It was a brisk afternoon in early January that Feliciano had trotted out to the gate and started talking without giving his sister a hug first, taking her hand and pulling her along. Lovina had found it odd, and in all honesty was slightly peeved - the little brat - but he was so excited, she let it slide.
Today was the first day of term after Christmas, and the introduction day for the teacher who would be taking over Feli's class. It had all been explained very passive-aggressively in the school's bulletin that Miss White would be taking (slightly) early retirement after coming into a large sum of money, although they had tactfully dismissed her reasoning. Lovina hadn't been bothered - the old broad was a wicked thing, far from compassionate or sympathetic. Everything she wore was skin-tight, except, unfortunately, her skin, which hung from her face and neck in an extremely off-putting manner. In fact, Lovina was quite happy to see the bony tail-end of her.
"He lets us call him 'maestro', or 'Mister 'C", but he says it like 'theh' because he has this cool accent…" prattled Feliciano, his bag rattling on his back as he pulled at his sister's gloved hand. "You're not listening!" He complained.
"Yes, yes, his accent…" she answered, gripping him back tightly as they reached the road. "What else?"
Feliciano stood with her obediently until the sign told him it was okay to walk, even although he had seen Lovina run across the street when the sign was still red lots of times. "He showed us lots of pictures from where he used to live," he continued excitedly, thinking of his grinning teacher kissing a laughing old woman on the cheek in a big open field with a lot of oranges. "With his mama. They smiled a lot."
It was a cold, clear day, and Feliciano would have usually taken the time to enjoy his breath swirling in front of him if he didn't have so much news. He noticed it in front of his sister's cherry-red nose, though, because she was sniffing a lot when she wasn't talking. He squeezed her fingers, hoping it would do something to get rid of her cold.
"He sounds nice," she muttered, tight-mouthed as she gave the door a hard shove with her hip. It swung open, and they started through the hall and up the stairs past the broken elevator. Feliciano held her hand even around the corners, where his bag meant that he got squished against her legs. They reached their apartment, the door of which needed more encouragement from Lovina's hip, and Feliciano darted inside, sitting in the middle of the small living area to pull off his boots, nearly banging into the table when his shoe popped off with more force than he'd expected. He righted himself quickly, though, going to look through his bag.
"I said his accent sounded like yours, and he asked where you were from and he said that Spain and Italy were neighbours. I didn't know that."
She paused in taking off her scarf and stared down at her little brother, her tone even and practised. "Yes, you do, Feli."
"Nope," he denied, shaking his head and pushing his hand deeper into his bag, looking for something.
"You do, I told you that," she insisted, more irritated, crouching down beside him, taking his hat off of his head and unbuttoning his coat. "You know where Italy is, Feliciano…"
"Europe. But I didn't know Spain was there, too," he answered, triumphantly pulling a folded letter out and placing it in her hand. "He said to give that to you."
The little boy kissed her freezing nose and walked through to the kitchen, oblivious to her slight concern as she straightened up and opened the sheet out. It notified her of a meeting later in the week between the new teacher and the parents of his students. Being neither pupil, teacher, nor parent, she was already an outcast. Fantastic.
Shaking her head, she followed her brother to the kitchen and poured his juice, setting it in front of him with a few cookies and going to rattle with the heater, hoping it would feel generous and work this evening.
"Do you have homework?" She asked, and he shook his head, reaching for his cup with his pudgy hands.
"Mister C said we worked real hard and we could relax tonight."
"You worked 'very' hard," she corrected him, raising an eyebrow. She hated Feli's accent. Well, she didn't hate anything about Feliciano, but he could stand to be slightly more… Italian. She spoke in her mother tongue at home with him, but there was no way to force it on him over the influence from school. "And what did you learn, then?"
The heater hanging precariously on the wall gave a dull clunk after a particularly hard whack and whirred. Success.
"Hola," he repeated, taking a bite of his snack. "Me llamo Feliciano. That's Spanish," he told her, beaming, crumbs on his round cheeks as she sat opposite. She reached across and brushed them off.
"Uh-huh." He lifted his cup to his mouth and took a drink. "And he says he plays the guitar, so he'll sing with us, too! I can teach you all the songs!" He realised, smiling as widely as he could at Lovina, who only nodded back distractedly.
Well. He thought that was very exciting news! Perhaps her cold was getting to her. He slid his last cookie across the off-white surface of the table. "You look sick," he told her bluntly.
"Thank you," she replied sarcastically, feeling guilty as she picked up the cookie and took a bite. She thanked him more genuinely, and flashed a little smile. He stared back,expectant and hopeful. "I am okay, Feli," she told him, sitting back in her chair. "Why don't you go and watch some television?"
Feliciano nodded and stood up, holding out his hand again for her. "Come with me! Matthew had a cold today, too, and Mister C said that laughter is the best medicine… we can watch something funny!"
She didn't have the heart to sigh or roll her eyes, so took his hand and went through to the couch. She slid her shoes off and sat with her feet tucked underneath her, so that Feliciano could lie against her side comfortably. He pulled the blanket from the back onto them, laughing when he was completely covered and she whipped it off of his face quickly. She almost felt as chipper, curling up and turning on their little set with the remote.
Mister C, Mister C, Mister C.
She liked her brother to be happy, but she was sick of the guy already.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The next morning, Feliciano was running very late indeed - they barely crossed the street to the school as the bell was ringing. Isabelle crouched and gave him a hurried hug, told him to be good, and that his sister would collect him later, as usual. He smiled and kissed her cheek, before dashing across the yard with his bag thumping on his back.
Mister Carriedo was standing holding the door open, and he grinned widely as Feliciano greeted him, laughing off his hasty apology for being late. Once his class were all inside and squabbling over which hook to put their coats on, he looked up at the (quite lovely) blonde lady beside the gate and gave her a wave - 'don't worry about it'. She waved back with a small smile, fixing her scarf absent-mindedly. The young teacher gave a nod, and went into the school.
"Ay!" He shouted, putting his fists on his hips and staring down at his class, which consisted of about sixteen little boys and girls, with exaggerated displeasure. They all snapped their little heads up at his voice being raised. "Make a line along the bench," he instructed. They did so with hurried need to please him - he was a very nice man with a very loud voice.
He walked along the line like a Captain in front of his men, straight and tall, with his hands clasped behind him at the small of his back. "I need my class to work together," he said stiffly, making a huge turn on one heel at the end of the line. A few kids giggled. "All hands on deck. No silly fighting. Agreed, men?" He paused in front of a nervous dark-haired little girl, let his shoulders drop slightly, and leaned over towards her. "And ladies, of course," he added in a loud whisper, for everyone to hear. Her anxious resolve dropped and she smiled up at him.
"We have some tricky, tricky, work to do today," he continued, stretching on for miles above them with an almost humorously uncharacteristic seriousness plastered across his face. "But I think we're up to it. What about my troops?"
Feliciano nodded enthusiastically with a handful of other children. Mister Carriedo stopped and frowned, looking around the cloakroom. "I was sure I had a class here a moment ago, but it's gone so quiet…"
"Yes, we're ready!" shouted Alfred, nudging his twin beside him to answer too. Matthew gave a hasty nod, and Mister Carriedo clapped his hands together.
"That's more like it, Private!" He beamed, looking at the rest of the children, who were now bright and awake, enthused and keen to start the day. "Anyone else?"
"Yes!" shouted the class in unison, their high voices breaking in eagerness.
"Then coats up, and get in there!"
There was a quick but well-mannered scrabble to get ready, the children reaching their pegs and trailing into class in little groups of two or three. Feliciano struggled to put his hat on the shelf, being a little short for his age, if there was a height requirement for five years old, so his teacher helped him and sat on the tiny bench. His knees were practically at his ears and he almost laughed imagining how he must have looked.
"Was that lady your sister?" He asked, smiling. Feliciano shook his head.
"That's Belle. She brings me to school because Lovi works real early."
He nodded. She hadn't looked very Italian, now he thought about it. "She was very pretty. Did you know, that's what 'Belle' means? Beautiful."
Feliciano shook his head again, amazed. There was nothing this man did not know. He just fired out pearls of wisdom wherever he went. "Is that Spanish too?"
Mister Carriedo stood up and walked into the class with him. "No, no, that's French. That's another country in Europe. Okay," he addressed the class on a whole, pleased to find that they all looked up quietly, hanging on his every word. "Who can tell me what a verb is?"
Sliding into his seat beside Ludwig, who was his best friend, even if the German boy had never said so, Feliciano pretended to focus on the lesson, wanting to hear more about all these new countries. He knew all about America, and he was always being told about Italy. It was boring. These were fresh and new and exciting. He couldn't wait to get home and tell his sister he'd learned French as well, and tell Belle that she was beautiful, and that Mister C thought so too.
A few days had passed, their evenings full of new gems of knowledge the famous Mister C had granted his class, and of Lovina muttering a, 'that's interesting, Feli' or, 'no, I didn't know that, Feli' or, 'go to sleep already'.
She had admitted to Isabelle over coffee that she was goddamn sick of hearing about him. Her friend just smiled and raised her eyebrows.
"You wouldn't get sick of looking at him," she had muttered, a rosy look about her as she took a warm sip.
Lovina had told her to shut up.
However, far from the comfort of her own home, she was now sat in a tiny chair amongst the parents of the children in Feliciano's class while Antonio, as he had introduced himself, continued to talk and answer questions.
He was a tall man with dark curls of hair and a decent face, who had graduated from the University of Valencia with a double major in English and Primary School Education. For the life of her, Lovina could not understand why this man had been granted access to university, much less a Degree. He seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes lost his train of thought and would click his fingers rapidly until he remembered how he was going to answer. To her left, Arthur Kirkland, adoptive father of Alfred and Matthew, as he had introduced himself, was becoming aggravated.
"This teaching Spanish, is it not supposed to be started when the children are older?" He questioned sceptically, silencing Antonio. "Surely it interferes with the course if it's not an assigned part of it?"
"Ah, I understand, sir," Antonio beamed in response. He didn't miss a beat, hopping up to sit on the table behind him, and using his hands to explain, as though he saw everyone he interacted with as a child. "I only include it where it can be included. When they learn that two and two make four, they learn thatdos y dos hace cuatro. It doesn't take any extra time at all. And I think, if they learn now, from a native speaker, they'll be better equipped for learning in years to come. Did I answer your concern?"
There was a murmur of approval among the parents. Arthur did not seem the kind of man who enjoyed being corrected, but to his credit he nodded and gave a polite, 'thank you'. His partner, a Frenchman who seemed much more amiable, patted his arm in amused consolation.
The questions and answers, unfortunately, continued for quite some time, and Lovina at no point felt confident enough to raise her hand. She almost zoned out, too tired to translate everything that was being said, and was surprised when the parents around her started scraping their chairs back and mumbling about Antonio's enthusiasm. He had won them over, it seemed. They took themselves to the table at the back of the miniature hall, where polystyrene cups of tea and coffee where waiting for them.
Lovina took her bag and followed them, keeping to herself by looking at the 'art' on the walls. Scribbled little drawings and confident, but shapeless paintings. Cute, in a disturbing sort of way.
"Excuse me," came the voice beside her, as Antonio leant over to get a cup of coffee. "You're Feliciano's sister?"
Nodding curtly, and slightly nervous to speak, she moved over to let him in at the table and took a cup of her own. "Yes."
Antonio grinned and turned to her more fully, apparently with the intention to start a conversation. Stupendous. He held out his hand for her to shake. She did so, quickly and firmly, without looking at his face. "It's a pleasure!" started Antonio. "Feliciano tells me all about you!"
"Really?" She asked monotonously, hoping to give the impression she was a terrible conversationalist and he would leave. No such luck with this guy.
"Really. He is a very popular young man, very eager. And very well raised. I was surprised to hear about his home situation…"
Lovina looked forward for a beat, and decided she couldn't let it go, frowning and staring up at him. "What do you mean by saying that?" She asked. Her accent was thick and rich, but understandable.
He faltered. "Ahh, I meant… it's hard enough for a single parent, but for someone as young as you-"
"You do not think I can care for him?" She hissed, putting down her coffee and crossing her arms over her chest. "You do not think I am capable?"
"No, I said that you are! More than capable!" A few heads turned as his voice was raised above his normal pitch in a panic. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that-"
"Just because some children think you make the sun does not mean that I do!" She told him, pointing a finger and trying to hold the confrontation. She realised with embarrassment that she hadn't made a great deal of sense. "My English is not good enough to insult you," she lamented, seething.
Antonio smiled nervously at the rest of the parents, who were now interested beyond their own right… he pointed to the hallway and she nodded, so he ushered her out.
Her scowl was even harsher now that they were alone. She kept her arms crossed and her glare steely, flipping a piece of dark auburn hair over her shoulder. "Not to correct you…" said Antonio hesitantly, rubbing at his neck. "… but I think you meant, 'they think the sun shines out of my ass'?"
Lovina could have spat on him. "I am sorry I am not as confident as you are! And another thing, how can you dare to use a child to flirt with my friend?"
"Flirt?" He straightened up and frowned too, genuinely surprised. "I never did!"
"You told him to tell her she was beautiful!"
"I did no such thing! Miss Vargas, I was just telling Feliciano what her name meant, he likes to know little things like this-"
Lovina shook her head with a sour expression on her face, holding up a hand to silence him. "You have known him for days, do not think you know him more than I do."
Antonio paused and put a hand to his chest to show his sincerity. "I am his teacher, and I keep his best interests at heart, I keep all of their best interests as close to my heart as possible-"
Red alert, the young woman looked like she would not hesitate to rip his heart out, regardless of 'best interests'. "I'm sorry," he rushed. "But God strike me down if I ever meant to insult you or interfere with your life. I had wanted to pay you a compliment…"
"I do not have need for your compliments," she spat, stepping forward to him and bringing her head up. "I do not have need your pity, you arrogant, ignorant…"
He waited in silence for her to finish. He briefly wondered if she would slap him. She just deflated and muttered under her breath, stamping down the hall to the main entrance and leaving, the heavy door only sliding closed behind her. She would have probably much preferred a slam.
*Stronzate - bullshit.
Idk if Italian speakers will agree with any of this
I thought of what the Italian would be and translated more literally?
Ludwig and Al and Matt are in the class too but that's it ha
The rest are just kids
Antonio spent the rest of the week guilt-ridden.
Although he only had the best of intentions, he must have really hit home, because Belle would never smile or run her scarf through her fingers when he waved in the mornings, just give him a glare reeking with that special kind of feminine loyalty, to let him know that the little chat he'd shared with Lovina had not stayed secret. As for Lovina, he would barely catch a frustrated little flip of auburn hair before she tugged Feliciano away in the afternoons, never hanging around to give Antonio any time to apologise.
At the very least, Feliciano seemed unaffected. He was extremely fond of his sister, and probably would have found it difficult to remain friendly to the man who upset her, so Antonio suspected that Belle had been Lovina's only confidant. He found this very admirable, even if he knew he'd never have the chance of telling her so.
He welcomed Saturday morning, and he made his usual trip to Gilbert's apartment on his way to the store. Gilbert took care of Ludwig, in much the same way Lovina took care of Feliciano. The main differences being that the boys had money and stability, their divorced father living upstate, a well-off family in Germany, if support was ever needed, and were both entirely fluent in English.
In short, Antonio would have much rather been a Beilschmidt than a Vargas.
"What's your problem?" Gilbert had asked, yawning into his fist and waiting for the toast to pop up.
"I pissed off one of the student's sisters," muttered Antonio, with his chin in his hand, and flicking the knife on the table with his finger.
Gilbert scoffed and jammed a piece of toast in his mouth, taking a huge bite and spraying crumbs onto the floor when he spoke. "Who cares? As long as the kid's happy… you can't please everyone."
He shrugged and turned to the other slice, which was actually on a plate, and carefully buttered and cut down the middle. "Lud, this is ready, come on!" He yelled, and there was a bang of a bag being dropped across the hall, and quick footsteps.
Ludwig was a very obedient child, Antonio had noticed. Gilbert was strict, but not unkind, and he used to wonder if his good behaviour was simply out of respect for his older brother. Since becoming his teacher, he had realised that was the case with everyone. If you did Ludwig no wrong, he would return the favour. He even called him 'Mister C' in class like all the other pupils, and didn't boast about knowing his first name. Consequently, Antonio had something of a soft spot for him.
The kid appeared in his soccer gear, always perfectly ironed and pristine. Gilbert was not a tidy person - one almost got the impression Ludwig would assess every batch of laundry, making his brother do it again if he'd missed a spot.
His shoelaces, however, were untied as he clicked across to the table and pulled himself into his chair. He thanked Gilbert when his breakfast was placed in front of him.
"How are those laces going?" asked Gilbert, with a new mouthful still being chewed while he spoke.
Ludwig shrugged and swallowed before he answered. "I nearly have it," he answered, sounding a little sheepish.
"Don't worry about it," laughed Antonio kindly, stopping himself from reaching across and ruffling his hair. Ludwig didn't do ruffling. "I still can't tie mine, I just tuck them in."
"You'll trip and hurt yourself," answered Ludwig, putting his foot up when Gilbert slapped his own thigh, offering to see to it. He watched intently for technique while his brother worked, and then raised his other foot, with great concentration on his face.
Antonio had to make do with a little smile to himself, holding back a laugh. He found Ludwig very funny, so serious for his age, but knew it would offend him to actually point it out. He sipped the coffee Gilbert had very kindly made for him, and pretended to enjoy it.
"Whose sister?" asked Gilbert quite suddenly, giving Ludwig's head a pat and letting him finish his breakfast. "Is it the blonde one?"
"No, the Italian one," Antonio answered quickly, shrugging, not wanting to go much further in front of Ludwig. It was none of his concern. Gilbert didn't notice. He just nodded in recognition.
"Her? What's their name, Lud? Varis? Varsca?"
Gilbert snorted unkindly, thinking of the woman who always stood hunched as if she was cold, a tight frown on her rodent-like face. The only thing that saved her from looking like a rat was her rounder cheeks. She was something of a scowling hamster, if he had to describe her. "Doesn't seem like it'd be difficult, Antonio. Just let it go, it's her problem. You'll probably never even have to see her again."
"I should still apologise," he pondered out loud, sighing down at the table. "She won't even look at me, she's always gone by the time all the kids are out."
Antonio glanced up and realised Ludwig was watching him, his blue eyes wide and knowing. He cleared his throat quickly and smiled at the little boy. "Not that it matters, though. You're both going to be late, huh?"
Nodding, Gilbert gave the instruction for Ludwig to eat up, and Antonio put his coat back on while the older brother went to dress for the cold. Ludwig set down his crust and leant forward across the table.
"She works in a café on Saturdays," he told Antonio, still very serious, as if they were planning a mission behind enemy lines. "There's an Italian flag on the outside and they sell ice-cream. Feliciano sits at the window all day and draws pictures."
Antonio laughed lightly, keeping quiet, because Ludwig seemed to think he was risking something, here. Gilbert had told them to forget about it. He wasn't forgetting about it, this was Beilschmidt family treason.
But above all that, he could not help but feel that Ludwig liked to show off how smart he was, just a little. He supposed if he was clever like Ludwig at his age, he would have been showing off too.
"How do you know that?" The teacher whispered, and Ludwig gave a modest little nod, standing up to join his brother in the hall.
"Feliciano told me, ages ago. I remembered," he explained quickly, going quiet when Gilbert zipped him into his jacket and handed him his bag. They all went outside together, walking in opposite directions when they hit the street. Ludwig glanced around to find Antonio again.
Antonio winked and gave him a grateful little salute.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
If he was determined when he set out, Antonio was lagging slightly by now. It was a few hours since he'd left the Beilschmidt boys, always on the lookout for a café with an Italian flag that sold ice cream.
Every café with an Italian flag outside it in the world sold ice cream. And Antonio lived in Chicago, a city famous for wind, blues, and immigrants. If there wasn't some European flag outside a 'café', it was just a greasy spoon with 'the best coffee in Illinois!', or seedier joints with scantily-clad waitresses, and Antonio was pretty sure Lovina didn't work there.
At least, he hoped not.
Suffice to say there had been many Italian cafés that sold ice cream, so he had embarrassed himself frequently, peeking in windows to see if little Feliciano was drawing at any of them, and then going inside to ask if Lovina worked there, just in case.
The early February wind was biting and cold, so Antonio had pulled his collar up to keep the chill off of his neck. This was getting kind of silly, he realised, kicking a stone and watching it bounce up the street ahead of him. All for the sake of a little spat? He hadn't even done anything wrong, at least, he had never meant to.
That was really the crux of the matter, though. He had been very insensitive. He was supposed to be someone parents, or sisters, brothers, whatever they may be, could trust. He wouldn't trust someone who wagged their tongue so thoughtlessly with his drink, never mind the safety of a child.
No, he had decided. He would apologise to this young woman, just to settle the score. He admired her, and you don't ignore the needs of someone you admire. He even liked her. Although she seemed harsh and moody, he knew a bright little boy like Feliciano would never be able to thrive like he did if his sole caregiver was constantly cold. She was a warm, kind person. She just couldn't afford to show it.
Antonio didn't notice that he gave himself a smug little nod, pleased at figuring her out so quickly. If there was one thing he could pride himself on, it was that he was an excellent judge of character. Perhaps because he was so observant-
A soft 'oof' was thrown from between his cold, chapped lips as he barrelled into a sandwich board on the sidewalk. He sheepishly hurried to pick it up again, some of the green and red chalk smudging on his fingertips, looking around to see who had noticed.
Apart from the little boy drawing in the window.
Feliciano's face lit up in the reflection of the stone grey clouds on the glass, and he waved animatedly. There was no point in shying away now, so Antonio waved back, wiped his hands quickly on his coat and stepped inside, briefly taking note of a tattered tricolore above the flaking white paint of the door.
A quick glance around revealed a decently sized, slightly worn-down, but authentic coffee house. There was, on the other side of the door, a gelato stand with a window that opened onto the street, but no sign of Lovina. The logical course of action was to ask Feliciano of her whereabouts, anyway, so he went to sit beside him, shuffling onto the tall wooden chair.
"Can I sit here with you?" He asked, because manners cost nothing.
Feliciano nodded fiercely. "Yes, of course! I was just drawing…" he shrugged, in a tone that told Antonio, 'I want you to look but I've been told not to be a show-off'. The teacher smiled and leant over to take a peek, giving a low whistle.
"I wish I could draw like that. Every time I try, my fingers won't work!"
Feliciano beamed. He was a talented artist for his age. Sometimes, his drawings even looked like things, and not scribbles, which was no mean feat.
"I'll draw you, if you like," he insisted, staring at his subject and then at his paper, being very careful in his choice of crayon. It wouldn't have been ludicrous to imagine him making a box with his fingers, squinting through it at Antonio to measure up. The man grinned.
"I would love that," he answered, but was quickly silenced.
"Then you have to sit still…" the boy muttered, not harshly - he was concentrating.
Unfortunately, he didn't get much work in before a plate of grilled cheese and ham was almost slammed between them, and they both shot up with the same guilty expression. Antonio opened his mouth and closed it again.
"What do you want?" asked Lovina, obviously seething at the very sight of him, although she just helped Feliciano clear his crayons and paper to one side so he could eat his lunch.
Once again, Antonio faltered at his personal affairs being retold in front of one of his students. "I was hoping we could talk," he answered, trying to meet her eye to suggest moving somewhere else. She didn't give him the satisfaction.
"You should not have got your hopes up," she replied stiffly, and went to return to the bar to get a drink for her little brother. Antonio followed her, even through the little hatch, behind the counter, where customers weren't supposed to go.
"I feel terrible-"
"You are not supposed to be in here," she hissed, pouring the drink. Antonio had never seen blackcurrant juice poured so angrily. She spun around to talk, her tight, messy ponytail nearly slapping him in the face, to save her the effort. "I do not have to serve you, I am on my break and I want to eat with my brother, so leave."
"Let me make it up to you," he almost pleaded, standing too close to let her turn away.
"You… you must need someone to talk to, you have a lot on your plate…"
"I told you, I do not need your-!"
She glanced up and spotted Feliciano, one cheek full of his sandwich, watching the argument ping between them like a shuttlecock. He caught his sister's eye and swallowed, his eyes going wide and wet and guilty, as they always did whenever he caught any conflict. Lovina sighed and turned back to Antonio, her head low and her cheeks hot.
"Pretend to make friends with me," she muttered.
"Why do we have to pretend?"
"Do not be a child," she spat, walking back out to put the glass in front of Feliciano, who watched her intently.
He asked her something quickly and nervously, but Lovina silenced him with a kiss to the head and told him, Antonio presumed, to eat his lunch. She walked to Antonio and gave him a nod that led him to the back of the room, to a wooden little table with salt, or sugar, he wasn't sure which, spilled on it.
"Five minutes," she told him cuttingly. He knew he was lucky to get even that, since her time was so precious, and all of his words fell out of his mouth in a rush.
"I really do feel terrible," he dribbled, leaning forward across the table. "I think you do a lot of amazing work for him, I never meant to upset you because the last thing you need is me telling you that you're not doing a good job, because you are-"
"Oi!" She jumped, to stop him, raising a hand. "I do not listen that fast."
"Right," he nodded, flicking a piece of sugar/salt away from his finger and scraping his chair forward to close the space between them. "I just wanted to apologise. It wasn't my place to comment and all I wanted was to offer you some help. Not that you need it, of course," he added hastily, when he heard Lovina take a sharp breath.
She stared at him a moment, blinking her round hazel eyes slowly, the skin underneath a pale, bruised lilac with lost sleep she'd probably never regain. She let her shoulders sink, not so defensive, only exhausted now.
"Thank you," she nodded, looking down at her lap, but only because it was civil, and the sooner Antonio stopped prying, the better. "I accept your apology…"
The man smiled warmly when she looked up, but she only shook her head again.
"… But not your help."
"I won't do anything," he promised, undeterred, noticing her hands folded on the table and wondering how high she'd jump if he gave one a comforting little squeeze. "I can just sit here and listen."
Lovina scowled. "You are a gossip," she immediately decided, clamming up and sitting back in the hard wooden chair.
Antonio only laughed at how stubborn she was. He was doing his best here! "My lips are sealed," he nodded kindly, doing the zipper motion along the aforementioned lips, so she'd get the point.
The young woman across from him didn't seem very obliging, and he had the feeling he was going to get the abridged version, but that was okay. He had expected a great deal less than to even be allowed to talk to her about something so personal.
"We came here when Feliciano only had a few years. Our mother was too old for another baby, our father left, she took all our savings and the three of us came here, and she got sick as a pig," she explained, with a slight bitterness to her voice that made Antonio frown with concern. He had a feeling he knew how that illness ended, and apparently dying to leave her a single carer to a young child was enough to leave Lovina resenting her mother.
That or she had never mourned the passing. Either was as plausible.
"We were not poor," she went on, almost angry, as if it were a matter of pride. "But no, we had to come here for a fresh start, waste it all on the baby and her medicine-"
"You didn't have insurance?" asked Antonio, unthinkingly.
Lovina only looked at him and raised an eyebrow, wholly unamused. "We cannot all afford fancy Green Cards-"
She immediately stopped, her eyes going wide and sinking to the table. Idiot that she was, she could have saved it if she hadn't already reacted. She heard Antonio's chair creak as he straightened up and sat back, she could imagine his eyes widen in realisation.
She had been lucky enough that the state had no right to insist on knowing their immigration status, or so Belle had promised her, in the small hours of the morning, when she was doubled over with her head in her hands, because all of those stupid documents were in English, proper, formal English, and she could barely read a word. But Feliciano had been allowed to attend school.
She had even toyed with the idea of pretending to be Mexican, to get them a Border-Crossing card, but they were too far from the border for that to be viable, and she had a feeling any immigration officer worth their salt should be able to tell the difference between a Spic and a Guido without much effort.
"You're…" started Antonio, frowning and blinking at her head. She looked back up at him and winced when he whispered the I-word across the now-tiny gap. "Illegal?"
"I almost have enough money," she rushed to tell him, her tone hushed and desperate, with a quick glance to Feliciano, who was, thankfully, watching the world go by out the window. "From the money our mother left and saving, I am almost there, I can afford to have someone see to it…"
"Isn't there a lottery?" He asked, and she was surprised to find that he didn't seem to be judging her.
Lovina shrugged and raised her thumbnail to her teeth, dropping her voice significantly. "Not when you have already broken the law."
He nodded in understanding. To his credit, he seemed to be shocked, but if he thought any less of her, he was hiding it well. "I'm not going to tell anyone-"
"You had better not," she tried to threaten, but when he let out a steady breath and closed his mouth tightly, staring her down, she realised there was no point. He was physically stronger, richer, or rather, less poor than she was. He spoke English. He probably even had citizenship. People would listen to him, respect him, in ways she couldn't afford to dream of.
She needed him on her side. She needed him as close to her side as possible.
When she chewed her lip and wrapped her arms around herself, the image of vulnerability, it was a conscious decision. "Please," she reasoned, edging forward to meet his deep green eyes, hoping her hazel ones were wet, or at least pretty, "…they will take him away from me, or they will send us back. He will have nothing if you hand us over, do you understand?" She asked, with shaken urgency.
She made sure she frowned, to show him she was serious. Her lip gave an involuntary twitch, but she was almost happy for it.
"You must have someone nearby who can help?" He whispered, softening at how he was sure he saw her mouth tremble. "A cousin or something?"
Lovina's frown was absolutely real now. She scowled and straightened up in front of Antonio. "Because of all the Italians? We are not all related, moron."
Antonio relaxed, just a little, and bit back a smile. Her accent was very funny on that word. Far too American for her little trill. "Of course, of course, sorry… I just wondered if anyone was close enough to reach."
"No," she sighed, leaning back against the chair. "I don't care where our father is. The closest is in California. He is retired in the wine country. But we haven't spoken since mama. He has never met Feliciano. We cannot afford to go anyway, so…"
Antonio gave another practised, patient nod. It was extremely obvious why he was so good with children - nothing seemed to shock him into being unable to help. "Something will work out," he told her, albeit with a slight force behind his words.
She could be excused for not believing him. She deflated, standing up and steadying her weary legs, just nodding.
Okay, fine, if you say so.
"Thanks," she muttered. He stood up and bent down a little to level with her.
Antonio already had yet another smile kept confined somewhere, he wouldn't quite allow it free rein, but Lovina started when he put his hands on her arms, and gave them a squeeze. "Trust me," he instructed.
"I am," she answered quietly, giving him a final, warning stare before freeing herself and escorting him to the door, exhausted by the conversation. Feliciano glanced up at the sound of the bell and gave a sad little wave. He had wanted to talk some more.
"And not a word," chimed Antonio, although he was already half-way out the door and she had a hand on his chest, pushing him onto the street.
"To anyone," she nodded firmly.
From nowhere, he pulled out an inappropriate grin, nodded back, and turned to walk briskly down the street again.
He did so after bumping into the sandwich board and picking it up for the second time.
So, The Windy City! Mainly because it had to be a city, preferably with an immigrant culture, and in a state that allowed same-sex couples to adopt. Congrats, Chicago.
The chill in the air was nothing at all to Antonio, now. He was a man on a mission – a mission that would determine the fate and happiness of people he barely knew or even needed to talk to, once the year was out, and could prove potentially disastrous for all involved parties.
Luckily, that was Antonio’s favourite type of mission.
Usually, after heading to Gilbert’s on a Saturday, he would go to the store and do his errands, maybe grab a lonely lunch, or go to the park. He’d see the things he’d always meant to see and never found the time, take pictures to send back to his mama. It never bothered Antonio that his weekends were a little dull for someone in their mid-twenties. Upon his arrival a couple of years ago, he had been nervous, of course, of being alone. However, there was only one way to fix that. He thought of where people his age would be, which came with the harrowing realisation that he wasn’t eighteen anymore, and went to a bar in lieu of a club. There, he had met Gilbert, who introduced him to his friend Francis, who was celebrating his proposal in anticipation of a change to civil partnership laws. His new fiancé had grown sick of his shenanigans, however, and had gone home in a foul mood (Antonio had met Arthur a few times since and was polite to him, but he didn’t enjoy his company much). Regardless, they became good friends, taking him under their respective drunken wings, and Antonio was pleased to be able to say that he was present at the ceremony, when it eventually took place, and was now teaching their twin boys. Francis and Arthur’s boys, that is, not Francis and Gilbert’s. That would have been weird. Gilbert wasn’t even gay.
Which brought Antonio back to his mission. He would usually go and do whatever needed to be done, but he found himself en route back to the Beilschmidt flat, hurrying up to the door with his cheeks and nose rosy, pressing the buzzer with their name scribbled beside it and hopping on his feet while he waited.
The speaker crackled and Gilbert grunted something. Ah, they were back from soccer training. Perfect.
“It’s me, let me in,” Antonio cut across him eagerly, putting his hand to the door, expecting it to unlock for him. He gave it a tug, but nothing happened. “Gil!” He shouted. Maybe he just hadn’t heard.
Another little groan, and the sound of the button being pressed. “Antonio, you have your own house…” muttered Gilbert, but the door swung open anyway. Antonio sprinted like the stairs were hot under his feet, getting warm under his coat because he had rushed all the way there, too. Ludwig was waiting with the door open. No doubt he had been told to go hold it, because Gilbert was shoving his little brother’s dirty laundry in the wash, and had his hands full. And muddy.
“Did we win?” Antonio beamed, giving Ludwig a pat on the head for holding the door for him and going to pick up the sopping sock on the floor, holding it in front of Gilbert’s face. He tutted and shoved it in, too.
Ludwig shook his head. He didn’t seem too upset by it, but by the same token, he never seemed too upset about anything. He wasn’t really one for crying, he was more of a ‘formal complaint’ type of child, which was as rare as it was charming and a bit odd. Once Gilbert had finished with the washing machine, after letting his little brother oversee that he was doing it all properly, he sent Ludwig to get his boots, so they could clean them, too.
Antonio watched the boy walk out of the room, spinning around to Gilbert with his eyes wide and sparkling with untold antics the second Ludwig was absent. He raised his hands, as if to say, ‘wait for it’. Gilbert silently obliged, raising his eyebrows. “We’re going to California,” burst the enthused Spaniard, his tone hushed.
Gilbert narrowed his eyes and edged forward. “Come again?”
“We’re going to California instead,” he repeated, smiling to encourage him and leaning closer. “We’re going to take Lovina and Feliciano with us to see an old man.”
The situation was as such – Antonio’s ‘ride’, or, ‘the pussy magnet’ as Gilbert had ironically blessed it out of underage earshot – was an old Ford camper van, which he kept in a garage a few blocks from his apartment, and he went everywhere on foot or by public transport. The dream had been to use his long jobless summers exploring, but he’d had no one to explore with. The previous summer, however, the three of them – Francis, Gilbert and himself, had decided to go to Florida for a few weeks and never have to worry about money, because if they couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel near the end, they had the van ready to go. Ludwig was there as well, of course, and he had enjoyed himself, so even although Francis now had other commitments (namely the family he was lugging back to France for ‘a real holiday’, the stuck-up pig) and had pulled out, the plan was for the Beilschmidt boys and Antonio to head back for the summer.
The plan had never included anyone else, much less an old man in California, (and his location also almost doubled the area they had to cover), so Gilbert felt he was totally justified in staring at his friend and telling him plainly, “…you’re a fucking nut.”
“Hear me out, “started Antonio, raising a hand, and, once again, he was given a frustrated silence to talk in. Unfortunately, Gilbert had heard as much as he really could, so he prattled on with the conditions instead. “We’re going to go during spring Break, not summer…” Gilbert opened his mouth again to protest, but Antonio steamed ahead. “It won’t be as long, so you don’t need to take as much time off of work, and Ludwig will have someone his age to talk to…”
“Too far,” replied Gilbert cuttingly, shaking his head, going to get Ludwig’s boots from him when he returned and sending him back to his room to ‘read or whatever’ for a while. “It’s too far, why are you offering holidays to people you don’t even like?”
Antonio frowned. “Firstly, I haven’t offered yet. I wanted to check with you first,” he said haughtily, raising his chin. “Secondly, it’s not a holiday, it’s a reunion, and I do like her, she doesn’t like me-“
“Oh, for the love of-“Gilbert complained loudly, looking up over his shoulder from wetting a cloth to clean the boots with, almost amused. “That’s what it’s about - you’re trying to impress her!”
Antonio scoffed and snorted at the same time and shook his head. “Oh, no, it’s not like I just want to help someone because I can… ”
“You like her,” muttered Gilbert, going back to his task and ranting. “You always do this, you talk to a girl for ten minutes and you-“
“It was only five.”
“ – for five minutes and you’ll do anything for her… and it’s this one!”
“What do you mean, ‘this one’?” demanded Antonio, finding he was glaring and stopping himself a second before Gilbert turned around.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile. At anyone,” he replied scathingly. “She’s stuck-up. It isn’t even like she’s a single mother, she’s probably a virgin with a kid. She’s Mary.”
“She is not Mary!” Antonio wasn’t sure if he was more scandalised on Lovina’s behalf or on Our Lady’s. “And even if she was, it’s not like that, it’s nothing like that. I just want to help.”
Gilbert threw down the cloth in the sink and crossed his arms, absolutely grinning in disbelief. “Antonio, helping someone is lending them money, or letting them send a package to your house because they won’t be home - this is about you getting your hole.”
“If it was about that, then why would I invite you?” He snapped, having to tell himself that it was understandable that Gilbert would think it, and that he didn’t mean to offend him, because Antonio was pretty sure he was close to telling him to forget about it all and storming out. Fortunately, he was particularly talented at keeping a lid on his temper. “If that was all I wanted, why wouldn’t I want it to be just us? So I’d be the only other adult she has to talk to?”
“You need someone to watch the kid,” snorted Gilbert, looking up with his off-colour smirk, but it dropped when Antonio just frowned at him. “Come on,” he chided. “Tell me honestly.”
Antonio hesitated and let out a frustrated sigh. “I thought she would feel more comfortable if there were more people going,” he answered after a moment, keeping his tone particularly firm. “I didn’t want her to think… what you thought. It’s really important to her, it's a relative,” he went on, before he could be interrupted, because there was no harm in embellishing now. “And it’s really important to me.”
“Don’t,” warned Gilbert, standing up straight and raising a finger. Antonio only sighed again and met his eyes, looking disappointed.
“I’m asking you-“
“Don’t you fucking dare-“
“-as a friend,” finished Antonio, and he almost broke, because Gilbert cringed and stamped his feet childishly, but he managed to maintain the ‘wounded’ look.
“You dick,” he spat, and Antonio grinned triumphantly. “Spring break?” He confirmed, frowning as he put his fingers inside one of the boots to hold it up and clean it while he talked.
“Spring break,” nodded Antonio. “Thank you, Gil, seriously-“
“You still like her,” he muttered, meeting his friend’s eye, but there was more of a spark of respect now, for his complete dedication to christening ‘the pussy magnet’ with its proper title.
Antonio just shrugged and fastened his coat, heading for the door again. “Neither here nor there,” he replied, rushing with the realisation he still had a big list of mundane Saturday tasks to complete, and he had to figure out a way to convince Lovina to go with them, come Monday. “Bye, Ludwig!” He yelled, and there was a polite reply, so he nodded once again at Gilbert and left.
Gilbert turned back to his work and shook his head.