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Mio Macchiaiolo

Chapter Text

 

...we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them.

Livy





The paint on his palette had become dry and cracked.

The oils, kept in tiny bottles and tubes littered across half an unkempt, crooked bookshelf, hadn’t seen the color of any pigment in weeks. Vermilion, prussian blue and ocher all remained untouched inside of their small iron boxes, crusting over and losing their shine. Filthy, paint-covered rags were scattered everywhere in the room, on top of the dresser, on the grimy floor, and with them, heaps of various objects, which sat mostly broken or shredded : bottles, clothes, varnished wood, canvas, some lone pieces of slowly decaying, moldy food.

And he, too, was lying there. Amongst the rotting.

Which, he thought, seemed particularly fitting.

He had not been what one could call « awake » for a few days now. Nor had he stepped foot outside, or even opened the windows, though that went without saying -- even the mere thought of fresh air and sunlight, at the moment, sounded more painful than a punch to the gut, and perhaps twice as violent. He’d remained in a constant, dreamless daze, frequently forgetting whether he was sleeping or simply knocked unconscious by his own ministrations. Immobilized by a heavy creature sitting atop his chest, crushing his ribcage to dust.

The world and its agitation felt so incredibly far away, now. Reality, in itself, seemed almost absurd, to levels never before reached even in the bitter anguish of his soul. Existence was distant, cold, morbid, and intangible ; unlike the way he felt now, warm and comfortable in a way that he could touch and sense with every fiber of his being, or at the very least, every fiber of his being that had managed to keep a veneer of coherence.

For there was only the sweet, rancid taste of haschisch, the familiar sheets of his bed, and the gentle tang of Sicilian wine.

On the day he realized he was out of wine, Leone received a visit.

Had he been in a state to feel self-conscious, he would probably have reacted violently to this unannounced stopover. He would have tried to hide, no doubt ; to cover the dark, deep purple circles around his eyes, the pale, sickly tint of his face, the unkempt mess on top of his head (which only a madman would have dared to call hair), the sleep crust surrounding his mouth, nose and eyes, or, god almighty, the foul smell he must have been exhaling from days upon days of lying there, immobile, and drinking anything but water.

A sober Leone Abbacchio would never have shown himself in such a sorry state. Then again, one might have argued that a sober Leone Abbacchio would not have had to, as he would not have gotten into such a sorry state at all.

Slowly but surely, as he felt eyes boring down into him, Leone regained semblances of consciousness. His tongue felt dry, as though he had recently swallowed a mouthful of sand, and each and every moving part of his face was numb, prickling as though prodded with pins and needles.

The bared mattress dipping and creaking under a foreign weight finally forced him to blink awake -- fully, at last, and just about half cognizant.

A gentle gloved hand fell on his shoulder, shaking him softly.

Ah. Of course. It could only have been him . Who else, if not him ? Was he not the only man in the whole city of Rome who could not focus on his own business ?

« Who -- » Leone croaked, at a higher pitch than even the springs of his bed, just before his voice broke. He cleared his throat, and tried again. « Christ’s sake, who let you in ? »

Talking felt like scraping a fork onto a plate. In front of him, the young man’s lips spread into a sad, but not humorless little smile, crinkling his eyes as he spoke.

« Well, isn’t it wonderful, how happy you are to see me. What a delightfully warm welcome into your abode, Leone -- truly, I’m touched. »

The young man sighed and shook his head.

« Your landlady let me in, obviously. She was very worried about you, you know ? She thought you might have succumbed. »

« To what? »

A moment of silence. The young man stared down at the accumulated bottles surrounding the bed like spikes around an ancient fortified camp, and the pretty silver box on the nightstand, in plain sight, which contained only a small pile of fragrant dawamesk. Leone shrugged.

« She hadn’t seen you come down in days, » the young man explained, though he knew it was futile. « And you didn’t bother answering to her knocks when she came to check in on you. »

« Hah. That nasty owl, » Leone growled, though his torpor did wonders to lessen the aggression in his voice. « She should care about her own troubles, and leave mine where I want them. »

« Where you want them ? You are killing yourself, Leone. »

The painter let out an ugly cackle, followed by an humorless, dry sniffle.

« Celestino, » Leone then said, « I have not painted a single thing in five months. That -- that is what’s killing me. Not all this. And certainly not this. » He pointed to the dawamesk, licked the front of his teeth. « It’s… Supposed to help. But it hasn’t done wonders as of yet, that I’ll admit. Perhaps it’s no longer taking. »

Another short silence fell. Slowly, the man peeled off one of his white gloves, and pressed the back of his hand against Leone’s forehead. A frown creased the skin between his brows.

Because he was tired, or perhaps because it had been too long a time since he was last touched, Leone allowed it, and closed his eyes for a few, restful seconds.

« When was the last time you ate? » Celestino asked him. Leone huffed.

« That would depend on what you consider to be sustenance. »

Celestino tsked and lightly pinched the top of his ear. Leone rolled his eyes -- an action that he regretted immediately, as it prompted a violent headache to pulse behind his lids.

« I… I got treated to pasta e fagioli last Thursday. »

« Thursday… Do you mean to tell me you haven’t eaten anything in three days? »

« Well, I’ve been eating this. » He pointed to the box of dawamesk. Celestino let out a tortured sigh.

« I will never be able to stop mothering you, will I ? You are nothing but a child, Leone. A fussy child who is too obstinate to ever ask for help. »

For an answer, and because it was partly true, Leone let out a tired grunt.

The springs creaked once again as the young man got up. For the first time since he had arrived, Leone was able to get a look at all of him, as his vision had finally begun to clear up. When he noticed his friend’s attire, so very neat from head to toe, he could not hold back a smile.

« You’ve been dressing up, I see. Is that for me ? »

Celestino pinched him again, though this time was merely for show, as he was grinning.

« Do not mock me, devil that you are. »

« As though I would ever want to make fun of you. »

But alas, he was -- at least a little bit. Celestino was wearing a long black vest, despite the heat and sun of the early summer. A white, incredibly clean cravat was hiding his entire collar, making his face look both juvenile and constipated in a way that, Leone was sure, had to have been out of fashion at least a decade ago. In his gloved hand, Leone took notice of a tall top hat, crisp and perfectly cylindrical, looking to be straight out of the box he had been shipped in. Only the cane was missing, and he would have looked like a French noble on a stroll.

« You’ve gotten fancy, » Leone added, grinning. « That is all. »

« Lord, I know. I was supposed to see my editor today to talk about my new manuscript. And instead, here I am, spending time with you. »

« Aren’t you a gentleman, putting your friends first. »

« I do try my best, Leone. »

Leone could remember a time when Celestino wore corsets and loud clothing. Bright colors. Torn jackets and shoes with holes at the toe, and trousers that were much too wide around his hips. A time when they both drank more than they ate and laughed in the face of the prissy snobs haunting the streets of Rome.

A time when he did not have a care in the world and spilled words on paper like a fountain of poetry.

A time when the thought of wearing white gloves would have prompted him to howl with laughter.

A bygone era , thought Leone, and instantly felt much older than he truly was.

« Leone, get up, » suddenly said Celestino.

« Hm ? »

« I’m going to get you clean. Get up. »

« Oh, don’t. You’ll ruin your pretty gloves with me. I’m filthier than a sewer rat. »

« I don’t mind that. Get up, or I’ll get you up myself. »

With a sheepish grin, Leone stretched his arms out in front of him, as though a babe demanding a breast. Celestino sighed again.

« Alright, fine. Hold on to my neck. »

Leone obediently did as he was told once Celestino bent at the waist to reach him. He wrapped his arms around the stiff collar, and let himself be pulled up -- until his vision unexpectedly began to swim, and sway, and the slightest movement from Celestino’s body felt like a brutal lunge. He heaved, his stomach full of liquid and suddenly, increasingly, extremely sore. A pained gurgle escaped his throat.

« Oh -- oh, Celestino -- »

« What ? Oh, no, are you going to -- not on my jacket !»

But it was too late.

In the end, Celestino spent the rest of the evening not only scrubbing filth and vomit from Leone, but also from his expensive jacket.

The painter’s hair was even more tangled than it had first seemed, splayed out on the yellowed pillow; a proper rat’s nest, that Celestino now had to deal with at the best of his capabilities, which were, it should be said, close to null.

« I should just cut this mess off, » Celestino grunted, trying to pull a comb free from the knots of Leone’s hair for the eleventh time in a row. « This length isn’t even proper for a man your age. »

A grunt from Leone, who was bent down over the small copper-colored tub and trying his hardest to stay still as his friend ravaged his poor hair.

« Like you can talk about -- ow -- about what is proper or improper. You had the curls of one of Lippi’s angels when I met you. »

Leone had grown significantly paler over the past hour. Once he’d been done puking red-tinted bile, he’d started dry-heaving and drooling, shudders making his body spasm compulsively. The cool bath had not helped his case, unfortunately, and he found himself shivering on the spot, only a thin cloth (the cleanest Celestino was able to find, which was not saying much) wrapped around his body. His teeth were chattering, and though he was freezing and damp, he still felt himself break into a cold sweat.

« Yes, well. Things change, » Celestino countered. « People get older. Hair gets cut. Men -- »

« Oh, men get married. »

Celestino had started courting a tailor’s daughter back in early February. Leone could remember it very well --  he’d been the one introducing them. They were now engaged, and in a few months more, Celestino would, finally, marry rich, and be rid of every single one of his problems for all eternity. At least, that was how he sounded whenever he spoke about it ; Leone, though he had long understood he had no say in this decision, knew that no thing in life would ever be so easy.

Behind him, he heard the other man swallowing.

« Well. Yes, I suppose they do, among other things. »

Leone’s breath drew out into a shaky snicker. Celestino, mistaking his bitter sadness for another of his taunts, clicked his tongue in annoyance.

« Don’t laugh. It is very cruel to laugh at a friend when he opens his heart to you. »

« I am not laughing . You’re pulling too hard, it’s hurting me. »

« You deserve it, after all the worries I’ve had. God, I should just -- do you have scissors? A knife? Anything sharp? »

" Don’t you even dare to think about -- ohh, for Christ’s sake. »

Shutting his eyes, Leone wrapped his arms around himself, body shaken by a sudden spasm. His stomach hurt like an open wound -- like acid had burnt a hole through his stomach and had continued to pour over the rest of his organs. He remained completely still for a moment, waiting for the scorching pain to finally fade.

When it subsided, a cool hand pressed to his bared lower back. Celestino’s voice was soft once he talked again.

« … When you said that you couldn’t paint anymore, did you mean it ? »

Leone spat into the empty bathtub.

« I did not say that, » he hissed, clutching his abdomen. « I said that I had not  painted anything in five months. »

« And you did not because you could not. Or is it not the same thing ? »

« I can see now why you never finished that novella of yours. You lack an infinite amount of finesse, Celestino. »

« And you , » Celestino quickly replied, « are an unfathomable bastard. Especially when you are like this. »

« Oh, for blazes’ sake, get this stick out from your ass. You know my love for your work. »

« You haven’t read any of my last works. »

« The last two collections were nothing more than dull copies of your first ones, and you know that perfectly well. I don’t mean to offend -- ow! Stop pulling so hard -- oh, why don’t you just give up. It will have to stay like this. »

« Fine. As you wish. »

Celestino begrudgingly left the comb to fall on the floor, where it clattered against the tiling.

« Let’s get you dressed. »

« Where are you taking me ? »

« Out. You need to eat. »

« With what I’ve just gotten out ? You must be joking. »

« It will make you better. Come with me. I’ve asked Pipo and Dante to join us. They have also been missing you greatly. »

Leone let out an exasperated groan. Celestino’s brows furrowed, though his lips had begun to curl up into a slight smile, which didn’t go unnoticed by his friend -- and Leone found himself smiling as well, despite the dull throb in his entire body.

« Fine. Alright. Lead the way. »

 

-



Rome had always been a busy city -- steadily buzzing with activity, even as the start of the bright summer heat had begun to take its toll on the population, who chose to either travel to the seaside, or the more merciful climate or northern cities, such as Florence or Turin. Men in artfully tailored, dark costumes walked arm in arm with powdery pale, raven haired ladies, which sometimes held their plumaged and flowery hats against their forehead, to brace their eyes against the soft wind and the dust it carried. The clicking sound of hooves against the paved roads filled the streets with constant noise, akin to a metronome of sorts, as did the roll of diligences’ wheels, a regular bump , bump , bump of wood against stone, in time with the drivers’ whistling and the lively chatter of bystanders and walkers.

Leone, as an unspoken principle, felt an extreme animosity towards it all.

The city’s agitation stuck to him like a dark, heavy leech feeding off his blood. The pulsating, heady, neverending cacophony brought him frequent headaches, which certainly could be of no help to  his health : unable as he was to get any sleep during the night, when his insomnia got the better of him and he spent hours staring at a white canvas, he at least tried to rest as the sun rose -- but as soon as his eyes finally, mercifully closed and he began to drift off into slumber, it was too late. Already, merchants took out their stands, already workers left their homes for the city center, already the grating buzz and hubbub made him ache from inside.

He hadn’t been able to sleep properly in weeks, and it showed  -- in the way his body bent, the way he walked, the length of his nails, the color of his skin.

« You look like death, Leone. »

And it certainly showed on his face.

A grin pulled up his chapped lips. He did not need to tilt up his head to know that Celestino’s plate remained untouched, as did his, and that the other young man was instead staring at him -- and most likely at his atrocious posture, too.

« You certainly know how to charm a man, » he mumbled, picking at the dirt caked under his fingernails.

« You are skinnier than a twig, and your eyes -- I’ve never seen eyelids so dark. »

« Again, thank you for noticing. » he sighed, deeply. « I will not say that I have not known better days. »

Celestino, having already dined, had only asked for a small plate of scaloppine for himself, and for a massive plate of trippa for Leone (who had not even bothered to say that the mere thought of eating an animal’s organs would have deeply disgusted him, even not in such a nauseated state). Leone’s plate was almost overflowing with the sauce-covered meat, and he briefly wondered how much such a generous dish could have possibly had cost his friend.

« Better days ? » Celestino scoffed. « That’s a sure thing. It’s a wonder children don’t run away at your very sight. You look like a witch. »

He could remember a time when Celestino, like him, never had a single centesimi in his pocket. When all of their joined money meant for food went either into buying charcoal, paint, ink or paper. When they were seventeen and finding joy in the purest, simplest things, and refused to bend down to the whims of their elders.

Four years later, Celestino wore white gloves and had a fiancée.

The rich smell of the trippa made Leone want to gag. Nonetheless, perhaps to assuage the guilt he felt from having snapped at his friend so often that day, he took a bite, more to pacify Celestino than for his personal enjoyment -- and immediately made a face at the chewy texture. Celestino laughed.

« I thought you liked this. You used to eat servings upon servings, back in the day. »

« When it was my only option and I was so hungry I could hardly stand up, yes, » Leone sighed, putting down his fork.

« You should be hungry, in the state you’re in. »

« I am not. »

And, truly, he was not.

Food made him feel heavy and disgusting, nowadays. It felt like an indulgence, one he did not deserve in the slightest ; and it was as though everything was made of ashes.

« Ah, well, if you’ve suddenly decided to become picky, I’ll try to remember your favorite meals next time. »

Letting out another chuckle, Celestino finally began to dig into his food. Leone was content simply picking at the scattered pecorino flakes around his plate, letting them melt onto his tongue.

He looked around, at the other tables surrounding them on the restaurant’s terrace. Sitting right next to them, holding a glass of white wine, a woman with tanned skin sported a white dress, tight around the collar, and, on her black hair, a pearly white doll hat, adorned by an ostrich feather and a jumble of fake exotic fruits. She caught the light perfectly, and her posture (ankle over the other, left elbow resting on the table and face close to her friend’s as if to whisper a secret) was admittedly rather gorgeous. Well-composed, even, and all on its own.

Leone’s long fingers began to twitch.

But as soon as it had come, the moment faded. A cloud masked the sun, just for a few seconds, and in that short span of time, the lady reclined back into her chair, laughing, ankles uncrossing. Leone wished he had been able to catch it before he flew away.

He had almost felt like painting again.

« Leone? » Celestino suddenly said, catching his attention by tapping on the table.

He blinked.

« Yes? »

« You were staring into nothing again. I was thinking -- if your lack of inspiration is torturing you so bad, why not take a little change of air? »

Leone furrowed his pale brows.

« A change of air?… As in, go to the countryside? » He shook his head. « You know how I feel about the wilderness. I am a city man, through and through. »

For better or for worse, he had yet to know.

« Don’t be silly, now. The countryside isn’t particularly wild. You can travel to the south anytime you like, nowadays. It would do you good, I think. Why not give a try to Naples? »

Leone’s interrogative scowl turned into a full grimace.

« I… Do not manage well in the heat. You should know that. »

The last brutal heatwave they had faced together had ended with them almost parting ways completely ; Leone’s bad temper, increased hundredfold by the suffocating weather, had been met with Celestino’s less than patient tolerance. Thankfully, by the time autumn had come around and soothed the city’s burns with its gentle breezes, they had already made up.

« Nonsense, » Celestino countered. « It might turn you lazy for a little while, but in the end, it will make you feel better. This ache in your bones you told me about would probably feel better, too -- Naples’ climate is a lot drier than Rome’s. Besides, it isn’t usually that much hotter than here at this time of the year. »

« It might not be, but -- »

« Leone ! Celestino ! »

And at last, here they were.

Pipo and Dante were also artists, though in their own, very particular ways. They were handymen, that was for certain, and never seemed to run out of money to spend (most likely because they knew the right people to leech onto).

Pipo was a very dashing man, two years older than Leone, though he seemed far younger -- he was one of the few able to resist aging by force of charisma alone. He had this air of childish enjoyment often plastered upon his face, with large, bright eyes, short mussed air, and the pinkest cheeks one had ever seen. He only reached Leone’s shoulder, and yet, had a very imposing demeanor ; his presence always filled whatever room he was in, and his voice carried far. He had been an actor, a while ago, before deciding that he was unfit for work of any kind and much preferred to live life free of any worries.

Dante, on the other hand, was a far more discreet man, though he, like his companion, had a natural talent for fraud, swindling, conspiracy, and pranks of all kinds. He bore the looks of a gentleman with ease ; and though he was shorter than Leone (as most people were), he still stood at a reasonable height. His stomach was slightly protruding, as was his nose, and his beard seemingly got more massive each time Leone saw him.

The two made an unlikely pair in appearance, but as far as characters went, theirs completed each other most nicely.

Celestino got up to greet them, a frank smile on his lips. Leone did not bother, though he gave them a polite, affable smile.

« Why, hello, you two, » said Celestino. « How have you been? »

Pipo’s face fell into a grimace. He gave a slight shake of his hand, before reaching up to plant a kiss on both of Celestino’s cheeks, while Dante bent down slightly to do the same with Leone.

« Te-rri-ble, my friend. Simply terrible. You would not believe the things we -- I Malano miau , Leone ! Your face ! What horror made it so sour ? Did you finally meet Celestino’s in-laws-to-be ? »

« Come, now, Pipo, » Celestino replied, trying his very best not to sound annoyed. « He feels unwell. »

« I would feel unwell, too, were I forced to eat this trippa ! » mumbled the smaller man, sitting down at his friend’s table while Dante, his companion, did the same, twirling his cane (an old, posh thing, which might have been in fashion twenty years prior, with a polished eagle head sitting at the top) between his hands absently. « I assume you will not be finishing it, Leone? Would you mind terribly if -- »

« You can have it. »

« Much obliged, » replied Pipo, taking the spoon and proceeding to gobble down as much of the plate as fast as he could.

Leone let out a chuckle, reclining into the back of his chair.

« Que va piano va sano , Pipo. Must you be fast in everything you do ? »

« Not everything, I assure you, » came the reply, thrown with a grin around a mouthful of meat and sauce.

« And what have you two been up to, dearest friends? » inquired Dante, picking at Celestino’s scaloppine, even though had not been offered to. « Leone, we have not seen a lot of you in quite a while. Some of us were worrying about your health. »

Leone opened his mouth to reply, but Celestino had a quicker tongue.

« I was just telling him that he needed to get out of Rome. »

« Oh ? And for what reason ? »

« He hasn’t painted a single thing in five months. »

Meat splattered the table, shooting straight from Pipo’s sputtering mouth. People turned to look at them, aghast at such a conduct, though it seemed to make a few quite merry. A woman gave a slight gasp at the offensive sight.

« Five months ! » choked Pipo.

« You, Leone ? » Dante added. « You, the most prolific of them all ? Surely, it cannot be. »

« You used to start at least three paintings a week ! You only finished a handful of them, yes, but it was most impressive all the same. I’d never seen someone paint with as much passion, as much fervor as you ! »

« Aren’t you three tired, » mumbled Leone, « of talking about me as though I were dying?  I am fine. Perfectly fine. This is… Just a brief respite. A dry season, a -- a difficult time »

His stomach had begun to hurt again -- an acid bite, sharp as it rose in his oesophagus. A pang of sudden discomfort made him uneasy ; the stare of the strangers, the inquisitive look of his friends. The harsh sun, the noise.

He deeply, dearly yearned to go back to the quiet of his home.

« Madonna , I’ll have heard everything, » mumbled Pipo, going back to his meal. « Leone Abbacchio, our little lamb, resting. »

« Pipo, don’t be so harsh, » Dante sighed. « Perhaps his Muses have left him ! »

« Muse s ? Plural ? I’d admire the one, if she managed to stay around this stubborn mule ! I can barely imagine how Celestino manages to deal with such a character -- and, » he grabbed Leone’s hands from across the table, « I don’t say that to offend, my dear friend. »

« No offense taken, » grumbled Leone.

« This is precisely what I was telling him, » Celestino said, glad to have someone on his side. « Some travelling would do him good, wouldn’t you agree? Some place where he could rest properly, without all the city’s agitation… A place where he’d be able to paint new things, things he’s never seen ! »

Pipo’s entire face lit up, brighter than a candle.

« Oh ! Oh, Leone, why not Paris ? I’ve heard it is magnificent -- Dante, tell him, you’ve been there ! »

« Once or twice, I have, » replied Dante, chewing around the mouthful of scaloppine, idly playing with his beard. « Magnificent city, simply magnificent… Ah, apologies, gentlemen, my throat is parched, do you -- »

Leone silently handed him his glass of wine.

« Or, perhaps you could go to Amsterdam… » Pipo continued, ecstatic. « Lisbon! Barcelona! So many places you could paint, Leone ! »

Leone sighed and crossed his legs, picking at his teeth.

« Celestino wants me to go to Naples. »

The two men remained silent for a second, while Celestino leant back into his seat, a little smile on his lips.

« … Ah, well, » simply said Dante.

« That is… Well, why not ! » Pipo quickly cheered up. « Naples is much closer, after all. You will not be breaking your habits ! And there’ll be the sea ! »

« Beautiful landscapes there, » added Dante, taking another sip of wine. « Simply beautiful. »

« And great beauties to paint, as well ! I still remember this gorgeous piece of art you’d made, the one with the sea nymphs ! Weren’t they Vecchiato’s daughters ? The banker who wanted some nice portraits of his girls ? Ahah, you drew them as naked as the day they were born, and so beautiful, too ! He was furious ! »

« It was a good painting, » nodded Leone. « But I’m not too sure about this idea of travelling. I… Have grown quite used to my routine, over those past few weeks. »

« Leone, » Celestino piped in, « Trust me, it will benefit you immensely. »

« At least, it can’t get any worse from here ! » Pipo nodded, as though he were even the slightest bit wise. « Consider it ! Besides, Tino, don’t you have some friends in Naples ? Right on the seaside ? »

« Ah… Well, I can most certainly send them a letter. They own a beautiful house, Leone, I’m sure they would be glad to have you. What do you say ? »

Leone looked up at the three pairs of eyes, staring straight at him, eagerly awaiting his answer. He winced. Making big decisions such as this one, in passing, so unreasonably quickly, did not sit well with him. But he did not have much a choice, not with Celestino looking at him like this ; so expectant, so excited to see him feeling better. He sighed.

« Well. I suppose I -- »

« Excellent ! » chirped Pipo, getting up and making the whole table rattle and shake. « Leone, you must write to us as soon as you get there ! And when you finally start to paint again, please, invite us to your exposition, yes ? Now, come, Dante ! »

The older man followed suit. Celestino blinked.

« Well, you two, leaving already? »

« Oh, yes ! So many things to do -- you know how busy an artist’s life is ! » Dante winked in the men’s direction, tapping his cane on the ground before lending his arm to his friend.

« We will see you soon ! » Pipo waved goodbye. « Thank you for the meal! »

« Grazie mille ! » added Dante, tilting his hat in an obsequious reverence, before the two left -- bringing with them a chatter full of energy.

Leone allowed himself a small smirk.

« They are certainly a handful, mm ?… Celestino, what are you doing ? »

The young man patted his chest, up and down, then reached for his pockets, looked considerably puzzled, and let out a groan as realization finally dawned onto him.

« I, » Celestino mumbled, « I think they stole my wallet. »

« Yet again. Hah. That will teach you. Never offer a meal to a vulture, he’ll pick at your eyes soon as he’s done. » Leone took a sip of wine, giving a glance to the empty plates on their table. « Do tell, you paid for all this, right ? »

Celestino made a face, which Leone mirrored.

« I see. Well, I suppose it will have to be like in the good old days, mh ? »

« Leone, I’m almost a married man, » Celestino whispered, holding his napkin. « I can’t -- we can’t do that kind of thing anymore. »

« Want to bet ? Even in my sorry state, I bet you three coins I could still run faster than you. »

« Don’t -- good lord, Leone, sit back down -- »

« Follow me, idiot, or you will be the only one scrubbing dishes tonight. »

With that, Leone threw his glass back, emptying it in a single gulp, and began to run for it, promptly followed by Celestino, who was laughing a little hysterically.

" -- insane, you’re insane, this is -- for god’s sake, Leone ! »

Leone’s legs shook and he wavered ; but he held on, and ran.

And as they ran deeper into the streets of Rome, leaving yet another restaurant they would forever be banned from, Leone sensed what felt like the start of a laugh bubbling in his own chest, despite the exhaustion and toll the sudden course had on his breath.

For a brief moment, he wondered if the sun shone as nicely in Naples as it did here -- and if it did, if there would ever be a sound as nice as Celestino’s laughter to ring in his ears.

 

 

Chapter Text

I have, too many times, under a sorrowful sky,

When the trees laid their crown to my feet,

Dreamt of a tragic lover, or at least coveted

The pleasure that unabashed happiness gives!

 

The days go by, their hands, alas! holding no flowers

Leaving me on my own, with an unsatiated  soul

Which they mark by the seal of the cruelest pains.

Have I put in vain my faith in life?

— Charles Guérin




Leone had only gotten on a boat once before -- and to say that it had been uneventful would have been a glorious understatement.

He had traveled from the port of Civitavecchia to Bastia, as a child, in the company of his parents, when he was no older than three years old. The trip had lasted for what had felt like ages ; hours upon hours spent on a rocky little ship, bathed by the marine breeze, and scolded every now and then by the gruff voice of his father as his boyish self could not help but run amok along the tight deck -- despite many a offended gasp from surrounding adults.

As of today, that memory was one of the few he had kept of his parents, and he could barely even remember what this trip had been for, nor could he recall what the way back home had been like. Perhaps he had slept through it, or simply had failed to pay any attention to it for another silly reason ; after all, no child of three can possibly be expected to remember much of his day to day life, especially not things that do not bring him immediate satisfaction and contentment.

He only remembered the harsh sun on his skin, the little sways along the waves, and the dull, numbing ennui that overtook him while he slept with his head in the soft silk of his mother’s lap.

The fabric had been gentle against his skin, and her hand in his hair, tender.

Leone let out a sigh, and leant further against the guardrail, back turned to the sea.

The second time he got onto a boat proved to be exactly like the first ; the only difference being that the ship now seemed a lot smaller than it used to be.

To be fair, the two vessels weren’t quite built from the same model. This here boat (« La Vincitrice », the captain, all wrinkly smile and patched beard, had proudly said) was a sailboat, mostly used to carry small lots of passengers through the Tyrrhenian Sea -- for pleasure-boating, as it was. He, and the ten or so people apart from he, would reach Napoli by noon, with some luck, and if the winds stayed merciful. The boat he had taken in his youth had been a proper liner, loud and bustling with a great number of passengers.

On second thought, perhaps this tiny ship had a few perks. Namely, in that it was quiet, and that it was unhurried.

From his pocket, Leone produced a small, silver box -- the same one he kept in his flat, though he had replaced the haschich he traditionally stashed there with brown, fragrant tobacco. The box had once belonged to his grandmother ; a terribly sophisticated woman, who smoked more and more often than anyone Leone had ever met, more so even than the most seasoned sailors of the high seas. From her, he had inherited a taste for thick clouds of smoke and strong liquors, as well as her tobacco box and a collection of old meerschaum pipes.

A meagre inheritance, certainly ; but he honored it all the same, as would any principled descendant.

Holding the bit between his teeth, he expertly filled the chamber with the aromatic leaves, then pressed and lit them, taking in a few puffs.

The shock of a new, bigger wave against the boat’s hull almost made him drop the silver box he held in his hand. His grandmother from beyond the grave, he was sure, would never have forgiven him, had he accidentally broken it, as it was precious, and had been well-cherished her whole life through. The lid was engraved with the figure of an antique nymph with incredibly long, flowing hair, bathing in a small body of water, her nudity covered only by a loosely draped sheet. Besides her, in very small letters, were carved his grandmother’s initial s: A.A, for Agnese Abbacchio.

He loved this box greatly, but obstinately refused to even think that his grandmother had, perhaps in her wilder, more adventurous youth, been the model for this imitation of a greek nymph.

The smoke he exhaled from his open mouth was thick, white, and musky ; the curls dissolved into the breezy, salt-scented air, and soon disappeared from his sight. Cool wind swept across his neck, making him shiver.

Celestino had forced him to cut his hair.

Not too short, thankfully. Merely a trim, to get rid of the worst tangles. It still dropped to his shoulder blades, straight and thin and outrageously light, but at least, the back of his head no longer appeared to serve as a nest for a flock of insane birds.

To comfort him over the loss of those few centimeters, though, Celestino had cleaned him up and prepared him quite nicely, and had tied the remaining hair with a black, velvet bow.

« Doesn’t this make me look like an English dandy? » Leone had asked, still quite mournful over this hair he had taken so long to grow out.

« Oh, not at all. If anything, it makes you look like a Renaissance prince, » Celestino had replied.

Of course, it was like him to say that sort of things.

Celestino had always been the most handsome fellow of the two, and Leone admitted to it without a trace of envy or disgust towards his own appearance. It was simply a truth of life : Celestino was dapper and graceful, while Leone, cranky and pallid, was not. His friend had hair blacker than one of those famed Sicilian beauties’ ; his eyes were a clear, sapphire blue, his jaw was chiseled and his smile was kindly, forgiving, and came easily to grace his features. He was extraordinarily mannered, too, for a man who had rejected his noble upbringing for the greater part of his life -- his movements were slow, collected and calm, his touches were gentle, and his hands, soft. His chest was firm, his shoulders strong, but his form was slight and subtle, with a tight waist and slender hips. He moved with a natural agility, that one might have expected from a Count, or from such well educated, well raised man.

Leone always listened to him talk like a pious woman in church, for his voice, too, was pretty.

The waves crashed again. Above Leone’s head, one of the schooner’s sails flapped against the mast. Still, the smoke curled in the playful breeze, before disappearing within it -- becoming one and the same.

« Signore Abbacchio? »

Leone blinked awake, as though from slumber.

In front of him now stood two men -- gentlemen, surely, from the way one of them held himself, and from the wealthy looking attire they both wore. They made a strange looking pair, that was for certain, and Leone was surprised he hadn’t noticed them earlier, as soon as he got on board; one of the two faces staring at him couldn’t be quite easy to ignore.

The man to his right abruptly reminded Leone of Polykleitos’ Diadumenos - the same soft, unconcerned expression, the same languorous posture, the same full, appreciable lips ; the only striking difference, to Leone’s eyes, being that, while the marble creature’s features were only gentle curves, the flesh and bone iteration bore a chiseled jaw and a straight, harsh norse bridge, which gave him a stern air, despite the strangely fine blonde hair framing his face. His cheeks were dotted with tiny, deep scars, most likely inherited from a bout of smallpox.

The other man had not quite the same charm to him. About the same height as his companion, he had a large, bull-like neck, and equally large, vitreous eyes, which gave him a giddy expression. The most noticeable aspect of his facial features, though, was the total absence of chin, adding to the frightening thickness of his neck. His head was, for the most part, bald, save for a small tuft of hair at the very top, which Leone found absolutely comical.

The contrast between them was made even clearer by the way they stood, close together, as though they were intimate friends ; and positioned as they were, a comparison seemed almost unfair.

« Signori , » answered Leone, giving each of them a curt nod. « What grants me the honor ? »

The blonde man grinned.

« So it is you, » he said. « We were informed by the captain of the presence of an artist amongst us passengers -- we couldn’t possibly have guessed said artist would happen to be Barone Pannacotta’s youngest protégé. Do you recall, Pesci? » He squeezed the other man’s shoulder. « We were invited to his son’s birthday party, last winter. »

The creature piped up, his large eyes round -- white as geese eggs.

« Oh, yes, yes ! It was quite something. You’re the one who made the portrait, right ? Of the Baronessa and her son ? I remember the dress, it was so well done, I almost expected that if reached out and touched the canvas I would feel silk under my fingers ! »

His companion acquiesced.

« Yes, it was a most well-done creation. Barone Pannacotta must have been properly elated. »

At the mention of his patron’s name, Leone had begun wincing, though he attempted to hide it as soon as he felt the corners of his lips instinctively stretch. The blonde man appeared to notice, but (politely, for which Leone was grateful) he did point it out, nor did he flinch or appear shocked.

« I… Yes, yes, he did like it, » Leone vacillated, not having expected that he would have to appear even the slightest bit social for at least a few hours. « That was my last work for the Barone . We ceased our collaboration a few months ago, and I have not been painting for him since then. »

The blonde man frowned, raising a single, pale brow.

« I see. Well, that is truly a shame for your arrangement. Have you found another patron to buy your paintings ? I can’t imagine it must be very easy, in this day and age. »

It was not, that much was true, though Leone had so far managed to push back that worry into the deepest corners of his mind, where he would be able to ignore it for the time being. It seemed, however, that the brief respite he had allowed himself had been brought to a halt.

« I have not been searching for one, » Leone slurred, feeling the first sparks of discomfort kindling his nerves alight. « Not yet, anyhow. I -- it has been a weak period for my work. It is the reason for my trip, you see. Inspiration, signore . »

The portrait Leone had done for the Barone had been the last painting he had managed to complete, during a short stay in Florence. It had been a relatively small one, all in oils, showcasing the Baronessa and her son only up to their bust. They had both been dressed in regal clothing for the occasion, and surrounded by the massive, ornate pots of red lilies. The boy had been difficult, and nothing, not even his mother’s authoritative presence, had seemed to calm his impatience and constant fidgeting. Leone recalled having been called quite a number of bird names, that night, and having to relieve himself of his animosity much later, in the form of bleeding punches to the outside wall, and promises of never again agreeing to paint children under the age of sixteen.

Stained as it was from the terrible experience, he had not been the proudest of his work, though the Barone himself had appeared to like it. Leone had done his best to replicate the expression on the Baronessa’s face, serious and stern, and the way her heavily styled black hair revealed the parlor of her neck, or the way her left arm wrapped around her son, who stood next to his sitting mother, seeming unabashedly miffed by the ordeal. Leone, finding himself just as annoyed as the boy appeared to be, had purposefully accentuated the frown above his eyes, the red gleam of both of their lips, as well as the intricate patterns of their clothing.

The Baronessa herself had joked that the painting had represented her son’s likeness more accurately than a mirror could have.

Nausea began to bubble up within the confines of his stomach.

« Ah, I apologize, signore -- we were terribly impolite. » The blonde man interrupted Leone’s thoughts, lending him his hand to shake. « Allow me to introduce myself. Prosciutto di Parma, at your service. » Leone shook his hand, feebly. « And this here man is my dear brother, Pesci. Shake his hand, Pesci. »

As soon as the oldest di Parma brought Leone’s attention back to him, his brother moved to trap the painter’s hand into his, shaking it with… Spirit, to say the least. His wide face was lit with a bright smile.

« Pleasure, Signore ! A real pleasure ! »

« I… the pleasure is shared, » mumbled Leone, taking back his hand at once and rolling his wrist.

« Do you, by any chance, plan to stay in Napoli for long? »

The blonde man had one of his hand into the pocket of his dark suit -- the collar of which had been popped open, and was uncovered by a cravat of any sort, most likely in an effort to deal with the scorching heat and blazing sun. His eyes were piercing.

A strange sensation arose in Leone’s gut.

« I am not yet entirely sure, » he replied. « Most likely a month or two. »

The man hummed in approval.

« How wonderful. Well, my brother and I shall stay only for business -- we might not see much of each other again… But we will be expecting your art to soon grace our city once more, Signore Abbacchio. We do so enjoy your work. »

His smile, when he showed it, held something deeply unsettling -- though perhaps it was only a trick of the light, or the way his teeth glinted.

He gave Leone a nod, and soon turned away.

« Have a pleasant trip, now. Come, Pesci. »

Before he obeyed, the younger Di Parma reached out, in a fruitless attempt to shake Leone’s hand goodbye. Upon the realization that Leone still held his own wrist, and did not move an inch to break that posture, Pesci brought his hand back, and gave the same curt nod as his brother, an embarrassed curve to his mouth. He then followed suit.

Leone looked at the two brothers until they mingled with the other passengers, and disappeared from his line of sight.

He then turned the other way, facing the azure waters.

A cold sweat was starting to, slowly but surely, envelop him. Panic, sluggish and gradual, was overtaking him, looming over his back ; he could feel its hot, damp breath on his neck, feel its red eyes flaming his very soul.

Why cannot you paint, Leone ?

Hear what those gentlemen said. Hear their appreciation. You were so good, so very good at what you did. A prodigy, they called you in your youth. Do you recall?

And then what happened ?

Your fingers are rotting away, boy. Your mind is sterile. You have lost your way. Soon, you will have lost everything, and he, too, will grow tired of your antics.

Your mind can no longer see the hidden beauty in skin and nature.

He took in a sharp breath. His chest, as it expanded, felt painful. He closed his eyes, filled his nostrils with salty air, his mouth dry and his heart pounding. He attempted to ground himself, back into the world, back into reality, where nothing existed but the sound of the waves.

What is your name ?

Leone Marcello Vitale Abbacchio. First of his name.

Who are your parents ?

Vitale Abbacchio. Marilena Abbacchio, born Castaglio.

Where were you raised ?

Toscana.

Who fed you ?

Agnese Abbacchio.

Who was your master ?

Filipo Gaspare.

Where were you baptized ?

Santa Maria della Pieve. Two days late, as the priest was ill.

Where do you keep your cross ?

Sold it, two months ago, and bought wine.

Why cannot you paint ?

There is no desire.

Why is the sky torturing you ?

Why do you despise yourself ?

Is there hope within you ?

Will you rot ?

Is there anything left to sell ?

Leone ?

How did your parents die ?



The second breath he took was deeper. So were the few next ones, in time with the slow heaving of the waves.

When Leone opened his eyes, the outlines of Napoli’s port were visible in the distance, as the sun shone anew, from behind the ship’s stern.


-


As the ship dropped anchor at Napoli’s bay and began to spill out passengers, Leone soon realized he would have to face alone an ordeal he had not thought of before embarking : namely, the carrying of his many belongings.

Indeed, he had not been the one to hoist the suitcases, trunks, and various easels to the ship’s hold. A gaggle of rough faced sailors had been tasked with the troublesome hauling, and had gathered up his things just as they had with every other passenger’s luggage. But now, Leone found himself standing, collar popped and jacket open, back slouched and face sour, in the midst of three-too-many, heavy, leather wrapped paraphernalia.

The port was terribly busy with life, as one might have expected at such a time in the day. There were passengers climbing onto and leaving ships, as though embarking onto a train ; fishermen dropping off their freight ; and, not a hundred steps ahead, a small market, under the shade of a long line of archways, near the main plazza . The air was salty, thick, and smelled strongly of fish and iodine -- enough to make Leone feel slightly lightheaded. The sun’s rays were kissing his skull, burning his neck, and in the cloudless sky was reflected the shimmer of the sea. Or perhaps it was the other way around ; it was hard to tell, in this heat.

All in all, it certainly was a change of air from Rome.

Soon after making the realization that, perhaps, he would have to abandon some of his belongings there, as he wouldn’t have nearly enough arms to carry them all, Leone heard a calling from his left, which was promptly repeated, amongst the busy chatter of the populace.

« Signore Abbacchio! » said the voice.

Leone turned away from the dilemma at hand, only to be faced (although « faced » would have been a strong word ; the newcomer, had he gotten a little closer, would have barely reached his chest) with a kid.

He seemed on the brink of adolescence, with a youthful, round, soft face, and calm features. Pubescence had not yet chiseled his jaw, hardened his gaze, or grown him tall ; it almost seemed as though childhood was holding him back, pulling him by the pale hair of his neck -- which were a golden shade of blonde. He was overly dressed for the current weather, and had, despite the apparent neutrality of his expression, a playful je-ne-sais-quoi tinkling in his eyes that Leone recognized immediately (for he had seen it before, in at least two of his closest acquaintances), and subsequently grew very suspicious of.

« That would be me, yes, » he replied, not giving his hand out.

The boy did the same, and kept them safely tucked in the large pockets of his trousers.

« Signora Milazzo sends me to fetch you, » he instead said, as polite and soft spoken as his appearance would lead to expect. Leone winced.

« Fetch me ?... »

As though he were a lost child.

« Well, yes. The way to the house is a little bit tricky if you’re not from the area -- or if you don’t happen to have a guide. Is it your first time in Napoli? »

« … Not the first, no. »

He did not bother to develop, and instead reached to grab two of his suitcases -- the smallest ones, filled with nothing but underwear and various garments.

« Well, if we must be going… Do give me a hand, will you ? »

The boy seemed to hesitate, though for merely a second. His shoulders were slim, and his arms were thin -- he did not quite remind Leone of a heavy lifter of a boy. The kid did not object, however, and went to grab as much as he could carry, which, though it wasn’t but a couple of small suitcases, promptly solved Leone’s problem.

Posillipo was a frazione of Napoli ; a small district, standing at the very North West of the city, some two and a half miles away. It was camped on a hill, on the seaside, and was, according to what Leone had heard, famous for one of its greatest treasures ; namely, Virgil’s tomb.

As Celestino had mentioned before Leone took off -- what better place to find inspiration than the city where a famous poet had died? (He had, as he often did, failed to see the irony.)

It was a serpentine path through the maquis, hedged by a great number of bushes -- rosemary and strawberry trees surrounding them with their spiked leaves and round, red fruits. On the olive and mandarin trees skittered across the underbrush, cicadas were shrieking their love for life, filling the air with their shrill cry.

It would be a half an hour walk to the district, at a brisk pace, through prickly grass and spiky rocks. Leone, equipment on his back and shoulders, knuckles white around leather handles, doubted his shoes, old and worn thin with use, would resist for long.

The thought, added to the harsh, merciless sun, the heat, and the effort of carrying such a heavy burden, did not make him happy in the least.

« And will you be staying in Posillipo for long, Signore ? »

Nor did the boy walking by his side.

« A month or two, most likely, » he replied, the muscles in his right shoulder cramping up and growing sore.

The boy nodded, a curl of unbraided hair bouncing against his jaw.

« And you are a painter, are you not, Signore ? »

« How very discerning. And you, my dear, must be this town’s greatest detective. » He stopped in his tracks, searching for breath, unable to wipe away the sweat pooling at his forehead.

« … What did you say your name was, again ? »

The boy smiled, a drop of perspiration falling from the tip of his reddened nose.

« I made no mention of it. My name is Giorno Giovanna. »

« Giovanna, » Leone mumbled, comitting it to memory. « And what exactly links you to Signore Milazzo ? »

« I try to be of help whenever they need me around the house. Their only son tends to be at sea more often than not, and he was very good to me when I left the orphanage. It is the least I can do. »

Leone’s eyebrows shot slightly upwards, prompting a stray drop of sweat to roll down his temple.

What a truly insufferable kid this was.

They continued to walk in relative silence, surrounded by the pleasant cries of insects and the crunching of dry plants and rocks under their feet. The path kept going upwards for a while, until it curved downhill ; and down the harsh slope, towards the sea, was Posillipo, its buildings of pale stones, stuck close together, surrounding the creek -- seemingly poking out of the forest.

It wasn't very different from Naples itself, in its architecture nor position ; it was, however, a slight bit more wild, a slight bit more charming, a slight bit more… engaging, to Leone’s eyes. And as things were, the painter did not find it unappealing -- not nearly as much as he had expected, at the very least. It could not have been Paris, or London, or Barcelona, or Lisbon ; but it was full of nature, full of sun, full of white stones, and the sea shone with a light you could most likely not find in any other part of the world.

Perhaps this stay would bring him a pinch of something new.

If only the sun would stop beating his head.

« Is it still far ? » he asked, letting one of his suitcases to the ground, and using the back of his hand to finally wipe his forehead.

« Not very, no, » Giovanna replied, voice strained with exhaustion. « Do you see this large street, here -- where the washing place is? And, to the right, there’s this little red building ; it used to be a brothel, but it moved locations years ago, so many burgesses ended up moving to the neighbourhood. The house is the one right next to it, the one with the long windows. »

The building was taller than it was large, and stood proudly at the far end of the largest street, at some five or six storeys. The façade was clean, almost blindingly white from how new it looked -- as if freshly cut from stone.

« It looks well-kept, » Leone commented, appreciative.

« Oh, it is. Signora Milazzo practically rebuilt it, all on her own, after the fire that took the former owners along with the building. She got help from a lot of women here in Posillipo ; she’s very respected in this part of town. You should have seen it, it was quite the picture : twenty women, artisans’ wives for the most part, gathered around the burnt building, removing the broken stones, with their faces covered in soot, building up clay with their own hands. A sight to see, for sure. I was a lot smaller back then, but I remember every bit. Now, come along, Signore, we’re growing close. »

Still, though he was slightly short on breath, the boy seemed to have barely broken a sweat, which infuriated Leone greatly.

Nonetheless, the painter took the suitcases back in his hands, shoved a couple of them under his arms, and followed.

-


He could barely see much of anything past the sweat in his eyes.

His face was heated beyond the slight redness usually brought by effort, and was now crimson and blotchy ; the thin hair at the base of his skull stuck to his damp forehead, rendering him a drenched, pitiful mess. On any other occasion, Leone would have been too horribly ashamed to even show himself in such a state ; but a healthy dose of exhaustion and self-deprecation made sure of dealing with any shameful fear he could have possibly felt.

On the other side of the street, under the shade of the tall buildings, three old men, resting, sitting on an ancient stone bench, made his sweat run cold with their stare. Crumpled, age-worn faces, one of which slowly chewed half a pear, eyed him for what felt like long, excruciating minutes -- though Leone did try his best to ignore them, instead pushing the very last of his energy into swatting away the big flies buzzing around his head.

The Milazzo home had been but a small respite of coolness. The Signora had been incredibly welcoming and polite, immediately calling out for two maids to carry Leone’s luggage to his room. She had been dressed rather nicely, in his personal opinion ; light blue silk over a large crinoline, poofing around her legs, collar wrapped tightly around her neck, as though the heat could do her no harm. Her hair had been tied in heavy black curls atop her head, and, though she was rather small, her dignified expression and rather imposing aura made Leone feel impossibly younger in front of her.

« My husband is not yet home, and dinner will be served late, » she had told him. « In the meantime, perhaps you could stroll around the frazione with dear Giorno here ? »

She had given a tender look to the blond boy, and had gently tapped his shoulder.

« Immerse yourself, signore . Celestino told us everything in his letter, and we would be delighted to help an artist -- and most importantly, a friend. »

Her smile had been courteous, yet quite gentle. He had not been able to refuse.

So here Leone was ; still burning under the sun, still with this child in tow. At least, now, he had much less to carry ; nothing heavier than one book to sketch in, and three pencils : white, black, and sanguine.

Just in case he was faced with… Interesting sights.

« Where would you like to go, signore ? » Giovanna asked, hands burrowed deep into his pockets, hair still infuriatingly impeccable. « It seems that I will be your guide for a little bit longer. »

The heat had done wonders to worsen Leone’s mood, and he did not feel able to measure his irritation.

« I will continue on my own, thank you very much, » he snapped. « You can see to your usual… Occupations, whatever they may be. »

Giorno raised a dark eyebrow. 

« Ah, but, signore , I wouldn’t - »

Second by second, Leone’s patience wore thinner.

Turning around, he stared down the boy and spat, in a mockery of a whisper :

« I no longer have a need for an escort, thank you. And I would advise that before you go on your merry way, you run back to the house and drop what you have stolen from me. »

Silence. The boy’s face remained cold, though his eyes grew slightly wider ;  just a notch, just a bit, betraying a quiet, humble surprise. His expression was noble, even on this round, juvenile face, and regal too, much to Leone’s ire.

« Stolen, Signore ? » the adolescent attempted, though he did not look as though he believed in his own words. « Surely, you must be mistaken. I never would have dared -- »

« Fool the woman that feeds you all you want, boy, it is far from my business. But you are not the first orphan I meet -- even if you are one of the swiftest. The Signora was kind enough to seize you out of the street corners, and you promised to be on your best behaviour in exchange, I assume. Do not force me to shatter that little arrangement for a few cheap trinkets you might have found in my luggage. »

A soft, calming breeze flew by, only for a second, rushing salty air towards Leone's face, tangling his hair, while gently brushing away the boy’s blond strands. After a moment, a pale smile went to grace the frustratingly tranquil face.

« Well. You certainly have a quick eye, Leone Abbacchio, » the adolescent said, amused.

Leone kissed his teeth in irritation.

« A few acquaintances of mine could teach you some new tricks. Now, shoo. Leave me be. »

« Your wish is my command, signore . »

With the tipping of an imaginary hat, Giorno Giovanna turned, hands in his large pockets, seemingly content -- and soon melded with the rest of the steadily growing and busying populace.

The bite of the sun was steadily growing over his cheeks, his neck, splitting his head with a fiery knife.

Leone was exhausted, weary from his travel, and from the debilitating heat. His feet dragged across the ground when he walked, and the light that reached him was too blinding, too white, too intense, too intimidating. It was not a pale clarity, of divine origins, that one would have found in Girodet’s Entombment of Atala.

In any other situation, Leone would not have been so picky as to want to rival with a Master, of course. But frustration had turned him unusually strict.

Letting out a sigh, and rubbing at his eyelids for the umpteenth time, Leone pulled himself away from the buzz of the tight streets -- and instead, reached out to the sea.

Though his profession made him, both by obligation and by a prominent taste for aesthetics, an admirer of all forms, Leone was, by nature, drawn to the illustration of men -- of all sizes, appearances and professions, for how little that mattered.

Back in Toscana, during his childhood, his very first muses had barely spared him a glance.

He could remember the long hours he had spent, as a young child, seated in the sand, with his short cropped hair, letting the wind run free against his neck. Sketching, sketching, and sketching, over and over, until his wrist began to strain ; trying to capture, as well as he could, the subtle shift in muscles under fabric ; the exhaustion and ruggedness of the features ; the colours, the expressions, the bodies.

Oh, the long afternoons he had spent basking in the tender glow of an affection he did not yet recognize, watching from afar as the fishermen, strollers and various mariners came and went, leaving only a scribbled imprint on Leone’s pages.

Perhaps going back to his very roots would do him some good. It would certainly do him no harm, at the very least.

In the distance, to his right, poking out from the shore, was the Villa Volpicelli, with its Medieval-esque towers and its aged stones. The rock he chose to sit on was uncomfortable, but its support was welcome, after such a day of standing upright. A wave came, seething foam, and rolled not twenty feet away from him, before retiring, after yet another fruitless attack on the shore.

In his direct line of sight, a small group of fishermen and their aligned boats.

Five of them. Four boats.

One old, skin more tan and wrinkled than a piece of parchment, wearing a wild beard that seemed to practically devour his face ; a younger one, most likely his son, with the same pinhead eyes and large ears ; a tall one, stick thin and dark skinned, laughing and smoking a pipe, chatting with the fourth one, who was short, stout, and pale.

And the fifth one.

Ah ! If Leone had known.

It had to be a mirage. An illusion, figment of his heat-plagued, infertile brain, certainly. A surreal image added to this group of mortal, innocent men (though what man was truly innocent, in this day and age ?), resting after a day of labor.

The fifth man was separated from the group and stood on his small boat, face silent and stern, fiddling with the ropes holding the sail in place ; agile fingers and strong arms weaving and pulling and tying quickly, as though trying to tame it. It looked somewhat like a dance, artful and simple, in sharp tensions and swirls.

Unable to stop himself, Leone risked a sketch, then two -- and, finding himself dissatisfied, tried once more, in a different posture, at a different angle.

Thick, black hair adorned his head in gentle waves and curls, cut sharply at the line of his jaw. His skin had a warm, bronze hue, and he had such pleasant, lovely features, that Leone had trouble averting his gaze. Halfway through drawing the slope of his back and the curve of his raised arm, Leone, frustrated once more by his own incapability to render it properly, stopped in his tracks, and tilted up his head, only to find the apparition looking at him.

Heat dove and crashed into his stomach, foaming up to his chest, choking him briefly.

He closed the book. He swallowed, and got to his feet.

His shoes, as he walked, sunk into the wet sand. The young man -- who could not be older than he was -- watched him approach with an attentive stare and a puzzled expression on his features, worn like the most charming of masks.

« May I help you, signore ? » the young man asked, and his voice was assured and kind.

Leone’s tongue was dry. In this instant, he cursed himself for not having been born a man of words, instead of a painter.

« … What is -- » Leone coughed, searched in his throat what to say next, and found himself stupid and mute instead.

The fisherman was still holding the end of the large rope. The light around him was harsh, and white, and painfully blinding, and he shone with so much grace, Leone’s fingers began to twitch, and twitch anew -- curling around the book he carried, itching to find his pencils again, and to try again, to do better, to do him proper justice.

The young man bent over slightly, crouching down in an attempt to better hear the words that would not come. Upon realizing Leone's predicament, and instead of making the choice of letting him simmer in his own distress, he then spoke.

« Signore , would you happen to be lost? »

How very embarrassing, to be looked at in such a way, spoken to in such a way.

« I -- no -- my name is Leone Abbacchio, I -- »

Before he could continue with his helpless rambling, the young man raised an eyebrow, and to Leone’s amazement (was he really so well-known that even well-dressed fishermen had heard of his work?), understanding dawned on his expression.

« Ah ! I see, you were sent to get me. I dearly apologize, they should not have troubled a guest with such a task. »

He pulled his sleeves down and got up from his crouching position. Leone followed him with his gaze, utterly lost and unsure.

« I have to say, » the fisherman continued, « I was aware we would be expecting a visitor -- but the letter did not mention the time you would arrive. I took the liberty of doing a little bit of sail in the meantime. Do pardon me for not welcoming you properly, Signore Abbacchio ! My name is Bruno Buccellati. »

He walked two steps, towards the very edge of the small ship. Leone’s eyes could not have been larger.

« You happen to know la Signora Milazzo, then ? » he attempted, brushing his hair back from where it had stuck onto his forehead.

Bruno took another glance at him, and laughed. A cheerful, soft laugh, which Leone felt to the deepest core of his bones.

« Why, do I know her ! » the young man said, and smiled. « She is my mother. »



It had to be entirely coincidental -- but just as Bruno Buccellati jumped from his boat and landed, safely, onto the grey sand, Leone realized that the light had gone down. It was the sort of light that shone in the very last hours of the day ; an eerie, orange light, tinted by a smidge of darkness, pulling into its very last reserves to stay alive.

The evening had come. Leone’s eyes were at rest. The sweat on his forehead had cooled down.

And his heart was full of fire.

 

The great sky is open! the mysteries are gone!

Far from the standing man, crossing his strong arms

In the vast resplendence of the bountiful nature!

He sings… And the woods sing, and the river whispers

A song full of joy climbing towards the day!

It is Redemption! It is love! It is love!

- Arthur Rimbaud

Chapter Text

Forever stud with stars the sky of my memory

Unextinguishable eyes of those I have loved

Dream like the dead, shine on like past glories

My heart shall burn bright as a May night.

Forgetfulness like a fog erases the faces

The dearly loved movements of the divine past

Those for which we went mad, for which we went sane

Charms of confusion and symbols of faith.

-- Marcel Proust



My dear Celestino,

It has, as I am writing this missive, been three weeks since I have arrived in Napoli.

I apologize for the long delay, friend -- lately, my heart has not been in its proper place : it has lodged itself into my eyes, and I have spent the last few weeks gorging myself on every sight I can possibly take in.

Before you ask, no, I have not yet painted a single thing, but I have drawn countless sketches : almost an entire book, filled to the brim with outlines of seas and of fertile trees and of portraits. It is nothing much, of course, but it is a step in the right direction. One of recovery, I would hope. As it turns out, you were right : this city has quite the inspirational aura to it. I would even go as far as to say that there must be some peculiar component to the air, something to give it this incredible freshness, this novelty, this... Oddity. To me, it is as if the world was born anew.

My heart is still hanging heavy with a sorrow I cannot seem to dispose of. But I have, at the very least, composed myself a routine of sorts. Every morning, I make a point to wake up at the lavender dawn, when stars still light the sky, and before the Signora and her husband have even left their room. There is only one maid that awakens as I do, and she prepares me a light meal with the utmost generosity ; I then proceed to get dressed and leave the house for a long walk, during which I produce about twenty medium sized sketches of references — I do so enjoy copying my surroundings. Once I am tired of walking, I return to the house for an early lunch, shared with the Signora, her husband, and oftentimes, a few of their friends. The conversations are light, most of them interesting, though I could enjoy a few more moments of lonesome calm. I then go to spend the greater part of the afternoon on the beach, where I will clean and color my earlier sketches, as I am granted a clearer mind than in the morning. When all that is done, I am joined by the Signora’s son, and we both go back to the estate, where all of us dine together.

La Signora is a welcoming host. She is courteous, amiable, and well versed in many subjects, much more than I -- I sometimes have trouble keeping up with her conversation. Her husband is not nearly as charming, though the way he parades around the house in his black, severe outfit and his bushy beard reminds me of a more Mediterranean version of Auguste Manet, do you recall that painting ? The couple seems to get along well, but then again, they converse very minimally. I have not yet seen the husband and the son in the same room ; I believe it is safe to assume they do not take kindly to each other’s presence.
I won’t say more on the matter, as you know it is not in my nature to gossip (or so little).
The room they have lent me is small but comfortable. The decor is rather austere, yet very posh, and I have not yet arranged it to my tastes -- I have only moved the bed. My room faces the East, you see, and my poor head cannot handle so much sunlight so early in the morning.
But I plan to do more changes, for it seems I will be staying longer than I had originally anticipated.

As you have most likely already guessed (and as has become customary), I have found myself enthralled by the son of the family.
I will tell you more in my next letter. In the meantime, I wish you well, and send my affection your way.

Your Leone Abbachio

PS: I have been eating well, and returning my plates empty. Do not worry about my health : long past are the times I made myself sick out of love.

I kiss your hand, and bid you goodnight.











There were so many of them crawling around the city.

The children (or those who used to be) of the girls-mothers, of the unmarried youth, of unholy love ; the abandoned runts of too-large families, born with nothing and left with nothing at the most tender age. Abandoned, swaddled in dirty rags, at the doorstep of the Santissima Annunziata Maggiore, where a spinning wheel, cruel antique, would welcome and deliver them, away from the cold and the misery, into the arms of the benevolent sisters.

Sometimes, they would be accompanied by a letter — most often, written in the hand of the one who birthed them, those who felt immense regret from giving the fruit of their loins to the servants of God. Usually, though, there would be nothing.

The sisters would take them, and feed them, for as long as they could and with the little they had, until they grew old enough to fend for themselves, or, as it happened in most cases, until the call from the street grew loud enough to finally lure them in. Sometimes, a decade wouldn’t even pass between their arrival into the orphanage and their departure from it ; but the nuns would not teach them about the ways of the world, and so the children would yearn to seek it out on their own.

They would run, as though born anew from this marble womb, to the dirty streets and cruel lives of the orphans ; they would steal, and lie, and curse, and spit, and claw, and never let down their guard, until they won — won at this cheating game of living, or until they dropped dead, somewhere in a corner, unnamed, uncared for, and remembered by none.

They were called the Espositos : The found children.

And lately, four of them had been following Leone wherever he went.

To be more accurate, they had grown besotted with him after they had heard of his stay at the Milazzo’s from one of their kin — which was none other than Giorno Giovanna, seemingly the leader of this peculiar little troop.

Leone was particularly surprised that such a doe-eyed youth could possibly become the leader of anything, especially a group of street-raised youngsters ; and this surprise, infuriating, only furthered his profound dislike of the boy.

To be fair, his companions were not ostensibly better, it appeared ; they moved together like a little gang of wild cats, faces filthy with dust, laughs boisterous and overly loud ; lazing under the sun, and messing with business that was not their own — and taking their share from travelers’ pockets.

Each time Leone would come down to the beach, as his routine now imposed him, sketching paper in hand, he would find them waiting for him near the washing place, sitting on the old stone, swatting away the fat, buzzing flies.

Of course, Leone found himself far from intimidated. One was so small and skinny, he made him think of a litter’s runt — deprived of proper feeding and attention from birth, skin draped over bones, and who, conscious of his own weakness, had developed an incredibly irritating bark, as if to make up for a lack of bite. A little tuft of black hair adorned his head, strands falling into his eyes, one of which was hidden behind an eyepatch of sorts — though it was truly no more than a dirty, yellowed band of fabric as a makeshift bandage.

The other was much taller and imposing ; his broad shoulders and strong arms, tanned and browned from the sun, definitely showed that the boy (though he could not have been much younger than Leone himself) had once attempted to deliver himself from the deadly grip his destiny held him in ; he looked no different from the sailors and fishermen Leone would watch and draw every day, and seemed to possess their strength — though very clearly, he did not (or no longer did) belong to their world.

The third little companion was a much more surprising addition to this strange gang the children formed : a girl, hair cut short, of relatively small stature and height. Over her legs, a long skirt, the hem of which was torn with holes of use and dusted with dirt ; and above that, a white blouse, too large for her, showing the same wear ; and a pale beige coat, thin and mended, over her shoulders. She was just as tanned, just as filthy as her comrades, and looked exactly as vicious — though her even younger age was turned dark by an air of solemnity her masculine counterparts did not have, save for Giovanna himself.

And the four of them, it seemed, took Leone’s presence as an amusing change in their daily life, and therefore, showered him in (deeply unwanted, deeply unrequited) attention.

It was only more infuriating that it had been, for now, the only sort of attention Leone had been able to catch.

« Pittore ! Pittore ! »

A fly buzzed past his head, tickling him with a little rush of air. He gave his ear a slap, and missed.

Of course, they were here today as well ; little Espositos, birthed from the street, as tough as the food they ate, and just as hard to remove from your teeth.

The tallest one, eyes slitted in concentration, was carefully peeling an orange, scratching at the skin with his fingernail and ripping it from the fruit in a misty, transparent spray of juice. The girl, sitting on the very edge of the stone lavoir, had her arms wrapped around his neck, her cheek pressed against his shoulder — her eyes on Leone.

The two smaller boys waved him over. He did not approach, instead gazing at them from afar, brows drawn in frustration.

Did these children have nothing better to do with their (seemingly ample) time?

The smallest runt cupped his mouth with both hands, appearing to believe he had not called out loudly enough the first time, and repeated his insufferable shriek.

« Hey ! Pittore ! Come over here! Come on, now, how are we to be entertained without our friend ? »

« Don’t you despise to be alone on such a beautiful day ? »

Giovanna seemed to be feeling quite a lot of mirth from bothering the painter. Behind him, the girl gave a quiet snicker, leaning more into the black haired boy’s neck.

The corners of Leone’s mouth curved downwards in a displeased scowl.

Annoying children. Scorching sun.

He turned away from the lavoir and went for the opposite direction. He circumvented a group of chattering women, and in doing so, almost collided with a cart filled to the brim with ripe lemons. The heel of his shoes clicked against the blond cobblestone, with each minute step, like a well-oiled clock.

He took the little streets, trying to outrun them ; but alas, they followed him like specters, ghosts of a painful past.

In another life, he could have become one of them.

Was it a taunt from the heavens above?

« Pittore ! »

They were faster than they seemed — and Leone, despite his long spindly legs, had not yet been able to escape for long. Already, they were at his side, following his every step — starved hounds sniffing at his pockets.

The smallest one, seemingly eager to show off his bravado, reached around to tap on his shoulder.

« Well, Signore, that just ain't nice, ignoring us like that. We’ve been screaming for you all around town ! »

Leone did not grace him with a glance, or even the slowing of his pace. Of course, it did not deter the boy. Hands buried deep in his pockets, the runt gave him a wolfish grin. Leone scoffed, blowing air on the loose strands of his hair, which stuck to his forehead irritatingly.

« Yes, so I’ve heard. And here I stand, ignoring your hideous bellows. Yet it seems that no matter how hard I try, I cannot shake you little fleas off my back. »

The small boy erupted in croaky laughter.

« Wow, fra’, did you hear that ? Did you hear what he just said? »

« See, Narancia, that’s Romans to you. Ill-mannered and superior. Can’t even hold a conversation with us commoners —  sfaccimma, we probably talk too fast for him. »

This utterance had come from the tallest boy, following slightly behind ; still chewing on the ripe quarters of orange in his hands, juice sticking to his fingers and turning them shiny.

Leone could not retain a grimace in his direction.

« Oh, don't you dare insult me so ; I am from Toscana, and am not  Roman by blood. »

« Azz ! Even worse! The very kings of Italy ! Milord, we bow to you ! »

He bent at the waist in a mockery of deference, making his companions snort — the smaller one holding his ribs in his unconfined hilarity.

« Come on, you three, do as I do ! » insisted the older boy. « Don’t you understand we are currently facing bean-eating royalty ? »

The snorts turned to guffaws. Momentarily speechless, Leone could only stare at the blue luminescence of the sky, pondering on why such an unconventional punishment would befall him.

« The beans! » wheezed Narancia, cheeks and nose turned red by his mirthfulness.

« Say, say, Pittore, is it true that toscans’ shit doesn’t smell ? »

« It certainly is an advantage, when faced with children that smell more of mud and barn than a hundred and twenty-five Sicilian pigs. »

This banter was not new, and had become, over the past weeks, rather usual. As such, Narancia let out a playful gasp.

« See, that’s just not very nice ! Didn't your mom teach you any manners? »

« I would be incommensurably nicer to you lots, were you not always following me around. »

« Uh ? Uh ? What’d you say, now ? Who’s following you ? »

« Oh, we’re not following you. »

That was the girl. She was now holding Giovanna’s elbow, cheeks pressed against his shoulder, her face as unreadable as an ancient, secret code, for which Leone did not own a Rosetta.

Her companion acquiesced, running nimble fingers through his hair, and preventing the long, blonde strands from sticking against his jawline.

« We're truly not. We simply happen to be aiming for the same direction. »

A bitter taste, not unlike bile, filled the back of Leone’s throat.

« Are we, truly? »

« Well, I would assume so. You are to see Buccellati, are you not? »

In his eyes was still that twinkle of amusement Leone had not yet been able to shake off since the day they met — no matter how he tried to impose himself as a menacing presence. The child was unrelenting, and, as Leone loathed to admit, did not have to try very hard to twist his nerves.

He felt a sharp strike coming down to the small of his back, and as he turned to see the perpetrator of such an offending slap, he came face to face with the infuriatingly pleased visage of the eye patched boy.

« Lighten up, Pitto’ ! We’ll keep you some company until he decides to show up ! »

Leone's lips curled up, though the grin he showed had no amenable qualities to it.

« What a very comforting thought. Touch me again, child, and I will break your hand. »



They reached the shoreline a brief moment later.

Mercifully, as though God had finally taken pity of Leone’s predicament, the Espositos scattered across the long expanse of the beach, to the more populated areas; seeking lost travelers, distracted strollers, and generous providers to acquire their daily wage.

Leone preferred to stay close to where the little boats would anchor, though not only because he could no longer stand the hoarse, deliberately unnatural coughs Narancia would produce as to attract sympathy.

On the evening he had arrived in Napoli, Leone had, of course, asked the Signora about her son.

From her words, he had managed to gather the complementary pieces of information he needed in order to paint himself an accurate picture of the strange family the three personages seemed to make — information which common decency and politeness (two traits he hadn’t before realized he had) prevented him from asking the young man himself.

La Signora had not replied with too much prompting, or the slightest bit curtly ; on the contrary, the prospect of telling Leone of her late first husband seemed to transport her, which, Leone knew, was not the case for the greater deal of widows. She had not spoken of many details, however.

How much of his father’s likeness appeared through Bruno ?  

Shifting slightly to make his position against the bumpy wall a bit more comfortable, Leone closed his eyes.

Napoli’s sun was, as always, brutal and unrelenting. From his years spent on the coast of Viareggio as a child, Leone had believed that he had gotten used to harsh heats and hot, heavy breezes, with air so thick it barely allowed you a moment of respite to inhale;  but Posillipo had proved him wrong. He lifted his hair up, allowing the sweat on his neck to cool against the rough stone, and blew through his nose.

In front of his burning eyelids, the sea was gently humming, its voice a low, irregular contralto.

He saw foam, and fluffy seaweed, and the dull calm of being underwater. The filtered light, the rising sun, the playful lapping of waves against the hull of a boat. A hand gently picking up a stray oleander flower.

Maybe a seascape?

Overdone, yes, but it would certainly allow for more creativity than he was used to. Maybe enough to ease him back down into his work, like an old sailor learning to swim again after nearly drowning.

Blond sand, and hues of blue, a bright pool of azure, luxurious rays of sun glowing through a shattered hull, foam rising to the sky  —

« Busy old fool, unruly sun, why dost thou thus, through windows and through curtains, call on us ? »

Leone’s heart practically leapt out of his chest as he shot awake with a start — immediately blinking away the harsh hits of light onto his eyes.

His mouth curled into a gargoyle’s grimace before he could take in the sight of his surroundings, and the hard pinch he inflicted to the bridge of his nose did nothing to alleviate the pain burning through his skull.

« Oh Lord. Signore, I apologize for startling you so. Will you be alright? »

When Leone opened his eyes again, the rays of the sun had parted around the shape of a face — and his heart leapt once more as he recognized the figure standing in front of him.

Bruno Buccellati filled his field of vision ; and just as things were, Leone once more lost the ability to utter one complete sentence without sputtering pitifully.

It was slightly comforting to see that the particularly heavy heat of today had also taken its toll on the Napoletano ; or perhaps the manual work he had accomplished, as — according to his mother — he had been working on his boat since early morning.

The sweat on his face and collarbone, far from making him appear unkempt, gave his skin a subtle glow, all the way to his lips and jawline.

The itch in Leone’s fingers reappeared, this time more insistent, as if a silent plea.

« Buccellati, » he croaked, and was horrified at the miserable sound of his own voice.

Buccellati did not seem to mind Leone’s atrocious attempts at trying to seem articulate, and simply nodded.

« That would be me. Have you been waiting long ? If so, I apologize once more — I was so engrossed in my work I barely noticed the day passing by. »

« I — not at all. I did not wait. Or barely. So little, it was hard to notice. »

He rubbed against the back of his skull, easing the slight pain caused by the hard wall it had been resting against.

« Plus, your children of misfortune made sure that I did not stay alone even one minute. »

A pleasant warmth washed over Leone as his companion let out a soft laugh.

« They certainly are a handful, aren’t they? »

« That is one way to put it. »

« Bruno ! »

The high shriek, thrown to the unmoving air, caught both men’s attention immediately, as did the running figure launching itself towards them.

Buccellati spread out his arms, seemingly accepting of his fate, allowing Narancia to propel himself forward — leaving a cloud of dust in his path — and jump into the young man’s hold.

The boy, despite being rather small, certainly seemed to be of a heavy weight, as he almost made Bruno topple over from the shock.

« Bruno, merdaiuolo ! » the boy said, smile large and wide on his face as his companions followed, trotting to join the newly formed group. « Been going cold on us, haven’t ya ? »

« I know, I apologize, » Bruno mumbled, mouth half covered by the thick expanse of Narancia’s inky hair. « Those past few days have been hectic. »

« The boy you sent barely dares to cross the frontier of our district, » noted Giorno, smoothing down the length of his jacket. « He begins to shake when we approach, as if we were to maim him. »

« I know. Mother told me as much ; your reputation precedes you. Or perhaps you simply look so terribly intimidating. »

The larger boy let out a snort, picking at the dirt under his fingernails.

« She must’ve been telling on us to her servants, then, ‘cause we never hurt any house pet — did we, Trish? »

The girl shook her head.

« I don’t think so. Well, there was that time you stole the washerwoman’s cat for old Giacinta’s stew, but she was never able to prove it was you who did it. »

« See ? We’re supposed to be completely innocent. »

« Well, either way, » Bruno huffed, putting Narancia down — and Leone marveled at his ability not to gag at the filthy streaks the boy had managed to imprint on the white of his shirt — « I should have more free time, from now on, with the coming of autumn. Enough to visit you as much as I used to. »

A glint of light attracted Leone’s gaze — the shimmer of a golden coin Giovanna was idly playing with, spinning it around his finger. He sneered.

« Good hunt, I see ? »

Giovanna blinked in his direction.

« Yes, » he conceded, « Rather good. Enough for a grand supper and a few niceties. »

« Like tobacco ! » marveled Narancia, who had clearly never smoked in his life, as he held out a small leather purse which jingled noisily.

« Like tobacco, » repeated Giovanna, and in doing so, gave a light pat to his friend’s forehead.

The taller boy, scratching at the sparse stubble on his chin, leant towards Giovanna, as if in secrecy.

« Say, shouldn’t we move ? Sunset’s getting close, and I really don’t wanna miss whatever the witch got cooking in her cauldron. »

« Silly. With what we have, we can go down to the grocer — buy macaroni, cuttlefish, tomatoes. »

« Aw, but I like Giacinta’s stews. »

« Even while knowing what might be in there ? Porco Dio, you’re disgusting. »

« You boys go ahead, » spoke the girl, leaning against the stone wall. « I’ll join you a bit later. At the hideout. »

Three blinking heads turned to her.

« You sure, Trish ? »

« Yes, yes. You go on. I want to stay on the beach a little longer. »

Giovanna visibly frowned, but said nothing to discourage her — instead choosing to pointedly glance at Leone (whose brows shot up in bewilderment), a regained coldness in his eyes, and pocketed the polished coin.

« Let’s go, then. Bruno, thank you for your time. We look forward to having you visit regularly again. »

« It’s my pleasure. »

« Visit us too, pitto’ ! We’ll miss you ! » Narancia called and waved.

Leone gave a halfhearted wave back, exasperated. Soon, they joined the paved land, and, after a sharp turn through the little streets, disappeared from his sight.



-



Seeing as Buccellati still had a small number of tasks to achieve in town before he would be free to leave, Leone was to wait a little longer on the beach — now in the company of a girl he was barely acquainted with, and who did not, to Leone’s relief, seem to want to partake in any conversation.

Indeed, for a few delightful minutes, he had the infinite luck to be blessed with complete and utter silence. She would stay quiet and sit, eyes riveted on his work, fingers idly playing with the loose curls of her bangs ; dark blue eyes filled with an intensity so great, it was bound to bore a hole straight through the thin parchment paper.

Her bare feet dug through the first, dry layer of sand; skin just slightly darker than the pearly, golden grains it quickly sank into.

Until, as he was busy toning down the edges of a cloud melting into the skyline with the pad of his thumb, she finally spoke.

« Is it in fashion for men to wear their hair so long in Rome ? »

Taken aback by the sudden question, as he had begun to slip into a deeply concentrated state, Leone stayed dumbfounded for a short moment.

« … What a strange question that is. »

He did not look away from his work, and instead focused on adding grey touches to the clouds.

« It isn’t so strange. I’m simply wondering — I’ve never been to Rome before. I imagine it to be a lot more interesting than… here. »

« Here ? »

« Well, here. Posillipo. »

She chuckled, fingers over her mouth.

« Giorno calls it a ‘God forsaken patch of earth, with only rubble and sap to keep it together’. »

A boy of words, it seemed.

«  He isn’t wrong, is he ? I tell you, nothing ever happens here. And there’s not much be proud of. »

« How sad for youth so green to feel such dislike for their own town. »

The neutral curve of her mouth switched to a grimace, as if she had bitten into a lemon most sour.

« Of course, you can't understand. You were never forced to live here. Stuck in a fisherman’s village, with no way to ever get out. No easy way, at least. »

« I could think of some benefits, » Leone mumbled, gaze absently drifting to a small group of anglers unloading their heavy shipment onto the harbour.

Turning to a different page, his pen traced over the dipping curve of a bicep, tense with effort, and to it he added a similarly strong forearm, as well as, in dumb, dreamy wonderment, a large,
calloused hand closing around the rim of a crate. Thick fingers, with knuckles like sailors’ knots.

That would not look so out of place in a marine, would it ?

His side dipped under a sudden weight.

Turning so quick he nearly snapped his neck, Leone flinched, throwing off the origin of the weight — which had been, seemingly, nothing but the girl’s chin, which she had leant upon the (he assumed extremely uncomfortable) jut of his shoulder in order to catch a glance at his sketch.

« Oh, this looks nice, » she approved, apparently not at all disconcerted by Leone’s recoil.  « A friend of mine often tries, but he says he can never quite get the hands right. Yours look infinitely better than his. »

« You have a painter amongst your peers? »

She made a rude snorting noise with her nose, waving her hand.

« Oh, no, no! He’s not a painter, definitely not. No, he makes… Ah, how is that called… Caricatures ! He draws them on the walls all over Napoli. His style has been made quite famous amongst the local police. »

Unable to help himself, Leone let out an amused scoff.

« Is that so. How amusing. »

« Yes. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t been able to see him in a while. I hope he’s in good health. The only thing I’ve been able to gather was that he had been caught in some sort of story with La Camorra, and — »

« Little girl. »

She looked up at him. This close, Leone was able to notice the dusting of freckles on her cheekbones and nose, as if a spray of hazel-colored sea foam had left an imprint on her skin. The upturned collar of her light shirt reached the bottom of her jaw with how big it was on her, and the dusty beige color of it seemed to meld with the shade of her skin.

With the blue of her eyes, she did very much look like a more realistic approach on Lippi’s Virgin.

Had he felt healthier, he would have felt to his very core the urge to paint her, to carve this ephemeral beauty into a canvas, never to be forgotten; but the mere thought of holding a brush in his hands again was as if a fresh flow of bile belched out from his stomach — as acidic and scalding as the Vesuvius’ lava.

He swallowed it back. Allowed the closeness of her face, the cool certitude in her gaze. Allowed the sadness, the piercing nostalgia. Let it overflow.

« Why exactly are you here? »

And, as he had expected, she did not miss a beat, did not even blink, and her question made Leone’s heart tighten wrenchingly as much as it made him smile.

« Will you teach me how to paint? »

Cold air and salt filled his nostrils, and it felt like a purification.

-



« Does it truly matter, though ? »

« Which part of it ? »

« The clouds. »

« Mm ? »

« Do they truly have to look exactly the same as the ones we’re looking at ? The wind makes them change shape all the time. Plus, no one will know when they look at the drawing. »

« That is the beauty of it. Replicating exactly the image, the feeling you can only perceive for an instant. Copying in its every detail what will fade forever a moment later. »

With a gentle hold on her hand, Leone corrected the line she had just traced — turning it into a cleaner, more assured curve.

« It is not so much about capturing an image. It has more to do with trying to hold back a memory, a sensation, as fleeting as it might have been. To keep what time takes from us. Not only the shapes, but the light, the impression of something grander. »

« That seems awfully complicated, » she grumbled, trying to copy the way Leone had gone over his own seaside sketch.

« Mm. I never was a good teacher. But I suppose you will have to make do with the meager advice I can provide. The rest, you will learn with experience. »

« How dull. »

He smiled.

In the corner of his eyes, with the diminishing light of dusk, he saw a flash of movement ; as he turned, shielding himself from the sun, he was able to recognize Buccellati, walking towards the strange pair they must have made to a stranger’s eye.

Buccellati seemed to have changed clothes. The white of his shirt was brighter ; his trousers, brown when he had left, were now as jet black as his hair, and much more fitting to the length of his legs.

Whenever he saw him approach in such a way, back slightly bent from a day’s work, the tired, yet satisfied curl of his lips, and his delicately carved features, Leone could barely suppress the twist and pull at his heartstrings. He got up, brushing the sand from his legs.

« I suppose this is our call, Signorina Una. »

« Wh — already? I haven’t — please, you have to teach me more, you cannot just — »

« Whenever we meet each other again, I will count on you to provide me with plenty of sketches made by your hand. »

She blinked.

« I don’t — how could I draw? »

« Keep the pencils I gave you. And, here. » He tore four blank pages of his notebook, giving them to the girl. She grabbed them hesitantly.

« Are you certain ? I couldn’t rid you of — »

« I have much more. Take them. Train your eyes and hands alike. And remember — I will not hold back on my critiques. »

The smile she gave him shone brighter than a thousand suns.

« Thank you so much, pittore ! Thank you ! I promise, I won't disappoint you ! »

« You better not : I have high expectations. »

She jumped to her feet, not even taking the time to brush off the caked sand on her skirt ; and, clutching the paper and pencils to her chest, as if they were the dearest things she had ever held, she ran off, almost knocking Buccellati over in her haste.

« Ciao, Bruno ! » she called, and already, she had reached the paved path of the city.

« Ah, farewell, » Bruno replied, his stance betraying his surprise as he made his way to Leone. « What has gotten into her ? »

« Who can truly explain what goes on in an artist’s mind, » Leone mumbled with an abstract wave of his hand, making Bruno laugh.

« Ah, what I would give for an answer to that question ! Shall we move on ? »

« Certainly. »

« My mother will be displeased, » Bruno winced as they took off for the Milazzo home. « It is so awfully late. »

« No need to worry. I will make sure that she blames it on my terrible, terrible bohemian influence on you. »

« Hah ! I sincerely doubt she will believe it, but I appreciate your noble sacrifice nonetheless. I hope my children did not bother you too terribly after I left. »

« Not at all. If anything, I seem to have awoken a certain vocation in one of them. »

« Is that so? »

« Well, perhaps it was not me who awoke it, but I still have found myself taking on the role of a teacher. »

« Mm. You could not have found a better student. Trish is a good girl, » Bruno sighed. « She suffers from a bad reputation amongst her peers because of her relations. Although, I suppose a girl accompanying four boys, no matter how good their upbringing, is bound to get people to talk. »

People certainly talked about Trish Una ; often in bad, most salacious terms — terms no adolescent girl should have been called, in any given context. At an early age, she had learnt to ignore the cruel words and spitting insults, and thanks to luck (or perhaps her patron saint, Santa Patrizia, whose holy blood had forever been the guardian of Napoli), she had soon found protectors : and while their occupations were, to any honest man, disputable at best, they were kind, and resourceful, and the help she needed to make sure her mother ate and survived without shame.

This, though, was about to change. Everything was about to change. And all she needed was a little luck, a chance, a way out.

And this way out was Leone Abbacchio.



-



« You say you studied in Gaspare’s atelier in Florence, mh ? »

Sigismondo Milazzo was not, by any means or in any way, a handsome man. Most of his features were hidden behind a bushy gray beard, through whch only sparse remnants of black could be seen around his chin, as though grasping at his fading youth. His skin was reddish in colour, flushed with a constellation of ruptured blood vessels across both his cheekbones ; his eyebrows, sparse and unnaturally long, were a premature white ; and his lips, thinner than a sheet of paper, were a shocking, almost comical red.

He dressed like a man of his status most likely would have twenty, thirty years ago : a strict, severe black outfit, no matter the heat, with a collar that reached the lower part of his jaw, seemingly keeping his neck tight and straight. He was a caricature, a monument, a relic : an aging man from another time.

« I did, yes, » Leone quickly answered, wiping the corners of his mouth. « I stayed there for about six years. Then, at eighteen, I left for Rome with… A great companion of mine. »

The Signora smiled, dimples forming in the delicate skin of her cheeks.

« That must have been a great adventure for you. How old are you now, Leone? »

He let go of his napkin, folding it over twice.

« Twenty one, Signora. »

She gasped. Signore Milazzo let out a cough, deep and rumbly, leaning back into his chair.

« That is rather surprising. I would have given you... Well, I do not know. Five more years, at least. Perhaps even ten. »

Leone grimaced a pretense of smile.

« I suppose my fairy godmothers refrained from giving me good looks, and instead chose to provide me with maturity. »

Laughter erupted across the table.

It was true that Leone’s appearance had never brought him much pride. After all, his physique was nothing terribly attractive ; he was too tall, and had long, spidery limbs that seemed glued to his body by some sort of skeletal magic ; he had a long face, bony and hard, with high cheekbones and a low forehead, and eyes too pale, too sensitive to the light, and eyebrows too dark, which stiffened his features. People often believed him to be much older, or, most of the time, simply uglier than they expected.

To his surprise, he felt the sharp slap of a napkin onto his wrist ; the Signora, though still smiling, had a frown on her radiant, regal face.

« Do not go speaking this sort of nonsense, » she tutted. « You are as handsome as can be. Girls must be fawning over you left and right. »

« Mother, » came Bruno’s voice, to Leone’s immense relief. « Leave the poor man alone. I am sure his heart is not currently set on romance. »

The Signora sighed.

« Well, that is a proper shame. After all, what better age to enjoy romance than springy youth, mmh?  »

« Mother, please. »

« I believe it is time for us to withdraw, Gioia, » interjected Milazzo, wincing as he got up from his chair, assisted by a maid — the bend of the backrest must have been painful for his sciatica. « Pardon us, young men, but it has gotten late. »

« Of course, of course, » Leone conceded, getting up to pay his respects for the Signora. « I apologize once more for our late arrival. »

« There’s no need for you to apologize, » he grunted, gaze pointedly aimed at his adopted son, who had also gotten up and was now receiving a kiss on the cheek from his mother. « Good night, Bruno. »

« Yes, Sigismundo. Good night. Good night, mother. »

« Good night, my dear. Good night, Leone. »

« Good night. »

They sat back down in unison as the couple left, a long sigh escaping Bruno’s lips. Leone smiled, inspecting a wrinkle on the leg of his trousers.

« Your mother’s spouse do not seem to hold you in a good light. »

« Mm. And how could he ? He is not exactly the object of my affection, either. »

Finally, the occasion Leone had been awaiting for days on end.

« What of… Your blood father? »

He felt Bruno’s gaze brushing over him, like a slight, subtle rush of heat. He made sure to keep his own fixated on the persistent wrinkle of fabric of his trousers.

« My blood father ? »

He laughed. Tinkling and assured. From the corner of his eyes, Leone saw him take his glass, and a long sip of wine, clicking his tongue to savor the taste.

« Mm. Has she not told you ? »

« Very little, to say the truth. I decided I would rather hear it from your mouth, if at all. »

« I love my mother dearly, but she does not have the heart of a story teller. »

« Do you have this heart ? »

Bruno put his glass down again. His lips were curled in a distant smile.

« Stories are the only way for me to relate with my past. »

He drew a long inhale, leaning back against his seat. His eyes closed shut. Leone’s own ventured, and got lost in the long curve of his exposed throat.

« His name was Napoleone Buccellati, » Bruno murmured, so low Leone barely heard. « A little over twenty years ago, he met my mother, and immediately asked for her hand in marriage. He was renowned for his bravery at the service of the Spanish fleet. A brilliant soldier in his time, I have heard. A man of great culture and intelligence. A quiet man at heart, too, who yearned for nothing but peace. »

He opened his eyes, and reached once more for his glass, but did not drink from it ; instead, he simply stared down into the small pool of wine, thumb gently rubbing over the cristal rim. Eyes lost into a reminiscence, a dream of a life long past.

« My mother was just barely eighteen years old, and already promised to another in her hometown of Potenza. She did not hesitate one second, and ran with him. They left for Posillipo, but, over an injury that had cost him the proper use of one of his legs, my father was discharged from the army. He bought a little home near the sea where I was born, and where I now spend most of my days. It is very humble, but it is a fisherman’s palace, and it is very dear to me. My mother allowed me to keep it, despite the memories it brings her to this day.

« As soon as he arrived, he became quite the sensation in Posillipo, as well as in all of Napoli. My father was a kind man, and well loved by his peers, and so was my mother. They managed to get by. Soon, however, money became scarce. My mother considered going back to her family, beg them for pardon ; but he refused. He then did what prompted his demise ; he got into business with the wrong people. »

« What kind of people ? »

« La Camorra, dear friend. Have you not heard of them ? They are a large group, throughout all of Campania. They speak in codes, live off crime. They rule over this part of Italy, hidden in the shadows. My father asked them for a loan. But it wasn’t enough : he was a generous man, and wanted only the best for me and my mother both. So he played games and gambled, hoping to earn more, and lost everything in the process. When La Camorra realized it was not going to receive the reimbursement it expected, my father suffered the consequences of his kindness. »

« That… Must have been terrible. For you and your mother both. »

« Oh, you cannot imagine. My mother showed impossible strength during that period, and I cannot thank her enough for everything she did. She remarried quickly, and was able to provide for us, despite the cruelty of the people around her. I find it immensely admirable. »

He tilted his head, facing Leone ; his smile now bright and honest.

« And while I am eternally grateful for Signore Milazzo’s role in my life, that does not mean I cannot openly show every bit of the colossal contempt I feel towards him. »

Leone felt laughter bubbling inside him ; the wine and good company warming him to the core.

« And what of your family, Leone? »

« Oh — I am an orphan. I was raised by my grandmother in Toscana. »

Bruno winced.

« I am deeply sorry. »

« Thank you, but there is no need. It was… A long time ago. I suppose it made me grow wiser. Warier, too. To ridiculous measures, one might argue. »

A silence settled in, cadenced by the ticking of the clock.

« You know… »

Leone blinked. Bruno had his chin in his hand, seemingly lost in thought ; his eyes roaming over Leone’s face, with an intensity that made him shiver.

« You do seem a lot older than you are. But I would not say it is because of your looks. »

He inched closer, bending his back, reaching out for Leone’s skin ; his hand carried infinite softness as he gently pressed it to Leone's cheekbone.

« It has more to do with this… immense sadness — no, no, worse than that —this immense tiredness you seem to feel. »

His fingers traced higher, to his nose, the dark circles framing his lower lid.

« Almost as if it managed to settle into your face. So far, even, that it greyed your skin. Your eyes. Your hair. »

He gently rubbed his thumb against the dip of his jaw, before he removed his hand. The skin of Leone’s cheek stung, as though it had been slapped.

Bruno smiled.

« You ought to spend more time in the sun, pittore. »

Leone tried to speak, but breath failed him. What came out was more of a sputter, a waste of voice, a pathetic mumble ; warmth settling into his chest, and stomach, and ears, and throat all at once, choking him, paralyzing him.

« Perhaps — perhaps I ought to. Perhaps. I… Have already done significant progresses in my work. »

« That is wonderful to hear. »

Slowly, he leant away from Leone, and got up, breaking the invisible bond that had slowly been weaved between the two of them. Leone’s heart felt like it could scream, cry like a deserted child, thrown into utter loneliness by the sudden, brutal distance between them.

Will you let me draw you, he longed to ask. Will you let me paint you, your beauty, your wisdom and kind heart?

He did not ask.

« I do hope you will let me see it, » Bruno said in his stead.

As if a pin had struck his backside, Leone shot up from his seat ; cheeks reddened in shame of his daydream.

« You — of course. Yes. Whenever I — »

He sighed. Rubbed at his eyes.

« You will be the first to know. »

Bruno reached to shake his hand ; but as Leone gave it to him, he kept it there, inspecting it. The warmth of his palms made Leone’s cold, long fingers tingle.

« Maledetti Toscani, », Bruno murmured, « con l’inferno in bocca e il paradiso nelle mani… »

Leone’s stomach tightened. A painful, delicious strain.

Bruno squeezed his hand.

« I would adore to see your work, Leone. Please, get better soon. »

With a nod of acknowledgement, and a few more words of parting, Leone left for his bedroom.

As he sat in front of his window, blank canvas facing him, mind buzzing, breath shallow, fingers still tickling from the incredible gentleness of Bruno’s calloused, warm hands, Leone could only think of one thing ; a thought so brutal and pervasive he could barely focus on anything else.

As if moved by a spirit, Leone grabbed his tools, his paint, his oils. His back took on this familiar, painful posture he was so very used to : his wrist and hands found the very patterns he had worked so hard to acquire, all those years ago. His mind filled with only one thought. One image. The impression of something grander, just out of his reach, but caught in the tender glow of the light he had searched for all this time.

That night, Leone painted. He painted, and along with the filling canvas, he felt his heart bloom.

 

 

Chapter Text

Let us love, let us love! from the flying hour

Let us run, let us rejoice!

Man knows no harbor, time knows no shore

It drips, and we too shall pass!

— Alphonse de Lamartine

 


« Is it almost done? »

The charcoal outline was barely noticeable, even with the use of a strong linseed oil and turpentine glazing to protect it from the paint. Too scared of making mistakes, he had used only the slightest lines, the slightest brushstrokes ; and when he had begun to apply paint, his hands had shaken so terribly, he had almost snapped the handle of his brush in half.

« A few more touches, Signora. »

Just a few more. And after that, a few more. And after that...

Slipping back into work felt a lot less like slipping into an old tailored suit, and a lot more like desperately trying to fit into childhood clothes ; they pulled tight at the seams and dug into his skin. His forehead shone with sweat, his muscles felt cramped ; it was as though it, this art he had tried to master for years, had now begun to take a physical toll on his very being. Worse yet, it felt as if in only a few months of inactivity, he had forgotten everything — every technique that had been forced into his brain suddenly felt brand new to his fingers. Each uneasy dip into the palette, each stroke pushed into the canvas was a nail hammered into his heart.

Still, he painted on.

To make matters worse, Signore and Signora Milazzo made for excellent models. Gioia Milazzo had shown every bit of the infinite patience that was asked of her. If she had grown tired of her posing, standing as she was next to her husband (whom was sitting upon a large velvet chair he occupied like a throne), she had not shown it. Her long hair had been untied, and spilt over her shoulders in inky curls. She possessed a unique charm that could surely be found in her son, and her features were lovely and fresh. Her husband, though he looked significantly less darling, was lit by the aura of paternal severity of an elder from ancient Greece, which looked rather good once imprinted onto the material.

Yet, trying to replicate their likeness upon a canvas proved to be a challenge.

Defeated, Leone finally set his brush down, staring over his work with a disgusted, forlorn gaze.

Truth be told, it looked properly awful.

He had been dissatisfied from the very beginning, when he had traced the first few lines of the couple’s silhouette in charcoal. They had looked uneven, shaky, embarrassed to even exist. And now that he was seeing it close to being finished, he had to face the horrible truth : the colours did nothing to improve its looks. They looked patchy, poorly mixed, too thick and too thin all at once ; a faded ghost of what he knew himself to be capable of.

This realization did wonders to worsen his mood.  

« There. It… Will do. The rest, I shall finish on my own. Thank you immensely for your cooperation, Signore, Signora. »

All he could do now was to leave it to dry, and get back to fixing it once his mind was clearer.

As he removed the canvas from its easel, Gioia Milazzo skipped over to him, properly beaming, hands clasped together. In such a pose, she looked even younger ; the softness of her traits was embellished by the light in her eyes.

« Oh, dear Leone, may I see it? I believe it must be the very first time I have ever gotten my portrait done. I am excited like a child ! »

Unable to deny her, Leone turned the canvas in her direction. She gasped, audibly. Behind her, Signore Milazzo, grunting and cracking in every joint, arose from his large velvet seat.

« Dear me! » she said, flushed from joy, « I had no idea you would work so fast ! How incredible talent is ! »

Leone felt his cheeks burn hot.

« It, truly is nothing. Um. I usually — for a portrait, it takes about… Well, a few hours, at least. Usually a few days. A marine, however, I can make ten times as fast. Same with a, let’s say, a still life. I try to be as quick as I can, so the lighting does not change, or, so the impression of the moment isn’t lost. Do you… »

« Now, » grumbled Milazzo, now straight as a broom, heading towards the painting stomach-first. « Let me see this… »

His glasses, incredibly small for such a large face, held the most comical effect. Leone promptly bit his tongue, as to fight the upward twitch of his lip. Meanwhile, Milazzo leant closer and closer to the canvas, only stopping once he was a breath away and a light push from his wife would have sent his nose bumping against the damp paint. He clicked his tongue, and drew back.

« This doesn’t look a single bit like you, Gioia. »

« Oh, but dear, of course it does ! See, here, the curls in my hair? »

« Yes, I'll admit, that's a clever brush trick, » Milazzo huffed, wiping his glasses against the collar of his coat. « Oh, let me be clear. This isn’t too bad, no, not by any means — after all, I am far from an aesthete, and do not know much about this particular art. Who am I to criticize. »

Indeed, Leone thought.

« ... But it simply looks very different from you, is all. No point in arguing that. » He removed his glasses and proceeded to wipe them clean. « That does not mean it is a bad work... But I suppose I was always more used to, ah, finer approaches. »

« When it is done, Signore, » Leone replied, « I am sure you will find much more of your wife’s likeness in my work. Stay assured. »

« Mmh. »

The older man’s dissatisfaction made his face look even more strict than usual. His thin, red lips were pressed together in an austere fashion, a paternal dissatisfaction that would have made even a seasoned army man go red in the cheeks. Leone’s neck, already damp with nervous sweat, tingled with the hot fire of shame.

« Very well, » Leone muttered, in a barely audible voice. « Again, thank you very much for lending me some of your time. I will concern you no more. »

« It was no concern at all ! »

Gioia Milazzo smiled once more, cheeks creasing the slightest bit as she did so ; and Leone wondered, as he often had for the past month, how such a joyful woman could bear to live her life with such a sour fellow.

Said fellow, once dismissed, immediately headed back to his study, with no more parting words. Gioia, thumb rubbing against the back of her hand, lingered for a while longer, watching as Leone added a few touches of light to the horizontal canvas.

She must be awfully bored, Leone thought, to enjoy my company of all things.

« Is the room still to your liking ? » she asked, her tone surprisingly sheepish. « I know it is awfully modest… »

« Oh, it certainly is. To my liking, I mean. »

And it was. Though, to be fair, Leone did not spend much of his days indoors. His visits to his bedroom were merely nightly, nowadays ; his days were spent outside, observing, and drawing, often in delectable company.

« Although, I must confess, » he added after a second of silence, « I am beginning to run out of space. And the lighting in my room is less than ideal. Eastern exposure can only get me so far, and natural light is crucial to a well-finished painting. »

« Oh ! If that is the case… »

Leaning her hip against the table, she beamed up at him. For a second, the light caught on the thin, golden pendant around her neck. A small, tasteful, shiny cross. Leone had always preferred silver, though he found it pretty all the same.

« Perhaps we could find you an atelier ? »

« Is there such a thing in Posillipo? »

« Well, it would not be called an atelier, I assume. But there are certainly rooms to rent. Signora Una rents a few, to pay off her debts. I am sure she would be glad to have someone over — someone serious and well-mannered, such as you! »

A strange thing to call him, to say the least.

For a second, Leone, considered it. It would certainly be a lot more convenient in terms of lighting, as well as space to move around, and to store his work. He would also have the ability to bring models in, something he could not possibly do in the Milazzo home.

« It would be convenient, yes… I suppose I shall pay her a visit. »

« That is good to hear ! It shouldn’t be too hard to find, she lives right downtown. Maybe Bruno can give you the directions ? He knows that part of the city a lot better than I do. »

« Oh, no need to bother your son. »

« It is no bother at all ! You are a very esteemed guest. And I pride myself in having raised my son well, in spite of everything. »

Such kindness was a surprise, even coming from this particular woman. Feeling a tad humbled, Leone gave her his many thanks, and the promise to keep working as hard as he could, as to not disappoint her. She laughed, gently brushing his arm.

« Now, now, I’ll let you work. But don’t forget my offer ! »

« I won’t. Thank you again, Signora Milazzo. »

With a last, bright smile, Gioia Milazzo left the room, footsteps light and quiet as a mouse.

« What a good woman, » Leone murmured to himself, and went back to work — adding a rosy tint to the painted face in front of him.


-


Bruno Buccellati could not be found, as he was to spend the whole day at sea. Though chagrined by the young man’s absence, Leone decided he would make do on his own ; after all, two months had passed since his arrival in Posillipo, and he freely assumed that he no longer needed to be accompanied in order to find his way around town.

He soon realized, however, that he had assumed wrong.

The little city was almost labyrinthesque in nature. The streets, tight and sinewy, were buzzing with activity, even now, a few days into September. Beggars, merchants, mothers shopping for goods with their children in tow, workers, old men laughing with their gums exposed and spitting on the ground to mark the end of each sentence. At every corner, you could find three more openings to even tinier streets, with even more activity to fill them. It made for a perfect environment to get hopelessly lost in; and Leone, overwhelmed by the heat and absurd noise, did exactly that.

Teeth gritted, as though the action cost him an incredible amount of effort, he found in himself the resolve to ask the way to a stranger.

Leant against a yellow wall, slightly away from the agitation, an old woman sat, wrinkly hands plucking away at a chicken with obvious expertise. The off-white, fluffy feathers were picked out and drifted in the air for the shortest moment, until they began their descent to the ground, covering the dust in a circle around the woman — as well as her long, black skirt. She soon noticed him approaching, and gave him an inquisitive nod.

« Ehi, Nonna, » he called out, hand coming up to his forehead, wiping away the sweat. « Do you know where I might be able to find Donatella Una? »

Immediately, the old woman began speaking a language Leone, though able to identify it as italian, simply could not understand a word of. He had slowly gotten used to the way Neapolitans spoke, over the weeks : the absurdly quick pacing, the ten abbreviations every sentence which made it nearly impossible to identify certain words, the strong accent, the specific dialect. So far, he had been rather successful, and was proud of himself for achieving that feat.

But that pride immediately deflated upon hearing this woman talk, speaking a language that was so very clearly italian, but that seemed completely foreign to his ears. She accompanied her words with fast movements of her hands, pointing fingers in various directions, apparently showing him the right path, although he had no way of knowing for sure.

After an excruciating, unnaturally long minute of explanations Leone did not understand, the old woman finished talking, tilting her chin up at him and grinning pleasantly.

« Bbuno, guaglione? »

It was not bbuno at all.

« … Sì. Grazie mille. »

And thus, Leone tried once more to find his way by himself.

He had tied his hair, in order to let a potential hint of breeze to cool his neck ; but in this corner of town, so filled to the brim with people, and with buildings so towering, no wind was to be found. The atmosphere was suffocating, and Leone, clothes damp with sweat, was beginning to wonder if this town would, as it turned out, lead him to his demise.

That was when a high-pitched, nasal voice called out to him.

« Hey ! Hey, pittore ! That you ? What’re you doing in this part of town ? »

Never since his arrival had Leone been so relieved to see one of the Espositos.

A flash of black hair, and, quick as a wisp, surged Narancia, all smiles and missing front tooth, as if produced from the street corner itself.

Against his hip, held like a baby, was a large hessian bag filled to the brim with artichokes. The bag was nearly as big as the boy who carried it, and yet said boy seemed to lift it with relative ease, his back slightly hunched.

« I suppose there is truly no place I could go in this town to be freed from your presence, » Leone sighed, though there was no real spite in his words. His eyes slid from Narancia’s grin, illuminating his youthful features, to the bag of artichokes he was carrying.

Truth be told, he hadn’t eaten anything all day, and he was beginning to feel properly famished. He wasn’t usually one for large meals; but it seemed that since his arrival in Posillipo, his appetite had grown significantly.

Was it something in the air, the good weather, or something else entirely?

Grabbing an artichoke from the bag, he began to pass it from hand to hand, weighing it, measuring its shape.

« And where are you going like this ? Off to more trouble ? »

The boy snickered, giving a light shove to Leone’s arm with his free hand. Leone winced.

« You know it ! » Narancia chuckled. « Not really this time around, though. I’ve got a really important mission to fulfill, see — hell, the whole evening pretty much depends on me ! »

Leone gave a glance to Narancia, then to the bag of artichokes he was holding.

He raised a single, unimpressed eyebrow.

« Because, see, » Narancia continued, briefly licking the sweat that had gathered on his upper lip. « This is gonna be the last party before the San Gennaro celebrations ! And I need to take care of the food, see, because otherwise, everyone’s gonna go hungry and we can’t have that, ‘cause, see, we just can’t expect Giacinta to take care of all the food for everyone that’s gonna be dancing and having fun ! Now, don’t get it wrong, I'm not cooking, ‘cause that’s not what I do, last time I got close to a knife Mista said he’s cut my nose off, and I know I could take him in a fight, that’s not a problem, but I’m just not trying to get in trouble with him because, come on, he’s my friend, even if he’s taller and older and whatnot. »

He paused, eyes large, forehead beading with sweat. His cheeks were a ruddy, bright red.

« Where… Where was I going with — oh, yeah ! Anyway, this is why I’m bringing those artichokes ! We’re gonna be chopping them up and eat them with some, olive oil, and — although, I’m not the one doing the cooking, did I already say that ? »

His gaze seemed terribly unfocused.

« Dear me, » mumbled Leone. « Just how long did you stay under the sun? »

« I don’t burn ! » Narancia replied, red as a lobster. « I’m a true Napoletano ! The sun can’t hurt me ! »

Rolling his eyes, Leone grabbed a hold of the boy’s shirt, and pulled him to his side, under the shade.

Well, no matter. He had places to go to — if only he knew how to get there.

« Say, Narancia, » he asked, apropos of nothing, as if he hadn’t been going around in circles in this tiny speck of town for longer than he could possibly admit to. « Do you happen to know where the house of Donatella Una is ? »

Narancia seemed to think it over for a second, and audibly gasped.

« Donatella Una ? Sure, sure, I know where she is ! I’m at her house all the time ! Let me be your guide ! »

And without further ado, Narancia was on his way, going straight into a tiny street corner and immediately turning left. Taken aback, Leone went to follow in long strides — still struggling to follow the boy’s quick pace.

Said boy was practically trotting, the large bag on his shoulder shaking to the rhythm of his steps. A few artichokes threatened to fall to the ground, but thanks to some miracle, managed to stay in place. After bumping into a few shoulders, sneaking past a number of annoyed passersby, and almost managing to lose Leone thrice, finally, Narancia stopped dead in his tracks, in front of a squarish, two-stories house.

To be frank, Leone did not immediately pay close attention to the house itself. Cool air was washing over him, drying his forehead, making him exhale a sigh of relief.

It seemed that the Una home could be found sitting right in front of the gulf of Napoli.

He certainly hadn’t searched over there.

In front of him, water stretched out in a large, circular bay. From this angle, he could see not only the entirety of Posillipo, but also the much larger expanse of Napoli, further, unfurled all around the foot of the Vesuvio — sleepy, treacherous giant of stone.

He took in the view for a brief moment. Breathed in, slow and deep. The salty air filled his mouth. The small, calm waves licked so very gently at the earth in front of him, humming so lightly it sounded like a mournful sigh. Away from the relentless agitation, Leone felt calm.

A small, roofless carriage drove right past him, and though his dislike for horses was infinite, he barely even noticed.

« Pittore ! We’re here ! »

Blinking away from the charming view, Leone turned to face Narancia. The boy stood right in front of the smallish house he had noticed earlier. The walls were a sandy, yellow colour, with only a few crack in the paint revealing its age. The louvered shutters were open, allowing him to see the rectangular windows — which were, to be frank, quite small, but sufficient to let some light in. As it was the case with most neighbouring houses, the roof was flat. A piece of brown fabric was stretched above the door, as a makeshift porch of sorts, granting a small space of shade. Underneath it, a wooden bench had been set, and a woman sat upon it.

Had Leone been a different man, she would have surely taken his breath away. Untied hair spilt over her shoulders in auburn strands, slightly curled at the tip, and framing her face delightfully. Her skin was the tanned hue of generations of outdoor workers, and her exposed shoulders bore the patches of redness that came with such a work. She had kind, if slightly mischievous eyes, reminders of a wild youth, and lips surrounded by smiling lines. She seemed lost in thoughts, chopping away at broccoli curds and leaves, though she did not look sad. Unsurprisingly, her features bore a resemblance to someone Leone had seen before — and it didn’t take him very long to figure out whom it was she reminded him of.

At the woman’s feet, sitting cross legged in the dust, was Trish Una, who seemed infinitely bored by the ordeal. She was peeling away the first few leaves of a cabbage, letting them fall to the ground in a pile, before putting the smooth little sphere down into a large plate next to her mother.

Of course, they had to be related. The likeness of both their faces (not to mention, their last name) was rather obvious.

Apparently overjoyed to be here, Narancia let his bag of artichokes fall to the ground, before excitedly running towards the woman. She noticed him a mere second before he lunged towards her and wrapped his arms around her waist, and therefore let out a surprised yelp. She then laughed, careful to keep the knife away from the boy embracing her.

« Ciao, zietta ! » Narancia said in a delighted voice, slightly muffed by the way his mouth was pressed against the woman’s shoulder.

« Oddio, Narancia, » the woman replied, taken aback but chuckling all the same. « You’re burning hot ! Do you have a fever ? »

« Nooooo ! » Narancia replied, breaking away from the cradle of her arms. « But, let me tell you, I had to wait around for, what, an hour before this guy finally turned around and left his artichokes alone ! »

« You stole all this ? » Trish gasped, going through the hessian bag with large eyes. « Narancia, he’s going to be very, very mad at you. Better not to show your face in town for a few days. »

Rolling her eyes and clicking her tongue, Donatella reached to grab Narancia’s nose and pinched it between her index and middle finger, twisting slightly to the side and making the boy yelp.

« Ow, ow, ow ! Zietta, stop, this hurts ! »

« What did I tell you about this, mh? You don’t steal for me, Narancia. I have enough trouble as it is without you suffering the wraths of farmers around all of Campania ! »

Her tone was severe, but her eyes twinkled with fondness.

After a while, she finally let go of the boy’s nose, and sighed.

« Well, it’s good to have you here. I desperately need help in preparations of — oh, my. »

She had finally looked up from where she sat, and had noticed Leone.

He had once heard that his presence, while discreet and subtle, exhaled an aura of intimidation. A few acquaintances of his had even told him that his light eyes and dark brows made him look like an angry criminal.

He could never really guess why.

Donatella Una turned to her daughter, wiping her hands on her apron.

« You know him, Patrizia ? »

« He’s a friend ! » interjected Narancia, still rubbing at the painful, sunburnt tip of his nose. « He wanted to see you, Zietta ! »

« Me ? »

« I was informed by la Signora Milazzo that you have rooms to rent, » Leone finally said, inching closer to the trio. « I would be interested in renting one, as a, well, an atelier of sorts. I am a — »

« He’s a painter, mama, » Trish intervened, getting up and dusting off the back of her skirt. « You know, he’s the one I told you about ! He arrived a few weeks ago. »

Donatella got up as well, putting aside her cuts of broccoli.

« Oh, it’s you ! The painter, she did tell me about you ! » she said, her face not seeming nervous anymore. She smiled at Leone. « Well, if you are interested, you are very welcome to stay — so long as you can behave and clean up after yourself, of course ! The rooms are fairly empty, but, well, there is a bed and a washbasin. I already have three tenants, a lovely couple and a young lady, but if you don’t mind sharing your space… »

« I would only come to paint, so, I doubt it would give me much trouble. Thank you, Signora Una. »

« Signorina, » she corrected, gentle but firm. « As for the price… »

« Abbacchio, » Trish cut in, with a familiarity that Leone had not expected from her. « May I show you my works ? I think I’ve made a lot of progress. »

« Ah, well, why n — »

« Patrizia, » her mother gently scolded, brows furrowed. « Come on, don’t bug him so much. You will show him later. After all, if he chooses to live here, you will have time to chat, yes ? Now, show Narancia where we keep the ointment for his sunburns. Signore Abbacchio, follow me ? »

The girl, seemingly not delighted over being told off, grumbled a little, but went inside nonetheless. Narancia, Donatella, and Leone followed.

The house was made of only one room, meagerly decorated, and quite, well.

Rustic, Leone thought to himself. Rustic is a word for it.

Donatella seemed to read his mind, and turned to him with a smile.

« Ah, I apologize for the mess. I moved into this house fifteen years ago, you see, when I still carried Patrizia. Back then, it looked beautiful. Clean, secure, and so big I had no idea what to even do with it. »

The entire house was smaller than the Milazzo estate, that was for certain. The main room itself, with the cooking corner and the sturdy, wooden table at the center, was about the size of the bedroom Leone currently occupied.

« I was overjoyed, as you can imagine but I was never able to make enough of a living to fix it up properly. I let it deteriorate, I admit it — but I do try my very best to keep it clean and lively. »

« I see, » Leone acknowledged, not entirely sure what else he was supposed to say.

Donatella Una was unmarried, and with child. Perhaps she was a widow, though she didn’t seem to be in mourning, as her clothing was light both in colour and coverage of skin. She wasn’t old, but she was not as young as Gioia Milazzo, meaning that her child was not the result of a young lady’s naivety.

He sensed that there was something there, most likely something painful. But he was certainly not going to pry. If Leone Abbacchio knew how to do one thing, it was to mind his own business.

Most of the time, anyway.

« As I said, » Donatella added, showing him to the stairs, « I have a few tenants already. A lovely young lady and her son, barely a few months old, and a married couple. They are all very quiet and easy to live with, so, you should be fine with your work. »

« That's wonderful to hear. »

As he put a foot on the first step, the old wood produced an awful creaking sound, akin to the agonizing moan of an old man whose chest was being crushed under the wheel of a carriage. The ramp had a few tiny, circular holes peppering it here and again. It reminded him of his own abode, all the way back in Rome, and he winced — termites.

« And, what is it you do, Signorina Una ? » Leone enquired as he climbed, Donatella close behind him.

« I am a washerwoman. »

He had noticed her hands, as she was cutting the vegetables. They were a lot redder than the rest of her skin, chapped even under the hot sun, worn like old leather gloves.

« Must be tough work. »

« Oh, more than you can imagine. But it helps me provide for my baby. »

« She is your only child ? »

« Mhm ! The love of my life. I would protect her with everything I have. »

They reached the second floor, and continued their climb.

« She is… A nice girl, » Leone carefully said. « With questionable frequentations. »

« Oh, the boys, they have a heart of gold, even if they don’t always act like it. »

She sounded like she was smiling.

« And I know they would defend her, should she ever come across trouble. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be necessary, though. She knows to be careful around men. »

Her voice wasn’t smiling anymore.

Leone felt a tingle along his spine, to the back of his neck, where he assumed she was looking at him.

« She knows not to fall for a man’s sweet compliments, » she added, dryly. « Or be led by the appeal of novelty and strange lifestyles. »

Well. That was a fair warning if he had ever heard one.

They both reached the third floor. Donatella unlocked the only door there, which opened to reveal what had to be the largest room in this house. It was wide, full of emptiness, and the wooden floors, though dusty and lacking varnish, seemed in fairly good shape. In a shadowed corner, an unmade bed laid, small enough that Leone feared he would not fit into without having his feet hanging from the mattress. On the opposite wall, the windows were small, but were numerous. Light pooled into the room in bright rays — it seemed to be southeastern exposure.

It was perfect.

« It’s perfect, » Leone said, letting out a little cough from the dust coating his sinuses -- and it was.

Here was to a new start.


-


The agitation was growing.

The sun was not yet setting, but it would start any minute now. The air was growing progressively less hot, less suffocating. The light’s intensity was diminishing. But outside, right outside the open windows, more and more people were gathering, laughing, eating, screaming, singing.

To Leone, it was mostly a lull.

He was nursing onto a wine bottle, back securely leant against the wall. He had spent the past hour cleaning up the room, and it had been no small task. Nothing was in a grave state of disrepair, thankfully, but dust had gotten into every nook and cranny. He had aired out the sheets, though he had not really planned to lie into them ; it had seemed like the right thing to do.

He had planned to bring his painting gear, but he had no energy left for that now. He would do it tomorrow, perhaps, in the first hours of morning, when it was still breezy. Right now, he was enjoying some peace and quiet.

He heard the loud creaking of the stairs, and let out an annoyed sigh. The wine’s buzz had not yet managed to turn him pleasant.

Those children really could not leave him alone.

« No, cazzo de terrone, » he spat, « I am not about to come to this silly village party. I would rather gouge my eyes out than be caught in the company of street urchins like you. »

Especially not twice in one day.

« Well, » Bruno Buccellati said as he crossed the threshold. « I wouldn’t call myself a street urchin, but I suppose I understand your point. »

The surprise made Leone jump to his feet — or, rather, it gave him the sudden impulse to do so. But in his merry state, he lost his balance, and almost tripped over himself in his sheer panic.

« Buccellati ! » he let out, his voice a pitch higher than usual. « You — »

« Ehi, ehi, » Bruno chuckled, walking into the room, facade breaking to reveal a smile. « Calm down, pittore. I was kidding. But I now see I really shouldn’t get on your bad side. If only for the sake of my southern pride. »

« I apologize, » Leone stammered. « I thought you were — they’ve come here twice already, and… »

« It’s quite alright. But, my, my, terrone is quite harsh. They must have really bugged you today. Have they been picking on you ? »

« A bit, » Leone sighed, sitting back down, cheeks red from embarrassment and shame. « They’ve just… I have not been in the best of moods today. Although, I am happy I found this place. »

« My mother told me. This will be your new atelier ? »

Bruno looked around the room, really paying attention to the entirety of the nothing that filled it.

He whistled.

« Well, you should be careful with all that clutter. You can barely see the floor. »

Leone let out a snort.

« I have not yet brought my equipment. I will get to it tomorrow. »

Bruno nodded, then smiled.

« I saw your painting of my mother. »

« Oh, no, » Leone groaned. « You should not be seeing it before it is done. »

« I quite like it. Don’t you ? »

« I… Am confident that I can do better. »

« Mmh. Well, that might be true. But you shouldn’t be so harsh on yourself. »

Bruno walked further into the room, coming to stand in front of Leone’s sitting, crumpled form. He smiled, warmly. Leone felt the impetuous urge to latch onto him and never let go.

« What is it you’re drinking, say ? »

Leone inspected the bottle. It tasted cheap, smelled cheap, and had been cheap.

« I have no idea. »

« Let me try ? »

Leone held out the wine. Bruno took it, sat down next to Leone, and took a swig.

He kept the liquid in his mouth for a little while, apparently swirling it around. His face contorted into a grimace, and Leone could not hold back a laugh.

Bruno swallowed.

« Oh, that is bitter, » he groaned, sticking out his tongue, which was tinged with a slight purple. « How can you drink this ? »

« It is better than what I sometimes drank in Rome. »

« What do Romans do, cut it with water ? »

« Sometimes. »

« I don’t usually drink, » Bruno said, shaking his head. « But even I know it to be a blasphemy. »

He gave the bottle back to Leone, who took a swig in turn.

They were sitting close, though their bodies did not touch. From his side, Leone could feel Bruno’s body heat. Had it been anyone else, he would have moved away with no remorse ; it was way too warm outside to stand this proximity for long. But it was Bruno Buccellati, and this proximity felt worth standing a bit of discomfort.

« Aren’t you going to the party ? » Bruno asked.

« I… Am not sure, » Leone replied. « What sort of party is it ? »

« Oh, nothing too big. This is just to prepare for the San Gennaro celebrations. Have you ever seen people dance the Tarentella ? »

« I can’t say that I have. »

« You should. It’s a good time. Signorina Donatella, whom you’ve met, is the best dancer in town. »

« Is she. »

« Do you dance ? »

Leone almost choked on his wine.

« Me ? Oh, no. No, no, no. I don’t. »

« Well, that took you aback, » Bruno chuckled. « Why is that ? Do you hate dancing ? »

« It’s — I strongly believe people are born gifted in different areas. Mine is, or is supposed to be, painting. Some people might be gifted in dancing, but I am not. I do not know why I would subject myself to certain public humiliation, knowing that. »

« Oh, you can’t possibly be that bad. »

« You would be surprised. »

« Will you come anyway ? It will be a good time, I promise you. »

He was too wonderful. Leone could not say no.

« … Well, perhaps. If you come, too. »

« Of course. You’re my guest. I would be showing atrocious manners if I were to leave you alone. »

« Mmh. »

 « And dancing is so much more fun when you are doing it with people you like. »

Silence fell for a few seconds. Bruno leant closer, silently asking for the bottle. Leone gave it, but Bruno did not move away. Their hips were flushed together, and Leone’s stomach felt like it was liquefying.

« Have you ever been in love, Leone ? »

Oh, he could have cried.

« If I — yes. Once. »

Bruno hummed in acknowledgement, giving back the bottle after taking a sip.

« What was it like ? »

« Oh, it ended in tragedy. »

« Tell me about it. »

They were walking into dangerous territory.

But, ah.

This man was trouble, wasn’t he ?

Leone fished into his pocket, finding his pipe and tobacco. He began to stuff the chamber with the fruity-smelling leaves, and lit it, huffing it slowly.

Smoke drifted out of his nose. It felt cleansing.

« I fell in love with a great friend of mine. »

The walls did not crumble down.

« I told you about him. The one I left for Rome with. »

The earth did not shatter.

« He is getting married in a few months. I do not feel that way about him anymore. But, sometimes, it still hurts. »

Around the warm chamber of the pipe, his fingers were trembling. He did not look at Buccellati.

Rejection, disgust, anger — he would not survive it. Not from him.

Silence fell once more. Leone’s heart felt like it was about to burst out of his throat.

Then, Bruno spoke. He seemed hesitant.

« You… Ah, you are… »

Not that. Anything but that.

« Oh, Buccellati, » Leone sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. « I beg of you, say no more. Men have not yet invented a kind word to call people of my nature, and I could not bear to hear such ugliness from your mouth. »

From the corner of his eye, he saw Bruno nod. He sighed in relief, puffing out a cloud of smoke.

« Well, » Bruno added, though still hesitant. « Do tell me about him. »

Could he truly speak of him ? Even now ?

It felt humiliating. Or, rather, it should have felt humiliating. It had always felt humiliating.

Not now, though. It didn’t.

« I looked at him as though he was the moon. »

Truly, Leone Abbacchio was no poet. Next to him, though, Bruno did not laugh. Feeling encouraged, Leone continued.

« He guided me when I felt lost. I knew him for years, since we were young. We were close, closer than most friends. For a while, in Rome, we lived in a fashion similar to a married couple. It did not last long, a few months, at most. But it felt wonderful. My career was beginning to pick up. I felt free, liberated, and in love. »

He gritted his teeth. Swallowed. Started again.

« It could not last, though. We stayed close. We were the best of friends, sticking through thick and thin. I knew I could rely on him — and seeing him, with this glow on his face, his smile, his support… It reminded me of better times. »

He took a swig. Clicked his tongue. Picked up his pipe, and put it to his lip.

« Therefore, when he decided that he — that he was no longer fit for the life we led, well. My heart was… shattered. »

For a few seconds, Leone stared at the glowing tobacco of his pipe. He gently chewed  the amber lip, smoke warming his lungs.

« To live in this world as I am, » he started anew, fingers tapping against the searing bowl of his pipe, « you have to go through an immense amount of pain, of humiliation, of guilt. An unbearable amount, sometimes. A lot of men cannot survive it. »

Beside him, Leone could feel Bruno go tense — the slightest bit, a soft clench of his fist, a subtle rigor making his spine stand straight. He did not talk, however; so Leone continued.

« I do not mean to sound tragic, but, ah. When he left my life, when he gave me up, it was somewhat like he had died. Or, like I had died in his eyes. And I felt guilty, too, for what I felt. There was no happiness for him in my heart, only resentment, frustration, envy. Feelings that make your insides rot. »

His eyes searched for Bruno’s. For a second, they found each other ; until Bruno averted his gaze, face stern.

Ah.

« I… » Bruno sighed. « I feel like I understand you. »

One of Leone’s eyebrows rose up. He turned to look at Bruno, finally facing him.

« Do you ? »

« Well, I believe so. I have not been in love, myself, but — »

« Does it bother you ? »

« Who, me ? No. »

Bruno seemed to sense Leone’s discomfort. He gently touched Leone’s shoulder.

« You are in Napoli, friend, » he murmured. « Camaraderie between men... It is fairly common. »

« There’s quite the difference between camaraderie and love. »

« I suppose there is. But I do not feel as if it is inappropriate. »

He leant his cheek against the wall to look at Leone properly.

« Have you ever felt inappropriate, Leone ? »

Leone scoffed, rolling his eyes.

« Why, yes, I have. Often. »

« I am sorry to hear that. Although, there’s an historic precedent. »

« What do you mean ? »

« You should know. In the artistic world. The Romans transformed the joyous erotism of the Greeks into hollow, melancholic figures of stone. »

He stretched slightly, and Leone heard Bruno’s back crack.

« Love isn’t found in marble, my friend, it is found in the dark glisten of bronze ; marble is cold, it is carved and cut. Bronze is warm, melted, molded. The Romans were frightened of sensuality, of love beyond their understanding, and they still are ! Here in Napule, love is precise and supple. After all, doesn’t Pausilypon mean « rest after pain » in Greek, and isn't that a name worthy of a safe haven ? Have you never seen the frescos of Pompeii ? Dear friend, nobody can demonstrate love like the Neapolitan. It is three milleniums old, and still it loves, without boundaries. Though perhaps that is simply my vision of it... It has prevented me from suffering many heartaches, or questioning myself too much. »

Gently, he grabbed Leone’s pipe, and took a puff, blowing it to the side as to not let it hit Leone’s face. Leone smiled.

« You seem to greatly love your city. »

« Oh, some things about it make me want to retch. But, deep down, at its core… I truly believe it to be worth loving, yes. »

I care for you, Leone ached to say. I care for you madly, and you will never know.

He felt hot. The tension from his reveal had fallen, leaving him limp and emptied of energy. And now, Bruno was close to him. So close, in fact, he could feel his breath against his own face. Their eyes were locked, and Leone’s stomach was burning with relief, and something close to... Desire ? Longing ? A maddening connection of the minds ?

Bruno Buccellati was, in pure, artistic objectivity, an undeniably gorgeous man. Gorgeous enough to shake the beliefs and core of any reasonable being. Not only in the quality of his physique and features, but in the way he held himself, the way he spoke, the way he seemed to fill the room with his presence wherever he went.

And more than that, the breeze through his hair, and the sun on his skin, and the gentleness in his rare, invaluable smiles.

Molten bronze ; a David, born from Venus ; a warrior’s build, with the supple tenderness of a liquor god.

« Could I paint you ? » Leone croaked.

Ah.

He had just asked that, hadn’t he ?

« Paint me ? » Bruno repeated, incredulous.

Oh, Leone wished he could take it back. Bite into those words, reduce them to dust and stomp them into the ground, where they could no longer be heard.

« Yes, » he said instead, like an idiot. « Well. Not right now, of course. I do not have my gear, and, you must be busy, or, or, maybe you had a long day, I don’t — but, later. If you would like, that is. I would love to paint you. »

He pressed his cheek against the wall, trying to cool off. It did not help.

Bruno’s face was strangely serious, but to Leone’s surprise, he nodded.

« Only if you accept to come with me. »

« With you ? To where ? »

Bruno pointed towards the open window, through which exclamations and laughter could still be heard.

« That is my only condition. Do you accept ? »

Leone stayed silent for a few seconds, before cracking up into a laugh. A relieved, surprisingly happy laugh, that made him throw his head back against the wall in delight.

« Alright, » he replied, hand running through his hair. « Very well. I will come with you. I will… Socialize. »

« Good. Excellent. »

Bruno picked up the empty bottle.

« And you have to promise me to invest into good wine. I refuse to let you drink this awful swill any longer. »

And perhaps it was the booze, perhaps he was simply still in shock — but Leone laughed again. Bruno laughed, too.

He lent Leone his hand to help him up. Leone took it, and though he lightly swayed, he was able to get to his feet without falling down.

He had no trouble admitting it. For the first time in a long, long while, Leone felt truly, simply, incredibly happy.



-


The sun was finally starting to set in the Neapolitan sky.

The celebration had actually gathered a lot more people than Leone had expected, and, truth be told, that did nothing to ease his nerves.

Food had been set out for the merry folks of Posillipo, and it, too, was surprising — in its abundance. The dishes, served out in wide bowls for whomever wanted, were quite simple in preparation, but, to Leone’s empty stomach, looked absolutely scrumptious. In front of him, laid out on the large tables like so many offerings, were steamed mussels, octopus with marinated tomatoes, generous helpings of pasta with capers, olives, and anchovies, stuffed peppers, various vegetables, and, to Leone’s utter delight, ruchetta salad.

It was a light meal, to be sure, but, well. It had always been his favourite.

« Pittore ! »

Turning around so quickly he almost snapped his own neck, Leone’s eyes immediately searched for the origin of the sound — although, deep in his heart, he already knew who this voice belonged to.

On the edge of the piazza, broken away from the agitation, were the Espositos, waving him over. When he noticed that Leone was not moving an inch, Narancia pierced through the crowd, bumping into bystanders without shame, and managed to reach his goal, a jovial grin on his face.

« Pittore ! Come join us ! »

Leone did not answer, both because his mouth was full of arugula leaves, and because Narancia, while admittedly endearing, truly annoyed him.

« Oh, come on, you ! » Narancia tried again, grabbing Leone’s arm and pulling him in the direction of the group. « Join us ! You look awful like this, on your lonesome ! »

Truth be told, Leone was not exactly what one would call « on his lonesome ». Or rather, he was, at the moment, but it was only a matter of time until Buccellati came back.

He had left in a hurry only minutes after they had arrived on the piazza.

Near a table surrounded by jovial, drinking men, Leone had noticed one particular man that didn’t seem to be mingling with the others. Instead, he seemed to be tinkering with the wine bottles, doing God knows what, but apparently entranced by the activity.

To say that he had looked suspicious would have been a gross understatement. It might have had something to do with his hair — the way it matted together into multiple, filthy « braids », separated with care but greasy and unbrushed. Or it might have been the way he smiled, too wide and with lips too thin, the craze in his eyes, or simply the increasingly strange way he behaved.  

Bruno had noticed him, as well. As soon as he had, his demeanor had changed completely. He grew tense, brows furrowed, face cold and expressionless.

« Excuse me, » he had said, voice just as cold as he looked, « there is something I need to do. Wait for me. »

He had then left in the direction of the strange man. Leone had not been able to see much through the crowd, but what he had seen had only furthered his confusion.

Bruno had grabbed the man by the arm, and had pulled him further away, pronouncing words Leone could not hear nor read. Said man did not seem very surprised to see him — his grin, awful and wide, had only grown larger.

At one point, he turned his head, and looked directly at Leone.

A chill had ran up Leone’s spine, a strong, instinctive wave of disgust overtaking him immediately.

Bruno had noticed the exchange of stares, and, still holding the man’s arm into an iron grip, had pulled him into a nearby alley, where they could not be seen anymore.

What an uncanny exchange that had been.

Leone swallowed his ruchetta.

« Just what makes you think I would — » he began to ask Narancia, but was interrupted by the boy’s finger being pressed against his lips.

Surprised as he was, he did not even back away.

« Shhhhhh, » Narancia shushed, patting Leone’s chest. « Just come have fun with us. You ought to live a little, don’t you think ? »

The boy’s smile was slightly crooked, eyes lazy and twinkling, cheeks and ears still quite red, despite how much time had passed since —

« Oh, lord, » Leone sighed, finally batting Narancia’s hand away. « You are drunk. Who on earth gave you alcohol ? »

« Ma che cavolo, » Narancia mumbled, still pulling on Abbacchio’s arm. « Just coooooome ! People are about to start dancing, and we want you there ! Come ooooooooooooon ! »

Surely, this had to be divine punishment.

Rolling his eyes to the heavens, and groaning from the very depths of his chest, Abbacchio allowed Narancia to pull him towards the others, though he did show some resistance — if only to see the drunken child trip over himself while struggling to pull his, skinny as it was, reasonably heavy frame.

Leaning against a short wall of rubble, the three youths stood. Giovanna, arms crossed on his chest, blond hair thick and infuriatingly soft-looking, gave Abbacchio a thin smile.

« We didn’t think we would find you there, Signore Abbacchio, » he said, in that tone of voice Leone particularly despised — which was, as it turned out, his usual tone of voice. « That’s a surprise. Do you enjoy dancing ? »

« And what makes you think that I do ? » Leone replied, voice simply dripping with scorn. « I assume you are here to take advantage of the agitation and steal your heart out, as you are wont to do ? »

« Well, that is one of the perks of nights like these, » Giorno said, shrugging. « But we also happen to enjoy the agitation for itself. »

« Gio here’s a really good dancer ! » Narancia interjected, wrapping his arm around Giovanna’s neck and pulling him close. « Hey, pittore, do you wanna know what we call him on nights like this ? Uh ? Uh ? »

Giovanna’s ears grew red, to Leone’s unabashed surprise.

« Narancia, you — »

« Gigi l’Amoroso ! » Narancia bellowed for everyone to hear, much to Giovanna’s chagrin. « ‘Cause he’s just sooooo seductive and all the girls fall for him ! »

« Narancia, stop this, » Giovanna mumbled, breaking away from the boy’s embrace. To his side, Trish was busy pressing her lips tightly together, in an attempt to hold back a snicker. To his other side, Mista did not, and his roaring laughter echoed down the piazza.

« Gigi l’Amoroso, », Leone repeated, each of his words heavy with mocking contempt. « Isn’t that sweet. »

« Now, pittore, don’t make fun, » Trish intervened, and, though he hadn’t earlier, Leone noticed the papers she was holding close to her chest. « Um. Though, if you could take a look at this. I did my exercises, just like you told me. »

« Oh, » Leone said, voice becoming instinctively softer. « Well. Let us see, then. »

She handed him her sketches with an intense, serious expression. Leone was delighted to see just how filled they were — almost each square centimeter of paper was covered with drawings. He took a few minutes to inspect them.

Well, it certainly wasn’t bad. Her lines were still quite uncertain, sometimes even scribbly; but they were getting better. She had tried her hands at many subjects: portraits, plants, even animals — though this dog’s anatomy left something to be desired.

All in all, Leone felt hopeful.

« You’ve made improvements, » he said, handing her the sketches back. « But make sure to take measures when you try to replicate something in front of you. Use your fingers for proportions. It helps. »

She nodded, a pleased flush colouring her cheeks. Mista patted her shoulder affectionately, grinning from ear to ear.

« Told you so ! You’re a real artist, Trish ! »

« We all like your drawings ! » added Narancia, gently bumping her arm with his closed fist.

Trish chuckled, proud of herself, as she had every right to be.

« Alright, » came a voice from behind Leone. « Are you kids enjoying yourselves ? »

« Bruno ! » Narancia shrieked, immediately pouncing into the young man’s arms, clinging to his chest with all of his might.

Back was Bruno Buccellati. He looked exhausted, sweat beading on his forehead. The hem of his shirt, an off-white colour, had a strange, purplish blotch staining it.

« I apologize, » Bruno said to Leone, carrying the boy’s weight with the ease of someone very much used to a certain task. « I had somewhat of a hold-up. But everything is solved now. »

He leant slightly closer to Leone, and added in a whisper:

« Also, we are out of wine. I will explain later. »

Blinking in surprise, Leone nodded.

Out of wine ?

Now, what was that supposed to mean ?

« Anyway, » Bruno added, « Should we go ? I am sure none of us want to miss the ball. »

A cheer came from the Espositos.

Closer to the piazza, a beat could be heard. Loud, and fast, resonating through the crowd, and creating an attractive rhythm.

At the very center of the applauding crowd, an old man stood, carrying a drum bigger than his head, and beating it in a quick tempo. His eyes were closed, and as he beat the drum, he began to sing.

The song started as what seemed to be a lament; syllables stretching, long, like thick syrup. The man’s voice was languid, hoarse, and sounded like it was coming straight from his chest. But then, other instruments joined in; an accordion, a guitar, small tambourines. Upon their arrival, the song changed completely: suddenly, its rhythm was irregular, frenetic, frenzied, and quite rousing in itself. The large drum, that Bruno helpfully designated as a tammorra, rang throughout the piazza, where couples began to form.

Leone gave a glance to his left.

The strange, disgusting man was no longer here. Neither were the wine bottles that used to litter the table.

Leone, a voice rang in his ears. How did your parents die ?

Gritting his teeth, Leone furiously shook his head, in an attempt to throw away the annoying chatter of his brain.

« Why, hello again, Signore Abbacchio ! »

Blinking away from his thoughts, Leone finally noticed the presence of Donatella Una. She seemingly had been standing there for some time.

She had changed clothes from the last time he had seen her — merely a few hours ago. This time, what she wore was a rather dashing dress, with multi-layered skirts (briefly, he wondered how she was able to stand the heat). Her white blouse was adorned with colourful, floral patterns. Her auburn hair was tied atop her head, framing her face wonderfully. She was smiling brightly, and the slight lines on her face did nothing to tarnish her lovely features.

« Ah, hello, » Leone replied sheepishly. « It’s a pleasure, Signorina. »

Lord, but did it feel weird calling a woman twice his age Signorina.

« Donatella, » Bruno intervened, reaching for the woman’s hand and holding it between his own. « Our dear painter here has never before experienced a Tammurriata. As a master of the dance, could you — »


« Oh, but without a doubt ! » Donatella cheerfully replied, eyes twinkling with delight.

She unceremoniously grabbed Leone’s hand, and began to pull him towards the dancers. Leone’s nerves reached an all-time high in the span of a second.

« Excuse me ? » he blurted out, heels practically digging into the ground to hold back against Donatella’s surprising strength. « Bruno, you — »

« Oh, I am not dancing, » Bruno replied. « But you are. Come on, I promise it isn’t so hard. Just let her guide you ! »

Leone’s eyes grew wide. Sputtering and trying to resist, he found himself being pulled into the center of the action. Panic overtook him.

There was no way he was going to dance.

« Don’t worry, pittore ! » came Trish’s voice from his side. « You’ll enjoy it ! »

Surely, he was going to die. Right here, right now.

« Forza, pittore ! » yelled Narancia, bouncing up and down with excitement. « Forza ! »

« Show us how you move, pittore ! » added Mista.

« Trish, come on, » came Giovanna’s voice. « Let’s show him how it’s done. »

Taking the girl’s hand in his own, Giovanna then proceeded to walk to the center of the piazza, right next to Leone — and to the strange couple he and Donatella formed.

He then gave Leone a strange smile, that did not quite reach his eyes, but seemed fairly sincere. Unsure if it was mocking or encouraging, Leone found that this smile was enough to fill him with fury, and renewed motivation.

« Alright, » he muttered through gritted teeth, turning towards Donatella. « What do I do exa — »

From her stance, it soon became obvious to Leone that the dance had already begun. Her hands were raised towards the sky, wrists curving, and she twirled on the spot, before letting her arms fall. She spread them slightly, hands right above her hips. She gave Leone an encouraging nod.

« You’ve got this, Leone ! » came Bruno’s voice from behind him. It sounded like he was smiling.

Well, Leone thought, heart skipping a beat as he held back a surge of nausea. As the saying goes, in Napoli, do as the Neapolitans.

Imitating Donatella, he put his hands above his own hips as well, and began the agonizing procedure of trying to mimic every move done by the men around him.

It could not possibly be that hard.

First, a step to — ah, she was going right, so he most likely had to go left. Another step, this time to the right, and once more to the left. This was not difficult. It was all about following the rhythm, and even he could do that.

A step to the front, this time, then one to the back, and so on and so forth. He stared at his feet, in an effort of concentration. Donatella was using her arms, waving them expertly in the air, looking graceful and talented. Her hips moved, as well, in the rhythm — but there was no way he would be able to do that.

She was beginning to step into a half-circle around him. Was he supposed to be imitating her, this time ? As he was not entirely certain, Leone desperately looked around himself for approval, but only saw the delighted figures of his companions, watching him from the crowd.

Bruno was looking at him, hand under his chin, with a smile that made his eyes shine.

For a second, Leone tripped over himself, but was able to regain his balance — by stepping on Donatella’s foot with his full weight.

« Oh, pezzo di merda, » he hissed through gritted teeth. « Donatella, I — »

« I am fine, no need to stop dancing, silly ! » she replied, continuing to move, seeming not at all fazed.

Admittedly, at this point in his life, Leone’s full weight was not that heavy.

Cheeks turned crimson with embarrassment, he started over, trying desperately to follow the delirious rhythm as best he could.

There was more twirling, stepping, and jumping from one side to another, barely recovering from the momentum before he had to be on another spot again. Every now and then, he stole a glance towards Giovanna and Trish, not five feet away from him.

Trish, while not being nearly as agile as her mother was, still brought grace and a fair share of mastery to the dance, seemingly aware of every move and sharing quite the chemistry with her partner. But, ah, Giovanna, Giovanna was another story.

He made every move seem effortless.

Perhaps Leone’s eyes were blinded by fatigue, or contempt, or frustration — but compared to the way he struggled to even move, it seemed to him like Giovanna’s steps were bouncy, full of energy, of elegance. Worst of all, he seemed to be enjoying himself. No sign of struggle whatsoever on his youthful face.

So this was the power of Gigi l’Amoroso.

How very, very infuriating.

By the time the music slowed and came to a stop, Leone was panting, hair coming unraveled and sticking to his damp forehead. His lungs were on fire. Every muscle in his legs felt raw and painful, and it had only been one dance.

« Ah, » Donatella chuckled, thankfully sounding a little breathless, « you were a lot better than I had imagined you to be, Signore Abbacchio ! I am so glad you seemed to follow my lead so well ! »

She gently patted him on the back as Leone bent, struggling to find his breath.

« You certainly gave it your all, I am so proud of you. »

She said those words with such honesty, such affection, that Leone’s heart, for a brief second, felt a little warmer than before.

« Thank you, Donate — »

« Pittoreeeee, you were great ! »  

There came Narancia’s shrill voice, congratulating him with passion in his voice. As the boy approached him, Leone kept him at arm’s length, breaking away from the dancing couples and reaching the crowd of spectators.

« Honestly, » Narancia added, « Well, you weren’t exactly good at it, as in, you looked like you had no idea what you were doing, but it was still great ! »

« I really did have no idea, » Leone replied, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. « But. Thank you, I suppose. »

He finally came face to face with Bruno, whose smile had not diminished. His arms were crossed against his chest, and he was looking at Leone expectantly.

« So. What is your verdict ? » he asked, the slightest hint of glee in his voice. « Is dancing a new passion of yours ? You certainly seemed to enjoy yourself. »

Leone cleared his throat, smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt.

« I am never doing that again, so you’re aware, » he replied, trying his best to sound cold and grouchy, though not quite managing to suppress the fondness in his voice.

« That is a proper shame, » Bruno sighed, and the warmth in his own voice felt like hot water pooling in Leone’s stomach.

The music started anew. It was another song, one that belonged in the same category as the first. Tired as he was, the crowd, the noise, the hot air suddenly felt overwhelming to Leone.

« Could we, » he began, rubbing at his temple. « Could we go somewhere else ? Somewhere calmer ? I need to drink something. »

« Oh, certainly, » Bruno acquiesced, and began to look around for a way out of the crowd.

He seemed to find it relatively quickly, as he gave out his hand for Leone to take. Which Leone did, following Buccellati’s steps to a quieter place.

The streets were relatively deserted. It seemed that all of Posillipo was gathered onto the piazza, leaving the rest of the neighbourhood almost completely emptied out. In the slowly diminishing light of the evening, the little town was bathed in dusty orange light, going from the warmest, earthiest brown to bright, clear bronze depending on where you looked. The descending sun was, little by little, beginning its soak into the blue sea, already half of its rays gone under the horizon. Exhausted as he was, Leone could not help an admiring gaze all around him.

This, he thought, was the kind of light he had been looking for.

« If you are thirsty, there is a little fountain nearby you could drink from. »

Breaking away from his reverie, Leone turned back to Bruno. The young man’s hands were in his pockets as he walked beside him, gaze turned towards the sea.

« Ah, no, » Leone replied, sheepish once more. « I will be fine, thank you. That was only an excuse. »

Bruno chuckled, and nodded, understanding. Silence fell over them as they walked, steps slow, into the smaller streets. The music could still be heard, but was getting fainter.

« Bruno, » Leone said after a few minutes of quiet. « May I ask you something ? »

« Ask away. »

« This man we saw, earlier. The one tinkering with the wine. » He turned towards Bruno, whose jaw had gone slightly tense. « Who was he ? »

« He… » Bruno started, then sighed, rubbing at his neck. « He is a bringer of bad news. Not much else can be said of him. »

Leone’s brows furrowed.

« Of bad news ? Now, what does that mean ? »

« He is part of La Camorra’s inner circle. »

Leone stopped dead in his tracks, eyes suddenly wide.

« La Camorra ? As in, the Camorra you were telling me about the other day ? »

« Mhm. His name is Cioccolata, » Bruno continued, face stern and tired. « A repulsive excuse for a man, every inch of him more disgusting than swine feces. He laid low for quite a while, and I had hoped that he had left. Back in the days, he made himself a career as a poisoner. »

He turned his face towards Leone, a sorry smile on his lips.

« Hence, why I had to get rid of the wine. I wasn’t sure if he had time to do anything, but, you can never be too sure, can you ? »

« No, » Leone replied, a slight tremor in his voice. « I suppose you can’t. »

They continued their walk for a moment longer. Leone’s eyes drifted towards the reddish stain on Bruno’s shirt.

« And, this, » he asked, pinching at the hem of the material. « You had it on you after you came back. Is it blood, or wine ? »

Bruno turned towards him, and grinned.

« I will let you ponder on that. »

Leone rolled his eyes, but scoffed out a laugh nonetheless.

« Tell you what, » Bruno said, stopping once more in his walk. « Why don’t you show me what you learnt with Donatella today ? » Leone stopped as well, a single eyebrow raised.

« Excuse me ? »

« What I did earlier, » Bruno continued, « was little more than an ambush. I feel deeply sorry about it. »

He held out both hands, head bent slightly to the side in invitation.

« I suppose a good payback would be to make me ridicule myself. Teach me what you know, Leone Abbacchio. I will be your earnest student. »

For a few seconds, Leone was taken aback.

« You want me to dance with you ? »

« Would it bother you ? »

« No ! » Leone blurted out, just a slight bit too loud. « I — it should be me who asks you that. »

« Well, I am the one making the suggestion. »

« … Yes. I suppose that is true. »

Reaching behind him to tie his hair back properly, Leone let out a sigh.

« But I am not what you could call talented. I only tried my hand at it once — I mean, you saw. »

« I did. I thought you handled it wonderfully. »

« Psht, » Leone said, his lips pulling into a smile. « And we can barely hear the music from here. »

« We can hear it enough, can’t we ? »

As he was about to reply, Leone’s gaze slid up.

It fell on Bruno Buccellati’s face. His expression, soft and calm, was unbelievably charming. He was looking right at Leone’s eyes, and, not for the first time, Leone found himself feeling short on breath.

« I, » he mumbled, his stomach burning nearly as hot as his chest. « I apologize in advance if I step on your feet. »

« Oh, lord, you did do that, didn’t you ? » Bruno laughed, fixing his stance in preparation. « Be glad Donatella reacted in such a way. I have seen her being much less kind to her partners in the past. »

« Oh, trust me, I am feeling glad. Now, what was the first move again ?… »

« A skip to the left, I believe ? »

« How do you not know ? » Leone asked, a hint of laughter in his voice. « Haven’t you lived here your whole life ? »

« I don’t usually pay much attention to dancing ! » Bruno tried to justify, chuckling softly as he skipped to the left. « So, a skip to the left, and then — oh, lord, that’s difficult. »

« You are just as atrocious as I am ! » Leone gasped, ecstatic.

« Leone Abbacchio, » Bruno said, putting his hand on Leone’s shoulder. « I might just be a lot more atrocious than you. Now, let us try and master this devilish dance ! »

Laughter bubbled from him once more as Leone nodded, joining Bruno in his attempts to replicate the steps of the dancers.

The music was faint, barely a background noise; and, as the sun continued its long descent towards the sea, the two men found themselves following another rhythm entirely, much different from the tammorra — the regular, quiet, warm pulse of blood in both their hearts.



-


As the evening came to an end, and night began to envelop Posillipo, the Espositos, too, were finishing up their own celebrations away from the crowd.

They left for their humble abode, or, as they so joyously called it, their hideout. Mista carried his battered guitar over his shoulder, and was engaged in a playful banter with Narancia, who followed besides him. Behind them both walked Giorno and Trish.

Peering over the girl’s shoulder, Giorno was able to steal a peek of her work so far ; she seemed to be working on the human figure, as it was. With a slight stretch of the imagination, Giorno was able to recognize his own features, as well as Narancia’s small form, and Mista’s larger build. All in all, it was certainly not the most realistic approach of any of their likeness ; but, still, he found himself admiring the scribbly sketches for a moment.

« You’ve truly been working hard, haven’t you ? »

Trish’s lips curled up in a smile.

« It’s very important to me, » she said. Her voice was quite low, as if her words were meant only for Giorno’s ears, and no one else’s. « I would like to take on painting. »

« You aim to become an artist ? »

« Why not ? It seems very hard, but Signore Abbacchio seems interested in taking me as a pupil. »

Giorno’s soft features turned to a grimace.

« You know, we might joke about him, but he truly is tough work. You ought to be careful, you never know what might — Trish ? »

Giorno turned around, only to see Trish standing, dead in her tracks, a few feet behind him. Her back was unnaturally straight, as if held by a ramrod, and her big, blue eyes seemed impossibly wide. She stared at a point in the distance, mouth falling agape, hands beginning to shake — so badly, in fact, that her fingers let go of the sheets of paper, which fell to the ground in a fluttering pile.

« Trish ! »

In a few running steps, Giorno was back to her side, immediately cradling her close. Her eyes were swollen with tears, and after only a few seconds of being held, she began sobbing openly.
Mista and Narancia, having soon noticed that their two friends were not following, joined them as well, seeming just as disconcerted as Giorno felt.

« Trish, are you alright ? »

« Gio, what’s wrong with her ? »

The shaking in Trish’s limbs soon overpowered her. Unable to stand, she fell to her knees, and down Giorno went, keeping her close. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words escaped her lips; only panicked sobs, which seemed to wrack her chest with every breath.

Giorno’s worry for his friend was a pit in his stomach. Unsure of what to do, he chose to gently rub the girl’s exposed arms, trying to calm the tremors in her body. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and tilted his head, to see Mista pointing in the direction of a house, face incredibly stern. Following the indication, Giorno looked; and what he saw turned his blood to ice.

Narancia bent down as well, and with his help, Giorno was able to get Trish to her feet. The boy was pale, and his lips were tightly pressed together, forehead beading with sweat.

« We, » Giorno tried to say, but his voice was a croak. He cleared his throat, and tried once more. « We can’t panic. There is no way — »

« No one would write this for fun, » Mista whispered. « It has to be true. »

« How could it be, though ? » Narancia asked, voice strained. « Giorno, we’ve gotta — Trish, she’s gotta stay safe. »

« Should we take her in ? »

« Her mother can’t know. This is too crazy. »

« Do you really think they’d come look for her ?… Why would they even do that ? » Mista sighed.

« I don’t — » Trish spoke, voice breaking. « I have to go home. I need to be with my mom. »

« I’ll go with you. You guys go to the hideout, I’ll join you in an hour or so, » Mista announced, wrapping a protective arm around her shivering back. Giorno let her go, mind racing, his head filled with so many thought he felt it was going to explode.

Did anyone else in the city know ? They most likely did not, or he would have heard about it. This graffiti had to be recent.

And this thought made it all the more frightening.

As Mista escorted a tearful Trish back to her home, Giorno and Narancia were left to go back to the hideout on their own — the short line of drawings burnt into their eyelids, dancing in their field of vision. Haunting.  

None of them had a grand artistic culture. But as lifelong street urchins, they had quickly picked up on the different codes and secret languages that spread over the city. Amongst all the dark, shifty businesses of Napoli, La Camorra stood queen; and its codes were the most famous, yet most obscure of them all.

This one, though, was absurdly easy to understand.

Written in white paint over the dusty wall, two lines of hieroglyph-like drawings. A short message, truth be told. But just enough for the point to come across, and for it to wrap your heart in an icy cage.

A message that brought struggles and misery along with it. A message that signaled the end of a peaceful life for the Espositos and the poor souls of Posillipo.

 



Celebrate, celebrate, for he is not dead. Soon, he will return.


Long live the Boss.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were—I have not seen

As others saw—I could not bring

My passions from a common spring.

From the same source I have not taken

My sorrow; I could not awaken

My heart to joy at the same tone;

And all I lov’d, I lov’d alone.

- Edgar Allan Poe

 

 

 


The sea is a lullaby.

It sings to him, as it always has. It has the gentle tone of a mother, the soothing touch of a lover, the cold embrace of a missed friend. It whistles, chatters, sighs, murmurs, roars, sometimes all at once. It is an infinity of voices. Some of them far gone.

Had his mother ever sung to him ?

She might have. Why wouldn’t she have ? Perhaps she did sing, every night, rocking him against her chest in an attempt to placate his bouts of sadness — already, already he was in pain, already he was longing.

But perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps he went to the sea, looking for that comfort, that patience, that affection. Perhaps she simply wasn’t that sort of woman. How could he possibly know ?

It was hard to remember her face, sometimes. Whenever he tried to remember, she was but a shadow, shrouded in darkness, a scribbled graphite image he hadn’t quite erased. Was she kind, cold, hotheaded ? Did she rage and spit ? Did she show only compassion and love, no matter the cost ? Did she take a lot of space, voice loud, booming and boisterous, or did she shrink, shrink, under the world’s weight, until there was nothing left of her ?

How guilty, how miserable, he thought, to forget the image of the only person who truly loved you.

Only in dreams can he see her clearly — every feature, every detail clear as the days he spent looking at them. She is no longer a shadow. She is here, and alive, and her smiles are everything, everything he could possibly desire. There is nothing else. Not even the longing he felt even before losing her.

She is in every single one of his reveries.

In his grandmother’s house, there is a portrait of her. A humble little painting, made by an artist he does not know. She is about twenty, according to the swirly numbers right above the signature, on the bottom-right corner. After she was gone, guests would often compare him to her. The shape of their mouths, the height of their cheekbones, the angle of their noses, even the curves of their ears.

But, as were many things, it was all in the eyes.

She had this forlorn gaze, with barely a shine to them. A fish’s eyes, his grandmother would sometimes say as she sighed, dead and opaque (« but she had a good brain, grazie a Dio ! » the old woman would sometimes say). They were framed by invisible brows, ghostly pale skin, and those dark, deep-set circles under her bottom lids. She looked distant, unconvinced, unsure.
The ressemblance truly was uncanny.

His father had brown eyes, he recalled. Brown eyes, strong brows, and a square jaw. Leone remembered as a quiet, but affectionate man; he was the one to pick him up where he fell, to kiss his forehead as he went up to sleep, and wrap him up in his big coat when he was cold. Leone could still remember his hands, very clearly; the thin skin over veins, the squamous knuckles, the square fingernails. He remembered his big, bushy beard, and the way his father always brushed through it with a comb after a meal — the routine of the various crumbs falling to the floor like so many snowflakes.

His parents used to haunt almost every dream he had.

Lately, though, that hadn’t been true. Leone dreamt of many different things; he remembered most of them, too. He dreamt of exploring a long, dark cavern, guided by the smell of fresh pastries — but his feet simply wouldn’t move from the sticky, sludgy ground. He dreamt of finding a corpse in the sand, only for him to notice that this corpse was none other than himself. He dreamt of a statue coming to life and breaking into tears, as Leone, helpless, tried desperately to know what caused it so much pain.

His dreams had become more abstract, more senseless. Sometimes, even, bordering on incongruous.

He opened his eyes, and there was only a wide expanse of blue sky. An infinite flat tint of azure, and, away from his field of vision, warming his skin from the chin down, the scorching bite of the sun.

He was lying down on a hard, flat surface. There was an uncomfortable bend to his spine, one he was not able to fix by moving; but he felt good, nonetheless. Relaxed. At peace.

It wasn’t too hot, nor was it cold. A light breeze caused the sail above his head to flap every now and then. The hull was creaking at every wave that came to caress it, gently licking at the wood in a calming rhythm.

He tried to say something, though he wasn’t sure what, or to whom he was addressing it. Maybe a simple exclamation of comfort, a compliment to the sea, or perhaps to the world itself. A rare moment of respite in the troubles of his mind.

He couldn’t seem to articulate it, though.

His eyelids fell shut ; but as soon as they had, they shot wide open once more.

Was that a breath he had felt against his shoulder ?

No, no. It must have been the breeze, gentle against his skin. Nothing more.

He closed his eyes once again ; but the soft blow of air returned. It was against his neck, now : a slow paced breathing, regular and soft.

He opened his eyes, and once more, it subsided. He tried to sit up, look around himself, but it seemed he was stuck in place, completely unable to move.

With a strange, gnawing sensation in his heart, he closed his eyes.

This time, the breath was filled with laughter.

« Don’t look, » the laughing voice said.

It sounded the way warm oil felt on skin. A drizzle of the most luxurious coating, and dizzyingly familiar. He felt something pull at his shirt ; the collar feeling suddenly taut as the fabric uncovered part of his shoulder and chest.

« Don’t look, » it repeated, more seriously, and Leone’s eyes remained closed.

Where had he heard this voice ?

Perhaps because he had reacted so well, he was immediately rewarded by the gentle press of lips against his bared neck.

A wracking shiver immediately shot through him. The lips were cool, and the kisses were far from shy ; they were given with unabashed tenderness, and against his skin, Leone could feel the presence’s nose, cheek, chin. Certainly, it was no spectre : it was human, and it was passionate.

An instinct, a reasonable, animalistic one, ordered him to open his eyes. To force himself to get up, turn around, face this ghostly apparition. But there was another instinct, stronger, that one, which ordered him to obey — and, indeed, to simply lie here, for the attention was good, and the touch, divine.

The warm lips explored what felt like every square inch of his neck. No fragment of skin was left unkissed. Then, the slightest bit of pressure was added, as if the presence was growing impatient. Leone began to feel hints of teeth against his skin ; the tip of a tongue ; the sharpness of a bite, immediately soothed by another, deeper kiss.

Leone’s stomach felt like it was tied into tight knots. A scorching weight lodged itself in the lower part of his back, close to where his spine ended. From this spot, warmth spread throughout his entire body, in a tingling flow.

As the lips reached his scalp, a coy tongue slipped from between them, and flicked his earlobe in a teasing, too-quick moment, which almost caused Leone to jump out of his skin.

He scrunched his eyelids to forcibly keep them shut.

His breathing picked up, catching in his throat as a second point of contact appeared — what felt like a hand snaking against his chest in a warm, solid pressure. It soon began to slip under his shirt through the wide opening of his collar, and came to rest against his heart, a thumb gently rubbing against one of his pectorals.

The lips moved from his temple to his jaw, to his cheek, to his chin, peppering kisses wherever they went, though they were slightly more hurried.

 Leone’s mouth fell open in a deep, shuddering sigh, a sound he had never heard come from himself. In the span of a second, a mouth was on his own, kissing him with abandon, with what felt like longing. The lips were still impossibly soft, but they had gotten warm, plumped by the rush of blood ; there was a tongue against his tongue, and body heat, and Leone felt himself on fire, face, chest, feeling hotter than the lavas of the Vesuvio.

His head was spinning. The lull from the boat, and the warm rays of sun only added to this feeling ; this comfort, even through this strange situation. As he rose it, his right hand was trembling.

A chuckle came from the voice, and another shiver pierced through Leone’s back.

« Be calm, » the voice said, in a slow murmur. « I couldn’t possibly deny you. »

A throb of warm blood surged through him. It felt boiling.

The hand slid along his chest, down to the inward curve of his stomach, playing with his navel, the bones of his hips. It was a comfortable, slow petting ; but Leone’s entire body was being consumed. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead and fell down his temples as he breathed in shakily, teeth chattering.

His heart was pounding in his chest, in a rapid, deafening rhythm — matched in tempo by the tortuous, delicious flutters below his stomach.

The presence finally parted from him, and for a brief second, Leone wondered if it was panting, or if the shaky, shuddering breathing was his own.

« Leone, » the voice panted, deliciously strained, as the fingers in Leone’s hair pulled tight, making him see stars behind his closed eyelids. « Leone — »

Bruno, Leone thought, and opened his eyes.

 


For a moment, all Leone could see was light — bright, yellow light, seeping in thin rays through dark blinds.

As he blinked, trying to gather himself and get used to the light, he also noticed the unfinished painting resting on the easel ; the various articles of clothing thrown about all over the floor ; the sheets, having apparently been kicked off his bed by none other than his own agitation ; the crucifix over the foot of the bed, watching him with a mocking gaze.

He still felt short on breath, heart pounding in his chest, almost in a panic. He pressed both hands against his cheeks, and found them burning hot. His back was damp with sweat.

« Oh, for Christ’s sake, » he whispered, burying his face in his hands — ears growing even hotter with shame.

Leone used to always have the same dreams.

This, however, was new.


-


A dollop of white, added to carmine and a smidge of cadmium orange, for the skin. Gentle beige, with a rosy tint, for the face. The body will be slightly paler, but with hints of blushes across the breasts; the forearms; the knees.

« You seem to like it here, yes ? »

He gave a nod, without allowing his gaze to leave the canvas.

« It has been quite the sojourn, Signorina, » he replied, distractedly. « I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. »

For the hair, venetian red. More cadmium. Some hints of green gold in the strands.
 
She hissed through her teeth, repressing a shiver.

« Brr, I’m certainly glad you went to close those windows… It has grown colder those past few days, hasn’t it ? The weather changed so quickly, too. »

« Hot summers usually bring harsh autumns, dear Julia. Please, do try to move as little as possible. »

« Oh, I apologize ! I hadn’t even noticed. My arm must be getting tired. »

« That’s quite alright. We’ll be done soon enough. »

The light had to be dimmer. More diluted. Easier on the skin.

Now, onto the traits. No need to go too deep into details. All must be contained in the gaze, in the expression itself. A shine that comes from the face, a kind smile, a warmth in the cool atmosphere of the room. Something motherly. Something loving.

« He’s being very quiet, isn’t he ? » Leone asked, liking how her face lit up when she talked about her boy.

« Oh, I promise you, it isn’t a habit of his. He’s acting very charming because you are around ! »

« Is that so ? »

« Why yes. Like mother, like son, isn’t it true ? »

She laughed, gently rocking the bundled baby against her chest.

« He will grow to be an actor, too, I am sure. He’s a true seducer. »

« Bfglklk, » said the child in approval, chin dribbling with spit.

His mother reached to wipe his mouth with the corner of a handkerchief, but stopped — looking up at Leone with apology in her eyes.

« Oh, I’m dearly sorry — I moved again. It was a reflex. »

« That’s alright. Make sure to find the same pose once you’re done. »

« Very well ! »

Shadows, now. The rolls of fat on her body. The braided hair falling on her shoulder. The sheets wrapped around her waist. Little shapes of darkness, giving weight to her body.

For a moment, Leone pondered on what he would make of her. Should he turn this portrait into a religious icon ? A mythological scene of sorts ? It certainly would sell better than his landscapes ever would. There were always buyers when it came to images of pretty women.

Julia Uova was twenty three years old. She had become a resident of Donatella Una’s home just seven months prior, and was since living in a smallish part of the house, on the floor right under Leone’s. She had given birth to her son there, five months ago, and was since living a quiet life as a nanny for the wealthier.

Before that, though, she had been an actress.

« It’s quite funny, isn’t it ? » she chuckled. « I didn’t think I would ever pose again when I arrived here. And there you come, asking me to be your model ! »

« Did you do a lot of posing in the past? »

« My, I wouldn’t say a lot, no ! »

She laughed often, which Leone found both slightly irritating and extraordinarily endearing. As he wasn’t sure what to come off as yet, he decided to act positively neutral.

« But I did my fair share of it ! Mostly when I was in Paris. I lived there for three years, have I told you that yet ? »

« You have not. »

« Oh, wonderful ! Well, you see, the representations at the time weren’t paying much. Our metteur en scène was a complete drunk, and let me tell you that many of the actors under his guidance got a taste of his cane, more often than I can say ! And he always shouted so loud, heavens, I almost wished for him to beat on one of us just so he would calm his nerves... Anyway, at the time, I was living in a shoddy little maiden cove near the Sacré Coeur, but near a lovely, lovely garden, where I met this stupendous gentleman ! »

Eyes riveted on the painting, Leone was entranced.

« He came up to me with this adorable girl at his arm — for a second, I assumed her to be his little fiancée, but I soon found her out to be his younger sister ! They had the same nose and eyes, see, and they looked so very sweet with each other ! I am not sure what they told me at the time, since, I’ll admit that to you, dear, my french was somewhat lacking back in those days. But the brother spoke halfway decent italian — with that atrocious accent french people sometimes have — and we were able to understand each other perfectly ! »

« Did you pose for him ? »

She laughed.

« Him ? Oh, no, dear, I posed for his sister ! »

« Ah, I see. »

« She was still in training, the lovely peach. They couldn’t pay me much, of course, they were both orphans with almost nothing to their name ! But back then, I knew how to make every coin count ! »

« Did it last? »

« Oh, not very long, unfortunately. Our metteur en scène got arrested the following winter, and with no viable source of income, I had to leave... oh, trust me, dear Leone, it was a heartbreak like I’ve never seen. The brother bawled his eyes out — but then again, he cried often, and for anything. It was the sister I felt pain for. She was such a darling. I miss her dearly. Sweet little Sherry. »

« Did you ever see them again ? »

« No. I never went back to Paris after coming back to Italy. And a year later, in a village near Napoli, I met this, » she held up the baby against her waist, « little marvel’s father ! Who, for reasons unknown to me or anyone with common sense, refused to marry me. »

« Oh, the rascal. »

« Thank you ! I couldn’t agree more. »

She sighed, looking down at the sheets draped around her as her son idly kicked at the air.

« You know... this life was very difficult. And I wouldn’t return to it if the fate of humanity depended on it. But... »

He looked up from the canvas, and their eyes met.

« ... Sometimes, » she added with a smile. « I do miss it, you know ? Quite dearly. »

« Is that so ? »

At that, Leone could not hold back a sneer.

« Dear Julia, what is it you miss about the urban life of the starving artist, pray tell ? » he asked, adding a gentle touch of carmin to her cheeks. « Is it the fear of finding your doors barred when you return home one evening, leaving you out on the streets with nowhere to go ? Is it the constant search for recognition, for admiration, for a love that isn’t your own ? The nights spent alone with your thoughts while the world around you evolves without your imput ? The hunger digging at your navel ? »

He pointed at her with the end of his paintbrush, turning away from his work.

« Believe me, I have left that life behind me months ago, and I have never felt like I was missing even a second of — »

« You will, » she said suddenly, then paused.

An astonished silence fell into the room, before she added, face incongruously serious,

« You will miss it. Sooner than you think. Trust me. »

Her grip on the sheets tightened, while the hold on her son stayed lax. Her smile had a sadness that Leone had only seen once before — and suddenly, he felt terrified of that mirror image.

« It will come when you least expect it to. So... be prepared, my dear, for it will be painful. »

Leone opened his mouth to speak, but found himself short on sound.

Just then, his door flung open — swiftly enough that his very first thought was that of a hurricane blasting through the house.

« Pittore ! » came a booming voice, and in the span of a second, a paintbrush was flung violently, a scream echoed in the room, and a yelp of pain came from the intruder’s mouth.

« Ow ! » said Mista, whom had just gotten hit in the forehead by the handle of Leone’s brush, thrown expertly, though on a reflex. « Pittore, what was that — oh my god — »

Just as mortified as Julia and Leone were, Mista immediately went to cover his face with both hands, hiding his eyes away from the sight before him.

« Signorina Julia ! » he yelped. « I’m sorry, I thought... »

« What are you doing here, you imbecile ! » Leone roared, getting up from his easel, eyes throwing daggers at the the young man still standing near the open door.

« I came to — I need to talk to you ! It’s about something important ! »

His hands were still covering his eyes as he blindly addressed Leone, cheeks turned crimson by shame.

« Well, I suppose I’ll leave you both to it, then, » said Julia, gently putting her baby down on the bed to put on her clothing. « Leone, dear, I will see you tomorrow ? »

« Wait, » Leone assured, « You don’t have to leave. Mista here was just about to — »

« No, no, » she continued, « You heard the boy. It seems to be incredibly important. I shall take my leave ! »

Once fully dressed, baby in tow, Julia walked to the door, and with a laugh, patted Mista’s shoulder affectionately.

« And you, dear boy, do learn to knock, mh? »

« I, » Mista stammered, hands falling from his face. « I, uh. Promise. Signorina. »

« Fblbkbbl, » said the baby, swatting his pudgy little hand at Mista’s nose. Mista, still looking very incredulous, absently shook it.

With that, Julia departed, closing the door behind her — leaving a Mista feeling decidedly lost and a Leone feeling decidedly violent.

« Why, » started Mista, « Why was there a naked lady and her baby in your room ? »

« You — surely, you must be kidding. »

Mista waited. Leone’s entire face became ablaze with rage.

« I am a PAINTER, you absolute idiot ! A painter, as you and your little band of friends like to remind me every time we cross paths ! I was painting this woman, because it is my job, and by barging in like an elephant you interrupted my work, which is PAINTING ! »

« Woah, » said Mista. « Did you know, when you get really angry, there’s this little vein on your forehead — »

« What do you want. »

Mista straightened up and cleared his troat.

« Ah, yes. There’s something quite important I need to tell you. It’s, uh. It’s about Trish. »

This got Leone’s attention.

Truth be told, he had not seen a lot of Trish Una as of late, much less had the occasion to converse with her. Though he was often at the Una home, he worked mostly in his room, and only left it to go back to the Milazzo estate. Whenever he did see Trish, however, she did not look like her usual self.

She was quieter, definitely. On her guard, it seemed — almost on edge. She had grown slightly paler, and slept less, or so said the dark circles around her eyes. She didn’t smile as much.

Of course, Leone had not asked her about it. After all, what did he know about a young lady’s troubles ? She might have been too embarrassed to tell him, either way.

However, if the dolt in front of him had any information to give up, he was willing to listen.

« All right, » Leone agreed, and, picking his paintbrush up from the floor where he had flung it, gave a nod towards Mista. « But you’re going to model for me in the meantime. So that I don’t lose my whole morning to your antics. »

« You... you want to paint me ? »

« You or the bloody Pope, I couldn’t care less. I need the practice. And it’s been a while since I’ve drawn boys, so, why not. Sit on the bed. »

Going back to the easel, Leone proceeded to switch out canvas. Removing Julia’s, and putting it away to dry, he proceeded to draw a blank one from where it stood, against the wall next to him.

He had it prepared it the night before, as he usually did — getting canvas ready in advance kept him from wasting a lot of time, considering the fickle drying processes. He had first used an encollage procedure, using a glue preparation made from rabbit skin, which, compared to thinner glues, had the benefit of not yellowing over time. By using it over his canvas, he would turn it both rigid and waterproof, a rather advantageous combination of perks.

Using a large, flat brush, he had coated the canvas with this preparation twice, giving it time to dry in-between layers. Then, it had been time for the second step; the use of a coating, which would absorb and hold onto the paint as it dried — thus preventing the linen canvas from getting damaged by the various oils or, god forbid, mold.

A well-prepared canvas would last long after his death, which, really, was the whole point. Durability.

He placed it against his easel, brushing away a few specks of grey dust, and got a few more tubes of paint ready. Once he was fully prepared, he looked up — only to see Mista, still standing next to the bed, rather awkwardly.

Leone could already feel a headache coming on.

« Now, what seems to be the problem ? » he asked, and immediately knew he would not like the answer.

« Should I, uh, » Mista hesitated, rubbing at his neck, ratty hat in hand. « Should I get… Undressed ? »

As it turned out, the answer was a question — but Leone still did not like it.

« I beg your pardon ? »

« Signorina Julia was undressed, » Mista pointed out, seemingly offended by Leone’s superior tone.

Ah. This did make a lot of sense.

« … There's no need. Just get on there and lie down. »

Obediently, Mista did as he was told.

« Alright. Take a pose. »

« A pose ? »

« Whichever you want. Something relaxed, preferably. You’ll have to hold it for a little while. »

Mista hesitated for a brief moment, but settled on something fairly simple. He leant against the wall, pillow propped up against his shoulderblades, knees bent to the side and brought slightly closer to his chest. He then spread his arms wide against the mattress, but changed his mind one second later, and brought his hands to rest against his chest instead. After ten seconds, he changed his mind again, and, leaving one of his hands against his pectoral, brought one to his face, in a demure, yet decidedly relaxed pose.

« Is that alright ? » he asked.

Leone nodded, already tracing the outlines of his body.

« Mhm. It’ll work. Hold it, now. »

« Uh-uh. »

At this point in the day, the light had already changed. It would be a completely different ambiance, a completely different take. And, after all, this was what Leone needed to keep it interesting.

« So, tell me about Trish. »

All things considered, Mista did not look bad. Thanks to impressive survival skills, his life on the street had not taken too much of a toll on his body. He did not look skinny, or sickly, or even out of shape. His shoulders and arms were rather well-defined, and the bulk of his upper body showed that through harsh times, he had managed to stay well-fed. He had the look of a boy who had to take on shaving quite early on, or so indicated the dark, wispy hair on his arms and brows. Still, his features retained that delicate, roguish handsomeness that would perhaps have made him endearing to girls, had he not been so unsufferable.

Mista ran his hand through his black curls and sat up into a more comfortable posture, messing with his pose. Leone’s jaw clenched, and the grind of his teeth was a painful one.

« Well, she’s been rather down, lately. A little while ago, we’ve gotten some news we really hadn’t expected, and it’s been hard on her. »

« News ? »

« About La Camorra. »

Again, this Camorra.

« From what I’ve heard, » Mista continued, « They used to be like any business, back then. Sparse little gangs of thieves, kind of like us. Some assassinations, here and there. Poison, stabbings in the night, you know how it goes. »

« Mmh, » Leone said, mouth feeling bitter. « Charming. »

« But they started to organize. Got bigger and bigger. They began to form ranks, with a leader at the top that got the most wealth of them all. And wealth, they started to get a lot of it. They got people in offices, in the admnistration, in shops all around the south — hell, you can be sure that if your penpusher friend suddenly starts buying himself new suits, that’s because he’s getting jobs from them. They blackmail, they pay the police to look away, they smuggle goods in ships… It’s very much of a secret society, in a way. And the endgame, well. It's wealth. »

He let out a long sigh. Leone reached for his oils.

« Rumour had it, they had a sort of king. Well, not a king, but a leader. Someone that, by pulling the right strings, had gotten really, really powerful over the years, and was actually the head of the entire organization. But, thing is, no one knew who it was. »

Leone frowned as he proceeded to apply the first coat of paint.

The amount of pigment he used, combined with the thick coating on the canvas, gave the few first applications a matte finish, which he would correct when adding the spots of light, as well as varnish later on.

« Leading from the shadows ? » he said, trying his very best to multitask. « How quaint. »

« Exactly ! And everyone thought that he died ! »

Mista’s hands flew wildly. He then noticed Leone’s icy glare, and put them back where they belonged.

« Well, » he continued, sheepish, « that a member of his gang had killed him to get to the throne, rather. And to be fair, it was a bit of a relief when we heard about it — let me tell you, it was hard to work independently when everything was being controlled by La Camorra. We had to pay taxes on our findings ! »

« ‘Findings’? »

« Oh, come on, you know what I mean. Our findings. »

« Yes. Yes, I understood the first time. I simply find it to be your most grating euphemism yet. »

« Either way, we’ll learn to live with it. As long as we don’t try anything and don’t mess with La Camorra, they won’t mess with us. We’re small fry to them, after all. Just trying to get by. »

His expression turned into a scowl.

« It’s different for Trish, though. Their return is bad news for her. Worse than for us. »

Leone’s eyes found Mista’s.

« In what way? »

« Her old man’s from La Camorra. »

Leone almost dropped his brush, and managed to splatter paint all over his sleeve.

« You alright, pittore ? »

« Yes, » Leone blurted out. « Yes. I’m fine. Hold on a second. »

He would have to soak it into paint solvant later. What a pain.

« Her father is ?… Is Signorina Una part of this whole scheme ? »

« Uh ? No ! No, of course she’s not ! »

He rubbed his neck, wincing slightly at the strain the pose gave his spine.

« I mean, we don’t know much of her past involvement, really. But she’s an honest lady. From what she’s told us, she didn’t know he was from La Camorra. She thought he was a good man. Really generous with her, apparently — I mean, he bought her this big house. »

Leone looked around at the large room; the high walls with the chipping paint, the cracked, tall ceiling.

« Ah, I see. That was him. »

« A gift from him, yeah. But now, if he’s back, well. Trish is a little scared of what he might do. To her or her mother. »

« You think he might do something ? Does he even know Trish is his daughter ? »

Mista gave a one-shouldered shrug.

« I couldn’t tell you. Trish doesn’t like to talk about it much. Signorina Una, even less so. »

« Then, why are you telling me this ? They surely wouldn’t enjoy having a stranger knowing about their secret. »

« You’re not really a stranger anymore. »

He gave a toothy grin.

« Besides, I’ve got to make sure you’ll defend her, if needs be. »

« Defend her ? »

« Yes. Protect her. No matter the cost. She’s… She’s our best friend. Really precious to us. If anything happened to her… I don’t know. I think we’d all go mad. »

Leone stared into his palette, mixing his colors for longer than what was necessary.

« So, I need to make sure — we all need to make sure — that you’ll help her. Even if she’s too proud to ask you. If she’s in danger, or, if she needs to hide, or anything else. We can count on you, right ? »

On the palette, the colors had turned into a muddy brown. Leone let out a long, suffering sigh. He finally looked up.

« I suppose — »

He met Mista’s stare.

« … Very well. I will, I promise. But I can’t say that I’ll be of much help. »

Mista’s entire face lit up at the confirmation, his smile silly-looking but bright.

« Thanks, pittore ! We all really appreciate it. »

« Mmh. I’m sure. »

« Oh, by the way ! » he suddenly gasped, and went to get up. « I completely forgot, I have something for you — »

« Don’t move ! » Leone bellowed, way louder than was necessary.

Surprised, Mista froze into place. With an infuriated groan, Leone put his brush down, got up from his seat, and walked the way to Mista.

« What is that thing. »

« It’s, uh, » Mista hesitated. « In my coat’s pocket. It’s a letter. »

Leone looked around briefly for Mista’s coat — which sat, crumpled, on the floor. He picked it up and rummaged through the pocket, to find, indeed, a slightly wrinkly, unopened letter.

He immediately recognized the writing on its facet.

« Where did this arrive ? » Leone asked, frowning deeply.

« At the Milazzo estate, apparently. A maid gave it to me when I went, earlier this morning. »

« I see. »

He had not gotten a reply in weeks. Why now ?

Sitting down at the edge of the bed, Leone tore the seal open and began to read the letter.

My dear friend,

I already know what your next words will be. « Celestino, you mean, mean figlio di puttana, » you’ll spit, « how dare you ignore my missives for so long ? Do you not love me anymore ? Have you grown tired of me ? » To which I would reply that no, no, of course I have not grown tired of you. Though, to tell you the truth, things have been a little hectic since you’ve left Rome this summer, especially for your poor friend Celestino.

I will not bore you with endless details about my family situation, or my financial dispositions; I will instead cut the story short, to its briefest details. My fiancée’s parents are growing impatient; they’re tired of their daughter and my endless dancing around each other. They want the wedding to be over with, and, per their wishes, it will be happening very, very soon.

On September 30th, Leone, I will be married.

I know the way you feel. You’ve made your disapproval of my nuptials abundantly clear in the past. But despite everything, I urge you to act like an adult, and to put your sensitivities aside. It will be an important day for me, and I would like for you to be there, as my best man. I could imagine no one else.

Will you come, only for a week’s time ? If you so wish, you can return to Napoli right after the exchange of vows. I simply ask you to be here, only a few days. For me. For us.

If you still have a little bit of love for me in your heart, you will come. And I will be eternally thankful.

On another note, I have read your letter. I am very, very glad to hear that you’ve taken on painting again ! I cannot wait to see your work when you return home, for good this time.

Do be careful with the Signora’s son, though. You know endless pursuits only lead to pain — and that is true for everyone ! There is nothing I would want more than to see you happy. Do not lunge back into sadness, as comforting as it might be, by running after who cannot be obtained.

Please, answer me quickly, so that I may prepare for your arrival.

With all my affection,

Celestino



« Bad news ? » Mista inquired, lying very still.

« The worst kind. »

« Are… Are you crying ? »

« No. »

« Should I leave ? »

« No. You, you don’t bat an eyelash. I am done letting this man get in the way of my work. »

He crumpled the letter in his hands, turning it into a ball, and threw it against the wall. It fell with a satisfying bounce.

« Who was it from ? »

« Someone I thought could no longer wound me. It’s fine. »

He got up, dusting his trousers, and walked back to his easel. His back was stiff, his stomach tied into knots. His heart close to bursting.

« Is it a… A lover ? » Mista tried, tentatively.

As he sat down, Leone frowned deeply at the boy.

« What does it matter to you ? »

« It doesn’t really, it’s just — we were wondering earlier, if you really were a fino —  »

« Do not call me that, » Leone immediately spat, voice low and fuming. « Do not dare. »

« Ah. Sorry. »

« You’re not. It’s fine. I don’t care. You can say anything you want. What the hell, » he rambled, grabbing his palette and applying paint to the canvas, with harsh, quick flicks of his brush. « What should I care anymore. I’m used to it. »

His fingers trembled, and had trouble keeping the brush in place. His knee began to bounce up and down rapidly.

« I got called all sorts of names. That does not matter. But the audacity to pretend that all this time, I was running after a shadow, » he barked, so angry he could feel his eyes sting, « Hah ! How pitiless can one man be ? Must he truly deal those awful blows to my heart, even in such circumstances ? What meaningless, daunting cruelty... So absurd, it barely even bothers me, I tell you. »

Behind the easel, Mista winced, ears slightly red.

« You say that, » he insisted, « but with the way you say it, it sounds like it bothers you a lot. »

Leone’s entire face felt scorched, as if scrubbed raw. He tried to inhale, and the muscles in his jaw gave out — and so the pain rushed straight to his throat instead.

« Ah, maybe it does, » he mumbled, rage pouring out of him like water from a broken jug. Leaving his body and dribbling to the floor, for everyone to see. « Maybe it still does. »

He wiped at his eyes harshly, with the palm of his hands. Of course, he told himself, those were not tears of sadness, but rather, tears of rage, of frustration, of justified resentment. Or some other noble emotion. One he would not feel shameful over.

Although, the anger he felt against the letter, against the world, was nothing compared to the anger he felt at his own heart for letting him cry in front of this idiot.

« Ehi, Abbacchio, » said idiot queried, voice soft. « You alright ? »

« Yes. Yes. »

He sighed, shielding his eyes.

« I apologize for my outburst, you… It was not your fault. You didn’t do anything. »

« Can I get up, now ? »

« Yes, you can. It’s ruined, anyway. »

He heard the sheets being pushed away, and Mista’s steps towards him as he snuck behind the easel, giving a look to the painting.

« Huh, » Mista said, scratching his chest. « I hadn’t imagined it like that. »

« Me neither, » Leone sighed. « Then again, things never seem to go in the direction I would like them to. »

Gently, Mista patted his shoulder. For a reason Leone himself did not know, he allowed it.

The painting was unfinished and messy. He had been too brutal with his strokes, and the anger he had felt was easily noticeable, if only through the colors he had picked, or the way the light hit in harsh, straight beams.

It certainly wasn’t something he would be able to sell.

« Do you want to keep it ? »

« I wouldn’t know where to put it, » replied Mista with a chuckle. « But thanks for the offer ! Maybe I can pose for you again, sometime. You’ll just have to call. »

« No. You are an awful model. »

« That’s cruel, pittore ! »

Leone snickered, feeling a nervous exhaustion creeping on his bones.

« Aren’t you used to it, by now ? There, run along. I’ve embarrassed myself enough for today. »

« I will, » Mista agreed, picking up his clothing and putting it back on. « But you’ll think about what I said, right ? About Trish. »

« Yes, yes. Of course. I already said I agreed, didn’t I ? »

Mista nodded, seemingly pleased, and put on his hat, heading for the exit. Before leaving, though, he turned back around, hand on the doorknob.

« Oh, pittore ? »

« Mh ? »

« You should not let other people push you into unhappiness. You… No matter what happens, you always have other options. People who, you know. Who will bother to match your rhythm. »

Leone frowned.

« … I’m not sure I’m following. »

« Just — try to be happy, won’t you, pitto’ ? »

Leone opened his mouth, perhaps to utter a snarky remark — but he remembered the redness of his eyes, the fatigue in his whole body, and he noticed Mista’s earnest glare, and simply could not find it in himself to be mean.

« … I will try. »

Mista gave him a toothy grin, and, with a (strangely polite) dip of his hat, he walked out the door.


-


In no more than the blink of an eye, it was already half-past September.

The 19th, by some grand coincidence, was a Sunday. It was also the anniversary of San Gennaro’s martyr, and as the custom went, the patron saint of Napoli would be getting a celebration fit to his importance.

For the occasion, the Milazzo family would, as would a great part of Napoli’s inhabitants, would show its presence in il Duomo San Gennaro, where the holy ceremonial would take place.

Gioia Milazzo, as one who knew her might have expected, had very kindly extended the invitation to Leone.

« You cannot stay in Napoli and not see the miracle of San Gennaro with your own eyes ! » she had said over dinner, delighted.

« It will be an especially important year, » had grumbled Sigismundo Milazzo, stabbing at his calamari with a fork. « With all those rumors about la Camorra and whatnot. People need hope that things will get better. »

Leone, unsure of what exactly this miracle entailed, had expressed his confusion.

« San Gennaro is the protector of Napoli, » Bruno had explained, while cutting into a peach. « During the ceremonial, thrice a year, his blood is said to change consistency. »

« … His blood ? »

« Mhm, » Bruno had nodded. « His blood. During the rest of the year, it is stored as a relic. And on a holy day, they bring it out, and see whether it has liquefied. If it has, it will mean a great and plentiful year for Napoli. If it has not, however, well… »

« … It will be a sign of misfortune ? »

« Precisely. »

Bruno offered a quarter of his peach to Leone, who politely declined.

« I saw it happen, not too long ago, » had interjected Sigismundo. « 1849 ! When the blood refused to liquify in front of the Pope ! »

« With the political climate being what it was at the time, I can let you imagine how that was received, » had said Bruno, sliding the quarter of peach from his knife to Leone’s plate.

As it turned out, Leone did want a peach. He accepted the slice of fruit, and ate it with a nod of thanks.

« How do you know, silly boy ? » Gioia had laughed. « You were barely a child when it happened ! »

Leone had tried to imagine Bruno Buccellati as a toddler. The fondness he had felt in his heart had almost been too great to bear. He had taken a sip of wine to calm himself down.

The conversation had then moved to another topic; but the rendezvous had been set.

Of course, at this point, Leone still had not made a decision, or even deigned to reply to Celestino’s letter.

Truth be told, he had somewhat kept himself from thinking about it at all. But the time when he would have to make a decision was growing closer and closer, and the depth of his uncertainty was beginning to get nerve-wracking.

To add salt to the wound, well. The dreams had not stopped.

They now plagued him at least every other night, though he had tried everything to disperse them from his mind. For the first time in three months, he had gotten blind drunk before bed, in an attempt to knock himself out so deeply he would have no choice but to fade into a sleepless dream. However, it had not worked — not even remotely. He had still woken up with his insides churning and the fleeting sensation of lips against his stomach.

Which made his daily meetings with Bruno Buccellati rather difficult to handle the following afternoons.

This had prompted the, perhaps unwise decision, that he was to sleep as little as possible, in order to not bring forth any of the languorous dreams.

Lord, but his lovesick heart was surely about to bring his demise.

Deep as he was in a mixture of uncertainty, doubt, self affliction, and guilt, he often felt the urge to delve back into his old vices. Hidden deep in a dresser, buried under the weight of all his clothing, was a tiny silver box, which he knew contained his very final portion of dawamesk.

As he had been advised, it had been prepared and cut in 30 grams doses, of which this was his last. He had saved it specially for this sort of occasion; when he felt the need to float and to cause any sort of mental process to stop short. He had not eaten any since he had left Rome, but this case was an emergency. Was it not ?

He simply needed to sleep. A little bit of rest, right then, in the middle of the afternoon, when he was supposed to be working, would be a welcome respite.

Lying down onto his bed, he popped the dawamesk into his mouth, and began to chew.

It tasted as it always did; the pistachio flour gave it a nutty aftertaste, soon washed away by the sweetness of the honey and the bitterness of the cannabis resin. It was not unpleasant, all in all, but it was certainly a bit of an acquired taste.

In his wild youth (well, his younger youth, he supposed), he had once eaten enough in one go to put an awful strain on his liver — at least, that had been the first symptom. It had gotten much worse over time. The hallucinations he had then had almost pushed him to lunge himself from a window in an attempt to fly.

Only one would hopefully not have that effect, though.

He swallowed, finally, and let out a sigh. The sensations would not come for a little while; but when they did, he would be finally able to —

« Abbacchio ? »

A knock echoed against his doorframe. Leone sat up with a jolt.

« Um, » he blurted, his whole mouth pasty from the honey — his tongue sticking against his palate. « Yes ? »

« Are you ready to leave ? » came Buccellati’s voice. « The ceremonial is in an hour, but we’ll have to get there quite soon if we want to be seated inside the cathedral. »

Leone’s entire body stiffened.

« I — Didn’t you say the ceremonial would be in the evening ? »

He had counted on at least that amount of time to himself, in order to get a little bit of rest before the outing into town.

« Oh, no, it’s always around this time. Did my mother not… Say, is everything alright ? May I come in ? »

« No ! » Leone pleaded, a little too loud to sound natural. « I, er — I still have to get dressed ! Please, wait for a moment, I. I will be out very shortly. »

« Very well ! I’ll see you in a moment. »

Leone listened intently to Bruno’s steps as he departed, and let himself fall back down onto the mattress, palms pressed tightly against his closed eyelids.

This was, truly, a nightmare.

An hour was just about the amount of time he had ahead of him before the haschich’s effects began to hit. He had no time to rush outside and force himself to vomit. Perhaps he could pretend to be with some sort of illness ? Something that would keep him inside, where he would not have the opportunity to embarrass himself.

He shook his head. No, that was idiotic. He had just told Bruno that he would be out soon. Besides, only one bite would not have the atrocious effects a dozen had, last time he had indulged.

He took a glance towards the crucifix at the foot of his bed — at Christ’s merciful, sad gaze, turned right to where he lied.

« Spare me the theatrics, » he hissed, and went to get dressed.


-


Il duomo san Gennaro was truly an impressive sight. Lodged right in the western district of Napoli, the cathedral retained the grandeur and rich gothic details of its origins. The immensely tall, off-white façade was a looming giant of architecture, and hit as it was by the sun’s bright rays, looked rather impressive.

It looked especially alive on this day. Onto the cathedral’s parvis, spilling out from its open doors, stood what seemed like half of Napoli’s population; all here to watch San Gennaro’s blood hopefully turn liquid once more, bringing jubilation to the people, and omens of good luck.

Leone, by nature, did not enjoy large crowds. Especially not crowds that, besides their enormous size, were so densely packed together. He felt much more at ease in large, open spaces — as a child, he had greatly enjoyed his life on the plains of Tuscany, where nothing and no one could hide for very long.

Now, though, with the state his nerves were in, Leone doubted that he would feel calm even in the wide grasslands of his childhood.

So far, no unpleasant effect had manifested. On the carriage that had driven them from Posillipo to the center of Naples, Leone had felt perfectly sound, and had even been able to hold a conversation with Bruno’s mother for a good ten minutes. He felt tired, but, then again, he had not slept properly in quite a while. Perhaps the dawamesk’s effects would be diminished by the fact that his stomach was full.

Now that he stood in front of the cathedral, though, anxiety was starting to creep onto him once more.

Behind his neck, he felt a breath.

« Don’t worry, » Bruno whispered against his ear. « I don’t typically enjoy this type of crowd, either. »

A shiver wracked through Leone’s entire body, starting at the small of his back then tingling up along his spine. Bruno’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, and that particular spot began to feel warm.

« We will try to find some room near the front — Milazzo has to find a seat, with his bad back, » Bruno continued, completely unaware of the effects of what he had just done. « Will that be alright ? »

« Certainly, » Leone replied, trying his very damndest to sound natural and unbothered.

Bruno nodded. His lips curled into a smile as he noticed something, further in the distance, away from the growing, moving crowd.

« This cathedral is very fitting for you, I’ve only noticed. »

« Ah — why is that ? »

Bruno pointed towards the ornate façade, to a particular spot right above the tall, heavy doorframe. Above it, sculpted into the stone, with an air of radiant harmony, was a Madonna with Child — then, back to the ground, sat two stone lions on each side of the Virgin, mouth seemingly open in a protective roar.

« Ah, lions, » Leone mumbled. « Because my name is… »

It was getting increasingly hard to focus. The spots of warmth on his body, where Bruno had touched him, were beginning to grow larger, down to the point Leone’s entire body felt engulfed in heat — so much so that he began to sweat. He felt dizzy, muscles, especially his legs, growing slightly weak, as one who had not eaten for a long while might feel. The tip of his fingers were tingling, oversensitive.

It was a very familiar sensation. But in this particular moment, it did not bring Leone any comfort.

« Shall we go ? » said Gioia, looking especially cheerful next to her morose husband.

« Yes, » Leone said, too low for anyone to hear, then repeated, much louder, « Yes. We shall. »

He then proceeded to walk in the direction of the cathedral, staring straight ahead, disoriented eyes trying desperately to find a point of focus. Bruno followed close behind, then half-skittered to catch up with him completely. He raised a questioning eyebrow at Leone’s stride.

« Leone, » he asked, « Are you quite alright ? »

« Yes, » Leone replied, decidedly not slowing. « Why do you ask ? »

« The way you’re walking, it is — »

« Do I not walk properly ? » Leone enquired, in a very sincerely mortified tone.

« Well, no, not quite — you certainly look a lot stiffer than usual, I’d say. »

« I, » Leone said, then took a long breath. « I am trying very hard. »

« To do what ? » Bruno asked, looking rather merry. « To walk ? »

« … Yes. To walk. »

Bruno let out a laugh — though it did not sound mocking. Even in the growing brouhaha of the cathedral’s parvis, Bruno Buccellati’s laughter still sounded like the gentlest river stream.

« Did you manage to get yourself tipsy before we left ? I can’t recall seeing you drink that much during dinner, » Bruno then asked, smile growing wider.

In this instant, it became of the utmost importance to Leone that Bruno did not find out about what he had done. As panic settled in, however, he found himself unable to think of any believable answer, and therefore, decided it would be best to ignore the question entirely.

« Are your mother and Signore Milazzo following ? » he instead asked as they reached the cathedral’s doors.

The sounds of conversation and general agitation had become particularly intense on this particular spot, as had the thickness of the crowd. Bruno turned around, trying to find the sight of his mother, but merely shrugged.

« Mmh, I don’t believe they are. But that should be fine. I’m quite sure they will find a place to sit on their own. »

« Here’s to hoping, » said Leone, for no reason in particular.

Bruno chuckled — and in this instant, this very particular moment, as the effects of the dawamesk began to seep through the matter of his brain, Leone realized just how much he enjoyed watching Bruno Buccellati smile.

This realization, though not a particularly surprising one, was still enough to render him breathless.

« Come, » said Bruno, taking his arm and pulling him towards the entrance as, deeper inside the cathedral, the archbishop appeared. « Let’s get inside. »

« Yes, let’s, » Leone repeated, unsure of whether he had said it aloud or not.

Inside, the cathedral proved to look even more impressive than on the outside. The vast, curved ceilings were sculpted into complex arches, supported by thick ornamented pillars. Though rather spacious, the cathedral was filled to the brim with people. They were everywhere, standing, sitting on benches or directly onto the cool floors. Toothless elders, sniffling and loudly talking to no one; mothers and their children in tow, sleepy babies and rowdy toddlers finding great hiding places; bakers and fishermen and politicians and beggars and barbers and doctors and tailors and servants and potters. All of Napoli, condensed into a gigantic cathedral, waiting for a saint’s blood to decide their faith.

Paying more attention to the ceilings, especially the one above the great, gilded altar, one might have noticed the beautiful painted scenes; in a better state of mind, Leone might have even been able to, perhaps, recognize the artists’ hands. Though, at this point, it had become almost impossible for Leone to focus on details.

Bruno had guided him to a corner of the cathedral, where they could, though standing uncomfortably close to dozens of other onlookers, have a fairly decent view of the scene.

As the archbishop, all purple mozzetta and tall, shining mitre, went forward, with in hands, the relic in which San Gennaro’s blood was stored, the cathedral went quiet.

It was strange, standing in a such heavily filled, large building, and having it so completely silent. Surely, Leone might have been able to appreciate it even more, had he not been in such an advanced state of intoxication.

As time went by, the seconds stretched, languidly, in the oddest manner. The heady smell of the incense, mixed with the sweat and various odors coming from the many gawkers, was slowly getting to his head. The light, pooling from the elongated windows behind the altar, was slight, but intensified by the gold casings and candlelights. On a whim, Leone began to stare upwards, at the painted, circular ceiling; and in a strange case of inverted vertigo, found himself getting dizzy.

He rubbed his temples, trying to shake off the heady sensation.

It was decidedly not getting better overtime. The stuffiness of the atmosphere seemed to make it worse, in fact. It had gotten hard to stand properly.

He felt a tapping against the small of his back, and jumped, holding back a ticklish yelp only by the skin of his teeth. It was Bruno, trying to catch his attention. Leone turned to watch him.

« Are you alright ? » Bruno mouthed, and his gaze was worried.

Leone realized, in this very instant, just how close they were standing together. Of course, in this corner of the cathedral, most of everyone was stuck flush against each other (in a grand show of equity amongst Men) ; but how could have Leone given even one care towards all those nobodies ?

In front of him stood a being of inky hair and dazzling skin — radiant and warm, calm and fiery, heart larger than life, sky and sea alike — his lips, damp, and the curve of his neck, inviting.

« You’re looking awfully red, Leone, » Bruno whispered to his ear, and Leone thought that he wanted nothing more but to rest his head against his shoulder. « Do you want to — »

« I will be fine, » Leone whispered in response, thankfully at a reasonable pitch.

Bruno nodded, but his eyes lingered on Leone a few moments more.

The archbishop had begun his prayer; but Leone barely even listened a word. He tried once more to look up at the ceiling, pushed by a great urge to get lost into its heavily detailed circle, and fought the dizziness.

Onto the ceiling, the Madonna’s features turned to those of his mother, though her gaze held a love that Leone imagined to be the softest kind there was. In the immense cathedral, the world begun to spin, but Leone held on for dear life, eyes sticking desperately to the picture, trying to anchor himself, to drown into that face he had so clearly forgotten —

Overcome with emotions, and without really thinking, Leone reached for Bruno’s hand, and found it after a bit of blind searching, holding it tight into his own.

Next to him, Leone felt a surprised jolt coming from Bruno. A flinch, a suppressed gasp, a sliver of hesitation, perhaps — until he felt a gentle grasp.

For a few, long seconds, Leone stopped breathing completely. The silence, only disturbed by the distant, monotonous prayer, felt like a great stone lodged between his shoulders.

Bruno’s fingers entwined with his.

Around them, a loud chain of gasps echoed, quickly followed by yelps of joy. A few pairs of hands clapped in celebration, then tens, then hundreds, filling the cathedral with applauds.

In the archbishop’s hand, to Napoli’s sight, San Gennaro’s blood had begun to boil.


-


As the cathedral progressively emptied, Leone, too, slowly came down from his high.

His head pounded painfully, a thrum against his temples, making him wince at every other intake of breath. His tongue was swollen, and awfully dry, and he felt voracious hunger digging at his stomach.

Most of all, though, he felt incredibly thirsty.

He left the cathedral halfway leaning against Bruno, who pushed him forwards helpfully towards the street. Outside, the sky was slowly darkening, sun setting in the distant west. The rays were still intense enough to hurt Leone’s poor head.

« There is a fountain there, a few meters to the left, » Bruno said, patting Leone’s back. « Do you think you might be able to go there alone ? I will find my mother so we can leave. »

Leone tried to speak, but decided it would be wiser to nod instead. Satisfied, Bruno walked back towards the cathedral, while Leone, with long, hesitant strides, headed for the small fountain where, thankfully, no line had yet formed.

He twisted the little pump, and water began to trickle out. Cupping his hands under the thin flow, Leone drank his fill, before realizing he needed more than that — and simply putting his head under the trickle, twisting the pump with one hand to make it stronger.

Water splashed onto his head, dampening the long strands of his hair, refreshing his overheated brain. He let out a long, contented sigh.

As he straightened and shook his head, successfully splashing water everywhere around him, something in the distance caught his attention.

Where had he seen this man before ?

Even through the thick fog of his mind, recognition sparked his brain alight. It had been on the boat that brought him to Napoli; he could not recall his name (Prosecco?... something of the sort), only that he had been accompanied by a strange little man with no chin. He was blonde, dashingly handsome, with pockmarked cheeks, and dark, expensive clothing. From what Leone could gather, he was deep into a conversation, with a man whose face Leone was unable to see, as his back was turned. But his shoulders were wide, and his hair was a dizzying white — cut so that strands reached his neck, curling slightly at its base.

After a short moment, the blonde man noticed that he and his companion were being watched. His eyes widened slightly as he recognized Leone, though that recognition did not seem to provoke any particular emotion within him — besides surprise. Noticing that his interlocutor’s attention was being pulled elsewhere, the white-haired man turned around —

Leone felt his throat go tight.

This man, he knew him too.

Where had he seen him ? When had he seen him ? He did not have the kind of face one could forget.

What he wore on his mouth was no scowl; rather, it was an unsettling grimace, a strangely dissatisfied expression, not quite showing his teeth, but revealing the wide stretch of his mouth. He
looked to be in-between ages, the unnatural pallor of his face blurring the details of his features. His jaw was square, his nose straight, and his forehead rather large —

But his eyes —

A vibrant, crimson, fiery red.

Where had he seen him ? When had he seen him ?

Where ? He knew he had. When ? Too long ago ? Where ? When ?

You could not possibly forget eyes like those —

« You’re looking a little wet, pitto’. »

Leone jumped in place, surprised — only to turn around and to find none other than Giorno Giovanna.

He had both hands in his pockets, and in this dimming light, his face looked especially somber.

« What the — Lord Christ, someone ought to put a bell around your neck, » Leone wheezed.

He turned back around; but when he did, both men had already walked away, back into the crowd, where he could not see them anymore.

« Did you see those two men ? »

Giovanna looked in the direction Leone pointed to, leaning slightly to the side, but shook his head no.

« … Well, no matter. What are you doing here ? »

With a tilt of his chin, Giovanna indicated the cathedral.

« The others were all in here. They wanted to see the miracle of San Gennaro, this year again. »

« Ah. I didn’t see them. »

« It’s no wonder. There were a lot of people. »

Leone gathered his hair in a single, makeshift braid, and twisted it to get most of the water out. He scoffed at Giorno, wincing.

« And you didn’t want to see it ? »

« I don’t like churches much. »

Leone tilted an eyebrow.

« Weren’t you raised by nuns ? »

Giorno smiled.

« Exactly. »

« Hah, » Leone chuckled, humorless. « I see. Fair enough. »

From his pockets, Giorno produced an apple, which he juggled between his hands for a brief moment.

« Are you waiting for Buccellati ? » he asked.

Leone nodded, watching Giovanna haul himself up to sit onto the short wall next to the fountain.

« So, » continued Giorno, seemingly eager to make conversation. « Did the blood turn liquid, or did it not ? Are we all doomed until next year ? »

« It boiled. »

Both of Giovanna’s eyebrows raised, in the most surprised expression Leone had seen on him yet. He felt a twinge of pride over that achievement.

« It did ? Huh. »

Silence settled between them. Giovanna was absently staring off in the direction of the cathedral, eyes slightly glazed. Leone waited, having nothing to say to him.

« When I was little, » Giovanna whispered after a moment, « on a San Gennaro day… One of the nuns grabbed me and tried to give me a bleeding. She said she had to cleanse the shame from my blood. »

Leone turned to him, eyes wide.

« Well, » Giovanna continued, slightly waving his hand, « She was old. Things weren’t really lit up there. But it stuck with me. This is why I don’t enjoy that day very much. »

« I … Can imagine, » Leone said, hesitant.

« Say, can I talk to you about something ? »

Leone winced.

« Is it not something you can tell your little friends ? »

« No. »

« Not even Trish ? »

Giovanna’s ears grew red.

« I don’t see why I would tell her anything I wouldn’t tell Mista or Narancia. So, no. »

Leone let out a long, suffering sigh. He leant against the wall, and wished he had his pipe with him.

« Go on, then. If you must. »

« Well, » Giorno started, « I have this dream, every now and then. »

He bit into the apple, teeth leaving a perfectly circular indentation in the fruit’s flesh. He chewed, swallowed. Spoke again.

« It’s a little hard to explain. I’ve had it since I was a child, at least once a year. Lately, though, it’s come to me more and more often. »

He turned to Leone, undone hair gently fluttering in the breeze, framing the soft curves of his face.

« Have you ever had this kind of dream ? The kind that simply will not leave you be ? »

Leone shifted uncomfortably, clearing his throat.

« No. No, I can’t say that I have. »

Giorno turned back towards the sky, and closed his eyes.

« In the dream, I’m all alone, in this dark room. Well, I say it’s a room, but really, it’s so dark I can’t see any walls, or ceiling, or even the floor at my feet. So I can’t really tell for sure. Maybe it’s the inside of a cavern, or underwater. »

His hands were kept busy by the half-eaten apple, which he rolled around in his open palms.

« The air is so hot I can barely breathe. It’s suffocating, like I’m standing in a lit furnace. »

He punctured the skin of the apple lightly, with the tip of his nail.

« Somehow, I feel like I’ve been in this place before. It’s all… Faintly familiar. But I don’t feel good there. It’s… Scary. Scarier than anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a sense of urgency, like I have to get out before anyone notices me. But, of course, I’m stuck on the spot with no way to run. »

With its bitten wound out in the open, the yellow-white flesh of the apple began to turn brown.

« And when I feel so terrified I think I’m going to puke… That’s when it appears. »

« When what appears ? »

Giorno shook his head, slowly twisting off the apple’s stem.

« I can never see its face. It’s shrouded in shadows. But I can feel its presence. I can feel its eyes, looking at me, piercing through me like darts. A really, truly malevolent being is standing in front of me. It... really is hard to explain to someone who cannot see it, but... »

« I’d say, » Leone sighed, and wished he was somewhere else. « But... I’ll try to humour you, anyhow. »

« Thank you. »

Giorno continued.

« … Yet, somehow, I feel connected to it. This creature, this entity of darkness, it’s a part of me. I’ve been far away from it for a very long time, but it’s returned, and now I can’t run away from it anymore. There’s a sense of… Kinship, almost. Recognition. »

Leone frowned, lips parting to utter another snide remark — until his eyes caught the apple in Giorno’s hands once more. It was shaking. Quite terribly, in fact.

Looking up, he noticed that Giorno’s entire body was being wracked by shivers. His expression stayed focused, eyes staring straight ahead, with only a light sheen of sweat on his forehead to betray his emotion. But though the young man had learnt to control the expression of his features to near perfection, his body was currently failing him.

Leone chose not to acknowledge it, and to his surprise, Giorno seemed to prefer that.

« Well, » Leone said, swallowing down his bitterness, « That could mean quite a number of things — »

« I think it’s the devil. »

Leone’s eyebrows shot up.

« Pardon ? »

Giorno threw his apple in the air. It flew into a curve, before hitting the ground violently, and shattering into various, broken pieces.

« The thing I see. I believe it to be the devil. Or — or some sort of dark spirit associated with it. It can’t be anything else. »

« And you said you felt close to it ? »

« More so than I would like, yes. »

Leone looked up to the sky, wincing with his whole mouth.

The nuns had really done a number on this one, hadn’t they. Nagging old crones, with their heads full of terror. Prodding at youth with burning rods until something finally stuck.

« I... » Giorno continued, with an hesitation that did not become him. « I do not believe myself to be evil. Not in the proper sense of the word. I — I can be good. I know I can. But this diabolical presence, I know it to be my father. »

Leone’s eyes grew wide.

« Your father ? Aren’t you an orphan ? »

Giorno had a small, chagrined smile.

« I am not, no. Mista is an orphan, dropped into the wheel as a baby. The nunnery was all he knew for most of his life. Narancia, he was born dirt poor, youngest of six. His mother died from an illness, and his father dropped him here when he was little — he was sickly as a child, or so I’ve heard. His siblings all live in a village further north. He visits them, sometimes. »

His smile turned even more absent. With no apple in his hands, he resorted to pulling on his fingers to make his knuckles crack.

« Me, » he said, and his voice was colder than marble, « I had the misfortune to know my mother. I wonder where she might be now. »

Leone stayed quiet, unsure of what to say. Giorno shook his head, braids bouncing.

« But you are right. I never knew my father, or, at least, he is absent from my memories. So, even if that apparition showed a face, I still would not recognize it. But... this familiarity cannot be explained otherwise, can it? »

« Even if your father was akin to the devil and your mother , it has nothing to do with you. »

Giorno finally looked up at Leone, a single eyebrow raised.

« Doesn’t it ? »

« I mean, my father had a great bushy beard and was a true womanizer. Now, take one good look at me. Does it look like I inherited either of those traits ? »

Giorno snorted, loud in the quiet of the plazza, and finally, the smile reached his eyes.

« That’s, » he started, then cleared his throat, « That’s fairly true. Yes. »

« Your blood does not define you, Giovanna. If that were the case, humanity would not have come very far. What defines you is your own will and aspiration. For Christ’s sake, it is especially true for you lot, who raised yourselves from the dirt. With no ancestry to speak of. »

« ... You truly believe that ? »

« Well, yes. You’re an irritating brat. But there’s hope for you yet. »

Giorno’s mouth opened slightly, but no sound came out.

He seemed to search for his next words, something that Leone had very rarely seen him do before. Where was the assurance, the cockiness, the prestance ? In front of him, there was only a frightened child.

Giorno closed his mouth, and opened it again.

« Thank you, » he said, and his voice sounded very small.

« ... No need to mention it. »

« Leone ! »

This was Bruno’s voice. Leone immediately straightened up, and next to him, so did Giovanna, though less intensely.

« And Giorno ! » Bruno said as he reached earshot. « If you’re looking for the others, they’re waiting for you by the chapel. »

« Ah, thank you, » Giovanna said, rather quickly, and let himself fall from his perch. « I… I’ll go to them, then. That’s my call. »

Bruno frowned deeply, and bent down slightly to take a look at Giovanna’s face. Giovanna winced, and looked away.

« … Giorno, is something wrong ? You look — »

« Girls problems, » Leone blurted out, unsure of why or how.

Both Giovanna and Bruno looked at him with surprise.

« Giorno here, » Leone continued, « was telling me about… Romance issues he’s encountered. He was asking me for advice. You’ll understand that he is now feeling too embarrassed to tell anyone else. »

Bruno raised a singular eyebrow, not quite impressed by Leone’s lying skills. Giorno, though his expression was neutral as ever, looked positively icy. Leone held back a grin.

« Well, » Bruno thankfully let go, « if that’s the case, I won’t bug you any longer. »

« See you another day, » Giorno replied quickly, turning around to leave.

« Good luck, Giovanna ! » Leone teased, hand acting as a megaphone. « Don’t worry, she’ll come around eventually ! They don’t call you Gigi l’Amoroso for nothing ! »

Giorno turned around, and struck the inside of his elbow with one hand. Leone cackled as he watched the the boy walk away. Bruno shook his head.

« How mean of you, » he chastised. « You really should not pester him so much. »

« Bah, it is no pestering. We simply happen to communicate in that way, that’s all. »

« Mhm, » Bruno sighed, unconvinced. « Well, at least you certainly seem better than when I left you. »

He reached out to feel Leone’s forehead. Taken aback, Leone stopped moving completely for a few seconds, guiltily relishing in the sensation of his cool palm against his heated skin.

« Now, » said Bruno, much lower, face growing close, all while keeping his hand against Leone’s forehead. « Will you tell me what that was all about, back in there ? And don’t lie. I know how to detect liars. »

Leone opened his mouth to reply, but the intensity in Bruno’s eyes proved to be too strong. He lowered his gaze, and told a lie.

« I know, I apologize. I had forgotten about the celebration, and got drunk — »

In an instant, Bruno had removed his hand from Leone’s forehead, and brought it to his mouth — licking at the sweat on his palm with a pondering look. He then frowned deeply, tutting with a disappointed tone.

« No, you did not. This, Leone Abbacchio, was the bitter taste of a liar. Now, tell me the truth. »

Leone blinked, mouth falling agape.

Astonished as he was, he simply could not lie.

« I… Haschich. It was haschich. My very last portion. I kept it stashed away, for emergencies. »

Bruno raised an eyebrow.

« Emergencies ? And what did count as an emergency today, pray tell ? »

Lord, but this look of his was awfully inquisitive.

« I have difficulties sleeping, lately. »

« Really ? Why is that ? »

« I have… » he hesitated. « Dreams. »

Bruno tilted his head to the side, unsure of whether he understood.

« Nightmares ? »

« No… No. Dreams. Well. »

Neither of them talked for a few, slow, long seconds — until Leone, as if it was ripped from him, let out :

« I dream of — »

He bit his tongue, hard enough to sting, hard enough to stop anything from flowing out.

Bruno opened his mouth to ask for clarifications, until he saw.

His whole face heated up, mouth falling open.

« I — Me ? »

Leone did not answer — but his gaze, cast aside, said enough.

This time, the silence was heavy, and unforgiving, and deeply, deeply, awfully, extraordinarily uncomfortable. It was as if ice cold water had began to trickle down Leone’s throat through his whole being, and the instinctive fear he felt could only be described as indescribable.

« I told my mother to go home. I told her we… That we would come home on foot. You seemed like you needed a little walk. »

Bruno’s voice was hushed, and he did not look Leone in the eye.

The cold reached his bones.

« Yes, » Leone replied, voice kept pointedly neutral. « I do. Thank you very much. »

And with that, they both walked from the parvis ; leaving behind San Gennaro and his now very still blood stored away under wood and gold.


-


The walk back to Posillipo was barely an hour and a half for a young man in a hurry; but Bruno and Leone were two young men, and they found themselves wanting to linger a bit. In the west, the sun had set completely, the horizon changing colors to accompany it while it cast the very last of its rays on the earth. It then quickly faded, and left the sky purple and cold.

They did not speak.

Idly, Leone considered his options.

Certainly, he would have to return to Rome, now. Who knew, perhaps it was for the best. He would be able to assist Celestino in the preparation of his wedding, and then, he would return to his home. The home he had abandoned in the hopes of finding something better.

He strayed behind, looked at the sun setting on the sea, the orange trees, the agitation of Napoli, Bruno’s profile — and thought that, though it had been short, he had indeed found something better than home.

Now, it was time to go back to loneliness. The cruel harlot must have had missed him.

« Leone, » came Bruno’s voice.

Leone blinked, and realized that while he had daydreamed, Bruno had moved ahead quite a bit, and was now waiting for him. With an apologetic nod, Leone caught up, with long strides of his legs.

Bruno was looking at him. He knew. He could feel his eyes grazing over his jaw as if it had been a razor blade. But obstinately, he refused to look back, and walked on.

« Leone, » Bruno said again, louder. This time, Leone stopped.

He may have been stubborn, but even he had his own limits.

He turned around on his heels. Bruno pointed to a spot further down the path, to the side, where an ancient wall had crumbled down, centuries ago.

« Let’s sit, » he offered. Leone obliged, and sat down against the pile of rocks.

It was as uncomfortable a seat as one could possibly make them; but as if to ease the pain of the sharp rocks digging into his thighs, Bruno sat down beside him, very close — close enough for their legs to touch in a scorching point of contact. Leone wanted to shift away, but had he done that, he would have slipped off and tumbled down the grassy hill, making even more of a fool of himself.

« Leone, » Bruno said for the third time, desperately trying to get him to look into his eyes. « Please. Talk to me, won’t you ? My friend. »

Gently, he reached to touch Leone’s cheek, turning the long face towards him, finally getting his way — as if Leone could deny him anything.

« Do you believe me to be angry at you ? »

Leone’s throat locked up. He nodded.

« I am not. I was surprised. »

His second hand came to rest against Leone’s other cheek. His face cradled in such a way, Leone could not escape Bruno’s gaze.

« Do you often dream of me ? »

The wind has started to pick up, and Leone could not hold back a shiver.

« Often, » he replied, barely audible even to himself. « All the time, lately. »

Bruno swallowed. Everything but the hard stare of his eyes looked to be intensely indecisive.

For the very first time since he had met him, Leone saw Bruno Buccellati express sincere, heartfelt doubt — and of all things to be doubting over, Bruno had chosen him.

Bruno closed his eyes, and let his head hang low.

« Oh, Leone, » he sighed. « Leone, how — what am I to do ? »

He looked up into Leone’s wide, expectant eyes, and shook his head.

« The moon and sky be my witness, » he continued, « I never expected to meet anyone like you. And yet, here you are, tumbling into my life. A long-haired Tuscan with a paintbrush in hand. »

« You held my hand, » Leone blurted, and his voice sounded so pathetic, he wished he could have kicked himself. « In the cathedral. »

Bruno flinched slightly, eyes growing wide — before he sighed, an absent smile growing on his lips.

« I did. »

« Why did you ?… If you doubted so much, why did you ? »

« You… You looked like you needed it. »

He chewed on his bottom lip, and Leone found himself entranced by the sight.

« Mostly, though, » Bruno continued, looking away, to the side, though nowhere in particular, « Selfishly, perhaps… I think I just... Wanted to. »

He had a nervous laugh; Leone’s lungs felt afire.

« Leone, have… Have you ever wanted to run away ? » Bruno asked. « Drop everything, cleanse yourself of — of every bad thing you could have possibly done in your life, and… Run away ? Somewhere, where nobody has ever heard your name ? »

« All the time, » Leone whispered honestly.

Bruno stared into his eyes. His smile grew bigger.

« Well, » he said, and leant forward, so close their foreheads touched, « if you run, I might just end up following you. »

Grasping at the last string of bravery left within him, Leone swallowed down the knot in his throat, and pressed his lips flush against —

He waited for the push, the slap, the violence —

Instead, he felt a sigh against his mouth, and no resistance whatsoever. Hands reached out, ran through his hair, pulled him closer.

Leone keened.

He melted into him, lips melding together like molted metal, and relief washed over him — only surpassed in intensity by the sensation of his heart exploding in a burst of flames.

Against him, Bruno moved closer, too ; pressing his chest flush against Leone’s, pushing the entirety of his body against his, as close as it would go. His hands moved from his hair to his neck, cradling it almost, thumbs rubbing into the skin, gently, still, ever so gently.

Leone’s cheeks were wet ; he did not realize he was crying until he felt the awful sob wrack through him, making him gasp. He parted away slightly, trying to talk, to apologize, but after an inhale, Bruno was back against him, pressing kisses to his lips, around his mouth, his chin, the tip of his nose, feverishly, almost in a frenzy.

« You, » he said, breathless, against Leone’s lips, after one last, hurried kiss, « You are bad news, Signore Abbacchio. »

For a second, they looked at one another like never before, until Leone broke the silence.

« I — Bad how, exactly ? » he blurted, sheepish.

Bruno chuckled, then began to laugh, openly, with his whole chest, lips parted in delight. His hands were still around Leone’s collar, and upon making that realization, Leone felt his (somehow, still beating) heart do a somersault.

« Let’s see, » Bruno pondered, looking up to the sky for inspiration. « About as bad as the news of stormy weather when you are out at sea, I’d say. »

« Ah, » Leone nodded. « I suppose that could be worse. I happen to enjoy rain and storm quite a lot. »

« You are impossible. »

He laughed again, and went to push stray strands of hair away from Leone’s face. Under his blue gaze, Leone felt himself strangely exposed. And in an even stranger turn of events, he found that he did not find it terrifying anymore.

« I, » he hesitated. « We should be going back. »

He did not want to.

Bruno nodded.

« We should. »

The expression on his face showed that he did not want to, either.

Yet, they did. They both got up, brushed the dust and caked earth off their clothes, and walked in the direction of the estate, their steps quiet on the dry earth.

For a moment, they walked silently, until, feeling something soar in the depth of his bones, Leone turned to Bruno, and asked, mischievous glint in his eyes,

« See you there ? »

And he began to run for it.

His feet kicked up dust as he went, knees lifting up like he had learnt in school, fast, loud, brutal against the dirt — and soon, he heard Bruno’s laughter, quickly followed by quick steps right behind him. He laughed, too.

He could have screamed his happiness to the moon and stars until the sun rose.

In less time than it would have taken to say it, Bruno had caught up with him, and was running to his right.  

« See, Buccellati, » Leone panted, lungs burning, « This is how you get a new start on life ! »

« Is it, » Bruno gasped, just as winded as he was, « So easy ? »

« We can try ! »

And with that, he put on a sprint. He was feeling delirious, truth be told; and exhausted, and terrified, and ecstatic beyond measure. But beside him, Bruno was here. For now, it was enough.

Under the moon of Posillipo, in the quiet, reassuring darkness of anonymity, they both ran — with, between them, a new understanding that they now shared.

For once, feeling like their age — and free.

 

Chapter Text

You who consoled me in funereal night,

Bring me Posilipo, the sea of Italy,

The flower that pleased my grieving heart,

And the trellis where the vine entwines the rose.

Am I Phoebus or Love?… Biron or Lusignan?

My brow’s still red from the queen’s kiss;

I dreamed in the grotto where Sirens swim…

— Gérard de Nerval

 


Bruno Buccellati did not remember much of his youth.

From his days as a child, he only retained brief impressions, unclear sensations, perhaps a few lingering feelings of discomfort. Anything more tangible was like a piece of meat stuck in the gap of his molars ; he was keenly aware that it was there, could feel it every time he searched, but he could simply not dislodge it no matter how hard he tried.

He could remember the gentle scent of orange orchards. The sticky, salty wind near the sea. The tangy taste of pickled olives. And a warm embrace, surrounding him, always.

In his episodic search for memories, he sometimes came to his mother for help. Some things, she would discuss happily, and with obvious delight ; the nine months that had preceded his birth, his very first steps, any silly anecdote from his childhood.

Some things, she was much less keen on discussing ; and when he would ask about them, she would promptly shut him off and change the subject, with an eagerness that did not become her.

There were some days, however, that had stuck to his memory with the utmost clarity. Like a leech, they clung onto his heart with a million rows of sharp teeth, draining him and weighing him down with the gargantuan amount they sucked out of him each day — yet never bursting. Whereas everything else had slipped from the grasp of his memory, those ones remained, perhaps out of divine sadism.

Those four days, those very particular days, had all occurred during his twelfth year of life.

For months now, he had been sneaking off to the streets of Naples whenever he had a moment of free time — to his mother’s great dismay. There, amongst the less fortunate, he would observe, curious, the ways of the world outside his home.

He had managed, some months ago, to shimmy himself into a group of slightly older boys — though, to his young eyes, they had seemed like men. They had the loud, booming voices of men ; the snarling laughter of men ; they swore, spoke, spat, sung, drank like men. They smoked cigarillos that exhaled a heavy, hearty scent, one that clung to his clothing and hair for what felt like days on end. A few, the luckiest of the bunch, already had their chins adorned by thin, sparse collars of beards, which they proudly displayed as the epitome of their budding virility.

In their midst, Bruno, too, had begun to feel like an adult. Before his time was due, he had hesitantly taken the first few steps to leave the comfort of childhood, growing more quiet and more distant as days went by. As a boy, he had always been lonely, preferring the company of adults (the town’s nonne, probably even lonelier than he was, doted on him often, as they found his bright eyes and endless curiosity endearing). But as he grew, his heart had longed for something more ; for companionship, for long talks shared with youth closer to him in age. The friendship any boy his age would have yearned for, had he been denied it.

But as young as they had been, the stray pups of Napoli had instead proved to be his first contact into a world of cruelty.

As he was still a newcomer, Bruno was regularly kept out of any « business » the others conducted. Even as a young boy, Bruno already had his head firmly planted on his shoulders ; and therefore knew, even without much trust from the rest of the pack, that whatever was happening in the streets once darkness fell was not a childish game. He saw his companions with pockets full, with fingers missing, with terrifying, off-white scarred masses on their abdomen, some of which they exhibited without shame. He saw some of them simply disappear one night, and never being talked about again — and he never dared to ask, for he knew the answer would only fill him with horror. He saw the horrendous poverty, the swarming gaggles of bodies milling about the city, the stench of the air as they got too close to a hospital. He saw the genuine gratefulness on the faces of those they spoke to ; then, in the same beat, the ugly tension of fear around their mouths.

At this time, his job might have seemed ridiculously simple. After all, it was a role most often assigned to children even younger than him (between the age of five and eight, as they were quickest on their feet, and harder to catch).Though, being depended on and trusted in such a way made Bruno feel important : he was a cog in the machine, a watchful eye keeping his teammates safe. He was a sentry, a vedetta. And without his watchful eye, who knew what might have happened to the others ?

Fed as he had been from infancy with his father’s war stories, Bruno knew just the importance of his role. He was to stay alert, at all times, while his companions dealt in their various businesses. While money exchanged hands ; while enemies were beaten upon ; while shop owners were getting intimidated or simply reminded of who truly owned their goods ; while gamblers were being ripped off, Bruno was to be on the lookout for any rival member ; for the clopping of horses, which brought along the well-dressed policemen ; for anything, really, that was to threaten the freedom or physical integrity of his seniors.

Bruno took his job very much to heart, and was proud to say that as the time went by, he had gotten excellent at noticing the signs. Whenever something seemed out of place, Bruno was ready to give the signal ; and when that thing proved to be an immediate danger, immediately the gang would scatter, and meet back at the hideout, congratulating him for a job well done.

His voice was heard. He was rewarded for his work. He was part of something bigger than himself, and for the first time in his young life, Bruno felt the thrill of rebellion course through his blood. It was exhilarating, and though he did not yet understand the true consequences of his part in the gang, he knew that such a life could not be found anywhere else.

That first, very particular day began as any other. In the early morning of a breezy autumn day, he had taken off for the usual meeting spot, and had spent most of his day with his companions.

He distinctly remembered that an argument had taken place, that morning ; the biggest one Bruno had seen as of yet. As teenagers were prone to, his seniors often joked around with each other, but with how proud they all were, those jokes had the tendency to evolve into name calling, insults, then growing arguments that frequently turned into fistfights (or, more rarely, a knife to the throat or a shattered kneecap).

That time, Cozza, a black haired, tall stick of a boy with a lazy eye, had come late into the early meeting. Gamberetto, the self proclaimed leader (for he was the oldest at barely nineteen, and had the wide, dangerous teeth of a horse, with a sadistic grin he often showed to intimidate others), had used this tardiness to argue that Cozza obviously did not take his job seriously, and called for a vote to exclude him from the group completely. Though the others had hesitated to take part in any vote, Cozza had exploded into a fit of rage, exclaiming that Gamberetto took the majority of the money for himself any time they shared, and that him becoming the leader was a farce, as he was far from the most capable. At this, Ostrica, Gamberetto’s closest ally and former milk-brother, had jumped to his friend’s defense, calling Cozza’s words complete and utter lies, a strategy to weaken the equilibrium of the group. Riccio, a chubby, pink-cheeked fellow, barely one year older than Bruno, had then argued that Ostrica was the only one here trying to weaken the group, as Cozza and Gamberetto’s problems were only their own to deal with. Alghe, the smallest of the bunch, though he was already sixteen, and was rumored to have a kill count to rival much older gang members, had proceeded to insult Ostrica’s intelligence, and said that anyone’s problem immediately turned into everyone’s problem, as a gang was a family and had to stay close-knit.

Bruno was not invited to take part in the argument, though even if he had, he wasn’t exactly sure whose side he would have been on. He chose to stay a reasonable distance away from the eye of the storm, keeping watch — as his teammates were very obviously distracted. He only jumped in once the fight escalated to a worrying degree, and Ostrica finally pulled a blade from his pocket and threatened to gut Cozza  from cock to chin. Cozza retaliated by insulting Ostrica and Gamberetto’s mothers, grandmothers and sisters, as well as every woman their family ever birthed, using grave names that were otherwise only used for serious enemies or policemen. Much quicker to react than his foster brother, Gamberetto had jumped to Cozza’s throat, and, pummeling him into the ground, had proceeded to beat him within an inch of his life.

Bruno, unable to stand the pathetic sight of Cozza’s scared, white eyes and the flailing of his skinny limbs all over the dust, had grabbed onto Gamberetto’s shirt in an attempt to stop him — as the rest of the gang, stunned, simply watched their leader kick furiously into the boy’s ribs.

Gamberetto overpowered Bruno easily ; with a single, enraged push, Bruno was on the ground, eating dirt by the mouthful, and painfully scraping his chin and jaw against the gravel. This, however, prompted the other boys to react ; and soon, all three of his companions were on Gamberetto, insisting that Cozza had learnt the lesson, and that he wouldn’t do it again. At this point, Cozza was in a rather pitiful state : using his long, skinny arms to shelter his bloody face, he had sunk into a foetal position, and was trembling where he lied, long streaks of tears dribbling along the purple curves of his cheeks. As for Gamberetto, he was in a state of rage like nobody had ever seen him. His eyes were bloodshot, wide like a rabid dog’s, and he was spitting, large, perfectly square teeth gnashing at the air as if he wanted to take a bite out of Cozza’s throat. From his mouth poured incoherent insults, incomplete sentences, loud grunts of anger. There was no doubt that he would have killed Cozza, had Bruno not reacted ; and that alone was enough to make up for the pain that echoed in his jaw.

« Gamberetto, calm down ! » Riccio had cried, tears in his eyes. « He’s had enough already ! »

« Take a deep breath, fra’ ! » Ostrica had continued, voice anxious. « He didn’t mean it ! You got to calm down ! »

It had taken an abrupt — and surprisingly strong — shove from Alghe for Gamberetto to finally calm down. He had sat down into the dirt, panting, knuckles bloody and scraped raw, and following Ostrica’s advices, had taken a few, long breathes. Cozza, surprisingly alive enough to be shaking, lied in the same position for a few moments more, gasping for air, split mouth open like a fish out of water.

Bruno had taken a quick look at Cozza’s face, and had suppressed a heave. The boy’s face, purple and red all over, was mashed like a ripe tomato thrown against a wall. It looked pulpy, and gross, and swollen, and Bruno’s heart felt cold at the thought that, if he ever were to speak up against his chief, this, too, would be his fate.

« You fucking moron, » Gamberetto had wheezed towards Cozza. « You miserable pile of shit — don’t ever say anything like this again, or I’ll off you like the mutt you are. » He had taken another breath, blowing the air through his mouth. Then, louder : « You heard what I said, you stronzo ? Uh ? Mi stai facendo incazzare — »

From his spot in the dirt, Cozza had quickly nodded, still whimpering. Satisfied, Gamberetto had gotten up, fixed up his sleeves, and that had been the end of that.

Riccio and Alghe had helped Cozza up ; and as they did, Bruno was met with an horrifying realization, which gave an explanation as to why so much blood had pooled around Cozza’s face. One of Gamberetto’s kick must have been stronger than the others, or simply have hit the perfect spot, because, about thirty centimeters away from where Cozza had fallen, was his lazy eye, now eternally staring off into the distance.

The rest of the day then proceeded to, contrarily to Bruno’s expectations, go as usual. The afternoon soon fell, and though the sun still hung relatively high, the light had started to diminish.

Due to his injuries, Cozza had been excused for the day, and had left to recover back home, while his associates went around town.

Though fairly shaken by what he had just seen, Bruno behaved as he always did, diligently, and had not once raised his voice in the days that followed.


-


Bruno Buccellati had inherited his fishing boat from his father, some eight years ago. She was a small, but incredibly sturdy little craft, of pine and oak, with a bit of spruce for maximum flexibility of the hull. It had a single sail, an old, off-white drape she bore proudly any time he took her to sea ; and though the space inside was meager, and cramped, it was more than enough for himself. He rarely sailed with passengers, anyhow.

She had been named after his father’s mother, a woman he never ceased to admire. As such, the word Stella was lovingly inscribed on the stern ; a little worn, a little chipped, but as present and imbued with love as it had always been.

It had taken time for Bruno’s heart to get used to his grandmother’s name being used in such a way.

When he had become the boat’s heritor, a little over nine years ago, Bruno had already spent many of his afternoons on board, helping his father fish. He remembered the burns from the net’s rope, the sprays of foam against his cheeks, his father’s voice singing him old army shanties, as they broke into the calm waves, as if they were the two last people on earth. He held those faint memories very dearly, and though he did not hold his father’s instinct when it came to finding fish shoals, he found that he could often manage on his own. Once he was left on his own, with his mother to care for, his meager skills had been his only way of providing for a rather long time. He had shed much blood, sweat and tears into this boat ; leaving in the very first hours of dawn, under the mocking gaze of the older fishermen, and, often, returning with only a few sardines and scorpionfish to bring home.

His luck had shifted, strangely, when a fire took the home of a magistrate of Posillipo. He was out at sea when it first started, and when he returned as the sun began to set, the house had gone into ashes, taking the magistrate and his family with it.

After giving the pile of ash a brief look, Bruno had come back home, his meager loot having gotten him at least a few coins. As soon as he opened his front door, his mother had been ecstatic : telling him that she had gotten them a home. He had not understood straight away that said home had yet to be built, from the remnant of the magistrate’s ; and it was even later that he understood that if his mother could afford such a construction, it was because she was soon to be married.

After his mother had moved in her new home, with her new husband (though even then, Signore Milazzo was not to be considered new in any way, shape, or form), Bruno found himself without a need for his father’s fishing boat. He kept it, nonetheless, and soon patted himself on the back for such an initiative, as other, important people soon expressed a deep interest in his innocuous, discreet little boat.

In the span of the next six years, Bruno found himself using Stella for a purpose much different than the one it was built to fulfill. Almost everyday, in a routine of sorts, he now took it to sail in various places — Capri, Ischia, or even the long road to  Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi. There, he dropped off shipments, the exact nature of which often varied. Opium or textiles, for the most part. Though usually, he did not open the boxes, if only for his own peace of mind.

Some of his missions also involved him digging into the city itself. He enjoyed those missions even less ; his nature had not much changed from when he was a boy, and still today, Bruno much preferred the quiet of solitude over the agitation of la Camorra’s force.

His superior often gave him the somewhat affectionate nickname of Contaiuolo ; they said that he was rather fit for the job, as he had a trustable allure to himself, a charm, that often put others at ease (though if he tried, that ease could just as easily turn into fearful disgust). Through him, money exchanged hands, from Capintesta, his clan’s leader, to Capintriti, the local headquarters — which then went into paying off police officers. He solved innocuous but devastating conflicts between his seniors, bringing necessary peace to the clan’s ranks. After all, it was a fragile equilibrium : sellers and buyers, renters and owners, creditors and debtors, workers and employers, all needed to know their place, to find their balance. Bruno was amongst the many needed to keep said balance intact.

His missions varied from day to day, giving him very little time to himself. Hence why, he had thought a few years back, he simply could not, despite his mother’s insistance, find himself a bride.

Recently, though, that thought had shifted in the most surprising manner.

Ten days had gone by since the incident of San Gennaro. Ten days, and ten nights, following each other in rapid succession, in monotonous pattern. Ten days after this… Well, this confession of sort, that had, all things considered, not confessed of anything, life had gone on. To Bruno’s extreme consternation, not much had changed at all.

In the mornings, the sun still rose and shone, though its light had grown paler ; its breeze, cooler. Summer had fallen and given way to autumn, slowly and steadily, almost unnoticeably.

At the end of the day, Leone still waited for him on the shore.

Bruno felt grateful for this presence in ways he could not properly express. It was as if, after a day spent carrying a load heavier than he could possibly carry, he was suddenly relieved of any weight. Like a belt around his lungs suddenly loosening, like a gulp of air filling his chest after too long underwater, Bruno could finally breathe, away from the agitation, from the guilt of his activities, from the strain of his responsibilities. In those quiet, peaceful times with Leone, there was nothing else but the two of them, and the sound of their idle chats, of their deeper discussions, of their friendly squabbles.

Leone had a very calming presence to himself, one that he apparently did not know he had. But Bruno had noticed, from the very first moment they had met. And now that they had grown closer, he reveled in it without shame.

In the ten days that had followed San Gennaro’s events, the closeness they had shared that night had not been brought up — or repeated. As he did not have a great idea of how such things were supposed to go, Bruno had not mentioned it, out of fear that he would unknowingly offend his friend.

But it was not for lack of wanting to.

« Buccellati ! »

Bruno’s deft hands finished tying the rope that held the boat’s sail into place. Once the knot was secured, he turned on his heels, only to see Leone, hand above his brow to shield his eyes from the sun. As the boat was small, Bruno stood only a head or two higher than his friend ; but he still bent down, enjoying the feeling of being taller than the great eel of a man that was Leone Abbacchio.

« Well, good day to you ! » Bruno said, rubbing at his palms to ease the burn from the rope. « You are earlier than usual, pitto’. I only barely arrived. »

A moue twisted Leone’s lips, and such an expression, as sour as it was, still brought a surge of affection to Bruno’s heart. Leone let out a long, suffering sigh, brushing strands of hair away from his forehead.

« Well, today is the day you go to see your children of misfortune, is it not ? I wanted to at least catch a glimpse of you before you delve into the city and abandon me. »

Bruno let out a laugh.

« That’s right, it is today » he replied, slipping away from the boat and landing into the shore’s sand. « I hope you can forgive me for such an absence. It is far from my idea to leave you alone with my mother and, god forbid, Milazzo. »

« Well, I don’t especially mind it — I have, after all, nothing to reproach your mother for. I simply happen to prefer your company. »

Bruno gave his trousers a quick brush as he and Leone began their walk back to the estate.

« Mmh, that’s a rather high compliment. You know, you could always come with me to see them. I am sure they would be delighted to see you appear of your own volition. »

« Psh. As if. Just imagine what would happen if I did. They would believe to have won. »

« Won ? Now, are you all taking part in a fight I have not heard of ? »

« Of course. The great war of wills. Whomever falls first will face the consequences of his loss, and I simply cannot allow myself to let my guard down. »

Leone had a gift for making him smile, it seemed.

« Well, » Bruno chuckled, « I suppose I will have to tell them as much. They will be thoroughly heartbroken, I must warn you. Giorno especially. »

« Please. This boy does not have a heart. »

« Now, what would make you say such a thing ? »

« Have you ever looked into his eyes ? Only emptiness there. Nothing could possibly phase him. »

« How cruel. If you knew him a little better, I am sure that you would not think those terrible things. Narancia, then. »

Leone gave himself some time to think, looking up at the sky for inspiration. He then shook his head decidedly, clicking his tongue against his teeth.

« No, no. This one does have a heart, I will be the first to say it, but I sincerely doubt that my absence could bring him much sorrow. »

« He likes you, though. Truly. He has told me as much. »

Leone’s brows shot up suddenly, as if a wasp had stung him.

« … You speak of me to those kids ? »

Bruno looked straight ahead obstinately, digging his hands into his pockets. He held back a mischievous grin.

« Let’s just say you are a topic of discussion that often returns to the table, yes. »

Leone let out an offended gasp, clutching at his shirt where his heart was.

« Often ? What does that mean ? Buccellati, are you partaking in cruel gossip ? I can already feel the sharp blade of betrayal between my shoulders. »

« If you assume that I do, then it would mean that you do not know me very well. »

Leone barked out a quick laugh, but stopped as soon as he had started ; slowing in his tracks ever so slightly, as if plunging deep into consideration. His pale brows were furrowed, his lips a thin line, his steps now at a more lenient pace. Bruno slowed down in kind, giving an inquiring look to his friend.

« … Leone ? Are you quite alright ? »

Leone seemed to shake away from his thoughts quite abruptly. He opened his mouth to talk, hesitated, for the briefest second, then shook his head.

« Yes. Of course. I was simply… »

He idly scratched at the back of his head, starting again at the brisk pace his long legs carried him effortlessly through. Bruno watched him, and saw in his eyes that look he had begun to recognize amongst any others. It was one that Leone bore frequently, especially as of late ; one that showed an extreme, pained restraint. It was as if Leone was clutching his own leash, always holding himself back on everything he did. Bruno found it incredibly frustrating, yet, in a way, endearing.

« Let me hear your thoughts, friend, » Bruno said in an attempt to pull Leone’s from his reverie.

This seemed to work well enough. Leone was chewing at the inside of his cheek, looking for his next words, seemingly embarrassed of what he was going to say. He pulled a few strands of hair behind his ear, though the wind was facing them and he therefore had no reason to. He then proceeded to ask, voice slightly lower :

« Well, now that you mention it… I do feel as if, and forgive me for saying so, I do not yet know you very well. »

He waved his hands in the air suddenly, as if to brush off what he had just said away from reality.

« Or ! Or rather, what I mean to say is, » he mumbled, cheekbones turning slightly pink. « Though I see you every day, and it is… A delight every time, I feel as though, well. Perhaps there still are things that I do not yet know about you. »

Bruno hummed lightly, holding his hands behind his back as he considered Leone’s words.

« Wouldn’t that be normal ? » he tried. « I am fairly certain that I do not know everything about even my closest friends. Do you ? »

« No, » Leone admitted, sheepish. « I do not. But… »

He pulled his hair behind his ear once more. As it had grown, it had seemed to become an habit of his ; Bruno briefly wondered how it was that a person’s hair could be so light. Had it been like this since his birth ?

« But, » Leone continued, « I suppose what I would like to say is… I would like to see more… Hidden sides of you, as well. »

« Hidden sides ? »

« I want to know you better, Buccellati, » Leone finally croaked out, ears and cheeks now very red. His eyes were fixated on a point straight ahead, further in the distance. He looked positively flustered, in a way Bruno had rarely seen a man his age.

Such a behavior sparked a strange incomprehension in Bruno’s mind — a tingle to his spine, a flutter in his throat, a pinching of his stomach. Suddenly very flustered himself, he roughly cleared his throat, the back of his neck feeling rather warm.

He was unsure of what to do.

What did one do, in such a situation ?

Silence settled between the two of them as they walked, keeping a timid distance as they walked the dusty road.

For a brief second, Bruno cursed himself for not getting his hand on more romance novels over the course of his life. Then, just as he thought this, something came to his mind, a memory he thought he had buried a long time ago, amongst the pleasures and idle readings of his youth. He rummaged through the depth of his consciousness, and, at last, found what his brain had been trying to tell him.

He whistled through his teeth, catching Leone’s attention ; then, with his best diction, and trying his hardest to recall the exact words, Bruno declaimed in a slow tone :

« ‘ Oh, cruel Alexis, do you care nothing for my songs? Have you no pity on me? You’ll force me to die at last. ’ » *

Leone blinked at him, brows knitting together in a circumspect fashion.

« I — beg your pardon ? »

Bruno reached out, and grabbed Leone’s hands, taking them into his own with flourish.

« ‘ O lovely boy, come here: see the Nymphs bring for you, lilies in heaped baskets: the bright Naiad picks, for you, pale violets and the heads of poppy flowers, blends narcissi with fragrant fennel flowers: then, mixing them with spurge laurel and more sweet herbs, embroiders hyacinths with yellow marigolds. ’ »

Leone’s lips parted, slightly, but no sound came from him. He had stopped walking altogether, and simply chose to stare, dumbfounded ; Bruno stood in front of him, relieved that his memory had not failed him at such an importune time.

« Is this… Could you be referencing something ? » Leone inquired, a deeply confused expression on his face — and, at last, no longer shy. « I’m afraid I don’t understand it. »

« Will you come with me tomorrow ? » Bruno replied by asking another question. « There is something I would like you to see, if you would humor me. »

Bruno saw Leone straighten up, suddenly very serious. A breeze caught onto his hair, making a strand flutter ; and this time, Bruno fixed it for him, curling it behind Leone’s ear.

He saw Leone’s Adam apple bob as he visibly gulped. Bruno felt that tight, stinging sensation in his abdomen, like the prick of a large needle.

« I, » Leone said, touching the tucked strand of hair with the tip of his fingers, with surprising gentleness. « I would certainly like to. »


-


« Dinner is served, i miei bastardi ! Come and help us out ! »

Mista’s booming voice echoed throughout the room as he all but barged into the hideout, keeping the door open with his foot for Buccellati to go through after him. Both their arms were heavy with products ; vegetables, ripe fruits, bottles, lean cuts of meat, fragrant squid and mussels ; enough to last the lot of them at least a week, with some reasonable rationing. Mista, in a show of pride, carried slightly more than Bruno did, balancing his load precariously against his chest. One bottle in particular had threatened to fall at least twice on the way there, and as Mista bent down to keep in place for the third time, Bruno could only eye it with a fearful, yet resigned gaze.

« Diiiiiinneeeeeeeeer ! » came Narancia’s joyful shout from the center of the room, where he sat on the floor alongside Trish. Between them both, playing cards were piled up in messy little stacks, indicating that they had just been interrupted in the midst of a game of briscola.

With an energetic bounce, Narancia got to his feet in an instant, immediately crossing the small space to reach Mista, grabbing two of the bottles — to help, at first glance, though anyone who knew Narancia even a little bit would have understood that this was merely a strategic maneuver ; Mista had a tendency, as the eldest of the bunch, to hog all the wine for himself.

« Ehi, » Narancia exclaimed, brows furrowing as he quickly inspected Mista’s haul. « Where are my mushrooms ? You said you’d get me mushrooms ! How am I supposed to make pasta without mushrooms ? »

« There weren’t any left, alright ? Don’t start sulking. » Mista retorted, stepping to the side and passing Narancia. « We’ll just have to go for oil and garlic like always. »

Narancia let out a long, pained groan, which sounded oddly similar to the last wail of a dying cat. Nonetheless, he helped Mista unload his haul, just as Bruno relieved himself of his own provisions on one of the ratty armchairs.

« How are you doing, Trish ? » he asked the girl, who, still sitting on her heels, had begun to pick up the remaining cards from the floor.

« Fine, » she said, with the faintest hint of a smile. « Thank you for asking. »

Trish, though she did not yet look very lively, looked significantly better than when he had last seen her a week ago. The bruising, dark circles around her eyes had diminished in their intensity; according to Mista, she had arrived the day before, and had since then done very little but sleep for hours and hours on end. Finally able to take some much needed respite, she had then regained an appetite, and had even laughed a few times — which would have been unimaginable even just a few days prior. Bruno did not know what had prompted this change of humor, though it was his guess that the boys’ presence had thoroughly helped in this lifting of mood.

She was still pale, and tense in her movements, but she no longer jumped at every sound like a startled doe. This seemed like progress.

Reassured, Bruno did not press her with questions. He instead turned to Narancia, who had busied himself with trying to juggle with two pairs of lemons.

« Where is Giorno, by the way ? »

« Out, » Narancia simply replied, a deeply focused frown above his eyes as he removed one of the lemons from the equation, and tried once more with only three.

« He’s always on business, lately, » Mista sighed at he slumped into another armchair, stretching his long legs and groaning. « We barely see him anymore, I feel like. He doesn’t even have time to eat. »

Bruno’s eyebrows rose.

« On business ? »

« He’s negotiating with one of the clans, » Trish said, voice barely audible. « He has been for a while, now, apparently. »

« He has not told me about it. »

« He doesn’t want you to get any more involved, » Mista continued, opening a green fig and digging into its flesh face first. « Mmh — he knows you aren’t exactly in Nero’s best books. Though,

I guess if he’s planning to formally join them, your support wouldn’t exactly be unwelcome… »

He shrugged, a bit of fig seeds sticking to the corner of his mouth as he discarded the green, unappetizing skin.

« I don’t really know what he’s got in mind, honestly. He hasn’t told us much yet, but I don’t think any of us should worry. Giorno always knows what he’s getting himself into. »

Bruno shook his head, leaning against the wall with a sigh. His jaw was clenched with worry, a somber look falling onto his expression.

« Does he ? Mista, you know joining them is not a solution. If you simply behave and refrain from walking on their turf, you will have no reason to — »

« That’s rich of you to say, » Mista snorted, taking another fig. « You joined them when you were barely a kid ! »

« My situation is vastly different from yours. »

« I don’t see how or why. »

« I had a debt. You do not. »

« Our debt is from being born into this world, » Trish butted in, voice incredibly solemn. « Getting into a clan might be the only way for them to continue leading any sort of business in this town. There is not much of a choice, Bruno. »

« Right, » Mista agreed, pointing to Trish with a nod. « It’s join or die, at this point. A clan offers protection, a decent way of living — hell, Bruno, if you weren’t here to help us, we wouldn’t even have food on our table most of the time ! La Camorra is spreading everywhere, and it’s not going to be long until other clans — »

« Am I interrupting ? »

Four heads consecutively turned towards the now slightly parted door, which had opened to reveal Giorno’s presence.

He was more smartly dressed than usual ; his shirt, slightly too big for him, was clean, and a pearly white colour — most likely thanks to Donatella Una’s expertise. The braids of his hair were tightly pulled, shielding his face from any stray lock. As always, he seemed to carry himself effortlessly, with a nobility that left a mark on most everyone who met him.

Bruno oddly considered that, if someone ever were to climb the ranks of La Camorra and reign over Napoli, it would surely be Giorno Giovanna.

« Urrà ! Guys ! » Narancia suddenly interrupted, smile jubilant and triumph in his eyes. « Guys, look ! I can do it ! I can do three ! »

And with that, he proceeded to juggle the three lemons at a pace that was, all things considered, rather impressive. Trish, breaking from her melancholic expression, let out a cheerful snort, and proceeded to clap her hands together.

« Bravo, Narancia ! And welcome back, Giorno ! »

« Eh ? Ah, fattiti ! » Mista spat, getting up from his seat to salute Giorno with a kiss to both cheeks, all while addressing Narancia. « How did you learn so quickly ? This is pissing me off. »

« What’s that, uh ? » Narancia taunted, sticking his tongue out at Mista. « You jealous ? Uh ? You jealous ? Can’t do that with your big hands, uh ? »

« Evening, Buccellati, » Giorno told Bruno as he gave him the same greeting as Mista, a kiss to both cheeks. He did the same to Trish, then, finally, Narancia — before proceeding to sit into Mista’s now unoccupied seat.

« I was just told you had something of a meeting ? » Bruno asked Giorno while Mista and Narancia bickered over juggling methods.  

« Mmh, » Giorno replied with a nod. « It will be slightly more difficult than I expected to negotiate. But I’m not losing hope. They’ll come around eventually, I have no doubt about it. »

As he said this, Trish had risen from her position on the floor, and had instead come to sit on top of the chair’s armrest. She leant her side against Giorno, who rested his head against the warm curve of her shoulder. She idly played with the pressed, wide collar of his shirt.

« You should have told me you were to see them, » Bruno said, though there was no anger to his voice. « I have more experience with the clans than any of you. »

« I know. Which is precisely why I have not told you. »

Trish pressed her cheek against the top of Giorno’s head, paying close attention to the exchange. Her exhales made his hair flutter, as if shaken by a sly breeze.

« You would not have approved of my decision had I told you earlier, that much is obvious, » Giorno continued. « And I can see that you still don’t. »

« Whether I approve or not isn’t important. All I want is for you to carefully measure your chances — this is a risky business you’re getting into, Giorno. And I would like you to consider it, while you still have the freedom to do so. »

Giorno hummed in agreement.

« I have. And I know it to be risky, more than anyone. But if there is a stand to be taken, then I will take it. For my sake, and everyone else’s. »

« How will this be of any help to Trish ? You are only getting her closer to the boss. »

« Not all of La Camorra is ecstatic about the boss’ return. From what I can tell, most of the clans’ heads are actually rather… displeased by the news, as they’ve grown quite comfortable with their independence. Finding allies will not be hard, I can assure you. »

Both of their gazes met. Bruno looked at Giorno, and Giorno looked through him ; with those intense eyes of his, aimed directly into Bruno’s soul.

« Can I count on you, Buccellati ? »

Bruno huffed out a laugh. He pressed two fingers along the line of his nose, clicking his tongue against his teeth.

« Of course, » he replied, honestly, and without hesitation. « Of course. You know you can. »

Giorno’s lips curled up, the slightest bit, into one of his rare smiles.

« Then I have nothing to worry about. »

He rose from his seat, gently squeezing Trish’s hand with his own.

« Should we get to eating ? I apologize for having kept you for so long. »

« Narancia, » Trish called. « Will you make us that really delicious squid fry ? I’m simply starving. »

« On its way, madama ! » Narancia immediately responded, with an exaggerated bow, his forehead almost reaching the same level as his knees. Trish laughed delightedly, pretending to fan herself, as if close to swooning. Mista rolled his eyes, though he, too, was smiling.

The meal they all shared that night was plentiful, and rather appetizing, as simple as it may have been — and despite the lack of mushrooms, to Narancia’s evident pride. The evening stretched slowly, in one of those rare, precious moments of peace in an overactive world. Gang matters were not mentioned again. Instead, Narancia had sought out revenge against Trish in another game of cards, a duel of sorts, putting his virile dignity on the line. Once the game was over, and Trish elected victor by a substantial margin, Narancia had thrown a fit, and had almost shattered a plate in his frustrated rage. He had only calmed down thanks to Giorno’s attention ; and, his ego finally healed, had promptly apologized to Trish for his outburst.

After deciding that Narancia was to stay away from cards for the time being, the next round had taken place between Trish and Mista, and had ended on a draw — this had not chagrined Trish much, as she was perfectly aware that Mista was a remorseless cheater.

As the night grew deeper and darker, silence had fell onto the hideout. Trish had gone to sleep after a final game against Mista, during which she had firmly established her superior skills, much to the boy’s dismay. He had therefore decided to relieve his frustration by cleaning out his weapon of choice, and most prized possession : a Lefaucheux revolver, imported from France, and which had cost him more than all of his life’s savings when he had first acquired it two years ago.

Giorno was reading in the armchair, legs crossed under his body — deep inside of his own mind. Narancia had dozed off some time ago, and was now resting his head in Bruno’s lap, sleeping soundly and heavily. Though he was now stuck in this position for as long as Narancia would choose to rest, Bruno did not mind, affectionately patting the boy’s head as he pondered.

And ponder he did.

Though his trust in Giorno’s instinct was fierce and unwavering, he could not help worry from gnawing at his heart. He felt a deep affection for those children ; which had, over time, evolved into a sense of duty towards them. He was the oldest, and as such, was prone to have responsibilities, sometimes more than he could handle. This role was slowly slipping to Giorno as he grew, but that did not matter. Bruno was still their elder. Bruno was the shoulder they could always rely on.

And as long as he would be alive, he would do everything in his power to protect them.


-


After the incident involving Cozza, twelve years old Bruno had grown even quieter, even more distant. His involvement in the gang, though he tried hard to limit the damage, was growing stronger as time went on. From a vedetta, he had grown into an apprentice of sorts. He was now to pay even closer attention to his seniors’ activities, and be able to replicate their stances, speech, and to memorize every single of their plans in case something ever went wrong. He was well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged member, with the way things seemed to evolve.

However, his troubles were not over ; and this, he understood when a shrill echoed down the alley one evening, a month after Cozza’s departure.

« Brunooooo ! » said the shrill, followed by quick, running steps in his direction. He turned around, eyes searching and worried, only for a startling, heavy force to run straight into his stomach.

Bruno let out a « oof », all air forcibly expelled from his body, and almost lost his balance. He looked down at the head of black hair, and worry immediately took an icy hold of his stomach.

« Narancia ? » he gasped, as the boy wrapped his arms around his waist, rubbing his face against his chest with abandon. « What — what are you doing here ? »

« Hey, Buccellati, » Ostrica called, further along the road. « Why’re you lagging behind ? What’s going on ? »

A nervous chill ran along Bruno’s spine as he rummaged through his mind for an explanation.

His first meeting with Narancia was also amongst the rare memories treasured in his mind. This meeting had occurred some two years before, on an evening trip to the market with his mother.

While she was busy with her purchases of vegetables, flour and various clothes for sewing, he had wandered off some, entranced by the dizzying number of smells emanating from the market stands. His mouth had begun watering ; and using the last of his pocket money, he had bought himself a warm, syrupy babbà to eat while his mother shopped.

As he was about to bite into the soft, rum-soaked cake, though, something attracted his attention from the corner of his eye. A little kid, hiding behind a market stand, with a handful of figs in his cupped hands, was looking at him intently. He seemingly had interrupted himself in his snack to stare at Bruno, with all the force a little boy could muster, practically drooling at the babbà in his hands.

The boy was skinny, and filthy, and one of his eyes was a purple, bloodshot mess — it looked painfully infected, and Bruno briefly wondered if the boy was even able to see through his swollen lid. His cheeks were covered with grime, and his tiny handful of too-ripe, already open figs was so pathetic, so utterly heart wrenching, that Bruno could not help himself.

The boy ate through the babbà with terrifying speed. The way his jaw moved reminded Bruno of a hungry cat chewing down a slice of meat, as if afraid someone would try and steal his meal away from him. Bruno watched as the boy devoured, mesmerized by the spectacle ; then, once the boy was finished, he asked a simple :

« Feeling better ? »

Silently, the boy had nodded. The area around his mouth was shiny with rum syrup, and he furiously licked at the very last traces of his snack, a determined look in his eye. Said look then turned into one of gratitude, and the boy began to search through the large pocket of his short trousers.

« Ah, » Bruno had blurted out, « you don’t need to — »

The boy then proceeded to hand him a small, but very colourful little seashell, fished from his pocket with a triumphant smile. It was pearly, and quite stunning ; Bruno decided that it was well worth a little babbà.

As he left the market, holding his mother’s hand, Bruno did not expect to see the boy again. But only three days after the babbà event, he did exactly that. He was waiting near the shore, where his father’s boat usually dropped anchor ; and he noticed, not far off in the distance, a little familiar figure, squatting down into the sand, seemingly looking for more shells. Bruno walked to the boy, had joined him in his search, had asked how his eye was feeling. With this mostly one sided discussion, Bruno had been able to gather that his name was Narancia ; that he was about seven years old, and that at this very moment, he was supposed to be in class at the orphanage of La Santissima Annunziata. Bruno had looked for seashells with him for almost an hour, before the return of his father ; and when he had left, it had been with a handful of pretty trinkets and one less apple.

From then on, Narancia had become utterly enamored with Bruno. Wherever he was out in town, Bruno was sure that Narancia would find him, or that he would find Narancia. He would often provide him with food, or newer clothes, or onguent for his eye (which he would occasionally steal when the doctor came to inspect his father’s leg). But even when Bruno had nothing to give him, Narancia would still insist on sticking along, if just to walk around the neighborhood and get him to play games with him.

Bruno enjoyed Narancia’s company. But right this instant, his presence proved to be rather dangerous, for both their sakes. He thought of Cozza’s eye, big as a peach pit, staring into the sky, and shuddered.

He did not want Narancia to get involved with any dangerous matter ; and therefore, decided that he would lie to his teammate.

« Er, » he started, palm on Narancia’s mouth to keep him quiet, « It’s nothing ! It’s my little brother. He ran off again, I have to… To get him home. I’ll be back in a moment ! »

From behind him, he heard Ostrica grunt.

« Fine, but you better hurry. We aren’t gonna look for you if you want your share for today. »

« I will only take a minute ! »

Grabbing Narancia’s hand, Bruno had pulled the boy in the opposite direction, leading him back into the sunlight, back into the busy street, back into civilization.

« Narancia, » Bruno asked once they were out of sight, « what are you doing here ? I told you I would be busy today. Come on, let’s go. The sisters must be worried sick about you. »

Narancia shrugged with a sulky pout, but did not let go of Bruno’s hand.

« I wanted to see you, » he replied, idly playing with the dirty bandage around his eye. « Plus, they’re used to me leaving all the time… Say, why’d you say I was your brother ? »

Bruno’s lips kissed his teeth as he grimaced.

« I wasn’t sure what to tell them. Did that bother you ? »

« No… » Narancia shook his head, walking slightly faster to catch up with Bruno, despite the lesser length of his little legs. « No, it made me happy. »

Bruno sighed, heart swelling with affection. He clutched Narancia’s hand harder, bringing him closer to his side. Narancia leant his head against Bruno’s rib, relishing in the close contact and quick, comforting pulse coming from Bruno’s chest.

« I’m going to leave the gang, » Bruno said in confidence, throat going tight as soon as the words left his mouth. « While I still can. »

Narancia looked up at him.

« It’s gotten too hard… I thought I wanted to have more responsibility, but, with what happened the other day, I realize that… This is not what I want. I refuse to become like them, mindless beasts of violence and cruelty. This is not my future. This is not me. »

He suddenly stopped, dead in his tracks, and Narancia with him. After a quiet second, he knelt down against the cobblestone, amidst the busy street, with no care for the passersby. At this height, Narancia, for once, was the one looking down at him. Gently, Bruno pinched his chin, looking into the boy’s eye.

« And it is not you, either, » Bruno continued. « Do you see what I mean ? Narancia, promise me that you will not get into this kind of business. This is not a world for you. »

Narancia opened his mouth to speak, but Bruno kept going.

« Only follow people who you can trust with your life. People with a good heart, who will never betray you. Who will treat you as you want to be treated. Do you promise me ? »

Bruno could feel that Narancia was about to brush him off — to do as he sometimes did, and shrug Bruno’s worries away. After all, he was a resourceful kid. He was no stranger to violence, probably even less so than Bruno ; but that knowledge of the ways of the world did not prevent him from showing every bit of a child’s recklessness.

Still, he had a heart bigger than the sun, which more than made up for his lack of judgement.

Bruno trusted him to make the proper decisions.

Narancia understood that this discussion was important. And as such, he dealt with it as he dealt with any important matter : he sniffled loudly, and wiped at his nose with the back of his hand, before saying, voice loud and clear :

« You can count on me, Bruno ! »

 


After crossing more than half of the city, Bruno was finally able to drop Narancia off at the orphanage. The nun who welcomed him, a tall woman with a round, moon-pale face amongst the black of her coif, had chastised Narancia profusely for his umpteenth escape ; resulting in a fit of teary screams and desperate clinging to Bruno’s shirt. He had refused to let go for a good ten minutes, at least. When he finally did, thanks to Bruno’s gentle coaxing and many promises of impending visits, his eye and cheeks had turned to a deep, upset red.

« Be good, Narancia, » Bruno had whispered to him, fixing up the boy’s hair. « You’re not a baby. Say your prayers, eat your food, and sleep at night, will you ? I promise I’ll come and see you soon. »

« I want my dad ! » Narancia bawled, rubbing at his eyes with both fists. « I want my dad ! »

« Your father is not here, child, » the nun sighed, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him in her direction, breaking up Bruno’s light embrace. « And I am starting to guess why he decided to leave you here in the first place. »

Narancia’s sobbing grew louder. Bruno felt a sharp pain in the depth of his chest ; guilt turning his body tense.

« Do not worry yourself over him, figlio, » the nun grunted, holding back Narancia as he contorted himself to try and break free from her iron grip. « Whenever he does not get what he wants, this becomes his only tune. You should get yourself home, it has gotten late. We will take care of him. »

The entrance to the orphanage was only cold stone, dark wood and the deafening sound of Narancia’s wailing. No other voice echoed down the hallway ; at this hour, the children had to be eating their early supper. Bruno knew a few of them, for he did not live far.

It might have been his imagination — and surely, it was, it had to be — but the ghostly, icy air he felt against his neck was enough to get him to shake. He tried to reason himself.

Here, Narancia would be safe. Here, he would be fed, and warm, and cared for. This was better than the streets ; here, there were no cruel men, no danger, no hunger —

« Bruno ! » Narancia cried out as another nun came to the first’s rescue, trying to control his furious gesticulations. « Don’t leave me here ! Don’t leave me ! »

« I, » Bruno stammered, cold sweat breaking on his brow, « I — »

« Leave, boy ! » the second nun barked, face red from effort as she grabbed Narancia’s leg to stop him from kicking. « Can’t you see you are making matters worse ! Go ! »

Bruno took another shaking breathe, and finally turned on his heels. Every step felt heavier than the first, like moving through a sea of sludge. Narancia’s shrieks of anger faded in the distance.

As he finally got out into the street, into the diminishing light of the sun, into the clean wind, Bruno took a long, deep breath, that seemed to fill every square centimeter of his lungs. It did not help clear the remnants of his nausea.

This was for the best. This was for the best.

For Christ’s sake, he would most likely see him on the morrow, or, if the worst came to it, in a week’s time. Why would he let himself be shaken so thoroughly by a child’s tantrum ?

He took a few more focused breathes, until his heart no longer threatened to jump out of his mouth ; and once this was achieved, as well as the trembling of his hands, Bruno took the road back to the gang.


-


Bruno left the Espositos hideout in the dead of the night, moments after slumber had finally claimed the last of the kids. Though he was unsure of the exact time, he knew that dawn would not come for a few hours, at least, allowing him a meager, but sufficient amount of sleep to be had once he returned home.

When the sun did rise, though, he promptly realized that sufficient did not mean profitable.

He awoke in bed, sluggish, and thoroughly restless. It had not helped that most of those few hours in his bed had been employed thinking about what Giorno had told him, and what they had discussed. When slumber had finally overcome him, his mind had been plagued with absurd dreams he could not remember upon waking. Frustrated and defeated, Bruno had then spent what little time remained staring at the slowly rising sun — contemplating the thought of abandoning every project he might have had for the day.

However, recalling just what his projects entailed was enough to give Bruno a surge of energy.

He took off from the Milazzo estate as the last orange clouds faded from the sky, and the sun began to settle in its rightful place. He found Leone waiting for him not too far from the entranceway, standing with a wide stance, arms crossed on his chest ; the very picture of virile impatience.

« Oddio, » Bruno laughed confusedly as he saw just what Leone was standing amidst. « What on earth is all this ? »

« My travel easel, » Leone replied very simply, « A case with pigments and oils, as well as my binders and solvants… My paintbrushes, palette knives… Er, various papers and canvas… »

He bent down slightly, opening another, smaller case and checking its insides, before nodding.

« Ah, yes. Those are the charcoals and sanguine, along with a few pastels — if inspiration strikes me. I’ve also brought a couple of different varnishes and inks. »

For a few beats, Bruno simply stood there, aghast, before he spoke again, a hand on the back of his neck.

« Whew, well. That’s a rather heavy load you’ve got there… Are you sure you’ll truly need all of this ? I am not about to take you one some wild, exotic adventure. »

Leone shrugged, shuffling a little embarrassedly.

« It never hurts to be prepared. As I did not know where you would be taking me, I took the liberty of bringing as much as I could carry. »

He looked back down at his luggage, and winced.

« Although, I’ll admit, » he mumbled, « some help might be necessary if the walk is long. »

Bruno let out a snicker, coming closer and grabbing one of the cases — which, thankfully, did not weigh much.

« Of course, » Bruno replied. « As for the walk, I am sure you won’t find it too strenuous. We should reach it before the sun gets high. »

« Very well. Lead the way. »

Bruno knew the path to and from the Milazzo estate like the back of his hand. Admittedly, he had not gone back to this particular place in a while, now ; but its route was nearly carved into his very skin from just how often he had taken it. With his eyes closed, he would have been to describe, with little error, every lemon and citron tree ; every Acanthus bush ; every secret spot where you could easily find thyme, and fragrant rosemary, to bring life to a plate of roasted fish. Even as blind as Oedipus, he would have felt the presence of every alley cat, some of which were almost as old as he was, and more worn by fierce battles than most soldiers. He could have guided Leone through every twist and turn, driven not by memory but by instinct alone. His body itself knew the way as surely as it knew the pulse of his blood.

From north of Posillipo where they had started, they moved south, walking alongside the sea. Barely an hour later, they reached the coast of Marechiaro ; a small village, really, a pile of houses facing the sea, a harbour barely larger than a bathtub, with, floating into its little hold, a handful of boats so small they seemed like toys.

The wind had picked up slightly, making the sea flutter in splashing waves. They crashed, tenderly, into the old stone, caressing it with languid, then harsh strokes of their foamy waters. The little boats rocked and shook, carried by the movements of the tide, their shape colorful and simple. Into the distance, further in the long line of the Mediterranean, were the Vesuvio ; the Sorrente peninsula ; the island of Capri.

Nothing had changed, not once in twenty one years.

In this ever changing, ever evolving world, this array of never moving giants was the most comforting sight Bruno could imagine.

He turned to Leone, who stood with a gaping mouth, and grinned contentedly.

« What do you think, pitto’ ? » he asked, a cocky lilt to his voice. « Do you suppose you might make something out of that ? »

Leone’s face twitched slightly as he blinked, and, turning to look at Bruno, he let out an offended huff.

« You — if I can — you must be kidding ! »

Shaking his shoulder to bring out the travel easel, he began setting up right where he stood, unclasping his cases and taking a clean, prepared canvas with frightening speed.

« If I can’t make something out of this, » Leone continued, almost under his breath, « then that will surely mean that I have failed as a painter. What am I saying — I’ll have failed as a man. »

Satisfied by the effect of his surprise, Bruno sat down onto a protruding rock behind the easel, and watched as Leone frantically began to mix oils and pigments onto his palette, barely taking any time to sketch beforehand. His lines were scribbles, faint and very hastily scrawled onto the fabric, as if his hands could barely follow the quick impulses from his brain. Then, once the sketch was done, came the paint, in blotches of varying thickness and colors.

The sight surprised Bruno, to an extent : he had imagined painting to be a much more physically taxing, slow process. But before his very eyes, shapes were beginning to appear ; in flat, blunt colors, outlines of the sea, the sky, the distant Vesuvio ; the sparking white of foam, the fuzzy silhouettes of the fishing boats. What in the first few minutes had only seemed like stains placed arbitrarily across the canvas, now took shape into something recognizable. Under Leone’s confident, quick brushstrokes, the little waves began to move ; the hulls groaned and knocked against the rocks ; the clouds, themselves, seemed to be drifting slowly across the pale sky. The shimmers of the sun, reflected in the azure water, moved along its flow. Soon, shadows came to complete the sparkling light ; deep and vibrant, in a strikingly immersive demonstration of chiaroscuro.

In front of Bruno’s very eyes, something was being created. It was an imperfect representation of reality, to be sure ; but it held an impermanence, a fleeting je-ne-sais-quoi, a fading impression of something already gone. It was a moment taken in time, forever imprinted onto a canvas. Something that would never be again, but that would forever exist.

All this, from just a few stains of paint.

Bruno was almost afraid to break Leone’s artistic trance. He looked incredibly focused, eyes fixated obstinately on his work, like anything beyond it was not only a mere distraction, but simply did not exist in this realm. Bruno stared at the quick flicks of his wrist, the pallor of his hands (though over the summer months, he had taken on some color), the knobby, long fingers ended by slightly tapered nails. His gaze crawled over his hunched back, the silver hair against his shoulders, the slight dip of his waist, hidden under a large shirt. And his face, too, partially hidden as it was by the awkward angle ; his nose, red and peeling from recent sunburn, and his cheekbones, and bitten lips, and sharp chin, and long neck. In this light, Leone looked particularly statuesque, especially as immobile as he was.

He carried a sort of grace that would become both an artisan and a priest. There was something fantastical about watching the process develop, something that had not been there when Bruno had simply examined the finished product of Leone’s work. A little intimidated, yet nonetheless fascinated, Bruno simply sat, watching, attentive.

As the painting progressed and the canvas was filled, Leone’s movements had slowed, but retained a regularity that showed true technique. He was still a young artist, but had to have been very well schooled — although his style was unlike any Bruno had ever seen. He had seen paintings, a few times, he was sure, even if he had not had the occasion to visit many expositions during his childhood. He had at least the Milazzo’s estate portraits as points of reference.

Leone’s way of painting was a lot more… Spotty.

« I apologize, » suddenly came Leone’s voice, though his gaze stayed put in the direction of his canvas. « This must be incredibly boring to you. I’ll be finished soon, it’s just a matter of —. »

« Oh ! No, no, not at all, » Bruno replied, taken from his reverie. « This is a very interesting experience. »

« Is it, now ? »

« Yes ! Of course. I’ve never seen an artist in action before. It’s an amazing sight. »

A certain rigidity came to stiffen Leone’s back, like a shiver. Bruno held back an endeared smile — by now, he was acutely aware of Leone’s difficulties with accepting compliments. It was rather sweet, to be frank, though one, upon seeing the severity of his features, would not have assumed he blushed easily.
But he did, and that fact filled Bruno with triumphant delight.

Against the painting, Leone’s brush stopped abruptly.

« If, » he cleared his throat. « You may come closer to see. If you like. »

« Oh. Certainly. »

Bruno got up, and took the few steps onto the dusty earth that separated him from Leone — who stood behind his canvas, shoulders drooping slightly as he worked. Bruno, unsure of where exactly he should place himself as to provide the least amount of disruption, chose to stand to Leone’s right. He hid a little behind the painter’s body, as to not cast too large a shadow against the canvas, and hunched as well.

His view of the canvas was not significantly improved by the new position ; from his seat, barely five feet away, he had been able to see it just fine. But a better perspective of the painting had evidently not been the main goal of this operation.

This time, Bruno did not hold back the smile that made his cheeks itch.

« You know, pitto’, » he whispered, cheek barely above Leone’s shoulder, « if you wanted me to be closer to you, you only had to ask. There is no need to be so shrewd. »

Again, this tension in his spine, this spreading redness in his face and collar ; and, above all, this funny expression, like a child who’d been caught misbehaving. Still, Leone’s eyes stuck to the canvas, with an obstinacy that was truly admirable.

« Well, » he said, voice barely audible. « That is good to know. Good… To know. »

He hesitated for a few beats, then, in a soft breath :

« I feel at peace when you are close to me. »

Being proved right in such a demure way caused an agitation, a turmoil, to awaken in Bruno’s heart. Like an oven slowly heating as a fire was lit within its core, his chest began to warm up ; and it seemed that each time he exhaled, that warmth spread to the rest of him, in a slow, pleasant glow. Like after swallowing spices and having them gently thaw the inside of his throat, Bruno felt something in him tingle, then grow ardent, as if every organ of his had proceeded to melt through the gaps of his ribcage and to pool in a bubbling magma at the bottom of his gut.

His neck began to sting, as did the curve of his cheeks and the tips of his ears. Something in the back of his head pounded, then simply began to press into him, insistently, in a constant pulse. His palate itched, his lungs felt empty, his tongue was dry, his stomach had grown famished, urgent hunger digging at his abdomen. The tip of his fingers felt cold, and yet, his palms were beginning to feel clammy and warm. His throat locked up, and he found that he had difficulties conjuring reasonable thoughts in his mind.

Briefly, Bruno wondered what exactly was happening to his body ; such a sudden weakness, making him feel weirdly sluggish, was unexpected. He did not have a tendency to feel anemic, nor did he remember having been sickly as of late. He was not what one could call a force of nature, but he was not feeble, either.

His gaze focused on the tapping and dragging of Leone’s paintbrush — and, just as foam bloomed and sun rays pooled onto the canvas, finally, light was shed, and Bruno understood.

It came all at once, in a brutal onslaught. Realization, sudden and ferocious, came crashing down onto his head with a cold flurry. It fell and covered him from head to toe, taking a hold of him, of his breathing, of his nerves. He was taken aback, momentarily, dizzied, almost lost his balance — then, as quickly as it started, the panic slowed, and calmed down almost completely. The icy coat on his skin warmed up to the heat of his blood, and his pulse slowed to a milder, easier rhythm, though the force of it was still rapid enough to make him giddy. An itch of worry, still, made its presence known at the back of his mind ; but in this moment, it was pushed away by the greater flow of Bruno’s new, crystal clear emotions.

A curious lightheadedness poked at his brain, and just at the same time, a deep sense of fondness washed over him, something comforting, something gentle — promptly followed by an urgent need to grab onto Leone.

A collision now seemed inevitable.

The roof of his mouth still felt very dry, but after those few seconds where he had lost then regained the control of his being, his desires had become a lot more limpid. Cheeks heated and dark, he bent slightly lower, closer, close enough that he could smell faint perfume dabbed behind Leone’s ears. Their shoulders were not touching, but they almost were ; and that almost, that gap barely wider than nothing, made Bruno’s blood boil.

He had no qualms over touching Leone, as he had in the past. Touching other men, generally speaking, had never been a problem, nor had it gotten Bruno into such a state before. But with the way his heart had so abruptly exposed itself to him, and had come so close to bursting in the process, he now felt slightly hesitant to cross that gap.

He would not have been able to tell if Leone had noticed his new posture, or their current proximity. His expression was hard to decipher, though his body language practically radiated of stress — and Bruno imagined that his own was most likely a perfect reflection of the artist’s.

Bruno almost reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder, but abstained at the very last second, retreating and clearing his throat.

« I, » he began, and then, much lower, « it is the same for me. »

Leone’s adam’s apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed ; his lips were pressed in a very thin line, and his face, though still pale, was infinitely rosier than it had ever been. Bruno’s throat was uncomfortably tight. He looked down at the ground.

He was beginning to feel like an unfathomable coward.

But what exactly did Leone want ? After once sharing affection, then spending almost a dozen days without mentioning it, what were they both to do ?

A slight flutter of breeze, coming to tangle Leone’s hair, suddenly dragged Bruno’s attention away from the painter’s face ; instead leading it to a very particular spot of his anatomy. It was a small space, right at the point where the curve of his jaw met the line of his neck, underneath his earlobe. This spot, a slight dip in structure, was surprisingly marked with one of the rare blemishes Leone carried ; a small, tiny, perfectly circular beauty mark.

Its location seemed so perfectly planned, so outrageously purposeful, that it was nearly exasperating. Was this man hellbent on making him feel troubled ?

This cruel little dot, this teasing target, was being burnt into Bruno’s eyes with how intensely he stared at it. The sensation began anew, this awful burn in his abdomen, sizzling all the way to his throat and prompting him to act. He was to do something, wasn’t he ? He was, of course, he was.

Would he be brave enough to act upon it ? Of that he was unsure.

But brave or not, he was to do something.

He was barely a few inches away. It would not take much action on his part ; only a little lean forward, a cheeky brush, and his lips would meet skin. It would cost him practically nothing in terms of effort. Nothing at all, in fact. It was only a slight push.

A slight push and everything would change. Hopefully for the better.

Or would it ? How could he be sure ?

All he had to do was try.

Bruno leant forward, and it was then, in a cruel mockery from fate, that Leone straightened up — unconsciously getting away from Bruno’s tentative grasp.

« There, » he said, the naïve idiot, completely unaware of what he had just done. « All done. I wouldn’t say it looks half bad, but, what is your opinion ? »

From the heavens above, Bruno was sure that he could distinctly hear rambunctious, mocking laughter being aimed at him.

For a brief moment, Bruno was stuck into place, mouth slightly agape from the sheer violence of such a withdrawal. When he finally straightened up as well, he felt somewhat dizzy.

« It… It looks wonderful, » he stammered, rubbing his neck and finding it overly warm. « The sea is rather still today, and yet, you’ve brought it to life. It is a really nice painting. »

And it was. The natural composition was pleasant to the eye ; the paint strokes,  blurred and muted, and mixed with thicker dollops of colors, worked very harmoniously together, and though an expert would most likely have disproved of Leone’s inconsistent shading, or lack of precision with his lines, Bruno was no expert. And he liked the painting, as well as the painter. So, truly, what else could he possibly have said ?

Leone seemed to be satisfied with the compliment, and hid a proud, if slightly bashful, grin behind his hand. Bruno saw, and smiled, again deeply endeared.

« Either way, » Leone then said, wiping at his stained hands with a handkerchief, though to not much avail, « was this what you meant to show me ? »

« Ah, not exactly, » Bruno responded, and turned to point slightly west, into the close distance. Leone followed his indication with his gaze.

« Do you see the little building ? To the left of that large stone structure. A little downward, facing the sea. It has orange walls. Do you see it ? »

« I do. »

« This, » Bruno sighed, « is the house I grew up in. »

« Ah. »

Leone walked slightly closer to the direction of the house, and could not hold back a twist of his mouth at the rather humble sight. Bruno huffed, feigning offense.

« Well, now, is something wrong, pitto’ ? Is my ancestral home not up to your standards ? »

Leone turned to him, wide-eyed, lips parted around an apology. Bruno waved it off even before it left Leone’s mouth, snickering lightly.

« That is perfectly fine. I did tell you it was nothing more than a fisherman’s home, didn’t I ? And even now, I very rarely use it. So you will have to excuse its state of ill repair. Or any potential dust and cobwebs. »

Leone’s mouth twisted once more into a grimace.

« Oh, really, there’s no need for you to be excused. You should see the state of my apartment in Rome. »

« That’s interesting. I never pegged you as the messy type. You seem to take care of yourself just fine. »

« I… Have a tendency to let things pile up. »

He scratched idly at his cheek, seemingly a little embarrassed. Bruno now felt intense curiosity rise up in his mind ; and the pressing desire to see just how Leone behaved when he was on his own.

As they packed up and walked towards the house, Bruno’s eyes met once more with the beauty mark behind Leone’s ear. He looked at it for a brief moment, considering, and finally, took a decision. Leone was only slightly taller than he was, barely by a few inches ; and so, Bruno had little difficulty leaning against Leone’s shoulder and finally give that very enticing spot a kiss.

It would have been an understatement to say that Leone was taken aback by the sudden move ; at least, if the surprised shriek that was ripped from his throat was anything to go by.

« Huh ? » he sputtered, holding his hand to his ear as he looked at Bruno, eyes wide with bewilderment. « You — what — »

« Well, you did say you had a tendency to let things pile up, » Bruno teased, cheeks burning as he continued walking. « I have the feeling that, if I were to leave this up to you, you would do the same. »

He turned towards Leone, hands crossed behind his back as he grinned.

« And how could I allow that to happen ? »

With this, he turned back around, with what felt like a song rising in his heart. Behind him, he heard Leone mumble something under his breath, before he finally caught up.

Their arms, albeit discreetly, linked together as if it were the most natural thing in all of existence. They walked the rest of the way like this — like two friends on a voyage, finding comfort in each other’s presence and contact. The rising warmth travelled throughout Bruno’s body once more ; but this time, it only felt soothing.


-


For a reason he had never been able to conjure, Bruno did not remember this day as clearly as the others.

He should have. After all, this memory was brought back and inflicted unto him like a wound each time he crossed that tilted doorframe. But it did not crash into his heart like a wave, or occur to him with the most clear details ; however, the impressions, the feelings he had experienced that day were still as tangible as they had been, nine years ago.

Like the beginning of a theater play, first came the sounds ; or, rather, the infuriating lack of sounds. A silence so heavy it hovered thick in the air, making his shoulders slump, making his head hang low. It was only disturbed by an incessant buzzing around his ears, an infuriating hum that brought tension to his nerves — coming from the hefty flies flying around his head.

Those had to be no more than distant cousins from the ones he usually saw around the city ; those were not the fat little charcoal-colored insects he had grown accustomed to in the summer times. Those were much bigger, and glowed with an iridescent green, which contrasted with their enormous, bulgy orange eyes. He kept having to brush them off his arms, his neck, his cheeks ; but always they returned, making his skin itch and tickle unpleasantly.

The main target of their attention, though, was not Bruno’s very much alive body : their prime objective was instead laid to rest at the very center of the room.

Around him, the flies buzzed happily ; flying in wide circles, landing, seemingly fighting with their associates over who was allowed to get close. The priest sometimes chased them off with a tut and the wave of a handkerchief ; but they never flew far, and returned as soon as the handkerchief was again pocketed. Bruno observed the spectacle with a gaze that was, somehow, both furious and utterly numb to it all.

Next to him, sitting in a chair, his mother had finally stopped crying. Still, she had not let go of his hand, which she held tightly in her own as if he was her only anchor. Her knuckles were squamous, her nails, bitten to the bone.

She was all in black, dress and veil, a color she had never enjoyed wearing, and this, too, made Bruno angry.

In this instant, he could recall having felt like his mother’s sole protector. The now single presence in her life, the guardian of her wellbeing, of her happiness, of her life. Bruno, in this very instant, had forever changed status ; from child, and in merely one night, he had turned into a man.

The priest, who had managed to catch a cold in the midst of summer and simply could not be rid of it, sniffled intermittently, breaking the silence of the room. The light was very strong, and yet he could not see much ; it was very dark and orange, as if a great fire had been taking place outside the door. He could see no details, but that dit not stop him from looking.

His father was dressed very neatly, in his army uniform. He had not been shaven. His beard was uneven, and spread well underneath his collar, which had been risen to an unnatural level as to conceal his wounds. He looked very grey.

And still, those damned flies.

« Bruno, » his mother had whispered to him, though he could not remember her ever moving from her grief-stricken position.

He had not replied, or perhaps he had.

« Bruno, go kiss your father goodbye. »

He remember the chill that had overtaken him, freezing him in place as cold sweat pooled on the curve of his neck.

« Go, » she had repeated, and finally unclasped her hand, setting him free, forcefully withdrawing her support.

Maybe she had pushed him, or maybe he had simply found the courage within him to move forward — either way, the next time he had blinked, he had stood next to his father.

His eyes were mercifully closed. Bruno looked at his face, at the strange, limp expression it carried, and felt himself shake his head.

« Bruno, » his mother repeated, and her voice rang in his ears like the toll of a bell. It was no suggestion. It was an order, plain and simple.

Once more, he had said no, once more he had refused, but his feet would not move away. He stood firmly in place, though he was shivering in every limb. He trembled, he sweated, he cried, he pleaded, all silently, all in one breath.

Anger, raging and brutal, burnt into his chest. He felt himself bend down, hold his breath, and close his eyes as they were prickled by tears.

He kissed his father’s forehead.

The sensation of the pliant, unnaturally cold flesh under his lips was to plague him for days to come.

As soon as he had touched his father’s skin, Bruno came back up, as if begging for air, and, suddenly suffocating, had bolted out of the room and out of the house.

For a few minutes (though he could not have been able to say exactly how long), he had stood in front of the sea, watching as the sun set, or rose, or perhaps stayed in place. He could remember the gulls, and their cries, which sounded like high-pitched meows ; he could remember that, for the last day of his life as a child, he cried out his frustration, his rage, his grief, without a sound, without a complaint.

He returned home once he was done, and he recalled that, a long while after, when they buried his father, his mother held his hand again — and this time, he was the first to let go.


-


« Ah — you were not kidding about the dust and cobwebs, huh. »

« No, I was not. What I had neglected to expect, however, was that there would be so many crabs. »

Indeed, over the few weeks Bruno had neglected his housekeeping duties, tiny clawed invaders had decided, as one man, to take up residence inside of his home. They were mere beach critters, little soot-colored things, that had swarmed in groups by climbing the rocky hill separating the house from the sea — and, finding no occupant to bother them, had settled quietly into their new shelter.

Upon the new intruders’ entry, the crabs collectively fell into a crowd panic that led to ponder just how they had managed to survive for this long. Used as they were to rocky crevices and tight spaces, they found themselves utterly at loss for what to do upon this situation ; and, giving way to terror, began to skitter and scurry sideways, in every direction, trying desperately to hide from the unwanted attention.

« Should we catch them ? » Leone inquired, shaking a particularly misguided crab from his foot. « There really is a lot. You can use those as bait, right ? »

« Not those ones, » Bruno replied as he looked down disgustedly at the flailing crabs. « These are completely useless. The fish don’t find them appetizing — I’d have more luck using flies or earthworms, even. »

From the corner, next to the entrance, Bruno produced a push broom, and handed it to Leone with flourish.

« Pitto’, I hereby grant you the title of Crab Tamer. »

Letting go of his cases, Leone took the push broom, one eyebrow tilted high on his forehead.

« It… Is an honor, » he lilted, turning the item in his hands as if to inspect it closely — though there was nothing to inspect. « Should I just ?… »

« Push those profiteers out the door, » Bruno finished his thought, walking into the main room to open the windows. « I’ll clean up a little in the meantime. »

Letting the crabs out proved to be a little more challenging than they had both expected ; in their alarm, the crabs had managed to hide themselves into tight corners, under the rare furniture that filled the room, or simply ran too fast on their many little legs to be caught effectively. After a while of work, though, most of the crabs had finally been pushed outside, where they belonged, upon the rocky shore. A few were left, cowering in the rare dark spots left unturned by the two men, most likely trembling in mournful dread for their vanished brothers.

Once that had been taken care of, Bruno’s little home was finally revealed to Leone’s eyes.

As Bruno had issued a few moments prior, it really was nothing impressive. The house was comprised of only one room, frugally decorated, and with furniture that seemed to have seen better days. One corner was used as a kitchen, and its walls were covered with old, rusted pots and ladles ; another corner was used as a bedroom, with a moth-eaten curtain separating two beds with neatly folded, though dusty sheets ; and at the very center, a large wooden table, which looked heavy and sturdy, surrounded by two equally thick benches.

Another corner, though, was not overtaken by utilitarian items of any sort, but rather, had its walls covered with a hastily-built, heavily stocked bookshelf. It was filled to the brim with books of various sizes, some with colorful bindings, some with no binding at all ; all of them looked rather old, though some more so than others, and all seemed to have been slightly damaged by time — but a quick inspection from Bruno proved that, thankfully, no harm had been done to them.

« That’s a rather impressive collection, in such a little home, » Leone praised as he gently removed one book from its shelf. « Are they all yours ? »

« My father’s, » Bruno said, pride obvious in his voice. « But I suppose you could call them mine, now. My mother, or rather, Signore Milazzo, refused to have them inside his house. »

He chuckled to himself, stroking the spine of a red leather cover.

« I still read them, sometimes. Whenever I find the chance. They are very dear to me, as it was with those very books my parents taught me to read. To tell you the truth, I always have at least one in my boat, in case of emergencies — but my mind is often occupied with other things. »

Leone nodded, parting the pages of the book he had taken, and his brows shot up with surprise as he read a few lines.

« You learnt to read with those ? » he asked, wonder in his voice.

« Mhm. My father was particularly fond of Virgil. Ever read any of his works ? »

« I can’t say that I have. Books were never my forte — I despised them as a child, and cannot say that I ever grew very fond of them as I got older. »

Finding an appealing passage, Leone began to read aloud :

«  The seeds of life — fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they are weighed down by the bodies’ ills or dulled by earthly limbs, and flesh that’s born for death… »

« That is the source of all men’s fears and longings, joys and sorrows, » Bruno continued, not missing a beat, and without even glancing at the book in Leone’s hands. « Nor can they see the heavens’ light, shut up in the body’s tomb, a prison dark and deep. »

Looking up from the pages with wide eyes, Leone gaped silently at Bruno for a few seconds — rendering him flush with pride.

« My father was very keen on training my memory and power of analysis, » Bruno explained, satisfaction obvious in his smile. « It is funny that you chose this passage to read from. It was his very favorite one — the Aeneid, book VI. The creation of all things by the pagan gods. »

« I see. »

Leone paused, turning a few pages, reading a few more words.

« And which would be your favorite ? » he then asked Bruno, leaning against the bookcase as he continued to browse the book.

Looking up at the ceiling to cogitate, Bruno hummed low in his throat, searching his memories for an answer, until his lips curled into an absentminded smile.

« Eclogue IV, » he replied, a little quieter, voice softened by nostalgia . « The Golden Age. »

Flipping pages at a vigorous pace, Leone found the passage Bruno had mentioned, and read from it.

« He will take on divine life, and he will see gods mingled with heroes, and be seen by them, and rule a peaceful world with his father’s powers. And for you, boy, the uncultivated earth will pour out her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus… Your cradle itself will pour out delightful flowers: And the snakes will die, and deceitful poisonous herbs will wither… And you will read both of heroic glories, and your father’s deeds, and will soon know what virtue can be. »

He chuckled, a little darkly.

« Why, that would be fit to read in a church. »

« It would, wouldn’t it ? » Bruno mused with a grin as he took the book from Leone’s hands. « And yet, it was written for no saint, but for an emperor. One that was said would bring a new golden age upon Rome. »

« Why is it your favorite, pray tell ? »

Oddly, though in no way surprisingly, in this instant, Bruno thought of golden locks and fiery eyes filled to the brim with ardent dreams. He smiled.

« I suppose, » he said, « that I enjoy the thought of a liberator. A hero, a defender of the defenseless. One who will try and bring light to this world. »

« By virtue of blood ? »

« Blood, or simply goodness of heart. »

« Mmh, » Leone acknowledged, with a doubtful curve to his mouth. « Well, if such a person exists, I certainly pray they are full of energy. There is a lot in this world that would need fixing. »

« Hopefully, they will inspire others to act in kind. »

« Do you truly believe mankind to be so easily swayed ? »

« Not easily. That is why someone truly exceptional would be needed. »

« I suppose so. »

Leone still seemed rather doubtful ; Bruno did not try to convince him further. He pushed the book back into its rightful place, gently smoothing the alignment of all the different spines. For a moment, he stared at them with contemplation, mind wandering over all sorts of things ; of messiahs, of new beginnings, of love and worship.

« Say, » he suddenly queried, catching Leone’s attention once again. « You did say you wanted to draw me, right ? »

He heard Leone’s sharp intake of breath.

« I, » he blurted out, fingers nervously reaching to curl a lock of hair behind his ear, « Yes. Yes, I did. »

Bruno nodded thoughtfully, lips twisting as he mused.

« I don’t suppose this is too ideal a location, » he noted, looking around the humble house. « But if you would like to do that here…? »

« Oh, of course. »

Nervously, Leone walked back to his cases and travel easel, which he had left near the entrance. He reached to grab them, but before he did, began to look around the room ; hand rubbing his neck as he pondered.

« Mmh. The windows here will be a good enough source of light… Do you suppose we might be able to move the bed over here ? »

« Oh, certainly. I’ll give you a hand. »

Amused by the painter’s enthusiasm, Bruno gave way to most of his whims — allowing Leone to change the room’s arrangement to what fit his needs and inspiration.

« What did you have in mind ? » Bruno asked, giving a final pull to the bed’s heavy wooden frame. « I’m curious to see how you’ll choose to depict me. »

« Well, there’s a rather wide array of possibilities. I could test a few poses and techniques, if you’d like, and sketch them out for you. I assume you would prefer something rather formal ? »

« Mm. By ‘formal’, you mean …? »

Bruno saw a slightly crooked smile appear onto Leone’s face as he rummaged through one of his cases.

« Something that you wouldn’t be ashamed to show your mother, for instance. »

Bruno tilted his head slightly to the side.

« Ashamed to — oh ! »

He huffed out a surprised laugh, before standing up straight, one hand on his hip, and a critical look in his eyes.

« Leone, you dirty bird. Is that what you do in Rome ? »

« Oh, rarely now. Back when I needed the practice, though, you can’t imagine. I believe I have seen more naked men and women than I would have in all my life, had I not become a painter. »

He reached for a silver-colored box, filled with pastels of various sizes and colors, and inspected its contents.

« The human shape is a difficult one to master, and studying nudity is an essential part of the process. I make a point to never eroticize or look at my models with the eyes of a man — only an artist’s. »

He stayed silent for a second, then cleared his throat.

« Although, well. I am only saying so in case — you are under no obligation to — I can just as well paint you while you are fully dressed, of course. »

Bruno rose an eyebrow. Leone’s ears grew red at the tip.

« It — I only mentioned it because — oh, do stop looking at me like this ! »

« Like what ? »

« Like a — like I am some type of lecherous old man ! »

Bruno tried his very best to stay serious for as long as he could, but only after a few seconds, his façade shattered completely as he broke into a loud snort. He held his hand in front of his face for a moment, as he simply could not look Leone in the eye ; lest his snickering turn to powerful bursts of laughter.

« Oh — oh, Leone, forgive me, I promise, I am not making fun of you. You just seem so — I swear, I would never think this of you. I know you to be a gentleman, armed only with the best intents. »

Leone huffed, settling onto the wooden bench at the center of the room, armed, not just with intents, but with paper and pastels.

« Trying to sully my honor, I see, » he sighed with exaggerated displeasure. « I am beginning to discern more and more of your hidden sides, Signore Buccellati. »

« Hah ! And you don’t know the half of it. »

Bruno twisted his expression into what he hoped to be a ruthless smirk, showing as many teeth as he could muster. Leone let out a snicker.

« I am known to be incredibly cruel to those around me, » Bruno continued. « It was about time you learnt the truth, Leone. »

« Oh, I can see it, now. You are truly monstrous. »

Leone threw him a glance from above his sketching sheets. They exchanged conniving grins.

« All right, » Leone then said, shifting to find a more comfortable position in his seat. « Strike a pose that seems the most natural to — »

« Could I borrow a few pastels and paper ? »

Leone tilted his head up with a surprised blink.

« Borrow… Well, yes, » he replied, voice slow with confusion. « May I ask why, though ? »

« Wouldn’t that be interesting ? You draw me, and I will draw you. That way, we can both learn about each other. »

Leone idly scratched the curve of his jaw, considering, before he handed Bruno what he had asked for.

« This is rather unconventional, but I’ll admit, » he then said, « I am interested to see what you’ll produce. »

« I simply ask you not to be offended at the finished product. »

« Hah ! I’ll try not to be. But do make sure to get my good profile. »

And with that, they both got to work.

The pose Bruno chose was a fairly simple one, or at least he assumed ; getting comfortable, he lounged onto the bedsheets, barefoot and reclining against the headrest. One of his knee was bent towards the ceiling, and though he was not quite facing Leone, a sideway glance every once in a while was enough to remind himself of what exactly the painter looked like.

There were no surprises on that front. Leone looked as he had since Bruno had first met him — albeit, with a little more of a tan and a much more relaxed expression on his face. His hair had grown slightly longer, too, which was to be expected. But the features, those had stayed the same.

Leone was young, as he was. But an air of complex severity came to crackle the varnish of his prime ; something that was proof of a difficult life, of growth that had occurred perhaps too quickly, a sadness that had latched onto his heart at the most inopportune time — the one of boyhood.

Bruno knew that air. He saw it in the eyes of the Espositos, saw it in almost every kid and teenager he had ever encountered on the streets, and even in the men, and the women of various ages, even as old as to look withered. That air never quite went away, no matter the time that went by.

He saw it in his own eyes, sometimes. Sticking like a stubborn stain on his teeth. Insidious.

Trying to replicate that look would be well above his artistic abilities, but, well. He only had to try.

Feeling imaginative, Bruno grabbed a blue pastel, and began sketching the first few curved lines that would form Leone’s head. From the corner of his eye, he saw Leone alternating between colors with surprising speed, scribbling furiously onto the thick paper — a deeply focused frown on his face. Every once in a while, he looked up from his work, and watched Bruno — his pupils flying from one spot to another, trying to catch the details of his anatomy, the light, the curves and shadows. The attention, as brief as it always was, though very regular, was not unwanted ; but every look and stare, shot through him like as many arrows, felt even more excruciating.

How strange it was, being looked at in such a manner. From head to toe, with genuine interest, with a focus and a depth that he had never felt from another human being.

How strange it was, finally being seen.

Swallowing, Bruno went back to his task at hand — trying to draw Leone’s hair without it looking like a wild bundle of straw.

« Bruno, » Leone suddenly asked, smoothing some color down with the pad of his thumb. « May I ask you a question ? »

Tilting his head, Bruno saw that Leone had not lifted his gaze from his sketching paper, and instead, seemed even more deeply focused. Was that a ruse, a clever trick to hide potential embarrassment ? He had noticed that Leone had the habit to look the other way when confronted by his own emotions — though when faced with someone that annoyed him, Giorno, for instance, he always faced straight ahead and did not back down.

« Ah — certainly, Leone. Anything you like. »

« What would you say is your worst fault ? »

The question was unexpected, and caused Bruno to recoil slightly in surprise. He considered it, for a second, then clicked his tongue, hesitant to answer.

« Fault, you say ? Do you mean, a flaw of character, or the worst action I have ever perpetrated ? »

« Mmh… Let’s say, the first one. »

Bruno considered it, tapping the end of the pastel against his lip, and hopefully not managing to smear any blue around his mouth.

« That is a difficult one. I can’t say I believe that one would be the best judge of one’s character — I would leave that up to the interpretation of others. But if I were to say… »

He rummaged through his mind, finding no shortage of flaws, but having difficulty coming up with a particular, outstanding one.

« … I sometimes feel troubled when I have to be open with what I feel. »

« Oh ? »

« The same as you, I suppose. » he shrugged slightly. « I tend to let things pile up. Emotions, as well. I… I used to pass it off as trying not to show weakness to others, but, I think it might have evolved beyond that. Or perhaps I have always been like this. »

He paused, slowly scribbling onto the paper.

« I… Hide things from those I love. To protect them. Or perhaps simply because I prefer to conceal what I am not proud of. »

As he was doing, right this instant.

Though, was ignoring the truth the same as actively lying ? Did he truly owe to Leone to spread out his secrets or his shame ?

Having a burden did not mean he had to make another person bear it alongside him.

Bruno sucked in a breath, starting on Leone’s features — the curve of his nose, with the little bump along its arc ; the shape of his eyes, deep-set and down-turned ; the pout of his mouth.

« What of you, Leone ? What is your worst fault ? »

« Oh, I have a lot of those. »

He had not missed a beat. The speed and obvious lack of hesitation with his answer made Bruno snort.

« Lately, though, » Leone continued, gaze still hesitant, « I have begun to feel more and more like an unforgivable coward. »

« A coward ? Now, why is that ? »

Leone huffed a deep sigh, and reached for another pastel. He stayed silent for a moment too long ; giving enough time for Bruno to understand.

« Ah, » he mused. « The wedding ? »

« It is tomorrow. »

Leone blew slightly onto his sketch, the puff of breath chasing away any stray dust from the chalky pastel.

« Tomorrow, and I have not yet taken a decision. This — this is the most infuriating thing in the world to me. Knowing that something must be done, that I must pick a course of actions to follow, but having simply no idea which one would be best. »

He rubbed his forehead, smearing, perhaps unknowingly, a few remnant colors onto his skin.

« It is idiotic. I know it to be. And yet, I simply cannot deny this sense of… apprehension, this fear, over what my life will become once this happens. »

« Dear friend, I am afraid it will happen whether you want it or not. »

Leone scoffed.

« I know that, as well. But there is a colossal difference between what logic tells me, and the nagging voice of my distress. »

Bruno sketched the pointy lines of Leone’s shoulders, the tight triangle of his chest. He chuckled, both at Leone’s words and at his own rather personal rendition of the artist.

« It is a difficult one to shush, isn’t it? » he replied, rolling his neck slightly to ease the tension that had come from staying so still. « Even though you know it to be perfectly irrational, it simply will not stop taunting you. »

« Exactly. And it is especially strange, considering — »

He paused, abruptly. The sound of pastel scratching against paper suddenly stopped as Leone’s hands became very still. His eyes did not leave the drawing, as if they had been oddly magnetized to the paper.

Disconcerted, Bruno looked at him for a little while ; particularly at Leone’s hands. How long his fingers were, how thin, how sharp his fingernails. Blue veins were apparent onto the pale back, and on his palms and fingers, stains of oil paint, of pastel.

What colorful hands he had.

Considering what, Leone ? Bruno asked wordlessly, with only the persistence of his gaze.

Perhaps because he had felt that Bruno was not one to be deterred by silence, or perhaps because of his own personal bravery, Leone finally looked up. Their gazes met once more, and when

Leone opened his mouth, it was around the shadow of a whisper :

« … Considering that my heart no longer belongs to him. »

And there it was again.

That boil in his veins, this flutter in his heart, this shudder along his spine, this heat in his neck — this damning, overwhelming, staggering flow of utter delight.

Bruno choked on a sigh, a warm thrill overtaking the whole expanse of his chest. It was a rush, to say the truth, so strong it made him feel lightheaded, so powerful he had to forcibly calm his breathing.

That night, on the road home to Posillipo, what they had shared had not been inconsequential.

How reassuring it was, how deeply gratifying — and how immeasurably terrifying.

« Leone — I — »

He could not find his words. As if he had swallowed a large stone, his throat felt sealed, locked shut in a desperate attempt to stop him from vomiting his very thoughts, his every feeling, his most delusional hopes.

In front of him, Leone’s jaw clenched, tightly, and something in his eyes grew fearful. Bruno saw, and, straightening up, sitting on his heels to face him directly, finally spoke aloud.

« Leone, you — are you sure of what you… You said it yourself. You barely know me. »

He did not say that he, Bruno, barely knew Leone — though it was just as much a lie as what he had just stated.

Leone shook his head, but kept looking at him, as if unable to tear his gaze away.

« I am aware. I am, truly. At least, the logical side of me is. »

His fist was tight around the little pastel.

« But there is another one, see, who simply doesn’t seem to care for what that first one thinks. And it seems that, in my lunacy, I have chosen to listen to this very voice. »

He grinned, though his smile was a sad one.

« And worst offense of all, I do truly believe it to be the honest one of the two. »

Bruno’s blood was pounding in his ears with a frenzied panic.

Though he was happy, though he was terrified, those feelings were violently pushed aside by a much stronger opponent : an apprehension so violent, so startlingly powerful, that it made him feel momentarily lightheaded.

Perhaps Leone did know him ; but he still did not know the most peculiar fact of Bruno’s life. The fact that would, perhaps, disgust him so thoroughly, that he would never be able to look Bruno in the eye again. The fact that, most importantly, put Leone at risk — just as every person Bruno knew and loved.

He could not allow Leone to unwittingly put himself in danger. If Leone was hurt, in any way, because of him —

He had to know. For his own sake, and for Bruno’s tranquility of mind.

It felt like a dagger slashing through his side when he said it. Just as painful, at the very least, and with an acid burn. But he said it, anyway.

« I am part of La Camorra. »

Silence crashed around them like a wave.

Leone’s back stiffened to a ramrod posture on his seat.

« You… What ? »

Bruno swallowed. His ears were ringing.

He had never told anyone in such a way. The kids had known for a long time, for some even before he had met them. He did not have many friends that did not belong to a particular gang ; he had certainly never told his mother.

The words felt scalding on his tongue. But he blurted them all out anyway, hoping to soothe the burn as he talked — relieving his chest, for the first time in nine years.

« Well, one of their clans, anyhow. I do not benefit from a high rank, or even particular advantages, save from reasonable financial compensation. They give me missions to fill, and I fill them.

Most of the funds I get from them, which I do not especially need, I give to Giorno and his friends, so they may be able to survive. Their protection and reassurance, I will not lie, is also an excellent addition to my daily life. »

His hands were shaking, ever so slightly. He hoped Leone did not notice ; a show of weakness, in this instant, would have been intolerable.

«  I do not especially enjoy violence, of any sort. Contrarily to most men of this circle, it brings me not particular satisfaction, nor any kind of perverse enjoyment. But I am willing to be brutal if it is asked of me — though it rarely is. Mostly, I carry goods onto my father’s boat, and make sure they reach the right destination. My involvement in internal affairs is minimal, but it has grown more important as years go by — I have, after all been part of La Camorra since I reached the age of twelve, and it is most certain that I will stay amongst them until the end of my days. »

He caught his breath for a second, as he had disclosed the entire speech practically in one go, as if he could not get the words out quickly enough. He folded his hands in his lap, trying to calm himself. In front of him, Leone was gaping openly, shock clear on his expression — but not overly tense, nor running away.

« … Bruno, » he inquired, voice soft but hesitant, « I understand this, but… Why did you join them in the first place ? La Camorra — I do not know much of them apart from what I have been told, but they do not seem to share your ideals in any way.

What a question that was.

Bruno often asked himself this very question in the dead of night — and it never led to very pleasing thought. But he owed Leone an explanation, at this point. If only to bury his grave slightly deeper.

« Do you recall what I told you about my father ? About his gambling debt ? » he began, tension melting like a pillar of salt in his throat, burning as it slid down. « Well, that has to be paid off in some way, doesn’t it ? »

He ran his hand through his hair, finding his scalp damp and warm.

« All I do, » he breathed, angry with himself, « everything I give for the clan — it is to pay it off. This idiotic debt that has loomed over me since I was a boy. »

«  A debt ! »

Leone sprang from his seat, brows furrowed with indignation.

« You cannot possibly convince me that you joined such an organization only for a matter of money ! » he barked, seemingly infected by Bruno’s own anger. « You do not lack it, at least, not anymore, thanks to your adoptive father. This cannot — »

« You are right. But it is not the only debt. »

Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. Life for a life.

Bruno’s voice was calmer, now. Firmer.

Of this, he was not ashamed.

Leone saw — and it seemed that, only for a second, he understood. He did not know, but he understood, and his eyes shone with that sudden understanding. Bruno continued, steadfast and sure.

« My father had his debt of coin. I have my debt of blood. Two men murdered my father, men from La Camorra. Two experts of their craft… or so I have heard. They did not struggle for very long. »

Leone fell back down onto his seat.

The rough collision against the wood had to have been painful, but he did not show even a hint of discomfort. He was simply aghast, jaw lax and eyes wide, lungs emptied of their air.

Bruno’s heart was in shreds. He continued.

« In La Camorra, every life is worth a certain amount of coin — depending on one’s use, and on one’s skills. As those two men were held in high regards by the other Camorristi, and quality assets to the clan, their worth was rather great. I proved that I was more useful than them, by getting rid of them ; but their lives were added to my debt. This is what I work to pay back. »

Silence, again. After a few beats, Leone nodded, slowly, neck limp and lifeless, as a show of acknowledgement. He was staring straight ahead, looking overwhelmed with thoughts, with what

Bruno assumed to be betrayal, seeping anger, or, God forbid, fear.

He gave Leone some time to recover from the blow, sitting very still in complete silence, until Leone spoke again.

« … Was it worth it, in the end ? To heal your pride, to cleanse your name ? »

Bruno had not expected this question. But he knew the answer very well, and he did not hesitate to give it.

« It has cost me the rest of my life. Yet, even so, I do not regret anything. Were I given the chance, a second try at everything that has happened, I would do it again. It is not a matter of pride, Leone Abbacchio ; it is a matter of will, of resolve. It is a matter of a honor. »

His hands turned to fists into his lap.

« I do not see why these men would have deserved to survive after what they did to my family. »

Once more, Leone nodded. However, this time, the movement was not as slow, or as limp. It was a firm nod, an honest one, that took Bruno aback ever so slightly.

« And even so, » Leone said, contemplative, « you still have hope for mankind, and show such kindness to those around you. »

He chuckled, running both hands across his face, while Bruno gawked. Leone sighed, deeply, shoulders slumped and body seeming to be drained of energy. On his lips shone the faintest hint of a smile.

« Even while plagued by your demons, you are still admirable, Buccellati. »

« I — Leone, did you understand what I — »

« Yes, Buccellati. I may be an idiot, but not a bad enough one that I could have misunderstood. »

Slowly, Leone began to pick up his remaining pastels, carefully placing them back into the little silver box on the bench next to him.

« A part of me feels slightly betrayed that you have waited so long to tell me of such an important fact. However, » he continued as he closed the box, « another part of me understands that this must have been an excruciating secret to keep, and an incredibly painful situation to be in. »

He got up, and crossed the small space that separated them, sitting next to Bruno on the dusty bed.

« My parents are dead, » Leone stated, very numbly, as he let himself fall backwards — sinking into the mattress with a sigh. « And though it cannot possibly be the same, I understand your desire for vengeance. Or for justice, rather. The type that is difficult to bring forth by power of law. It was very courageous of you to follow through for so long. »

Silently, Bruno lied down next to him. He stared into the ceiling, heart beating loud in his ears.

Leone truly was a man full of wonders.

« What is it like ? »

« Uh ? »

Bruno blinked, turning to the side.

« Being part of La Camorra, » Leone clarified, mirroring Bruno’s new position as he came to face him. « What is it like ? »

« … A difficult game of strategy, sometimes. But it can be rewarding — one of its goals is to protect the people of Napoli, after all. Which is a goal I find respectable… To tell you the truth, it is likely to be the most honest work you can do in this town. »

« Oh ? »

« At least while being outside the law. »

Leone laughed at that — and this simple sound was enough to lift the worries off of Bruno’s shoulders, making him chuckle in nervous relief.

They stayed like this a moment, sharing without words, as they sometimes did ; basking into each other’s presence and closeness, as they had grown accustomed to. It was comfortable, and soothing in a way Bruno had never expected simple company to be.

He certainly could have grown used to that.

« Say, » Leone suddenly chimed in. « Will you show me what you drew today ? I did not even get to see your masterpiece. »

« Oh ! »

Bruno reached out and patted the mattress around him, trying to find the sketch of Leone, and finding it after a bit of fiddling.

« Well, it would be ill-advised of me to call it my masterpiece, but I am certainly rather proud of it, I’ll admit as much. »

« Do show, do show. »

Bruno handed Leone the drawing, awaiting the artist’s verdict, which came in the form of a startled laugh.

« Well, » Leone said, then, again, « Well. »

« Well, what of it ? Should I try my hand at becoming an artist, do you think ? »

« I will tell you one thing : it certainly is a lot better than my own first tries, when I first started painting. »

« And how old were you ? »

« Mmh… About four, I believe ? »

Bruno gave Leone’s arm an offended swat.

« Cruel, pitto’ ! » he reprimanded with a huff. « For a first try, I do not find it so terrible ! It is at least recognizable. »

« Hah ! Well, I did say it was better, did I not ? »

« Show me yours, then. Let us see the work of a true expert. »

Leone handed his drawing over with only minimal fuss.

It was a scribbly, colorful pastel sketch, taking most of the paper’s surface. Though its strokes were rough and quick, every line seemed to have a purpose, and were, in fact, rather precise.

Bruno immediately found his likeness replicated upon the sketch ; the way he held the paper, staring into it with a focused gaze and a faint, dreamy smile on his lips.

The shade of his skin mingled with spots of dark orange and gold, where the light hit most. His hair, so carefully trimmed, looked luscious, and lively too, as did the glint in his eyes. The fabric over his skin seemed light and soft to the touch.

It was a good sketch, but what mattered to Bruno was not its technical prowess — rather, it was the all-encompassing kindness that stood out from the sketch. An affection, a gentleness, a care that went into every line and curve.

There was a slight pang to Bruno’s heart.

« … Leone, what of us ? » he sighed, eyes darting from the sketch in his hands to Leone’s expression, which went dark as the question was asked.

He waited a moment before replying, seemingly searching for words — and, even as he said them, always hesitant.

« I… I will go to the wedding. »

He swallowed. Bruno did not move.

« And I will tell you of my decision once I return. »

Bruno inhaled, slowly, through his nose, and nodded.

« Yes. Very well. I… I will wait for you, then. »

It was not like he would have been able to go anywhere else, anyhow.

Silence fell once more, but it was forgiving. They stayed in that same position, lying down onto the bed for a while longer, close, but minds wandering a thousand miles apart.

To try and keep his thoughts grounded, Bruno reached out for Leone’s hand. He found it, and took it within his own — feeling the texture of the dry paint and dusty chalk against the pads of his fingers. Leone returned the hold, squeezing gently.

He would wait. It was only a few days, was it not ? Then, with luck, Leone would not be afraid, and would return. Though, that nagging voice said in his head, he would not have been able to blame the artist for never coming back.

He felt the pressure of Leone’s hand in his own, continuous and calming, and the voice was hushed.

Leone, Bruno felt urged to ask in the silence, how did your parents die ?

He did not ask.


-


That fourth particular day had begun in the very same fashion as had many others before them. Bruno, contrarily to what he had told Narancia a few weeks prior, had not yet managed to try and leave the gang. Such an hesitation had not come from a lack of resolve, as Bruno possessed ample amounts of such a quality. No, it had been much simpler than that : Bruno had simply been unable to find the right time to resign.

As of late, Gamberetto had been ruthless. After Cozza’s forced departure from the gang, the self-appointed leader had grown as demanding, as strict, and every bit as commanding as the little son of a lord. When he worked, Bruno had simply no time to think ; and with Gamberetto being in such an atrocious mood at all times of day, quitting was not an option.

On that particular evening, Bruno had been sent out on an errand ; his mission had been to go and fetch something or other from a sailor that owed Gamberetto money. To this day, Bruno still had absolutely no idea why he had been dispatched out there alone ; how intimidating could a scrawny child possibly be to a well-seasoned man of the sea ?

Still, he had gone, without question, and with a quick trot.

He had almost reached the harbor when he felt a pair of hands wrap suddenly around his hips.

Panic overtook him, and immediately, he tried to retaliate with a punch to his attacker’s ribcage ; that was, until he realized just who said attacker was.

« Well, what am I seeing here ! » Napoleone Buccellati laughed as he teasingly pinched his son’s sides, making him jump in surprise. « My dear son, out, at this very hour ! Does your mother know of your whereabouts, my boy ? »

« Pate ! » Bruno wheezed, heart pounding a racket against his solar plexus. « You — you surprised me. »

« I’d assume so, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost ! »

He reached to ruffle Bruno’s hair. Still catching his breath, Bruno gently grabbed his wrist to stop the ministrations, and it only took a bit of insisting for his father to effectively remove his hand.

« Out and about all day, uh ? » Napoleone asked, a grin on the curve of his lips. « Ah, you really are like your dear old dad. Don’t you worry one bit ; I’ll tell your mother you were out at sea with me since dawn. Does that sound good to you ? »

Bruno hesitated for a second, then nodded in approval. His father broke into gravelly laughter, and patted a warm hand against Bruno’s back.

« Then it’s settled ! Now, come with me. I wanted to take a detour to grab a drink before going home. You’re a man, now, aren’t you ? You can keep your old father company for a little while. »

Bruno almost spoke up ; he had places to be, right this moment, he was even already too late. But one look into his father’s smiling eyes was enough to disintegrate any refusal he might have been able to muster. He nodded.

« Bene ! » his father chuckled. « Let’s go ! »

Napoleone wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulder as they walked, rather slowly, with a stride that indicated no rush or hassle. It was the way they often walked when they were together, but on that day, being under such a pressure, Bruno found that pace to be slightly infuriating.

Napoleone only let go of his son for a moment, to light a cigarillo and bring it to his lips ; and as he blew the smoke out into the darkening sky, Bruno guessed exactly what was coming. He sighed softly, shaking his head helplessly.

« ‘ First, the sky and the earth and the flowing fields of the sea,’, » his father began, looking up to the clouds, as if deep in thought, « ‘ the shining orb of the moon and the Titan sun, the stars: an inner spirit feeds them, coursing through all their limbs, mind stirs the mass and their fusion brings the world to birth. ’ »

Bruno rolled his eyes, though he could not help a smile from pulling at the corners of his mouth. His father looked down at him, insistent ; and Bruno finally gave up.

« ‘ From their union springs the human race and the wild beasts,’ » he replied, almost in a murmur. « ‘ the winged lives of birds and the wondrous monsters bred below the glistening surface of the sea. ’ »

This time, his father’s laugh was uproarious. He patted his son’s shoulder with much force, and Bruno took the affectionate blow with minimal huffing.

« I see you’ve been studious ! That’s excellent. I’m very proud of you, my boy. »

« I do my best, pate. »

His father’s walking pace was slow, as his injured leg had left him with a painful limp. He leant onto his son for support, which Bruno provided without complaint. He was used to the firm, but gentle pressure next to his collarbone, carrying part of his father’s weight, helping him across streets and through large crowds. He had grown accustomed to bearing a little more than he should, and it now came to him naturally.

For years to come, Bruno Buccellati would recall this very particular day in its every, minuscule detail. He would wonder where, exactly, he had gone wrong ; would ponder on whether something would have been different, had they taken another road, or better yet, gone straight home. He would think of his father’s pleased, tired smile, the scent of salt on his clothes, the curls of his hair and the dark, bearded curve of his jaw. He would think of the weight of his father’s arm around his shoulder. He would think of warmth.

Nine years later, Bruno remained cold.

As they reached a turn into an empty street, Bruno felt an unexpected shove at his back. Losing his balance, he fell face first against the dusty cobblestone, scraping his cheekbone in the process. He barely had time to process what had happened, how he had fallen, or where his father was, before he felt explosive pain ring through his skull. Sharp needles pierced his brain, his spine felt a rush of cold, the top row of his teeth chattered against the bottom one ; and, unable to crane his neck up anymore, he let his head fall to the ground.

He heard commotion, movements, felt dust being kicked against his cheek. He felt warmth dribble from his nose, and from his open mouth. He heard a gurgle, a shove,  muffled rustling.

Whispered voices he couldn’t make out past the pounding in his ears.

He blinked, a few times, and briefly wondered if he was about to die.

« You, who have given up, will be given up on, » murmured a voice in his brain. Bruno’s mind then faded into darkness.

 


When he awoke, darkness had completely engulfed the city -- like a sheet of ice, it had covered every dip and corner of every street, the weak, pale moonlight fighting an already lost battle.

When he awoke, his entire body was convulsing with shivers -- tingles in his palms and fingers, like ants crawling under his skin, blood rushing through his entire body, as if he had been taken by death and brought back suddenly onto earth.

When he awoke, Napoleone Buccellati was --

 

-- he was long gone, and without his son.

 


It had not been the gang’s fault. That much he knew.

A few days after the incident, he came back to Gamberetto and the others. They were easy to find ; so cocksure and arrogant that they found no reason to hide their activities. When they saw

Bruno, all five of them quieted down. None of them came forward, until Gamberetto finally got up. He gave Bruno a firm handshake and a quick nod, which Bruno mirrored.

There was no need for anything more.

Surprisingly, his father’s death had brought him more respect from the boys than he had ever gotten before. He was soon to learn why ; his father had not been executed by any petty thief or drunken beggar. It had been La Camorra.

All because of a loan ; a loan of surprising proportions, that his father had gotten for them, and unfortunately lost. A loan that he, as next of kin, now had to repay.

It was then that Bruno Buccellati, aged twelve, learnt that no destiny was truly one’s own ; and that as long as actions met consequences, no man would truly be free.

At least, not in Napoli.


-


A little after the day had settled into the afternoon, the sky began to fill with heavy, thick clouds. Very sharply, the temperature rose, bringing forth a lot of humidity, then fell just as quickly as it had intensified. The wind picked up, in short little gusts that were just enough to send hats flying off ; and finally, as it was wont to do so late in September, the storm began.

It was far from the worst one Bruno had ever seen, but seeing the elements acting up in such a way, so soon after the end of summer,  was still rather impressive. There were no hints of thunder or lightning so far, and instead, rain fell into heavy sheets over the streets, hefty drops knocking against the roofs and onto windows. It was relaxing, though a little melancholic.

Sooner than later, days would begin to feel shorter, and the nights would be colder.

« Now, you’re aware that you’ll have to explain yourself, right ? »

Bruno lifted his head from where he had laid it, against the glass panel of the southern window, to look at Mista.

« Mh ? » he said, distractedly, and not so much to request clarification, but rather to bring forth repetition.

Mista rolled his eyes with an audible groan, leaning backwards with his chair.

« You usually rarely come to eat with us during the week, is all, » Giorno clarified, stabbing into a spongy slice of eggplant. « And you’ve barely said a word since you arrived. You can probably guess why we are so surprised. »

Trish nodded affirmatively, taking a sip of water-diluted wine, and added :

« You’re somewhat a creature of habit, too. It isn’t like you to suddenly change your routine. »

« Yeah ! » Narancia approved, mouth full of flat bread. « And you’re acting all moody, too ! You aren’t even eating ! »

« Well, » Bruno mumbled, poking at the food in his plate without much enthusiasm, « I should have expected that there would be nothing I can hide from you lot, mh ? »

« Not a chance ! » said the four of them in unison. Bruno let out a breathy laugh.

He and Leone had separated a little over an hour ago, after they had departed from Marechiaro and headed back into Posillipo. Bruno had helped Leone carry his belongings until they had reached the Milazzo estate, where Bruno had left Leone to pack up his luggage ; a boat was to leave Napoli in the evening, and it was agreed that Leone was to be aboard it, as to be able to attend his friend’s wedding.

The situation being what it was, and having shared what he had shared, Bruno had decided that it would be in their best interest that he not see Leone off. Though his announcement had not seemed to bring much fear into the painter’s heart, he did not doubt that it had surprised him enough to make him reconsider his opinion of Bruno.

He could not exactly blame him.

The afternoon had melted into evening, and the rain had not let up. The familiar chime of the church had rang its eighth strike moments ago ; and though Leone had to already be gone, Bruno still could not bring himself to go home just yet.

« Did you and the pitto’ have a fight ? » Trish asked, humorous, but with a hint of honest worry to her voice.

« What ? Oh, no. Well. Not really. »

Bruno scratched his chin idly, thinking of how exactly to explain the current state of his relationship with Leone. He rummaged through his mind for the proper words, the fitting terms, the suitable metaphors ; but he could find none that would accurately explain the whys and wherefores of that… thing there was between the two of them.

It was unlike anything Bruno knew ; and though he realized the children had a rather extended knowledge of the world, he doubted that they would have understood, had he tried to explain it anyhow.

But he would have to come up with something quickly, as the four of them were now watching him rather intently, awaiting his answer with a worried gaze.

He inhaled a slow breath, searched more, found nothing. And how infuriating it was, knowing, feeling, but being unable to decipher.

« … He and I — »

Perhaps it was a brillant case of being saved by the bell ; or perhaps it was, as luck would have it, another trick played by the heavens above — for just as Bruno started a sentence he simply had no idea how to finish, the entrance door began to shake and rattle with numerous knocks being pounded into it.

It was a continuous series of blows, all given with the same hurry, the same fervor. It caught the table of five utterly off-guard, as company during supper was unexpected and, frankly, undesired. Immediately, acting on reflex alone, Mista shot up from his seat, Lefaucheux revolver in hand, ready for action — though the napkin still tied around his neck stated otherwise.

Narancia and Trish both reached for the silverware, also prepared to fight if needed ; but to the three of them, Giorno addressed a hushing motion, pressing his index finger to his lips. With a flick of his wrist, he instructed Mista to sit back down, and the boy obeyed, without letting go of the pistol. For a brief moment, they all sat in silence, until the knocks stopped, and a voice echoed on the other side of the door.

« Buccellati ! » the voice said. « You in here ? »

It sounded exhausted, and out of breath, but Bruno recognized it instantly.

Rising from his seat so fast his chair scraped against the floor, he practically launched himself at the door, scrambling to get it unlocked with his nervous hands — and opening it, only to find a completely soaked-through, dripping, breathless —

« Leone ? » Bruno gasped, immediately hushing the sodden figure inside for warmth. « What are you — why on earth — how did you know I was here ? »

« Asked around, » Leone wheezed, teeth chattering. « I knew you’d be with those damned kids. Wasn’t hard to — to ask a few neighbors if they knew where a gaggle of street urchins had set camp as of late. »

« Hey ! » came a voice from the table — but neither Leone nor Bruno paid enough attention to see which kid exactly had been offended by the remark.

« You’re drenched to the bone, » Bruno mumbled, gently pulling Leone closer. « Didn’t you have a boat to take ? Narancia, go grab something to dry him off, will you ? »

« Sissignore ! » came Narancia’s voice as he hopped from his seat.

« No matter, » Leone replied, shaking his head — thus sending droplets of water falling from his damp hair. « I — there was something I needed to tell you. It could not wait. »

« But Leone, the wedding — »

« Hell to that wedding, » Leone interrupted, finally finding his second wind. « And hell to everything else. I had to see you, Buccellati. »

Leone reached out. His hands found Bruno’s shoulders, and grabbed on with a firm grip. His fingers were so cold Bruno could feel them through the fabric of his shirt. His expression seemed so tense, it was almost pained. Unsure of how to react, Bruno gently returned the contact ; his palms coming to grasp Leone’s elbows.

« I will not take much of your time, » Leone began, trembling still, from cold or from fear. « I will go as soon as I am done, and not bother you for a second more than what is precisely needed. But first, you must — you must ! — allow me to be as honest as I am able. »

He began to sink to his knees. Bruno followed him as he went, and they both fell to the floor.

« I am far from a valiant man, Buccellati, » Leone resumed, and in that new angle, Bruno was able to see the rivulets of water dribbling from his scalp onto his face. « Or at least, in all my life I have failed to prove myself as such. But I can now tell you for sure, and with no doubt in my heart, that no force in this world, as mighty, destructive, or repugnant as it may be, will ever deter me from you. Not La Camorra, not God, not even my own weakness. »

Bruno’s eyes were wide, and he dared not blink. His hold on Leone’s elbows grew stronger.

« Leone — »

« No, » Leone interrupted once more. « No. Just this once, you will listen. Just this once, Buccellati, and never again will I bother you with my sensitivities, or, or my squalor, however you may call what pools around this heart of mine. I ask you, kindly, to let me finish. »

He took another, shaky breath.

« I do not want — I refuse to waste another second of my life. Too much has already gone by without appreciation. For the first time in so long, Buccellati, I want to live my life to its greatest extent — no wasted time, to wasted love, no wasted tears. I want to live. With you. »

Leone’s lips were turning a shade of pale blue, yet his cheeks seemed to be heating to a brazen crimson. He went on.

« I am painfully aware that any union between the two of us might be considered… Most reprehensible, to your reputation and mine ; though to tell you the truth, a tainted notoriety has always been the least of my worries. My only fear, dear friend, would be to bring you sorrow. »

At this, he took Bruno’s hands in his, clasping them together.

« I will not lie to you. It is a hard life to lead, Buccellati. It is a hard world to live in, and an even harder one for those with love in their heart... in a way God did not intend. It is lonely, it is sad, it is a thousand dark, malevolent things, and it can sometimes drive your heart mad with pain. But since I have met you, I realize that it is also full of light, and understanding, and hope. I am no longer afraid of what the future holds. I no longer want to look at this world with cynicism, or through the harsh lens of experience — I want to see it through your eyes, through your will to build everything for yourself. Since we have met, Bucellati, I have burnt with admiration for you. Your determination, your kind spirit, your generosity, your compassion — all things I had thought were gone from my brother men. But I see them all within you. And for this reason, and none other, I ask this : allow me to love you. As a friend, a brother, a dog at your heel, a forlorn lover — any way you like. Any way you see fit. »

« … Leone… »

« Bruno. »

Was it the first time he ever said Bruno’s name ?

Perhaps not.

But it was the first time in his life Bruno heard it uttered in such a way.

« Please, » Leone pleaded, and Bruno’s heart shattered. « Know that if you refuse me, I will bear no grudge. I will feel no regret. I will leave your life without a trace, no evidence that there ever existed a man with the name of Leone Abbacchio. I will simply take this embarcation to Rome, and never return again. You will never hear of me, not for as long as I may live — I simply ask you to consider that, perhaps, there could be a semblance of affection for me within your —  »

« But Leone, » Bruno halted him. « Leone, dear Leone, I do love you. »

That, at last, quieted him down.

Amidst the bright expanse of his face, Leone’s eyes widened further than Bruno thought was possible — pools of icy blue, rimmed with red, so very bright, so very unsure.

For a second, Bruno felt grateful that he was on his knees, for the sight of those eyes might have sent his legs buckling.

They looked at each other for an instant more, hearing nothing but the violent pounding of blood echoing in their eardrums. Leone’s hands, in Bruno’s own, were finally beginning to heat up to the touch ; just as their heart, with each beat, grew warmer and warmer.

« For the longest time, » Bruno exhaled, unable to stop the smile that bloomed onto his face, « I had simply assumed that loneliness was in my blood. That it was my burden to bear, perhaps as a punishment for my mistakes or sins. You have taught me that it was not, and that my heart could feel this… This warmth, this tearful longing, for someone else. For this, I thank you, my friend. For this, I will love you, and continue to love you, as much as a man can love another. »

There was a sob, a tense, wracking shiver, and then, like rain falling on the thirsty desert dweller, the tender pressure of cold lips against his own — then a kiss, returned a hundred, a thousandfold, onto his mouth, his nose, his forehead, his eyelids  — everywhere that could be reached.

Leone was in his arms, cold skin finally warming, surrounding him with his presence, with the strength of his hold, with the passion of his embrace. He was everywhere Bruno could see, everywhere he could feel, and there was nothing else in the world that held more importance than the very sensation of Leone’s body against his.

Breaking only a second from his amorous ministrations, hands cupping Leone’s face in the most gentle manner, Bruno took in the adoration in his gaze, the unbelieving candor, the passionate longing — a mirror image of his own expression, to be sure.

In this instant, loving and being loved in return, Bruno could have sworn he felt his spirit grow wings and soar.

« Mhm, » came a clearing of throat, breaking the two lovers from their reverie, and urging them to pay slightly more attention to their surroundings.

Narancia stood not five feet from them, holding a pile of clothes in his arms — and, on his face, a wide, gaping mouth, which soon turned into the brightest, most beaming smile Bruno had ever seen him with. Trish, who had gotten up from her seat as well, shared the same expression, hands clasped together in front of her ; Mista gawked openly, mouth agape and brows so high his forehead all but disappeared ; while Giorno, the only one who had remained seated, tried desperately to hold back a smile.

« Well, » he began, voice sounding a little strained. « Well, Leone. Why don’t you take a seat and dine with us, while you are here ? There will be another boat to catch in the morning, yes ? »

This time, Leone’s face turned a furious shade of red — as if he had only just remembered that, indeed, there were other people in the room, including Giorno. Bruno could practically feel his expression change, though his hold on Bruno’s hands stayed just as strong.

« Do not tell me what to do, Giorno Giovanna, » Leone grumbled, but reluctantly got up nonetheless, bringing Bruno with him. As he got to his feet, Bruno let out a bashful snort, feeling more than a little embarrassed ; though, to say the truth, he was not the slightest bit nervous over the kids’ reaction to their sudden display of affection.

Well, perhaps he had been, a bit, before today. But right this moment, it was as if his head was swimming amongst the clouds. It was impossible to feel fear of any sort, in such a state.

As they all sat around the table, Leone finally taking the time to dry his hair with the cloth Narancia had brought, Bruno turned to Trish, smiling a bit crookedly.

« So, » he said, rubbing his neck. « Was this enough of an answer to your question, Trish ? »

She seemed taken aback for a second, then, as if she had just remembered, began to laugh, still a little flustered.

« Oh, plenty ! Plenty enough, to be sure ! » she replied, and Bruno laughed in kind, while, keeping up with tradition, Giorno and Leone had taken up bickering once more — though, to be frank, most, if not all, of the bickering came from Leone’s side of the conversation.

« Ehi, Bruno, » Mista said, clearing his throat. « That, er — congratulations. I’m very happy for you. »

« Ah, thank y — »

« A toast ! » Narancia suddenly called out, getting up onto his chair with his glass lifted high towards the ceiling.

« Narancia, » cautioned Trish worriedly, « You’ll break it — »

« A toast, » he repeated, while Trish tried to get him down once more, before he broke the chair — or worse, a bone. « To pitto’ and Bruno ! »

Surrounded as he was by comforting agitation and pleasant familiarity, Bruno allowed himself to be lulled for a little while, for once calm in his every thought — no burning memory to plague him, no looming over his head, no gnawing fear at his insides.

Even if the future in Napoli did not shine, it certainly seemed a lot warmer now.

 

Chapter Text

Since I have touched my lips to your brimming cup,

Since I have bowed my pale brow in your hands,

Since I have sometime breathed the sweet breath

Of your soul, a perfume buried in shadow lands;

[…]

Now at last I can say to the fleeting years:

– Pass by! Pass by, forever! I no longer age!

Away with you and all your withered flowers,

I keep one within my soul that no man can take!

Your wings, brushing it, spill never a drop

From the glass I fill, from which my thirst I quench.

My soul possesses more fire than you have ashes!

My heart has more love than you have oblivion!

— Victor Hugo

 



It was quieter than it had any right to be for a Sunday morning. Despite the obvious agitation from the outside world, the brouhaha and hubbub and voices and life of it all, everything in the house was still, and silent. Pale light was drifting in through the windows in sharp, thin rays, through which dust flew, carried by the stagnating air, drifting absently. It was so early yet that dawn was only just breaking, and the sun still gathered its strength for a full day of work. A few curtains were drawn haphazardly, as if as an afterthought, pulling parts of the house into relative darkness, while others were lit with warming yellow tones.

The entrance smelled very distinctly of varnish and paint, as well as some remnants of glue — and it was easy to guess why, as the wallpaper of the corridor looked and felt brand new, as did the beautiful parquet covering the floor. Though it creaked vehemently at every step, its color was captivating, a most splendid mix of dark oak and ebony. What a shame it was that it had been paired, perhaps in a moment of inattention, with the most atrocious, wretched green walls one had ever seen.

As progress was made further into the home, the smell of new diminished, and was replaced by another, more potent one : the smell of old, or rather, of the dormant. Spilled alcohol came first, sharpest and most unpleasant of the bunch ; liquor and wine alike, sour and bitter and sharp to the nose. It was quickly followed by the spicy, smooth scent of cold tobacco, and then, by a various array of slightly fainter ones : sweat, remnants of roasted, perhaps smoked foods, various, slowly evaporating perfumes. It all mingled together into a strange, all too familiar cocktail, one that lingered in Leone’s memories like the features of a good friend.

As he had walked in and removed his coat, the maid, still looking a little faint from a short night, and with her pretty brown eyes ringed with dark circles, had giggled with a whisper :
« They’re all in the living room. Be very careful, though. With the night they had, I don’t know if they’ll take kindly to being woken up ! »

It certainly seemed like one particularly hectic night.

As the floorboards groaned under his weight, he took the few steps that led him to the living room. There, the house was at its darkest ; curtains and shutters alike blocking out a majority of the sunlight that attempted to pool in. It was also at its messiest, as nothing had yet been cleared up. Most of the surfaces, including the grand piano, were littered with bottles of alcohol, some of which Leone recognized as being unreasonably overpriced . Amongst the large bookcases lining the walls, some had been emptied, in an endeavor one could hardly imagine, and the so disrespected works now laid pell-mell onto the floor.

The celebration must have ended only a few hours before Leone had arrived, as a rather important portion of the partygoers had fallen, fast asleep, where they had stood.

They were the groom’s guests, without a doubt — it seemed unimaginable for the bride’s companions to behave in such a way. Leone was able to identify some of them, as things were : Pipo, for starters, had chosen to rest his cheek against the wooden pedestal where a beautifully ornate globe was displayed. He was snoring rather loudly, for a man his size, and the collar of his shirt had a few of its buttons popped open, showing the sunburnt, freckled expanse of his chest. Dante had apparently decided to go for a slightly more comfortable place of rest, and could be seen with half of his body hanging from the large, brown sofa in the corner. The greater part of his face was concealed under a large, old-fashioned top hat, leaving only his beard to be seen. In his lap, a bottle, still half full, threatened to fall to the floor at every exhale of his portly stomach.

And, finally, Celestino, atop a pile of books — resting contentedly, dress shirt stained considerably and mouth hanging open, fully unaware of his own absurdness.

He awoke at Leone’s third gentle kick (merely a poke of his toe, really) into his leg, with a loud snort and a surprised blink.

« Wh — huh ? » came his voice, heavy and slurred, thanks to a particularly furred tongue. Leone grinned, despite himself, and plunged his hands deeper into his pockets.

« Buongiorno,  newlywed. »

« You… » Celestino began as he slowly slipped back into consciousness, eyes small and exhausted. « What are you — what time is it ? »

« According to the steeple, about six. »

« Jesus. »

Celestino groaned audibly, trying to sit up, and stretching his back painfully in the process.

« Oh, for fuck’s — » he swore, « what am I lying onto, rocks ? »

« Close. Your father in law’s books collection, it seems. You could have picked a better bed, my friend, this one doesn’t seem very pleasant for your poor bones. »

Celestino reached for his face, and he pressed insistently into his eyeballs with the palm of his hands, in an attempt to remove the exhaustion from his gaze.

« His books ?… Oh, God. He’ll kill me. »

« Well, not now, he wouldn’t. You only just married his daughter, you’re untouchable. Enjoy it while it lasts. »

No reply came from Celestino ; only a vague, distressed moan, muffled by the pressure of his palms. With a sigh, Leone sat down onto the pile next to his friend, stretching out his long legs.

« What are you even doing here ? » he asked, picking up the tome closest to him and browsing it absently. « Shouldn’t you be with your wife ? Lord knows you’ve waited long enough to finally get a glimpse of her bedsheets. »

« Mmh, » Celestino hummed, and Leone thought he would leave it at that, until he continued, finally letting his face be touched by the light. « She must be asleep still. I — I think I did try to come up with her, last night, but she wouldn’t let me. I was already too drunk. »

« Oh, good decision on her part. You turn into such a whiner when you drink. »

« Thank you for that insight. »

Celestino turned to Leone, a frown creasing his pale forehead.

« And you ? What could you possibly be doing here ? You were in Naples, last thing I knew. »

« Well, you did invite me. »

« To my wedding. I invited you to the ceremony. You’re only arriving now ? »

« I missed my boat. »

« … Ah, » Celestino simply replied, and nodded, as if that explained everything. « Well, still, you should have sent a letter. I wasn’t sure if you would come at all. »

A beat of silence. Leone continued to pretend he was perusing the book cover he held in his hand,  while Celestino simply stared into the distance. Off to the left, Pipo choked on a snore, made a clicking noise with his mouth, then shifted his whole body to the other side, continuing his sleep.

« I missed you, you know, » Celestino mumbled. « I kept looking for you in the crowd, but you weren’t there. I thought I had upset you, somehow. By writing what I did. »

Leone winced slightly.

« Oh, come on, » he said, ignoring that later part. « You could handle that without me. You’ve been engaged for, what. A year now ? Surely, you can stand to look at her without stuttering. »

Celestino rolled his eyes with a wince of his own.

« I guess so. Still. I would have liked for you to be here. It… It was a little scary, to be honest. A necessary ritual, but, scary nonetheless. »

Leone fiddled with the pages.

« I know. I’m sorry. »

He finally put the book down, and let out a breath he had not expected to be holding.

« And how… How is the married life treating you, so far ? » he asked, trying to guide the conversation back to more pleasant pastures. « Is it as satisfying as you had expected ? »

Celestino let out a huff, which sounded more like repressed laughter than a show of offense.

« As for that, I am… unsure. I don’t think calling myself ‘satisfied’ would be fitting, at the moment. I feel mostly very, very sick. »

« No kidding. »

Leone gave a pointed look to Pipo and Dante’s sleeping, slumped shapes.

« And those still managed to snake their way in, huh ? »

« I actually invited them, for this once. They were so flattered that I went through that trouble, even though they had intended to swing by anyway, I think Dante shed a few tears. »

« How very heartwarming. »

Silence, once more, but comfortable, this one. Leone looked up into the high ceiling and its intricate moldings of wood. The light had become a little brighter since his arrival, as the sun hurried to make its presence known. It made the room look warmer, despite the horrendous color of its walls. It almost seemed pleasant.

When the bride’s parents would pass, and the house would truly be Celestino’s, he would most likely redecorate. It would become a home, a den of domesticity, of peace, of affection, perhaps.

For a brief moment, Leone tried to set the scene in his mind : Celestino, sitting on the large sofa, pipe in his mouth, with well-trimmed facial hair above his upper lip, the very image of bourgeois comfort and quiet dissatisfaction. His wife, by his side, trying to ignore, desperately, the yearnings of her soul, browsing but not quite reading an imposing book. Children, perhaps, if Celestino was to one day muster enough virile courage.

And in this family portrait, where would he belong ?

Perhaps he would be invited to a few aperitifs, every other week or so.

« Say. Had you expected life to go like this for me ? » Celestino murmured suddenly — so low, Leone barely heard him.

He blinked, not certain he had understood.

« I’m sorry ? »

Celestino licked his lips, tried to speak, held himself back. Leone looked at him, feeling unnaturally patient ; he looked, and saw the pale skin of his cheeks, the tired, red tint of his eyes, the thin, short hair on his head. The sad curl of his lips, covering teeth that had shone bright, once.

Idly, he thought of the boy he had known, not too long ago.

He has not changed that much, Leone thought. He still is the same. This life has not damaged him as much as it did you. You are the one who changed.

« When we left Tuscany, » Celestino finally breathed out, « I wanted to become the most famous Florentine poet of the century. And I thought I could do it. We were surrounded by all those people, those artists who had nothing but glory on their mind, who seized the day by the handful, who — who were bathed by this incredible light. I wanted nothing more than to become like them. And you, too, you had this light. Like nothing could stop you. »

Leone looked away, lips in a tight line.

« It passed, though, » Celestino continued. « For me. It did pass, just like everyone had told me it would. I lost my passion, I lost my fire, I began to doubt everything, my every choice, my every thought. I grew old before my time, somehow, and — Leone, Leone, I got so scared. I thought that life was going to slip through my grasp, that I was going to disappear and leave nothing of me behind. So many of our friends died, or vanished, and the ones who didn’t… They did what their parents expected. They listened to the voices around them. »

Against his left arm, Leone could feel Celestino begin to shake. He kept his gaze fixated to the wall.

« You didn’t, though. You kept going. You persisted, you painted, you — you lived as you wanted. I saw that we were breaking apart, you and I, and, the truth is, Leone, I saw that you suffered from your choices. It was like a confirmation that I had done the right thing, somehow, that I had chosen the right path. And at the same time, I was so afraid for you. I thought that one day, I would wake up, and you would be dead in a street somewhere, drowned in your passions, another forgotten artist whose body would be just… Thrown into a mass grave outside of town. It was intolerable. I — I could not bear the thought of losing you to life’s whims. »

The shaking grew stronger. Celestino took in a long, humid breath.

« But… I realize it now. If I lost you, it was not because of your choices, or because of life. I lost you because of my own actions. I drove you away with everything I did, every time I tried to convince you that I had done the only righteous thing, that my path, though difficult and trying, was the most honorable one. But I was wrong. I was wrong. »

Leone’s jaw clenched. Unable to help himself, his hand searched for Celestino’s, and found it, cold and trembling. He held it, unfaltering.

« Leone, » Celestino continued, « There is so much I regret, but nothing as much as what I have done to you. You can have everything that you could possibly want. I know you can. I am so sorry if I ever made you doubt. I am so sorry. »

« Shut up, idiot, » came Leone’s voice, broken and teary. « Shut up. There is nothing to forgive. Nothing at all. »

The pressure around his hand grew stronger.

« I did wrong by you. »

« You stayed by my side when I needed it. »

« Yet I kept you away from my heart, knowing the pain it would bring you. »

« You simply aimed to protect yourself. »

« Leone, you know that to be a lie. »

« You — I do not blame you for anything. Not anymore. »

His thumb gently pressed into the back of Celestino’s hand.

« All we do, » Leone declared, « All humans ever aim for, is to pursue happiness. Though I was unable to reach a certain sort of happiness with you, you have brought me another ; the comfort of a friend when I needed one. What’s more, you have led me where I am now ; and though it was a painful transition, well. I do feel that I live a much better life for it. »

Celestino turned towards him, finally. His eyes were redder, damp, and his lips began to pull into the shadow of a smile.

« This is… Reassuring. »

He exhaled a long, pained sigh.

« I suppose what I want to say most is… I envy you, Leone. You, you try to move on. You try to live. Me, I try only to survive. »

Leone leant the side of his head against Celestino’s shoulder, fitting the knobby pressure of his bone to the dip of his temple.

« Well, » he murmured in confidence, eyes roaming the richly decorated room, « If it’s any comfort to you, I think you are surviving spectacularly well. »

Laughter, finally ; bubbling and echoing down those too silent halls, filling the room, filling Leone’s heart with bright, warm contentment.

« You will find happiness within your life, » Leone assured, voice firmer now. « And if you are unable to, I trust that you will create a life for yourself that will bring you that happiness. »

Tilting his head up, he pressed a kiss to the damp cheek of his friend, feeling him shake once more at the gentle affection. He heard the tremor in his voice again :

« Do you — »

« Yes, » Leone interrupted. « I promise the same to you, Celestino. »

A nod, brisk and vigorous, followed by another long sigh, then silence. Slowly, Leone wrapped an arm around Celestino’s shoulders, pulling him closer ; and they embraced  for a moment, finding comfort in each other’s presence as they had countless times before, in their sprier youth, when it felt necessary to fight through life’s many hardships.

Soon, it would be too late in the morning for it to be an excuse. But now, right now, it was fine. It was fine.

« By the by, » Celestino asked after a while, voice slightly hoarse from the recent onslaught of emotions, « This boy you have met in Naples, the one you mentioned in your letters. Will you tell me of him in details, at last ? »

Leone snorted, pinching Celestino’s cheek mercilessly.

« You meddlesome old crone, you. Wouldn’t you like to know ? »

« Oh, please. I can tell that you have been itching to mention him since you’ve arrived here. Your eyes are positively shining with satisfaction. »

« Are they, really ? »

« Leone ! »

A third voice had risen, apparently too quickly, from its slumber. It was so rough and gravelly that, at first listen, Leone had trouble identifying it ; but in the corner of his eye, he soon saw the cause of such an agitation.

« Why, good morning Pipo, » he told his friend, whom was busy stretching himself from his uncomfortable position. « You are looking as fresh as a daisy, and prettier at that. »

« Dante ! Dante ! Wake up ! » came Pipo’s raspy squawk once more. « Leone is here ! »

« Pipo, not so loud, » groaned Celestino, holding a hand to his temple. « You’ll wake up the entire house. »

Pipo did not seem to hear, or care for Celestino’s remonstrances, and instead proceeded to crawl on all fours to where Leone sat, a beaming smile on his youthful face.

« You big rascal ! Everyone thought that you might never arrive ! »

Experience seemed to have provided Pipo with a talent for shaking off nights of drinking, as his features were anything but gaunt. He even looked more energetic than usual, which was a wonder in and on itself. As he approached, Leone rolled his eyes, giving Pipo’s nose a ruthless flick.

« And here I am. Try not to act too disappointed. »

« Disappointed ? I’m overjoyed ! I feel like I have not seen you in months ! »

« Well, it has been — »

« Years ! Decades! Centuries ! » Pipo outbid himself, just as, in the corner, Dante began to stir. « What am I saying ? Milleniums, surely that’s how long it’s been ! We’ve greatly missed you. Have you returned for good ? »

A smile bloomed slowly on Leone’s face.

« No, I’m afraid not, » he said, leaning his head once more against Celestino’s shoulder.

He looked out the gaping window, up at the roman skyline gently filling with sunlight — at the blue and the white and the bright expanse of horizon.

Only four months. But how strange it felt, being back.

« … There are people waiting for me, you see. »

And he was to return to them.


-


Seven days. Melting and molting into one another, dribbling slow like sand but slithering by like water.

Twenty one meals. All of them shared in the cozy companionship of his friends, spent discussing and reminiscing of older times. Barely any alcohol — a few drops, once, by express request of Celestino, as an apology for his missed wedding.

One night spent in his former apartment, tossing and turning, repulsed by its state of decay — and five more nights spent at Pipo and Dante’s little home. Barely any time spent sleeping at all, amidst two such chatterboxes ; they talked, and asked, and pondered, and rejoiced over many dozens of things, telling all sorts of tales, all of which Leone strongly doubted to have happened exactly the way they told it.

Then the goodbyes, needlessly emotional, as if he went off to war ; even though he had already gone once. As if, in some strange harmony of the minds, they had somehow guessed that once he left, he would have no desire to return once more.

The last glance at the edges of Rome. Then Civitavecchia, the port, the boat, and the meows of the gulls up above. A travel that felt unnaturally slow, like a languid crawl through mud. Gently, the waves pushed and pulled. Gently, he felt himself grow excited like a child.

As his patience neared its breaking point, at last, the gulf of Napoli. At last, the anchorage, and at last, land under his feet.

His eyes, searching, searching, among the heads in the crowd, among the eyes, faces and hands —

And here, here he was. Finally.

A rush in his veins, a smile he was unable to stop, a wild pulse in his heart.

Suddenly everything was light, suddenly everything was haze, suddenly there was no one.

A sprint ; things forgotten, coat discarded, all left behind where they fell ; joy, maddening, irrational, extravagant ; that familiar thrum in his chest, the heat burning his neck, that cliff in his stomach — and the indescribable, divine pleasure when he saw the same rush, the same impatience facing him.

He saw a smile, eyes twinkling with delight, and in an instant, a breath against his ear, a laugh, warmth, tenderness, suffocating pressure around his sides. Heat, enveloping him — and him, enveloping heat.

His arms.

Home.


-


The briskness of autumn was remarkably late that year, much to everyone’s surprise.

It had grown cold for brief period of time, in September ; but the air had been quick to settle back into a stifling swelter as soon as the briskness had passed. As November arrived and settled at its midst, that heat only seemed to recede, when it should have begun to disappear completely, and bring forth the cold of winter. Though rains and cloudy nights became more frequent, the air was not as chilly as it should have been ; a false spring before its time. Mornings were spent shivering and huffing at the cool breeze and dewiness of the air ; and afternoons were spent cursing at the sudden warmth and last, enraged bites of the sun.

All this, though, Leone barely noticed. Just like the passage of time, which flew by his nose without so much as an absentminded glance from him.

It was most likely that he had managed to miss out on a great deal of things, as it was. Indeed, mind safely tucked in the happiness of his heart, Leone painted — and painted — and painted — and painted — and painted — until his hands ached, until his eyes burnt, until, when he looked to the side, he could see sunrise pooling in the room, despite having sat down at his easel in the early evening.

A few more marines, as those tended to relax him ; portraits, of those he had met in Napoli, of the rich and destitute, informal or staged ; scenes from everyday life that the good weather mercifully allowed him to continue painting.

It had come to his realization, in fact, that he had never been so productive since he had stopped being a student.

And, truth be told, he only had one person to thank for such a burst of inspiration.

« Open your mouth. »

And for a few added bonuses, as well.

Bruno’s voice came as no suggestion ; it was an order, of the precise sort, yet spoken in the most gentle tone. One that forced immediate obedience.

Without taking his eyes away from the canvas, Leone parted his lips. A finger was tapped against the curve of his jaw, with a helpful insistence, and, catching the message, he opened wider.

His hands continued to move, pupils boring holes into his work. Paint bloomed under his strokes, colors and layers forming shapes and shadows. Against his tongue, something foreign suddenly hit ; a bitter sweetness, immediate and overwhelming, following the curved outline he traced with the tip of his tongue. He closed his mouth, allowed the taste to spread, to bloom against his palate, to dribble down his throat. Honey and citrus, memories of childhood toothaches and stickiness around his lips.

He chewed, and the flavors burst once more.

He breathed through his nose, producing an appreciative noise.

« Mmh, » he hummed, finally swallowing the candied orange peel, and licking his lips. « Thank you. In what honor ? »

He added another dollop of fern green, and spread it in little fits and starts, like the petals of a flower.

« You seemed like you could use a bite. I could swear that I have not seen you eat anything today. »

« Are you keeping track of my meals ? »

« One has to make sure you stay healthy. You’re… like a plant I need to remember to water. »

Leone grinned, unable to stop himself, and opened his mouth once more.

After a brief pause, another piece of candy was gently placed into his mouth. This time, though, Leone’s teeth closed much more quickly, and caught a finger in their gentle grasp.

« You — are you a child ? » came Bruno’s laughter, as he moved his finger around. « Let me go. »

Leone let out a playful imitation of a growl. Bruno huffed.

« I cannot feed you if you refuse to let me go. »

This did the trick ; the plant needed its water, after all, and it had a bit of a sweet tooth. Leone’s teeth parted, allowing Bruno’s finger to withdraw.

Still, he worked, eyes firmly stuck to the canvas.

Bruno had arrived only a few minutes ago, claiming that he was visiting only to check on Leone’s health ; but he had remained, a comforting presence, as he watched Leone prepare himself for the class he would give Trish Una, slightly later in the day. It had been silently agreed upon that Bruno would not interrupt Leone as he worked, and, for a rather long while, he had been completely quiet ; but, as Leone had expected, he had grown disinterested in Leone’s current work (a simple ceramic jug, surrounded by a pile of green plums, for Trish to replicate later), and, as their times alone were scarce, had decided to at least try to find a distraction.

Leone heard something crinkle, and then, felt something tacky bump against his cheek. He opened his mouth once more, but nothing came ; this forced him to finally move his gaze from the craft at hand.

Standing above him, he saw Bruno, eyes positively twinkling with delight as he held back a smile. He saw the candied orange peel between his fingers, just out of reach, barely a few inches from his face, an obvious bait ; but Leone had never been much of a strategist. And truth be told, he was in no mood to resist him.

Like an untamed pup, Leone let out another growl, curling his lips to reveal his teeth, and with a snap of his jaw, tried to snatch the candy from Bruno’s hold.

Bruno laughed, withdrawing it as Leone advanced, keeping it out of reach. Again, Leone tried, this time getting as high as he could while sitting down, and again, Bruno kept it away from his face’s range.

« And what are you, now ? Oh, I get it, » Bruno beamed, taking a bite of the orange peel, and wriggling the remaining piece to stir Leone’s agitation. « Of course, you’re a lion. »

« That’s right, » Leone confirmed, and produced a feline snarl that would have put to shame any feral cat from the streets of Napoli — even the most experienced puss. « And you are keeping me from my prey. Come on. Give it. »

« Should I ? » He popped the remaining piece in his mouth, chewing delightedly. « I’m unsure if you deserve it. I happen to be the one who hunted it down, after all. »

Leone snorted, breaking character for only a second ; but he picked his role back up immediately, brows furrowed in pretend fury.

« How dare you insinuate this sort of thing. You should feel lucky you aren’t the one being devoured. Now, give me one more. »

Grabbing another piece, Bruno proceeded to place it between his lips, as if it were a cigarillo. His features were alight with amusement as he said, like a child begging for play :

« Come and get it, then, if you are so deserving. »

Since they had grown closer, this type of game had quickly become familiar ; but even knowing so, it still had the same effect every single time. Especially in those rare moments when they were completely alone — Leone’s atelier proved to be, for this purpose, much more fitting than the Milazzo estate — and free to do as they pleased.

Leone dropped his paintbrush, grabbing a rag and quickly wiping his hands to rid them of excess paint. His hasty, nervous movements made Bruno laugh, and as he got up to his full height, he saw him chew through another candy, as if to taunt him.

« Ah, only a few left, » Bruno teased, shaking the bag. « Better hurry, or there won’t be any more for you. »

And oh, how comfortable, how glorious it felt, to finally be able to lean into this loving jest, without fear or shame.

« How cruel. You would deprive me in such a way ? » he queried, reaching Bruno where he stood in a few quick steps, and leaning into his personal space, foreheads almost touching. « I had not pegged you as a heartless being. »

« Oh, I might be now. »

Another candy disappeared between Bruno’s lips. Leone looked, heart skipping a beat, at the honey that made the skin there shimmer in the light.

« After all, » Bruno breathed, grin coy and charming, « Haven’t you stolen my heart, thereby rendering me heartless ? »

Heavy fire sparked to life in Leone’s cheeks, immediate and overwhelming. A breath caught in his throat, almost choking him, and he fought against a spluttering cough.

« You — » he stammered, backing off. « That — you should not say those things. »

« Should I not ? »

« No, » Leone shook his head. « Not — not without warning, at least. »

He pointed to his own chest as Bruno, huffing out a laugh, wrapped his arms around his neck.

« I could have died from just this, you know, » Leone continued to babble, feeling his stomach twist with pleasant agony as Bruno hugged him. « Do you aim to have my death on your conscience ? »

« No, » Bruno replied, the word swimming in bright laughter. « No, no, not at all. Not in a million years. »

He kissed Leone’s jaw with a gentle peck. Idly, Leone was able to feel the syrupy feel of honey sticking against his skin. He closed his eyes, abandoning his fake pout, and simply reveling in the sensation.

Bruno’s kiss was quick to evolve into a dragging of lips along the curve of his jawline ; beginning at his chin and ending right where jaw met neck. A shiver coursed through Leone’s every bone as he felt Bruno’s breathing against the shell of his ear, and his own respiration halting with a gasp.

« See, you’re doing it again, » he mumbled, hand coming up to run through Bruno’s hair, pulling him closer still.

He felt Bruno hum, and the kiss began anew, full pressures of lips against his cheek, then back down, lower, in the dip of his neck, against his Adam’s apple, then lower still, to his collarbone.

« Luring me with sweets, » he breathed out, trembling hands coming to rest high on Bruno’s hips, fingers only slightly dipping underneath the hem of his shirt. « And then trapping me… That is a low blow. »

« Mmh, but it worked. And I finally have your full attention. »

Leone snorted, heat pooling in his core as he let himself be kissed. He warmed the tip of his fingers against Bruno’s skin for a moment, until the gentle kissing turned ravenous — upon which his hands turned to claws, grasping at Bruno’s waist and pulling him flush.

A surprised breath came from Bruno’s mouth as their chests collided, immediately followed by embarrassed laughter. That much was enough to interrupt his ministrations, and Leone was finally able to take a good look at his face — and he was filled with perverse satisfaction as he saw his own bashfulness being mirrored by Bruno’s expression.  

He was all parted lips and burgundy cheeks, though that did not stop a small, lopsided grin from blossoming over his features.

« And do I have yours ? » Leone asked, nudging the tip of Bruno’s nose with his own,  teasing with the promise of a kiss that did not come. He saw Bruno licking his lips, and almost felt his tongue brush against his own mouth. A thrill rushed along his spine, ending at his neck, where it blazed and burnt like a cattle brand.

Bruno’s hands mirrored Leone’s, finding their place through the long strands of hair. Leone let himself be guided, skin prickled with sudden goosebumps ; he gulped, and with the way his neck was bent, he was able to feel it go down much more acutely than usual.

« Do you think you would be able to sustain my undivided attention ? » came Bruno’s voice, low and smooth, and every drop of blood seemed to leave Leone’s body at once, save from his face and loins — where it was boiling — rendering him dizzy and breathless, in no more than an instant.

« Wh — when did you learn to talk in such a way. »

His voice had hushed to a whisper, to Bruno’s obvious satisfaction. He finally let go of Leone’s hair, and his hands dropped to a significantly more risqué destination, right where his companion’s back ended. Seeming to like it here, they stayed exactly where they had landed, causing Leone to choke on his own breath.

« What can I say ? » Bruno murmured, nudging Leone’s collarbone with his nose — and as he did, Leone was able to feel the blazing heat coming from his face. « You inspire me, Signore Abbacchio. »

What escaped Leone’s lips then was little more than an alien gurgle, quickly followed by a lightheadedness that was only outweighed in intensity by the raging, furious beat of his heart. It pulsed against his ribcage in the most agonizing manner, like a bird hitting a window, trying desperately to escape the prison of his chest and fly away into the sky.

It certainly felt light enough to be able to manage it, too.

« I do not know if this all real, » he whispered, « Or if reason has finally failed me. Are you truly here in my arms ? »

« Can’t you feel me here ? Aren’t I close enough ? »

« I could stand having you even closer. »

At this, Bruno tilted up his head, his face so very close to Leone’s — close enough that, had they moved only slightly further, their foreheads would have bumped together, as well as their noses, and chins —

« Aren’t you chivalrous, » he chirped, and Leone’s skin prickled once more.

Bruno’s gaze felt absurdly warm, and it seemed to linger over the traits of Leone’s face, where it halted minutely before slipping away. Leone’s own eyes were focused on Bruno’s mouth, though he did not mean to appear obsessive ; alas, he could not help feeling utterly entranced by the sight.

« Do you think chivalry would have become me, had I been born in another time ? »

« Oh, but of course. I can imagine you just fine, prancing around in a shiny armor. Fighting off dragons and saving maidens from their plight. »

« I can guarantee that no maiden is on my mind at the moment, » Leone slurred, timid, feeling Bruno’s thumb rub into the small of his back.

Bruno chuckled, endeared and warm.

« Is that so ? What could you be waiting for, then ? »

Really, that question asked for an answer that was not verbal : it was to be resolved through the taking of action. And Leone was about to do just that, leaning down and finally give his love a kiss, when a sound alerted them both, distracting them from their tender moment.

Steps, in the stairs, making the floorboards creak. A springy, light weight, already almost outside the door, approaching at fast speed.

In a synchronization so perfect one might have believed them to have suddenly become well-practiced ballet dancers, they broke apart, bodies separating quickly enough that Leone felt his head spin from the abrupt lack of warmth against his front.

He was certainly grateful that they had, though, for just a second later, the door opened on his atelier’s landlady, Donatella Una — her blue skirt and white blouse absolutely immaculate, and a bright smile adorning her face.

« Good morning, Signore Abbacchio ; and Bruno, hello to you too ! I did not know you would be here ! »

« Ah, good morning Donatella, » Bruno said, voice barely quavering — though there was a tremor to it that one could have attributed to surprise alone.

Leone admired his composure, for he was only able to address the woman with a brisk nod, quickly turning around and going back to his easel. She was far from deterred, however, and smiled even brighter.

« It is almost noon. Should I send Patrizia up, as we had planned ? She is waiting right downstairs, she did not want to interrupt you. »

The lovely, discerning child.

« Ah — yes, of course, bring her in, » Leone finally said, clearing his throat. « I had not noticed the time. We... We’ll have to work quickly. »

« I will tell her right away, then ! Oh, Bruno, will you be staying ? Should I get you some food ? »

« Oh, no, no, thank you, » Bruno replied, reaching for his coat, which had been laid upon the bed. « I was just leaving, actually. So — so many things to do today. »

« Very well ! Have a safe trip home. I will go get Patrizia. »

« Thank you, Signorina Una. »

With that, she closed the door. Her footsteps were heard once more, this time going down the stairs. They listened to the groans of wood for an instant, holding their breath, until Leone finally sighed.

« Good god, I must have come close to fainting. It seems that privacy is unheard of around these — »

He was interrupted by the violent clash of a mouth against his own.

Two hands wrapped around the back of his neck, pulling him forward with bruising force, into a dragging of warm lips so passionate it caused his stomach to drop into a sea of fire. He produced a noise low in his throat, eyes closing shut instinctively, limbs and bones turning into putty as heat broke out anew into every inch of his being — sudden and maddening.

Bruno was the one to halt the kiss, pulling back with a smacking sound as Leone leant forward, trying to chase him ; he felt the ghost of Bruno’s lips against his own, a buzzing sensation of warmth and tender fervor.

« I will see you soon, » Bruno whispered, and Leone found that Bruno’s voice had remarkable, magical properties he had not anticipated : most notably, to dissolve every ounce of his wit and reduce his brain to a shapeless puddle.

And with this, he left, waving a quick goodbye as he walked out the door. From the corridor, standing where he had been abandoned, Leone was able to hear a cheerful :

« Good morning Trish ! I’ll see you later ! »

« Ah, see you Bruno ! »

And then, steps down the stairs, squeaking of wood. Sounds of departure.

Leone stayed put, still rather aghast — mouth hanging open, innards tied into knots, and an awful strain stirring his loins.

« … Abbacchio ? »

He blinked, clearing the cottony fog from his mind, and saw that Trish stood in front of him, waving her hand around to catch his attention.

« Ah. Um. Hello, Trish, » he croaked, blushing from neck to ears. « Are you well ? »

« Very well, thank you. What about you ?… You look a little feverish, pitto’. »

« No, » Leone simply said, turning around to hide the odd trembling of his hands, and coming to sit behind his easel. « I mean. I am fine. »

He waved her over, clearing his throat.

« Come, sit here. We’ll work on still lives today. »

As Trish sat down and got ready to work, preparing her palette with extreme care, Leone busied himself with the discreet externalization of his frustrated passions ; lathering layers of paint onto the canvas with quick, animated brush strokes.

Yes, a still life. That would do perfectly. Something inanimate, something cold, something very, very placid. This was certainly the best choice for the state he was in.


-


Intimacy was difficult to manage. This was both a general statement for the condition of Leone’s love life from his candid youth to this very day, and a precise assessment of the situation at hand.

It was not for lack of wanting to, certainly. But as things were, finding even the time to be properly alone together was challenging : even the most innocent, platonic conversation was often under close watch, or at least a foreign attention that did not allow for much romantic progression. Bruno was often out on missions Leone knew and understood very little about ; when he was home in Posillipo, it was Leone who was busy painting, slouching in front of his easel ; and when, at last, they were both reunited, familiarity was to be avoided, as they were rarely on their own.

Whispers of affection and occasional touches, if they were executed with enough subtlety, were relatively acceptable — or at least, manageable. But they certainly were not enough to fulfill the yearnings a youth of Leone’s temper was bound to feel, particularly when in love.

Times of solitude were often spent in the atelier, but just as quickly interrupted by an unwelcome visitor or pest whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to inconvenience them. As for nocturnal visits, well. Those were… A delicate matter.

Rather, they were delicate because neither Leone nor Bruno had yet dared to mention them, or even allude to them.

Leone had considered it, a while after he had returned from Rome ; but time had gone by, slipping from his grasp, and he had not found the courage within him to take his enamored pursuit this far. That realization only added to his great dissatisfaction, as he had begun to worry that perhaps, too much time had passed, and pondering aloud about this sort of matter would only bring forth offense.

It was hard to know those things beforehand. Certainly, Bruno did not seem against the idea of amorous attention. But such a lack of mention on his part did nothing to decrease Leone’s anxiety. It had become a standard, at this point in his life, to worry about his every interaction with the men he found appealing — he barely even noticed his own uneasiness anymore — but unfortunately, he did not find Bruno to be just appealing.

And every kiss, every brush of his fingers, was another arrow pierced into his flesh.

To say that some months ago, he had assumed he would be content with loving and admiring from afar. It went without saying, that ship had certainly sailed.

In order to make his vexation profitable, and to make it fruitful, he had managed to convert it into something that had been lacking into his usual routine : a rigor, a discipline that almost resembled, he assumed, the military. But he could only go so far, and every occasion to meet with Bruno was an opportunity to be seized.

Although, sometimes, even solitude was not enough to bring them close.

« I am a dying man. »

His face was in his hands, and had remained in that exact place for a rather long while now ; and no amount of coddling from Bruno had been able to make him change position so far.

« Don’t be so dramatic, » Bruno reassured him from afar, bent over slightly as he rummaged through his drawers. « You haven’t said anything that could have offended her for longer than… A few hours, at most. She’ll have forgotten everything come morning. »

Leone’s voice turned to a plaintive groan.

« I doubt it, » he continued, head reclining against the wall. « I really, truly, sincerely doubt it. You were not around to see the way she reacted. »

« I know her well enough, Leone. She is my mother, need I remind you ? »

« But you did not see, » Leone insisted, and began to rub into his eyelids with the tip of his fingers until he saw bright red and green spots. « Lord Christ, me and my big, awful mouth. I should never be left alone. All I end up doing is cause trouble. »

« You are really blowing it out of proportions. Say, what do you think of this ? »

From his position, sitting on the edge of the bed, Leone turned to look. In the western corner of the room, Bruno was currently standing, holding a severe, sleek black jacket to his chest. Leone made an unconvinced pout.

« Mmh. Well, it certainly looks good. Is it a very formal event, though ? »

« Not quite, no. Why, do you think it looks too strict ? »

« Perhaps. A more muted color might fit better. »

« Very well. »

He smoothed down the jacket, folding it back into his drawers.

« As for my mother, » Bruno continued, looking for a different outfit to don, « What could possibly make you think that she is still cross with you ? »

Leone let out a long, deeply pained breath, blowing strands of hair away from his forehead.

« It… It was in the way she said it. The way she looked at me afterwards. I couldn’t explain it in a way that makes sense, but she certainly seemed disappointed in me. »

« I can imagine why. She holds you in high regards, or used to, at the very least. »

« Now, are you not supposed to try and lift my spirits, instead of pushing me further into the grave ? »

« Well, you did tell her some rather disappointing things. There is no point in denying that. »

« I know, » Leone groaned again, hands going through his hair as if he was barely resisting the urge to pull it all out. « And I’m afraid that I don’t know how to fix it. »

The encounter with Signora Milazzo had taken place only a few hours prior ; and it had been an unsuccessful one to say the least.

Worst of all, it had begun rather amicably, as he had finally found the time to complete the portrait of Gioia Milazzo and her husband — to the Signora’s utmost satisfaction. She had had it hung on the eastern wall of her living room, where it sat proudly ; a familial portrait of strict lines and gentle light.

« I truly do appreciate it, » she had cooed over coffee. « Can you believe that in eight years living in this house, I had never gotten my portrait painted before ? »

Indeed, one who ventured in the Milazzo home most likely would not have been able to assume the likeness of their inhabitants, save for the patriarch, Sigismondo Milazzo, and his own ancestry — portraits of pallid men and women with red noses and the same bovine eyes were the only painted presence in the estate.

Which was certainly strange, for, as Leone had understood it, this house had been bought by Gioia herself some years ago, and her husband had had nothing to do with its construction.

« I cannot believe it, no, » he had replied, swirling the coffee around in his cup with the round end of his spoon. « You are a very beautiful woman. It seems a shame that such charisma would go unrecorded. »

She had snickered, shaking her hand as if to brush off his words from the air.

« You flatterer ! How cruel of you, teasing an old woman in such a way. »

« I would never dare, and you are far from old. »

The only lines that adorned Gioia Milazzo’s face were gentle and shallow ones, marks of rather expressive and graceful features. Painting her had been pleasant, as she was really quite striking (painting her husband had been highly entertaining as well, though for wildly different reasons). She and Bruno really had a lot in common : to start, the shade of their hair, the delicate length of their neck, the height of their cheekbones, the way they smiled.

The times when Leone found himself spending time alone with Bruno’s mother were rare. Not because he disliked the woman, absolutely not ; it simply seemed that the interests and traits they had in common were simply too limited for any proper friendship to bloom between them. Gioia was a kind person, of a calm, amiable nature, and not even twenty years older than Leone, so perhaps a camaraderie would not have seemed too out of place. But it appeared that their relationship would never evolve past the point of simple acknowledgement and mutual respect.

However, that did not mean they had to ignore each other, as they did occupy the same house. And if there was one thing Leone knew, it was that Gioia Milazzo, though she never did complain, surely felt rather lonely.

« Ah, well, » she had sighed, « Even so, I certainly am far from my prime, now. Thankfully, I only ever had the one child ! My poor mother, God rest her soul, had me and my ten siblings almost back to back. The things it did to her health… »

Leone had almost choked on his coffee.

« You… You have ten siblings ? »

« Mhm ! Only eight that I know of, though. The two last were born after I… Eloped, so to speak. I was the oldest of the bunch, you see. »

« It must have been hard, » Leone had marveled, a little flabbergasted, « Having to play the role of a second mother to all those children. »

She had sipped her coffee, tucking a lock of black hair behind her ear. She was wearing jewelry there : pearly blue earrings, dangling low enough to brush against her neck.

« You could say that, yes. I suppose that is why I never much enjoyed the company of children in my later years — save from my own, of course. But Bruno was always an easy child, not fussy or capricious at all. »

Leone nodded, smiling to himself.

« I can picture it very well. »

« Though this calm nature of his did make him a lot harder to understand, when he was small… I’ll admit, those years were quite difficult. I just could never tell what he was thinking, what he needed, what he wanted. We… Were not able to get very close then, he and I. That is something he got from his father : a deep secrecy of the mind. Closed off to anyone who tries and pries into their heads. »

Imagining Bruno, who wore his heart on his sleeve and shone with a charisma that turned most strangers to his side, as being a secretive child, was rather intriguing.

« Children are complicated beings, with a lot in their mind that they must learn to comprehend on their own, » he suggested. «  I remember being a very quiet child, myself. »

And he had been. Those years before school, before Celestino, before he found his place in the world. Loneliness was a heavy burden to bear for a child so young ; and it certainly had not spared him. Nor had it spared Bruno, evidently.

« Ah, I guess that cannot be helped… You must have had rather quiet parents yourself, as this tends to run through blood. But hopefully, » she had continued, finishing her coffee, « his own children will inherit more from me in that aspect ! »

Escaping from his grasp, which had suddenly become very lax, Leone’s spoon dropped to his lap. It slipped to the floor, and fell with a cling, which echoed surprisingly loudly in the quiet room.

He bent down to reach for it, and when he came back up from under the table, he was slightly flustered.

« … His children ? »

« Well, yes ! I do hope that when he finally wises up and decides to carry on his father’s name, he will give me at least one pair of grandchildren. Along with a properly wedded wife, of course. »

« Wife, » he babbled foolishly, tongue feeling heavy. « Of course. »

A searing, incredibly frustrating sensation of déjà-vu had come to bite at Leone’s gut.

For only a second, his head swam with the realization that, truly, just as he had been taught in school, history was bound to repeat itself whenever a great cataclysm took place — and this cataclysm seemed bent on sweeping through every romantic endeavor Leone decided to take.

Of course, she was excited for her son's (evidently upcoming) nuptials. She could not have been one of those mothers who simply did not care whether their children lived a life as bachelors and old maids ; she was not that type of woman.

If only she had been.

« That would be rather exciting, wouldn’t it ? » Gioia had rejoiced, looking as pleased as a maiden whom had received her first invitation to a ball. « If only he would put more effort into it. I am sure that finding the proper woman would not be difficult ! After all, he is a an excellent match, both in looks and smarts. Wouldn’t you agree ? »

« Right, I — I do indeed. »

« Although, » la Signora had continued, curling her lips in a pout, « I do wish he would take Sigismundo’s name before he got married, you know ? If only for things to be slightly less confusing. But he has always refused a proper adoption. That boy can be so very proud. »

« Is that so. »

« Which is, do not misunderstand, something I admire ! Pride is a very important asset, especially in young people. But it does make things so much harder for everyone… That is something you men should keep in mind ! »

« Mhm, yes, » Leone muttered, fingers tapping against the wooden table in a rapid tempo. « But, Signora Milazzo, if I may — does he appear… Enthused by the idea ? »

« Of getting married ? Well, no, of course he doesn’t. But that is a given ! Young men are rarely interested in marriage, are they not ? And my Bruno does enjoy his life as a bachelor so much. »

She had chuckled, seemingly endeared, while something incredibly voracious and ugly came to bite at Leone’s ribs.

« And I do not have the heart to pressure him… Though that will have to change, and quite soon. Sigismundo often says that I am too lenient with him, he may be right, but really, what does he know ? If he had children of his own, he would understand my situation. »

« Most likely. »

The tapping of Leone’s fingers grew insistent and loud. The sound was progressively filling his head, pounding against his eardrums, thutum, thutum, thutum, like a particularly irritating heartbeat.

Matrimony, matrimony, had everyone become obsessed with matrimony ? Was this a sudden craze, a new fad of the people, a deluded mania ?

Coming on, he was able to feel not only a headache, but a dozen of frustrations, frustrations that had been kept down and held there inside of him for years now ; and they were about to spill out, all at once, like a great wave of vocal manure.

Oh no, he had thought, but it was too late : he was already saying it.

« Finding a wife, merely for the sake of producing heirs to a legacy that is not his own, » he said very quickly, and immediately felt the urge to grab himself by the hair and smash his face against the table. « That does not sound like a very enjoyable project to have for your son. »

A beat of silence, heavy and awful, in the quiet of the afternoon.

La Signora’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked especially puzzled by such sudden negativity. She had presumably not expected this sort of speech to come from this strained-looking, weirdly polite young man she had welcomed in her house some five months ago.

He could not exactly blame her. It had sounded rather startling to his own ears, too.

« I… beg your pardon ? » she had said, visibly perplexed.

Leone had leant back into his seat, ears becoming very red even as he spoke.

« I am a firm believer that marriage, as an institution, does nothing but trap young men and women into a con induced by a need for social fame and security. »

« What — do you think that of marriages prompted by love, as well ? »

He did not, not exactly. His vision was, truth be told, a lot more complicated and elaborated than —

« Yes, I do. »

Idiot.

« That is a rather cynical view of life, dear Leone, » she had huffed, holding her hands in her lap. « Why hold such an opinion on something so sacred ? »

« Love is found outside of marriages, is it not ? I fail to see the need for its merciless grasp if not for financial reasons. If it is unnecessary for a young man to breach into a higher status, well. What could possibly induce him to marry ? »

« Those are truly the words of a bachelor ! »

« Well, I will not lie to you. I find it hard to believe that either you or your husband married for love. »

He froze, nearly able to feel the sting of bitterness on his tongue.

Gioia’s eyes became wide. Leone immediately wished he could bite back the words, stuff them back into his mouth, swallow them whole, make them vanish. He began to stutter, shameful and contrite.

« I — well, what I mean is — I did not — »

« And what do you know about love ? »

Her voice was icy cold, and so was her expression : a swift metamorphosis of placid features into a frozen mask of displeasure. Leone searched for arguments, and was astounded to find more than he had hoped for — it was as if his mouth just refused to stop moving.

« Only what I have given and been given, I suppose. But you are a woman of a tender age, sharing your life with a man who falls apart at the seams. A man who searches for company in his last few years. »

He winced.

« A man who obviously does not hold your own son in his heart. So really, I can only assume. »

« Why, Signore Abbacchio, » she quipped, sitting ramrod straight onto her chair. « Could you be trying to give me advice on how to raise my son ? On what choices I should make for the wellbeing of my family life ? »

This was not going well. Leone backed off, grinding his teeth.

« I didn’t — »

« Oh, but you did. That is something young men often do, isn’t it ? They think they are so very knowledgeable about all sorts of matters, including subjects that are absolutely none of their concern. »

« This was no vanity on my part — »

« I, » she interrupted once more ; and for the first time since they had met, Leone was able to catch a glimpse of Gioia’s profoundly irritated expression. « Have fought tooth and nail to reach my current status. To raise my son in the best way that I could. I have made concessions, yes, and sacrifices. But I do not believe that gives anyone the right to judge me. The love in my marriage — I would rather not have a white-nosed adolescent making assumptions about it. »

She shook her head, her hand visibly tightening around the dainty handle of her cup.

« My goal is noble : I refuse to lead my son onto the path I have travelled. I have allowed him to wait until he was sufficiently mature, and I have not, and will not, force him into marriage with a woman he does not love, for such a choice could only bring sorrow. But I do insist that he at least puts some effort in the search of a bride. Is it really too much for a mother to ask of her son ? To bring her some joy and comfort as she grows old and stays home all day, with barely anything to do ? »

She had become pale, and to Leone’s horror, her eyes had begun to water. She had seemed on the verge of crying, but still, her chin was held up high. She had picked up a handkerchief and held it in her clenched fist, using it to dab at her tear ducts.

He had made her cry. His hostess, his benefactor, Bruno’s mother

« Signora, I apologize, » Leone had blurted out, too quickly. « I really meant no offense, I realize that my words… Were a lot harsher than they had any right to be. I respect you and your courage immensely. »

She sniffled, accepting the apology with a nod — and for an instant, he wished she would simply get up and slap him, straight across the face. Perhaps that would finally chuck that blasted arrogance out of him.

« Oh, and my son, » she sighed, putting away her handkerchief after one last pat onto her red-rimmed eyes. « Always out on such dangerous business… What a way to make his mother worry. This situation certainly won’t help with his search… »

« … Dangerous business ? »

« Well, yes. La Camorra. »

Had he been a lesser man, the force of this blow would have most likely knocked him out of his seat, and sent out flying through the open window.

« You — ! You know that Bruno is — »

Her face contorted into a grimace, and she made a dismissive movement of her hand.

« Of course, he does not know that I know… But I am aware of the sacrifices he makes to protect his family, yes. »

Seeing Leone’s gaping mouth, she gave a faint smile.

« It is most honorable, don’t you think ? »

« I… Yes. Yes, certainly. It is. »

Just when he thought that he could not get any more aghast, Gioia’s gaze had become strangely hard, in a way that did not befit her. Her voice was low, and not one bit strangled, as it had been barely a few seconds ago, when she had added, sternly :

« There is very little I do not know about my son, Signore Abbacchio. He is an open book to me, in a manner a son could only be to his mother. »

Leone’s heart, suddenly very cold, had jumped up into his throat.

In the span of a second, everything had changed. She was no longer a small woman, looking up at him with teary eyes — she was staring him down with the full span of her shoulders, the high rise of her chin, the frozen intensity of her glare. He felt under watch, as if he were being actively studied, peered into : and despite his best will, he began to speculate.

Just how much did she know ?…

« I apologize, » he said, once again, suddenly five years old and morbidly respectful of maternal authority. « I have been horribly rude. »

« You are forgiven, » she had very solemnly replied, though her voice had taken a much softer tone. « But do try to be more mindful in the future, giovane Abbacchio. »

Gone was the Signore, it seemed. Perhaps for good.

After that, she had been rather cold to him, and had stayed so the whole day through. Perhaps it would not have bothered him as much (for the silent acerbity of others had no effect on his mood), had he not felt so foolish and guilty. But as the morning went, this strange sensation had continued to eat away at him. He was worried, despite his best judgement, despite what his reason continually claimed : that she did not know, that he had nothing to worry about, that, despite this strange outburst he had witnessed, nothing was afoot, and there would come no painful retribution.

And yet, something in his gut persisted, refusing to cease its painful warnings.

He lied down completely atop Bruno’s bed, trying to ignore the relentless noise of his mind.

Even she knew about what he was doing for La Camorra. She knew, and Bruno did not know that she knew. Or did he know, and only pretended that he did not know that she knew —

He pressed into his temples with a wince. How did a family so small grow so complicated ?

« Oh, Leone, » came Bruno’s voice, weary as he continued to select and discard items of clothing, « Do not torture yourself. What is done is done, such regret is senseless. »

« I made your mother cry, » Leone insisted, intent on exposing his disgrace. « Your mother ! Cry ! »

« She cries all the time. Don’t worry so much about it. »

Leone raised a single brow, propping himself up on the mattress with his elbows.

« … Plaît-il ? »

« That’s her way of defusing situations, and turn them around so she obtains what she wants, » Bruno explained, holding up a brown, reddish jacket and inspecting it carefully. « Bold, isn’t it ? That is something I’ve always admired about her : her ability to shift people’s perception of her weakness. What a weapon for a woman to have. »

« I have seen women who were much less eager to hide their strength, » Leone mumbled, sullen.

« Oh, certainly. But I would bet that you have never seen one so graceful about her reveals. »

« That I’ll admit. »

« Say, how about this ? » Bruno asked once more, pointing to the jacket he had just put on. « It’s a little out of the ordinary. I haven’t worn it in at least two years. I believe it was for a wedding. »

Oh, lord, even the word wedding was enough to bring forth a migraine by now.

« Well, it looks good, »  Leone approved, a little sheepishly. « But what do you need my help for ? You have not even told me where you were going. »

It was Bruno’s turn to let out a deep sigh. He shrugged off the jacket, leaving it to hang on the chair of his desk.

« Collecting, » he said, and sat down on the mattress, where Leone’s legs were laid. « I’m going collecting. »

Though he nodded as if he had understood perfectly, Leone’s expression remained puzzled, and prompted Bruno to explain further.

« It is one of my trimestrial missions. For a whole day, I have to sweep across all of the eastern part of town, and ask people to pay, in order to keep benefitting from La Camorra’s protection. »

« Oh, » Leone blurted. « That seems… Strenuous. »

« It is. I despise this sort of mission. More than a way to gather funds, it is an intimidation tactic, to remind the common man of who truly owns the power around town. It isn’t something that I appreciate doing. »

He sighed, and his hand came to rest atop Leone’s ankle, idly playing with the hem of his trousers.

« And yet, this is one of the things I am best at. How life ridicules us, sometimes. »

His expression remained neutral, but it was as if a thin, gray veil had come to set over his eyes. Seeing this, Leone inched closer to his companion, as to sit behind him, legs tucked on either side of his body.

« Would some company make this chore easier ? » he asked, chin against Bruno’s shoulder and hands coming to wrap around his middle.

From this angle, he saw the corner of Bruno’s smile, and felt his hands stroking the back of Leone’s own as they rested against his stomach.

« You would come ? » Bruno asked, and leant back into the embrace, much to Leone’s satisfaction.

« If you would have me, yes. »

« You won’t like it, either. I’ll spend all my time walking around town, asking people for money. »

« That seems quite alright, a little bit of exercise. I’ll find distractions on the way, I’m sure — I promise you, I won’t complain. Or only a little bit. »

« Ah, » Bruno chuckled, amused. « Well, if you only plan to complain a little bit, then I suppose I find myself obligated to agree. »

« Once again, I prove myself as this world’s greatest manipulator. »

He took advantage of the occasion, as Bruno had carelessly allowed his defenses to be breached, and pressed the merciless blow of a kiss against Bruno’s neck. Bruno’s hand rose to Leone’s cheek — and as it came to find him, Leone kissed it, too.

« I would not want to keep you away from your work, though, » Bruno continued, squirming to turn around fully and face Leone, who huffed at the implication.

« You truly wouldn’t. I am long due for a little break. »

« Oh ? Are you out of inspiration ? »

« No, » Leone said, interlocking their fingers together. « No, things are going well on that front. »

« That’s wonderful to hear. »

Bruno had not seen him at his lowest, but he had certainly seen him struggle. The difficulties of creating, of finding the beauty to replicate, of putting soul and identity into work — they had all overtaken Leone’s life as soon as decided to begin a career as a painter. They had rendered him useless and miserable, a shell of his former, younger self, until he had met him.

« It’s all thanks to you, » Leone whispered, gently bumping his forehead against Bruno’s, with a sincerity in his words so deep that it would have gone unnoticed by most.

« Silly ! It’s all your work. I do nothing to help you, and I think it’s been proven that my artistic skills leave to be desired… »

« But without your presence, my work would be nothing but stains on a canvas. You give them soul, somehow. A breath of life. »

« Mmh, » Bruno hummed, nuzzling against Leone’s temple. « But I’m sure anything that you create would be beautiful. You could make even stains look good. »

He kissed Leone there, wrapping his arms around his neck, before backing up to look at him. Leone saw his eyes, and the warmth of his smile, and the tenderness of his gaze — and suddenly, for only a second, he felt a strange, pinching sensation in his heart ; this, too, a reminder of when they had first met. It was not uncomfortable, nor painful, but it left a stinging feeling behind, like the nick of a bird’s beak against his finger.

Leone ached to endure it again, and again, and again.

« Say, would you ever get married ? »

Bruno’s eyebrows both shot up in surprise as he recoiled.

« Married ? » he blurted. « You mean, with — with you ?… »

Idly, Leone thought of Pipo and Dante, whom had been, despite not being joined in wedlock, living as a jointed pair for the last seven years or so. He pondered that, if he and Bruno ever were to live in such a fashion, he certainly would prefer that they not copy his friends’ way of doing, as their routine, both private and public, was rather chaotic and fraught with difficulties — he could remember the first time they had split up with utmost clarity, and though they had managed to make up soon after, it had not been pretty.

And though it was flattering that he was the first Bruno thought of when asked this question, the phantom pressure around Leone’s throat did not let up, for his reasoning had been caused by something else entirely.

« No, no — I meant, with a woman. Would that be something you would want ? At any point in the future ? »

Bruno blinked at him, very slowly, like a drowsing cat, until he suddenly barked out a laugh which made his entire body shake with mirth. In spite of himself, Leone felt his cheeks heat up in embarrassment.

« Oh, lord, » Bruno wheezed out, still laughing, « Oh, did my mother tell you this ?… She’s unsufferable. »

With both hands, he cupped Leone’s cheeks, gently squeezing them together and making his mouth fold into the most ridiculous pucker.

« Leone, dear Leone, » Bruno continued, squishing what little give Leone’s cheeks provided. « For years now have I countered my mother’s attempts at marrying me off. And that was even before I came to realize that it was something I would never, in a billion years, desire. Do you truly think that I would suddenly accept, after finding you ? No, no. I’m afraid you are stuck with me now. »

Under Bruno’s warm palms, Leone’s cheeks grew a scorching vermilion.

« Ah, » he quietly swooned, head spinning as he tried to find his words. « Alright, then. That’s… That’s fine. »

« I certainly hope it is. »

Bruno then proceeded to run his fingers through the length of Leone’s hair — smoothing the strands against his scalp and unveiling his face. He bumped the tip of Leone’s nose with his own, and Leone closed his eyes, letting himself be reassured.

It might have been foolish, trusting those words so completely, so absolutely. But there was a truth inherent to what they both felt ; something raw, and unbreakable, with an intensity that could not be denied.

There was love there.

« My stain painter, » Bruno breathed, softly, in the closed space they now shared. « Il mio macchiaiolo. »

And this love would go well beyond wreckage.

« Buccellati, it’s finally happ — oh. »

Every animal instinct in Leone’s mind jumped to life in the span of a half-second. With a start and a shove to the side, he grabbed onto Bruno’s hips, picked him up, and practically launched the young man from his lap, pushing him unceremoniously off him and onto the mattress, where he landed with a surprised ‘oof’.

He barely had time to register just exactly what he had done before he realized that it was only Giorno Giovanna, standing sheepishly near the open door.

« Porco giuda, » Leone cursed, heart pounding madly in his chest while Bruno, speechless, simply lied where he had been thrown. « Why won’t anyone in this city knock before they enter ! »

« Um. I apologize, » Giorno had the presence of mind to say. « I… Had not expected you would be here. I wanted to see — »

« Buon Giorno, Giorno, » came Bruno’s voice from his position on the bed. « May I help you ? »

« Ah, there you are. I have great news to tell you. »

He walked into the room with a stride that showed enough confidence as to infuriate Leone further ; but, more than his stride, what caught Leone’s eyes was the tight bandages wrapped around the young man’s right hand.

It was slightly reddened in both the palm and back, showing recent (and frankly quite numerous) injuries. Bruno immediately noticed them, too, and his eyes grew wide as he straightened up onto the bed.

« Giorno — Giorno, your hand. What happened ? »

« Ah, yes, » Giorno said, holding up his hand as if he had just remembered its existence. « This is part of the good news, too, believe it or not. Yesterday was my initiation night. »

He scoffed, and Leone almost recoiled at the sight of such expressivity on the boyish face.

« I am now a ‘Giovanotti onorati’, whatever that means. You know, you had warned me about this, but I hadn’t expected joining something as powerless as the Società Minore to be this bloody. »

Bruno’s expression turned mortified. He took Giorno’s hand in his own, grabbing it by the wrist as to not hurt him further, and inspected his wounds feverishly.

For a moment, he reminded Leone of a mother cat inspecting her kitten after an encounter with a stray dog.

« Your initiation ? Last night ? For Christ’s sake, » he blurted, unwrapping one of the bandages. « Why wasn’t I informed ? »

« Well, they most likely didn’t want to bother a contaiuolo for something so minor as the joining of a new recruit — ow. Careful. It’s still tender. »

‘Tender’ was a word for it. Though a much more appropriate expression would have been ‘horrifyingly slashed skin, as if his hand had been chewed by a bear’.

« What happened here, » Leone could not help but ask, as Bruno, expression somber, replaced the bandage around Giorno’s hand. « What you’ve got here barely looks like a hand anymore. »

Giorno’s mouth opened, but Bruno answered in his stead.

« That’s the warm welcome of the Camorra, » he said, wrapping the cloth expertly in a tight fold over the wounds. « A custom of theirs. There’s a strict ritual to follow, you see : each member starts by grabbing a dagger, and they all form a circle. They place a coin on the ground, and ask the Giovanotto, the new recruit, to try and grab it. »

Once done with Giorno’s hand, Bruno let out a sigh.

« And as you try and reach for it, they all stab the coin at once. »

Leone’s brows shot up high on his forehead — and for a second, he almost felt the burning, pinprick pain of needles against his own hand.

« They — you were stabbed in the hand by those men ? What in God’s name is that tradition ?! »

« Well, I wasn’t stabbed. They only managed to slash me. »

« This is supposed to be a test for courage and tenacity, as well as trust, » Bruno continued, looking exhausted. « Meaning, the trust you must feel towards your fellow Camorristi. It's the only way to join the Società Minore, the lower rank of La Camorra — I had to go through it, too. »

Leone’s eyes grazed down to Bruno’s right hand, where, indeed, he found the faint, pinkish brown of scars scattered across the skin. Some were long and thin, and other, rounded and thick, producing a visible bump where the wounds had been deepest.

Had he never noticed before ? Or had his brain simply been too polite to point it out to him ?

Had they done this right when he first joined — at barely twelve years old ?

« Barbaric methods, » Bruno spat, voice full of venom, « Of men who live only through cruelty and appetence for blood. But they are traditions, and we must bow to them. »

Leone’s heart sunk at the very bottom of his shoes.

It seemed that they had.

« Well, no matter the brutality, » Giovanna reassured, doing nothing to alleviate Leone’s consternation, « I now have a way to learn more about the inner machinery of la Camorra, and will be granted access to the meeting places. But, Bruno, there is something more. »

Leone continued to listen, though he couldn’t understand much of the conversation — and though all this chatting about such unpleasant matters was beginning to wear down his nerves.
« I am currently being considered for a higher position, » Giovanna said, and Bruno rose from his seat. « In the Società Maggiore. If all goes well, I should be given a title in a few weeks. »

All those societies, Leone thought. There must be a considerable amount of members to need so many different organizations.

« Already ? » Bruno sputtered. « But — you were barely appointed as a Giovanotto. »

Giovanna’s lips curled into an affable smile. His expression of sincere pride and absolute calm was a rather strong contrast to Bruno’s obvious wariness.

« I suppose I must have left them with a strong impression. »

Mistaking his pride for smugness, Leone held back a bitter wince. Bruno spoke again.

« This is all going rather quickly, a lot quicker than you had told me it would. Are you still certain of your plans ? »

« More so than ever. The goal isn’t yet within reach, Bruno, but it is coming closer and closer — in a few days, I’ll be a part of the Camorristi, and almost touching my dream. I will be able to help my friends, and the people of the city ! Do you realize ? It will all come together, and very soon. »

He reached for Bruno’s hand with his valid one, and held it warmly.

« You will be there, won’t you ? To support me ? I would be able to stand it on my own, but I will not lie, it would be much easier with a friendly face in the crowd. »

Bruno seemed to hesitate, but only for the briefest instant. In the time necessary for a heartbeat to echo throughout his body, he was returning Giorno’s handhold and nodding austerely, as if securing a blood bond.

« As if I could leave you on your own in a den of wolves. I will be there, Giorno, you can count on my presence. »

« And what, exactly, » Leone piped up, tired of feeling left out, « would being in that…  Società Maggiore entail ? »

Giorno turned to him with a lean forward, and held his gaze steadily.

« Well, for starters, being part of a clan with power will help me consolidate my position in the world of the underground. I will have the opportunity to gain more influence, to help make decisions which will change the way this city functions, the price of taxes, the allowed organizations, the smuggled goods… And most importantly, if I keep going on this merry way, I might even be able to create a clan on my own. And if I can manage to make it big enough, then will come the time when I challenge the Boss himself — the Crimson King of la Camorra. »

The honesty, brutal enough to make Leone’s head spin, came so naturally from Giorno that he made it infinitely hard to doubt any of the things he said. A little aghast from such candid confidence, Leone could only gape, until his temperament caught up with him.

« Crimson King, » he muttered, in an irascible tone. « What a petulant name. »

« Tell me about it. But the point is, if he falls, then la Camorra as it exists now will fall, too. Without him to glue them together, the various clans are nothing but small families with too much money circulating in an enormous scheme that keeps getting bigger and bigger. The various societies exist only to serve his purpose ; and with him out of the picture, it will be infinitely easier for someone to shape the organization into whatever they want it to be. Including a force for good. »

Giorno’s voice became a lot more quiet, and he added, in a whisper :

« Not to mention that with him gone, Trish would be safe, too. »

Leone rose a single, pale eyebrow.

« And that someone…Would be you ? »

Giorno’s lips curled up, ever so slightly.

« Indeed. Me. Though I am far from being the only one with such an idea ; some clans have also made their opinion quite clear while the Boss was away those last few years. »

Idly, Leone thought of the goals he had managed to achieve at fifteen years old — but came up empty-handed.
« Giorno has had this dream for a long time, » Bruno stated, as if he could read Leone’s thoughts. « I had assumed that it was nothing more but the hope of an idealistic child, but, seeing the way things have progressed… I am inclined to believe in his abilities. »

Bruno’s posture radiated with tension, but his gaze was unwavering. He was obviously honest in his trust of Giovanna’s plans, but that did not stop him from enduring fear ; the fear one would feel upon seeing a family member being faced with great danger.

Leone itched to press a hand against his neck, if only to slightly ease its strain.

« And your support, » came Giovanna’s voice, « is greatly appreciated. I wouldn’t have come this far without your help, that much is certain. »

He fixed up the collar of his jacket, which he was practically drowning into, and gave a little nod to the both of them.

« I must take my leave now, but I hope to see you both again very soon. There are many things I have to prepare before my initiation. »

« Very well. Be careful. »

Leone gave only a brief nod in goodbye, until he thought better of it.

« By the by, » he gibed as Giorno reached the door, « how exactly do you plan to reach the top of this high society ? »

Giorno watched him, and, with an enigmatic expression, played along with Leone’s jeering.

« Well, » he replied, « one can dream, can’t he ? »

He smiled, calm as the Gioconda, and tapped his forehead in farewell — until he peeked from behind the door once more.

« Ah, by the way, there will be a little celebration at Donatella’s house once I am appointed. You are both, obviously, invited. Have a nice day. »

He closed the door behind him as he left, and it clicked shut. Leone bit the inside of his cheek until he winced from the pain.

« He really infuriates me, you know that ? »

Bruno snickered, and laid a kiss on his temple.

« I know. Though you are handling him surprisingly well, as of late. I’m quite proud. »

« My ire must be growing weaker. How could I have let it happen ? »

« I’m sure it will grow back, don’t worry. »

« If he and his kind continue to interrupt us whenever we meet, it most certainly will. And a lot stronger, at that. »

Bruno’s next kiss was on his lips, a chaste, tender pressure warm like an ember, that did wonders to calm the remnants of Leone’s frustrations. Bruno’s hand gently cupped his jaw, and he leant into it— but it was gone as it had appeared, much to his chagrin.

« Very well, shall we go ? » Bruno said, getting up to get the jacket he had discarded earlier, and putting it on. « If you’re still sure you want to accompany me, that is. I must tell you again : you will be very bored. »

« Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. »

He got up as well, and stretched his long legs, as well as his arms — and as he did, he heard his back pop, a clear indication that he was to fix up his posture sometime soon, lest he ended up a hunchback.

« All this Camorra work appears more and more interesting each time I hear about it. You can’t blame me for becoming a little curious. »

Bruno took on a pensive expression, lips pressed tightly together.

« Mmh, yes, » he sighed. « Interesting is a word for it, I suppose. »

They left the room, and on the way to the inner city, were only held back once, by the sudden apparition of Signora Milazzo in an intersection of the house, and Leone’s subsequent flattening against the wall in order to avoid meeting with her — much to Bruno’s amusement.


-


His head should have been adorned with a crown.

A crown, or perhaps jewels of some sort. It would have seemed fitting to the regal way he carried himself ; would have surely highlighted the august line of his jaw.

Or perhaps that would have dragged the attention away from what truly mattered. The dazzle of gold and trinkets would surely have dampened the effects of his features to an outsider’s perspective. Like a child emperor suffocating under the weight of his hermine coat, he would have been smothered by the luxury and burden of the headdress.

With the way he walked — long strides, back straight but not quite stiff, shoulders far apart and stance proud, with his chin held high — the way he looked — affable, approachable, yet with the same authoritative presence as a schoolteacher in his classroom — the way he addressed others — with extreme politeness, but also an attention and sobriety that showed no distance, but rather a personal concern, a consideration that touched even the coldest hearts — the way he knew the streets and corners and every twist and turn of the labyrinth that was Napoli, it really was obvious. This man was no Emperor, no Consul, no Minister. He was a king amongst the paupers.

A guide for the lost ones, a kind leader to those who sought direction. He was the hand that caught, the eyes that soothed, the voice that compelled.

And perhaps Leone was a tad biased by the intensity of his own feelings ; perhaps he only saw Bruno through the fog of affection that had come to effectively cloud his view of the world. But it was not hard to understand that he was far from the only one around town who held Bruno in that very same regard.

It seemed that in the neighborhood that was Posillipo, and even outside of its borders, in the depth of old Napule — where the language became incomprehensible to Leone’s florentine ears, where the atmosphere, that of the people, became so incredibly different from the one closer to the sea — there, indeed, it seemed that everyone knew Bruno, or at least, knew of him, of his status, of his affiliations.

Most surprising of all, it seemed that most, if not all, appreciated Bruno Buccellati. No, stronger still : they liked him, truly and wholeheartedly. He was welcomed into houses with smiles, the greater part of which were not at all strained or forced. He was given food by merchants, free of charge, simply for passing by ; old ladies who sat on stone benches flashed him their wide, toothless grins ; snotty, wild-looking urchins tapped their caps at him, or even came to shake his hand (and how Bruno was able to touch them without even an ounce of disgust on his face was beyond Leone’s comprehension).

He was a respected figure. Son of a fisherman, dressed with care and humble elegance. He took money, but he also gave, and generously, to all that asked, and to all that were too proud to beg.

He couldn’t have envied the Crimson King of la Camorra ; he, Bruno Buccellati, king of the dust of Napoli ; king of the chipped paint covering its walls ; king of the brigands, of the old widows and too young mothers ; king of the ancient ruins and king of the true magnificence that laid uncovered, amidst the dirt and rot. His subjects were orphans, stones centuries old, mangy stray cats and wild birds that nested in the shattered walls of abandoned homes.

Being allowed to walk at his side would have been an incredible honor for any common man, and Leone certainly felt quite honored as he matched his steps with Bruno’s, trying not to outrun him with the — only slightly, as Bruno, too, was tall — longer stretch of his spindly legs.

They did not talk. Words were unnecessary, sounds were unnecessary : they were needless ornaments, sparkling rhinestones sewn onto their clothes, weighing them down. They had not yet run out of things to say, or to discuss between them, thankfully ; but, in their young, frivolous wisdom, they had now learnt that silence, shared between two with fondness in their heart, did not feel as horribly heavy as they had expected.

Perhaps their observation of the adults they had known had somewhat misguided them. Perhaps love did not have to be a wretched mixture of hatred and boredom. Perhaps it could simply be this : a healthy companionship, satisfying and serene, with, ever present, the subtle yearning for solitude and intimacy that drove them to forever be, in some way, searching for each other.

Even now, the faint, brisk way their knuckles brushed against each other as they walked felt like a reminder. Of proximity, of closeness, that had come and would once more.

« I hope you are not too tired yet, » came Bruno’s voice, interrupting Leone’s flow of thoughts. « There is still quite a long way to go before we are finished. »

It was true that they had been walking for some hours now. Their path had not been particularly difficult nor too hasty, as they had made frequent stops wherever Bruno’s  mission demanded that he did. The biggest challenge so far had been to avoid the worst of the crowds, which had become all the more dense as they progressed into the city.

It was getting quite late in the afternoon, and the chilly air that slid under his clothing was enough to keep Leone cool.

« Not one bit, » he replied, tone strangely chipper. « If anything, I could go all day. »

Ah, there was the flight of seagulls again.

There were clouds in the sky, but they were not heavy ; they were smoky and drifting, breaking off in pieces, puffy and soft looking. The sky was less blue than it used to be in the summer, but Bruno’s eyes had stayed the same. Bluer, even, than the summer azure of Puglia.

Perhaps Leone did feel a little lovesick.

« I don’t believe I’ll ever understand why you asked if you could come along, » Bruno continued, voice strained as he walked, hands idly coming to fix the tightness of his collar. « This is a chore I’d much rather avoid, if I had the opportunity — why you would want to suffer through it alongside me is beyond my understanding. »

Leone grinned, in spite of himself. As he spoke, he barely avoided knocking shoulders with a passerby, who, in his haste, had seemingly forgotten that those in his way were no toreadors, and that he was no bull.
« Spending time with a companion can be rewarding enough. And it seemed unfair that you had to push through it on your own, while I do nothing but twiddle my thumbs all evening. »

He turned to look at Bruno, and, delightedly, found him huffing with pleased laughter. He had the ghost of a smile on his lips, and kept it there for a moment, before it faded away on its own — leaving only a gentle, more relaxed expression over his features.

That was rather satisfying to watch.

Through the ever moving crowds, they continued to advance. Momentarily, Leone regretted that he had brought nothing with him to draw : his monomania found itself slightly frustrated by their quick pace, as well as by the fact that painting in the middle of their activity would have proved to be a challenge.

Since they had left, Leone had met a rather interesting array of individuals, all of whom, seemingly, owed La Camorra a steady amount of coinage. Bar keepers, mostly, along with caffè owners, brothel madams (and visiting those ones had been a new and intriguing experience, to say the least), as well as all sorts of merchants and businesses one might find around such a large town.

Each time, the same tune : they recognized Bruno almost immediately, and welcomed him, if not with open arms, at least a polite nod — and even a drink, when it came to barkeeps, which were always very politely declined. Money exchanged hands, always varying in amounts ; usually depending on the size of the business that was being taxed. So far, no particular resistance had been shown. Though there had been a fair share of grumbling and haggling, which had all been met with firm, civil insistance on Bruno’s part.

Leone understood why Bruno did not like this type of mission very much ; apart from them becoming rather tiring after the first few hours of trudging through town, being something of a tax collector to all those people (whom, for the most part, seemed perfectly honest) certainly did not befit Bruno’s personality. Yet, he had managed to turn even this into a somewhat pleasant event. With his good natured charm and innate authority, people did not close up instantly around him, making the transaction so much easier.

Perhaps, had it been someone else, this collecting would have gone very differently.

Finally, as the light began to shy away, the mission came to an end. Bruno stopped in his tracks right as they reached a quaint little home, near the washing place — an old vestige, remaining from Antiquity. The house was a single story accommodation, with, around its small rectangular shape, about half a dozen of larger, taller buildings, which seemed just about ready to swallow it up, or perhaps come to life as a great wave of water and come crashing down upon it. They were practically piling up onto the hill, each taller than the next, as if trying to one-up their neighbors. This small one was a light maroon, almost beige color, surrounded by shades of brick red and grayish brown. Its windows were wide open, and from inside, deafening noises could be heard : screeches and shrieks, high pitched and blaring, echoing down the street like so many alarm bells. Terrified by the suddenness and intensity of the sound, Leone backed off slightly, staying close to the wall, as Bruno peered inside the closest window, knocking against the open shutter.

« Ciao ? » he called out, loud enough to be heard above the shrill screaming.

Nothing came for a few seconds ; until arrived, with slow, sluggish steps, a young man. He had to be younger than Leone and Bruno by a few years, at most ; his hair was cut short, and his eyes were strangely bleary, akin to a cow’s, wide and dark, and framed by long lashes. Red, circular scars framed his jaw and chin, harsh reminders of youth that Leone certainly did not regret, and the slouch of his shoulders and spine showed a tiredness so deep that Leone briefly wondered how he was even able to carry himself.

« This is the Ghirga house, yes ? » Bruno asked, hand in his pocket, as Leone observed, quiet and looming. « I’m looking for the head of the family. »

The young man blinked, slow and weary ; seemingly not at all disturbed by the screams, or perhaps so used to them that he was barely hurt by their pitch anymore. He blinked once more, still as a statue, and just as Bruno was about to ask his question again, the youth craned his neck to look behind him, and shouted, much louder than the background shrieks :

« Giuseppina ! Someone asking for you ! »

And, without further ado, he slowly walked off, disappearing into the house.

Leone stared as he went.

« Well, » he said, discomfit. « That certainly was an encounter. »

Bruno was about to reply, until the wails suddenly got a lot closer ; and they continued to grow closer, until a woman appeared at the windowsill. She was young, as well, and looked just about as tired as the first boy they had met ; in her arms, she was holding, with difficulty, a howling, violently squirming child, whose face was red and blotchy with angry tears. The girl had deep, unsettlingly dark circles under her eyes, and her face, framed by locks of thick brown hair, was emaciated and gaunt, as if she had not properly slept in years.

Twisting his entire body to try and escape her grasp, the child screamed anew, shaking his little fists in the most impressive demonstration of youthful rage Leone had ever seen.

« I — yes ? » she blurted out, eyes wide. « What is it ? »

« Pardon me, » Bruno began, a little sheepishly. « I was looking for… Your father, I believe ? If you are the daughter ? I’m speaking of Ottavio Ghirga, the owner of the caffè next door. »

He struggled to make himself heard above the boisterous screams of the child. The girl tried, once more, to calm him down, alas to no effects.

« It’s ours, yes, » she nodded, tapping gently onto the baby’s back to soothe him. « Um, my father is not here right this minute, though, he’s… Out of town. What can I do for you ? »

Bruno’s jaw clenched slightly, and he sighed.

He said nothing, but instead, raised his hand in the air, at the woman’s eye level. She looked. So did Leone.

Old, pale scars, littering the back of his hand. Bumps of skin, scratches, deeper than claw marks, pink where derma had been most abused. Fading, but ever present.

Something in Leone’s insides twisted uncomfortably.

« I was sent to collect the tax, » he said, and she became very pale. Understanding washed over her expression, making her wince slightly.

« Oh, » she breathed, which Leone saw more than heard. « That’s — I see. »

Bruno frowned, letting his hand fall to his side.

« I would have much rather dealt with your father, but — »

« No, that’s alright, I, » she mumbled, « I was told you would come. Wait a second. »

She was about to turn around, but stopped right as she moved ; instead looking at Leone. It was rather surprising, as it had been rare for him to be noticed by those Bruno came to visit today.

Her expression was one of profound despair, and though he did not know what to expect, Leone immediately expected the worst.

With a swift movement, she grabbed the child by his sides, handing him over rather formally to Leone, who simply raised an eyebrow in bewilderment.

« Signore, I apologize, » she sighed, « But, could you ?… »

In this instant, he found that he had been right to expect the worst.

« Wh — I — » he sputtered helplessly. « I don’t — »

But it was too late. She bent slightly over the windowsill, practically throwing the child in his direction ; and, in the span of a few seconds, Leone found himself with a writhing, screeching toddler clinging to his collar.

« I will be right there ! » the girl called out, and ran off into the house. Flabbergasted as he was, Leone simply gaped, holding the child practically at arm’s length to avoid prolonged contact with his sobbing, drooling face.

He turned to Bruno for help, tantalizing fear taking hold of his entire being as the child renewed his cries — only to be met with the sight of his companion desperately fighting off a wide grin.

« You — ! » Leone accused, cheeks burning. « You find this amusing, don’t you ? »

Bruno smacked his own hand over his mouth as an attempt to hide his shameful expression, to no avail. His shoulders were positively shaking with mirth as Leone simply huffed, ears red.

His arms quickly got tired, as the child was heavy ; and soon, he was forced to let the boy rest against his shoulder. A grimace settled into Leone’s features as the screaming became unbearably close to his ears, and the strength that it required for him to keep up with the child’s squirming (lest it fell to the ground) proved to be challenging to muster at this point in the day.

« Here, why don’t you — you are much better at this than I am, » Leone began, preparing to hand over the boy to Bruno’s arms.

« Oh, no, no, » Bruno laughed, backing off, hands held in front of him for protection. « I wouldn’t dare. You two make the most charming portrait, I assure you. And look, he’s calming down. »

And indeed, he was. To Leone’s extravagant surprise, the fits of screaming had quieted down significantly, in only a few seconds, and the child now rested, teary eyed and ruddy faced, with a handful of Leone’s hair in his mouth.

Leone let out a strained groan of disgust as the boy, without a care in the world, chewed away on the silver lock. He did try to remove it from the boy’s mouth by pulling it out, but as soon as he did, the screaming rang anew ; therefore, he could only stand, a heavy weight balanced on his hip, while his hair got covered in slobber thanks to a particularly enthused child.

« He must like the color, » Bruno continued, with a tone so chipper Leone could not help but scowl sullenly. « Your hair does have a pretty shine. »

« Do you think, » he mumbled through gritted teeth.

Against his chest, the boy eructed audibly, and let out a new dribble of spit. The sensation of it seeping through his shirt was enough to draw a particularly strong shudder out of Leone.

« Oh, for the love of… »

« I suppose that must mean he really likes you. »

« If that is how he chooses to express his affection, I’d much rather he didn’t. Good God, is he ever going to stop drooling ? »

As if to answer him, the child blew up a large spit bubble. Leone’s snarl of disgust did little to discourage him, and the child reached out for Leone’s nose, swatting a small, pudgy hand and grabbing onto it with all of its might.

« Ow, » deadpanned Leone, exhaling a short puff of air through his nose — and making the child shriek in delight.

That boy had a surprisingly thick head of black hair, as young as he was, as well as rather striking eyes, wide and intelligent, framed by long, doelike lashes. If he had not been so sticky everywhere, and so very prone to drooling all over him, Leone might have found him endearing.

Oddly, he reminded Leone of someone, but he would have been unable to say exactly who.

« He’s very cute, » Bruno effused, gently poking at the child’s tummy. « Don’t you just want to keep him to yourself ? »

« … Not particularly, no, » Leone replied, tit for tat, as the child let out what sounded like an offended gurgle.

« I’m here ! Sorry for the wait ! »

The girl had returned, and with a purse full of coins. She bent over the windowsill once more to give Bruno what he had asked for, while Leone waited, and the boy in his arms proceeded to grab a larger portion of his hair to chew on.

He returned the child to the girl with no lack of relief. As she took him into her arms, she gave a pleased, albeit tired smile.

« You’ve calmed him down ! Thank you so much, Signore. He’d been crying for hours and hours, I had no idea what to do… »

« Gah ! » said the boy, smacking a little hand against the girl’s chest, and laughing cheerfully.

« My companion has a natural talent with children, » Bruno explained, fighting off a grin as he counted the coins. Leone simply huffed. « Will you be alright on your own ? »

« Oh, yes. He’s been in such a state since my father left, » she sighed, rocking the child against her breast. « It… It’s been a little difficult. But we are holding on. We should be fine for a while longer. »

« Very well. If you’d like, » Bruno continued, with the hesitation of one who does not want to offend by offering charity, « We… Our organization, we have systems,  plans, for unmarried mothers. If you are ever in need for help… »

He let his sentence hang in the air for a while, until the girl let out a gasp, eyes wide and round like saucers.

« Oh ! Oh, I really appreciate it, but, Signore, this boy is not my child. He’s my little brother. »

The boy let out a plaintive whine, arms reaching out for Leone — who lent him his pinkie finger to hold on to, while the grown ups talked. Bruno’s face fell, and his voice became very quiet.

« … Your brother, you say. »

« My youngest, sissignore, » the girl continued, getting closer to the windowsill so Leone did not have to stretch his arm so far. « I, I have two little ones, but this boy is giving me the most trouble. Most of my other siblings have long left the house, so, I have to take care of him while my father is… Away. »

« And where is he, do you know ? »

The girl’s mouth opened, then closed. She kept her eyes fixated on the ground, searching for her words ; but came up empty handed, it seemed.

« I’m not sure. He… He does that a lot. My oldest brother is still around, he's the one working the caffè most of the time. Last time my father returned, he… It was to bring me Orfeo. »

In her arms, Orfeo was busying himself with a thorough inspection of each of Leone’s fingers.

« … And you have not seen him since, » Bruno concluded. « I see. »

« Is that trouble, Signore ? Should I worry about our business ? Please, please don’t make us close down. It’s the only thing we’ve got, and — and we’ll have enough to pay for future taxes, I promise you — »

« You have nothing to worry about. »

He pocketed the small purse, and Leone watched him as he did, hand still trapped in the child’s grasp.

« When your father returns, please tell him that I must talk to him at once. Goodbye. Come, Leone. »

He began to turn around, waving Leone over ; after a small bit of struggle to regain the capacity to move his hand, Leone promptly followed, with a polite nod to the girl still at the window.

« Ah — Signore, Signore, one last thing ! » came her voice suddenly.

Bruno stopped and listened, but did not turn around completely.

« … You know Narancia, don’t you ? » the girl asked, a strained, sad tone to her voice. « I see him with you around town, sometimes. »

Leone’s brows flew up. He looked to Bruno’s face for clarifications, an expression that would have explained this strange situation, but he was met only with a cold aloofness.

« How is he ?… » the girl continued, sheepish and contrite. « I haven’t had proper news in a while. With what happened to his eye, I can’t help but worry — »

« He’s fine. »

Bruno did not elaborate. From the window, the poor girl only sighed, just as Orfeo took on to crying once more.

« Well, will you tell him that he be good and healthy ? And that — »

« I will, I promise. Good evening, Giuseppina. »

With that, he took off, hands in his pockets ; not even waiting to see if Leone would follow.

And follow, Leone did, albeit confusedly.

In silence, they left the piled up neighorhood. Bruno’s steps led them to a mostly deserted street corner, where the painter was finally able to catch a glimpse of more than the expanse of Bruno’s back — so cold, and so unnaturally tense.

A hundred questions were rushing to his lips ; but one managed to encompass them all.

« … What on earth was that about ? »

Bruno’s reply came, not in the form of words, but in a remarkably strong kick, which was dealt to a pile of empty wooden crates littering the ground. One of them was sent flying a few feet further, where it hit a wall and loudly exploded into chips of wood.

Leone started.

« Mannaggia a chi t'è muort ! You human filth, » Bruno raged, kicking at another crate. « For fuck’s sake ! Fuck ! »

He took in a shaking breath, practically a wheeze, and pressed the palm of his hands against his eyes.

« Men. Men ! I am so tired of men ! Men and their cruelty, men and their childishness, men and their betrayals ! Is this the curse of manhood, turning once desperate children into capricious monsters ? Could there be no other way to live ? Always — it always ends the same !»

He was walking in circles, a lion trapped in its cage, his teeth grit in the most powerful demonstration of anger Leone had ever seen him display.

« Seventeen years, » Bruno continued, looking just about ready to start pulling out his own hair. « He had seventeen years to make up for the fact that he abandoned his youngest, sick son to the vultures. Instead, he leaves his home to his daughter, and only returns to give her the new children he fathered up elsewhere ! Is that a father ? Is that a man ? »»

He stopped in his tracks and exhaled deeply, closing his eyes.

« This is… » he breathed. « I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry. This is outlandish. »

Leone’s stomach felt painful. Slowly, he inched closer to Bruno, and put his hand atop his shoulder. Feeling no tremor or resistance, he gently squeezed it, trying his best to be comforting.

« I guess some people, » Leone said, « would prefer for their children to be well cared for elsewhere, rather than go untreated in their own home. Perhaps this is what prompted him to send Narancia off to the orphanage — they certainly didn’t seem to be rolling in gold. »

« But that’s precisely it : the nuns didn’t care ! They would have let him die ! Don’t you understand ? He would have been another one of those nameless kids, gone and buried in a mass grave ! He would have died, had I not been there, had I not stolen from my own family, had I not done everything I could for him to be fed, warm, healthy ! I was only three when he was born, and yet I cared for him like he was my own  — and his father is far from the only one behaving in such a way. They’re everywhere in this town, everywhere, men and women alike, craving to turn their hatred against the helpless ones. Their hatred, or even simply their foolishness, their fears — or worst of all, their indifference ! »

He groaned frustratedly, and shook his head.

« I — I’m not saying this to make myself seem like a paragon of good heartedness. I simply… »

Leone inched closer again. In a second, all the furious energy seemed to leave Bruno’s body. He slumped against him.

« His… his mother had just died. And then his father left him, brought him away from his siblings, as if he had the plague. How would you have felt, being abandoned by the person you loved the most ? The — the only person who understood you ? How would you have felt, having a family one day, and the next, because of reasons you can’t yet understand, having none ? »

Leone almost replied ; but in this instant, he saw the glint in Bruno’s eyes. He saw the way he stared off into the wall, looking at nothing, brows furrowed and mouth twisted into a sad grimace, and he could only sigh.

« You must miss your father very much. »

Bruno turned to him. His expression was unreadable.

« ... I do. In his endeavour to provide me and my mother with a better life, he took the same foolish path that so many before him have taken, to La Camorra and its traps. Only for our sake. And today, he is gone. »

« But it is not your fault, » Leone continued, heart contorted and aching. « You do understand what I mean, don’t you ? You must be honored for the help you give those children ; but it is important that you do not turn this anger against yourself. If your father is gone, it is not your fault. It is not. »

Bruno turned away once more. Leone’s hold grew stronger.

« Bruno. Some things you simply cannot change. You can certainly help, and you do ; I see how much of yourself you give to those around you. But do not let anger or guilt consume your heart. It will leave you hollow. »

Bruno closed his eyes, letting out a slow, pained breath through his mouth. He let his head hang low, and Leone felt him shudder. He held him tighter, pressing his forehead against his shoulder.

They stayed in this position for a moment longer. Bruno remained immobile until he finally exhaled again, and returned Leone’s embrace.

« Why was I born a man in this rotten world, » he whispered against the cloth of Leone’s chest, « and not a bird ? Or a lion, or a tree. »

He snickered halfheartedly.

« A tree would have been nice. »

Leone had a small smile.

« And what tree would you have been ? »

« A fig tree, » Bruno replied, without a second of hesitation. « And you ? »

« A wisteria. »

« That’s an unusual choice. »

« I like flowers. »

Bruno lifted a hand to his face, and rubbed his eyes with a soft, tired chuckle.

« Of course you do, » he breathed. « Of course you do. »

Leone kissed his temple.

He began to sway ever so slightly, from side to side, in a slow rocking motion, cradling Bruno into his arms.

The forehead of a king, the heart of a saint, but the body of a man. What a troublesome shell to be trapped in ; what a hard life to lead, tugged in three directions. Once mortal, once divine, and once a mixture of both.

Poor Bruno Buccellati. Incredible Bruno Buccellati. One stake in his heart for each abandoned child of Napoli.

There, in the shadow of this street corner, away from prying eyes, against the curve of Bruno’s ear, Leone told him that he loved him — him only, for only once would there be a man like him in the world.

He felt Bruno’s hand against his neck, like the kiss he could not allow himself to give where they stood, and Leone thought once more of the children of the city ; lost in their fury, paralyzed by fear, or brimming with unbridled hope ; coin snatchers, bohemian artists, bread thieves and novice courtesans.

How lucky they were to have such a guardian angel.

And how lucky Leone Abbacchio was to have met him.


-


About two weeks and a half later, in a surprising turn of event that had occurred every single year since the dawn of time, the weather suddenly changed for the worse. It grew gloomy and cold in Napoli, in preparation for a harsh winter : November was rearing to its end, and brought daylight and sunshine down with it.

Just like Giovanna had foretold, barely a few days into the cold, news of his impending promotion were announced.

The declaration was met with joy and elation, at least from his little group, who had congratulated him lengthily. Bruno’s reaction had been slightly more tamed, but warm nonetheless, as he had after all been the boy’s support in the whole operation.

Leone, unsure of why exactly he had to be there at all, had abstained from giving a proper response.

In a few days’ time, Giorno Giovanna, orphan without a past, would belong to La Camorra, and would set to destroy it from the inside out. In the meantime, slowly but surely, his hand had begun to heal ; but it would forever retain the marks of his initiation, as did Bruno’s, as did every Camorristi’s.

Because of it, Leone had taken to pay attention to others’ hands more and more, a part of the human anatomy he had shown no particular interest for in the past. When he painted, he usually preferred to take in the body as a whole ; the facial expressions, the lines and colors that composed the human form in a unique, distinct shape. But thanks to Giovanna’s little adventure,

Leone had realized just how many types of hands there were in this world, or even just in this city ; the cracked dry skin of washerwomen, the calloused hands of farriers and artisans, the large paws of bakers and coach drivers, the pale fingers of priests, the long, long digits of street musicians. Purple fingernails, bitten skin, deep palm lines, squamous knuckles.

And of course, the slashed, scarred right hands of those that lived in shadow. Instantaneously recognizable for those that knew where to look ; and now, Leone knew.

« Pitto’, what is it that you are smoking ? »

Pulled from his reverie by force and therefore irritable, Leone looked down at Giorno with an interrogative blink. The boy pointed to Leone’s meerschaum pipe, presently in his mouth, which he held with his teeth clenched tightly around the acrylic stem.

Leone frowned, taking out the pipe and blowing out a little ring of smoke — which was immediately snuffed away by the breeze, much to his dissatisfaction.

« Tobacco, » he simply and very honestly replied, wrapping his lips around the pipe’s stem once more.

Bruno, who was walking between him and Giorno (and whom Leone would have much rather been alone with), bumped his elbow against his arm, inviting him to be kinder with his words.

Leone simply rolled his eyes, and swallowed the smoke.

« It’s Turkish tobacco, » he clarified, feeling the rich fumes soothingly scald his lungs as it went down. « Not my usual flavor of choice. I tend to prefer a stronger blend, but I have not been able to find the exact type here — which reminds me, I will need to ask my friends from Rome to send me some more in my next letter. »

He took another small puff, then held the pipe up, half-heartedly offering it to Giorno.

« Why, do you want to try it ?… I suppose you can, but I’ll ask you to be extraordinarily careful. This is a family heirloom. I don’t want to have it broken or damaged by a clumsy kid with oily fingers. »

« Oh, I don’t want to try, » Giorno hastily replied. « It doesn’t seem very pleasant, inhaling smoke. I don’t even really understand why people do it at all. Smoking, that is. I simply thought it smelled nice from afar. Who did you inherit it from ? »

Leone placed the pipe back between his lips.

« My grandmother, » he said ; and, feeling the chamber grow cold, reached in his pocket for his box of matches. « An avid smoker, that woman. I don’t think I ever saw her without a pipe in her mouth. »

He finally found his box, in the very depths of his coat’s lining, and stopped a few moments in his tracks to light the finely chopped tobacco back up. Once this was done, he inhaled deeply and tossed his match aside.

« Didn’t bode too well for her, poor Nonna. Her teeth were all rotten yellow by the time she was old. It got so bad in the end, she could only use the strength in her jaw to eat soups and squashed vegetables. »

Bruno visibly winced at that. To reassure him, Leone made sure to show off the glint of his teeth : though they were not as straight as he would have liked them to be, they were still a good color. Then again, he did not smoke very often.

Of all the things that had characterized his grandmother, Leone most clearly remembered watching her slathering her neck with perfume to hide the rancid, cold tobacco smell that had permeated her skin. But it still clung to her hair, her clothing, down to the tips of her pinpricked fingers — calloused from years of sewing — no matter what she did. The smell of her perfume, he remembered vividly : heavy with floral fragrances, with a hint of something metallic. Copper, or rusty metal.

« And when did you start ? » Giorno asked once more, seemingly eager to make conversation. « You seem fairly used to it. »

« Why would you suddenly be so interested in my smoking habits ? I don’t see how this concerns you, considering that you are not open to the idea of smoking yourself. »

« It is in my nature to be curious. And who knows, maybe I will be forced to take up smoking at some point in my life ; men who smoke tend to be more respected, don’t they ? Especially as they get older. »

« If you need to smoke to be respected by your peers, » Leone huffed, « then it means you are not worthy of being respected at all. »

« That may be true, but you can’t deny that it certainly helps give a man prestance. An aura of maturity, I’d even say, » Giorno continued, growing enthused by the topic — though Leone wasn’t sure what there was to be so enthused about. « I’ve read an old french play in which a character proclaimed that one who lives without tobacco does not deserve to live. Don’t you agree with that statement ? »

Leone rolled his eyes again, and in doing so, almost tripped over a cobblestone.

« My love for smoking does not go nearly as far as to affirm something like this, no. More importantly, you read plays ? French plays ? »

« You haven’t answered my question, » Giorno cheekily retorted, closing a few buttons of his wide jacket as he walked ; the biting breeze was blowing more harshly in this corner of town.

« When did you start ? And to this question I add an even more important one : why did you start ? »

 « Good lord, is this my trial ? Why was I not informed ? I demand a lawyer. I will not abide to your weird sense of justice. »

« Of course, you are not obligated to reply, » Giorno shrugged, feigning disinterest. « But I find it hard to imagine why you would refuse to. They are simple enough questions. »

Leone’s eyelid twitched. Next to him, Bruno gave a discreet chuckle.

« I took up smoking at sixteen years old, » Leone finally replied, champing at the bit of his pipe. « Mostly because I wanted to appear older than my age. »

« I doubt that would have been necessary, even then, » Bruno quipped mercilessly, brushing off Leone’s dark look with a cheerful smile.

« And also, » Leone continued, now slightly vexed, « because a lot of people I spent time with smoked. Friends, fellow artists, family. It seemed only natural that I followed. »

« Hm, » Giorno hummed, and Leone only barely resisted the urge to stick out his leg and trip up the youth. « So you don’t deny that smoking the pipe was a tool of integration, in your case. Perhaps a way to imitate a certain maternal figure ? »

« I don’t deny or agree with anything, » Leone replied through gritted teeth. « My case is mine and mine only. What, are you worried you will be rejected by your little club because you do not smoke ? No one is going to force a pipe into your hand, Giovanna. If anything, they might poke fun at you for a little while, but it most certainly will not escalate further than that. »

Surprisingly enough, this fairly simple sentence seemed to push Giorno into a state of contemplation ; he appeared to consider Leone’s words, then simply turned his gaze away from the painter, and stared off into the distance. His expression became a locked door, in a way Leone had seen before, though only ever with Giorno : nothing transpired, no sensation nor emotion, not even through his eyes, which were as though emptied of light.

« Well, you don’t know that, » he said, very softly, and Leone simply frowned. « It might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. »

Of weakness ? To not smoke ?

Strange kid, Leone pondered to himself. As if he were the only one capable of understanding his thoughts.

Bruno, too, seemed to notice the boy’s shift into coldness, and leant towards him, gently touching his shoulder. Giorno did not shove him away, but did shudder, ever so slightly, with surprise as he was nudged.

« Giorno, I cannot help but ask, » Bruno said, voice infinitely soft, « why are you so perturbed ? Could it be that you are afraid of doing things you might not want to, given your new position ? Or that — »

« Look, » Giorno interrupted, pointing to the intersection they were about to take ; more precisely, to the strangely packed crowd currently occupying it. « Something is happening. We should go see. »

And indeed, something was happening, something interesting enough to divert the intention of the trio, at least momentarily. Not far from the Espositos’ hideout, in front of an old-fashioned tavern, an impromptu boxing match was taking place.

Not that strange a sight to see in this part of the city. But the crowd surrounding was large enough to rouse curiosity ; what novelty could they be watching so intently, with such enthusiasm ?

The three moved forward.

Around an improvised ring, made from lines drawn into the dust, two men were already nursing bloody noses and swollen eyelids — one of them was busy rinsing his mouth with a bowl of water, and spitting out a red, sludgy mixture ; the other was sitting, sluggish and limp, onto the ground, staring off into nothing, while a younger man treated the gaping wound on his brow.

A third was standing in the middle of the ring, torso to the side, with his fists high in a defensive stance. He was sweating profusely, despite the cold, which meant the fight had become rather lengthy — or simply intense. His eyebrow arch was split open and the wound was bleeding into his eyes, an impressive cascade of blood that dripped down to the bottom of his chin, dribbling along his neck, and reaching the collar of his shirt. His lips were tender with swollen flesh, and a bruise had already begun to bloom over his left cheekbone, a vibrant, purplish red, fresh and inflamed still from the force of the blow. He looked exhausted, but stayed light on his feet, back straight, snarling at his opponent in a manner that he probably hoped to be intimidating — if anything, he looked akin to a wild, aging mutt : the glint of his teeth was getting sullied by the rivulets of blood streaking down his face.

To say that Leone wanted to draw him would have been an understatement. It was an immediate need as soon as he reached the scene, urgent and primordial, an itch in his guts, a fizz in the tip of his fingers. He stayed still a moment to watch, planning to only give the scene a quick glance, but he lingered, and so did his companions : Bruno, though he did not seem as interested, looked too, coming to stand beside him, and Giorno, as well — but his eyes roamed and landed elsewhere, getting stuck on a particular spot in the ring, a vision that made his lips part in amazement. Leone, out of curiosity, followed it, not quite sensing what seemed to trouble Giorno so ; but he quickly understood when he noticed who exactly the second person in the ring was.

The opponent was a girl.

It was so surprising that Leone almost doubted his eyes ; but this revelation was confirmed by a mustached man with combed hair — her impresario ? — who chose this moment to speak loudly over the cheers of the many observers, and inviting any willing participant to try their luck at beating his protégée.

« Come and have a go at Clementina, il pugile femminile ! » he exclaimed, yellow teeth shining in the cold grey light. « Only one in the country, that’s right fellas, you can go and check, you won’t find another like that in our beautiful land ! She’ll knock ya out before you get a chance to ask her out ! Hah ! She’s no beauty, but she sure packs a mean punch — come on, lads, if you think you’ve got a chance ! Two rounds with her, and if you manage to stay upright, you win the prize ! No one’s ever done it ! Come on, come on, who wants to sweep a lady off her feet ? »

« Proving your virility by trying to beat down a woman, » Bruno sighed. « That’s a rather new concept. »

« Well, the lady certainly seems to be able to fight back, » Leone marveled, unable to get his eyes off her. « It doesn’t seem like an unfair fight. Just look at her. »

Clementina was tall, taller than most, around six feet or barely over, and her hair was tied back, not with a ribbon, but with a tight string ; she wore trousers, and a man’s undershirt, despite the cold, exposing the thick musculature of her arms. She was bloody, and even more so than her opponent, having already faced multiple fights. Her nose was dripping with a steady amount of blood, coloring the white of her shirt with crimson droplets. It was a little crooked to the side, just like her mouth, twisted around gnashing teeth. Her lips were swollen and red, as was one of her eyes —

Her eyes, which were positively shining. Golden brown, like a wolf’s, and framed by thick eyelashes and brows, both as black as her hair.

She was curled onto herself, making her body appear smaller than it was in reality. The way she carried her steps, held her fists close to her neck and her shoulders drawn high, showed an expertise that the man facing her did not share.

Leone was no expert in what constituted a good fighter ; but when Clementina suddenly lunged forward into her opponent, only to dodge his agressive jab and retaliate with an uppercut straight to the bottom of his jaw, he could only imagine that this girl had a seasoned warrior’s experience.

She backed out of range, light on her feet despite her size, and came at him again, relentless and brutal, as he staggered backwards : this time, it was a hook, aimed for the fat of his cheek.

The man ducked down suddenly, trying to avoid contact with her fist, but did not quite manage ; Clementina’s scraped knuckles struck the jut of his cheekbone, barely missing his eye. He let out a grunt, audible even above the clamor of the audience, and swayed, but remained upright, hunched and stiff.

Clementina, on the contrary, seemed to be walking on springs. In a particularly limber move, she bounced away from a swing, and, using her opponent’s hesitation as well as the exhausted tremor of his legs, crossed him with an impressive, straight punch to the nose. The bone cracked under her fist, and broke apart like brittle wood with a violent spray of blood.

She was practically dancing ; with a twirl, a sidestep, a powerful bend of her body, she attacked, ruthlessly, ferociously, relentlessly. Her eyes, wide and white, were shining with a thirst for victory ; her teeth were showing, crooked and bloody from her split gums. She had a fire to her, something ardent and vibrant, that burnt brightly in this gloomy afternoon : and as she went in for the final blow, all gasped, for they knew the fight was already over.

Putting all of her weight onto her left foot, she threw her fist in a curve, reaching behind herself for enough momentum. For an instant, it was as if time froze : and slowly, very slowly, her bloody fist reached her opponent’s chin, hitting it from the bottom, brushing against his exposed throat, and knocked hard against the bone. The blow dragged him backwards, and his teeth knocked hard against each other as he fell backwards, limp and unconscious.

By the time he hit the ground, the crowd was already screaming.

« And she does it again ! » the mustached man with the combed hair called out, throwing up his hands to show off the figure of his protégée. « Clementina, il pugile femminile, is victorious once more ! Give her an applaud, ladies and gents ! »

The obedient crowd did as it was invited, applauding the feat of the she-fighter ; meanwhile the younger man who had been tending to the defeated adversaries discreetly made his way to the most recently fallen one, pulling his slack body away from the ring by dragging it onto the dusty ground. Clementina was the only one left in the small arena, where she stood for a few seconds, catching her breath — until she was joined by the mustached man with the combed hair.

He walked closer to Clementina, and ushered her to an overturned box a few feet away. She went willingly, though with shaking legs and a wavering stance, and stepped onto that box, joined by the much smaller man, who made her raise her arms up high into the air in a gesture of triumph.

As she did, the crowd once again broke into acclaims. Clementina’s face was drenched with blood steadily dripping from its bottom half. Her eyes seemed impossibly exhausted, and were a little glazed over by now, but she grinned away : a grin as crooked as her nose, as crooked as her teeth, shining vibrantly with unabashed joy.

Another young man, who looked eerily similar to the one currently cleaning the blood off the fainted man’s face, began to walk into the crowd with a large, upturned hat in his hands. Bruno immediately reached for coins in his pockets to give him, getting prepared, even though the man was nowhere near them yet.

Leone’s gaze was firmly fixated onto the warrior herself. Already, he was thinking of the thousand ways that he could draw her : in the middle of the action, dancing around her opponent with such predatory grace ; the tension in her body, building up then releasing, all at once, into merciless blows ; the grave expression on her face as she blocked and retaliated.

Or maybe he’d make a portrait of her, just like this. Grinning through the sweat and blood, bruised and patched together like a battered rag doll. Triumphant, mystical, like the heroes of old.

« She’s strong, » a lanky man next to Leone suddenly scoffed, « but my God, she’s an ugly boar of a woman. »

Against his arm, Leone felt a brusque tension : Giorno’s back had suddenly become a bit straighter. Leone turned to him, and saw the way he stared forward so intently, his blonde curls blowing in the wind, so wispy around his ears. He saw the way his arms were crossed, so tightly around his chest ; his knuckles were white, clenching firmly around his wide jacket.

Leone’s jaw clenched, but he did not reply, or even look in the man’s direction ; but the man continued anyway, blissfully unaware of his own rudeness.

« I mean, look at her. What man could possibly want anything to do with a woman that can beat him in a fight ? »

Leone saw Bruno give a disdainful glare, filled to the brim with disgust, to that insulting man ; but Leone’s big mouth was not as easily quieted down.

« And what woman, » Leone retorted, voice bitter with venom, « could possibly want anything to do with your delightful character ? »

The man did not add anything else, and simply let out an indignant huff.

« Christ, » Leone mumbled in confidence to his companions, « do people of this kind truly think that their opinion — »

He did not keep talking, for it was in that moment that Giorno decided to do something rather strange.

Breaking away from the thick of the crowd, he briskly walked towards the ring, where Clementina was still receiving the ovations of her supporters. Her impresario had left her to begin the gathering of donations ; and she stood alone on the box, receiving handshakes and appreciative congratulations from admirers, comprised mostly, though not only, of young women. Mingling into this crowd, Giorno got progressively closer, until he was at the very foot of the box ; Clementina seemed to notice him only after a few beats. When she saw him, her smile became rather perplexed, but she did not turn away : she simply looked at him, for a moment that stretched and stretched, slow and languid, like honey from a spoon.

Leone observed, chest tight for a reason he did not understand in the slightest, as the scene unfolded.

From a pocket near his heart, Giorno produced an embroidered, lovely little handkerchief. Even from so far away, Leone guessed that it had to be worth good money ; the cloth seemed to be excellent quality, and was colored a blinding white, enhanced by beautiful, golden lining. Standing on the tip of his toes, Giorno then held up the handkerchief, as if it were not an object, but instead, an invitation ; one he sent out with immense grace.

Clementina seemed to accept whatever it was that Giorno had silently asked of her, and bent down her neck, a doe reaching for water ; she closed her eyes, perfectly immobile, her tied hair hanging over her shoulder.

Her left hand was still held adoringly by a pair of girls who cooed and marveled at the length of her fingers.

With immense care, and movements so soft they would not have scared away the most timid kit, the most skittish bird, Giorno wiped the blood from Clementina’s face. He started with her forehead, and the sweat that had gathered on her brow, making her face shine ; then her cheekbones, one of them scratched raw and blooming with purples and reds, and then her nose, her lips, and her chin, all so bloody that they had only just stopped trickling.

He brushed the handkerchief against her skin, careful to avoid the open injuries of her cheek and lip, and she allowed him ; as if this gentle touch would heal her wounds, as if this attention would somehow reduce the throbbing pain of her bruised skin and cracked bones.

Once he was done, the handkerchief was positively ruined : the white had turned red in almost every corner. He pocketed it anyway, after carefully folding it. Once he had, he beckoned her closer ; she approached, and, to her ear, he whispered something that made her head fall back with laughter. The healing split in her lip broke again ; fresh blood started to bead.

She whispered back to him in kind ; and though Leone did not hear what she said, he saw that it brought Giorno great joy.

Giorno clutched her right hand in his, and squeezed it softly, in the manner that would be kindest to her contused knuckles. Then they broke apart, and she stepped down from the box, mingling with her admirers.

Giorno returned to his companions, and saw that Leone was watching him intently. He gave him a cryptic expression, that was not unlike a smile, and buried his hands in his pockets.

« That was interesting, » he said. « Shall we go ? »

Leone’s chest still felt rather tight — as if he had watched something not meant for his eyes, or for anyone else’s. Beyond that odd feeling, though, remained the unrelenting urge to bonk this petulant child on the head. It seemed to be growing stronger with each passing day, that one.

« What did you two talk about ? » Bruno asked as they finally left the small plaza. They had been walking at a rather measured pace for some time now, but they would soon have to hurry, or so told the clouds up above : in the West, where the sun had begun to set, a line of heavy darkness was slowly approaching. At last, seasons were catching up with Napoli and its buzzing, burning activity.  

« Oh, not much, » Giorno replied, picking at his fingernails. « I asked her how she was able to fight this good. Where all her strength came from, and her courage, too — those men were no small fry. She could have perished at their hands, for humiliating them so. »

« They would have had to land a punch on her, first, » Leone grumbled, trying to fixate images of the fight in his mind, while they were still fresh, for future reference.

Giorno simply looked ahead, gaze already lost in a reverie.

« And what was her reply ? » Bruno questioned, fixing up his sleeves.

Giorno hummed through locked lips, and Leone thought that he might not reply, instead keeping this mysterious reply a secret, held between them both ; but he did speak, though his answer was most enigmatic.

« She told me she had found her sun, » Giorno stated. « And she invited me to find mine, too. »

Bruno rose a singular brow.

« That… That is a rather vague answer. Found her sun ? What could that possibly mean ? »

« Well, the sun is certainly hiding right now, » Leone tried, though he was not nearly convinced by his own words. « Maybe that is what she meant. »

Once more, Giorno hummed, neither confirming nor denying his companion’s words. Even though it appeared that he had not understood Clementina’s words himself, he didn’t seem to mind.

Instead, his stance revealed a certain cheerfulness ; contentment, even.

What was it that they had shared, in that moment around the ring ?

Gigi l’Amoroso. Hah, you bet.

« I really cannot figure that kid out, » Leone mumbled as Giorno bid them goodbye and went his own separate way, to take care of personal concerns. Bruno gave his shoulder a squeeze.

« I don’t think anyone can, » he replied, tucking Leone’s hair behind his ear. « And that must be his greatest strength. »

Above them, a beam of lightning broke the sky in half, and thunder began to roll. They both looked up at the same time.

The clouds had finally reached them. They were piling up, black and dark grey, in the heavens above, heavy and plump with unshed tears. Leone could only sigh — this sort of weather was simply atrocious for his hair.

« Ah, we should hurry, » Bruno suggested, just as equally worried about the state of his coiffure. « There isn’t much time left before it starts pouring. »

Leone approved. They began to walk faster ; though the Milazzo estate would not be within reach for another mile. A pungent smell rose from the ground : a smell of rain, copper and dirt. Heavy with metallic fragrances.

Leone swore that he sensed the smell of blood following them, too.


-


A long time ago, Leone’s grandmother had told him a story.

She might have told him this particular story many times, in fact. In his youth, when he lied, unable to sleep, in the darkest hours of night — breathing in the coppery flower smell of his grandmother’s gown for comfort.

She would talk, then, in the softest voice, and tell him of Romulus and Remus. Twin founders of Rome, raised by a she-wolf. It always began in the exact same way : with a little boy, interchangeably Romulus or Remus, unable to sleep at night ; and interrogating his mother, eyes damp and heart wrenched by worry.

Mother wolf, mother wolf, said the story in the faded grey of his memory, why haven’t you sharpened my fangs as yours ?

Why cannot I be as strong as you ?

Why cannot I howl and sing to the moon, as you do ?

My sweet child, mother wolf then always replied, If you sang to the moon, she would surely come down from the sky out of love for you, as would the sun and the clouds.

That is why you cannot sing ; your song, to the heavens, would be too admirable, and your voice, too beautiful. If it heard you, the sky would break in half and shatter, only to bring you into his arms ; the forest would take you inside her heart and keep you there forever, and you would be far from me.

But when you grow wolf among men, dear one, then you will sing ; and the moon, and the sky, and the forest will recognize you, and defend you. They will bring forth their gifts and their offerings, and will cherish you as their own ; for their love for you is infinite. For you are their son as you are mine.

Now, dear one, you must sleep. Worry not of bloody feasts and sharp fangs ; you have all the time in the world to perform as a man.

 

-


« I want to be there when it happens. »

The storm had not exactly taken them by surprise ; it was only after an extended preliminary period of rumbling and cracking that the rain began to fall. But once the first few raindrops had sufficiently scouted the area, the rest of the squadron promptly followed, and their assault had been brutal onto the thirsty earth of Napoli. It had led to a simply magnificent downpour, one that most neapolitans had rarely ever seen, or at least in many years.

Leone and Bruno had managed to reach the Milazzo home quickly enough that they had avoided the worst of the rain ; but they had nonetheless arrived in a sorry state. Clothes drenched and hair puffy with water, the duo had been welcomed by a wide eyed maid into the entrance hall, and had immediately been hurried to the kitchen, where they had been given towels to dry off.

They had then moved to Bruno’s bedroom in order to find a change of clothes, as the ones on their back had become unpleasantly clingy and cold.

As soon as they had come up, their quick race up the stairs having warmed them slightly, and closed the door behind them, Leone had given this rather nebulous statement ; and Bruno, incredulous, turned to look at him.

« When it — what do you mean ? » he questioned, beginning to remove his jacket — which, because of how damp the cloth was, did not let go of his arms easily.

Momentarily, Leone got distracted by the captivating display of Bruno’s hair : puffy and frizzy as it was thanks to the rain, it framed the young man’s face in the most delightful manner. It was such an unusual look, and this fact only turned it more charming.

« To Giovanna’s enlistment. As a member of the… The Società Maggiore, » Leone clarified, having gotten a grip on himself, and beginning to remove his jacket as well. « I would like to be there. »

Bruno’s eyes became wide.

« You. You want to — no, » he immediately refused, bending to remove his shoes. « I absolutely disapprove. I won’t allow it. »

« Why wouldn’t you ? » Leone imitated him, unlacing the damp laces with slightly trembling hands. « Don’t Camorristi enjoy art ? Wouldn’t they enjoy some fine discussion with a painter ? »

« Leone, La Camorra is a secret society ! » Bruno’s hands flew up as he straightened, expression resolutely astonished. « The mere fact that I have informed you of its existence would be considered treason, if anyone were to learn about it ! »

Leone’s brows furrowed.

« You say it is secret, yet everyone in town seems to know about its activities. »

« There is a difference between knowing what they do and an outsider walking, willingly, into their lair ! »

Leone rolled his eyes, reaching for the collar of his shirt and beginning to unbutton it.

« I wouldn’t disturb their little… Ceremonies, or whatever it is that they do. I simply ask to be present. You can introduce me as your painter friend, eager to try and replicate the Camorristi in all of their glory. If they refuse, that’s fine. But — and I apologize for insisting — I want to find this out for myself. Too long have I been kept in the dark about your activities. »

Bruno’s mouth was agape.

« And — and what would you do once you are there, paint them ? » he blurted, just as Leone removed his shirt. « This is a horrible idea. »

« Why is that ? » countered the painter, tossing his shirt aside, and reaching for the button of his trousers. « It would be simple courtesy, really — »

He stopped, abruptly, both in movement and speech, as he realized just exactly what he was doing.

Around the time that he did, Bruno, too, seemed to be hit by that same realization ; or at least, so indicated the way his gaze suddenly flew downward, to where Leone’s hands now remained, incredibly still, right above his navel.

For a moment, neither of them moved, neither of them spoke. Silence, heavy and loud, barely broken by the patter of raindrops against the roof, filled the room. Time stretched out, or so it seemed to Leone’s mind as it began to run wild with panic — a million orders reaching his brain all at once, until he could make none of them out. Suddenly, he was not cold anymore : instead, Leone felt much too hot, in every part of his body where blood flowed. Yet he continued to tremble, skin prickled with goosebumps.

« Um, » he blabbed stupidly, pinned by Bruno’s gaze like a butterfly on a wall, not daring to move his hands even an inch, horribly underdressed as he was. « Well. I… »

Icy hands against his back, a scalding chest against his own, burning lips against his mouth —

It seemed he no longer had to question Bruno’s desire for intimacy.

Quickly, so quickly it left his mind reeling, his hands found Bruno’s jaw, cupping it with bruising force and pulling it closer, ever closer, until their noses pressed against each other painfully.

His legs began to shake, threatened to buckle ; and already he was burning with a thousand fires. Through the wetness of Bruno’s shirt, Leone could feel the heat of his skin, the furious beating of his heart, the shivering tension of his abdomen. His hands were everywhere at once, or so it felt ; the contact was frantic, maddeningly eager after so long a period of frustrated passion.

Even if he hadn’t been grasping at Leone’s flesh with all of his might, simply kissing Bruno would have been enough to bring his heart to heel. In this instant, Bruno kissed with the adoration of a love-starved being, of one who has gone too long without the reward of another’s touch. And Leone, being on the receiving hand of such attention, could do nothing but yield and melt in his arms.

He did return his ministrations, the best that he could : but his flesh was too heated, his bones too icy, his brain swimming through molasses. It was as if he could not move properly, and could give his body no order, in this state, so it did as it willed ; and all that it was willing to do, it seemed, involved getting closer to Bruno.

Bruno, who, as it turned out, was beginning to learn the different ways of seduction (or at the very least, to seduce Leone, whom had quite simple tastes when it came to this sort of thing). Truly, either Leone was seeing stars from the intensity of his love, or he was on the verge of fainting due to the lack of air reaching his lungs.

Realizing that it was most likely a mixture of both, they pulled apart, separating rather fiercely, and catching their breath.

« Wh — what is it with rain and us, say ? » Bruno panted against Leone’s lips, clawing at his shoulders mercilessly, making his companion shiver with suffocating desire. « Last time, it was also — »

« Kiss me again or I’ll die, » Leone demanded, voice raspy and winded ; and truth be told, it barely felt like he was exaggerating.

Bruno laughed, and complied.

Feeling the vicious strain of his stomach once more, Leone lost no time in rushing back to where they had left off. He kissed Bruno like a starving man, giving complete and utter free rein to his desire for the first time in — lord, how long ? How long since he had felt like this? Had he ever, with this intensity ? Had he ever longed so much for another human being ?

Maybe once, in his dreams.

With an insistent pull, Bruno moved him slightly, without breaking apart. Quickly, Leone felt a wall hit his back, keeping him balanced and free to relax completely as he let himself be pinned. A thrill pulsed through him, dizzying, as if he had been struck by lightening. He could feel Bruno everywhere around him, warm against his mouth, warm into his arms, warm against…

Against the dipping of his hips.

Now he was trembling.

He could feel Bruno’s fingers, so cold and nimble, grazing the skin of his stomach, and, after a second of hesitation, a pulse of fear, a moment of nervous excitement, Bruno touched him. Barely, with the immense softness of his timid, shaking hands, Bruno found him, and the way he touched was —

A knock, quick and light, against the door.

« Bruno, dear ? Are you decent ? » came Signora Milazzo’s voice through the wood. « I must have a little talk with you. »

If Leone held back the deafening scream that was hurled from his chest, it was only thanks to an exceptional amount of self control — or what little he had left of that, anyhow.

For a very brief moment, just enough time to blink, they broke apart. Bruno looked at Leone, and Leone looked at Bruno ; and the immense, horrid frustration left to be replaced by utter dread.

« Um, » Bruno croaked, panic settling over its features like a mortuary mask. « Not — not yet, Mother. Wait a second, would you ? »

This was a disaster.

They separated quickly, as if skin contact would burn them, and frantically searched their minds for a solution, a solution that did not come, and Bruno’s mother was right out the door, what if she heard —

What do I do, Leone mouthed, pointing at his general situation ; his entirely disheveled appearance, for instance, and even worse, his state of undress.

Eyes wide with horror, Bruno began to look desperately around the room for a solution that simply refused to come, and Leone was just about to prepare himself to the eventuality that he would have to jump out the window — until Bruno saw his bed in the corner, and began to push Leone towards it.

Go, go, he mouthed, hurrying his companion over to the bed (though not in the manner he had hoped, much to his chagrin).

The bed was low to the floor, but underneath it was enough space to hide a secret lover, no matter how tall — and for the first time in his life, Leone thanked the heavens for being born so thin.

Despite his slight frame, the spot was rather cramped. Therefore, Leone had to lie very still and very flat against the dusty floor to fit perfectly under there, lest he hit his head on the bottom of the frame. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not his first time being in this particular, if humiliating, situation ; this exact thing had happened exactly twice before, and though he most likely should have been used to his romantic evenings ending in such a way, it was a painful sting every single time. Not to mention an extraordinary amount of frustration to put up with all at once.

He barely listened to the conversation Bruno had with his mother after finally allowing her in. It ran relatively short, thank goodness (or rather, thank to Bruno and the way he rushed his mother back out almost as soon as she had come in) ; Leone merely heard a few tidbits here and there about an ill family friend, and something or other about a pair of trousers that needed fixing.

Soon, she was pushed gently out the door by her particularly diligent son ; and soon, the lock was firmly shut.

Twisting away from his hiding place, Leone painstakingly crawled, stretching out his back and legs with a strained groan of relief. Bruno was leaning against the wall, looking at him through barely spread fingers, as if he could not stand the embarrassment of the previous few minutes’ events.

Really, Leone could not blame him.

« Well, » he blurted, prodding at a crick in his neck, and suddenly feeling rather cold around the chest. « At least, she knocked ? »

Bruno simply let out a nerve wracked laugh, sliding down the wall and sitting down on the floor, face in his hands.

Outside, the storm, violent though short lived, had begun to clear up — and the sun’s rays, like so many caresses, found a lover in Napoli once more.

Lucky devil, that sun.

 

 

Chapter Text

I would choose

To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,

A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover.

Till he caught me in the shade,

And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he

clasped me,

Aching, melting, unafraid.

With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,

And the plopping of the waterdrops,

All about us in the open afternoon —

I am very like to swoon

With the weight of this brocade,

For the sun sifts through the shade.

— Amy Lowell

 

 

 

Leone Abbacchio, reputed connoisseur of the arts, had gone to the opera exactly eighty six times in his life.

A rather impressive number, for someone who had never been able to keep an eye on the state of his finances. Though he was not aware of that precise calculation (as he had never bothered to count), Leone knew it to be rather impressive : indeed, he had spent many hours reclining into the varyingly comfortable seats, listening to Vivaldi, Haendel, Mozart, Haydn and Monteverdi, in various states of sobriety or utter drunkenness — and various levels of elation or depression, the depth of which also varied. In some occurrences, he barely heard the music at all, instead staring into the distance and letting his mind be wiped clean of any conscious thought ; in other occurrences, he listened intently, grasping onto every word and every chord, as if they were tangible objects he could hold to his heart and feel as they hung in the air.

Opera houses were places he sometimes visited in the company of his friends, though he most often went alone. Those privileged moments, where nothing but music existed, were the highlights of his weeks. He could recall most of the pieces he had seen and heard, and each time was a new transport. No matter if the mise en scène turned out to be spectacularly awful, or if it utterly botched the works of a compositor he adored. He could not remember a time he had left an opera house before the end, or a play he had not congratulated with copious applause.

He could recall, however, the very first time he had stepped foot into a concert hall, and with the utmost clarity. It had been at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, many years ago, and it had irrevocably transformed him.

He had tagged along his mother and father, as well as his grandmother, who was at the time a regular addition to their family outings. Before they had even left the house, he could remember his mother (her face shadowed with fuzzy darkness in his sad, forgetful mind) telling her husband of her worries ; they were numerous, though Leone, as far as he could recall, had not been any more of a nuisance than any other child his age.

Marilena Abbacchio feared that her son would not behave, that he would be bored, or worse, that he would make a fool of them both among high society. The boy, of course, had been greatly offended by the insinuation — as Leone, even so young, already carried the weight of his pride wherever he went — and he had decided, in a first draft of childish maturity, that his behavior would be most irreproachable that night, so as to not disappoint his parents.

And he had stayed true to his word. On the way to the opera house, he had very diligently held his mother’s hand, and had not played with the golden circle of her wedding band as he did so. As he was introduced to his father’s friends, and despite the fact that he was in absolutely no mood to salute strangers, he had shown incredible bravery by not hiding behind his mother’s skirts. He had not spoken out of turn, nor, once they had entered the building, had he ran off to explore — no matter how much he had been itching to do just that, with how intriguing the concert hall had looked to his young eyes.

Surrounded by loud adults, all terrifyingly tall and dressed in the most intimidating attires (large, shiny dresses for the women, and extraordinarily similar dark tailcoats for all the men), Leone had felt, to put it mildly, the slightest bit out of place. He had clung to his father, as to not get lost in the flood of people, and had therefore spent a good hour suffocating with him in the hall, breathing in the men’s rich tobacco fumes, before the opera began. He had listened to the men’s conversations, not understanding a thing. He had looked at the ornate ceiling intently, counting the coffers and trying to make out the details within them. He had, in the secrecy of his mind, laughed at the strange features of the strangers that passed by ; all very good distractions, though he dearly regretted not asking his mother to pack some sheets of paper and a few pastels.

Then, the opera itself. The superimposed boxes, all packed full, brimming with enchanted guests. The soft velvet seats, that he could not allow himself to fully recline in — lest he was unable to see the stage. The agitation, the excitement, the vexing delay before the curtains finally opened. The scent of the theater, so incredibly peculiar, of powdery dust, warm tobacco, and varnished wood. The overwhelming noise, his mother’s hand carding through his hair, her telling him to sit still. The smell of his grandmother’s pipe, and his father’s knee bouncing up and down impatiently, rhythmically, as they waited.

And then, music.

Progressively, at first. Like an advancing wave. Like the preparation of something magical. And then, the ringing of trumpets, perhaps like an annunciation, the coming of a king, the arrival of gods. Strings, then, a melody that scratched an itch in his soul, that suddenly elevated him to heights he had never before considered.

Suddenly, as the chords came and melded into one another, he felt above the whole of the world.

He was immediately taken to a universe where gods were flesh and blood, where nature had a voice, where emotions had the same violence as fire and seawater. It was the strangest thing, really, to his very young mind : like a realization that something deeper than reality existed in the world. There was something beyond what he knew, feelings and sensations that were not easily understood or translated through words.

Then, on stage, a man began to sing.

It was such a strange sight to see. The man was not very tall, at least not nearly as tall as he was large : he had a big, adipose belly, much bigger than Leone’s own father’s (Vitale Abbacchio was, at the time, his son’s main point of comparison when it came to men’s figures). He was clean-shaven, or perhaps naturally hairless, with short curls growing out of the top of his head, which was adorned with a crown of golden laurels. Thick brows in the shape of commas gave his face a delightful expressivity, and every word he enunciated, so clear and so very sharp, was accompanied by various shifts of expression: tranquil, then tense, then incredibly passionate. His hips and shoulders were wrapped with a blue toga trimmed with gold, giving away the gentle curves and the dimension of fat on his body.

And this voice — this voice !

His voice was, by itself, a chorus of angels singing. It had the marvelous high tone that, Leone would learn much later, was that of the castrati : like the tinkling of crystal, like the altar boys Leone did not recall ever properly listening to, like a message he had waited to receive his whole, short life.

Tears had been brought to his eyes almost immediately. However, in his endeavor to not bring shame to either of his parents, he had held them back dutifully.

Propped up on a thick, bouncy cushion — then, once the support proved to be unsatisfactory, onto his father’s lap — Leone had watched, utterly transfixed, the story unfolding on stage. For two hours, which went by, at least in his memory, in little more than a flash, he had not taken his eyes away from the piece once. He had not understood much of the tale being told, as he was much too young for the subtleties of opera — only four years old — but he had been captivated all the same.

He could remember having talked his parents’ ears off as they returned home. Already very opinionated, he had had many things to say about every single part of the play, from the costumes to the singers to the songs themselves. Passionate as he had felt, that night had been burnt into his memory until his adult years.

Whenever he looked through the cluster of his memories, Monteverdi’s Orfeo was a constant presence in the back of his mind. No matter how much time had passed, he still remembered all the  details with vivid clarity, as if they had only taken place yesterday.

Perhaps he recalled that night so well because it had been his first time being so transported.

Perhaps he recalled that night so well because it had been the last time he ever saw his parents alive.

For either of those reasons, or perhaps for both, that evening had remained with Leone across the years ; and, surprisingly enough, it had brought forth his love for the opera and scenic arts. He had since then seen many pieces, and had even, for a short while, fancied an opera singer, with whom he had a bit of a fling over the span of three months, in Florence.

Ah, to be young.

They had met not long before Leone’s departure for Rome, back when he still had a master and barely any control over his own creations. A strange time in Leone’s life, to be sure, and memories of it now brought him very little joy. Still, he liked to reminisce, every once in a while, about this boy he had known. Mostly when nostalgia hit him particularly hard.

The very last time Leone had gone to the Teatro della Pergola, it had been well after the opening hours. He had been tipsy, and very exhilarated ; enough, at least, to follow this boy he barely knew through the wings of the theater. He had been given a thorough visit of the actor’s changing rooms, fooled around with many of the costumes — he had even, most scandalous of all, shared a few tender moments with his guide in the privacy of the cramped space.

Now that he thought about it, what a strange thing that had been, such amorous feelings in such a place, a place he held so holily in his mind. Life and flesh into a temple of dreams and death ; notions of eros to his thanatos-esque vision of the theater.

Afterwards, he had then been brought out to the heart of this incredibly magical venue, the very center of the universe : the stage.

Slightly dazzled, Leone had spent a moment simply standing there, frozen in place, attempting to take in every emotion that had flooded over him in this instant. The empty red velvet seats, from this point of view, had looked almost as intimidating as if they had been filled. And though it was dark, the atmosphere, so very still and silent, had been just as impressive.

What a strange, memorable night this had been.

« You know, » Bruno wondered aloud, interrupting Leone’s flow of thoughts. « I find it rather strange that that night did not put you off opera. »

Leone lifted his gaze from the cream colored cravat he had been painstakingly trying to tie for the past five minutes, instead looking at Bruno, who was doing much of the same — though with obvious greater mastery, seeing the perfection of the folds around his neck.

« Uh ? » Leone untied the cravat and tried once more, drawing it slightly too tight this time around.

Lost as he was in his memories, he barely recalled that he had been in the middle of telling Bruno a story — namely, the story of his very first visit at the Teatro.

« Oh — right, » Leone caught on. « And why is that ? »

« Well, » Bruno replied, stepping closer to Leone and shooing his hands away to take hold of the rebellious cravat himself. « Considering that your parents died so shortly after, I think it would have been understandable for you to link the memory of the opera house with their… untimely departure. Rendering you unable to even approach it. »

In only a few, quick movements, the cravat was flat against Leone’s collar. One had to appreciate Bruno Buccellati’s skills, for they were as varied as they were impressive.

« Mmh. Well, it was a nice evening, and a wonderful time spent with them both. On the contrary, with it being right before their death, the memory became even more dear to me. »

« Even so, you were so young. I cannot walk by the street my father was killed in without feeling violent or terrified. I would have expected, had you not told me otherwise, that you would have felt the same towards opera houses. »

« That does make sense, but my case is vastly different from yours — thank you for the cravat. My parents did not die in the opera house, nor was the location in any way linked to their death. In my mind, this theater is, for the most part, linked to happiness, not sorrow. »

« Mmh… I suppose we have different ways of coping with that sort of thing. »

Bruno smiled, pulling slightly onto Leone’s white lapels to smooth them down against his chest. The cloth had been starched, and felt crisp under his hands, but there was still a bit of resistance to it, proving once more Leone’s bad luck with his items of clothing.

« And you said one of your lovers was a singer ? »

Leone’s ears became warm. He let his outfit be fixed by Bruno’s deft hands, relishing in the touch.

« ‘One of my lovers’… » he mumbled. « With the way you say it, one would assume I managed to gather more conquests than the kingdom of Spain. »

« Oh, but isn’t it so ? In my mind, by leaving Florence, you left the whole of Tuscany utterly heartbroken. »

His nimble fingers found their way to Leone’s hair, and pulled the bow tying its length tighter. This brought their faces close together, and so Leone did not resist the urge to gently bump his nose against Bruno’s.

« Had I been such a Don Juan, I believe you would have noticed by now. » He sighed, deeply, dramatically — if only to get a laugh out of his companion. « But, yes, I — he was studying to become a full-fledged singer. That was a little before I moved to Rome. He was slightly older than me, I think, but not by much. »

He had been seventeen, while Leone was barely sixteen. But Leone had since forgotten the numbers.

They had met through common acquaintances. He most likely had been the cousin of the sister of a boy from his master’s atelier — or something of the sort. The fascination had been instantaneous, and the camaraderie, quick to bloom. At the time, Leone’s circle had been, atrociously, devoid of anyone who could have understood his affections ; therefore, this new presence in his life had been rather refreshing.

« What was he ? Tenor, baritone, bass ? »

Leone grinned, just as Bruno was busying himself with the buttons of his vest — which had been (either by lack of attention or premeditation) buttoned in the wrongest way a vest could possibly be buttoned.

« So you do know your opera. »

« Well, I do know the basics, if anything. I was not only educated in the matter of ancient literature. »

Once Leone’s vest had been buttoned up properly, Bruno’s warm hands lingered slightly around Leone’s midriff, a tender pressure against his stomach.

« He was none of those things. »

Bruno’s head tilted up curiously. Leone wanted to kiss him.

See, Leone, the boy had said that night. This is the single most important place you’ll ever find yourself in. This place, right here, right where you stand, has seen more glory than Rome’s great Coliseum. A theatre scene is worse than an arena: your destiny is more at stake here than a gladiator’s ever was in the olden days !

Lillo Pascuttini, the single most impressive singer he had ever met.

« He was a castrato. »

Bruno looked like he was about to let out a ‘oh’ — but held himself back at the last second, most likely as to not offend Leone.

« A castrato ? » he blurted out, betraying his surprise. « Is that so ? »

« Mhm. One of the few left. »

After the church had forbidden the ‘procedure’, so to speak, they had become scarce. But the making of castrati had of course carried on, as those things were wont to do. They were too appreciated by the crowds, too profitable for their families — after all, mutilating one son horribly was a small price to pay, if he turned out to be successful, and brought forth an artist’s prestige.

What an investment to make for the future.

« It was a hard life he had, » Leone continued, reaching out for Bruno’s cufflinks (some of the finest Leone had ever seen, pearls and rubies) and buttoning them for him. « Waking up every morning at dawn, going to sleep in the dead of night. He did not have much free time to offer me, but he did have excellent conversation, and an incredible voice. »

« That is interesting, » Bruno said, giving his left wrist. 

Lillo had rarely left Florence, as Leone recalled. He could remember his form fairly well, even now : a rather thick-waisted, cherub-faced young man, with a head of light brown hair. Gentle doe eyes. Lips that smiled easily.

Leone had drawn him a lot, back then. Most of those drawings had been lost, or gifted to the model himself, by now ; but Leone was certain that he had managed to save some. Hopefully he had not lost them all during his various moves.

« Did you love him ? »

A sudden question, brought down like a cleaver. Taken aback, Leone blinked, hands stilling around Bruno’s wrist, almost dropping the cufflinks.

« If I — excuse me ? »

Bruno let out a brief laugh.

« No need for you to react in such a way, Leone. I am not so jealous as to be offended by the thought of you loving another in the past. »

« Well, I would assume you weren’t, considering that you expect me to have loved the whole of Tuscany, » Leone huffed, finally buttoning Bruno’s sleeve. « No, our relationship… It was not like that. But… »

He breathed out through his nose, fondness and nostalgia making his heart tender.

« … He was dear to me, for a time. I was enamored with him. He was… Important. »

Bruno hummed, turning away to look at his reflection — and upon seeing it, reached to fix his hair slightly.

« Do you know what became of him ? »

« No, I couldn’t tell you. When I left for Rome, I didn’t manage to keep in touch with most of everyone I knew there. Hopefully, he continued to sing. »

And hopefully, he had not been fed to the lions by a particularly unenthused emperor.

Bruno nodded silently, still fiddling with his hair. He continued to do so for a moment more, until Leone began to wonder just how much one could spend trying to perfect what was already faultless. Once he decided that he was done, however, he proceeded to face Leone fully, arms slightly spread as to show off his completed outfit.

« Alright then, » he said, « How do I look ? Please, be absolutely honest. »

« Absolutely honest ? »

« Absolutely honest. »

Leone hummed thoughtfully for a moment, considering the sight in front of him with great attention. After a long pause, he rose his hand and mimed the shape of a circle in the air.

Bruno’s eyes rose to the ceiling, but he obliged anyway, turning round with no shortage of grace.

Bruno Buccellati did objectively look quite good, dressed in such a way. It was not the type of attire he usually donned : only, it seemed, when La Camorra was directly or indirectly involved. In this particular instance, his trousers were dark, cut in a way that elongated his legs and fit rather snugly to their form ; the sculpted outline of his bust was hidden under three different layers: undershirt, shirt, and vest — which would then be topped off by a thick autumn coat. On a regular day, one would have found him dressed in looser clothing, nicely cut, noble garments that would make him appear airy and wealthy, but not pretentious, white shirts of expensive linens that would give his figure a nice geometry. But today, and even though warm colors fit him so very well, Bruno had chosen to wrap himself with cool tones and dark materials. The layers made him appear less slight, though had they not been so perfectly fitted, he would have most likely seemed to drown into them.

He was handsome, of course, and resolutely, sharply dressed. But this was not Bruno Buccellati. This person in front of Leone was another young man entirely. A mature, collected, intimidating young man, who retained very little of his solar shine. Loved by Leone, still ; but incredibly different nonetheless.

« Well, dear Bruno, you don’t look like yourself at all, » Leone finally stated with a sigh. « But I suppose that is the goal. »

Bruno acquiesced.

« Indeed. I must look my very best. It’s… It’s like Giorno said, do you recall ? A tool of integration. Not for me, but for the person they expect me to be. »

« Don’t you ever show the… ‘Real’ you ? »

« Leone, trust me when I say they don’t deserve to get anything other than what I give them. I mean, what more could they hope to receive ? Haven’t they taken enough from me ? »

« Mm. I suppose you could have chosen a worse costume. »

It was rather stylish. It was not Bruno’s style, certainly not, but a stiff, standoffish style was a style all the same.

« I have to admit, curiosity has been picking at my mind for days now, » Leone added, turning to the mirror and wiping the front of his teeth with his finger. « I only know two people from La Camorra: you, and that Giovanna kid. Neither of you seem especially malevolent — »

« I’ll choose to take that as a compliment. »

« — but from what I have been able to gather along your conversations, those other men don’t hold true to the same moral code. »

Bruno sighed, sitting down on the edge of his mattress with a despondency that did not befit his attire.

« It’s a little more complicated than that, Leone. »

And wasn’t it always the case with such matters ?

« There is a moral code in La Camorra, although it isn’t exactly the sort any… reasonable christian would consider moral, in the primal sense of the word. That isn’t to say all of it is bad, or that it all stems from evil ideologies and intents : some of the clans’ actions are incredibly just. I mean, you’ve seen. They help those who are often overlooked by the powerful ones, be they the government or the clergy, or any kind of leadership. »

His gaze had taken a sad, grayish tint ; one that Leone immediately wished he could blow away, as easily as the wind could clear an overcast sky.

« But La Camorra is a den of crooks, gangsters, killers and child corrupters. For every good deed, there is a dozen evils committed in the shadow. So, as an answer to your interrogations, I’ll say this : I doubt you will manage to find much good in the men we’ll meet today. A few have managed to preserve scraps of humanity, but for the most part… It’s all long gone. »

« Ah, well. No need for you to worry about me. I never hold any expectations for any man of any sort : that way, I never end my day with disappointment. »

Bruno snorted, though without much humor.

« Oh, Leone… How I wish I had your cynicism. »

« And how I wish I had your figure, » Leone mumbled dejectedly, pulling on the hem of his vest and looking at himself from every angle. « Why is it that this cut of clothes never fails to make me look like a scarecrow ?… Must every man be cut like a statue nowadays ? »

« Mmh. Now that I am thinking about it, whenever I walk alongside you, we are never bothered by birds. I never dared to point it out before, but now that you mention it… »

« Were bird attacks such a recurring issue in the past ? My god. Napoli really is a dangerous place for the honest few. Gangsters, ferocious flocks of birds — what next, wild packs of ganymedes ? »

He feigned a disgusted shiver and stuck out his tongue. Bruno rolled his eyes, amused, and rose up to wrap his arms around Leone’s waist.

« You are truly impossible, do you know that ? »

« What, are you telling me there is already — No, surely, there can’t be. Not on such a holy ground ! Not in the sacred kingdom of Napoli ! »

« God — stop this nonsense, » Bruno snickered, pinching Leone’s cheek. « Someone might hear you. »

No one could have, as a matter of fact, for the house had been empty since the morning. Signora Milazzo, husband and maid in tow, had left to visit a pair of sick friends, who resided both in Agropoli, in the province of Salerne. She would not return for three days, leaving her son as the sole  master of the house.

The newfound freedom and intimacy still felt a bit exhilarating.

« Sodom ! Sodom and Gomorrah ! » Leone stage-whispered. « Is no place free from the evil eye of sin, in this day and age ? I’ll bet my left hand some of them are even standing in this very room ! »

« Hush, you clown ! » Bruno continued to laugh, pressing his palms against Leone’s mouth. « Fine, there, I’m not moping anymore. Are you happy ? »

« Very, » Leone replied, muffled by Bruno’s hands. « Isn’t my role to perform as a clown when you are feeling melancholic ? »

A beat of silence, before Bruno sighed, and removed his hands — leaning up to plant a kiss on Leone’s lips.

« You don’t need to do that, » he said, a tender edge to his voice. « But I appreciate the sentiment immensely. »

Leone simply looked at him for a moment.

The ever-growing familiarity of Bruno’s features did not prevent Leone from feeling slightly short on breath whenever he took time to inspect them. Though it was different from simple aesthetic pleasure ; it was the overwhelming sensation of comfort that came with it that truly dealt the blow.

It was in the silliest things. In the ringing laughter of his happiness, but also in the shadow of his smile, the scent of him lingering in his clothes, the sound of his breath when things were quiet, the way his hand reached for Leone whenever he wished for his presence.

How could such comfort, such peace, exist along the excruciating ordeal of being seen, of being known ?

« Everything will be fine, » Leone assured him, and Bruno gave him a quick, tense nod.

He had been feeling worried since long before the day started, and this kind of distress did not leave the body easily, nor the mind, where its haunting was most perverse. Leone hoped that his mindless nonsense would help, somehow, if only in easing the tension winding his nerves.

They were almost out the door, coats slipped on and reflection checked for the last time, when Bruno asked Leone a strange question.

« Do you miss it a lot ? »

« Do I miss what, exactly ? »

« Going to the opera. You said you’d made that a habit, but you haven’t gone in quite a while, now. Don’t you miss it ? »

Leone considered it, but only for a short amount of time.

« I mean, really, » he said, opening the door to let Bruno go through first. « Who needs opera when you can attend criminal ceremonies ? »


-


Leone, here, come next to me. Figure this. On this stage, you won’t only wear the cloth of a king, or the rags of a pauper : the very instant the curtains open, this is who you will be. An ancient god, a prophet, a nobleman, a grief-stricken maiden, anyone you like ! For a short time, this person will exist through you, be reborn within you. You will turn into something else entirely, and for this moment, all those people in the audience will only see what you want them to see. And you will be made real, only by wearing a few clothes !


Isn’t that amazing, Leone ?


 -


Giorno Giovanna lived with two boys in a little apartment northwest of Napoli.

This arrangement could be dated back to three years prior, when Giorno had left the orphanage of La Santissima Annunziata Maggiore and set to live on his own. In taking this decision, Giorno had, by all means, known that things would be difficult ; but, his mind filled with hope and dreams of adventures, he had gone out of his way to fend for himself, and himself only.

A few weeks in the street had taken care of dissolving his illusions.

The mortifying realization that he was utterly alone in the world dawned on him, like the slow creeping of frost over a tree, during this very period. Having gone through the trouble of a horrible childhood, Giorno was of course familiar with loneliness, as well as the exhaustion that came with the constant fighting for survival : but no matter the privations he had endured in the past, he had never been forced to live without at least a roof over his head.

Giorno soon understood one thing : if he were to live in such a world, what he truly needed was allies. And in a strange twist of fate, he was able to find one in the person of Bruno Buccellati, son of a newly moneyed Donna ; a kind young man who offered food and protection to those who came to him. He was well-known within the neighborhood — for nearly every pauper in Napoli had apparently become enamored with him, if he were to believe the rumors — and Giorno had learnt the way to him from fellow street urchins.

Their first meeting had not gone over very well, to say the truth. Giorno’s fault, entirely, as he had tried to (and almost did) take advantage of the boy’s generosity in a most flagitious way.

Now that three years had passed, Giorno no longer felt guilty about his attempted crime, or at least, not nearly as much as he had in the past. Putting the scene back into its context was sometimes enough to justify the action in his mind, and satiate this nagging call for pardon : he had been starved then, and lost, and angry at the world, until he was able to find peace. That anger had come alive within him by taking the form of cynicism, distrust, and belligerence, all of which he used to get through the days while suffering minimal harm. Thievery, though far from the most noble art, was a way of survival, and a relatively reliable one at that. Why would he have felt shameful for using it, when his natural skills made him so very proficient ?

His sleight of hand tricks had never failed him in the past, and they hadn’t this time, either — he was already too experienced, too quick, too good with his words. A little distraction, a catching of the attention somewhere far from the point of contact, and it was done. But Bruno Buccellati was not just another victim : with only a glance, Bruno had assessed him. He had immediately noticed Giorno’s tricks, and had quickly grabbed his wrist before he could reach anywhere.

Giorno, though he had, over the years, gained the cat-like reflexes necessary to get away from any situation, had been stunned into place. He could still remember the sharp, painful slap he’d gotten for his tentative pilfering : right against the curve of his cheek, producing a sound that had echoed down the street and caused a flock of pigeons to fly away in sheer panic. Bruno had not held back on him : Giorno could have sworn he’d do a full spin in his breeches, had he not been held so tightly. A few of the other youths there had gasped, gawking intensely at the scene.
Floored beyond belief, caught red-handed for the very first time, Giorno had been at a loss for what to do. He had briefly hesitated between immediate retaliation (he was no stranger to fistfights, and did always keep something sharp on him) and defense (which implied, as he had a lot of experience with, to lie down into a foetal position and await for the blows to cease), but as it turned out, he did not have to pick. Bruno did not hit him again (ever again, in fact), nor did he lecture him about the heinous sin that was biting the hand that feeds. Instead, without letting go of Giorno’s wrist, he had simply said those words:

« If you need something, I’ll give it to you. If you are in trouble, I will try to help. If you want a place to sleep, I’ll give you an address where you’ll be safe. But you don’t steal from me, guaglione. Are we clear on that ? »

Crystal clear, was what it had been, and Giorno had not stolen from him again. Not out of fear for another slap, as those, in the end, were only a small price to pay compared to the potential meal he could afford, were he able to successfully steal.

But rather, because this encounter had been the start of something entirely new in Giorno’s life.

Bruno had stayed true to his words. He had brought Giorno somewhere safe, where two boys already lived. Both older than Giorno, but Giorno had recognized them.

« Hey ! » had exclaimed the shortest one, who wore a bandage around his eye, and whose name, Giorno would learn a little later, was Narancia. « I know you ! You’re from l’Annunziata ! I’ve seen you around the orphanage before ! »

« Ah, that’s right, » the other, whom Giorno would later identify as Mista, had nodded with all the wisdom a fifteen year-old could muster. « You’re the one who could do all the magic tricks. I’ve seen you practicing. That was impressive. »

Intimidated, though not especially eager to appear uppish, Giorno had progressively opened up to them. He had shown them a few of his tricks, which mostly involved quick skills of prestidigitation : turning things into others, hiding coins into sleeves, and the like. Narancia, in turn, had shown Giorno his own favorite trick, in which he suddenly lifted his bandage and revealed the empty socket there, all while making horrifying gurgles with his mouth.

The effect was always the same, and was (to him) always satisfactory.

What was supposed to be a temporary reprieve from the gutter soon evolved into a forever arrangement. As it turned out, and though the first few steps were difficult, Giorno realized that he had many things in common with Mista and Narancia, and that he enjoyed their company, as they did his. As for Bruno, he quickly became an incredibly important part of Giorno’s daily life : not only because of the help he relentlessly gave, but because, as destiny had wished it, they promptly realized just how marvelously they got along with each other. Giorno felt deep respect and affection towards Bruno, and he liked to think Bruno felt the same way.

The group had extended slightly with the arrival of a newcomer : a young girl named Patrizia Una, called Trish by all those requested to do so — meaning, her close friends, and all those whose familiarity she did not fear. She had quickly become a staple of their outings, as well as most of their days and evenings ; it wasn’t rare for her to settle down in their little apartment northwest of Napoli, spend the night, help them tend to the place, and make it at least fit to live in.

Trish was lucky enough to have a family, and though it was small, she had always made sure to use that asset to her friends’ advantage. Donatella Una, as had Bruno Buccellati before her, had been of incredible help to the Espositos, if only by being a reassuring maternal presence to young boys who had been, for too long, deprived of it.
It was intriguing, really, this incredible intimacy they all shared, this closeness of the minds that followed with an affection and a fidelity so intense that, faced with immediate danger, the children most certainly would have defended each other to the death.

Perhaps such devotion was an aftereffect from years of soul crushing loneliness.

Either way, Giorno Giovanna now shared his life with one rowdy bunch of people he was proud to call friends.  Finally freed from cumbersome loneliness, he was able to focus all of his energy into the now central point of his life : meaning, the overtaking of La Camorra, and its subsequent transformation into a better organization.

« Giorno ? »

The ratty couch, sitting in the middle of one of their two rooms, had since its arrival been the center point of every reunion. Though it was a morbidly uncomfortable place to sit, and dangerous, for a few of its springs liked to peek out from hiding every once in a while — dealing substantial pain whenever one of the Espositos attempted to sit upon it without a thorough checking — it was still the most appropriate spot of reunion in the whole home.

It was also, though slightly less, appropriate for impromptu naps. Giorno had conducted a number of investigations on this particular topic, as he did not like to be in bed at night ; and in fact, as Trish came to shake him awake, he had been right in the middle of an only slightly agitated sleep.  

Though she made sure to move him very gently, with the utmost attention as to not startle him, Trish’s rousing prompted Giorno to sit up suddenly, as if overcome with terrible fright. He let out a gasp that came out strangled, holding himself on his elbows, the very picture of interrupted sleep : his eyes wide and cloudy still from slumber, face damp and pallid, breathing ragged and frazzled.

It took him a few seconds to truly awaken. As he did, Trish did not move from his side, though she was startled by his sudden reaction.

« Giorno, are you alright ? I apologize, but it’s well into the afternoon. And you asked me to wake you before five. »

Giorno waited a few beats for his breathing to settle, for the fog to leaves his eyes. When it finally did, he turned towards her. Her hand was on his shoulder in an attempt to placate him ; she left it there for a while longer, though he had already begun to calm down.

« Ah, thank you, » he mumbled through his furred tongue, pinching at the bridge of his nose. Stars bursted under his eyelids like a colorful flurry.

« Are you feeling good ? » she asked, her tone soft. « You seem perturbed. And your face looks so pale ! »

Giorno’s skin tone was usually much closer to a luminous, sunkissed tint ; onto such a canvas, any change in color was immediately noticeable. He massaged the center of his forehead, where he felt a slight congestion — and where a piercing headache was surely building up.

« I had a bit of a strange dream, » he murmured.

And slowly, it was lifting from his skin, like steaming water. Like a snake’s shed scales.

« Oh ! » Trish sat down onto the couch next to him, crossing one leg over another. « Do you wish to tell me about it ? My mom always tells me the meanings of my dreams. Maybe I can help you make some sense out of them. »

With the way she sat, her long red skirt left her ankles uncovered. Giorno looked down at her shoes, just long enough to see the sliver of skin exposed by the fabric, then quickly looked away, back up, to her face, as if pricked by a needle.

« Ah, what did I dream of… Let’s see. Beetles… Water… A garden with Helicrysum -- Everlastings. That’s about all the details that are coming up to mind. »

« Beetles are a good sign ! » Trish affirmed, patting Giorno’s forearm. « Ah, that is, unless they’re crawling over your body. They weren’t crawling over you in your dream, were they, Giorno ? »

« No, I don’t think they were. There were two, and they were fighting. I was watching them from afar. »

« Then it’s a good omen ! It’s a sign that your hard work will pay off. Aren’t you glad ? It’s quite good that you dreamt of beetles today of all days. »

She hummed aloud, searching the ceiling for inspiration.

« As for the water, that really depends… Was it a large body of water ? »

« No, it was small. Like a trough. Or a big basin. »

« Did it touch you ? »

« It did, yes. I had some on my hands. »

Feeling the need to clarify, Giorno then added :

« And it was dirty, muddy — not drinking water. Clear and red. There were plants swimming in it. »

« Mhm… Then, it’s different. Water and plants combined are a good omen, generally speaking ; it shows your nurturing side. Although, if you got splashed, it’s a sign that you are currently feeling… I’d say, torn ? Or in great emotional distress. »

« Is that so. »

« Are you very nervous about tonight ? »

Giorno remained quiet for a few seconds, pondering over the true nature of his emotions — the depth of which he had difficulties assessing — as well as the very real tension in his chest, there from the moment he had woken up.

It was true that tonight, an incredible event was to take place. For the first time in many years, a new face would enter the inner rankings of La Camorra. Like a new pope about to be crowned, Giorno could feel the pressure of a thousand worlds on his shoulders, weighing him down, forcing his chin up ; and though he was assured, he could not stop his stomach from feeling like it carried a boulder.

« I… » he started, then swallowed. « I can’t say that I’m not nervous. I am. Very much so, in fact. But I’ve worked hard for it to go well, so I’m confident that everything will run exactly as planned. »

He played with the hem of his large sleeve, and felt a hole near the cuff. He would have to get that fixed before tonight. Perhaps Mista could do it — that boy had a good eye, and was surprisingly dexterous with needles.

« Though I can’t quite shake this… sensation of fear, » Giorno continued. « Like there’s something looming over my head, warning me of an impending danger. I can’t tell what it is, or where it’s coming from, but it’s scaring me, Trish. It’s making me tense. »

He did not enjoy being like this, so utterly vulnerable and open about his own fears — and would probably not have been caught dead doing this in any other place, with any other person.

But here, now, with her, was different.

Trish’s hand caught Giorno’s, and squeezed it in a few, gentle pulses.

« Giorno, don’t be afraid. You’ll be wonderful ! You always are, you give amazing performances, and everything always goes smoothly when you take control of things. How could they not be charmed by you ? »

To this, Giorno gave a nod, brisk, and rushed, which anyone would most likely have interpreted as over-confident and rude — but which Trish, as one of the rare beings who could boast about knowing Giorno particularly well, knew to be remnants of a shyness he once possessed.  

As well as, perhaps, a slight flush of pride and flattery.

Trish continued, and her hand remained around Giorno’s ; warm around his cold fingers, gentle around the bumps of his knuckles.

« To go back to your dreams… » she continued. « You know, Everlastings are a bit of an uncommon flower to dream of. Or… Even to think about, really. Are you sure it was that ? »

« Oh, yes. I couldn’t mistake the smell. Is it a bad omen ? »

« Not at all, Everlasting blooms are very good flowers ! Or so I’ve heard. They represent, » she began to count on her fingers, « eternal love, resilience, innocence, and they have healing properties ! All good things, see ? »

Giorno gave a small grin.

« They mean just about anything, then. How am I supposed to know what the flowers in my dreams were supposed to represent ?  »

« Well, Gigi, I never said it was an exact science. »

« How do you even know all of this ? That’s a lot of details to remember. »

« My mother has been dissecting my dreams ever since I was old enough to describe them ! I was able to learn, through osmosis. »

« Have you ever dreamt of Helicrysum ? »

« Not that I can recall… »

« ... Do you think you might be able to find me some Everlasting flowers ? »

« Um. » Her voice was hesitant. « Well, I suppose so ? Everlastings aren’t too hard to find, I don’t think. They grow in many gardens. »

« If you did find some for me, it would be the most wonderful gift. »

His gaze had lit up, ever so slightly, as if a bright idea had made its home inside of his mind. Trish found herself taken aback, bashful, perhaps even a little timid.

Giorno did have a very annoying predisposition for making her feel — in ways she was unaccustomed to, and even reluctant to admit — important and needed, as if she were just as important to him as Mista, Narancia, or Bruno were.

It was startling, astonishing. And impossibly pleasing, each and every time.

« Of course, » she coughed, the tip of her ears warming, and her fingers gingerly wrapping around Giorno’s. « If it would make you happy — »

« We got ‘em ! »

Through the door, which had opened with a loud blast against the wall, came a particularly noisy duo, hunched over from the weight of the packages they carried — and half hidden behind their height.

They were carrying what Trish and Giorno soon realized to be mountains of old clothes, in varying states of quality and repair. The items were piled atop another without care for wrinkles or mess, in precarious balance in the two newcomers’ arms, as if snatched with great hurry and without much regard for their true qualities.

Trish did not jump upon their arrival, though her surprise transpired in another way : with the hurried retrieval of her own hands, slipped back into her lap as soon as she noticed their presence.

Giorno could still feel the phantom weight of her fingers around the back of his hands, encircling his wrists. The light touch of her fingernails. The softness of her palm.

« Oof, » one of the lumps spoke, letting its cumbersome burden fall right atop Giorno’s stretched legs, and revealing Mista’s tired, curly head. « Cavoló, I thought we’d never make it. Felt like I was carrying a dead donkey for three leagues. Fiu ! »

Letting out an exhausted breath, he shrugged off his large jacket, and, unceremoniously pushing off the load of clothing he had just brought, sat down onto the couch — grabbing Giorno’s legs to make  room and depositing them directly into his lap, so that he would remain in a lying position.

« Never doing that again, » Mista added with an exaggerated sigh, then pulled the rim of his hat over his eyes. « Never again, Giorno, not even for you. »

« You’re gonna be handsome tonight, Gigi ! » the second lump added, letting go of its own parcel and revealing itself to be an exhausted, but cheerful Narancia. « We found so much stuff, and Secco gave us a big discount ! Look, we even found you gloves. »

Secco was a great enigma of a man. Everyone in the neighborhood knew of him, as he had been a fixture among the town’s prowlers for years now, but no one, even the oldest nonne, could recall him ever being small. He walked around town, hunched over the weight of his merchandise, calling out with this raspy, gravelly voice of his, and seemed to know the whole city by heart, but no one knew where he lived. Parents warned their children not to go near him, for he was considered by most to be a boogeyman of sorts. His attitude, so utterly uncanny, reminded that of a beast : a dog, or perhaps a particularly mean cat. This erratic behavior both amused and terrified the children of Napoli, who, though often considered the bravest of all of Campania, ran to their homes whenever Secco rang his bell — warning not of goods to be sold, but of the beast’s arrival.

Even more intriguing, and even more frightening, was the fact that no one could possibly tell what the strange creature truly looked like ; in rain or shine, Secco’s face was obscured by a makeshift, tattered head wrap of sort, which covered his hair and his face from the nose down. When faced by him, all one could possibly see through the shadow of fabric were his eyes, bright and piercing like a vulture’s, which rarely blinked — and which never failed to intimidate the curious passerby. Still, no matter his strange looks, the gut-churning smell that wafted from him, or the horrendous looking man of ill repute he was often seen with, Secco sold a wide array of items, from pawned cutlery to stolen jewelry, and, apparently, clothes of mysterious origins.
Still feeling the slightest bit astonished by his friends’ unexpected arrival, Giorno shot a quick look to the aforementioned pair of gloves, held out proudly in Narancia’s hands. They were an approximative, off-white color, dusted with streaks of mud. Despite its filthiness, the gloves’ material seemed to be of excellent quality, and the lace trimmings circling their cuffs were surprisingly delicate — so delicate and fancy, in fact, that they appeared to have been taken from another era entirely, or perhaps from a museum…

Giorno clicked his tongue, tried a glove on, and found that it fit rather well, with only a slight amount of room to spare.

« You know, Narancia, » he said, pulling onto the wide cuff, « I think this might have been stolen from a grave. »

Trish’s eyes grew larger than a goose’s egg, and she immediately handed the filthy glove she had taken back to Narancia, her mouth twisting with disgust.

« Oh, » Narancia gasped, giving the item a closer look with his one good eye. « You really think so ? Hmm… »

He hummed thoughtfully for a few seconds, inspected the item closely, then shrugged.

« Well, it’s not like they’ll use them anymore, right ? »

« I suppose not, » Giorno approved with a wise nod.

Trish let out a deep, pained sigh.

« You guys really have a strange way of thinking… »

« Well, no matter, » Narancia continued, clapping his hands. « Gigi, we found you loads of other things ! Shirts, some trousers, cufflinks, a really nice blue and gold vest — hold on, let me just find it… I think it might have been in Mista’s pile, let’s see here… »

By rummaging as he did in the large pile of ancient clothes, Narancia rose a great cloud of dust into the chilly air. Giorno did a bit of the same, looking through the pile and finding a great amount of usable items — some of which only needed a few threads and a needle, as well as a thorough wash, to look brand new.

« You both got all of this for me ? »

« For tonight, » Mista clarified, voice muffled from under his hat, before he lifted it up. « So you look your Sunday best. Can’t have you look like a slob in front of La Camorra, right ? Our honor is at stake there, and you’ll be representing all of us ! »

Giorno’s lips stretched over a smile.

« Thank you, » he effused, a gentle warmth filling his words. « This must have cost you a lot. I’ll pay you back as soon as I’m able. »

Narancia let ouf a offended huff.

« There’s no need, I just told you ! Secco gave us a discount because of everything we took ! »

Narancia, though just as aware of the value of money as everyone else in the room (or perhaps even more), also held the largest pride — and did not like to speak of financial matters with his friends.

« He probably gave you a discount as thanks for helping him get rid of his garbage, » Trish mumbled, lifting a large piece of cloth that might have, at a point in history, been a pair of trousers, but was now so full of holes it was practically unrecognizable.

Mista nudged her leg with the tip of his foot, pushing it off the couch, and subsequently breaking her balance, almost making her fall.

« You could’ve come with us, if you don’t like what we picked. So fussy. »

Though Mista’s teasing and play-fight was, as always, done with great humor — as the two were, in many ways save for the fact they did not share the same ancestry, very much siblings — Trish retaliated by climbing higher onto the couch and nudging him right back, on the shoulder, making the hastily placed hat fall from his head and onto the floor.

« I trusted you boys to have better taste, » she chided with a grin. « I mean, just look at this. Half the things here won’t even fit him ! »

She held out a spectacularly large white shirt, adorned with a fluffy muslin jabot — into which, it was true, two Giornos would have easily fit, alongside a third, with some fiddling.

« It’s true that you’re pretty small still, Gigi, » Narancia approved, quickly putting on a richly ornate jacket, which was missing only parts of its left sleeve. « Though you’ve really grown a lot those last couple of years ! Cacchio, I remember when you were smaller than me… »

« Didn’t last long, » Mista retorted, trying (and so far, failing) to stop Trish from shoving him off the couch. « But I’m pretty sure you’re gonna grow some more later. Trish, will you fucking stop — »

« Get off, » she commanded, sitting half over him and half over Giorno’s spread legs. « You smell like mold. »

« Ehi ! It’s not me, it’s the clothes ! Jesus, stop pushing me — »

« Trish, » Narancia intervened, climbing onto the couch as well and barely containing his hilarity. « Stop bullying Mista ! »

« I’m not bullying him ! He can defend himself perfectly well. »

« Against you ? That’s not true, and you know that ! Give me back my hat ! »

« You guys, shut up, this is supposed to be Gigi’s day ! »

« On your life, Trish, if you don’t — »

With one final shove, dealt with the full strength of her leg, Trish finally pushed Mista off the couch, from which he fell without much grace, but with Giorno’s legs still on him. Brought along by the momentum of Mista’s fall, Giorno slipped from the large sofa ; and where Mista fell onto the pile of clothing he had discarded a moment earlier, Giorno landed on nothing but his own bum, which hit the floor with a painful sounding collide.

« Ow, » said Giorno, hand still tight around a fistful of couch fabric, which he had grabbed out of desperation as he felt himself about to slip. It, alas, had not been enough to stop his fall.

Trish let out a gasp, covering her mouth with both hands.

« Oh my god, Giorno, I’m so sorry ! I didn’t mean to — only Mista was supposed to go down ! »

Narancia’s laughter exploded, and so did Mista’s, as he got up from his horizontal position onto the rather comfortable pile of clothes.

« Let that be a lesson, Trish ! » Mista snickered, taking out his hand with the prospect of helping Giorno up. « War is never without collateral damage ! »

« Oh, shut up. You’re no master strategist. You don’t even know how to read ! »

« Maybe not, but I — »

Trish and Mista were both interrupted in their conversation by another, sudden, sonorous laugh : one that was not nearly as familiar to their ears as Narancia’s, Mista’s, or even Trish’s. It was a tinkling, joyful, new, incredibly lovely laugh, that rang and echoed into the room like the chime of a bell, and made all three of their hearts (unexpectedly, and instantly) quiver and melt with affection.

It was Giorno’s laugh.

Giorno was laughing, still sitting onto the floor, in a position that most would have found humiliating, but that he chose to keep. His face was illuminated by a wide, charming smile — one of his rare, incredibly cherished smiles, the sort that gave his eyes this delightful shine, and his features, this wonderful light.

And once he started, perhaps out of embarrassment or surprise, Giorno simply could not stop.

« I — » he began, finding a new breath, then continued through his laughter. « Sorry — I just — oh, I simply don’t know what I would do without you all. »

And then he laughed again, with a new energy, a new elation ; and with his body perhaps not used to such outward expressivity, Giorno’s face soon turned — a nice change from his earlier paleness — a cheery pink color, which he tried to cover with both hands.

Impossibly pleased by this particular reaction, Narancia and Mista both broke into laughter as well, hearts warmed with fondness and comradeship. And Trish’s heart skipped a beat, too — then proceeded to make up for lost time by setting into a pounding, much too quick rhythm.

She watched, mesmerized, a toothy smile tugging at her lips, as tension finally left the room — not to return again that day.


-


There were three things Giorno Giovanna liked above all else in life.

The first was observing the existence of others ; be they plants, humans, or animals — as, though the world had cruelly chipped his heart, Giorno remained utterly in love with it and the things that composed it.

The second was sleeping, and dreaming — as he was most free in dreams.

The last beloved activity managed to mix the very best aspects of both of those interests. In some instances, particularly during the stifling summer nights, the young Espositos would keep watch until sunrise, until one would finally fall right asleep where they had laid their head, and the rest would follow suit, practically as one man. Those nights would be spent talking, laughing, and playing idle games — in a harmony and camaraderie Giorno had longed to experience his whole life through.

Sometimes, the boys would both be asleep, and it would just be Giorno and Trish.

It would feel different, then.

Giorno always fought sleep the hardest when he and Trish were the only ones left awake. And because Giorno lived in the land of dreams, where the heart is always open and the eyes always closed, he had never exactly taken the time to ponder why.

It was clearer now.

But somehow, it still felt as if peonies were steadily growing inside of his heart — huge bouquets of them, blooming incessantly in fruity-smelling waves.


-


Now that winter had settled its cloudy veil over Napoli, night had the displeasing tendency to fall much earlier than it had any right to ; as if the sky, growing tired of carrying around this heavy gray gloom and to be relentlessly swept and slashed by cruel winds, had decided to leave work early, abandoning its earthly children to dreary darkness.

But no matter the obscurity, in a little church near the Caffè del Pettirosso, a christening was taking place.

The event almost went unnoticed entirely, as by the time Bruno and Leone arrived near the premises, it was already coming close to an end. Though the men had no way of knowing that specific information, the child being baptized was a boy, and had been named Fiorello by his parents. The very charming scene, dusted with scores of cooing and sugared almonds, kept the two men watching for a moment : the child’s christening robe was a pearlescent white, and seemed to be made of incredibly fine, flowery lace. Though he still had the scrunched up, strangely wrinkly features of a newborn, the boy was already rather pudgy, and seemed to be slightly older than what would have been expected for a christening ; not by much, perhaps a few weeks. Surprisingly enough, no cries echoed through the church. The baby, particularly well-behaved, simply cooed loudly at the priest, waving its little arms around and producing high pitched noises from its open mouth.  As they passed the church, Leone and Bruno both felt the same thought cross their brain — unbeknownst to each other, for it was not a thought they decided to share.

« Caffè del Pettirosso, » Leone began as they reached the end of their travel, giving the place a quick once-over. « That’s a rather sweet name, for such an establishment. »

It was true that the building the Camorristi used as a hideout did not look like much — at least, not at first glance. Though the building was rather tall and imposing in stature, there was not anything that differentiated it from any other caffè in town. Save perhaps from the fact that it was rather quiet for a late afternoon, the Pettirosso had the same inconspicuous front as did any other establishment of the sort ; from its locked, yellow stained-glass windows, a dim light was emanating, as were hushed noises, and a general air of comfortable disrepair that only served to render it even more unremarkable to the naked eye.

Leone supposed it was part of the appeal. After all, though the Societá was little more than an open secret throughout town, its level of threat most likely still deserved at least this some semblance of camouflage.

« Oh, it would do you no good to take it at face value, » Bruno replied, instinctively reaching for his collar to lessen its constriction. « The place wasn’t always named like that. It was rechristened after the old owner’s death. Do you know how robins have those red throats and bellies ? »

« I do. »

« The first owner got his throat slit open. » He made a horizontal cutting motion against his own throat, miming the blood that would have flowed from the imaginary wound. « Hence, the name. Pettirosso. »

To Leone’s wide eyes, Bruno simply shrugged.

« Charming, wouldn’t you agree ? That should give you an idea of the humor they have around here. »

A grin took hold of Bruno’s mouth.

« Though, if I’m not mistaken, » he added, « that type would be similar to yours, would it not ? »

Leone winced, whistling through his teeth.

« Ah… Bruno, my dear friend, that’s no good, » he sighed, shaking his head with despondency.  « I fear you are beginning to know me too well. Were you anyone else, now would be the time I would start to worry about taking off ; you’ve learnt too many of my faults. »

Bruno let out an offended gasp.

« Oh, you would do that ? How cruel — you’d leave, without even looking back ? Leone, please, think of the children. »

« Don’t encourage me to leave even more, please. I do not need this much convincing. Ah, speaking of, » Leone grumbled, rubbing his own forearms to generate some warmth. « Here comes the infantry. »

An infantry of literal infants, as it was.

Indeed, there came the Espositos ; quartet turned trio, as Trish appeared to be missing, or most likely had preferred to stay home, as her joining would have proven to be little more than a joyful skip into the lion’s den. Encircled by his two accomplices (who had taken to walking with a swagger pointedly infused with virile confidence), Giovanna arrived.

He arrived with his chin tilted high, hair immaculate — each curl with a function, a set place in the soft oval of Giovanna’s face — and gait incomparably poised. This incredibly serene deportment reminded Leone of a cat, a cat whose entire world was little more than a prey : to be looked at with a mixture of contempt and lenity.

To Leone Abbacchio, the latter was arguably much worse — at least when it came from Giorno Giovanna.

« What on earth is he wearing, » he spluttered through his teeth, scorn already frowning his brow. « This shirt looks older than he is. Who got this child dressed — »

« Giorno, » Bruno called, welcoming the group over. « How is it going ? Are you very nervous ? »

« A little, » Giovanna admitted, shimmying slightly in the (admittedly gorgeous, horrendously old-fashioned) blue and gold vest he was adorned with. « But, I believe myself to be as ready as I’ll ever — »

« Bruno ! » Narancia immediately interrupted. « Look at him ! What do you think ? Doesn’t he look good ? We spent all afternoon dressing him up ! »

« Ah, that does explain it, » Leone nodded, burying his hands into his pockets. Bruno prodded his side, making him flinch.

« He looks wonderful, yes, » Bruno then approved, idly fixing the shoulders of Giorno’s freshly cleaned jacket — which retained from its former proprietor and state of disrepair only a few loose threads near the sleeves. « You’ll make an impression, of that I’m sure. »

Leone huffed pointedly, before his eyes caught a subtle detail he had been about to miss : in Giorno’s buttonhole was a little boutonniere of yellow flowers. Tiny, unnoticeable, barely worthy of acknowledgement — but here nonetheless, and surprising by its presence.

Surely, they had to be the ugliest flowers Leone had ever seen — or, to be more fair, the least remarkable. They appeared to be a small cluster of droplet-shaped, bright yellow blossoms, spread around the stem like the specks of an exploding firework, attached to the body of the plant by thick stalks that had the curvature and rigidity of an umbrella’s ribs, or a very small tree's branches. In each flower proudly stood a puff of tiny, tiny stamens. With some imagination, and a bit of a romantic soul, one could have almost heard them jingling against Giovanna’s chest.

Everlasting flowers, on this day, for such an occasion. Another mystery of Giovanna’s.

He hummed, and gave a flick to Giorno’s lapels, catching his attention.

« I do like the pop of color, though, » Leone said, tone deliberate, bordering on cautious. « That’s an interesting flower you picked. »

Giorno gave a small smile.

« I couldn’t agree more, Signore Abbacchio. »

And with that, Abbacchio felt ten times more lost — and certainly much more amused.

« Are you all planning to stand there for much longer ? »

A sudden splash of light into the rapidly darkening street ; a wave of heat, from the inside of a warm room ; and a man, standing in the doorway, leaning against the wall, as if this were a simple meeting of acquaintances. Espositos and companions both froze at the sight.

The man was not very tall — not nearly as tall as Leone was, for what it was worth — and seemed fairly young in age. His hair was worn in a similar fashion to Leone, save for the fact that it was untied, and darker in color. The familiarity of the style was not unwelcome, in a world of short-haired men (and the way they looked at him, somewhere between wary and appalled), but Leone could not stop himself from feeling, very selfishly, as if a bit of his originality had just been taken away.

He would rest easy, however, knowing that he wore it with much more elegance and care than his newfound counterpart.

The young man had a juvenile air to him, emboldened by the length of his neck, the softness of his features, and the lankiness of his limbs. The way he held himself against the wall, in a perfect contrapposto, only served his debonair attitude, and gave his stick-thin body some semblance of volume.

But there was something uncanny to him, that Leone couldn’t exactly pinpoint ; like a flickering light or a stingy moth, it continually escaped his grasp, until he was left pondering if the features facing him were truly strange, or if that impression was merely due to a trick of the lights.

The young man’s face split into a strange, canine grin, which dimpled his cheeks and wrinkled his eyes. It was then that Leone realized just what exactly felt so strange about him, even at first glance : one of his eyes, unmoving and glazed over like a dead fish’s, was not an eye, but a prosthetic sphere made of pale glass, painted over hastily with green tints and a grayish pupil.

It was then that, for reasons unknown, Narancia (their very own one-eyed youth) silently reached for Leone’s elbow, and gently, discreetly grasped it. This action, seemingly coming from pure instinct, and most certainly not directed specifically at him, was an immediate shock to Leone’s sensitivities nonetheless : being trusted as a figure of authority, worse, a figure of protection to this little group — the constituents of which supposedly knew how to take care of themselves just fine without his help — was a responsibility he had never expected to receive, and he instantly yearned to delegate it to someone else.

La Camorra was at the door, and there was no going back now.

It felt like standing in a limbo, like straddling two different river banks. Inevitably, they would have to cross over ; but the finality of that action, the terrifying prospect of not being able to return to more familiar lands, and the daunting realization that mortal danger was a lot closer than any of them had expected were enough to make the Espositos blench with uncertainty.

Thankfully, Bruno was the first to break the spell of silence that had befallen them all. Strong against the wind, like a stout little boat braving the storm, he broke away from the group and came forward, to the strange young man with one eye, immediately clearing the atmosphere of any apprehension.

« Melone, » Bruno said, and his attitude had changed completely : as if he had settled into another’s skin, fitting taut and rigid around his own like the chitin of a beetle. « How do you do. »

« Oh, I’m doing beautifully, » the young man replied, still frighteningly immobile against the doorframe. « But it’s a bit of a ruckus inside, I have to admit. Everyone is very eager to meet your new protégé. »

« Is that so. »

« And as am I ! » Melone continued, and upon hearing the sound of his voice again, Leone quickly came to the conclusion that he did not like this man, not even one bit. « How intriguing you’ve made him to us ! How enticing ! I’ve been shivering with anticipation for most of the day now, just dying to meet him. »

He dipped his head slightly to the side, gaze roaming with intent, and falling onto the middle of the little group — which had retreated into Bruno’s shadow.

« Ah, that must be him. Good evening, guaglione, » Melone said to Giorno, who straightened up — making the two boys around him, as one man, straighten up as well. « My my, lookie here, blondie, how nicely you’ve dressed. Is that for us ? You look just about ready for your débutante ball. »

« It’s cold out, Melone, » Bruno interjected, voice sounding as serene as he could possibly muster. « Let us get in, before our feet freeze to the ground. »

Melone threw a nod Leone’s way.

« And who’s that gentleman ? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him before. He certainly carries a lot with him. »

That was true ; though Leone, this time around, had been very careful to bring only the strictest minimum. But there was only so much an artist could do when it came to the materials necessary to achieve the best results in his craft. And as was bound to happen, Leone, much like a turtle carrying its home on its back, had taken travel easel, colors, brushes and thickeners, without the assurance that he would even be allowed in the organization’s headquarters.

One had to take risks, in this profession. This would not be Leone’s first leap of faith ; and with some luck, it would not be his last.

« Careful with who you’re speaking to ! » Narancia suddenly huffed, ignoring the insistent press of Mista’s hands on his shoulders, trying to hold him back. « That guy here ain’t just anybody ! That’s — »

« — Leone Abbacchio, » Leone completed himself, not the least bit confident in Narancia’s abilities to introduce him properly. « Painter. From Rome. Good evening. I am a friend of the Buccellati-Milazzo family, and I wondered if I would be allowed to paint the members of your… charming organization. »

That was not to say Leone’s introduction skills were any better. But at the very least, they were his own to carry, just like every one of his shortcomings.

Raising an eyebrow at that, Melone finally moved from his perfectly still pose, only to take another one, at a slightly different angle, and crossing his arms over his chest — decidedly not moving from the door.

« Buccellati, now, allow me to recapitulate. You brought a friend to paint the faces of La Camorra ? »

All heads turned to Bruno’s direction. Perhaps out of legitimate instinct, as Bruno did not waver, and instead took a slow step forward.

Leone, from this point on, became truly admiring of his partner’s self control : how could he stay so civil, when this young man’s words were so irritating and when his voice was… For lack of a better word, so goopy to the ear ?

« Why not ? » Bruno questioned, taking another, then two, then three steps forward. « Most of them seem like good faces to put on a canvas. Don’t you think the features of the strong, capable men of La Camorra deserve to have their likeness immortalized, for future generations to admire ? »

Another few steps forth.

 « Although, I must apologize in advance on my friend’s behalf, for he might have some trouble with getting your profile in a good light. Perhaps a few tries might be necessary. »

Melone let out a strangled laugh, and the dim light from inside made his glass eye shine like a cat’s pupil. This, and the glint of his teeth, and his twisted posture, were enough to make discomfort rise like bile in Leone’s stomach. Bruno took another step.

« Oh, » Melone taunted, just as Bruno finally reached him, close enough to almost touch him. « Oh, you think you are so smart, don’t you, and so, so very charming. But you don’t believe in half the words you say. Don’t try to deny it, I can smell it on you, you presumptuous little — »

« Signore Abbacchio ? »

All heads turned, this time, to the door, where a new arrival had very suddenly interrupted Melone’s heartfelt soliloquy. But this time around, Bruno was not the only one to recognize the newcomer, as Leone was able to identify him almost instantly.

It was the man with the pockmarked skin and the slick blonde hair and the greek statue profile.

It was the man from the boat.

« … Signore… Di Parma ? »

Bruno turned to him, grave surprise on his otherwise impeccably straight face.

« Leone, you know him ? »

« Why yes, » Prosciutto di Parma unceremoniously pushed Melone to the side, coming to meet the little group with an amenable, if slightly colder, expression. « Signore Abbacchio and I became acquainted on a lovely boat ride from Civitavecchia to Napoli. But I was an admirer of his works way before then. How funny to find you here today — I have to admit, this is the last place I would have expected to meet you again. »

Leone gave a shrug, which made all of the equipment he carried onto his back shift ever so slightly — and caused Giorno to involuntarily flinch, as one of the easel’s legs barely missed his head.

« Fate is a strange thing. It can sometimes make life work in funny little ways. »

« Indeed, » Prosciutto approved. « Indeed it can. How incredible, still. After so many months, I was not sure you would recognize me, or recall my name. »

« Told ya he was famous, » loudly whispered Narancia, most likely to Melone, who simply rolled his eyes.

For a brief moment, Prosciutto’s eyes seemed to switch from Leone to Bruno in quick successions, gaze absent and dull, as if he were retreated deep, back into his own thoughts, before he smiled — and his smile, though vastly different in its curve and intent, carried the same falsity and animality as Melone's had.

He also had a bit of an overbite, which Leone always found amusing in men with aristocratic particles.

« Oh, but I’m neglecting my duties, » Prosciutto di Parma suddenly said, grabbing his younger associate by the shoulder. « I see you’ve already met Melone, yes ? »

He then added, slightly lower, to the Melone’s ear :

« Melone, straighten up, imbecille maledetto. Please excuse him. He’s still being trained. »

Melone gave a perfect emulation of Prosciutto’s forced smile, keeping his eyes fixated onto Bruno.

« Prosciutto, I would rather cut off a piece of my ass and eat it too rather than to have my conduct justified by you. »

« Pffft, » Narancia snickered through closed lips — though he was thankfully not heard over the sound of rambunctious laughter, further in the distance.

« Hah ! Hah, he’s got you there, Prosciutto ! » came another voice from inside. « Good one there, Melone ! »

Prosciutto let out a seething whistle through his teeth.

« He and another recruit of ours, » he then continued, voice now under a light strain, « are why we first hesitated to take in one more Giovanotto. But, well, since he’s received a good word from you, Buccellati, and since Nero — »

Melone snorted.

« Do not try to make it sound as if you got a say in the matter, di Parma. »

A harsh knock fell atop his head, dealt by none other than Prosciutto himself.

« Very well, » he breathed out, finally removing Melone from the doorway. « Shall we get inside ? It’s gotten a bit chilly these days, no ? »

« Oh, ow, god, » Melone cursed and swore as he was pulled inside by the scruff of his neck. « ’Stu ricuttaro ‘e mmerda, ma que coglione questo figlio di — »

« I thought you’d never ask, » Bruno replied, and stepped forth, bringing the others along with him.

And so, in they came, one after the other, into the Pettirosso establishment, into the surprisingly pleasant warmth of La Camorra’s inner sanctum, and into a surprisingly crowded main room.
Just as the Pettirosso’s outside appearance had seemed perfectly innocuous at first glance, its inside was rather imposing, in a very rustic fashion. The yellow light projected onto the tinted windows came from a variety of oddly-shaped oil laps, which were scattered onto each and every surface a reasonably sized oil lamp might have fit onto, along with four tall candelabras standing in each corner of the room. The tavern was empty save from the western corner and the sizable counter in the center of the room, behind which a young woman with ash-blonde hair seemed to be busy inspecting a large pile of papers.

From behind that counter, Leone could also hear hushed voices and muted laughter, most likely belonging to children, which he couldn’t help but find odd in this place from which he had almost been forcefully removed himself.

In the western corner, the accommodations seemed made to fit a much different crowd from the rest of the inn — where the chairs and tables were of simple, knockable, light shaded wood, perfect for a game of dice or a few drinks shared between friends. But there, in that western corner, the seatings seemed just slightly more comfortable (though even from where Leone was standing, it was easy to notice the tears in the seats’ material, as well as the dust that had accumulated in its wrinkles) and arranged into a large square, so that no backs were turned.

Leone was immediately struck by just how very lively the hideout appeared to be — in bad shape, certainly, and perhaps rather poor, but lively all the same. And populated, too.

Indeed, there, in that corner, as many as six adult men were comfortably seated — and all twelve of their eyes were looking solely at the newcomers, with varying degrees of interest.

« Well, there they are, » Prosciutto called out to the group of men. « You might all want to wipe those smiles off your faces. Honestly, is this becoming of members with a status such as yours ? I would have thought you’d want to make a good first impression on our new recruit. »

« Aw, piss off, » came the voice of a red haired man, who leant so far back into his seat he might have been in the process of being completely swallowed by the old sofa. « Would you really take away one of our only joys in the world, Prosciutto ? Would you be that cruel ? »

« What ‘joy’ might that be, pray tell ? »

« To see you bite the dust every once in a while, » mocked another with longer, dark brown hair, sitting atop one of the sofa’s armrests, who was busying himself with peeling an orange. « Ever since Nero named you second in command for a day, it feels like you’ve been feeling just a little too big for your boots. It’s nice to have you be knocked down a peg sometimes. By new recruits, too ! »

« If anything, Buccellati has been second in command more often than you, » stated a blonde, fluffy-haired man who, to Leone’s utter surprise and unimaginable delight, had both his legs tangled with those of another man sitting close to him. « Even though he’s only a contaiulo. So, if we went by that metric, as far as authority goes… »

« I am not feeling too big for my boots, thank you very much, » Prosciutto quietly objected, with only a slight hiss. « Either way, I suppose introductions might be in order, if only for Signore Abbacchio here and… » he made a vague gesture towards the Espositos. « You… boys over there. »

In the corner of his eye, Leone saw Giorno’s ramrod straight posture, and his stately bearing, the way he held his head, and almost scoffed with mockery, until he noticed, to his utmost displeasure and frustration, the youth’s hands.

Fiddling with the buttons of his nice jacket, as if to hide a nervous tremor — a shiver, perhaps, that had overtaken him from his very core, and now made him tremble practically from head to doe. Worse yet, it made him fidget.

Rolling his eyes, Leone stepped right in front of Giorno, as to hide him from prying eyes, and grabbed the youth’s wrists from behind his back

« Don’t do that, » he muttered, giving Giorno’s wrist a light shake. « It makes you look like a child. Stop it. »

He felt no resistance from Giorno. Only a sudden stiffening of his every muscle, and then a calm, slow release of tension, with a soft exhale of air.

Once he was assured the shaking had stopped, Leone let go of Giorno’s hands, which grabbed at the lapels of his coat, and gently pulled once.

Leone hummed, as quiet as he could possibly muster, acknowledging the thanks.

Meanwhile, Prosciutto had continued to talk, and Leone, to his own mortification, realized that he had listened to none of the explanations whatsoever.

« — and this here, » Prosciutto concluded, patting the shoulder of a chubby little man with no chin, « is Pesci. You might remember him, as he was with me on the boat to Napoli the day we met. »

« Hello, Signore, » Pesci said, with a pleasantly wide smile and a wave.

« Of course, how could I forget, » Leone acquiesced, giving a nod to the group of men’s general direction. « Good day to you all. It is a pleasure to be working with you to day. I am impatient beyond belief to paint all of you. »

A hand rose into the air, belonging to the man with short red hair.

« Will we get to keep the works once they’re done ? To be frank with you, I’m not sure if Nero would really appreciate all of our faces being out there, hanging in some posh people’s homes. »

Leone nodded.

« Yes, of course. Today is a mere exercise for me. The paintings will be given back to you, free of charge — as thanks for allowing me into your… Private society. »

« He’s only here for tonight, » Bruno completed, eyeing Leone with an approving gaze. « Since today is a little bit special. »

« It sure is, » grumbled a young man, whose tightly-curled hair was flattened against his scalp by copious amounts of Macassar oil. « Though I honestly don’t quite see how this kid’s ceremony is any different from Melone’s or mine. »

« Thank you, Ghiaccio, thank you, » Melone approved, wrapping both of his arms around the young man’s neck from behind, pulling him into a strange embrace. « I approve completely of whatever you just said. »

« Oh, don’t you fucking touch me. Melone, I swear to god, I’ll kick your face in. ’Ngul a mammeta, don’t touch my goddamn hair — »

« He’s different because he’s even more of a baby than you guys’ are, » the black haired man whose legs were tangled with the blond man’s spoke. « He’s different, because he’s climbed the ranks faster than anyone has ever seen. He’s different because Nero wants him, and because Buccellati sees good potential in him. »

He coughed, loudly, and spat into a handkerchief.

« Now, » he added, voice the slightest bit raspier. « You want me to paint you a fucking picture too, or are your ears clean enough to understand what I say ? »

This was enough to shush the two younger members. The blond man whispered a few words into his partner’s ear, and he nodded, but did not add any more.

« Well, » Prosciutto, now sounding incredibly tired, finally said after a few beats of silence. « All of you, let’s sit. Signore Abbacchio, you may get… Whatever you need to get ready, ready. Nero should be here at once, and once he arrives, we will be able to get going with this ceremony. »

Feeling incredibly out of their depth, but swaggering with the confidence of youth all the same, Narancia and Mista both found a seat on the couch, and managed to squeeze Giorno’s frame between them both, as not to be separated — or worse, mixed in with those disturbing individuals. As for Leone, he settled slightly further from the group, sitting onto one of the regular chairs, and took out his sketching book.

To his pleasure, Bruno decided to sit down beside him as the loud conversations began anew. He settled into his seat with a long, exhausted sigh, shoulders suddenly hanging low — and, just for a second, he rested his forehead against Leone’s shoulder.

« It has barely started, » he murmured, « but I already feel as if a thousand lifetimes have run through me. »

« I can only imagine, » Leone replied, taking out his colors and beginning to draw. « Now, I apologize profusely, but I’ll have to ask you for some help. I did not listen to di Parma’s little speech at all, and therefore I have absolutely no clue what all those people are named. Care to give me a hand ? »

Bruno snorted, a little louder than might have been expected, then smacked a hand against his mouth until his laughter subsided.

« Sure, » he smiled, already seeming to be in a much brighter mood. « Sure, I’ll give you a few pointers. »

He gave a discreet nod in Prosciutto’s general direction — which went unnoticed, as the aforementioned gentleman was otherwise busy with pulling onto Melone’s ear, both literally and figuratively.

« This one, you’ve already met. Prosciutto di Parma. »

Leone immediately got to sketching.

He would use radiant lemon for the hair, just barely diluted with a dash of white. He would have to add rather fine details to make him stand out : the little pock marks on his skin, the overbite, the charming cut of his jaw ; the general allure of his features, imperfect yet attractive, in a contemporary sort of way.  

« I have, yes, » Leone replied, eyes tirelessly flicking from Prosciutto to his sketchbook. « Albeit very briefly. He says he admires my work, but to be frank, I have my doubts over the sincerity of this statement. He seems a little too obsequious to mean every word he says. »

« I wouldn’t trust him either, if I were you. He makes a living out of flattering others. He’s a former gentleman, you see, old fortune, whose name hasn’t been uttered in a positive sentence for many years in high society. »

« ‘Former’ gentleman, uh ? Whatever happened to his title ? »

« A stroke of bad luck, to start, followed by a row of atrocious business decisions taken by his father. They fell into financial ruin a few years ago. »

The penniless nobleman finding himself in La Camorra. Now that was rather flavorful.

« Mmh. That would make any man soil his hands. »

« Precisely, » Bruno approved, cheekily glancing over Leone’s shoulder to see what he was drawing.

« What of his brother ? » Leone then proceeded to ask, switching pages.

« Pesci ? Oh, there’s not much to be said about him. He’s fairly docile, and follows just about everything his brother tells him. »

A round, baby-cheeked, full face. An equally full stature, a button for a nose, and tiny, tiny little ears. This funny little tuft of hair Leone had liked so much, back on the boat. Big wide eyes, filled with admiration and fortitude.

He reminded Leone of a large trout.

« Are they related by blood ? »

« They look nothing alike, do they ? No, they’re not. Pesci was welcomed into the di Parma family when he was just a child, long before they lost their fortune. He’s the salt of the earth, honestly. A very earnest soul. I couldn’t tell you any bad things about him, save for the fact that he is part of La Camorra and therefore, hard to redeem in my eyes. And also that he is, well. Slightly difficult to manage at times, on account of his sensitive nature. »

« Oh, but aren’t we all, » Leone muttered, scribbling vigorously. « What of this one ? »

With the tip of his charcoal, he pointed to the red haired man, who was voraciously eating half an orange.

A flare of burnt sienna and cadmium orange atop his head, close to the scalp like that of a convict. A  very straight nose, and a square dimpled chin. Eyes that retreated deep into his skull. A short, slightly curved neck. A true brick of a man, compressed and wound tight.

« Formaggio, » Bruno said. « I believe he’s the one with the most humble roots here. He was born a shepherd, deeper in the land, and learnt the craft of miniaturists when he was still young. If you ask him nicely, he’ll show you some of his pieces — I have to admit, they’re all quite impressive. »

Leone snorted.

« A miniaturist ? Well, fancy that. It doesn’t sound like he fits in La Camorra, with that kind of interest. »

« To be fair, most of his endeavors do consist of very common crook activities. He’s a very charismatic individual — in case that was not obvious at first glance — with a taste for intimidation and violence. He likes to feel strong, though he isn’t afraid to go low, and he holds grudges like no one I’ve ever seen. »

« That sounds more like it. A very commendable individual, then. »

« I’ll say. But… He isn’t the worst of them, by far. I’d even call him amenable, if you enjoy that sort of company. »

« I shall keep it in mind. What of that one, here ? »

Long, dark brown hair — a touch of alizarin crimson, with a base of earth red and raw umber. A downturned nose, not dissimilar to Leone’s own, though its arch was slightly less pronounced ; thin brows, and a gaunt, elongated face. He was the one sharing an orange with Formaggio, and laughing with his whole face, with his whole mouth as they both talked.

A character, to be sure.

« Illuso, » Bruno explained. « He’s a spy for La Camorra, and… There isn’t much else that I could tell you about him — we don’t work together often, so I never had the chance to get acquainted with him properly. All I know is that he used to be a glassblower apprentice, though according to him, this occupation lacked prestige, and he was quick to change paths. »

Leone’s eyebrows both shot up.

« Is there really much more prestige to being a spy ? » he pondered aloud, tracing the line of his jaw. « Isn’t the point not to be seen ? »

« I would assume so, too. But his mind seems like a complicated place, and I can’t say that I’d be too keen on exploring it myself. »

Leone nodded, quickly scribbling a few more lines, before he pulled another blank page. His eyes drifted to his right, and then, there, the last childish part of his heart — the part that yearned still, the part that teetered with solitude still — began to flutter with a wistful tune.

« Those two, » Leone said, pointing out the two embracing men onto the farthest sofa. « Those are the ones I’m most interested in. You had not told me there were… Others. In La Camorra.»

« … What do you mean ? Other what ? »

Leone silently blinked up at his companion, before he grinned with mirth.

« Dearest Bruno, » Leone said, entertained by Bruno’s inquisitiveness, « I am well-versed in the art of hidden romance. But this is obviously a rather public one. »

Something seemed to finally click inside of Bruno’s head (which had perhaps clouded by exhaustion), and he let out a gasp — at last, understanding the implication.

« Oh ! Oh, I — well, to be completely frank with you, I had never… Questioned it. The way they act around each other, that is. I had simply accepted it as something they both did fairly regularly. It wasn’t until I met you that — »

Leone tapped the tip of his charcoal against his sketchbook, a single eyebrow raised high on his forehead. Bruno winced.

« Oh, don’t you give me that look. We were not all gifted by the capacity to immediately notice those things. Anyhow, » Bruno coughed. « This one is Sorbet, and the other one, with blonde hair, is Gelato. »

« What is it that they do ? »

« If you’d like to know, » came Sorbet’s raspy voice, « please feel free to ask. We don’t generally bite people we’ve never had the pleasure to formally meet. »

A laugh wandered through the assembly, much to Bruno’s embarrassment — and Leone’s mortification.

« I — Well, that is — » Leone scrambled to gather his wits. « I apologize, we did not mean to offend. I was simply… Curious. »

« We could tell, » Gelato replied, leaning his head into the crook of Sorbet’s shoulder. « But there is something you must understand about La Camorra, Signore Abbacchio. It is not a gentlemen’s club, nor is it a knitting circle. While we may all have occupations aside from our activities as Camorristi — I am a barber, my Sorbet has a butcher shop, dear Ghiaccio here used to dance for La Scala, in Milan… »

« I am still a dancer, » Ghiaccio spat from his seat. « A little injury changes nothing. They never revoked my title. And they never fucking will — they’d need to find me to do that ! »

« And they most certainly won’t, Ghiaccio, they most certainly won’t. But no matter what we do on our free time, » Gelato continued, unperturbed, « it does not change who we are. We are members of a Society, first and foremost. It is our identity. It has an impact on the way we live, talk, the way we behave around one another, the way we consider simple concepts of life, such as love, or trust. The truth of the matter is… As members of an association that reject the principles of society as a whole, we have to all be very close to one another. United. Like a family. »

He turned his head, and looked straight into Giorno’s eyes. He had a tall forehead, thick brows, and a thin, slightly broken nose that twisted to the side — his gaze was not unkind, but it had something cold to it, something harsh and biting. Something paternal.

« That is the most important thing you could possibly remember today, guaglione, » Gelato told Giorno, before reclining once more into Sorbet’s arms. « We’re all family. Keep it in mind, for it might be of some use. »

Giorno, seeming contented by the advice, nodded silently.

« Hey, pitto’, » Formaggio suddenly piped up, grinning from ear to ear. « You asked Bruno what Melone does for a living yet ? »

Bruno let out a long, discouraged sigh — as did Sorbet and Prosciutto. A sigh that said a lot about the nature of the young man’s activities.

« I have not, » Leone said, and Formaggio roared with laughter.

« Come on, then, Melone ! Come on ! Why don’t you tell the painter what you do ? »

Melone crossed his legs, a toothy smile spreading across his lips.

« Why, aren’t I glad you asked ! » he cooed. « Mmh, let’s see, how to put this… I come to the aid of couples who are aiming to procreate, but… Simply cannot find a way for it to happen without science’s intervention ! »

Leone had already begun to wince. He decided to focus entirely onto his drawing and shut out the rest of Melone’s speech.

« I sell homemade remedies, of course, but mostly, I work with massages, and the laying-on of hands onto the mother’s — »

« You damn fraud, » Illuso cackled. « As if you have even a single bit of medical training. »

« Oh, please, it’s not about training. It’s about understanding the currents of energies through the body, and to — »

« Eurgh, basta, basta, you can stop. God, you just crack me up, » Formaggio wheezed, and, having finished laughing, called out to the woman behind the counter. « Buffala ! Buffala, bellissima, can you pour us a drink ? »

« Will you pay me if I pour you a drink ? » the woman at the counter replied tit for tat, not bothering to look away from her papers.

« Aw, Buffalaaaaa, come on. Don’t be like that. Buffalina. Buffalincina. »

« Sorry, Formaggio. No coin, no booze. I have a family to feed. »

« Well, so do I ! I have a whole family, right there — and all of its members are dying of thirst ! »

« He’s not wrong, » Prosciutto said, raising his empty glass. « This is a very dry celebration. »

« Funds have been low, as of late, » added Sorbet. « It always gets like this, around Winter. When it’s not the heat, it’s the cold that makes us slow."

« Makes you wonder if now really is the time to add another member to the Society, » sing-sang Illuso, glaring at Giorno.

« Giorno will be a valuable asset to the team, » a very exhausted-sounding Buccellati retorted, as if entertaining this conversation for the hundredth time. « Taking him in will not be a waste of funds. »

« They’re easy to feed, you know, » Leone mused absentmindedly. « Crusts of bread, water every once in a while. Kids these days are not very demanding. »

A flick to the top of his head, dealt by a tutting Bruno, followed by the laughter of the assembly.

« You’re not wrong, pitto’, » Giorno unexpectedly chimed in from his seat betwixt his two friends. « But though I do find myself satisfied with very little, I, too — like every individual here, I must assume — have big dreams. Dreams of glory, dreams of a bright future. And many plans to make them all come to fruition. »

Having caught most of everybody’s attention (save for Leone Abbacchio’s, of whose he’d only acquired half), Giorno then proceeded to fish something out of his noticeably large pockets, and tossed it carelessly at the center of the table, where it opened and spilled with a resounding metallic clatter.

Everyone’s eyes, at the very same instant, turned wide.

It was a purse. Rather hefty in size, the width of a large man’s fist. It was made of thick, brown leather, bound with a long black lace that was currently untied and loose around its gaping mouth. It most certainly did not belong to Giorno, as it seemed expensive despite a slight bit of wear — or at least, it had not belonged to him until he had taken it for himself.

And spilling out from the purse were dozens and dozens of bright, golden coins. A small fortune amassed through months of hard work and privations, one that had been kept a secret from seemingly everyone, as neither Mista, Narancia nor Bruno seemed to be able to believe their eyes.

« I believe, » Giorno added, a fiery light returning at last to warm his gaze, « thirsty work should always be compensated. How can one find motivation without reward ? »

Leone, through his frustration, found it very hard to hold back a grin.

« Well, I’ll be damned, » Prosciutto murmured to himself, stunned by the display of wealth.

« Buffala ! » Formaggio practically screeched, elated beyond belief. « Buffala, get everybody some wine ! Pitcherfuls, for everyone ! God, I love this new recruiting process. »

« Alright, I changed my mind, » Illuso added, getting up to lean against Giorno’s couch. « I’m on this guy’s side now. »

« You’re easily bought, Illuso, » Melone mumbled, though he, too, was busy admiring the coins — and could not stop a wide smile from spreading across his lips.

Bruno and Giorno shared a meaningful glance from across the room ; one that was torn between approval, doubt, and a brusque surge of hopeful surprise.

Still, there was that subtle pulse of fear that lingered in their chests and drowned out the sound of their hearts. But their trust in one another was absolute, and though there were still facts about themselves they had not shared together (though no family is ever fully open when it comes to secrets and dread), they both knew that they would see through this morbid evening to the very end, together, united as one. For together, they were Espositos ; a Society, a clan of their very own, driven by passion and the indestructible will to live. One that La Camorra could merge with, but could never destroy.

In the meantime, driven by an unexpected impulse — one he had never felt before, and most certainly never acted on — Leone took to sketching long blond curls, royal blue clothes and golden coins.


-


Wine was served by the pitcherful, just as Formaggio had asked for. Every member and guest was poured a generous drink by a bemused Buffala — save for Leone, who politely declined and was given water instead.

« Wine gives me terrible headaches, » he casually explained to an aghast Formaggio. « I have been trying to cut down on… Those sorts of beverages. »

« Suit yourself, » Formaggio scoffed, turning back to Mista, with whom he had been enjoying a very animated discussion. « Ehi, you said you were a fine shot, huh ? You’ll have to show me that aim, someday. I’ve been trying to get my hands on a French firearm like yours, but those imported things are just so damn expensive ! »

« Don’t buy one, then, » Mista replied with a burst of laughter. « Just steal one from a traveling frenchman like I did ! »

They both shared a good laugh and clinked glasses.

As for Narancia, he had slipped away from the couch and was instead sitting on the carpeted floor, next to Ghiaccio. The older boy had taken to teaching him the very best tricks to use when it came to the more complex orders of pinfinger. So far, Narancia had only scraped his pinkie with the blade twice, which was a decisive improvement over his usual prowesses.

As for Giorno, he seemed to be in the middle of an extremely profound conversation with both Sorbet and Gelato ; the two men had apparently grown besotted with the youth over the past hour, and were seemingly very entertained by what said youth had to say. Leone could have hardly been able to tell just what exactly the three of them were talking about, but it seemed rather fascinating — if only based on Giorno’s enraptured expression.

As for Leone himself, well. He did what he had come here to do ; he was drawing to his heart’s content.

He felt the gentle stroke of fingers against the nape of his neck : soft caresses near the bottom of his hairline, the tickling of nails against his skin. He leant into the touch, contentment and pleasure compelling his body to relax against Bruno’s side.

In the time that had passed since they had arrived, Leone had filled almost a full book, and was still actively sketching — adding details to the little vignettes he had already drawn, trying out compositions, varied lights, varied colors. Moving models were infinitely trickier, but they were certainly a good exercise to capture motion.

« Is that him you’re drawing ? »

Leone started, taken by surprise, and accidentally put a line through one of his drawings — making poor Ghiaccio look as if an arrow had pierced through his neck.

Distracted as he had been both by the ambient noise, his work, and Bruno’s presence next to him, the painter had failed to hear the pitter patter of little feet against the wooden floor. Three faces now stared up at him ; youthful features, belonging to children between the age of seven and ten, with wide, bright, interested eyes.

The one who had just spoken seemed to be the oldest of the three. She had black hair down to her shoulders, and was staring into Leone’s sketchbook with passion in her gaze, while the two others (girls as well, one with pale blonde hair, and the other with gingery-brown hair) stood slightly to the side, though they seemed equally as intrigued.

What was it in this town with little girls and art ?

Not exactly knowing how to react, Leone simply tilted his sketchbook sideways so she could see its contents better. He was about to open his mouth to reply, when the young woman from behind the counter called out to the children — her tone maternal and firm.

« Marinara ! Marinara, get back here this instant ! Salmone, Caramello, you too ! You’re not supposed to be out when clients are here ! »

« Aw, just for a minute ! » the brown haired one, Caramello, said. « We just want to see what he’s drawing ! »

« Usually it gets boring here, » added the blonde one, Salmone. « Those guys never talk to us. But what you’re doing looks so neat. »

From his seat, Illuso snorted.

« Are we having trouble there ? Can’t hold down your brats, Buffala ? »

Bruno frowned. Turning towards the girls, he whistled through his teeth, and called all three of the children to attention, beckoning them closer.

« I have to give you girls an extremely crucial job, » he told them with a hushed voice. « When the ceremony starts, it is very important that we are not interrupted. Do you think all three of you might be able to stand watch at the door, and warn us if any customers or policemen try to enter ? You’ll each get a coin if you do a good job. How’s that sound ? »

« I want to see the spettro’s drawings, though, » pouted Caramello, crossing her arms over her chest.

Bruno gave her a small smile.

« He’ll show you when he’s done. Won’t you, Leone ? »

« Ah, » Leone sputtered. « Er, well. Certainly. If that seems interesting to you. »

« Yes ! » Salmone immediately gasped, bouncing up and down. « Yes, it’s interesting ! I want to know how you do it. »

« Alright, » concluded Bruno. « Now, all three of you, go. Keep watch until we tell you it’s done, okay ? »

Two of the kids went, running to the tavern’s exits to keep watch ; but one lingered behind, still seeming a little dazed.

« I like your hair, » Marinara said very earnestly, making Leone snort.

« Thank you, » he mused. « That is very — »

« I was talking to him, » she pointed to Bruno with an offended huff, before turning around and running off. « Bye bye ! »

Leone watched the children go, unsure of how he should feel — if displeasure was really the right reaction to have in such an innocuous case, or if he should instead simply agree with the child, as Bruno Buccellati truly did have the most wonderful hair.

« Don’t you talk down on me, cafone ! » suddenly rang Prosciutto’s voice, pulling Bruno and Leone both from their distraction.

He was standing up straight, barely a foot away from his seat, right in front of Ghiaccio, who had also shot up from the floor. They seemed to be in the middle of an altercation, one that the painter and his companion had both been blissfully unaware of until this very moment — and by the tone of their voice and the menacing tension of their stance, one could very easily tell it was about to be a violent one.

« Fratello, please, this isn’t like you — » Pesci attempted, to no avail.

« Talk down on you ? Huh ? You feeling offended ? You’re not the capo, Prosciutto, not even his dog. I don’t have to answer to you for anything ! I’ll talk to you however damn well I want to ! »

« You’ll still respect me, you stupid brat, » Prosciutto fumed. « Whether you want to or not ! I’m your senior, and you owe me deference ! »

« You shut your damn mouth ! I owe nothing to a — »

« Oh, » Formaggio interrupted with a wince, « Ghiaccio, don’t — »

« — fuck off, I’m going to say it : I owe nothing to a two-centesimi gigolò ! »

A loud gasp escaped Narancia’s mouth before he could hold it in — which he did by smacking both hands against his mouth. Mista simply loudly kissed his teeth, letting out a low « yeesh ».

Silence, heavy and disconcerted, fell onto the room like a blanket. Prosciutto’s face became very red. Leone quickly mixed colors in his mind — cadmium, crimson, perylene, right onto a mix of warm white and just a touch of Indian yellow.

He added more crimson by the second.

« You — you atrocious little bitch, » Prosciutto blurted, drawing his shoulders back. « I can’t… Work in those conditions, Sorbet. Between him and Melone, I simply cannot. They’re revolting, even by my standards. »

« Sit down, Prosciutto, sit down, » Gelato loudly sighed. « Are you seriously letting some kids rile you up ? Come on, now. »

Leone turned to Bruno.

« So, » he whispered, as low as he could manage. « The scars on his cheeks…? »

« Syphilis, yes, » Bruno whispered equally low. « His last lady friend gifted him with it. It did come with a fully furnished house for him and his brother, though, so I suppose it all worked out in the end. »

« Am I ? Am I letting them ? » Prosciutto exploded, poise and restrain most definitely dissolved. « Am I fucking letting them ? »

« Zucame ‘e ppalle, Prosciutto ! » Ghiaccio spat. « Or better yet, go suck on some saggy grandma tits ! »

« Oh, » Prosciutto mumbled through gritted teeth, hand reaching for something in his pocket. « Oh, I am going to kill you. »

« Boys, come on, don’t be like that. » Sorbet half heartedly tried, decidedly not getting up from his spot on the couch.

« Va fancul’ a chi ta muort’ ! » Ghiaccio roared, taking the knife out of his pocket with a much quicker impetus. « You just wait until fucking Nero gets — »

« Until fucking Nero gets… What, exactly ? »

A voice, from the entrance. Low, sonorous, deep — calling both Camorristi and guests to attention in the blink of an eye.

But it was not the apparition’s voice that instantly managed to defuse the situation, nor its tone, though it was authoritative and imposing and would have befitted a corporal. The man’s appearance, striking as it was, had enough presence to immediately bring the room back to a neutral, if slightly fearful, state of mind.

He was tall, very tall, coming higher than Leone by almost a head. Ghostly pale hair, wide shoulders giving way to powerful arms, a straight back, strangely delicate features, as if cut straight from marble —

And those eyes. Those fiery, crimson, perylene eyes.

Everything in Leone’s body was drawn taut. As if punched in the gut, he began to feel short on breath, his mind swimming with a slurry of frustratingly vague memories.

It was the man from the church, back on San Gennaro, that he had caught such a quick glimpse of. But he had met him before, a very, very long time ago, back when he was too young to properly remember — but when, and where ? On what occasion could he have possibly met that man, who did not even seem to be much older than he was ?

« Capo, » Prosciutto blurted out, sounding about half relieved and half flustered by the state of pure rage he had just been found in.

« Evening, Capo Nero, » Melone chimed in with a wave.

« There was a little guard at the door who did not want to let me in, » Nero informed the woman behind the counter. « I think you might want to get them all to bed, Buffala ; it’s late, and they need their sleep. »

Buffala nodded, and quickly left her counter to gather up her children.

« I could hear all of you screaming from the street, » the Capo continued while unbuttoning his black coat, which was slightly damp from rain. « Please try to keep it down. We don’t need the police to show up here, I already have enough on my mind as it is. »

« … Sorry about that, » groused Ghiaccio, cringing to himself as he sat back down.

« I see we have guests. » Nero pointed to Leone, taking notice of the sketchbook and various small cases surrounding him. « Is he yours, Buccellati ? »

Before Bruno could say anything, Leone rose from his seat. His sketchbook slipped from his lap and fell to the floor, where it opened onto a drawing of Giorno.

« I’m Leone Abbacchio, » Leone exclaimed, feeling a little heavy on his legs. « Did you live in Florence in the past, by any chance ? »

A curious murmur ran through the assembly, though Leone did not pay much attention to it. He was too focused on the sudden tension that stiffened Nero’s posture, as well as the frown of his brows.

« I did. Who told you ? » he asked, inching closer to Leone — and the painter had not been intimidated before, he would have been in this very instant. But curiosity, insatiable and gnawing at his insides, was more powerful than his nerves, and he promptly got over his agitation.

« No one. No one told me anything, » he blurted, incapable of breaking away from those red eyes. « But I have seen you before. I cannot remember in what circumstances, but you were there once during a very important time in my life. »

The frown disappeared, giving way to an entertained raise of his brows.

« Florence… » he muttered, almost to himself. « I haven’t been back there since I was a boy. »

He walked off to one of the couches, where he dropped off his coat.

« My father worked as an embalmer. I helped him, every once in a while… Perhaps that is where you saw me. Did you lose someone precious as a child ? »

Leone had.

« Judge Vitale Abbacchio, » he breathed. « And his wife, Marilena Abbacchio. »

Nero seemed to humor him, and gave it some thought ; but alas, even after a thorough search into his memories, he had nothing to give Leone but a shrug.

« I apologize. This was a long time ago, » the Capo said. « And I helped to embalm a lot of people. »

He turned to Bruno.

« Buccellati, come. I need to tell you about something important. Once we are done, the ceremony will begin. »

He tapped the edge of the couch.

« All of you, go. Get everything ready, presto. »

To his impulsion, all of the Camorristi rose from their seats — some of them quickly throwing back the last drops of their wine — and began to walk towards the back of the tavern, where a stairway led to a buried cellar. As he got up himself, Bruno, still rather stunned by what had just taken place, gave Leone’s shoulder a comforting squeeze ; then, he left to see his Capo in a more private corner of the room, where no prying ears would linger.

Stunned into place, Leone did not move an inch. His eyes stared off into nothing as he desperately scrambled around his mind for answers that simply would not emerge : only brief images came up, semblances of memories, impressions, sensations that faded as quickly as they would appear.

He was soon joined by the Espositos, who surrounded him with their reassuring, if slightly infuriating, presence. Narancia to his right, Mista to his left, and Giorno right in front of him ; all of them inquiring about his wellbeing.

« That was just about the weirdest thing I’ve seen today, » Mista began, momentarily removing his hat to scratch his scalp.

« Tell me about it, » Leone mumbled.

« I did not know your father was a judge, Abbacchio, » Giorno added. « Will you be alright ? You are very pale. »

« You should not worry about me. This is your day. Just — go. I’ll come with you soon as I’m able. »

They did not go, and chose to remain with him ; silent and supportive, until a small voice came up.

« Say, pitto’, » asked Narancia, seeming uncharacteristically sheepish and coy. « How… How’d your parents die ?… »

Leone did not reply to that.


-


« What took you so long ? »

On the way, Nero had quickly snatched a glass and one of the wine pitchers — the only one that had remained half-full after the evening’s events — and had poured himself a drink, which he was quietly nursing. Frustrated both by his capo’s nonchalance and by his partner’s recent distress, Bruno did not feel the slightest bit patient for the Camorrista’s antics ; and he snapped with an audacity none could have possibly expected from a young man with his character.

Nero did not answer right away. He took his time, savored each sip and mouthful as if it were the last he would ever take, paying barely any attention to Bruno until the glass was fully emptied.

By the end, his pale lips were tinted a slight red.

He then turned to his contaiulo, and, at last, spoke.

« The boss is sending us someone tonight, » was what Nero said.

Bruno blinked, unsure if he had heard everything clearly.

« … Someone ? » he queried, annoyance rising up his throat like bile. « Who could he possibly be sending us ? »

« I appealed to the Boss’ direct guarda a few months ago, after it was revealed that he was still alive and ruling. At last, three weeks ago, I received an answer ; they will send an evaluator our way and appraise our situation. To see if we are… Truly deserving of our current payment, or if we could manage with a slight raise in our budget. This is no longer an era for pickpockets and swindlers. We need more funds to fulfill our missions. »

« Well, » Bruno replied, still unsure of where Nero was getting at, « That is spectacular news. Will he arrive after Giorno’s ceremony ? »

« He most likely will. But I would appreciate if the kid was not around when the evaluator finally shows. He still has a lot to learn, and now is really not the time for us to have an accident with our leader’s direct envoy. »

Bruno nodded.

« Certainly. We’ll make sure to leave before that happens. »

« Very good. »

A brief pause, which Nero took advantage of by refilling his glass. Bruno watched as he did, feeling something like an itch in his throat ; until he finally asked the question that had been torturing him since he had stepped foot into the Pettirosso.

« Risotto, » he asked. « Why do you trust me so much ? »

« What makes you think I trust you ? » Nero immediately retorted, taking a sip of wine.

« You task me with responsibilities you don’t confer to anyone else. When you aren’t there to keep an eye on things, you make me your second in command, even though I am only a mere contaiulo. Even just now, you pulled me away from everyone else for a private conversation. The others are having their doubts, too, and it’s driving them mad. Is there a reason for all of this, if you don’t have even a little bit of trust in me ? »

« They are not mad because I give you more work. They are mad because we aren’t paid nearly enough for what we do. But that will change. »

He put his glass down, and positioned himself so that he fully faced Bruno ; now barely a few inches away, and though he did not waver for one second, Bruno could feel the full intensity of Nero’s power.

« Buccellati, let me be clear. I do not trust you, or at least not nearly as far as I can throw you. And that is precisely why I delegate so much to you, why I give you so much to do, why I make you my second in command. »

Bruno’s mouth opened, but Nero interrupted him with an authoritative raise of his hand. He clenched his jaw.

« Unlike all of the others, you aren’t here by choice. You’re here because you killed two of the Boss’ men, and because your dead father still owes him money. And for that reason, I know with the utmost certainty that one day, you will snap. You will betray us, the organization, your family. »

In his red eyes, Bruno saw not fury, but the radiant, flaming shine of willpower.

« And when that happens, I will be the one tasked with shooting a bullet through your brain. And I want that task to befall no one else. »

Bruno’s body shook with barely contained wrath, that was only fanned by each of Nero’s words. He stood his ground ; but the violence of his resentment in this very second was absolute.

« In Antiquity, a man had every right on his children’s lives, » Nero continued, « as if they were his own creation. I did not give birth to you, Buccellati, but I did raise you from the ground up when you were just a brat roaming the streets. And what I created, I can take back. »

Bruno could feel outraged sweat beading on his brow. His stomach, where his frustration burnt most fiercely, twisted and pulled.

« You did not create me, » he spat. « You are not my father. You are nothing. You are no one to me, and I am my own damned creation. »

« That isn’t the matter at hand, Buccellati. I couldn’t care less what your opinion of me is. »

« I don’t want to betray the organization, » Bruno added, shaking his head through the rigidity of his neck. « I don’t. »

« Then we have nothing to worry about, do we ? »

Nero stared him down just one second longer, before he took his glass and turned around, willingly exposing his back to Bruno.

« Let’s go, » he said, and his words sounded like a challenge. « I have a ceremony to perform. »

He began to walk towards the stairway, in the back of the tavern. Bruno did not stop him.

Instead, Bruno remained there a moment longer, panting, feeling drained of every last drop of his energy. His hands, balled into fists, were still shaking, and the thought of his own weakness felt, in this instant, unbearable — but now was not the time to fall. Now was not the time for tears, or rage, or bitterness.

He had to be stronger, stronger than he could possibly be. For the Espositos, for Leone, for himself. For Giorno’s dream.

He breathed in, out, then in again, deeply. He closed his eyes, watching the flurry of colorful stars painting the inside of his eyelids.

It was time for a christening.


-


The dark cellar had been converted into a room fit for a reunion. Despite the many bottles of wine piled up and covering the greater part of the southern wall, and the large knuckles of ham hanging from the ceiling in the eastern corner, it still felt rather homely. The room was reasonably well lit, thanks to a few of the oil lamps from upstairs having been brought down ; or at least, it was well lit enough for the general details of the room to be clearly visible.

An imposing amount of chairs (befitting the number of guests all packed into the small cellar) had been placed in front of a ‘platform’ of sorts — it was really only a slightly raised pile of planks, fashioned to resemble a halfway decent stage. On that platform was a short-legged, stout little table, seeming just about ready to accommodate a very small individual for dinner.

It smelled dusty, and the air was clammy ; the second Leone walked in, he began to feel as if a thin layer of humidity had been laid atop his skin. It was chilly and damp, and all the things that a cellar should be— and if Leone had not already been feeling weary, and dazed, and woefully exhausted, this pretentious dramatization would have most likely very much amused him. He was the type to be easily entertained by theatricals, as illustrated by his great love for opera.

But as things were, Leone was tired ; and all he could find in himself to do was carry his long body to one of the chairs and gracelessly plop down onto it, sketchbook in hand, while the other Camorristi around him did the same. Narancia and Mista kept close, taking seats on the row right behind him.

Bruno joined them only a moment later, and sat down right at Leone’s side, his posture tense and rigid, and his eyes empty.

With only a glance, Leone was able to tell that something was wrong ; that perhaps, something had happened, perhaps a grave and pressing matter. One only had to look at the way Bruno held himself for that theory to germinate : it was as if his spine had been replaced with a ruler. His posture was strained, forced, stiff, and his gaze was fixated in a straight line ahead of him, in a deliberate attempt to focus on nothing else for the time being.

Leone immediately reached for Bruno’s forearm, squeezing it with a firm, gentle hold, as to silently request his partner’s reassurance. It came not in the way he expected nor wished for ; with simply a brief tap of Bruno’s fingers on the back of his hand, and a few hushed, somber words.

« Later, » Bruno murmured as the agitation around them grew stronger. « Don’t worry. I will tell you later. »

Of course, this tentative reassurance only served to worsen Leone’s apprehensions.

« Look, look, you guys, » suddenly came Narancia’s voice. « Here they come. It’s starting. »

Indeed, at the center of the makeshift stage, Risotto and Giorno had both taken their place. The two of them standing next to one another was comical, as the difference in height that separated them was almost absurd. Giorno was of a decent size for his age ; but by comparison, Risotto was a mountain of a man, towering over him by a head and a half. Giorno did not seem intimidated nor distressed, though — or at the very least, not by Risotto himself.

« Christ. Wish I’d told him to break a leg, » Mista mumbled to himself, seeming rather agitated.

 Gelato, who had been standing near them, began to travel back and forth between a large hessian bag near the hanging hams, and brought a small quantity of items to the table. He deposited them carefully, as if assembling a model ship : a silvery candlestick, first, which he lit and positioned straight ahead of Giorno, on the opposite edge of the table ; then a dagger, on Giorno’s left ; Risotto’s glass of wine, right in front of Giorno ; and, finally, a heavy-looking, ivory-gripped pistol.

« Turn off the lights, » Risotto suddenly ordered, moving to stand behind Giorno. « All of them. »

The many oil lamps were all shut off.

Darkness filled the damp cellar, save for the candle on Giorno’s table, which shone its golden glow across his every feature — and in this intense, Caravaggiesque chiaroscuro, the adolescent’s face looked so much older, so much more gaunt. It was as if he was wearing a mask of stern gravity, the like of which Leone had never seen on Giorno before ; one that could not be explained by the pretense of calm or the simple earnestness of youth. This had to be the most important time of Giorno Giovanna’s life, and he was fully opening his heart to the end of his childhood.

In this light, the deep yellow of his hair was not a halo, but a gilded crown of laurels, the gleam of which was reminisced in the thread of his royal blue jacket, and the tiny Helicrysum flowers of his boutonnière. Blue, black, and gold, standing onto a stage that looked more and more like a sacrificial altar with every second that passed.

In this moment, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, miserable from exhaustion and worry, Leone Abbacchio felt seized back to the Teatro della Pergola, all the way back in Florence, surrounded by those he loved so dearly, in an environment he would later think of as home. Suddenly, he was four years old again, and transported by the sights he was blessed with ; suddenly, the being that stood in front of him was no mere human, nor a deity, but a messenger, an ever-traveling entity that was bound not by mortal laws, living on earth for merely a time — telling tales of things, feelings and hopes beyond comprehension.

The room was silent, perhaps just as stunned as Leone felt. All was quiet.

Giorno knelt in front of the table.

In the corner of his eye, Leone saw Narancia’s fists ball up.

« I’m going to need your hand, ragazzino, » softly coaxed Gelato, taking the dagger on Giorno’s left.

Giorno obeyed immediately, though he continued to stare straight ahead into the void. His left hand rose in the air, as would a convict’s upon swearing to tell only the truth, and he took in a long breath.

In only one second, it was over ; evidently, Gelato, as a barber, knew his craft well. A perfectly clean incision had been cut into Giorno’s palm, slicing it across his love line with impressive accuracy.

Giorno visibly tried not to wince. Blood began to bubble from the wound and dribbled down his wrists, in small crimson rivulets. It would trickle profusely for a moment, and would most likely scar as it healed — matching the rest of the marks speckled onto his left hand.  

« There we go, » Gelato murmured at his handiwork, cleaning the blade onto his sleeve and placing it back on the table. « It’s all you, now. »

With those words, he came down from the makeshift platform, and went to sit with the others, immediately picking the chair next to his companion, Sorbet. Giorno remained on his knees, with Risotto behind him, his hand raised slightly in the air as it continued to bleed.

« Giovanotto, » boomed Risotto Nero’s low voice. « We are gathered here to listen to your pledge. So, talk ; what do you have to say to us ? »

Silence, unwieldy and cold. Giorno, in front of the perfectly set, symmetrical table, remained absolutely still, save for a slight tremor making his arm spasm — but ever so slightly, barely enough to be noticed.

Leone threw Bruno a glance. Next to him, the young man did not budge nor talk, as he was watching Giorno intently ; this somewhat reassured the painter. As long as Bruno did not react or jump to action, everything was exactly as it should be, no matter how absurdly intimidating it might have been to an onlooker.

Giorno remained quiet for a few seconds, seemingly paralyzed by debilitating stage fright.

From the depths of his memories, Leone thought of the night he had explored the empty theater with Lillo Pascuttini ; the thrilling terror he had felt upon standing in front of all those empty seats, breathing in the scent of wood polish and cold smoke, the exhilaration, the bizarre feeling of being observed through his own eyes ; and the young singer’s presence next to him, reassuring and impossibly benevolent.

Giorno’s eyes met Leone’s own.

Imagine, Leone. Come on, stand here, look, and imagine, came Lillo’s voice in his mind.

Leone nodded.

All those people came to see you. You, and only you. They came to listen to you, to listen to the story you want to tell. They’re the ones who will cover you in glory, or make you die an early death. Your life depends entirely on all those people you have never met.

Now bow — bow, ragazzino — bow to your audience !

« By the will of god and the code of La Camorra, » Giorno finally spoke, voice clear and assured. « I, Giorno Giovanna, healthy in body and mind, swear fealty to the Society. »

With his right hand, he grabbed the pistol.

« The men of its ranks, by law of blood, are now my brothers, and their capo, my father. Were I to reveal La Camorra’s secrets to any living soul, I would show no greater heart or spirit than would a stray dog, and would therefore deserve to be executed as such. »

He set the pistol back where he had found it, and took the glass of wine, lifting it to his face.

« Were I given the order, and as proof of my devotion, I, Giorno Giovanna, would not hesitate to take my own life, or that of anyone who threatened the Society. »

He took a slow, long sip of wine, emptying it of its contents completely with only a slight grimace. He disposed of the dry glass by placing it back onto its rightful spot, and finished his pledge just as the blood on his wounded hand began to clot.

« Thus is the promise of the Giovanotto, » concluded Giorno. « Thus is the fate of the Camorrista. I am one and the same with the members of the Society : I am them, and they are me, for however long God decides to let me live. »

He breathed out slowly, having finally done his part — and his soft exhale made the candlelight shift and tremble. He let his hand down, placing it carefully in his lap, and closed his eyes for a restful moment.

Despite himself, Leone could feel a warm surge of pride engulfing his heart. To his side, he felt Narancia shimmy and bounce onto his seat, most likely in a hurry to congratulate his friend for a speech well delivered. It would soon be over, and they would be able to celebrate in peace, in the quiet of their own homes.

Leone turned to his left, where Bruno sat, ready to share his satisfaction with his partner ; but the moment he did, something within him froze with an icy chill.

He saw that Bruno was still staring into the scene, his eyes wide and unblinking, his posture just as tense as it had been in the start. His jaw was tightly clenched, his mouth drawn into a thinly pressed line. In his lap, his hands were wrung together so tight his fingers trembled.

Cold, unspeakable fear instantly took hold of Leone’s insides. He quickly turned back to the scene at hand —

— only to see Risotto Nero reach for the pistol on Giorno’s right, and, with only one swift movement, press the muzzle of it against Giorno’s temple.

Leone, out of pure instinct, shot up from his seat, only to be stopped by Bruno’s hand grabbing the lapel of his coat and pulling him back down.

On the stage, Giorno’s eyes went wide, but he did not move an inch, nor did he blink.

« And what if I decided that you were lying ? » Risotto Nero said, voice impossibly soft. « What if I decided to kill you, right here, right now ? »

An astonished stillness consumed the audience, as everyone, including the other Camorristi, seemed to be dumbfounded by their Capo’s conduct. Narancia and Mista both went tense, as if startled into a daze.

« … Thus is the promise of the Giovanotto, » Giorno simply repeated, perfectly still despite his position, fists tight around the layers of his jacket. « Thus… Thus is the fate of the Camorrista. »

Nero pulled back the trigger guard with a resounding click. Mista and Narancia both got up, as had Leone, and immediately set to run to the stage, only to be stopped by Illuso and Prosciutto both — the two of which were soon joined by other Camorristi, seemingly just as eager to stop them.

« What the hell, » Narancia roared, attempting to push through, to no avail. « Let him go, you crazy figlij ‘e ‘ntrocchia ! I’ll kill all of you ! Don’t touch him ! »

« This wasn’t part of the deal, Nero ! » Mista added, seething as he was unceremoniously grabbed by Formaggio. « Fucking let go of him ! »

« Bruno, » Leone almost implored, but received no answer — only another pull enjoining him to sit back down, which he stubbornly refused to do.

« Are you afraid ? » Nero murmured on the stage, his tone calm and genuinely curious. « Or are you a man ? »

Giorno’s brows furrowed, and every trace of fear seemed to instantly fade from his eyes. For the first time since the ceremony had started, he looked up at Risotto Nero’s face, glaring into his eyes with incredible resolve and willpower.

« I am neither. I am a Camorrista, » Giorno breathed decisively, and something in the room seemed to unfold — as if a bubble had just been popped, or if a flower had instantaneously bloomed.

Risotto rose an eyebrow.

« Mm, » he said, and an amused smile took over his lips.

Bringing his arm back, he shot into the ceiling — resulting in no shower of sawdust or crumbled stone, and thereby proving that the pistol had been filled with, in fact, nothing but blanks.

« Not a bad answer, » Risotto hummed as Leone finally flopped back down, heart pounding in his ears and his legs shaking. « You are now one of us. Welcome to La Camorra, child. »

The room erupted into thunderous applause. All as one man, the Camorristi cheered and hailed, sharing a good laugh and congratulating Giorno Giovanna with everything they had. They patted Mista and Narancia’s back as an apology for their misconduct, and proceeded to the stage in order to properly welcome the new recruit into their ranks.

« I’m going to throw up, » Narancia quavered, shakily leaning against his seat. « That — that was too much. »

« Yeah, » Mista agreed, rubbing his neck. « Yeah, you can say that again. God. I thought for sure he was going to… »

« Did you know he would do this ? » Leone asked Bruno, who shook his head sluggishly.

« No, » his companion replied, running both hands through his hair. « No, I did not. But I chose to put all of my trust in Giorno when I started to be involved in his dream. Interrupting the ceremony would not have helped. »

He got to his feet, offering his hand to a properly floored Leone.

« Come. Let’s take Giorno back home and celebrate. I want to get out of here as soon as humanly possible. »

Still in a bit of a stupor, Leone accepted Bruno’s helping hand — but before he was fully up and walking to the stage with the others, he took another good look at Giorno from where he stood, still far enough to be a spectator.

He saw Giorno, standing up at last to his full height, onto the flimsy platform of wood. He saw the exhaustion on his face, magnified by the timid light source which shifted at every disturbance ; the long braided hair, the sweat on his brow, the slightly hunched stance, the lopsided, half-honest grin spread over his mouth ; and, at last, the eyes, the eyes that shone with the flare of indisputable victory.

It was then, finally, that Leone came to a realization : what had just taken place here had been no opera.

There had been no show, no disguise, no performance. There had been no story told. Instead, there had been brutal honesty, a heart exposed bare and raw, and the hopes of years past showing their true colors for the very first time. What he had just witnessed was a feat of strength, pure and simple ; an accomplishment born out of extreme willpower and fortitude, that no one but Giorno Giovanna could have carried out with nearly as much panache.

That day, at the boxing match, when Giorno had admired Clementina, il pugile femminile, from afar — and had then wiped her mouth of sweat and blood, with such deference in his eyes — Leone had witnessed an eerily similar scene. The resting warrior, in the throes of a victory that left a bitter tang in their mouth. The triumphant, the strong of body and mind, now at rest.

Just as the Camorristi were now shaking his hands, the audience of the boxing match had spent long minutes admiring Clementina’s.

In Leone’s mind, things suddenly became a lot clearer.

Once more, their eyes met from across the room — but this time, instead of a sharp nod, what they shared was an unsteady, honest smile. Leone took Bruno’s hand, and was finally led to the stage as well, where he patted Giorno’s shoulder and congratulated him in his own way.

Suddenly, there came a shrieking voice from upstairs, instantly bringing the celebrations to a pause.

« Intruder ! » screamed the voice with such powerful insistence that Leone, after such a night, felt shaken to his very core.

Bruno and Nero looked at one another, glares heavy with meaning, until Nero let out a long, exhausted sigh.

« I told her to put them to bed, » he groused, grabbing the candlestick and heading for the stairs — all the Camorristi (old and new) and guests following suit, all quite eager to finally leave that humid cellar.

What they found once upstairs was a rather disarming yet oddly charming spectacle. The fairer-headed of Buffala’s children, Salmone, was currently wringing herself tightly around a very unfamiliar looking man. He was not very tall, yet not very small, and he was neither skinny nor fat. His figure, as well as his features, seemed rather delicate and youthful — or they would have, if he did not have this strange air to him, as if his appearance were tugged into two directions, one young and the other, much more mature. He seemed to be standing in a perfect middle ground between ages, though his wide, kind eyes seemed to indicate a much younger spirit.

As he stood, seemingly unsure of what to do with the little girl currently huffing and puffing at his side, his plum-colored overcoat dripped onto the floor, heavy and dark with rainwater. He was wearing a rather stylish hat on top of his head which hid much of his hair, and his pale skin seemed to be peppered with freckles, down to the back of both his hands.

« Now, let’s all keep calm here — » the young man tried, attempting to uncross the girl’s arms from around his leg.

« Intruder ! Intruder ! » continued to scream Salmone, clinging to the man’s trouser leg and trying, fruitlessly, to pull him back to whence he came.

« Who are you, » Risotto Nero asked, foregoing any particular niceties, while waving the girl over — and Salmone, without another peep, immediately switched sides and grabbed Nero’s hand.

The newcomer, seeming to only now notice the large assembly of men in front of him, simply stood there for a few second, sheepish and unsure, until he seemed to regain his confidence, and moved forward, holding out his hand in warm greeting.

« Oh, I apologize. Good evening, gentlemen, » chirped the young man, taking off his hat and revealing a bright, amenable smile, and equally bright, sleek auburn hair. « I am your evaluator. My name is Aceto Doppio ! »


-


When Giorno was taken in by the nuns of the Santissima Annunziatta orphanage, the poor sisters had been resolutely unable to write down the name « Shiobana ».

They had therefore settled for the next best thing ; that is to say, a very Mediterranean equivalent to his very Japanese surname. Giorno had been baptized, and in the process, even been granted a first name.

But he had not liked that one.

And refusing to be appointed any kind of faith, he had instead chosen to baptize himself, in the way that he wanted, with the appellation that he wanted.

Giorno. A name that was not a name. A name that was not attached to pesky human conventions. A name that carried something else within its sonority, deeper than the predilection of absent genitors or the legacy of long-dead ancestors. This name was intangible and organic : it was daylight. It was the sun of Napoli, that warmed and burned without prejudice : swallower of darkness and blinding force of virtue.

Jour. Día. Yawm. Dies. Hêméra.

Day.

No heredity, no past, no expectations. A perfectly clean slate. A luminous clearing that brought life to even the most fragile beings.

A name fit for heroes of old.

It was a display of pride, to be sure. But it had been his choice.

And from the day he took that name, to the day he would die, Giorno would continue to make his own choices, and to follow the path he had carved from himself. No matter the ruts he would step in, or the prides he would offend.

He was Giorno Giovanna, son of no one, daughter of naught, child of Napoli. Born from no woman’s womb, taken from no man’s skull. Birthed from himself and living not for others but for the day. Once boy, once girl, twice nothing and everything — whole and complete and one with the world.

No one would ever take that from him. No one could. Just as no one could forbid the sun to shine.

In adversity and love and wonder, Giorno Giovanna was.

And he would be forever more.


-


They returned to Posilippo shortly after the evaluator’s arrival, as had (mostly) been planned with Risotto Nero, and were therefore not able to enjoy much more of the strange man’s company.

The jaunt back started off in relative silence, as the Espositos and their guardians were still attempting to make sense of everything they had experienced that night. But the fear and tension progressively washed off of them as they traveled in the peaceful, cool darkness — it had only just finished raining, and the air was chilly and fragrant, ideal for a quick change of mind. They were accompanied by the sound of Leone’s travel easel and of the many little cases he carried on his back, giving rhythm to their every step.

Perhaps thanks to all of those conditions, as well as the relief of no longer being trapped in a small, crowded place (and of being free to move around as they wished, and to speak however they wished), it did not take very long for tongues to finally loosen. After half an hour of walking, laughter finally replaced morose faces and pensive sighs : only Bruno showed some semblance of reserve still, as though unable to shake the torpor from his bones. However, Mista and Narancia seemed hellbent on changing this bizarre state of his by any means necessary, and as the three of them walked side by side, it seemed that they were able to reach out through to him more and more.

Only a few meters away, Giorno and Leone both lagged behind.

After they had left the Caffè del Pettirosso, Giorno had offered to help Leone carry a few of his cases ; and, guessing that this may simply have been an excuse for the both of them to talk a little more privately, Leone had accepted.

With his wounded hand, Giorno was only able to carry one of the cases — and though he had thoroughly insisted that he could take on another, Leone had refused. The adolescent no longer seemed shaken, nor upset by the night’s events : but he did seem to haul his own body through a thick fog of exhaustion. Which was most likely why he had not yet spoken, despite very obviously longing for a conversation with the painter.

Rolling his eyes to the heavens, Leone made sure that they were thoroughly out of earshot, and that their three boys walking ahead were busy enough not to focus on their two dilly-dallying friends. Once he had been reassured, he finally turned to Giorno ; and, at last, decided that he would open his heart to him.

« … You’re not a boy, are you ? »

Giorno did not flinch, nor did he hesitate before answering — he continued to look ahead, tiredness the only visible expression in his eyes.

« No, » he said, certain and unyielding. « I am not. »

A beat of silence.

« I am not a girl, either, » he clarified. « In case you pondered. »

Leone hummed, fully understanding that things such as those were, in some cases, simply more complicated than they would otherwise appear to be.

« If you are neither, then how should I address you ? »

« Like you always have. Though I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a little more kindness in your tone. You have a tendency to snap at me sometimes. »

Leone winced, groaning pointedly. Giorno smiled.

« People can call me however they want to, » he continued. « By using feminine denominators, or masculine ones — they would both be equally wrong, and equally right. Speaking of me in neutral terms, those of the unknown, would most likely be fitting, as well. Just do whatever comes naturally ; I find that I simply cannot mind either choice. »

He kicked a small rock with the tip of his shoe and sent it flying off into the darkness.

« Absolutes, when it comes to one’s identity and core being, are, in my opinion, rather distasteful. I am my own self. Girl and boy and nothing at all. »

A few beats of silence, only broken by the resounding sounds of their footsteps, and the squeaking leather of the cases.

« Have you told anyone ? » Leone asked — though he was not particularly curious, he much preferred to be safe than sorry.

« … No, I haven’t. »

Giorno took in a breath, and tilted up his chin to look at the stars.

« I’m not sure why I still haven’t. I trust them, I really do — I would give my life for them, as I believe they would theirs. But somehow, this feels… This feels different from anything else we have ever discussed in the past. I doubt that they would believe me. Or… understand. I’m not even sure how to explain it myself. »

Leone snorted.

« A smart mouth like you ? Color me surprised. »

« Hah. Even I don’t have an answer to everything, it seems like. »

Leone pulled onto one of the cases’ strap to place it higher onto his shoulders. He let out a sigh.

« So… what do you plan to do, now ? » he inquired. « Not that there is anything you need to do, I suppose. But I figure that is something you might wish for. »

Giorno simply hummed, a moue on his lips.

« The project with La Camorra has allowed me not to think about it too much. It’s kept my mind occupied with… much more pressing matters. As for the future, well. I suppose living in hiding does not bother me. »

« Horseshit. »

It had come out instinctively, as if pulled from his mouth by a forceful hand. Giorno did not seem perplexed, however, or even slightly affected. He merely shrugged.

« Life cannot always be easy. »

« How can you say that, you who haven’t lived ? »

« I thought, » Giorno replied, « and I dreamt. That is also living. Oh, I’d certainly much rather be perceived as I like, do not get me wrong, but that is not something I have complete and utter control over just yet. It will change. With time, as I grow, it will change, but for now… Some things are bound to slip through my grasp. And as infuriating as it may be… I have to get used to it now, while I can still… While I can… »

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Leone’s eyes drifted to the ground, to his shoes, and he could felt his jaw clench in sickly frustration, until he finally complied to the soft voice in his heart :

« I understand what it is like. »

At last, this made Giorno look at him.

And curse those kind eyes ; curse the callow, youthful expectance that inhabited them ; and curse the immense fondness they now awoke in Leone Abbacchio’s heart.

« To… » Leone continued, « To exist in a way others do not like or expect. I have never experienced having to pretend to be only a man — but I have been forced to behave in a way that made those around me perceive me as a different man. »

He let out a bitter snort.

« To compensate, if you will. I… cannot imagine how much harder it must be, when you are forced to wear an ill-fitting costume at all times. »

« … Well. It takes some getting used to. »

He paused for a few seconds, fiddling with the leather strap of the case he was carrying.

« I had not expected you to understand, » he carried on after a moment, his tone very soft. « You… are full of surprises, Leone Abbacchio. »

Leone sniffled and shrugged, trying to appear unruffled.

« I have met many different people in my life, » he confided, impassive. « There isn’t a lot left in the world that can astonish me. The point is… »

He stopped walking, and took in a long breath through his nose, as if preparing for the worst. Giorno halted as well, feeling rather stupefied.

« … I don’t much appreciate you, Giovanna. But I’ll be damned if you aren’t the one person in this city, no, this entire country, that has the ability to do anything they want to do. »

Giorno blinked slowly, a smile spreading over his lips. Leone tried his best not to cringe.

« You have a strong mind, and actually act on those silly thoughts you’re always coming up with. You’ve got a head full of dreams and a strong heart — much as it pains me to say. I find you annoying exactly because of it, too. Because it is the truth. »

Giorno laughed.

« Thank you for your honesty. »

« Don’t thank me, I’m not saying this to be kind, » Leone mumbled, picking up the pace as Giorno quickly followed him. « But I’d feel guilty if… If I didn’t encourage you, in some way. It would feel strange. Unfair. »

« … What made you think I needed encouraging ? »

« Nothing in particular. But I know that I felt lonely at your age. I certainly would’ve wanted someone who’d worn the same shoes to tell me that I wasn’t the only one of my kind — and I’m telling you, you’re not — or to tell me that there is a future for people like us ; that it is not someone’s destiny to ignore who they are for others’ convenience. And you are lucky enough to be a kid with no past to speak of, no ties to hold you back, so… You’re free to become as you like. Here’s my advice to you : be assertive. Be demanding. Surround yourself with likeminded people who will defend you once you choose not to hide. This might be somewhat easier once you’re at the top of La Camorra’s food chain, though, isn’t it ? They might not be likeminded, but they will at least be able to defend you. You’ve chosen the right field of work. »

Giorno let out a long, trembling sigh.

« I'm not sure if it is the right one, but well, it is mine. And you’re right, I’ll at least have the advantage of standing at a fairly safe spot once I reach it. »

Leone nodded, feeling rather pensive.

« Reinventing yourself, » he thought aloud, « the way others perceive you, after spending your life in another’s clothes… It’s a hard task. But you’ll be up for it. You… »

His expression turned to a scowl, then to a painful grimace, as the words were practically ripped out of his mouth.

« …You’re… a good kid. »

There, in the shadow of sleeping Napoli, surrounded by the chilly breeze of Campanian winter, Leone, for the first time, saw Giorno’s smile reach his eyes.

« Thank you, Leone. »

Leone immediately clicked his tongue.

« Don’t let it go to your head, » he grumbled.

But it was too late ; already, Giorno seemed delighted.

« I promise you I won’t, Leone. »

Another huff, this time tainted by a light of amusement.

« Who even allowed you to call me by my first name ? I know I certainly didn’t. »

« Why, are we not friends ? It feels like we shared a very pleasant heart to heart just now. »

« I will throw you into the very first river I find, child. Just you wait. »

« Oh, but you won’t, » Giorno countered, patting the case he carried against his side. « All your pastels are right there, on my hip. You would not dare to drown those, now, would you ? »

Leone scoffed at that, though his lips were reluctantly pulled into a smile.

« Damn it all. I knew you had picked this specific case for a reason, you sly little thief. »

« Nothing escapes my gaze, pitto’. »

At last, Giorno Giovanna seemed to have awoken from this shocked torpor he had been trapped in for the past hour ; and as for the satisfaction that it brought Leone, he would never freely admit it.

« Leone, » suddenly called Bruno, pulling painter and swindler from their conversation.

« Mmh ? » Leone responded, walking slightly faster as to join the rest of the group — all three of whom had stopped in their tracks in the middle of the road, waiting for both he and Giorno to catch up.

« We should make a stop at my mother’s house, » Bruno wearily offered. « I absolutely must get out of those clothes as quickly as I can. What do you say we join the kids after ? »

« Not a problem, » Leone approved. « I could use a bite to eat and a change of clothes, as well. »

« Alright, but don’t come too late ! » Narancia said, rather firmly. « Man, I hope Trish really did stay up for us like she said she would. Waking her up is always a pain. She gets so grumpy… »

« It should be around one, according to the pew, » Giorno replied. « We have stayed up much longer than that before. I think she’ll still be awake. »

« True, but she must’ve been bored out of her mind without us. » Mista sniffed, puffing out his chest. Narancia snickered approvingly.

The two groups then went their separate ways ; Bruno and Leone headed to the Milazzo estate, while the three Espositos returned to their hideout, as loud and cheerful than if the streets of Napoli had belonged to them.

Though nighttime was not exactly Giorno’s element (as he shone his brightest during the day), in this very instant, surrounded by two of his best friends, he felt perfectly at ease. Not a tension in his body, not a sliver of fear in his heart ; as Narancia and Mista each wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close, it was as if they had truly become one and the same — fully united against the world’s fury, banded together and unwilling to give out.

For in the sky shone a hundred million stars, and each and every twinkle was meant only for them.


-


Giorno Giovanna had not always been an Esposito.

Unlike Mista, who was an orphan from birth, and unlike Narancia, who had fallen (or rather, been malevolently dropped) into this life at a very young age, Giorno had lived, for a time, as the bearer of a last name. As an only child, Giorno did not have to share every single possession with needy siblings, unlike Narancia, and did not, unlike Mista, have to force a path through life in order to survive through his very early years. But, just like the two boys, Giorno did not have an easy start in the world.

Born without a father, Giorno Giovanna could very well have lived the difficult, but ultimately worthy, existence of a bastard child. After all, many people in the world were able to lead fulfilling lives with such a condition : children of mistresses, of courtesans, of mothers not yet old enough to be called women. Even the children of cathouses were allowed a semblance of affection, or the hopes of a gleaming future. One that would be unattainable, certainly. But hope needs not to be satisfied to exist, and is not easily purged.

But, as it seemed, Fate had taken a shine to Giorno, and therefore decided that things would go a little differently for the youth.

Contrary to the bastard children of Napoli, whose lack of paternal presence was at least slightly compensated by all-powerful, all-encompassing motherly affection, Giorno had grown without much of a mother, either. Whenever they both stood in the same room, much too rarely considering Giorno’s very young age during that period, he was only met with the cruel sting of her indifference — which, he was sure at the time, had to be more painful than any physical violence. After all, what good is pain, if it is not acknowledged, cared for, tended to, used as a learning experience ? And what good is love, if it is not given the same treatment ?

But the certitude that being ignored was the worst of pains quickly changed with the arrival of her mother’s beau. It was at this point that Giorno realized the blessing that was indifference, compared to constant, violent attention.

Thankfully, he did not have to suffer through beatings and fearful investigations for very long (though every morning, for two years, was spent attempting to guess if he could get away with speaking, eating, or simply being in line of sight ; more often than not, the answer to that inquiry was negative). Soon, Giorno’s mother, tired of her beau’s shenanigans as well as Giorno’s peskiness, which he exhaled by way of existing, made a decision. That decision was to simply let go of the problem entirely, which she did by dropping the child, barely four, at the orphanage of La Santissima Annunziata Maggiore. With no sense of pride or shame, she came in through the door, and led him, in person, into the sisters’ care ; when she left, it was not after a wildly unsuccessful try to gain money in exchange for the generous donation of a sickly child.

Perhaps her attempt was not entirely unjustified : it was famously recognized, though not discussed, that the nuns often sold young children — either to childless families, or to those who wished for easily trainable servants. But Giorno, so young and rendered so unhealthy by years of neglect, would have been of no use to anyone. Giorno himself had come to that realization rather early in life, and was then ready to accept it as another woe of existence.

Two events in Giorno’s childhood had the capacity to change that mindset. One of them was his meeting with Bruno Buccellati. The other took place a year before his departure from l’Annunziata. Another encounter, just as formative : just as he was about to truly come alive, Giorno met a dying man.

Though he was generally well-liked amidst the orphaned bunch (with a few notable exceptions, mostly among the older children), Giorno spent most of his time alone, both out of necessity and by choice. As a way to ease his boredom, he often came to the aid of the rare nuns whose company he enjoyed ; namely, two little old women whose main role in the institution was to care for the church’s garden. In a small patch of earth, inside the inner courtyard — away from where the children came to play — the two sisters grew a small array of vegetables, which made for a necessary and appreciated addition to the children’s meals. They also grew a few bushes of roses, plots of Helicrysum, and some herbs, though the cramped space didn’t allow for much variety.

Sorella Limetta, the eldest of the two, often asked him to help with the weeding.

« Thank you, guaglione, » she would say, and give him a light pat on the head as he pulled out dandelions and couch grass. « You’re a good boy. With my knees, I can’t bend down like that anymore — oh, you’ll see when you get old. Age brings a lot of wisdom, but it keeps you from doing a lot of what you’d like… »

As for Sorella Cedratta, the smallest of the two (and only younger by five years, at most), she often asked him to spread out a macerated nettle mixture into the ground, as to ward off the pests that damaged the garden. The watery paste smelled horrible, and pouring it onto the plants was one of the worst chores of this little arrangement. But it certainly was efficient : no nasty bug ever came to threaten the nuns’ vegetables. He also helped with the making of vegetable manure, using only putrefied peelings left to macerate in a large tray.

Working for the nuns also allowed Giorno some privileges. He was, for instance, allowed to come to the patch of garden whenever he wished.

So when he craved some peace, away from the agitation and morbidity of the orphanage, or simply wanted some time to enjoy the wonders of nature (the garden was full of various little critters, earwigs, butterflies, lizards and ladybugs that he liked to chase and observe), Giorno would slip away behind the church, where the only separation from the outside world was a low brick wall, and kneel down into the dirt, into his own little realm, where no one could reach him.

Only one being ever breached the sanctified area of Giorno’s garden. He had been focused on a bloody fight between two large horned beetles, and had failed to notice someone climbing the church’s small wall — before said someone landed onto their hands and knees with a loud thwump against the damp ground, only about half a meter away from him.

Fearful and surprised, Giorno had gathered the two bugs in his hands and backed off, having been frightened by men for too long ; in a second, he was up and ready to bolt, ready to call the nuns and their martinets to shoo the intruder away. But the man was not getting up.

In fact, despite a stature that would have seemed imposing had he been standing on two feet, the man didn’t seem like much of a threat. His head was hanging low, features contorted with the twist of immense pain, and his entire front was stained red. He was breathing in shallow puffs of air, which did very little to ease the strain wounding his body tight like a boat’s cordage. After a few moments of staring into each other’s eyes, silent and still, the boy and the man both slid into action, in an almost perfect reflection of each other’s movements : Giorno took a step backwards, towards the exit, towards the main courtyard ; and the man took a hesitant crawl towards Giorno.

« Kid, » the man said, and his voice was a gurgle, as if his mouth were filled with liquid. « Help me out. »

Giorno went very still, as if the man would not have been able to spot him if he simply remained motionless.

« Help me hide, » the man tried again, crawling forward, his right hand reaching for the boy — trembling, spasming. « They’re gonna finish me off. »

Giorno inspected him, quickly, only for a second, and saw the man’s large hand — square, squamous, with thick fingers and short fingernails —

And, dotting his skin with harsh bumps and thick lines of flesh, the scars of a Camorrista.

« Scialatielli ! » came a man’s voice from beyond the wall. « You’ve got a lot of gall, my boy ! Get out of your hole, we’re not done with you ! »

« Please, » the Camorrista whispered, and Giorno grabbed his hand.

Not two minutes later, three more figures climbed over the wall and landed into the garden. They asked him if he had seen anything, or anyone ; Giorno said he had not. They had given quick glances to the rest of the garden, but finding nothing, left the same way they came, before any adult was made aware of their presence.

Once they had gone, Giorno went to help the man step out of the tray of vegetable manure, where he had hidden.

The Camorrista had only given him a few hushed thanks as he struggled to stand, and had, with some more help from Giorno, gone over the wall again, and left with slow, staggering steps.

Giorno had remained in the garden for a moment longer, in the very same spot, thinking about what had just happened.

His hands were stained with dried red and dusty, soiled water. He had rubbed his palms together to smear the liquid off, then knelt next to the Helicrysum plots and taken a deep breath from the fragrant flowers — to ward off the smell of blood.

The very next day, Giorno’s hair went from black to a shining, golden blond.

That was when his life truly started, and when he finally began to bloom.


-


Over the past months, Leone had come to consider the Milazzo estate as home — or at least, a secondary residence of sorts. Unlike his apartment in Rome, which he even now had trouble identifying as truly his, Bruno’s home had allowed him to settle into a routine rather easily. The bed he slept in had taken to his frame, and his back had ceased to ache when he laid upon it ; his clutter was littered across the room in the exact arrangement that he preferred ; and whenever he would bathe, he would no longer feel the lingering unease that usually came with being so openly vulnerable in a stranger’s house.

Since the moment he had entered the home, and to this very day, Leone Abbacchio had felt rather comfortable in Signora Milazzo’s household — and that comfort had been partly due, of course, to the warm welcome he had received upon his arrival. What had been left of his malaise had progressively faded over time, as most things were wont to do.

That was the reason why, as he entered the Milazzo’s deserted, unlit kitchen with a morbidly fatigued Bruno in tow, Leone did not hesitate for one second before he decided that, for once, that night, he would try and make himself useful.

« What do you say I prepare you something to eat ? » he offered, taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves. « My skills are dreadfully limited, I’m afraid, but that does not mean I cannot provide at least something. »

« I certainly wouldn’t mind something filling, » Bruno replied, falling limp into the first chair he could get to. « My stomach has been locked up all day. »

« Alright, then. Bread and olive oil, there we go. »

Bruno let out a drowsy laugh.

« No other addition, eh ? Just bread and oil ? »

« Fine. And a dash of salt, since you are so adamant on acting like a fussy child. »

He set to carving out a few slices from a large, tough-crusted loaf of bread.

« I believe that will be one of the more modest dishes I have tasted since I started living in that house, » Bruno said, tapping his fingernails against the worktop.

« Hah. I was unaware you had begun to court me out of want for a cook, Signore Buccellati. I am but a humble artist. »

« Oh, that was no criticism, far from it. It will remind me of my childhood days… »

He sighed, deeply.

« Porco dio, » he mumbled, seemingly from behind his hands. « I am tired. »

From behind him, Leone heard the rustling of clothes — a sign that Bruno had removed his coat as well.

« I apologize, » Bruno then continued, his tone contrite. « I know this was a hard night for you, too. I should not complain so much. »

« Oh, don’t mention it, » Leone replied, putting the loaf of bread back where he had found it. « You had a much more hellish night than I, that much is clear. Please, don’t feel guilty over me. »

From a large pile underneath the stone oven, he took a few logs of dry wood, and proceeded to place them inside the oven’s gaping mouth, igniting them — and taking advantage of the slowly birthing flames to light himself a pipe. While the fire grew, he waited for embers to form, so that he could warm up the bread he had just sliced.

« You know, » Leone said, prodding at the flames with a poker as he smoked, « I wanted to thank you. »

Bruno audibly scoffed, and Leone heard his chair creak as he leant back into it.

« Thank me ? For what ? I have done nothing today that seems deserving of any thanks. »

Leone hummed, continuing to stare into the golden flames lapping against the oven’s walls.

« For showing me this side of you tonight — this hidden side that you seem to be so very ashamed of, » Leone said, pausing to chew on his pipe’s bit. « The one you choose to offer the Camorristi. You allowed me to see it, no matter how uncomfortable and exposed it made you feel, no matter how much you may despise it. I cannot even begin to explain how meaningful that is to me… Though I hate to think about how much you must have endured for it to happen. »

He blew out smoke, feeling contemplative and the slightest bit sheepish.

« I also want to thank you for allowing me to see the true you every single day of my life. To be gifted with the sight you only reserve the ones closest to you… It is an incredible gift. One that I cherish more than you could ever know. »

In this instant, he could feel Bruno’s eyes on him, piercing through the back of his neck. He felt the tip of his ears grow warm, and hurriedly placed the slices of bread against the still burning embers.

« I suppose what I want to say most is, » Leone went on, « thank you, Bruno. Thank you for being who you are, and for allowing me to see through you. »

A pause, only disrupted by the crackling wood in the oven. Embarrassment began to creep up Leone’s spine, sharp as a jellyfish sting, and he let out a nervous cackle.

« Hah, look at me, being so sentimental. It must be because of that Giovanna kid, I swear — »

From behind him suddenly came hands, hands attached to arms, which wrapped around his middle and held him tightly, fervently — so suddenly, in fact, Leone almost dropped his pipe to the floor as he froze with surprise.

He was surrounded by warmth, then. Wrapped into a most tender embrace, the heat of a full body clinging tight against him— burning into his back, practically melding into his own skin.

He felt, against his shoulder blades, the pressure of Bruno’s face, buried into his collar and breathing him in ; the way his body sagged against Leone’s, as if barely able to keep itself up still ; the way that his fingers grasped at the fabric around his stomach, refusing to let go ; and Leone felt his heart erupt with immense, incomparable, ardent affection.

« Thank you for seeing through me, » Bruno breathed out against his neck, in a soft exhale. « I… have rarely felt seen before. »

In the oven, the burning wood crackled and popped, bathing the kitchen in bright orange light.

Leone put down his pipe and gently unclasped Bruno’s wrung hands, so that he was able to turn around and finally face his paramour ; and once he had, he cupped both sides of his face and brought him close, observing his features, in a state of fascination.

How could anyone possibly fail to see the greatness within this man ?

He was almost kissing him, when Bruno abruptly spoke, forcing him to blink out of his daze.

« I need to change out of these clothes, » Bruno murmured, wearing a rather puzzling expression — one Leone had difficulties interpreting. « I will go to my room. »

Slowly, as he was rather taken aback by the brutal change in atmosphere, Leone let go of Bruno’s face, and backed away diffidently.

« Oh. In that case, I — »

« No, » Bruno added, taking Leone’s hand and pulling him forward. « Please come with me. Upstairs. »

A pause, and then a blush, starting around Leone’s collar and then spreading over the totality of his features in an all-encompassing surge of heat.

He nodded, lips pulling tight into a nervous grin while Bruno led him out of the kitchen, which they both abandoned without further hesitation.

In the oven, the bread was left to burn, without a soul to notice.


-


« I wish I could have met you earlier in life. Before all of this mess. When I was still new, when I didn’t carry such burdens on my shoulders. »

They had attempted to undress ; but ceasing to hold one another, in this instant, seemed unthinkable.

They had both fallen onto Bruno’s bed as soon as they had entered the room, in a frenzy of touch and caresses stronger than if they had not felt one another in years. In their fervor, increased tenfold by the debilitating freedom they seemed to possess in the empty estate, they had left the door slightly ajar, as though the house truly did belong to them, as though they were truly alone in the world — if only for one night.

Now they sat together, entangled, atop one another, so close they breathed in the same air, shared the same heartbeat, wore the same skin. Bruno’s mattress, though rather comfortable, could just as well have been a carpet on the floor or a cloud flying above the city — neither would have noticed, as lost as they were in each other’s contact.

« Lonely people don’t usually meet at all, » Leone murmured, backing away to unbutton Bruno’s shirt with trembling fingers. « We got lucky. »

The shirt fell — and as soon as it did, Bruno came right back to close the gap between them, as though frozen without Leone’s warmth.

« I do feel lucky, » he agreed, wrapping both arms around Leone’s neck. « To be right here, in your arms, with you. No, don’t let go — hold me tighter. Like this. Just like this… You know, I think that must really be it. Happiness. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more at peace. »

« I love you. »

« I know. So do I, and how blessed does that make me ? With you, love is so simple. »

Leone’s chest cracked open, and what poured out was nothing but boiling warmth. He buried his face into Bruno’s chest, his hands clutching the young man’s thin undershirt.

« Is it truly simple ? How could it be simple, when it feels so troubling ? I don’t simply love you, I love you like a man who has never dreamt and finally drifts off to sleep. »

He kissed the crook of Bruno’s neck, up to the line of his jaw — a tender alignment of favors. Bruno drew in a sharp breath, and gingerly tilted his head back.

« I am at peace with you, » Leone continued, and kissed him once more. « I, I feel like I could dream, at last — of the future, of you and I, together, somewhere, sometime soon. »

Bruno turned to look at him, aghast and flushed, the shadow of uncertainty clouding his gaze.

« ... Sometime soon ? »

« If you would come. With me. »

Brazen courage had suddenly awakened in Leone’s chest ; and as he looked up into Bruno’s troubled expression, he realized that he had never wanted anything more in his life.

« Leone — » Bruno laughed, out of disbelief, fingers playing with the neckline of Leone’s undershirt. « Leone, to where ? Where would we go ? »

« Anywhere. To Florence — where I was born, there is still a house — to Rome, to Milan. To France ! To Spain ! » his voice grew warmer, more assured. « There isn’t a place we can’t go to. We are young, we’ll find ways to make a living. I will paint, and work, and, and we will find somewhere that can welcome us. Bruno, with you at my side, I am no longer afraid of closed doors. »

They looked at one another, and Leone saw Bruno’s eyes shift between sudden, intense hope, fueled by the idealized picture Leone had drawn for him ; it soon dampened, however, and grew cold.

« I can’t go now, » Bruno shook his head. « There is too much holding me back here. La Camorra, the children, my mother… »

« Then we won’t leave, » Leone interrupted. « Not now, but later. When you’ll decide that you want to see something new. What do you say ? »

He was undeterred and hopeful, still. His arms around Bruno were warm and enveloping, radiating a feeling of safety like Bruno had never felt.

Unable to stop himself, he reached out and traced the edges of Leone’s face with the tip of his fingers, as if discovering his features for the very first time. His thin brows, his aquiline nose, his bitten lips, his pronounced cheekbones, his sharp chin.

The brutal surge of hope returned.

Bruno smiled, heart pounding with ceaselessly renewed tenderness, and he brushed both his thumbs against the painter’s cheeks.

« … I would like that, Leone. If you are ready to wait a little while. »

« For you ? » Leone breathed out. « At your side, time goes by in the blink of an eye. »

Bruno laughed, and Leone laughed too — lost in the relief of being there, of being alive in this very instant, into the hold of cherished arms.

Ordinarily, they did not kiss as often as they would have preferred. Privacy was not only difficult to attain in the lives they both led, but it was also mortifying in its own way ; and when one obtained it, one hardly knew just what to do with it.

But now was not one of those times.

Only one light had been turned on, almost in an afterthought. Its shine was strong enough to reveal, but kind enough not to expose, turning the room more welcoming, more intimate. The yellow glow emanating from the tiny oil lamp fought a losing battle against the pale luminescence of the moon, anyhow ; its bright rays descended through the closed windows and filled every corner with their light.

Tangling themselves in the bedsheets, Leone and Bruno kissed. They kissed for all the times they had not kissed ; for fear of being seen, for fear of being vulnerable, for fear of being fearful.

They kissed with all the intensity and passion they had, for too long, denied themselves. They kissed with the devotion only one who has truly desired love can show.

And as they kissed, more clothes fell ; and as they fell, both Bruno and Leone came to the joyous realization that being bare next to one another was not nearly as excruciating as they had feared ; instead, it only fanned the gleeful excitement, the electrifying trepidation of novelty fizzing in their blood, and brought them even closer.

Bruno’s insistent presence on top of Leone, sitting in his lap and wrapped around his middle with his whole body, was certainly not helping. But he would have changed their position for no reward, no sacred offering ; the capacity to feel the one he loved, and to drink in every one of his amorous sounds seemed to be worth all the riches of Galilee.

« I will, » Bruno suddenly whispered against Leone’s skin, covering his chest with a flurry of kisses.

It took the painter a second to understand through the contented fog clouding his brain ; but when he finally did, every other thought completely faded from his mind.

« I will, I will, I will go, » Bruno continued, voice gentle and strained still as he searched for Leone’s touch. « Wherever we can be together — I will go with you. I will. Of course I will. »

And how maddening, how incredible, love can be. How dazzling, blinding, and tortuous its force, cruel its torments, heart-wrenching its beauty.

Bruno kissed at his forehead, at the bump of his nose, at the cupid’s bow above his lips. Leone, though he had choked up, kissed wherever he could reach, and each kiss was new, each kiss was a fresh surprise. It was like a discovery, a most tender exploration, an uncovering of secrets that had never before been uncovered. Never before seen, never before touched, never before adored.

In this instant, Leone knew that he was his, completely, irremediably — though he had been from the very start, and knew perfectly well that he would never belong to anyone else.

In this instant, the only true thing in the world was —

It was simply the way —

Or perhaps the intensity —

Or the grandeur, the violence, the absolute completion —

« Where are you ? » Leone felt more than heard Bruno’s voice against his neck. « Come back to me. »

His breathing was quick, and feverishly hot, and damp on Leone’s cheek. His hands were gripping, tight claws of love, into his shoulders ; and against his chest, Leone could feel each pulse of Bruno’s blood as it coursed through him, as if it were running in his own veins.  

« Did your mind wander ? » Bruno asked, with a shallow sigh ; and Leone breathed him in, nestling against his shoulder — and here, in the warmth, was everything he had ever longed for.

« Never far from you, » he whispered, and dragged his lips downwards until they found Bruno’s heartbeat.

Bruno’s hands burrowed into his hair, and he felt another hot exhale against his scalp as Bruno held him there, in a tight, warm embrace. But Leone’s travel did not end there, and as Bruno lied back into the mattress, his grip soon turned lax, allowing Leone to go wherever he wanted ; and so did Leone go.

« This is all very… » Bruno breathed, unsure of where to put his hands — Leone helped tentatively, by pulling them right back to where they had been, against his shoulders. « Ah, alright. »

Leone’s laughter came through his own labored breathing ; under his splayed palms, he could feel the tension in Bruno’s abdomen come and go, making his body jolt periodically.

« You’re shaking, » Leone said, rather dumbly ; and it was Bruno’s turn to laugh, surprisingly loud in the quiet of the room, though muffled by his own hands.

« I know, » he replied, finally releasing the front of his face. « I’m sorry, this is — I feel so silly. It feels like my insides are tangled into knots. I… I am a bit nervous. »

« Would you rather I — »

« No, » immediately interrupted Bruno, flushed from head to toe. « No, this is everything I want. I simply need… A minute. »

He took in a few breaths, fingers running through Leone’s hair — and it took every bit of Leone’s self-control not to simply lie there and receive the petting, as a lazy cat would have. Bruno took notice of his sudden relaxation, and could not fight back a smile.

Ultimately, Bruno did recline.

He surrendered himself to Leone, wholly and willingly, as if carved open from stomach to chest ; taking in air like gulps of water, arm laid over his forehead — both to hide the direction of his gaze, and to ground himself back down, away from the onslaught of sensations.

To be seen like this was excruciating.

But how freeing, how exhilarating, how wonderfully real.

« Leone, » Bruno breathed again, once it was over — and had his voice always sounded so soft ?

Groggy with heat, dazed by the strength of the relief that had engulfed him, Leone shakily rose. His knees were wobbly, and he only managed to let himself fall right back down again, practically atop Bruno ; and once he found how to move like a human being again, he was immediately held close. Bruno’s lips felt cool against the burning heat of his face, and they were everywhere, a frenzy of pecks pressed into each patch of reddened skin.

They remained there for a few minutes of tenderly shared silence, lulled by the slowly calming rhythm of their combined breathing.

Bruno took in a long inhale, and exhaled through his nose — sounding the most relaxed he had ever been, until he spoke again, eyes fixated on the ceiling.

« Well, I suppose that by seducing all of Tuscany, you learn some tricks along the way, » Bruno then mused in a lecherous tone — prompting Leone to burst into a fit of laughter.

In the sky of Posilippo, the moon continued to rise, and in the cold, empty Milazzo house, only one room was permeated with warmth.


-


« They sure are taking a long time, » Mista mumbled under his breath, picking at another of his guitar strings. « Didn’t they say they’d only get a bite to eat ? »

Narancia simply shrugged, idly playing with the tiny cymbals of his tammorra.

« They probably got distracted. Maybe they decided to take a nap or something. »

Next to them both, on the ratty little couch, Giorno was peacefully resting his eyes, arms crossed against his chest in a fashion not dissimilar to that of a dozing elder. Sitting cross-legged on the floor was a decisively awake Trish, hunched over and sketching thick lines onto a piece of paper.

« Don’t move, » she sternly instructed Narancia. « I’m almost done with your hands… »

Narancia poked at one of the cymbals once more, solely to taunt her, and stuck out his tongue.

« Why don’t you draw Giorno instead ? » said Mista, playing the first few notes of a song he had learnt in his childhood. « There’s no way he’s gonna start moving any time soon. »

« I’m not asleep, » came Giorno’s groggy voice, muffled in part by the material of his own jacket, against which his face was nicely squished.  

His wounded hand had been patched up and wrapped with tight bandages, though it had not been particularly necessary ; the slice Gelato had dealt into his flesh had been shallow, and had long stopped bleeding by the time they made it to the hideout. But as Trish had said, the bandages were more of a badge of honor than a proper medicine. He would most likely have to keep it for a few days to come — if only to intimidate the older swindlers around town that would sometimes cause them trouble.

Trish gently patted his knee, and immediately went back to her sketching.

« I almost hate to say this, » she mused, drawing over a mistake. « But I am very proud of all of you. From what you’ve told me, it seems like this whole ceremony could have gone horribly wrong, but you all managed to keep a cool head through it all… I wish I could have been there to see it. »

Mista snorted.

« That’s nice. If you were really that proud of us, though, I think you would’ve kept us some food. Those macerated eggplants were supposed to be for all three of us. »

« I was hungry ! You made me wait here for hours ! What else was I supposed to do ? »

« You could have just eaten at home ! Jesus, it’s not like you live far ! »

« Tomorrow, we can go to Zietta Donatella for lunch, » Narancia offered, straightening up against the wall. « Let’s tell her it’s my birthday ! She can make us something really tasty. »

« Your birthday isn’t before May, though. »

« Does she know that ? Are we sure that she knows that ? »

From the couch, Giorno choked out a laugh.

« Well, we can always try, » sighed Trish, picking up the sheet of paper and turning it around. « Alright, Narancia, tell me what you think. »

« Oh ! »

On all fours, Narancia scrambled closer to Trish so that he could get a better view. He took the paper in hands and inspected it thoroughly — first surprised, then indecisive, and then, to Trish’s surprised delight, resolutely gleeful.

« It really looks like me ! » Narancia beamed, his eye brimming with admiration. « That is so great, Trish ! You’re going to be as good as Pitto’ one day ! »

« Oh — oh, no… Do you really think so ? I don’t think I will be… » Trish blushed over her smile, feeling thoroughly flattered. « Thank you, though… I appreciate it. »

« Can I see ? »

Giorno bent down from his spot on the sofa and took a peek over Trish’s shoulder. Narancia showed it off to him, prouder than if he had posed for Michelangelo himself.

« That does look nice, » Giorno murmured, resting his chin over the curve of Trish’ shoulder. « You really have a talent, Trish. »

Trish’ blush spread to the tip of her ears, and she grinned proudly.

« I’ve worked hard ! I’m going to need more lessons with Abbacchio, though, if I really want to get better… Oh, can you all imagine ? One day, little old me, showing off my very own paintings in an exhibition ? »

« Well, that seems like the next logical step, » Giorno approved with a cheeky grin.

« You’re going to be so loaded ! » Narancia squealed, stars shining bright in his eye. « Hey, can we live off of you when you become really famous ? Pretty please ? I can carry your easel around ! »

Trish pretended to give it some thought, humming with a finger against her lip.

« I’ll have to consider that offer… Who knows, maybe I’ll even have enough money to pay real servants… »

Mista gasped loudly.

« What, you wouldn’t even make use of your lifelong friends ? Signorina Una, you really are one heartless lady. »

Trish burst out laughing, leaning the side of her head against Giorno’s temple.

« Man, » Narancia mumbled, suddenly a little chagrined. « If Giorno’s going to lead La Camorra, and if Trish is going to become a really famous painter… What are me and Mista even going to do, huh ? »

« Hey, speak for yourself, » Mista sniffed, tapping his own chest. « I’ll become like Signore Prosciutto and live off all the rich women I seduce. That’s my plan for the future. »

After a brief moment of silence, Narancia proceeded to crack up into fits of sidesplitting laughter, falling right back to the floor as he cackled helplessly, loudly. He was soon joined by Trish, whose eyes were beginning to swell with tears of hilarity.

« Hey, now, » Mista groused. « I know that was a joke, but the fact that you’re all finding it that funny is actually a little hurtful. »

« Sorry, Mista, » Giorno choked up, shaking with the force of his own restrained laughter. « Sorry, but, it’s simply — the way you said it — »

« I really have no idea why you guys are my friends, » Mista shook his head, unable to stop a grin from curling his own lips.

They laughed for a moment longer, until their sides and cheeks began to hurt — at which point Trish and Narancia tried their hardest not to look at one another, lest they started laughing again. To avoid just that, Trish climbed up on the couch, sitting right next to Giorno and adding a few touchups to the drawing of Narancia she had just finished.

From the floor, Mista’s eyes fell onto something he had never seen happen —  or perhaps something he had simply never noticed before this very instant. It was something rather simple, that, on any other day, would most likely have not evoked anything within him ; but on this sofa, in this second, with everything that had taken place that day, Mista saw Trish’s and Giorno’s legs, tangled together ; and with this sight he had maybe seen a thousand times before but never truly observed, Mista came to an understanding.

Mista did not like complicated matters. He enjoyed a simple life free of worries, in which he worked when he wanted to work, ate when he was hungry, stole when the occasion came up, and slept once he was tired. As such, Mista did not know much about love — all that he knew was that one’s affection, when it was welcomed, was a wonderful gift to receive. The ones he had loved, be they girls he had attempted to woo, boys whose embraces he still recalled to this day, or the friends he had made through his life — those had all left a lasting image within his heart, ones that he often liked to spend some time reminiscing about.  

All this to say, really, only one thing : though Mista did not know or understand much about love, he most certainly knew what it looked like.

He kissed his teeth, absently pinching at his guitar strings — until he got to his feet, poking Narancia’s leg with the tip of his foot.

« Ehi, let’s go on the balcony. »

Narancia looked up at him with a fazed glare.

« … On the balcony ? It’s freezing cold ! Why would you want to — »

« Take your tammorra, come on. Let’s train together. »

« Wh — why can’t we train here, where it’s warm ? »

« Maybe Trish and Giorno don’t want to have music blasted in their ears. »

« I mean, it is fine if — » Giorno began, until Mista immediately interrupted him.

« Narancia, come on. Let’s just go. »

« Alright, alright ! Fine ! Gee, you’re so weird. Is it because I laughed too hard earlier ? »

At last, Narancia rose to his feet and followed Mista outside, grabbing a blanket on the way.

Once the two boys had stepped onto the balcony, Trish and Giorno were both left alone in the silent room. They looked at one another, still slightly perturbed — until, from outside, music began to play.

Some very simple tune, something quiet and slow ; gently plucked guitar strings and the clinking rhythm of the tammorra. Giorno heard it first, and immediately wished that he did not have such treacherous friends.

Trish, however, heard it only a few seconds after he had ; and she stopped drawing, instead fidgeting restlessly with the corners of her sketching paper. Giorno saw the way her foot had begun to bounce up and down, as it often did when she felt indecisive, and he instantly longed to help her with whatever it was that was giving her trouble.

He did not have to, as it turned out, for Trish was the first to break the silence.

« Do you, er, » she blurted, tense and sheepish. « Do you want to dance ? »

Giorno blinked at her, not yet sure if he had heard her well or had simply lost himself in wishful thinking ; but once he realized that she had truly asked him a question, and was therefore expecting an answer, he parted his lips and let his mouth hang open, like a fish.

« Um, » he said, very intelligently, and, upon realizing that he would not be able to talk, simply got up in acquiescence.

It was common knowledge that both Trish and Giorno knew how to dance. Trish had learnt at a very early age, as her mother was known throughout Napoli for being the city’s greatest dancer — and she therefore had a family reputation to uphold. Giorno, comparatively, had learnt the art of dance much later in life, but the skills had come to him rather naturally, or at least, as naturally as those things tend to appear in particularly gifted youth.

But, funnily enough, had a peeping tom observed them through a hole in the wall that night, he would most likely have never imagined either of them to be particularly talented dancers.

Perhaps it was the exhaustion, as it was very late after an impossibly long day ; or perhaps it was a matter of nerves. Either way, both of the adolescents’ performance proved to be rather miserable, especially considering their previous feats. Feet were treaded upon, steps were completely forgotten, and the excitement of success was replaced by nervous laughter and muffled apologies.

« Oh, I think this is the worst I’ve ever been, » Trish practically wheezed, leaning her forehead against Giorno’s chest. « I’m so sorry, Giorno. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. »

Giorno patted her on the back, unsure of what he should do to comfort her — after all, he had been just as bad, if not worse. But as he opened his mouth to speak, he was once more rendered speechless by the way she looked up at him.

How confusing, how bizarre, when they had known each other for so long.

« Look at you, » Giorno suddenly said, a little breathily. « I think — I think you look very — »

He stopped, lips pressed tight together. He bit down around nothing, clenched his jaw. Tried to find his words.

« I — Ah. How do I put this. You… »

They didn’t come to him.

« What’s wrong, Gigi ? You always have such a way with words ! » Trish giggled drowsily, throwing her arms around Giorno’s neck — and thereby, troubling him even more.

Her skin was soft against the underside of his jaw.

« I do, don’t I ? » he mumbled, holding her gaze, though with some difficulty. « I just. It’s like I’m losing my train of thoughts. I must look ridiculous. Don’t I ? »

« No, » Trish said, shaking her head, a smile dimpling her cheeks. « No, you don’t look ridiculous. »

« … You dance very well. »

« Don’t lie ! I was terrible. »

« I meant to say, usually. I was not very good tonight, either. »

« Is that what you meant to tell me ? »

« It’s… There are many things I mean to tell you. Many… Well, if only I knew how to word them. »

« Oh ? Would I enjoy hearing them ? »

« I hope so. None of them are mean, or rude. »

« Then why do you hesitate to tell them ? »

« You might dislike to hear them for other reasons. »

« If they aren’t mean things, I don’t see why I would. What, do I look like a girl who would refuse a compliment ? » She laughed again, and Giorno’s heart began to fizzle and shake like sparkling water. « If it comes from you, all it would do is make me happy. »

« I like seeing you happy, » Giorno practically blurted, with a sincerity that only embarrassed him further.

Trish’s cheeks became rosy, and her smile grew wider.

« I do, too. »

Oh, but her eyes, and the curve of her jaw, and all the little dots peppering her skin.

Cruel, cruel torment. Violent delight.

Aching love.

Love. Love ! There was the word he had searched for ! Love of her, love for her — his heart on a plate, on a stake, in a box, crushed to dust and kept in a locket around her neck. Love of the things that comprised her, love of the things she wanted, of the dreams she kept, of the history that had brought her here.

Love of her.

Love for her.

« Trish, » Giorno whispered, so low he could barely hear himself — if it were not for the furious pounding of his brain against his temples.

She straightened up a little, smile faltering but not disappearing. She was becoming so very red, as red as her hair, and with the way her eyes became alight with eagerness, sparking like so in the dark, Giorno realized one, extremely important fact : as people were wont to do, he, too, had underestimated Trish Una.

« Are — are you going to tell me now ? » she breathed, reaching to pull a stray lock of hair away from her face. « If, if you are, then go ahead. I am ready ! »

She knew exactly what he meant to tell her.

Of course she knew. She knew, and she had most likely known forever. Close to the eyes, far from the heart — Giorno had not known to identify all the signs, all those telltale things, those things that had told her everything she needed to know in order to come up with that conclusion. Those things they had shared, and would continue to share, if she allowed. If they were allowed the time.

The only missing link between them was now —

« Tell you… Well, I, I might, I just… »

He simply had to tell her ! Tell her, and everything would be —

« Trish, you… »

What was holding him back ? All he had to do was say those simple words, those very simple words, apropos of nothing, those words filled with the most terrifying tremor he had ever felt, those words that held everything he had ever —

It would not come.

He could not say it.

« What I feel for you… »

He had thought he would be alone his whole life.

He could feel his palms begin to sweat. A tortuous spasm overtook him, made his stomach hurt ; and his heart, his heart was pounding.

For so long, he had been ready to be empty, and to remain empty, his whole life through. To be nothing but a vessel for this pride, this ambition of his, that he carried in his heart and had not allowed to bloom for so long. But, she, she and Narancia and Mista and Bruno, and Leone too, had proved to him that he did not have to be.

He wanted to be with her, always. He, and Trish, in a garden, amongst the ever-growing and ever-changing life, among the souls of all that lived, all that breathed and died and lived again. All that changed forms and shapes whenever they wished. He wanted to talk with her about their dreams ; and when night fell, to endlessly prattle about what they hoped life would be once they were grown. He wanted to listen to her voice as she dreamt and hoped and longed, with this tense excitement, this incredible passion in her voice. The kind she reserved for him only, and for the secrecy of their nights together.

What she had given him — her trust, her affection, her laughter and games — was worth more than wealth. It was worth more than the power any king of any era had ever dreamt of possessing.

It was enough a reward for the pain of living.

But how to tell her, without stumbling over his words, without making a fool of himself ?

Without horrifyingly undermining the depth of his feelings — a depth he could not properly understand himself ?

« Trish, » he tried again, « I want you to know that… That… »

His hands were shaking. He was shaking.

And she was looking at him, still.

« I —  you — »

It was no use. No use at all.

He could not say it.

And as she oftentimes did, Trish came to his rescue in a most surprising way.

« Giorno, » Trish whispered, with the softest voice he had ever heard.

Then she leant forward, just a bit, with a slight tipping of her neck, right into his face — and just like that, she stripped Giorno of any thought.

Had there ever been anything ? Anything beyond them both ?

He had never been kissed before.

Their noses bumped against each other, and Giorno’s barely parted mouth was met with the touch of  soft, closed lips, sliding like velvet against his own.

Her forehead came to touch Giorno’s own after what felt like an eternity (and heaven above, Giorno hoped that eternity would be this lovely, this blissful). She was warm, but cold still against his feverish skin. She closed her eyes, and he did the same, a choked sigh threatening to fall from his lips ; a surge of breath, of frustrated yearning.

« Giorno, I know, » she continued, her voice as soft as it was during the night, when they talked in confidence, hands barely touching as they lied, close to one another, under the roof of the Espositos.  « I… I know. And, I, too… I… »

She let out a loud snort. Giorno’s eyes opened with a blink.

« I — oh, god, this is hard ! I understand your plight, now. It’s… Oh, Giorno, how I wish it were easier ! I can’t talk like you do… »

She took in a shuddering breath, nervous laughter spilling from her mouth as she desperately tried to hold it back.

« Giorno, even if… Despite the fact that I cannot say it properly, either… I feel as you do. »

Giorno’s heart leapt.

It leapt, and leapt, and continued to do so until he could almost feel it crashing against his ribcage. He was a mad bird, a goldfinch trapped in a box, trying to escape the hold of a child.

No, beyond that, beyond that, as simple as things suddenly seemed : he was so happy he could have died.

Giorno’s heart was not used to such impossible happiness, and almost gave out trying to keep up — until he finally remembered how to breathe, and inhaled, deeply, shakily.

« I, I see, » he finally blew out, ears warm. « That’s… Wonderful. »

She poked his cheek with the tip of her finger and laughed once more, very softly, so very close to him, close enough for their noses to touch —

Behind them, the door opened with a loud bang, instantly putting an end to both the adolescents’ embrace and the lovely music coming from the balcony.

« Sorry ! » rang Bruno’s voice, suddenly very loud in the quiet room. « Sorry, we are… Awfully, terribly late. I apologize. We ran into a bit of trouble on the way here, and — »

« Oh, » blurted Trish, the two parting as though they had just been burnt by one another. « Um ! Hello ! Good evening ! Bruno, pitto’, it’s so nice to see you ! »

From the balcony came steps and voices, and in came Mista and Narancia — both of their noses slightly reddened from the cold, rubbing their hands together as they took notice of the two newcomers.

« Well, finally, » groaned Mista, shedding the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. « You both took your damn sweet time, huh ? We could’ve all been asleep by now ! »

Bruno grinned sheepishly, and patted Mista’s shoulder in apology.

« Sorry about that. We — it was — after such a long day, we had to take a bath. »

Mista hummed thoughtfully.

« I mean, I guess it really was a long day, huh ? Now that I’m thinking about it, I wouldn’t say no to a bath, either. I’ll have to go to the bathhouse tomorrow. »

Giorno blinked up at Leone, trying to will his flustered state away.

« Pitto’, » he asked. « Are you doing alright ? You look a little… Different. »

« Mmh ? » Leone simply smiled, his expression sluggish and content. « Oh, I’m never better. Never better. Why do you ask ? »

He was smiling, which was strange enough in and on itself ; but the shape of his smile, so utterly appeased and lively, was even stranger. None of the children questioned this surprising state, however, as they unanimously decided (for once) that the painter’s strange and sudden happiness was none of their business whatsoever.

« Bruno ! » Trish gasped, finally taking notice of a very bright addition to Bruno’s appearance. « I’ve never seen you wear that before ! »

Indeed, as Bruno removed his coat, what Trish had detected became obvious to all involved : instead of his stern, dark blue outfit (which, though expensive and good looking, had befit him about as nicely as would have a hessian bag), Bruno had picked out a much nicer vest and shirt combination, with long, flowing sleeves ; and, catching the eye immediately, a bright, crimson pair of trousers.

« I thought it would be a nice change, » Bruno chuckled, rubbing his neck. « It is very eye-catching, isn’t it ? »

« Maybe, but you make it look wonderful ! »

« Alright, alright, enough about fashion ! » Narancia called out, raising his tammorra in the air. « Let’s celebrate, now that everyone’s here ! I want to party ! »

Soon enough, the small apartment was filled to the brim with music and sounds of animated conversations, as though all of the guests had not seen each other for years and longed to catch up.

« Trish, » Leone asked while the others animatedly debated over the technical superiority of bowler hats over top hats, « may I use your drawing material ? I seem to have forgotten mine at Bruno’s home. »

« Oh — um. Of course. »

She handed the pastels to him, and they both sat down on the couch.

« I mean, you gave them to me, so. They are technically yours. »

« I gave them to you, » he corrected, « so they are technically yours. Let’s not get it twisted, now. »

Her heart aflutter, Trish smiled widely, and, the painter at her side, set out to draw some more. She began to sketch out the outer lines of Bruno’s body as he took Giorno’s hands in his and attempted to learn the proper moves of the Tammurriata — all white, red, and black as he moved gleefully.

Leone drew him as well, that night, as well as all of the Espositos, as though something within him had come free — as if an invisible panel of glass had suddenly shattered, allowing him to draw with renewed energy, with brighter hope.

Outside, the sun would not rise until a few more hours ; but in the meantime, music would play, hearts would be merry, and laughter would ring loud — for as long as they would wish to.

That night, not truly realizing that he was doing anything different than usual, Leone Abbacchio drew his first masterpiece, and fell in love all over again.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As long as I still feel, under my every caress,

A living heart shiver and throb with hurried pulses,

As above the void the same waves of exhilaration

Lifts us as we embrace,

Then without useless regrets and without bitter complaints,

By reality I shall let myself be taken.

No, my heart has not thrown itself to pipe dreams,

It knows where it can be satiated.

Truly, what do I care for your gloomy heavens

I, who is nothing but impetus, tenderness and transports ?

My heaven is down on earth, wide open and limitless,

And through it I run, soul and body alike.

 

— Louise Ackermann

 

In the weeks that followed, until winter drew its last, frigid breath and spring was finally reborn, almost all of their mornings were spent in bed. That was not to say that they slept any more than what they were used to ; but rather that, emboldened as they were by the new prospects brought by this incredible discovery (namely that sharing physical proximity often, regularly, and considerably well was a stellar addition to their routine), the temptation to profess their love to one another simply because they could had become too great to resist on most occasions.

But no matter how frequent, how regular, or how excellent such mornings were, there was no helping this sense of wonderment and curious fascination that arose within them each time. It was as though they had come up with it themselves, all on their own, as though they had invented the methods and ways of love ; as though they had been the firsts to experience those sensations and this type of closeness, long before any of their forefathers had even considered to do the same.

And though they knew that thought to be ridiculous, they also found it amusing to revel in, asit gave the very reasonable, very natural urgency they both felt to be together something of a magical aspect.

Sharing a bedroom — even more so a single set of sheets — while remaining unnoticed was certainly no small task, even for two men who had, over the course of a few months grown used to discretion and secrecy. But with time, they developed a strategy that, while not a supreme guarantee of safety, allowed them at least some peace of mind.

They would take turns rising in the smallest hours of the night, when the sky was still heavy with darkness and slumber and the sun did not yet shine ; take the smallest steps possible, as not to make the floorboards creak ; and sneak into the other’s room as discreetly and quickly as could be managed. There, what little was left of the night would be spent together in the most tender turmoils — and then, because they would abhor to separate so soon, they would throw safety out the door and remain just a little longer, close as could be without sharing the same skin, and dream, and talk, and lay together, and marvel at how wondrously such things could happen, how such simple pleasures could possibly exist. So it would go, until the room filled with light and it became time to separate.

It was always a sad, grudging walk that brought them out the door into the cold. But alas, the world could not stop for them, and the clock always turned.

Very rarely did they manage this sort of escapades during the day, but when they did, it would always be in Leone’s atelier, which had turned into a haven of sorts. The room that Donatella Una rented so generously could welcome them as often as they wished ; the only reason they did not spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings there was because, to their dismay, other things had to be done, work and life and all that stood in-between. But on the rare occasions he would be allowed some peace and reserve in the middle of his day, Bruno would quickly run by and ravish the painter from his task, and their tender moments — turned all the more exhilarating from their happening in light so bright — would be tinged with a new intensity, a new fervor, that left neither men unmoved.

« You know, I could not imagine doing this for anyone else, » Bruno said during one of such afternoons — while lying down on top of rumpled, warm sheets, at a perpendicular angle from his painting lover.

« Well, I should hope so, » Leone quickly replied, scribbling his lines. « Have you been getting requests from other painters ? If you have, I’d strongly recommend you throw them all to the fire. Artists do not make for commendable companions. They will surely try and take advantage of you. »

Bruno fixed his posture to stretch his lower back, against Leone’s previous recommendations.

« Mm. That does sound like something painters would do. »

« Truly a wretched kind, that lot. Never to be trusted. »

Bruno laughed.

 « And are you ? » he asked, lightly poking at the overleaf of Leone’s sketchbook with his foot. « Taking advantage of me. »

A grin came over Leone’s lips, though he did not look away from his piece.

« Who, me ? Me, so utterly devoted to you and your wellbeing ? Do you truly think that I could ? »

« You know perfectly well that I could never refuse you anything -- not while I am in such a state. Is that not taking advantage ? » Bruno muttered, amused and coy.

« Maybe so, » Leone replied, gently taking hold of Bruno’s foot and pulling it away from his sketchbook. « But I would not call such a strategy ‘taking advantage’. I would call it ‘a correct use of one’s assets and techniques’. »

« Hah ! »

Leone had drawn Bruno many times over the past few weeks, in quite a wide variety of poses and situations — both as a way to practice new settings, colors and methods, and as a way to avoid tiring his model of the experience. He had drawn him with charcoal, with sanguine and pastels, with watercolors and oil paints ; he had drawn him with his mother, and with his children of misfortune, and with the Camorristi (with whom he had gotten reasonably acquainted) and on his own, as a formal portrait and in the middle of action, solemn and tender ; and sometimes, not all of him at once, but simply his hands, his eyes, his arms or his chest or the curve of his back as he searched through his dresser.

He had drawn him in intimacy, as well : bare, like now, and with in his eyes a light that none but the artist himself had ever seen, and in the way he showed himself, a softhearted warmth.

« Promise me you won’t show this to anyone, » Bruno suddenly urged, perhaps overcome with embarrassment — perhaps from the intensity with which Leone had been looking at him for the past few minutes. « Or sell it, God forbid. I cannot even imagine seeing this kind of thing hung up in someone’s home, or — oh, in an exhibition. What a thought . »

Leone looked down at the picture he had been drawing, and snorted.

« I see what you mean, » he approved. « Well, I can very much imagine it hung up in someone’s home, but that particular thought does not appeal to me much. »

« You can ? Truly ? Leone, what could have your previous patrons asked of you ?… »

« Oh, all sorts of things, and often strange requests. After all, every painting has to be drawn according to someone’s likeness, is it not ? Perhaps this sketch here I could turn into a very lovely painting. A mythological scene. You are no Hercules, my dear, but I know for a fact that you would make a fantastic Apollo. »

« Apollo, you say, » Bruno sighed. « Well, depict me as you like, god or mortal or anything at all. As long as you are the only one seeing it… »

« Mm. If I am to be only one, then I shall keep you just as you are now. »

In more ways than one, if time allowed it.

« Are you getting tired ? » Leone asked after a few more scribbles. « You have such heavy eyelids. »

« Ah, it’s lying down like this. It makes me want to doze off. »

« What a gift, being able to fall asleep whenever you lie. »

« It is not so much an ability, » Bruno retorted, this time holding out his hand and making his fingers dance along the line of Leone’s thigh, « than it is the direct result of your actions, macchiaiolo . »

The touch, while light and enjoyable, was also quite tickling, and prompted another stray line to scratch against Leone’s paper — as did the sudden skipping of his heart.

« You know, » Leone mumbled, setting his sketchbook and charcoal aside on a corner of the bed, « it is quite hard for an artist to create when he is so terribly distracted. »

« I am barely doing anything. You are allowing yourself to be distracted. »

« And rather easily, too. Move over. »

Though quite mirthful, Bruno stood his ground valiantly and refused to move — thereby prompting Leone to simply sit astride him, legs spread around his middle as though he were riding a stallion.

« Well, hello there, » Bruno practically beamed, hands reaching up to cover the harsh jut of Leone’s hips. « Leone Abbacchio, was it ? »

« How dare you ask such a thing, » Leone joked, and bent down to kiss him — his hair falling into a curtain, shielding them both from the light and enclosing them within the smell of Leone’s perfume.

He could have recognized him amongst any other. By now, the scent of him, the feel of him, the disposition of his every feature, even the sound of his breathing felt as familiar as his own. There was a familiarity to the way his touch felt, each time, against the most tender parts of his body, as though it was not a foreign contact, something outside of his own perception, but rather a continuation of his own essential nature. As though his and Bruno’s soul, stretched taut like bread dough, had connected into a singular entity that now ruled over them both as if it were the most natural thing in the world. So although there were still discoveries to be made, and although each surprising novelty he found within Bruno filled him with delight, none of it felt like a mystery to be solved or a problem to be fixed. It would feel just as logical than if he had been the one experiencing those things, just as easy, just as genuine and just as honest.

And as such, Leone was now certain of a simple fact, one that he cherished more than anything he had ever felt in his hearts of hearts ; he would know Bruno Buccellati in pain, he would know him in joy, he would know him in candor and love and atrocious loneliness — he would know him in death, and in whatever came after it too.

But could a simple man truly feel so limitless ? It would be overwhelming, sometimes, all of it at once — the affection and boundless desire and eternal recognition. As though an orchestra played for him all night long, accompanying the pounding of his heart and the love in his eyes, Leone Abbacchio felt like he could burst out of his skin any moment now ; how far he now felt from his fellow men, so utterly bound by their own flesh and earthly longings.

Was it the way it was supposed to feel ? And if so, how had he managed to go without it for so long ?

« It’s grown so much, » Bruno breathed, and kissed Leone’s chin. « Your hair. »

« Mm, » Leone dipped further down and buried his face in the hollow of Bruno’s neck. « Should I consider a trim ? »

« If you’d like. But I can’t deny that I quite enjoy it that way. »

Saying this, he ran his hand through the length of Leone’s hair, gently scraping his nails against his scalp.

« Do you, now ? » Leone sighed, nuzzling his lover’s jaw.

« Mhm. It makes it all the more fun to tangle, » Bruno continued, and spread his fingers, letting the long grey locks fall from his loose grip. Leone snorted.

« How cruel of you. »

« I am very cruel, we have established as much. »

He followed the curve of Leone’s spine from his neck to his tailbone, his nails a feather-light pressure against the painter’s burning skin. He shuddered, ticklish and suddenly impatient, and sat up straight astride Bruno once more.

« But, » Bruno stroked Leone’s front. « Still not quite cruel enough to deny you. »

Leone laughed around an amorous sigh, his fingers splayed across the plane of Bruno’s chest suddenly tensing around the muscle there. Bruno retaliated by lifting his back off the bed as well, and meeting Leone halfway, his arms wrapping around the painter’s waist and pulling him close.

« I should already be gone, » he whispered, voice muffled by Leone’s hair into which he had buried his face. « I have a meeting planned with Giorno at the Pettirosso . »

« Mmh… An important one ? »

« A very important one. But aren’t they always ? »

« You sound exhausted. »

« I am. But I feel better, now, all thanks to you. »

« Ah — my pleasure, » Leone blurted, growing redder by the second ; and Bruno, perhaps in response, growing unabashedly brazen.

« And I am getting better, » Bruno kissed his mouth, « and better, » then his neck, where his pulse was pounding, « by the minute. »

It always felt the most intense like this, when they were closest, and tired still from previous throes, tangled around one another like ever-growing vines ; each deriving unadulterated satisfaction from how the other felt, and their touch, their passion, made all the more frantic by the excitement they felt to simply be together.

Bruno had a special power to him, one that Leone had discovered some months ago — not too long after meeting him, in fact : it was the ability to, with only a few words and a brief touch, turn Leone’s into a dribbling puddle of human-shaped goo. As though he were liquid paint, still damp upon a canvas, Leone could feel himself melt, his skin made of wax, of oil and pigments and liquefying from the heat within him — until he abandoned himself to the pleasure of being seen, felt, held.   

As he was gently set back down, Leone was met with the very excruciating feeling of Bruno’s body against his in one last, ardent embrace, until he was no longer there at all — prompting the painter to sit up, though his energy now felt quite drained.

« You’re, » he breathed, still a little woozy, « leaving now ? »

« I have to, » Bruno replied, and bent down once more to kiss him, all while putting on clothes. « I’m very sorry. I wish I could stay with you, like this, » he touched Leone’s hair, « for longer. But — they’re waiting for me. »

Leone huffed pointedly, though he could not possibly muster enough vexation for it to feel authentic.

« Very well, » he said, taking hold of Bruno’s hand and lacing their fingers together. « But next time you pose for me, I won’t let you get away so easily. »

Bruno laughed, and finally, for the first time, stole a glance towards the discarded sketch. From where he sat upon the bed, Leone could see the tip of his ears grow burgundy red.

« I… Leone, is that your imagination, » Bruno blurted, buttoning up his shirt with slightly more frantic movements, « or do I — do I truly look like that, after… »

A wide grin spread over Leone’s lips.

« I only paint what I see, Signore Buccellati. Make of that what you will. »

Bruno looked over the sketch once more, taking note of its every detail ; and Leone was delighted to see, in the rigidity of his lover’s spine and in the blue of his eyes, the very particular edge of yielding embarrassment.

« I see, » Bruno said, returning it to Leone. « Well. Do make sure it doesn’t leave this room, would you ? »

Leone’s smile grew catlike. He lied back down onto the bed, admiring his own sketch with unabashed delight.

« Were I to turn it into a painting, I’m sure this would get the blood pumping of quite a few widows, back in Rome. You’d be doing a great service to a certain community, do you know ? »

Bruno rolled his eyes, trying to hide his amusement ; and once dressed, with one last kiss, the depth of which properly knocked the wind out of Leone’s sails, he left the premises.

Leone intently listened to his steps as he walked down the flights of stairs, his weight making the floorboards creak in a manner that was unique to him only. Now alone in his atelier, bare as the day he was born, and with none of his work finished, Leone began to feel rather contemplative  — perhaps thanks to the way Bruno’s scent still enveloped him, as though he had left a part of himself behind for him to hold on to.

 

-

 

Bruno had made a habit out of dabbing some of Leone’s perfume behind his ears after he had bathed. It was something he had tried once, out of curiosity, but had not mentioned to Leone — both because such an action, so outrageously sentimental, made him feel a little embarrassed, and also because he was curious to see if the painter would notice it at all. He had, of course, for Leone, in more ways than one, had a nose made for this sort of thing.

The perfume, kept in a lovely, ornate glass bottle, was imported from southern France — one of the few luxuries Leone liked to indulge in every so often. Proud of his treasure, the painter had described the fragrance to him in great details, going over the maceration process and the copious list of ingredients (lemon, bergamot, neroli, rosemary, petitgrain, myrtle, cedar and sandalwood) with no lack of enthusiasm ; « though, to be completely frank, » he had then said, sheepish, « all that I am able to smell is the neroli. »

It did smell very much like neroli, and also bitter oranges, flowers, and woods. It was a discreet but powerful scent, one that felt rather expensive and delicate once it touched the skin ; one that permeated Leone’s clothes, as well as his bedsheets, and stuck to Bruno’s own skin whenever they embraced. With time, Bruno had come to associate the fragrance with Leone himself, his presence and his warmth, as though they were indistinguishable from one another ; and as such, to bear it himself, like oil anointed into his skin, felt both whimsical and incredibly intimate.

For all those reasons, Bruno had come to find reassurance and peace in the heady fragrance — for the bitter orange and rosemary now more than ever were reminders of home, of love, and of all the comforts that came alongside it.

« You’re not focusing, » Giorno suddenly murmured against his temple, and Bruno’s head tilted up in a fashion that was not dissimilar from that of a marmot shooting up from its burrow after a long winter.

« Ah, you’re right. I apologize, » he immediately said, sitting up straight and finally returning to reality. Giorno did not seem to mind too terribly ; though the amused glint in his eyes felt perhaps even more agonizing than the remonstrance itself.

They were both sat at one of the Pettirosso’s many tables, ankles crossed and gaze now focused, facing Risotto Nero — capo of this particular subsection of the Camorristi, and as such, chieftain of a large clan of thugs, bandits, and crooks. It was a heavy burden to bear, that much was certain, but he carried it with no shortage of grace ; and for a man tall as he was, perhaps this aforementioned elegance was the greatest tour de force of them all.

« Giovanna, this reunion has better be important, » Nero said, looking less than unamused. « This place is supposed to be open during the day. »

An approving hum was heard coming from the large bar where Buffala stood. She was cleaning her counter with no shortage of annoyance in her gaze, a rather clear indication that she did not enjoy being forced to take an impromptu off day.

« Not to mention, » Nero continued, « that I do not much enjoy having to hide information from the rest of my gang, as a personal rule. »

The sanctimonious tone he had used there might have been a lot more efficient had Risotto Nero not concurrently been rocking a tiny, drowsy nine-year old in his lap ; or perhaps it would not have been, for Giorno Giovanna was now known amongst the Camorristi as a terribly stubborn individual. Either way, the child (that Bruno recognized as the young Marinara, eldest of the three) was dozing off rather peacefully, either blissfully unaware of her surroundings or unbothered by them completely.

For a brief instant, he could not help but envy her.

« I understand all of this, of course, » Giorno said with a nod. « And it makes me all the more grateful that you have accepted to meet with us… » he threw a glance Marinara’s and Buffala’s way. « … In private, today. »

Nero blinked, wordlessly urging him to continue. Marinara yawned, and sunk her face deeper into the crook of Nero’s elbow.

« … First of all, » Giorno carried on, « I wanted to ask. Has the evaluator gotten back to you yet ? It has been quite a while since he last visited, has it not ? »

The evaluator, a freckled man who bore the name of Aceto Doppio, had indeed come and gone six weeks ago now. He had only spent three days in Napoli, and during that short stay, had managed to wreck more havoc in the Camorristi’s organization than had any previous crisis — and there had been many since the clan had been formed. He had spent most of his time interrogating the members of the Società about their daily occupations, what they did, how they did it, and how good they were at it. Some (Sorbet and Gelato most of all, for they were the eldest) had expressed great displeasure over being queried in such a way ; others had not minded too terribly, though their behavior towards the man had been, by joint agreement, far from friendly. When his interrogation had been done, Aceto Doppio had then interviewed Risotto Nero in great details over the activities of his clan, from the smallest payment collected on the tiniest caffè , to the much greater trade of opium, linen, sugar and tobacco they had begun to dip their fingers in some years ago. He had been thorough and insistent, and his behavior, while not entirely unpleasant (as he was, all things considered, rather well-mannered and cordial), had done wonders to worsen Nero’s mood.

Needless to say, through the short duration of his stay, Aceto Doppio’s popularity amongst the Camorristi had not managed to reach very high levels. The way he spoke, moved, down to his every nervous tick — which he seemed to possess in great quantities, the most annoying one of all being the relentless tapping of his fingers on every surface he could find, including other people’s arms, shoulders, or backs.

Giorno and Bruno, too, had been interrogated ; but as Bruno’s involvement as a contaiuolo was considered minor (though it was far from the truth) and as Giorno’s arrival in the society was still too fresh for him to know much (the wound on his hand had barely had enough time to dry), their interrogation had not lasted nearly as long as their colleagues’ had.

« He has contacted me, yes, » Nero replied, grabbing Marinara by the waist more firmly and pulling her up higher into his lap — as she had begun to slip off. « I’m not even surprised you already know that, Giovanna. You seem to be sniffing out information like a pig does truffles. »

Giorno did not smile, though his upper lip did twitch. Nero sighed.

« A letter came in yesterday, enjoining me to prepare everything for his arrival as he would be returning shortly. No mention was made of a potential agreement, a raise of funds, or anything of the sort ; not even a single indication that he was ever in touch with the Boss. I don’t even know why he’s returning at all. It would seem a lot more convenient for him to simply write his answer, or send out someone else to tell us, but who knows. Maybe he’s taken a liking to our charming company. »

Marinara pulled onto his sleeve, lightly, insistently. Without even looking down at her, Nero began to rub soothing circles into her back. She closed her eyes once more.

« Either way, I am not looking forward to his return. Enough time has already gone by, and everyone is beginning to grow a little… Tense, with how slow things are going. »

« Understandably so, » Bruno replied, shooting a glance under the table — where Salmone and Caramello were busy sketching onto a large sheet of paper, most likely a generous donation from a certain painter. « But perhaps his coming here will be a good occasion for us to begin with… Let’s call it a "little project" of ours. »

Both of Nero’s eyebrows rose simultaneously, which was a rare enough occurence to be worth mentioning — he was a stone faced man, which, Bruno supposed, only added to his charisma and presence as a leader.

« A project, » Nero repeated, his tone somber. « Is that so. Something you’ve hid from me, Buccellati ? »

And for that reason, I know with the utmost certainty that one day, you will snap. You will betray us, the organization, your family.

And when that happens, I will be the one tasked with shooting a bullet through your brain. And I want that task to befall no one else.

Bruno’s sharp intake of breath was snap-quick, and therefore went unnoticed. He crossed his arms onto the table.

« Yes, » he replied, very honestly. « Something we’ve both hid from you, as a matter of fact, and for quite some time. It is a betraying of sorts. But is not you we are betraying. »

He looked into Nero’s red eyes, unwavering and calm.

« We are betraying the Boss, and we would like the rest of the clan to join us. »

Behind the bar, one of Buffala’s apéritif glasses loudly shattered as it fell, while she let out a loud, vulgar expletive. The noise made all three children jump up to attention, causing Caramello and Salmone both to hit their head against the underside of the table — the shift in balance thereby causing the two glasses of wine there to be knocked down, spilling their content all over the mahogany.

« Times are ever a changing, » Giorno continued without a care, swiftly wiping the spilled wine with a handkerchief. « And we both believe that it is about time for some light shifts in power — and in activity. Would you be interested in hearing what we have to say… »

He tilted his head to the side, tucking his long braided hair over his shoulder.

« … Or will you at least allow us a head start out of here ? »

Risotto Nero was not an easily impressionable man, that much was certain. As such, Giorno’s reveal did not elicit any spectacular reaction from him ; in fact, he barely moved at all, or only his eyes — as they darted restlessly between Giorno and Bruno both, analyzing their expression, and in doing so, most likely sensing their certainty, their spiritual strength and utter serenity.  

After a short moment of silence, only slightly compromised by Caramello’s and Salmone’s muffled complaints from under the table, Risotto Nero finally moved. He grabbed the black-haired Marinara under her arms and put her back down on the floor ; and as she rubbed her eyes drowsily, he bent down to tilt her chin up.

« Go into my office, » he said, « and grab the big map next to my desk. Once you’ve found it, bring it here for me. If you take good care of it on the way down and it isn’t torn or wrinkled, I’ll let you wear my coat later. »

Marinara gasped, and without further ado, quickly span round and trotted up the staircase to fetch the map. Nero turned back to the two companions, whose expressions were nothing short of delighted.

« Your plan, » he sighed. « It better be a good one. I am risking everything here, not just my life. If I don’t like a single thing you’re saying, I won’t hesitate to put you both into the ground. »

« I think you’ll find it plenty satisfactory, capo Nero, » Giorno breathed, shooting a glance Bruno’s way — and being reassured to find the same pleased shine in his eyes. « For you see, we already have an idea of where the Boss might be hiding. »

 

-

 

It was around one in the morning when Leone Abbacchio was awoken by the sound of his door opening and closing, and by the gentle, yellow light of a candle shining down onto his face.

« Leone, » came a very soft voice, accompanied by a loving touch to his forehead and cheek — and with this, he snapped out of slumber.

« Mmh ? » he mumbled very intelligently, as his face was half-squished against the comfortable edge of his pillow, upon which he had copiously drooled. A laugh came from Bruno, and the light shifted as the candle was set upon the nightstand.

« You fell asleep with your clothes on ? » he asked, and the comforting heat of his hand shifted as well, reaching Leone’s collar. « You must have come home quite late. No good, pittore . »

« You’re returning late, too, » Leone yawned in reply, moving to lie down on his back and allowing Bruno to rid him of his shirt more easily. He felt the heat of his fingers against his skin as the buttons popped open, and, unable to help himself, leant into the touch a little more, finding Bruno’s thigh with his meandering hand. « This meeting must have kept you rather busy. »

« Oh, you have no idea just how busy. Sit up, Signore Abbacchio — I can’t undress you if you just lie there like a spoiled lord. »

A smile graced Leone’s lips as he finally opened his eyes.

To his utter delight, he was met with the unimaginably comforting sight of Bruno Buccellati in the odd, trembling candlelight — shifting over his lover’s face as though hesitant to settle on any one detail of his appearance. Even in the timid glow, though, it was not hard to notice the dark circles under his eyes, or how drawn his features were, even with the peaceful expression that he bore.

Bruno seemed tired, and every bit as drained as his voice had made it sound. As such, Leone did not have the heart to tease him any more than what was strictly necessary ; so he sat up, rather diligently, and began to undress Bruno as well, with slow, languid movements.

« You will have to tell me all about it, » Leone said, peeling Bruno’s shirt off his shoulders, listening to his lover’s deep sigh as he settled down onto the bed next to him.

« Later, » Bruno whispered, and he threw his arms around Leone’s neck, pulling him closer, and closer yet, until they were completely flush together. « For now… For now, I think I would prefer to be held. »

Leone swallowed, a biting heat taking hold of his nerves all at once like the sudden, bright flaming of fanned embers. He blew out the candle on the nightstand with a hurried breathe, quickly delving into Bruno’s warmth and touch and scent ; Bruno let out a delighted laugh as he relaxed back into the pillow, clinging onto his lover, feeling the heat of his stomach against his. The room fell into darkness.

They kissed one another, and everything in the world felt right once more.

Though they had become used to practicing this art in relative silence, it was never an easy task, as love can rarely be satiated quietly — and in one or two occasions, perhaps prompted by an excess of enthusiasm, they had to shush each other as softly as could be managed and hold back the slightly frenzied laughter that threatened to burst out of them. For what a silly situation this was, truly, and how wonderful at the same time, how all-encompassing, how utterly fulfilling.

If only they had been alone, absolutely alone, without a single worry in their mind ; if only all they had to focus on was the hitches in each other’s breathing, and the fire in their blood, and the adoration in each other’s eyes.

But thankfully, no situation needs to be perfect for love to bloom. Once it was done, no worry was left in their mind ; only the simple, very wonderful thrill of satisfaction and comfort — as well as, perhaps, a slightly overheated brain.

Even after, Leone continued to hold Bruno close. Seeing as he felt a little too hot (both from excitement, exertion, and the spring heat slowly rising in southern Napoli), Bruno had his back turned to him and his front pressed against the cool wall of Leone’s bedroom. Leone did not mind, for he still had ample access to Bruno’s back : on the canvas of brown skin, he sketched figures and abstract shapes, waves and circles and stars and profiles he imagined, only with the very tip of his finger so that the touch was barely more than a tickle. Leone drew from his shoulder blades to the small of his back, along the bumps of his spine and in the lovely crook of his neck, around his shoulder and down to his elbow, then back onto his loins and ever so near his backside. Each time he would stop, Bruno would produce a muffled, displeased noise ; and so Leone would start all over again, content to pay his due, feeling goosebumps under his touch and cherishing every tremor and shiver as though they were professions of love.

He had grown drowsy once more. The darkness, the satisfaction relaxing him down to the bones, the heat of Bruno’s body next to his, the tangle of their legs and the exhaustion of the work day were all injonctions to simply close his eyes and drift into slumber. However, just as he was about to close his eyes, his fingers splayed on the slight jut of Bruno’s hip, his lover’s voice, suddenly loud in the heavy silence of their breathing, quickly came to awaken him.

« I will have to leave, Leone, » Bruno said, and a horrible weight immediately came to settle on top of Leone’s heart.

« Leave ? » he blurted, sitting up as though an arrow had pierced him. « Leave ? Where ? For how long ? What — what could you possibly be talking about ? »

Bruno finally unstuck himself from the wall and came to face Leone once more, though he remained lying on his side.

« A few weeks. Or a few months, most likely, » he sighed, rubbing his eyes. « I am being sent on a reconnaissance mission for La Camorra. We’ll be going up North, and to France, as well — perhaps to the East of the Mediterranean, too, depending on the nature of our findings. »

He gently caressed up Leone’s flank, rubbing soothing circles into his skin.

« It won’t be a dangerous mission. I will be gathering intel and conducting searches, that’s all. Giorno will be with me, and the others, too. We will prepare for it during the next two weeks, and then we will all go together. »

Leone’s eyes were as wide as saucers. Bruno smiled, unable to help himself.

« Close your mouth, còre . You look like a fish out of water. »

« I — I had not expected… For a few months ? »

« We will write to each other. I will send you my address every time we move, that is a promise, so that you never run out of news. And I will be annoyingly careful at all times, and so incredibly discreet, so that you never have to worry about my safety. »

« I doubt that I will be able to manage that, » Leone blurted, crossing his legs. « Can’t I come along with you ? Perhaps I, too, could use a change of air. »

Bruno grinned.

« No, I would rather you stayed here. »

« Why, if your mission is as safe as you claim it to be ? »

« If you are here, then you can take care of my mother, of Trish, of the rest of the Camorristi — and keep me updated on anything that happens, so that should there be the faintest hint of trouble, I shall return here immediately. »

« And what am I supposed to do here, in your absence ? The more you try to reassure me, the more dangerous that mission of yours seems to be. I do not like it, not one bit. Stay here. »

« I cannot. »

« Well then, make it so you can. »

« That is not in my abilities, I am afraid. »

« Bruno, I will be able to do nothing but worry myself sick over you. »

« I refuse to allow that, » Bruno firmly said, and wrapped his arms around Leone’s waist, pulling him down to his height. « You will be very peaceful, and put all of your trust in me — for you know just how careful and just how talented I am in every aspect of existence. »

Leone scoffed, though he did so without much humor.

« Right, » he mumbled, returning the tender embrace. « God, is it a nightmare ? I do not want you to leave, not for so long, not for something so risky. »

« I told you, it is not risky. I will return in a few months, absolutely fine and healthy, and be very good to you once more. »

« So you say. »

Bruno pecked him on the lips, attempting to kiss away the painter’s worries ; and though they were not so easily alleviated, he did succeed, if only a little bit, in making Leone smile.

« It will go wonderfully, » Bruno insisted, his tone assured and soft, as he tucked Leone’s hair behind his ear. « Again, I ask you to put your trust in me. And in Giorno, too. »

Leone rolled his eyes, and Bruno laughed.

« That’s right, in Giorno too. Come now, do not frown so much. I promise that I will return in barely more than a flash. »

Leone could not hold back a wince, which he tried his hardest to turn into a more neutral expression ; Bruno noticed, of course, and kissed his forehead.

« Leone. Tomorrow, come with me to the Pettirosso . We will tell our plan to the rest of the Camorristi. You can work on their portraits and listen in to my and Giorno’s explanations, and be reassured. Does that sound good to you ? »

« Mmh, » Leone grumbled with a nod. « I… I suppose it does. »

Once more Bruno kissed him, and once more Leone sighed, utterly defeated, until he began kissing back ; the fear in his heart a foreign one, and the sensation of Bruno’s presence now essential to his peace of mind.

An hour and change later, Bruno left for his own bedroom, as was customary, for they could not take the risk of being found with one another once morning came. As Leone lied there in the darkness, in a bed that was too warm still with the mingled heat of two bodies, he thought of a Napoli without Bruno Buccellati to watch over it ; and worst of all, of just how much he would miss him once he was gone.

That night, Leone fell asleep with something cold gnawing at his heart, and woke up very late for the first time in many weeks.

 

-

 

The early afternoon.

Yellow, greenish light, flowing in from the tinted windows, delicate rays of gold. The Pettirosso walls, with their heavy paper and their cracked moldings. The floorboards, dark and scraped with age, groaning with disrepair, yet clean and varnished — with the constant care of one who evidently took great pride in the little establishment. Buffala, looming over his shoulder with a mixture of scorn and detachment, attempting to stave off boredom while she did not have the possibility to work. The overbearing weight of her silence. The contemplation. The odd reverie.

The smell of tobacco, colognes and evaporated alcohol, impossible to pin down and even more so to draw ; but present still, in subtle fumes and vapors. The brown of the wood, the emerald green and burgundy of the few cushions. The bronze of the pots and the earthy umber of the terra cotta. The colorful gleam of the bottles near the bar.

The centerpiece, on the middle of the stage.

Toy soldiers, aligned and waiting. Listening intently, staring straight ahead or deep into the toes of their boots. Picking at their fingers, at their teeth, behind their ears. Slumped or straight against the backrest of their seat, shifting perhaps, or very, absolutely still. Awaiting for orders, in all their ways and mannerisms, in every blink of their eyes, in every sharp intake of breath, in every yawn and whisper.

Facing them, the strange spectacle of a most uncommon trio, expecting a silence which had already washed over. Sitting behind a table, until, with a single movement as though a soaring wave, the three figures moved — captivating the audience’s attention instantly.

Showered with a trickle of light, the three Fates rose at once.

Clotho, the Spinner, who first wove the thread of life, was the one most touched by the sun’s shine. Perhaps it was all thanks to that bright golden hair, so carefully bound and curled, capturing and reflecting the luminescence in a manner that surely must have been purposeful. First to rise, but not first to speak ; too candid and young, too unimpressive to the humble toy soldiers, silence was the only option. But though no words came from Clotho’s mouth, the words uttered were well and truly those of the Spinner’s, written by their hand, and grown inside their mind. For it was with Clotho that everything began.

Clotho, creator of life, youthful and bright. First of the Fates.

Lachesis, then, the Alloter, who pulled upon the thread of life and measured its allotted length, turning it finer and more beautiful, and alas, ever more fragile — Lachesis, brushed by the sun as though by a drizzle. Its kiss upon the Alloter’s head was much more reserved, as though engulfed by the black density of their hair, the tension in their shoulders (from carrying the weight of so many lives, perhaps) or the serene, incandescent charisma that radiated from their expression. Having risen second, Lachesis would speak from that role, authority coming not by rank or power but from the burden of their responsibilities and the grace within their gaze.

Lachesis, giver of life, charitable and impassioned. Second of the Fates.

And at last, Atropos, the Inflexible, to end it all. Armed with shears and prepared to sever the fine thread of life whensoever it would be time. Avoiding the sun’s gaze, shrouded in shadows, and still illuminated by their own allure. Light did not shine bright near the Inflexible, as though respectful of the power within and hesitant to show it affection ; resolute and unyielding, Atropos spoke while others listened, as predictor of the future and implacable leader to eternity.

Atropos, bringer of death, enveloping and merciless. Third of the Fates, ruler over them all.

Leone almost regretted that his artistic approach had always been closer to painting situations as he saw them. This would certainly have made for a gorgeous Mannerist piece — if only he had been born a few centuries earlier ! But alas, he was to stay in the confines of reality — though nothing could effectively prevent him from indulging in a few flights of fancy here and there.

Buffala, seemingly intrigued by his work, bent closer and looked over his shoulder. In the corner of his eye, he saw her smile, which pleased him rather greatly ; he had been under the impression that the young woman did not carry him (or the Camorristi, for that matter) in her heart. Had this been the case, he truly would not have been able to blame her : this environment seemed like a rather difficult one to raise three children in.

« You’re making him handsome, » murmured Buffala, pointing to his modern Atropos — dressed all in black and over two meters tall. « Risotto, I mean. You’re painting him rather handsome. »

« Mmh. Should I not ? He is what I would call a handsome man, wouldn’t you agree ? »

She shrugged and waved her hand with a noncommittal « eh », barely holding back a smile. Leone stifled a laugh.

« Well, » he replied, mixing another dose of raw umber to his black. « As long as you are able to recognize him… »

« If you are all here today, » spoke Nero from behind the table, where Bruno Buccellati and Giorno Giovanna also stood, « it is to listen to a formal announcement. »

The Camorristi looked at one another ; some amused, others intrigued. Leone’s eyes drifted to Mista, sitting on the edge of his seat, as though prepared to pounce. His leg was bouncing up and down, worry obvious in the furrowing of his brows and in the way he continuously checked the caffè ’s door. It only took a minute for Leone to notice why that might have been the case.

Why was Narancia not here ?

There may have been at least a dozen reasons for him not to show, of course ; and neither Giovanna nor Bruno seemed especially worried by his absence, which managed to soothe Leone’s worries. But it still felt rather odd : he had grown used to the Ghirga boy being anywhere the other Espositos went.

« The past few years have been difficult ones, for many reasons, » Nero continued. « The return of the Boss, the rise of rival clans, the increasing toll of police bribery on our funds, those have all brought us where we are now, having to return to our old ways : namely, the collecting on local businesses and on gambling games in bars and alleyways. Now, I won’t dare to presume I know your feelings on the matter, but I am fairly certain that spending your days intimidating little caffè owners and cheap farm workers on their evening off isn’t exactly what you had in mind when you settled on this career. »

A few scoffs were heard from the Camorristi.

« We all know that this won’t do for long, of course. Not with the Boss hoarding riches on our backs. He’s got an iron grip on everything directly or indirectly linked to contraband, not to mention  the massive black market taking place in the Mediterranean. If the rumors are true and if he has as much power as we hear in stories, the amount of businesses he owns and oversees has to be incredible. Meaning that he most likely doesn’t do it alone — no man can possibly do that on his own. My idea is that he is surrounded by a small, select amount of clans to which he delegates most of his work. »  

« That’s all well and good, » interjected Prosciutto right before yawning. « But where does that leave us ? »

Nero did not even frown ; but the glare of his red eyes was enough to make the audience, as one man, shudder with unease.

« I will get to the meat of things now, » he continued. « It is high time to give power back to the clans. We’ve talked about it relentlessly before ; that the way we were treated as men, as Camorristi, was less than fair. I know each of you as though you were my brother, and for better or for worse, I have chosen to trust your judgement. This is why I’m standing in front of you today. »

Leone looked up at him : Atropos, inflexible and fierce, with the sculpted features and the tender-looking skin, accompanied by their two siblings, akin in stance and solemnity. He added more yellow light to his features, making them stand out ; until he was so focused on his painting that he barely heard what came next.

« We are switching sides, boys, » Nero said. « Once we are prepared, we will all search for the Crimson King ; find out where he stays, if he is especially guarded, and by whom ; and once that is done, we will kill him, and take over his assets for ourselves — stepping forth as leaders of the Mediterranean. »

He waited a few seconds for his announcement to set in ; though, in Leone’s opinion, a few minutes would most likely have been necessary. Silence washed over the Camorristi, before it was followed with a flurry of whispers (some more hushed than others), and then a few louder exclamations.

Leone himself had to hold back on his surprise, lest the handle of his brush might have snapped in half.

« Oh, dear, » Melone blinked, hand to his cheek. « And here I was, thinking we were simply going to try and get promoted until we reached one of the good clans… »

« You have to be kidding me, » Pesci faltered, looking to his brother in utter confusion. « Kill the boss ?… We can’t just do that, can we ? If it were truly so easy, someone would already have done it, right ? »

« Well, we all thought that someone had, » Formaggio clarified, running a hand through his cropped hair, « and that it’s why he suddenly disappeared. Apparently not, though. Or maybe someone just forgot to finish the job. »

« Those few years without an absolute leader were the most profitable for us, » Nero took hold of the discussion once more. « Just as the despotic kings of yesterday were overthrown by our fathers, we have to take a stand against injustice. Our territories have been getting progressively smaller and smaller, and so have our profits — it’s act or die at this point. I know you all have families to feed, and your own empty stomachs to deal with as well ; if your day to day jobs were enough to fill your pockets, none of you would be here now. »

A few mumbles of agreement came from the audience. A loud cough followed, and then Sorbet’s raspy voice, rising above the soothing taps of his companion’s hand against his back.

« That much is true. But, Nero, you can’t deny that what you are currently asking of us is little more than a suicide mission. Hell, I respect each and every one of the members of this society ; but lord knows we aren’t any more talented, or any smarter, than any other clan member in this country. What makes you believe that we could manage something so big ? »

« And what’s in it for us, » added Gelato, gently petting Sorbet’s hair. « I mean, besides profit ? A wounded pride doesn’t exactly constitute enough of a reason to risk the lives of so many people, Risotto. »

« If I may, » Bruno suddenly interjected, and Leone’s heart, despite his own judgement and increasing worry, soared with blazing wings. « Profit would not be the only upside to the Crimson King’s death. »

Lachesis, the Alloter, second to work and second to speak ; proud but lenient, fiery but kind-hearted, serene but forever tormented.

Frayer of thread. Gilder of life.

Beacon of Leone’s nights.

« Giorno and I have developed a plan. We have gone over what we know about the boss, about his guards, about the structure of La Camorra as a whole ; but we have also looked at the most strategic points of the Mediterranean, where all the exchanges are made, where all the contraband is stocked before being sent off, where the ships drop anchor, where decisions are most likely made and where wealthy companies settle their deals. One of my informers, who lives in Genoa, has provided me with immense knowledge of those matters. He has even found two former members of the Boss’ guard, who, though they currently live in hiding, might be inclined to tell us more. »

He held back a smile.

« He is a resourceful one, and I would trust him with my life. If we were to see all those things for ourselves and have a greater understanding of the situation as a whole, it would not be hard for my and Giorno’s plan to come to fruition. »

He placed a hand on Giovanna’s shoulder and faced the Camorristi, confidence palpable in his posture.

« If we decide to do this, » he continued, « it won’t be simply about profit. It will be about glory. It will be about building something new, something with a lot more prestige than gambling dens, debts, and drunkards emptying their pockets and giving up on their families. By taking over, we will be taking from the wealthy and powerful, to reestablish justice in this merciless world. »

Leone saw Bruno’s expression ; the way he spoke, impassioned and true, and with an edge of sorrow ever so slightly sharpening his tone. For he, too, was an orphan of the gambling dens ; he had seen the innocent, the bright and the good, like his father, lose their life from one single mistake. He had seen the mess left behind by those who had abandoned all hope, letting their estranged families mop up their messes while trying to get by on their own. He had seen people turn into animals, and animals turn into beasts.

This matter was an important one to him ; one that he would follow through with, no matter the cost.

This did not help the cold fear that had settled over Leone’s skin. He continued to paint, though his brushstrokes were now lacking in intensity.

« I know you all to be brave, » intervened Risotto Nero. « Though ultimately, this all comes down to a choice that you must make today. Do you decide to join us on this crusade, or would you rather go on your way and live your life as you always have ? »

Silence, once more, until Ghiaccio audibly sneered.

« Right. As if you’ll let any of us survive long enough to leave this fucking building if we say no. »

Nero shook his head.

« You have all sworn secrecy upon your joining ; on your honor, your soul, and your life. That is enough for me. »

He then shrugged, something of an amused smile almost coming over his lips.

« Either way, I am fairly convinced that if one of you were to tell the boss’ guard about this little plan, he would be the first to get executed. They would have no qualm over shooting the messenger. »

To that, Ghiaccio gave a sour laugh, and was joined in this endeavor by a few other Camorristi.

« If that would reassure you, » Giovanna suddenly said, « I could give you a little overview of what we have managed to find so far. The amount of information we have gathered on the Boss is not colossal, of course — we don’t even know his true name or who he is yet — but we know where he conducts his business, and with what countries. »

And at last, little Clotho ; third to speak, though first to have conceived the plan. Golden and sharp, infuriatingly so, awakener of passions and creator of life. Remarkably easy to draw, too, despite it all — perhaps thanks to the easy charisma that emanated from the youth, rendering his every move and expression peculiarly familiar even to the stranger’s eye.

Perhaps this was why the Camorristi all replied to this very slight impulsion by rising to their feet and approaching the Fates’ table, where a yellowing map of the Mediterranean had been laid out. Or perhaps it was thanks to their leader’s trust, or their contaiuolo ’s incentive ; it was difficult to tell, as  all of them seemed to stand united under the same coat of arms — that of change.

Although some rebellious spirit was still to be found, even amongst the toy soldiers.

« You know how to read a map ? » jeered Melone, coming to lean against the corner closest to Giovanna. « Huh. Color me impressed. »

« Prestidigitation and pickpocketing are not my only skills, » Giorno immediately replied, tit for tat, to Melone’s great satisfaction.

« Well, that leaves me wondering why you were abandoned. Your parents could’ve shown you off in a circus. »

The dark anger in Bruno’s eyes would have surely sufficed to leave a lesser man red in the cheek (or even simply a man with less assurance as Melone seemed to possess). Giorno, however, paid it no mind, and did not relent to the teasing.

« Most people would not be eager to pay much for me to read a map aloud ; however, if you feel so inclined, please, be my guest. My fees are, I assume, a lot more reasonable than yours. »

They looked at one another for a few seconds, as though facing off in the strangest staring contest, until Melone grinned and broke away.

« Giving cheap service isn’t something you should brag about, blondie. Now, tell us your plan. »

The group gathered around the small table made it hard to perceive any more of what was going on ; and so Leone presumed that the posing session had come to an end. This was not such a bad thing, for the painter’s nerves had, over the past few minutes, grown impossibly weary with apprehension and fear. He rubbed his closed eyelids for a few minutes, clearing the light from his eyes until he saw nothing but a multitude of colorful stars.

He blinked, and immediately Mista’s face filled his field of vision, prompting him to choke over a startled shriek.

« Woah, pitto ’, » Mista huffed, rubbing his nose in a cheeky manner. « Are my features so handsome they got you all scared ? »

« You could say that, » Leone wheezed, hand on his chest as an attempt to placate his breathing. « Good lord Christ. They truly ought to put a bell around your neck. »

He took in a few breaths, looking over his painting once more, and thereby reminding himself that it missed quite an important piece.

« Speaking of, » he added. « Do you have any idea where Narancia might be ? »

Mista shook his head, and the tight line of his lips told Leone that he, too, was worrying quite a bit over the young man’s absence.

« I have no idea. All I know is that he was planning to visit his siblings earlier today, but either he chickened out and fucked off somewhere or he actually went through with it, and… I don’t know. Maybe he felt too bad to come all the way over here after. »

He lifted the rim of his top hat slightly to scratch at his scalp.

« I hope he’s doing alright. Most of the time when he visits his family we need at least a couple hours to scrape him off the ground. Takes a real toll on him, that. »

Something in Leone’s heart tugged, though he tried to drown out that sensation with an assertive surge of detachment. It did not work, of course ; his care for the boy had reached a point too high for him to simply turn a blind eye to his troubles.

« Yes, I have seen. It seems that the situation could be better. »

« You could say that, yeah. I’d mostly just say that they’re awful and that he’s right to hate them. Most of them, anyway. Giuseppina’s nice. »

Leone chuckled, and looked over where the Camorristi all stared down into the table. He could hear Giorno and Bruno’s explanations, though he could not make out exactly what they were saying ; an agitation seemed to have taken over the group. Hopefully a motivating one.

« You’re not going to listen to the plan ? » Leone asked Mista, pointing to the reunion with the tip of his brush.

« Pfft, are you kidding ? I was there when Giorno and Bruno came up with it. I know it by heart. Blah, blah, something something, Genoa, Nice and Marseille, blah blah, the booze trade, opium and sugar, blah blah, Carthage, Algiers, Tunis and Byzance… I know all the details, believe me. »

« Ah, indeed, it seems like you do. » Leone sighed. « God. I wish things were different. All this enterprise seems terribly dangerous, I simply don’t know how to approach it with a peaceful mind. »  

« Eh… I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. Giorno and Bruno know exactly what we’re all getting into, and they certainly wouldn’t risk so much without a solid plan. Not to mention, the mission we’ll be going on is going to be just… You know, observing. Gathering informations. That sort of thing. No reason we should be feeling more tense than on any other day, really. »

« Right. »

« Living this sort of life, you get used to the idea that you might just die any day, » Mista carried on, glancing over at the group of Camorristi. « Not just as a Camorristi, I mean. Just… When you spend a lot of time on the street. Or when you’re born without much to call your own. You don’t even have to be especially poor. Who knows, one day, you could having a good time in a pub, girl at your side and winning a game of dice, until a drunk guy gets especially mad about his loss and decides to stab you right there. And then you won’t look very smart at all, dead on the floor of a shitty pub, with nothing to leave behind. No memorabilia, no family name, no… No nothing. »

« That’s grim, » came Buffala’s voice as she poured herself a drink, making Leone jump. Mista snorted.

« Hah, I guess it is, uh ? But that’s just the kind of thing you have to think about. I like to count on my luck most of the time, but that can’t always work. One day it’ll have to run out. Not sure what I’ll do then, to be honest. »

Leone looked at him, inspecting his profile ; the beauty marks on his right cheek, the angled line of his nose, his prominent brow, his strangely delicate jawline.

« Even though you say this, » Leone wondered, « that uncertainty does not seem to bother you so much. »

Mista’s face split into a wide grin. He scratched his faintly stubbly jaw, humming to himself, until he turned back to the painter.

« Say, did I ever tell you this story ? »

Leone’s eyebrow rose. He crossed his arms over his chest, now certain that a joke was about to be played on him.

« What story, pray tell ? »

« The story of the prickly pear. I never told you that one, right ? »

« I can’t say you ever did. »

« Alright, » Mista stretched his arms, cracking his knuckles as though preparing for an especially strenuous exercise. « That happened when I was living at the orphanage. I was… Really young, five or six, at most. A baby. And see, every afternoon, we had a little snack that the sisters gave us. Nothing fancy, just some bread dipped in olive oil, figs, apricots. Sometimes, they even added a little piece of ricotta cheese — those were the best days, special holidays that we all looked forward to. Anyway, there was this girl. She was a little older, came from Morocco. She still had her mom. She didn’t live in Naples, but further down south where she worked, so sometimes the girl got a little package and a letter from her. In those packages, she always got a few prickly pears. »

He chuckled, the memory turning him gleeful.

« You can’t even begin to know just how envious I was of that girl. I’d never had prickly pears before in my life. All the fruits we ever got were oranges and figs, and, they were never ripe enough, never sweet enough. And she was just prancing around with this red, beautiful fruit, that looked like it came from some far away land… I thought about it all the time, fucking dreamt about it every night for a month — I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I wanted that fruit so, so badly. I tried to imagine how it might taste, how I’d cut it open, how I’d savor each bite. It was like an obsession, one I just couldn’t get over. »

Leone leant against the bar, rather intrigued by this strange little story and where it was going.

« One day, I tried to get her to swap snacks with me, and of course, she said no. I mean, who would have agreed to this sort of transaction, right ? So I asked her what I could do that would make her give it to me, and she started to give me instructions. I stole sweets from the madre superiora’s secret stash, I stole coins and handkerchieves from other kids, I shone her shoes — I fucking ate live bugs, just so she could have a laugh at my expense ! And finally, finally, one day, she accepted to give me one prickly pear. »

His eyes were shining with the recollection of this particular victory. Leone could not hold back a slight grin.

« I took it in my hands, » Mista continued, « and let me tell you, I was in the most frantic state I’d ever been in. I ran off during study, and hid in a corner of the garden. I got my knife out, started to cut it open, and finally, I was able to taste it. »

The suspense had grown too much, and Leone was unable to stop himself from asking the very pressing question.

« And how did it taste ? »

Mista’s grin grew ten times as wide.

« Oh, like absolute shit. »

He broke into a fit of laughter at Leone’s baffled expression.

« It was the most bland, » Mista bubbled over the sound of his hilarity, « most underwhelming, overripe piece of fruit I’d ever eaten. It tasted like… I don’t know. Like almost nothing. All this I’d done, all this time I’d wasted, all the dreams I’d had about this prickly pear, only for it to taste so utterly disappointing. I swear, I could have cried. And don’t take my word for it, maybe most prickly pears are good — I would have no way of knowing, after all — but the one she gave me ? Ugh. I can still feel its texture on my tongue. »

He caught his breath, wiping under his eyes to remove any stray tear of mirthfulness that could have wandered along his cheeks.

« But, but it taught me something, you know ? When life’s satisfying and it makes you happy, even though it can be difficult, you shouldn’t obsess over changing it. Grass is always greener on the other side, until you finally get there and it’s actually way worse. From then on, I was perfectly satisfied by my bread and olive oil. »

His smile was now radiant. He looked over at the Camorristi once more, how focused, how entranced they were by what they were hearing ; he pointed to Giorno and Bruno, and to the light that seemed to emanate from them both.

« And see, those good folks you see there, » Mista then confessed, his voice warmer than Leone had ever heard. « And the rest of them — Trish and Narancia too. They’re my bread and olive oil. »

He sniffled, scratching behind his neck with a bashful scowl.

« Ah, but don’t tell them I said that, though. It’s a little embarrassing, and I’ve got a reputation, you know ? »

Something in Leone yearned to poke fun at the young man’s unexpected display of affection ; but a stronger urge within him enjoined him not to. Instead, he chose to simply pat Mista’s shoulder, surprising the aforementioned young man with even more unexpected affection.

« I am not sure I understand what you mean, » Leone then said, glancing at his painting — at his three Fates and their human counterparts, and at Bruno, too, love of his very life, who had so much danger looming over him. « And at the same time, I am certain that I do. »

Already, the sunshine was diminishing in the caffè del Pettirosso ; and as light was shed upon certain plans, the early afternoon faded into a much duller, grayer sky.

 

-

 

As dusk threatened to fall, Leone finally took his leave from the Pettirosso , though not without Bruno’s expressed promise that he would join him for dinner at the Milazzo estate — so that he would not only receive a few more reassurances concerning his partner’s upcoming travel but also be mercifully spared another quiet, morbid supper alone in the company of Gioia and Sigismundo Milazzo.

He had left the Pettirosso in a rather cheery mood, all things considered. Nero, Bruno and Giorno’s plan had seemed to go over marvelously well with the Camorristi : the gamble that their greed and hunger for justice would outgrow their fear had been a risky one to play, but a worthy one in the end. A lot was still left to do, of course ; things to organize, and plan, and scheme, and study with the utmost precaution so that the smallest amount of risks was taken in their endeavor to throw the Crimson King off his throne. But Bruno seemed so sure of himself, and Giorno so certain that his objective was not only achievable but already within reach… With two beings showing such determination in the lead, it was becoming increasingly difficult to doubt a single thing they said about the matter.

Though even if Leone believed, and even if he trusted and hoped with every fiber of his soul, he could not help the crawling sensation in his stomach that something much bigger than what they were expecting was fast approaching ; something terrible, and terrifying, and ghastly.

For now, however, Leone needed to work.

He walked down a crowded street to the gulf of Napoli for a grand total of twenty five minutes before he reached Donatella Una’s home, facing the deep blue sea and Napoli’s setting sun ; and in the shadow of the great Vesuvio, Donatella sat — on a little bench near her front door, exactly as she had been when Leone first met her so many months ago. With deft movements of her chafed washerwoman hands, she was mending a tattered, burgundy little jacket that Leone was certain to have seen Trish wear on many occasions before. Her thread was fine, and she sewed with an expertise that Leone dearly envied (with such skills, he would have surely been able to fix most of his older clothing, rendered unusable by moths). When she saw him approach, she set her work down on her lap and smiled warmly, though with a sad grayness to her expression that immediately troubled the painter.

« Oh, Signore Abbacchio, good afternoon. I was expecting you. » She rose from her seat with a deep sigh. « There is trouble with Narancia, and the poor dear has been asking for you all afternoon. »

It was instantaneous ; as soon as Narancia’s name had been pronounced, Leone’s stomach had dropped to the soles of his shoes. He set down cases onto the ground, cold fear taking hold of his heart as would have the hand of a specter.

« What’s wrong with him, » he immediately demanded to know, his posture rigid, and his eyes, wide and white. « Is he alright ? »

« Oh, dear, dear, yes ! » Donatella immediately reassured him — and heated embarrassment came to replace the alarm in Leone’s core. « He’s healthy and well, that much is sure. »

She sighed once more, shaking her head.

« This boy… He arrived sometime in the late afternoon, crying his heart out. He was in such a frazzled state, I barely knew what to do or say ! And then he began to kick around the chairs in my kitchen, and that was when I knew I had to act. »

Her eyes were full of frustrated sadness ; helplessness did not seem to be a state she enjoyed being in.

« I sat him down, » she continued, « and asked him to calm himself, to cool his head — he can get so angry at times, this boy. But once he was settled and himself again, I was able to understand some parts of the story… It seems that a visit to his family did not go particularly well. »

« Did he mention a particular event ? »

« Not that I can recall, no. Once things were a little calmer, though, I left the poor boy alone. He wanted to confide in my dear Patrizia for a moment, you see, so of course I allowed them some privacy — Lord knows I would not have wanted my friends’ mothers listening in on my troubles when I was their age ! »

She chuckled.

« Although, I will be the first to admit… Had they listened in, they would most likely have saved me from many embarrassing situations. »

Leone could not help a small smile at that, though something like worry still gnawed obsessively at his heart.

« You said that he asked for me, earlier ?… »

« He did, yes. He knows that you come here to work, of course, and perhaps thought that he would find you here. »

Her smile was back, now, endeared and warm.

« He’s very fond of you, do you know ? Narancia is a bit of a complicated soul. Even if he has a loving heart, he does not show that love to people so easily. I have never seen him put so much trust in a man before, save from the young Buccellati — and he has known him for many years. You, you were welcomed in his heart almost immediately after your arrival. »

She tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear, her expression fond.

« You must be very dear to him, Signore Abbacchio. In a way most people are not. »

Leone’s blush, crimson and scorching, reached the tip of his ears in barely a second — a fluster overtaking his expression as instantly as fire in a puddle of alcohol.

« I — I really do not see why that would be, » the painter blurted, confounded and bashful, before he took the few steps to the door. « They are inside, yes ? Should I — »

« Yes, I believe so, » Donatella snickered, sitting back down on the bench and picking up her daughter’s jacket. « Do go in. He should be feeling better now. »

Leone nodded, briskly, still feeling heat on his cheeks — and without further ado, entered the home.

He was welcomed by Donatella Una’s kitchen, its amicable disrepair, its welcoming atmosphere — and sitting close to one another around the table (where rested only two little cups of water and a terra-cotta dish filled with clusters of grapes), were Trish Una and Narancia Ghirga, both alike in astonishment at this sudden and unexpected arrival.

« Pitto ’, » Narancia and Trish comically blurted at the same time.

Trish’s expression was sour with worry. She was clutching Narancia’s hand in hers firmly, and it seemed that the gesture was appreciated, for the boy next to her was in a state of exhaustion and harrowing sadness that had reached even the line of his mouth, the tint of his skin, the way he held his head. His shoulders were slumped, and his eye, wide and haunted, was shiny still from recent tears.

No trace of the boy’s impressive energy remained ; Leone suddenly understood Donatella’s worrisome words.

« Yes, » he told the duo, for even he could appreciate a good entrance. « I was told that you were looking for me ? »

« I, » Narancia started, and cleared his throat. Trish gently petted his shoulder, egging him on. « Uh. Yes. I, I was wondering if I could… talk to you for a few minutes, pitto ’. If it won’t bother you. »

He had never asked permission to bother him before. Surely, something bad was taking place.

« I’ll leave you two alone, » said Trish, with a final, reassuring squeeze around Narancia’s forearm. « Um, I’ll be just outside with mom if you need me. »

As she left, she threw a glance Leone’s way that he was instantly able to interpret as an injonction not to make matters worse ; and though such a distrust from his own pupil did feel hurtful, he truly could not blame her. Had he been in her place, he would have done much of the same.

The door closed behind Trish, and boy and painter were left to their own devices.

Leone stood for a few moments, rooted into the floor as a tree swaying in the wind — unsure of what he should say, do, or feel. At the table, Narancia did not look him in the eye, but rather into the cup he held in his hands. He did open his mouth a few times, as though trying to speak, but always closed it without pronouncing a single word. Everything in his stance, in his sad gaze, seemed so unnatural ; Leone had never seen him so defeated before, and doubted that anyone had.

The Ghirga boy was usually a picture of cheer, with his radiant personality and fiery temper. To have him sit and mope in such a way, quiet and mousy and grey, was simply intolerable.

Leone took in a breath, looking for something to do, until, in the corner of his eye, he saw Donatella’s old little stove ; and above that stove, next to the ladles and bowls, a copper item that Leone instantly recognized as a djazwa . And on one of the shelves, a little bag next to the sugar and flour that was surely filled with coffee grounds, roasted and milled by Donatella ; and the water in that bucket, freshly taken from the well…

Donatella had all that was necessary to produce one of Leone’s favorite treats as a child, one that his grandmother’s dear friend — a very noble, very kind woman he wished he had kept in touch with — had taught him how to make on his own.

« Narancia, » Leone said, and upon being called the boy rose his head. « Come next to me. We’ll make some Ottoman-style coffee. »

Narancia blinked, but got up nonetheless, curious to see what such an operation involved. He came to stand next to Leone as the painter grabbed the copper djazwa — a little copper pan with a long, silvery handle — and reached for the coffee grounds on the tallest shelf.

« We will make some for Donatella and Trish, too, » he added, picking up the hefty little bag and placing it onto the worktop. « To thank them for welcoming us into their home. Fill that pan with water, would you ? »

Narancia nodded, taking the djazwa and plunging it into the bucket while Leone used a wooden spoon to scoop a small amount of finely ground coffee. He placed the spoonful into the water and mixed gently before leaving it to settle.

« Zietta sometimes makes me some, » Narancia stated, watching Leone’s movements like a hawk. « But most of the time I’m not given any. Coffee makes makes me too excited to sleep. »

« I think you direly need a quick pick-me-up, dear boy. Just look at yourself — it is as though the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. Careful, I’m lighting the stove. »

After giving the coffee a moment to settle, Leone placed the copper pan directly atop the fire and waited for the heat to set in. It was to simmer for a few minutes, until it came close to a boil and the coffee began to foam up ; but before any boiling took place, the djazwa was to be removed from the fire until it settled again — and then the process would start over, as many times as would be necessary.

The operation was more arduous than doing it the Italian way, certainly ; but Leone had to admit that this was the way of consuming coffee he liked best.

« Ah, um. Abbacchio. »

No nickname. This caught Leone’s attention, though his eyes did not move from the heating coffee.

« Mmh ? »

« Can I tell you about something ? »

The coffee began to foam up. Leone removed it from the fire and waited for it to cool down slightly.

« Go right ahead. »

More fiddling, more hesitation, more shame coming from him in waves. Narancia remained silent until the coffee was on the stove once more.

« It’s, » he blurted, pulling onto his fingers until his knuckles popped. « Ah, it’s not something I’ve told anyone yet, but, I… I want to be a cook. »

Leone did not say anything ; and so Narancia continued.

« And I don’t mean on some boat or in an army settlement or anything like that ! I mean, a real cook, the kind that makes bread for kings and serves meals in fancy silverware. I wanna learn those crazy techniques you see in books, and make up my own, too. »

He rested his elbows onto the worktop, staring into the softly bubbling mixture inside of the djazwa .

« And it doesn’t mean that I want to leave the gang, either. But… For the future, when… When life finally comes around. »

The sound of the coffee’s simmering seemed to lull him. He sighed.

« I didn’t think I had it in me. That’s why I didn’t tell anybody that I was thinking about it. I didn’t trust myself to actually cook anything, ‘cause I’m clumsy and it takes me a lot of tries before I get the hang of things. But a few months ago, I started cooking for my friends, which I’d never really tried before, and… It felt good, to make something. Pasta, eggplants, mushrooms, this kind of simple things that they really seemed to like. It made them happy, I think, and it made me happy to make them happy. »

Again, a pop of his knuckles. Leone grimaced, and Narancia stopped playing with his hands, instead resting them on top of the counter.

« I’m not dumb, you know. I’m realistic, » he said again, something somber in his tone. « I know I’m not as smart as Gigi, or as talented as Trish, or as precise as Mista. But even I have something I’m good at. Me. I’ve only got the one eye, and I always forget where I put stuff, and I have no money in my pockets, but I know how to do that one thing, that one special thing. And that’s what I wanna do, I think. That’s… That’s all I wanna do. »

He was crying again. Leone could hear it in his voice, feel it in the way he shook next to him, sense it in the way his shoulders dropped ; the coffee began to foam. He took it from the stove.

« I, I never really wanted to do anything with my life before, » Narancia whispered, voice strained with the want to sob. « Maybe it’s ‘cause I’m growing up. Took me a while, but… But maybe I’m getting there, you know ? »

He wiped at his eye with his sleeve — compared to the softness of his tone, the motion felt almost violent.

« Say, pitto ’, maybe I can be something, too. Yeah ? » he weeped through clenched teeth. « Even stupid Narancia can become something. And if I can, then anyone can, ain’t that — »

Blindly, Leone reached for him and took him by the shoulder, holding him close against his chest.

He felt something wrack through Narancia’s body, a heart wrenching sob making him quiver and spasm, and Leone felt the boy’s arms wrap around his waist, his face bury into the lapels of his jacket.

« You will, » Leone said, very simply, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. « I have no doubt whatsoever that you will. Don’t cry so much, now, silly goose that you are. »

But even as he said this, Narancia cried and cried and did not let go of him for a minute — in fact, he remained in the comfort of Leone’s arms until the coffee was done and off the stove.

 

As he sipped it, back leant against the worktop while Leone heated another batch for the Una family, the boy — who had finally calmed down — seemed in a much more talkative mood.

« I hadn’t told my siblings I was coming today, » he explained, blowing onto the steaming cup. « I wanted to take them by surprise, see how they were really doing. Of course, my father wasn’t here today either, which was just fine by me — the less I see this asshole, the better I feel. »

Leone snorted.

« But, see, » Narancia kept going, « when I arrived, I saw the mess the house was in, and all my siblings not giving a shit. One of them dropped by while I was there and just… Took money from Giuseppina’s stash, and then left again to go and gamble it off somewhere. Or use it to drink. I don’t even know. But he took it, and I was furious, and I wanted to beat him up so badly. »

He sighed, and took a sip of scorching coffee.

« My little brother, Orfeo, he’s just starting to walk. But the house is filthy, and there are rats everywhere, and he’s got those weird rashes on his legs that I’m really worried about. My other brother, Paolo, he’s almost five, and he’s always sick — not the same thing, though, mostly he just coughs and coughs and coughs. So I’m just scared that… That Orfeo will get the short end of the stick, because he’s the youngest. I always check his eyes to make sure, but… It doesn’t reassure me much. »

His gaze grew clouded once more, and sad.

« I tried to take him home with me. I didn’t want him to stay there with all those adults who obviously don’t give a shit about his wellbeing — hell, maybe in a couple years they’ll drop him at the orphanage, like… Like my father did with me. But when I said that I wanted to bring him to the hideout, Giuseppina just started screaming at me. And then one of my brothers joined in and said all those horrible things, that I was nothing, that I couldn’t take care of a kid when I should be dead in a ditch myself, and that I’d just end up giving him the illness that took my eye and my mom if I got too close. »

« Good lord, » Leone mumbled, a little astonished that such anger and resentment could exist in a family — and thanking his parents, may their souls be at peace, for never taking the time to give him a sibling.

« Yeah. Difficult times, pitto ’. Difficult times. »

Another sip, longer this one, followed by a comforted sigh.

« I feel better now, though. They made me want to really work my ass off — with the gang, and with my dream, too. So that one day, when I’m filthy rich, I can go and get my brother back, and bring him to Donatella and Bruno and the rest of us, and we’ll all live together in a gigantic house in the country with all the comfort we could possibly need. »

His cheeks now had a healthier glow to them, and a smile had finally graced his lips. Perhaps it was thanks to the excellent coffee, or perhaps talking had simply liberated him ; either way, it seemed that Narancia was back to his true self once more.

« I’ll show them that… » he continued, clutching his little cup. « That I survived for a reason. That I was worth Bruno’s time and effort. And then they’ll all see the kind of guy Narancia Ghirga really can be. »

Leone looked at him : at his shaggy hair and loose bandage and the childlike wonder in every face he made. Their eyes met, for the briefest moment, and Narancia’s smile turned into a big, silly grin, one that dimpled his cheeks and showed all of his teeth.

To hide his own terribly affectionate smile, Leone chose to flick him on the nose.

« Ow ! » Narancia complained. « What the hell ! That hurt ! »

« I should buy you an eye, someday, » Leone sighed, taking the final djazwa of coffee from the stove. « So you can take that horrible gauze off. »

As though only remembering that it was there, Narancia reached to touch his bandage.

« Ah, pitto ’, you don’t have to do that. Glass eyes are expensive. Apparently, » his voice turned to a whisper, « Melone bought his with the money of the first guy he assassinated ! And it cost him about a million lire ! »

Leone rolled his eyes.

« We’ll see. When I start exhibiting again… » he placed the cups on a tray and carried it off. « … If my paintings sell then, I’ll buy you an eye. There’s our deal. Open the door, will you ? »

Narancia did as he was told, sheepish and still muttering staunch refusals under his breath — though it was easy to see that he was pleased by the offer.

He kept a melancholic expression throughout the afternoon. Onto the bench where the four of them sat, the boy would sometimes look up, deep into the purple immensities as the sky donned its nightly ensemble, and suddenly his eyes would lose their shine as his mind wandered, and wandered, and wandered. Perhaps it would take a grim path, one of painful nostalgia or regrets ; or perhaps a strangely hopeful one, filled with uncertainties and dismay ; or perhaps yet, an even stranger one that Leone would have no way of dissecting, for only Narancia kept the key to his own mind.

He never went very far, however, and needed only a brief call (one of Leone’s jests, of Trish’s affectionate jabs, of Donatella’s anecdotes) to return down on earth, where life, though taxing, still held many promises  — and was made much warmer by the presence of friends.

 

-

 

Those past few weeks, Leone had grown more and more used to working in the dark.

He had even made an intriguing experience out of less than ideal painting conditions : in the shifting candlelight, the deepest point of the night, with a model whose eyes shone.

He was no Cambiaso, to be sure, or any of the great Spanish masters — with their pitch black backgrounds, their emaciated figures, and their love of dramatics. But as days went by and as pages, canvas, were filled, he had begun to find the appeal. Had those masters also drawn in secrecy, hiding from exterior gazes, in the comforting, warm darkness of confidence, where only one other pair of eye was allowed to see and engage ?

Had they painted out of love, too, and solely out of love ?

« Your mother seemed rather displeased that I was late for dinner tonight. »

Bruno’s brief laughter almost blew out the candle in front of him. The tall stick of dripping yellow wax rested on top of his dresser in a small golden plate, and Bruno sat in front of it, seated as he was when he readied himself in the morning though in a much more contemplative manner — his shoulders slightly bent as he rested his elbows onto the solid wood. His eyes shifted, incessantly, from the shivering flame to the mirror, to his reflection in that same mirror, through which he watched Leone, and watched the painter watching him.

« She is used to me coming home late, » Bruno murmured, meeting Leone’s gaze for only a second. « You, on the other hand, had her grow used to your impeccable manners. »

Leone rolled his eyes. In the golden cup, the candle dripped more of its wax.

« ‘Impeccable manners…’ » he scoffed. « Perhaps she is still cross with me. Is that something your mother sounds capable of doing, holding onto grudges for months on end ? »

« No, not in the least. Not to mention that you seem to have fallen on Signore Milazzo’s good graces : did you see how he defended you when you arrived ? I say, you have made a friend out of him yet. »

Leone shook his head, amused — but somber. There was a pause, troubled only by the rhythmic tink , tink , of the thick drops of wax hitting metal. In the reflection, in this light, Bruno’s eyes were a much darker hue of blue than they were normally ; they were phtalo, prussian, ultramarine.

« Why must you draw me ? » asked Bruno, deciding that the silence had gone on too long.

His voice was so soft, so low, that its tone felt like a dream. Though Leone’s brain was muddled by the late hour and the heavy atmosphere, the shadowy light, Bruno’s presence so far and yet so insistent in every brush of air and every shift of the candle — he took no time to prepare his answer. It jumped to him like an evidence.

« Because I want to, » Leone said, and painted as he said. « Because you are beautiful. Because I find it important not to forget images… Because I will start missing you very soon, and do not want my fingers to forget the outlines of your face while you are gone. »

Tink , tink , said the wax — cruel hourglass, instrument of witchery.

« And why else must you draw me, macchiaiolo ? »

Bruno’s voice was no louder than a sigh. His eyes no longer left Leone’s own, though the painter only looked at his canvas.

Again came an answer, so quick that it could not have come from a proper thought — only a feeling, surely, an emotion from deep where his love sat, bubbling hotter than frying oil.

« Because if I do not draw you, » Leone said, « I will begin to doubt. »

« And if you begin to doubt ? »

« Then I will ask questions — the answers to which I will most likely not enjoy. »

« Leone. »

« I do not want to keep you from doing what is right, » and again, this dread, this weight of fear in his throat, hollow like a pillar of salt. « Would the sun truly be loved by the moon if she asked him not to shine ? Surely not. He would be esteemed, at best, and envied, at worst. It is the same for us. If I love you, it also because of how extraordinary of a person you are, how brave and idealistic. You have a small army behind you, and a most noble goal to fulfill, and the energy and poise to achieve what you pretend. You could be able to do anything in the world that you wanted, of that I am absolutely sure — »

« Leone, my love. »

«  — but I do not want you to die. I do not want anyone to die, or be hurt ; and those are such dangerous times, Bruno, such dangerous people. I have grown attached to all the life I have found here. I cannot bear the thought of losing even a fraction of it, and if you were to suffer — »

« Leone, Leone, my heart, my treasure. »

Around the painter, arms were soon wrapped — and as though he were shied away from the barely present light, Leone surrendered himself wholly, fully, to the warm obscurity of Bruno’s chest.

« Bah, » Leone spat, even as he was relentlessly cajoled. « Do not worry about me. I — this is nothing but the whim of a spoiled child. »

« If only I could take all the worries from your heart and keep them inside my own. »

A hesitation — and then Leone’s arms, embracing Bruno’s waist with reckless fervor.

« Do not turn everything into a sacrifice… » he murmured into Bruno’s collar. « I could not bear to be the cause of your pain. »

If only Bruno Buccellati did not have this much heart ; if only he were selfish, and cruel, and content with his own little life. If only he did not yearn so much for justice. If all those things were true, then Leone would not love him so deeply ; and they would both be at peace.

They remained like this for a while longer, in the heat of each other’s grasp, until Bruno broke away. Though he did so only slightly, and remained halfway seated over Leone’s lap for a bit longer still.

« I will let you know about every move I make, if that will reassure you, » Bruno said, a small smile on his face. « No one else knows what we are planning. It will also help that we have the element of surprise on our side, so it should be easy to gather information alongside other traitors — not to mention that I have an excellent informer to keep me on a straight path. »

« Again this informer, » Leone replied, brushing Bruno’s hair away from his face and smoothing the strands over his forehead. « What about him could be so special ? »

« I have know him for a long time now. He is brillant and resourceful, and I do not say that lightly. I would trust his word and his instinct with everything that I own. »

He chuckled, shifting his weight over Leone’s lanky thighs.

« He is also an incredibly kind boy. He simply… Well, he suffers difficulties when showing it. »

Leone winced.

« Another young one, then ? »

« Yes. He came to me in a time of need, some two or three years ago — back when I was barely out of childhood myself. I had never been approached so closely by gentry before, or at least not of such a high statute — though to tell you the truth, he did not exactly carry himself like a lord. Not in the way I imagined one to, anyhow. »

« Gentry ? Hah. I did not know you also took in birds fallen from golden nests. »

« Why should I not ? If they have fallen, then they are in need of help. »

Bruno took Leone’s hand in his own, brushing over the paint stains on his fingers.

« This one was the son of a baron. I say was, though he is no orphan, for his father has long since removed him from his will. He has also forbidden him access to his privileges, annuities, and even to his family home. »

« My, how sad. What could he possibly have done to deserve such a harsh treatment ? »

« He murdered his tutor in a fit of passion. »

« Oh. »

« Well, it was a duel — the tutor had insulted him, you see, though if it was his family or his honor, I am uncertain. And in attempting to clear his name in a sword fight, one that was supposed to stop at first blood, the boy found himself in too much rage to control himself. »

« Couldn’t his family have simply hidden the crime ? If he is a baron… »

Bruno laughed and rose from his seat upon the painter’s lap.

« I admire your cynicism. Perhaps they could have, but they did not. Perhaps the tutor was a man too important to simply hide his death ; or perhaps the witnesses were not to be bribed. Either way, this boy was disowned, and I must admit that his services have come in handy more than once over the years. He is someone I deeply admire and respect. We… Are similar, in some ways. »

« Mmh. Well, you seem to have a slightly better temper, » Leone sighed, and rubbed his face. « God. I do hope this boy is as good as you make him seem. If I am to put my trust in the hands of yet another adolescent… »

Bruno looked over at the unfinished, dark painting. As he admired it and attempted to make out its fragile outlines, Leone fiddled with the undone buttons of his shirt. One was about to come off entirely, and was held only by loose thread. He played with the pearly circle nonetheless.

« I spoke with Narancia, earlier today, » he said.

Bruno hummed.

« Did you ? What about ? »

« The dear boy wants to become a chef. Had he ever told you about that aspiration of his ? »

Bruno was quiet for a few seconds, his eyes tinged with a grey sadness — though his lips were smiling.

« He never did, no. Most likely because he did not want me to think that he felt scared or unsure… »

He sighed.

« He is full of surprises, that boy, isn’t he ? And courage, too. I worry about him, though I… I am also certain that he can manage to get out of this situation. I will do everything I can possibly do to help, but for now…. For now, things are difficult. And frightening. Especially for someone as sensitive as he is. »

« But you, » Leone asked, eyes lost in Bruno’s profile. « Are you not afraid ? »

Tink , tink , said the candle in the deafening silence.

« A little. »

He straightened up.

« But I am also certain that it is the only right course of action. And I wish to… »

His hand found Leone’s, grasped it firmly. His palm was warm.

« … I wish to do the right thing, Leone. »

« I know that. »

« No matter how frightening things might become. »

« Mmh. »

« But I love you, as well. And that is why I will ask you to remain here, and keep an eye on my city while I am gone. »

He kissed the back of Leone’s hand, and held it fervently to his cheek.

« Then… Then, once that is done, I will return. You can be sure of that : I swear it on my blood. Just as we can find safety in the darkness, my love, I will always find my way back to you. »

It was hard to say, truly, how much Leone Abbacchio wanted for those words to ring true to his ear. They were delightful words ; words of affection that he had only dared to dream of in the darkest hours of the night. His heart answered to their sincerity with violent throbs and a pious warmth that spread within him like ink in water — but there was something cold still, right there, deep in the marrow of his bones, chilling him to the core.

Because he was cold, he sought out Bruno’s warmth ; and because Bruno’s feelings were true, he, too, sought out Leone’s. He knew, of course, that the painter’s worries would not be so easily dissipated — perhaps there was nothing in the world that could have reassured him fully, seeing how deep his anxiety ran. But he also knew that being held close, there against his heart, would always bring Leone more relief than simple words ever could.

The night they spent together then was a tender but bittersweet one, cadenced only by their rhythmic breathing, promises endlessly whispered, and the repetitive patter of the hot wax against golden metal.

 

-

 

Not a week later was the day of departure. All in all, they would be gone for approximately four to five months ; most of their time being wasted on the various commutes they would be taking on their journey.

The farewells began at the Milazzo estate. Gioia Milazzo, unconsolable, took her son’s departure with teary eyes and many injunctions to remain safe ; Sigismundo Milazzo, her husband (who had, as of late, had many difficulties getting up from bed at all due to the pain in his back) had even encouraged him very sincerely — though it was obvious that he did not exactly understand what this trip was for in the first place. Neither had followed Bruno the port ; Sigismundo because he could no longer walk, and Gioia because she, in her own words, « despised woeful goodbyes ». Leone was therefore the only one accompanying the young man to the boat that would take him to France.

The goodbyes were indeed rather woeful, and Leone found it difficult to blame Gioia Milazzo for choosing to avoid them altogether. The Espositos, having never had to stand being separated for long periods of time, could simply not unstick themselves from each other : Mista and Narancia took turns picking Trish up from the ground and holding her close, though only one of them found no difficulties in doing so — Narancia, being smaller than the young girl, drew from every last bit of his strength to manage this very feat. Giorno’s goodbyes were, thankfully, given in a much more sober fashion, with only a tight, if slightly timid, embrace, and the receiving of a quick kiss to the temple.

Leone was embraced as well, to his surprise and various mixed feelings. First came Narancia’s spindly arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, then Mista’s firm grip around his shoulders, and, finally, Giorno Giovanna’s ; quicker than a blink, barely a pat on the back, but there nonetheless and gone before Leone could even react.  

Perplexed and red in the cheek as he was, faced with such displays of affection, Leone barely found what to say — until Bruno came to him, and the few remaining words finally died on his tongue.

The saltwater wind ran its fingers through Bruno’s hair ; the spring sun kissed his nose, cheek, and lip ad nauseam, as though provoking the painter. His smile was kind and sad, and Leone’s hands felt itchy in the palms and in the space between his fingers. He had tied his hair in the morning, but the length of it still fluttered helplessly in the breeze, in his face and tickling his neck — only adding to the restlessness plaguing his heart.

Was it natural that he missed him already, though he was not yet gone ?

Bruno’s hand rose halfway. Leone’s came to meet it. Their fingers touched, briefly ; index and middle finger, wrapping around each other like another, penultimate promise. Then they embraced, quickly and unsatisfyingly, their hands clasped together still. With his thumb, Leone caressed Bruno’s ring finger. In his ear, he murmured :

« Return soon, so that I may marry you at last. »

Bruno laughed, and the wind filled his shirt like a sail — as though he were gone already, and flying away from Leone’s grasp.

And so Bruno Buccellati and his children of misfortune went, rocking through the waves to a most uncertain shore.

And without them, Leone understood, once more, the dreadful languor of absence.