heat. Feliciano strolled over to the fence and draped his arms over the post, climbing up on the bottom board.
“Excuse me, Signore!” Feliciano called. He looked up, pausing from brushing the horse. “My father and brother were staying here a few days ago. Are they here?”
“They left a while ago.” He said. “I know your father went back home, but I don’t know about your brother.” Feliciano nodded, feeling nervous. If they’d left for Venice, they’d be home by now, or he would have met them on the road, unless they took a more roundabout route? It seemed unlikely, since Romano preferred the most efficient solution to anything. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything else. I hope you find them.” He added.
“Me too. I rode all the way here, and now I’ve got to go all the way back.” Feliciano complained, leaning his cheek on his forearms.
“Would you like something to eat before you leave?” He asked.
“Absolutely!” Feliciano said, hopping the fence and landing neatly on the lawn.
“I’m Ludwig Beilschmidt.” Ludwig added.
“Nice to meet you, Ludwig. I’m Feliciano Vargas.” He said. “I do have to be quick. I need to return to Venice as soon as possible. My brother is with my father’s student and his mother sent a letter saying he needs to go back home because his family isn’t doing very well.” Feliciano said. “But they say when he gets back he’s getting married. I love the parties when someone gets married…” Feliciano smiled with a wistfulness at the blue sky. “Is your family Italian?” Feliciano asked, watching Ludwig finish with brushing his horse.
“We’re from the upper part of Holy Rome.” Ludwig replied.
“Really? I used to have a friend from Holy Rome.” Feliciano said. “Sometimes I wonder what happened to him. I don’t even remember his name, it’s been so long.” Ludwig’s hand stuttered over the horse’s flank.
“When we lived there I had a good friend from Italy.” Ludwig said. Feliciano laughed.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we’re talking about each other?” Feliciano asked. Ludwig glanced over at his shoulder.
“It would.” He said. “Here, let me finish with him, then please, come inside.”
“These smell poisonous.” Antonio commented, nibbling at the edge of a berry.
“They’re fine.” Romano insisted. Antonio drew a dramatic sigh.
“Well, when I’m vomiting my organs and dying, I’ll remind you of that.” Antonio said. Romano nodded and helped himself to a handful of berries. “I don’t want to leave tomorrow.” Antonio added, hugging his knees to his chest.
“I don’t either.” Romano said. “I’ll be half-mad with boredom without you. I doubt I’ll be able to focus on my carving because every piece I do will wind up being you.” Romano said, leaning against Antonio’s shoulder. Antonio rested his cheek on the top of Romano’s head, watching the rising sun drip off the leaves of the grapevines on the hillsides below them.
“I’ll write you so often you won’t even have the chance of missing me.” Antonio promised. “I’ll find all the excuses in the world to come back to visit you. Some day, once I’ve sold enough art and made enough for my parents, we can run away and come back here, stay in this little town.” Antonio’s voice was submersed in excitement.
“No. Once you provide enough for your family, take me across the sea to Spain. I’ve always wanted to go,” Romano sighed.
“And you will. I’ll take you.” Antonio said. “I’ll show you all the most beautiful parts of the city and take you to meet all the kind people in our town. I’ll even learn to cook so I can make you the foods I know you’ll like and that you don’t have here.” Antonio said. “You can carve and I can paint…”
“Finally something to look forward to.” Romano whispered, closing his eyes. “I’m not sure I fear returning to Venice so much anymore knowing that’s what’s waiting for me a few years from now.” Romano said, taking Antonio’s hand. Antonio kissed their clasped hands. He grinned against Romano’s knuckles and sat upright.
“I forgot to tell you, I finished my painting! I’ll have to show it to you.” Antonio announced. Romano nodded, still staring at the sky, dreaming of boats and the ocean and the south Spanish seaside. He left the hill with Antonio, who proudly dragged him into the library. “Here!” He said. Romano felt his heart break a bit looking at the canvas, the care, the detail, the colors. He was, in a way, seeing himself through Antonio’s eyes, and the adoration there made Romano’s heart ache.“Do you like it?” Antonio asked.
“Don’t be stupid. Of course I like it.” Romano said. “I’m a terrific teacher, aren’t I?” He added, snaking his arms around Antonio’s hips.
“Don’t flatter yourself. Most of that was your father.” Antonio said. He leaned down and kissed Romano’s cheek, then the helix of his ear.
“But I helped.” Romano insisted. Antonio kissed him on the forehead.
“Yes, you helped.”
The night after Feliciano got back to Venice he went to one of the old taverns downtown to drink with his fencing club. He hopped up to buy everyone more wine, picking through the laughing crowds to get to the bar but halted when he caught sight of Romano and Antonio sitting in the corner.
“Roma!” Feliciano cried out, making them both start. He ran up to the table and threw himself into the seat beside Romano. “Roma, where were you? I came looking for you but the neighbors said you’d left days ago. We were so worried.”
“You must have gotten there just as we’d gone.” Romano said. “Nothing to worry yourself over now, Feliciano.” Feliciano sighed but continued to go on and on about how worried his was, how Romano should have at least sent a letter. “Well, I’m here now, so what does it matter? Go back to your friends.”
“Oh, I forgot!” Feliciano struck himself on the forehead. “Your mother wrote, Antonio. I’m so sorry.” Antonio sat up straight, knuckles whitening on his glass. “I might have it on me. This was my traveling coat…” He explained, fishing in a pocket. “Here.” He passed a folded letter to Antonio, who unfolded it silently. Antonio’s eyes widened and he clutched at the paper, tilting it away from Romano, who had been trying to read it over his shoulder.
“What is it?” Romano asked.
“It’s… I’ve got to go home.” Antonio whispered. “I need to get the soonest ship back to Spain.” Antonio stood up. “Let’s go back to your house. I… I need to pack.” He shook his head slightly and half-stumbled when he stood up even though he had only had half a glass of wine. Feliciano went back to his friends who chided him for not getting them another round, but Feliciano ignored them as he watched Romano and Antonio step outside.
“What did that letter say?” Romano asked.
“Don’t worry about it.” Antonio said. He couldn’t force himself to tell the truth, to cement it in reality. He could pretend for a little longer that this wasn’t really happening.
“But I do worry about it. I worry about you , Antonio…” Antonio shook his head again.
“It just said I’ve got to go home.” Antonio said. Romano’s shoulders slumped and he followed Antonio back to his own house, a sense of dread creeping in to his stomach and curling there. Romulus and Aurelia were nowhere to be found, neither were any of the servants, so Antonio followed Romano up into his room.
Antonio left to go pack. Romano changed and laid awake on his bed, waiting for the creak of the floorboards. He started wondering if it would come at all, and finally, the door swung. Antonio changed soundlessly while Romano frowned at his turned back. When Antonio climbed into bed beside him, he put his arm around Antonio and kissed the curve of his jaw.
Antonio shut his eyes, wishing the daylight would never come, wishing the night would last forever.
The last two chapters I listened pretty much exclusively to “In the Wind” by Lord Huron so if you want some atmosphere give it a listen! The lyrics are very fitting :,)
It was overcast beyond the narrow windows, a bar of silvery daylight across the sheets that smelled like the lye soap on Antonio’s skin. Romano turned over and reached for him, but his fingers instead rooted through the sheets warm with his lingering body heat. Romano sat up, sleep dragged from his brain and his conscience sharpening.
Antonio was doing the laces on his jerkin, facing his reflection in the mirror and ignoring the incredulous Romano reflected over his shoulder.
“Tonio…?” Antonio swallowed at the hurt in Romano’s voice. “Were you just going to sneak out like I’m some whore?” Antonio turned and walked over to him, kneeling on the edge of the mattress and holding Romano’s face in his hands. He stroked Romano’s cheekbones with his thumbs, Romano reaching up and gently holding on to his wrists.
“I’m so sorry, Romano. I’m sorry.” Antonio touched his forehead to Romano’s, sliding his hands into Romano’s hair, knowing he never would again. “I can’t stay with you.” Antonio felt Romano sit up.
“What do you mean?” Romano’s hand tightened on Antonio’s wrists. “I knew you were going home. It’s only happening a little earlier. I don’t understand. What did that letter say?!” His voice rose, but he tried to keep it level. “You promised me…” He added, his voice breaking.
“This isn’t about you.” Antonio didn’t raise his voice, but shame burned in Romano anyway. “I don’t have a rich father who can pay for all my misbehavior or pick up the slack when I run away from reality.” Antonio swallowed. “My father is dead. We have no money. My mother is starving to death. I need to sell my paintings, get a job…” Antonio sighed. “I have to marry a girl from Belgium who’s offering us dowry.”
Romano ducked his head.
“I’m sorry.” Romano muttered. “I can give you some money from my commissions…” Antonio shook his head. Romano pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “I… I don’t have anyone else.”
“Well then you’d better find someone else.” Antonio said.
“Why are you being so awful?” Romano pulled back, swiping the tears from his eyes.
“Because I’m… I’m angry with myself. My family was starving and desperate to reach me while I was off living some fantasy with you in the countryside. It’s not your fault. You didn’t know. It’s my own.”
“Will you write me? Will you ever come back to Venice?” Romano asked, clutching at the edges of his blanket.
“No.” Antonio said.
“You said you would! You said we’d go to Spain!” Romano jumped out of bed and ran over to Antonio, grabbing his hands. He felt like a child having a tantrum, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Antonio stared at their hands. “I suppose we’re both doomed to be like Petrarch after all, clutching our wounded hearts and bleeding to death.”
He gave no word of goodbye and no chance for Romano to give one either, just let go of his hands and hurried from the room. He couldn’t force out a goodbye, because then he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from crying.
Romano shoved open the door to his studio and all at once became empty. The lowest pit of his stomach ached at the edges and his sternum was sore. He sat down on the stool where Antonio would watch him work back when they could hardly speak to each other.
Romano hadn’t realized how bad a broken heart felt. His heartstrings had been pulled until they couldn’t take it anymore and snapped, leaving his heart to beat heavy and hollow in his rib cage.
Athena was silent. Mary cradled her son lovingly. Romano stared at them, unable to move. A sickness pinned him there, so he stared at the drop of rusty red beneath his feet from when he’d cut his thumb.
Antonio had been a stranger from across the sea the day he’d nicked his finger.
In the tiny fraction of time between a heartbeat, Antonio became everything, but now he was miles away on the other side of the ocean.
Romano heard footsteps and turned, and even though they weren’t Antonio’s, his heart leapt anyway.
“What’s wrong, Roma?” Aurelia asked. Romano didn’t look at her, but she crossed the room. She touched Romano’s shoulder.
“I suppose I’m just lonely. I’m fine.” Romano said. Aurelia raised her eyebrows. Romano kept staring at the spot on the floor. Aurelia hugged him. Any other day, he probably would have pushed her away, but tonight Romano hugged her back and leaned on her chest. The soft scent of her perfume and tight hug made things a bit better. Romano closed his eyes. “You’ll be all right, Roma.”
“You don’t know that.” Romano said.
“I’m your mother.” Aurelia said. “Come upstairs. There’s dinner and Romulus finally closed the deal with those vapid men.” She sighed, letting go of him. Right. The deal. Again Romano looked at the floor, promising her he would be up at the moment.
How did things change so fast?
He straightened the piles of his papers on his desk, looking for his drafting sketch of Athena, when he stopped. There was a canvas sitting beside them. It was the painting Antonio had made of Romano, signed in gold in the right corner. Beneath it were the set of sketches he’d done of Romano that day before they’d left Rome. At the very bottom were scrawled the simple words:
I love him.
Romano stared at the words, almost forgetting the canvas, his eyes burning. He hugged it to his chest and fell to his knees of the cold floor, clutching his arms and silently crying out to nothing but dust and shadows.
Romano hadn’t visited the Vatican for nearly two years, despite its proximity to his home. He was almost proud of himself for his superb level of avoidance, but it couldn’t be helped today when the Monsignor had asked to see him to discuss a new piece for some new church going up. Romano hadn’t been able to relax the whole time and he still didn’t now as he paused to look up at the basilica, ignoring the rush of people around him.
He cast his eyes down from the basilica and his breath caught halfway out of his lungs.
Like some bad reflection from six years ago, Antonio was standing in the shadow of the basilica beside a blonde woman. He was smiling his smile that Romano loved, listening to her with rapt attention once only he had received. He felt as though someone was twisting the leaden arrow around in his heart, splitting through the muscle, making forgotten pain flare up again.
Maybe it wasn’t Antonio. Maybe it was just someone else with his smile, his sincerity, his sweetness. Antonio looked up. Romano stiffened anxiously. Antonio waved. He waved .
Romano ran to him. Like a fool, like an idiot, he ran past the crowds right to Antonio and just stared at him because in this moment and perhaps forever there would never be anything else in the world to look at.
“Hello, Signor Vargas.” Antonio said, turning to his wife. “My teacher’s son. He’s a fantastic artist.” Antonio met Romano’s eyes for a split second, then looked away. “This is my wife Emma.” He said, his voice too polite. Emma gave Romano a kind smile.
“Lovely to meet you, Signora.” Romano said, though he doubted he had ever resented meeting someone in his life.
“You’re Romulus Vargas’s son?” She asked, her eyes going a little wide. Romano nodded. “I absolutely love your sculptures! They’re incredible, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. One of them even looks like my husband.” She laughed. Romano was glad for the compliments, but he couldn’t help the twist in his heart at her saying that. He tried not to look at Antonio and imagine a world where it was he who called Antonio my husband . “You must carve a great deal.”
“I do. It’s my job.” Romano said.
Emma faltered a bit, looking almost embarrassed but not quite. “Of course.” She said. “I’m sorry for speaking like this, I just love your art. It distracts me from the boredom of everyday.” Romano finally met her eyes. Perhaps it was more for Antonio—of course it was for Antonio—that Romano then asked,
“Would you like me to carve something for you?” Emma gave an ecstatic nod. “Come with me to my workshop. It’s not far.” Romano said. She grinned, smiling over her shoulder at Antonio, who returned it with a softness in his expression that made Romano’s skin crawl. Had Antonio looked at him like that all those years ago?
Did he love her?
“You live in Rome now?” Antonio asked. Romano nodded. “Did you ever finish Athena?” His comment was casual, but it served to acknowledge all the history that they couldn’t speak of, and it brought another flicker of pain through Romano’s chest.
As they walked, Romano pointed out the various buildings and old ruins to a delighted Emma like he had once done with Antonio some late summer night. As much as Romano wanted to hate her, he couldn’t force it; she was so kind and listened attentively to him when he explained his sculpting to her in his workshop.
It was late into the evening when she went downstairs to help make dinner with Romano’s wife, leaving Antonio sitting on a stool by the window. He was outlined in the evening light, just as beautiful as the memory of him, but more flawed. Older. Real.
Romano couldn’t hold himself back anymore. He hugged Antonio and Antonio hugged him back. He felt like he was falling, falling to the bottom of the night sky where he knelt in the darkness, unable to see anything but the endless outreaches of the Universe and Antonio.
“You seem happy.” Romano whispered.
“I am.” Antonio said. “Are you?”
“Now I am, that you’re here and you can stay with me in.” A smile fumbled across his lips. “Finally, I’ve waited so long… when I saw you I thought I was dreaming.” Romano’s eyes were unfocused, like he couldn’t really see Antonio and was instead staring through memories of the quiet, young Antonio who could barely speak to him.
“I can’t stay, Romano.” Antonio whispered. “I’m only visiting, and then I’m going back to Spain.” Antonio whispered. Romano hid his face in Antonio’s neck, his skin soft with the smell of lye and the city and the sea. “There’s more to life than waiting for lost love.” Antonio whispered. “Try to be happy, Romano.”
“I can’t, Antonio.” Romano heard his voice splinter. “I can’t be happy. I can’t be happy without you.” Antonio took his hands. “I still love you.” Romano said, staring at their hands. “I do.”
“Romano, I…” Antonio stared at him. He had prayed Romano wouldn’t say that, sure it would be too much for him to hear. “I’ll always love you. I’ll always be here for you.”
“But you’re not.” Romano said.
“Yes, I am . I don’t care what I said before. If you ever need me I’ll be right here for you.” Antonio squeezed his hands. “If you need a little more confidence, or hope for something hopeless, or just arms to run into when everything’s too hard, I’ll be there.” Antonio said. “I never stopped thinking of you. I think about you so much it can’t possibly be good for me, but I can’t stop because, because…”
“...Because you never got any sort of goodbye. You didn’t get any closure.” Romano finished.
“This isn’t my goodbye.” Antonio said. “I promise, if there’s a Heaven I’ll be waiting for you on the other side of the gates, and if I’m damned to burn in Hell and I forget about goodness and love, I’ll think of you. If I’m born again I’ll wander the whole world until I find you. If there’s nothing at all on the other side of death, then you’ll be the last thing I ever think of.” Antonio said. “But until all that, just… Just say the word, I’ll be there for you.”
He stood up and kissed Romano, kissed him like he was taking his final breaths on Earth. When they broke away Romano hid his face in Antonio’s neck again, trying not to let Antonio see the tear tracks on his cheeks. Antonio put a hand on his head, rubbing the back of his neck gently. “I’ll be waiting here for you.” Romano promised. “Forever. Until the stars fall out of the sky.”
Romano squeezed his eyes shut, and for those few seconds they held onto each other in that place at the bottom of the night sky where everything was silent and the stars spilled over.
Romano had never grown out of his daydreams.
They became less vivid as he got older, but times like these when he was particularly bored there would be another world waiting for him behind windows looking out on the mundane.
Now he was looking through the plasticky airplane windows down at the runway, the sprawling airfields a reflection of the night sky to run through and reach out to graze Saturn’s icy rings. People bustled around him in a soft hum, unclipping their seatbelts and chattering, reaching into the luggage racks for their bags.
Romano tore his eyes back from the window and reached down to grab his backpack from beneath the seat in front of him. He was only half-focused on reality, texting Feliciano that he’d be getting on the train to Lübeck soon, joining the queue of passengers buzzing to get off the plane. His mind was entertaining one of his favorite scenes, one where he was walking through a sunny vineyard. He was holding someone’s hand, and they were laughing, sneaking grapes from vines. Romano watched him toss a grape up towards the blue sky and try to catch it in his mouth, pretending not to laugh when it hit him in the face and he clutched his eye.
It all felt so real. The phantom sun, fingers between his, the smell of dust and the sweetness of grapes.
The line on the plane shuffled forward a few paces and Romano followed, trying to decide what to listen to. He paused with one of his earbuds halfway to his ear when his eyes fell on someone a few paces ahead in line.
It was him. The person who Romano had just been imagining strolling through a dusty vineyard on a hot, late summer day with. He was standing on his tiptoes, pulling down a backpack of obscene proportions from the overhead bin. He had headphones on, crushing his waves of hair that had been styled to look messy in a charismatic way. He mouthed the words to his music with the passion of someone alone in their room, not on a plane crowded with strangers. Before he tossed the backpack over one shoulder, Romano saw the last name Fernández Carriedo embroidered on the back of his jacket.
Where had he heard that name before?
The woman ahead of Romano tapped him on the shoulder. He turned with a start, sliding his headphones around his neck with a grin that made Romano’s whole chest feel weak with longing.
“Are you Antonio Fernández Carriedo?” She asked. He nodded. “Oh my God, my brother and I love you!” Antonio gave her an abashed thanks and smiled at her. Romano cast his eyes down, mentally kicking himself for being such an idiot. Of course Antonio was familiar; he had been one of the star members of FC Barcelona.
Romano wasn’t particularly absorbed in football himself, but Feliciano and his now fiancé Ludwig were obsessed with it. He had heard Antonio’s name in passing a few years ago when he retired due to some injury. Romano supposed it made sense that his brain would go to a hot celebrity for daydream material.
Romano had an unhealthy urge to stare at the back of Antonio’s head. He thought maybe if he stared hard enough that Antonio might feel his eyes and turn around. He started creeping himself out and stopped, forcing himself to stare at the ground all the way to the luggage tram. It was only a few moments before he glimpsed his bag coming around the corner and he reached out to grab it, withdrawing his hand when he felt someone else’s beneath it.
His neck snapped up and he saw Antonio setting the suitcase on the floor between them. He crouched down to check the tag.
“Romano Vargas…” He read aloud. “Oops. Sorry.” He slid the suitcase across the floor to Romano, looking apologetic. “It’s practically the same as mine.” He added, rocking back on his heels as if he were nervous. He reached out for his own and set it on the floor in front of himself. It didn’t even slightly resemble Romano’s. “Huh, I guess they’re not that similar.” Antonio said. “Must be because it’s late,” he said, giving a forced casual shrug.
The sun set early in December, but it was only four. Romano pointed this out to Antonio, who gave an awkward laugh.
“Um… time change.” Antonio said, starting away from the luggage pick up. Romano didn’t bother pointing out that Madrid and Frankfurt were in the same time zone while he followed Antonio towards the escalator, watching him drag his fingers through his hair. He stopped up short, giving a sad little sigh and pivoting to face Romano. “Sorry for asking, but have we met before? You look really familiar.” Romano stared at him. Antonio’s expression was almost imploring, a hollow echo of it in his voice.
Romano must have meant to say something, something rational, but then he had thrown his arms around Antonio and was hugging him in the middle of the airport. His hands want up to Antonio’s neck, fingertips in the fringes of his hair. It was longer than he remembered, why did he remember ? Romano nuzzled Antonio’s cheek, drawing a dry sob and burying his face in Antonio’s coat that smelled like expensive cologne and the airplane. Why had he been expecting wood and paint?
Romano held on to him like he had water in his cupped hands, trying to keep it from slipping through the cracks between his fingers. He waited to be shoved away. He wasn’t.
Antonio’s hands were on his back. “Hey,” his voice was soft, right beside Romano’s ear. “It’s okay. I’m right here.” He kissed Romano’s forehead. “I’ve missed you, Romanito.” Romano shut his eyes, feeling tears forcing his eyes open. Embarrassing. “You can tell me you missed me too. I won’t tell anyone, promise.”
“Of course I missed you too.” Romano whispered, wiping his eyes on Antonio’s sweater. He sniffed, then rested his chin on Antonio’s sternum and looked up at him. “God, I love you, but your fashion sense is utter garbage.” Romano shook his head.
“And I thought you were crying because you were happy to see me.” Antonio laughed and hugged Romano to his chest again. Romano closed his eyes, a vague memory hovering in his mind’s eye.
He was walking through a cool, quiet gallery in Florence, holding his father’s hand. Romano pulled on Romulus’s arm suddenly, dragging him towards one of the statues and peering at it. Romano shook his head. That statue’s arm was all wrong. Why hadn’t he fixed it? He turned and asked Romulus.
At that same gallery there had been another statue he’d stopped in front of. It looked something like the face in his daydreams, but the marble had been softened by age and the features weren’t sharp anymore. A profound sadness had gripped his whole body so that all he could do was sit down cross-legged on the floor in front of it. He almost reached out to touch it, but then his father came to get him because they were leaving. Romano hadn’t wanted to leave.
Romulus laughed about it over dinner, exclaiming about Romano’s fantastic imagination.
“I carved those statues.” Romano had insisted.
“Yeah?” His father had been humoring him, but Romano nodded.
“The one of Mary was the second one I ever did but I didn’t like it because I could never get her arm right. Her elbow’s all weird.” Romano said. “I did! The card said my name.”
“It is pretty cool you have the same name as an artist, Roma.” Romulus said.
“It’s not the same name! It’s me !”
Romano opened his eyes. He took in the details of Antonio’s face.
“I wish I would’ve known you were on my flight. I would’ve gotten you something.” Antonio said. Romano didn’t seem like he cared. He didn’t even seem like he was listening, instead smiling at Antonio with a tear-stained face like Antonio had hung the moon on a string and tossed handfuls of stars across the heavens.
“Hmm… How about a signed photo?” Romano asked.
“A-are you serious?” Antonio asked. Romano just blinked pleasantly. “ What ? Do you think I carry around photos of myself around with me everywhere I go?” Romano raised his eyebrows, then raised them even higher when Antonio didn’t say anything. “I do not .” Antonio said, tugging his hands playfully. Romano laughed.
“I was joking.” Romano said. Antonio squinted.
“ Joking ? Are you sure you’re Romano?” Antonio asked, eyes still narrowed.
“How many other people do you think you had torrid Renaissance love affairs with?” Romano asked. Antonio shrugged. “It was only me, you adorable dumbass.” Romano said, hooking his arms around Antonio’s shoulders.
“Only you.” Antonio repeated, leaning down to kiss him on the nose. Romano scrunched it back at him. “But I promise, I’ll get you something! And you can help direct me to some better clothes, seeing as my fashion sense is apparently utter garbage.” Romano shook his head.
“You don’t need to get me anything. Also, hey, I did not say utter garbage . I said complete trash . Don’t put words in my mouth, Tonio.” Romano said. He glanced up at one of the boards overhead and winced. “Shit, I forgot. I’ve got a train to catch. I promised my brother Feliciano I’d come to Lübeck for New Years since he just got engaged and he and his fiancé are having a New Year's/engagement party. It’s going to be unbearable and probably end with me vomiting in Ludwig’s favorite toilet unlessㅡ”
“How do you know he has a favorite toilet? Do you have a favorite toilet?” Antonio interjected.
“That’s not important.” Romano insisted.
“I think it is. I think that’s information I really need to be familiar with.” Antonio said.
“No, really. Do you want to come with me? Unless you’re attending some super-important football something.” Antonio shook his head.
“Of course I’ll come with you! The only reason I’m even in Germany at all is because I was going to visit my friend in Paris, but then she canceled on me because she has to do something for work, so I said screw it and walked around the airport until I found a flight that had an empty seat.”
Romano smiled. He had never believed in fate, but he gave it a hearty thanks anyway for stranding Antonio in the Madrid airport and planting him on the same flight to Frankfurt. “Okay. Let’s hurry, so we can get you a ticket.” He said, grabbing his suitcase and Antonio’s hand and bolting for the escalator. “Feliciano’s going to lose his shit when he sees you. Better bust out one of your signed photos for him.” Antonio rolled his eyes.
“Very funny.” Antonio said, swinging their clasped hands.
I'm so sad this fic is over - it's definitely one of my favorites! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. Thank you so much for your positive feedback, I really appreciate it.
Also, I’ll be working on some more spicy AUs for all of you who need a historical Spamano fix as much as I do ;)