The gnocchi are rising to the top of the pot, floating on little columns of bubbles, and it almost looks like they're dancing. Italy claps his hands in time with the bubbling and peers at the sauce: it's such a pretty orange now, creamy and soft, and it'll look even prettier drizzled over the gnocchi. It's so pretty that Italy doesn't even think Germany will mind the tomatoes in it, and if he does, Italy can always add more vodka to the sauce. It'll throw off the balance of the spices a little, but hopefully with enough vodka, Germany won't notice that either.
"Aieressera," Italy sings, scooping the gnocchi out of the pot, "oì Nanninè, me ne sagliette, tu saie addò—tu saie addò—"
"He stole that too, you know," says a voice from the door. Romano's standing there, arms crossed, foot going tap, tap, tap.
"Huh?" One of the gnocchi falls off Italy's spoon and splats to the ground.
"That man," Romano says, and when he scrunches up his mouth like that, that man means Germany, who isn't really as scrunched-up as Romano's making him out to be. Only sometimes. "He knows his composers have nothing on ours, so he has to steal—"
"Signore Strauss didn't mean to steal it, fratello," Italy says. "He thought it was pretty, and he wanted the whole world to hear! That's not so bad, is it?"
"It is when you lay claim to something that isn't yours!" Romano's scowl deepens. "And it was mine before it was his."
Ah. Romano is still trying to keep his face screwed up, but there's a smile hiding in there somewhere, and Italy's going to coax it out. He drops the spoon into the sink—plop!—and takes his brother's hands in his own. "But it's our song now, right? The words are talking about both of us now."
Romano's cheeks redden like little tomatoes. "You still can't speak Neapolitan for shit," he mutters.
Before they can have a reasonable conversation about whose dialect is prettier, the pot hisses as hot water slops over the sides and falls to the stove. Italy yelps and turns down the flame, starts scooping the gnocchi out again. He's glad the stove cut them off, to tell the truth; he told Romano no reasonable conversations at dinner and he should probably start setting a good example now. Besides, he hasn't had enough wine to have a really reasonable conversation, and he just trimmed his hair so he can't tear at it and wail as well as he usually can. (That's the best way to win reasonable conversations.)
But while Italy's tended to the gnocchi, Romano's started to pray. Really loudly. Italy thinks it's the Apostle's Creed, because he's saying the I believe in the holy Catholic church and the communion of saints part louder than the rest, and the looks he shoots Italy are so heated, Italy wonders if he shouldn't worry about Romano boiling over, too.
"It's going to be okay, fratello," he says.
"That's what you think."
The doorbell buzzes once, twice, and Italy skitters out of the kitchen and down the hall and flings his apron off before he pulls the door wide open. (The apron drapes itself over the top-right corner! It's kind of like a curtain. Italy approves.) Germany's framed in the doorway, standing statue-still and holding a platter in front of him.
"Hello, Venedig," he says, and the lines around his mouth are so tight, Italy wishes he could erase them. "I have brought dessert."
"Mandelbrot!" Prussia crows from behind his brother. He slings an arm over Germany's shoulder, but Germany doesn't move at all. "You should've seen him hunched over that thing on the train, this old lady lost her heel and I thought she was going to fall on top of it and West here looked like he'd beat her over the head with the platter if she did—"
"Bruder," Germany says through gritted teeth, "I would not have assaulted a fellow passenger."
"Well she didn't fall on the mandelbrot, so no." Prussia grins. "Hey, Italien. Something smells good."
"I made gnocchi!" Italy tells him.
"Gnocchi?" Prussia asks, but he says the ch like it's the deep-in-the-back-of-your-throat kind, the one Italy used to think meant Germany was choking. But now Italy knows Germany doesn't really make sounds at all when he chokes, he just sputters and blushes. (It's cute, except Italy's not allowed to tell Germany that, because that makes Germany choke more.)
"Gnocchi," Italy says again, the right way.
Prussia rests his chin on Germany's chin, tries the word out again. "Gnocchi."
Italy beams. "Yes! Gnocchi!"
"Gnocchi. Awesome." Prussia's grin droops at the corners. "What's gnocchi?"
"Dumplings that are supposed to be made from flour, like a good pasta, but can, if the cook has no finer ingredients, be made from potatoes," Romano says from somewhere behind Italy. "The kitchen stinks of them."
Italy hopes Romano doesn't spit on the floor. He just put the new carpeting in.
"Potatoes don't smell so bad," Italy says, overlapping with Prussia's "What's so bad about potatoes, huh?"
Germany's still standing there with the mandelbrot, his arms straight and stiff. Italy doesn't think he's blinked yet.
"Come in, come in," he says, and ushers the two of them inside. Romano says "tch!" and out of the corner of his eye, Italy sees him cross himself.
…at least he hasn't sprinkled holy water over the threshold yet. Or maybe he has and Italy just didn't see that part but Italy decides not to ask.
"We're so glad to have you for Sunday lunch." Italy peeks into the dining room: yes, the sun's hitting the china and the glasses just right so they cast a shimmering glow over the whole table, and oh, Italy could bask in it. But he's the host, and the host can't get comfortable until his guests are. "Romano!" he hisses.
"You're supposed to get their coats now."
"You get their coats."
"I have to plate the antipasto."
"And so I must get their coats?"
"What am I," Romano says, "a servant in my own fucking house? Do they know what a coat rack looks like? Do they know how to use it?"
"I have made use of many coat racks," Germany says, clutches the mandelbrot almost to his chest, but it looks like Romano's gotten started. Oh no.
"Do they know when to use it? Do they know not to go stomping around in someone's house with their coats on like a pair of vagrants? Are they saying our house is too cold, do we need to turn the thermostat up so their delicate—"
"Fratello," Italy stage-whispers, "you're shouting."
Romano glares at him, nostrils flared like one of Spain's bulls. Germany coughs, and Prussia laughs. "I'll bet you know how to use a coat rack," he says, and sheds his coat on the carpet, and the color clashes so horribly with the carpet, Italy just has to scoop the coat up and hang it properly. There, that looks so much better.
Germany's hanging his own coat up, and Italy says "You don't need to do that!" and tries to wrestle the coat away from him, except then the coat rack wobbles a little more dangerously than Italy wants it to and crashes down, right on Germany's foot.
"Are you okay?" Italy asks very loudly, over top of Romano's laughter, which is no way at all to treat a guest. He props the coat stand back up, and it's hard to tell how swollen Germany's foot is since he's still wearing his shoe, so Italy kneels to unlace it—
"Venedig, this is not Japan's house. I do not need to remove my shoes."
"I just want to make sure your foot's not broken."
"My foot is not broken," Germany says; his teeth are clenched so tight that Italy can see all the veins in his neck pop. "I would, however, like to sit."
Of course! How could Italy forget that part, he's left his guests standing for so long. He claps once, straightening, and ushers them both to the table. Prussia whistles and Germany takes in the deep breath that means he approves, and Italy's smile must be as bright as the silver now.
"Veneziano!" Romano hisses.
"That's our best china!"
"They're very special guests," Italy says right back. "You wouldn't give our guests anything less, would you?"
"That china is almost a hundred years old." Romano sucks in air through his teeth. "Have you seen the way that man cuts his food? Stab-stab-stab—" and actually the gesture's pretty accurate but Italy's not going to say as much now, "—you'd think he's trying to kill the main course again! He'll chip the fucking plates."
"He won't chip the plates—"
"Whoa, who painted that?" Prussia whistles again, strolls over to the painting mounted over the sideboard. It's the one of Venice just before sunset, and Italy still loves the way the gondolier's pole makes the red-orange light in the water ripple and swirl.
"I did," Italy tells him, beaming again. He painted it a hundred years ago or so, not too long after unification, and he persuaded Romano to help him fill in the background. It was almost like being in a workshop again! Well, Romano grumbled about the stupid bridges and the stupid flower-sellers and their stupid wares and Italy's stupid goddamn needlessly complicated techniques for creating shadow, but the complaining wasn't so different from a workshop, either.
"Awesome," Prussia says, and ruffles Italy's hair. "You've got a good eye on you, you know that? And hey, I didn't know they had monkeys in—this is Venice, right?"
"That is not a monkey," Romano snarls. "That is a flower seller."
"Really? 'Cause it's got the little monkey cymbals and everything—"
"Fuck you, those are chrysanthemums!"
Germany coughs again.
"The antipasto!" Italy shouts, dashing back into the kitchen. Luckily it's all cold antipasto, so nothing's burning, but Italy does want to make sure the plating is pretty. He drizzles the olive oil onto the plate first, plants a sprig of basil in the upper right hand corner, counterbalances that with sliced sausage and frames that display in olives—and the mushrooms should fan out from there, and if he puts little squares of cheese between each spoke the balance will be—
"Wait, wait, how the hell is that supposed to be a bird?"
"It's in the sky! It's got fucking wings!"
"Those are wings? I thought the paint smeared or something."
"Figlio di puttana—"
"We should sit," Germany says.
"Hold on, bruder, I just want to get a better look at this part—"
"Cacasenno, think you're so smart, well, I'm not letting your philistine ass touch a chair that's been in mi famiglia for fucking generations if you can't show—"
"We should sit," Germany repeats, except in his Venedig that is not the correct part of the grenade to throw voice, so Italy zooms through the doorway with the antipasto platter held aloft.
"Sit!" he says; he'd clap his hands but that's hard to do when he's holding food. "Look, Germany, there's even sausage, except this is the good time."
"Thank you, Venedig," Germany says, and prepares to sit.
"Let me get your chair," Romano says, and Italy says "Fratello, no," at the same time Germany says "Thank you," and Italy did warn him but of course Romano yanks the chair back too far and of course Germany tumbles to the ground again and of course Prussia nearly falls out of his chair laughing.
"Fratello!" Italy says. "You eat last." He helps Germany up—Germany's face is almost as red as the inside of the sausage, but he manages to stammer out a thank you, and Italy kisses him on both cheeks because that's what you're supposed to do with guests even if that makes Germany go even redder.
"What, no kisses for me?" Prussia asks.
"Kiss my ass," Romano says.
"I can if you want," Italy says, and gives Germany one last peck on the nose. (He always twitches when Italy does that! It's so cute.) Now Romano's muttering about blasphemies under the eye of Maria, but he always does that and besides, Italy made sure the portrait of Maria wouldn't be facing the dinner table today, just so Romano wouldn't complain.
Prussia smirks, offering his cheek, and Romano mutters, "I suppose it's a charitable act."
"What do you mean a charitable act?"
"Well, when's the last time anyone kissed you?"
"I dunno," Prussia says, "when's the last time you got Spanien to pucker up?"
"Antipasto!" Italy shouts at the top of his lungs, then: "Sorry. But we should eat, or the food'll get cold! Well, colder. And the olive oil might congeal, and nobody wants that."
"That plan is sound," Germany says, and Italy can't remember the last time he heard Germany say that about something he came up with. Has Germany ever said that about something he came up with?
Italy serves the antipasto himself, even if it's not really the traditional way of doing it, but he figures they've all changed a little since the traditions started, anyway. And this way, everyone's sure to get a little bit of everything: the sausage, the mushroom, the cheese, the olives—
Italy picked up kalamata olives this week, didn't he? Oops.
And Germany's noticed. And now his face is passing red and heading straight into purple and—oops.
"What the fuck," Romano says, "bad enough you had to use potatoes for the gnocchi, now you put Greek food on the tab—oh. Oh."
Italy doesn't like the way he's saying oh.
"Guess you're helping bail out his economy after all, huh, bruder?"
"Germany, how's your scrappage program going?" Italy tries to ask, but Germany's nostrils are doing that quivering thing that means he isn't really listening. So Italy snatches the olives off his plate and pops them in his mouth, because they are good olives even if they're Greek and you shouldn't waste food.
"There are other things I would rather be rid of at the moment," Germany says. Italy doesn't like that growly edge in his voice.
"If you ask me, he's still carrying a grudge about King Otto—" Prussia starts.
"No EU business at the table!" Italy says, rapping his knife against his glass. That gets everyone's attention. "Not everyone here is even in the EU."
"Yeah, like I'd wanna be," Prussia says, and he doesn't laugh so much as he says "Ha!" The has taper off after that. "Multistate coalitions, bruder. I'm telling you, they never end well."
"Technically, we're a multistate coalition," Italy says. "Or we were."
Prussia holds up his hands. "Yeah, yeah, but you haven't ended, have you?"
"We remain unified," Romano says, grabbing Italy around the shoulder (or he means to, but he ends up grabbing Italy around the neck), and for a moment Italy thinks he's actually going to burn a hole through Germany, he's glaring at him so hard. "And we're not going to let anyone separate us again."
"Fratello," Italy says, pokes his head over his brother's arm, "I can't breathe—"
Romano doesn't let go. Italy's seeing a few colors he doesn't think he should be seeing.
"That's the spirit!" Prussia crows, and bounds out of his chair to rest his elbow on Germany's head. "Together forever, am I right?"
"You are allowed to get a house of your own," Germany says in his Venedig-I-am-trying-to-tell-you-something-without-shouting voice.
"Tchah!" Romano says. "You'd abandon your family like that?"
"Yeah," says Prussia, "you'd abandon your family like that?"
"It is not abandonment—"
"Fratello I still can't breathe—"
"—I merely think it would be in your best interest if—"
"Look, if this is about the credit card bill I can explain, I was going to use Osterreich's but Ungarn put a freeze on it—"
"I would never," Romano shouts in Italy's ear, and shakes him for good measure, "turn out my own brother—"
"I know," Italy squeaks, "but could you please please please let me go for a second?"
"Oh," Romano says. Air floods back into Italy's lungs, and he gasps until he can't take in any more. "You should have said something."
"I tried," Italy points out, "but it's hard to talk when you can't breathe."
"Are you all right, Venedig?"
"I'm okay." Italy leans over to give Germany another peck on the cheek—
"Madonna!" Romano says, and yanks Italy back. "Veneziano, we forgot to say grace!"
"Shit, people still do that?" Prussia says.
Romano glares. "In this house, we honor God."
It's not like Italy can disagree with that, but well, Romano's getting that weird kind of light in his eyes again, and Italy's never quite sure what to do when that happens. "I'm sorry I forgot grace," he says.
"God will forgive you for that."
Italy doesn't miss the way he emphasizes that.
"First, we cross ourselves. In nomine Patris—"
He's breaking out the Latin. Italy misses the Latin sometimes. He's also jabbing his hand into his forehead hard enough to slap it.
He thumps his chest.
Slap. Romano's actually panting now. He's, um, really praying hard. That's good, Italy guesses?
Prussia crosses himself a little more dubiously—that's right, Prussia used to do this all the time—and Italy follows soon after. Germany hesitates, but he gets the order right even if his fingers tremble under Romano's glare, not that Italy blames him.
"Good. Now we take hands—"
Italy holds Germany's! Romano steps on his foot.
"You said take hands!"
"Lightly! Don't squeeze his goddamn fingers off!"
Italy doesn't think his grip's too hard, but when he tries to ask Germany about it Germany just makes a funny sound in the back of his throat, so he eases off. Germany's staring straight ahead now, and the muscles in his jaw haven't twitched this much since—well, Italy's not supposed to talk about those kinds of things in public.
"And now we pray," Romano says. "Does he pray?"
Germany makes the funny mphm sound again, which Italy translates as yes.
Romano grasps Italy's hand, and touches a finger to Prussia's palm. "Our Father who art in heaven," he begins. "We thank you for this bounty, and for your generosity in sharing it with all your children, even those who have strayed far from your path."
"Like the prodigal son!"
"Sorry," Italy whispers.
Prussia tugs at his collar.
"We thank you for family and the brothers we hold dear—"
"Shut up, culo, I haven't finished," Romano snaps at Prussia. Well! Italy's never heard that word used in a blessing before. Or he hasn't since the last time Romano said grace, anyway.
"And we hope you will show mercy to those who have never heard your word, and who seek to spread misinformation and sow discontent and cause ruptures in your holiest of holy institutions—"
"Fratello, Luther was before Germany's time—"
"Never mention that name in this house!" Romano thunders, and Italy bites his lip. Germany's hand sweats in his.
"Send their unbaptized souls to Limbo and keep them from knowing the worst of Hell."
"I thought you guys got rid of Limbo," Prussia says, frowning. "And purgatory too, right?"
"I like Limbo! And who's saying grace here, huh, you or me? Merda."
"Give us our day this daily bread and forgive us our trespasses even when we don't fucking deserve it, Amen." Romano sits down, and Italy follows.
"There," he whispers to Germany. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Germany says mphm again. The red's left his face, but now it's turned queasy white, like milk left in the sun too long. Italy hopes Germany's stomach hasn't turned.
"You should try the sausage. I picked it up at market yesterday just for you—"
"Wurst?" Romano narrows his eyes at the plate, and without the olives there's a blank patch framing the sausage, and Italy isn't sure the negative space works. "You brought wurst into this house?"
"Not wurst, our sausage," Italy tells him. "It's a compromise."
"Hey, what's so bad about wurst?" Prussia asks. "Wurst is awesome. Man, I could do with a wurst now. Thick, juicy—"
"Oh I bet you could," Romano mutters.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're so good at interpretation, you figure it out."
"Hey, I'm just saying, it looked like a monkey—"
"Figlio di puttana!"
"I'll get the gnocchi!" Italy sings. It's a little early for the main course, but the vodka sauce couldn't hurt right now. Italy's sure he has a good wine to pair with it, too. Something warm and calm, a really deep red.
He roots around for the wine and keeps an ear out for any shouting, but from the snippets of conversation floating through the door, it sounds like they've moved on to the Olympics, or maybe to America's president, the only sound Italy can really make out is the first O. The wines in the cabinet should be sorted by vintage and year, and Italy grabs for where the right bottle should be, but his fingers close on air. That's definitely a bad use of negative space. It's not sitting out on the counter, either. Maybe Italy left it in the downstairs cellar by mistake? He certainly didn't use it to cook…
It sounds like Prussia and Romano's conversation is almost civilized, too. Romano's voice isn't loud enough to make the crystal ring, and Prussia hasn't said anything stronger than damn in the past five minutes, so Italy decides to wait behind the door a little while longer and enjoy the way their voices rise and fall instead of just rise and rise and rise. Maybe it'll all be okay. Maybe.
"Hey," Prussia says, "where'd Italien get to?"
"Here!" Italy calls.
"Behind the door, huh?" Prussia laughs, his teeth flashing. "Bruder, I think he's pulling a Berlusconi on us. You know, like that time when your boss was visiting him and—"
"Berlusconi hid behind a pillar," Germany says, or at least Italy thinks he does; he buries his face in his palm, so it's hard to tell.
Judging from the way the red's starting to pool in Romano's ears, Italy's not sure he should get out from behind the door just yet.
"Can't believe America's boss tried to cop a feel before your guys's boss did, though. I mean, shit, after all those other women—hey, you think you could wrangle me an invitation with some of 'em?"
Germany shrinks away from Prussia's side of the table, and Italy can't blame him.
"No chance in hell, asshole," Romano says, and Italy watches the red creep higher into his cheeks.
"Okay, okay," Prussia says, still laughing. "Tell you the truth, though, Romano, I'm surprised your guys started the whole pantsless protest thing, I thought that was more Italien's deal—"
"We do not speak of Berlusconi at the table!" Romano bangs his fist hard enough to make the plates jump, and the china plate nearest one of the edges jumps a little too high and shatters all over the ground and Italy rushes out from behind the pillar and wails, remembers to set the food down before he tries to sweep everything up except he isn't wearing gloves and some of the shards get into his palms and everything's going all wrong, everything…
"Venedig, let me help," Germany says, kneeling down next to him.
"I'm fine," Italy tries to tell him, but it comes out all choked and wrong and horrible.
"Fratello," Romano says, and tries to kneel, too, but Italy pushes his leg back.
"No!" he says. "No, I'm fine except the plate broke and the gnocchi's going to get cold and I can't find the right kind of wine and I bought the wrong kind of olives for Germany and Prussia won't stop making jokes about boss and you haven't said a single nice thing to either of them since they got here and I just wanted to have a nice lunch—"
"No, no, no!" Italy says, stands up and stomps his foot and probably grinds the china right into the floorboards and scratches it up and if it looks ugly, well, he feels kind of ugly right now. "I wanted to have a nice lunch and I wanted to make nice things and I wanted everyone to share the table but then everyone started shouting and I think the gnocchi's going to fall off the table soon because I didn't place the plate properly and if it splatters all over the ground I'm not going to make any more!"
Italy takes a deep breath, and Romano steadies the plate.
"I'm not," he says, more quietly. "And nobody even finished their antipasto." The mushrooms look so sad and lonely on the plate, untouched and not even buffered by the cheese on both sides anymore, and Italy's not sure why the sight makes him sniffle but it does.
If there's any kind of negative space Italy hates more than all the others, it's this kind, the one where people look at each other without really looking and clear their throats but can't let any of the words out. Finally, Germany coughs. "I will get the broom," he says.
"No, Germany, you're a guest, you can't do cleanup—"
"Nevertheless," he says, "I would like to." He looks over his shoulder at something, Italy can't tell what at first.
It must have been Prussia, because he clears his throat next. "Oh. Uh. You know what, why don't I just pour us a wine. Any wine. I'm sure it'll taste great with the gnocchi."
Italy nods. "Okay."
"I'll—" Romano scratches under his collar, his skin pinking. "I'll get the bread from the oven. All this—all whatever this is—makes me hungry."
It's made Italy pretty hungry, too. His stomach growls in agreement.
"We will do this quickly, before the rest of the food cools," Germany says, and at least he didn't yell Dismissed! Italy gives him another peck on the cheek before he and Prussia file into the kitchen, and now it's just him and fratello in the middle of the room, with the broken china around their feet.
"Veneziano," Romano begins.
"I know this isn't what you want," Italy says before he can go any further. "And I know we're making decisions as us now. But—maybe you can be happy? For me?"
Italy's afraid it's going to be another one of those bad silences, but Romano scoffs. "You could have brought home a Catholic," he says.
Italy beams and takes his brother's hand. "There's always time to learn."