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The beginning of the school year was colder than previously with many students already bundled up in woolen scarves and gloves, their breaths ghosting as they chatted away excitedly at friends they hadn’t seen all summer. Ludwig, too, was wearing his winter coat with a high collar and mittens Gilbert had knitted the year before in one of his strange fits of hobby-searching. They were warm enough, sure, but Ludwig just wished they were a more inconspicuous colour. The neon green clashed violently with the pale blue of his coat, something even fashion-impaired Ludwig could figure out. Yet he could not bring himself to replace them, not when Gilbert’s face had practically lit up when he saw Ludwig stuff them in his jacket that morning. Sadly, it hadn’t stopped his older brother from pestering him during the drive over.

“Have fun at school, Luddikins!” Gilbert shouted as he revved the car, tormenting the poor old sedan as Ludwig slammed the door shut. “Don’t do anything I would do! Make sure to give kisses to Feli dearest, okay!” He drove off cackling and Ludwig was left with the desperate feeling the collar of his coat wasn’t high enough to hide comfortably in.

Kisses to Feliciano, as if that were possible. He had long since warded off the Italian’s over enthused attempts at kissing his cheeks after every holiday, mainly because his face always felt close to exploding after. The reason for that feeling turned out to be romantic, something that had somehow needed spelling out by Gilbert’s fantastically inadequate friends—because really, no one would like to take advice from a sexually-frustrated German, an overtly sexual Frenchman and a Spaniard whose sexuality came down to a noncommittal shrug.

Yeah, no. Ludwig may not be the most socially adept person in the world, and most definitely not the most romantic one by a long shot, but he wasn’t stupid. Between Gilbert’s constant kissy noises whenever Feliciano was brought up in conversation and the talk that had followed one evening by his two idiotic friends, Ludwig had given up trying to deny it. He had almost punched his brother however, after one particularly obscene gesture Gilbert had made behind Feliciano’s back while Ludwig talked to him.

So maybe Ludwig had a crush on Feliciano. That was fine. Ludwig could live with that knowledge. He could also live with the knowledge that Feliciano would never return his feelings. It was obvious the Italian fancied girls, seeing as most of his holiday stories were about him flirting with cute girls from all over the world.

He sighed and squeezed the straps of his messenger bag. It was frustrating, but he valued his friendship with Feliciano more than anything and he didn’t want to ruin it by adding any unnecessary awkward tension caused by equally unnecessary awkward feelings.

Once inside the school building, Ludwig took off his gloves, conscious of the giggles of some girls he passed. He headed straight for his locker and clicked it open, tossing his gloves in and shedding his coat.

As he rummaged through his bag to reorganise subjects, his eyes strayed off to the two pictures taped to the insides of his locker. One was a picture of a much younger him, Gilbert and their parents. It was old and frayed along the edges, but it was one of the few photos they had of them all together and Ludwig treasured it dearly, no matter how broken his family was now.

The other was a recent one, snapped with Feliciano’s polaroid camera. It was the three of them, Feliciano’s arm slung around Ludwig’s shoulder last minute, pulling him down to his level much to Ludwig’s surprise and chagrin, while making rabbit ears with his other hand behind Kiku’s head, who in turn was going for a meek peace sign. It was a messy picture and slightly out of focus as Feliciano had thrusted the camera into the hands of an excited Alfred Jones, who had snapped the picture in the mere seconds given of Feliciano’s “Say ciao!” which was a feat in itself. Feliciano had made copies for the three of them and had taped them to the insides of their lockers with green washi tape.

It was always Feliciano who initiated all the fun and silly things they did, like their last minute mini road trip to the lake in the first week of summer that had nearly ended with Lovino tossing them all out of the car for reasons still unknown to Ludwig, or the Christmas spent at Kiku’s large house with just the three of them because Kiku had mentioned before that his family would go back to Japan for the holiday and he’d stay behind alone to watch the dog. It had even been Feliciano who had initiated the friendship between them.

Ludwig closed his locker with an almost wishful sigh. Feliciano was sometimes a bit too much, but Ludwig wouldn’t have him any other way. His cheery disposition could even lighten up the worst of Ludwig’s moods, even if a lot of Ludwig’s frustrations were caused by the Italian as well. Feliciano could be incredibly scatterbrained and, while he generally made his homework, he would often forget to take notes during class and beg Ludwig and Kiku for theirs. He also had the tendency to chat with Madeline, the exchange student from Seychelles, during class, something that often got them both a ticket to detention, but neither cared very much.

By all means, he should have anticipated the quiet of morning wouldn’t last. Not for as long as both Feliciano Vargas and Alfred Jones were still enrolled.

Buon giorno, bellissimo !” was all the warning he received before a brown whirlwind flung himself into his arms and kissed him on both cheeks. It all happened so fast that Ludwig wasn’t quite sure it happened at all. As his brain attempted to catch up and tried to form an appropriate facial expression beside utter confusion, Feliciano squeezed him into a hug before beaming up at him happily, his cheek pressed against Ludwig’s chest.

“I—Er, good morning, Feliciano,” Ludwig eventually managed to say, awkwardly going for a pat on the head in hopes that Feliciano might let go. Feliciano’s smile only grew.

“Gosh, Ludwig, I feel as if it’s been forever since I last saw you, you know,” Feliciano said and Ludwig prepared himself for the stream of words that would follow. “I mean, summer holiday is nice and everything, and you know how much I love spending time with family in Italy, even if Lovino was being grouchy all the time and grandpa got into a fight with uncle Alberto about him cheating on aunt Marzia again, which Uncle really should have seen coming, you know. I don’t understand why Marzia’s still married to him because neither loves the other, that much is clear. You should always be with the one you really love, I think. Don’t you think so too, Ludwig?”

Feliciano paused, seeming to realize something, and looked up at Ludwig guiltily. “Ah, but now I’ve gone and done it again. I meant to say that I’m actually kind of glad school started again, because that means I get to see you again! I really missed you, you know.”

Ludwig couldn’t help the blush that coloured his cheeks and he coughed to try and hide his embarrassment. “You missed me?”

Feliciano moved away from him a bit to nod fervently. “Of course I did! Just as I missed Kiku and Madeline and Alfred. Oh, and Bella, of course.”

Ludwig suppressed the urge to groan. Of course he was no different from Kiku, Madeline or Alfred, or Feliciano’s cat apparently. He shouldn’t have gotten his hopes up. He didn’t know why they had gone up to begin with. Feliciano and him were just friends after all. Of course he was no different from Feliciano’s other friends, or his cat.

“I missed you too, Feliciano,” Ludwig sighed. He untangled himself from Feliciano and straightened his shirt for a lack of a better excuse.

A moment of confusion seemed to pass over Feliciano’s features, his smile faltering slightly, but it was gone too quickly for Ludwig to take note of. When Ludwig looked at him again, Feliciano’s smile was as bright as ever.

“You did?” he said excitedly. “Ah, I’m glad! I mean, I suppose it’s kind of bad, but it means that you thought of me, right? That makes me super happy, because Lovino said you were probably happy I wasn’t around because I’m so noisy and you’re really quiet, so, um…” Feliciano trailed off, blushing slightly. “I was maybe kind of worried you had forgotten me.”

Ludwig couldn’t help but laugh softly. Leave it to Feliciano to worry over silly things. “Feliciano, I don’t think I could ever forget about you,” he said, gazing down at him fondly.

Feliciano stared back, something in his eyes catching Ludwig’s heart in a stutter. They stood there silently for a bit, neither moving nor speaking. Feliciano leant closer slightly, seeming to gravitate towards Ludwig, and opened his mouth. The first syllable was already on his tongue, a question he had longed to ask all summer, but their moment was roughly interrupted by Alfred Jones being jostled into the lockers not too far from them.

Feliciano snapped back onto his heals, head swivelling around, startled. Ludwig breathed out the breath he’d been holding, confused by what that moment had meant and annoyed that it had been broken.

“Ah! Morning Feli, Ludwig!” Alfred shouted, pushing one of his football buddies in retaliation. “Didn’t see you there. Had a nice summer?”

“It was great!” Feliciano said cheerfully, having overcome his surprise quickly, and launched in a detailed description only someone as equally fast-paced and scatterbrained as Feliciano could follow, like Alfred.

Ludwig tuned their babbling out, too worried that he might need to see the school physician this early in the morning for heart palpitations. Before he could make a decision as to whether he actually should, the first bell rang and he quickly excused himself from Feliciano to attend class.

Feliciano seemed somewhat startled by Ludwig’s quick escape and had run to catch him by the sleeve. Looking up at him with his bright, innocent eyes, he asked, “I’ll see you at lunch?”

Ludwig nodded, finding his throat too dry to answer. Feliciano smiled again and turned back to Alfred, the two heading off towards whatever class they had together.

Ludwig had to wonder whether he could live through the year like this.

***

Ludwig threw himself into his classes, erasing thoughts of cute Italians and heart diseases from his mind for the time being. He would be taking more AP classes this year, so as the first lessons flew by and Ludwig was immediately swamped with work, he figured it should all be enough distraction from feelings and stuff .

He told himself that as he steeled himself for lunch.

Feliciano waved him over from across the room, already having seated himself at their usual table in the corner. Surprisingly, Kiku wasn’t there yet and Ludwig almost dreaded being alone with Feliciano, stupid as it was.

“Ludwig, Ludwig!” Feliciano was practically bouncing in his seat. “Did you bring lunch? I brought pasta; I’ll exchange some pasta for one of those delicious sandwiches you sometimes bring. Kiku said he brought one of his cute bento again. I wish I had the energy to make something like that every day. I bet you could do it, though, Ludwig.”

“I doubt it’d be very cute if I’d make it, Feliciano,” Ludwig said, shaking his head lightly. Feliciano’s ability to just talk somehow still astounded him sometimes.

“Don’t be silly, Ludwig. I’d definitely cute if you’d make it!” Feliciano smiled broadly. “We should make them at Kiku’s place again sometime!”

“Let’s first ask Kiku about that before making appointments, all right?”

Feliciano hummed. He poked mindlessly at his pasta, a thoughtful expression on his face. It was so unfamiliar that Ludwig was about to ask whether he was all right. The words caught in his throat when Feliciano looked up suddenly, eyes wide and earnest.

“Ludwig,” Feliciano said, then hesitated.

“Yes?” Ludwig managed to prompt, clearing his throat almost nervously.

“Well, I was wondering, you see, whether you, um—” Feliciano laughed nervously. “Gosh, I’m never certain about—and you never—so I wasn’t sure—but even Alfred said I should just—and then this morning I was about to, but you left really quickly so I didn’t get the chance.”

“What is it, Feliciano?” Ludwig interrupted gently. He was having difficulty following Feliciano’s broken sentences.

Feliciano breathed deeply, wringing his hands in a familiar nervous habit. “Would you like to, um, maybe, only if you have time, because I know how busy you like to be with school…” He glanced up at Ludwig, his eyes so wide and pretty. “Go to the gardens with me!” he blurted out.

Ludwig blinked slowly. “The gardens?”

Feliciano almost fell out of his chair in his haste as he reached for his bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He smoothed it out on the table and shoved it towards Ludwig.

It was a flyer promoting the opening of a new botanical garden in the next town over. The date printed on it was from a month or so ago, so Feliciano must have held onto it for quite some time now.

Ludwig glanced up, finding Feliciano biting his lip and fidgeting. His hopeful gaze met Ludwig’s and for a moment Ludwig held the hope that this would be more than just a trip with friends. Then he glanced back at the flyer and shook himself.

“I, well—” Ludwig cleared his throat, placing the flyer back on the table. “I would like to go, but—” he broke off immediately as he saw Feliciano’s face fall and scrambled to rectify. “W-what I mean to say is, how would we get there? Neither you nor I have a car, right?”

“Oh!” Feliciano grinned brightly. “Actually, Lovino could drop us off this weekend, because he has this exhibition thing going on somewhere there in the area, so there’d be no problem.”

“And, uh,” Ludwig paused. He wasn’t sure how to phrase this without sounding desperate. “Just, um, you and… I mean, will you be asking…”

Ludwig trailed off. Feliciano tilted his head in confusion. Before either could continue to speak, Kiku appeared, slightly winded.

“Good afternoon,” he said, smiling slightly as he pulled back a chair. He glanced between Feliciano and Ludwig, then looked at the poster, a look of realisation dawning on his face. “Oh. I’m sorry. Did I interrupt?”

“Ah, nope!” Feliciano said quickly, snatching the poster back. “Just finished! Anyway, how are you, Kiku? You shushed me during English, so you never told me how your holiday was.”

Kiku replied slowly, glancing somewhat warily at Feliciano. “Well. It was great. We visited many places in Kyoto, but I spent a lot of time indoors near the AC with Pochi as well. It was rather muggy after all. How was Italy?”

As Feliciano regaled his tales of Italy, which mostly consisted of gossip of which relative had done what scandalous thing this year, Ludwig mind started to wander back to their earlier conversation. He still wasn’t sure what it meant. Was it just him and Feliciano? Certainly it was strange Feliciano had stuffed the paper haphazardly back into his bag. Should Ludwig ask Kiku then?

“Ludwig?”

He startled from his thoughts and looked guiltily back up at his friends. “Ah, um, sorry. What was that?”

“How was your holiday, Ludwig?” Kiku repeated, a strangely knowing look in his eyes. Sometimes Ludwig had to wonder whether he could read minds. (He was loath to admit that he would prefer that over the idea that he was simply very easy to read).

“Ah, right. It was fine. Spent most of my time at dad’s place. Only went one week to mom’s, but she has a new boyfriend again so it wasn’t particularly great. Grandfather did take Gilbert and I on a weekend trip to the beach. It is no Italy or Japan, but it was fun nonetheless.”

Feliciano sighed. “Sometimes that’s nicer, though, staying close to home. Planes are such a hassle. Checking in baggage takes forever and somehow I always forget something in my pockets, so I get pulled aside.”

Kiku nodded in agreement. “Just the amount of people generally leaves me breathless, and that’s just the airport. Thirteen hours of flight in a metal box is not my favourite way to spend a day.”

“You know what? After next year we should just go on holiday with the three of us,” Feliciano said. “We could leave immediately after graduation and go on a road trip or fly out to Europe or Asia. Oh, let’s go to Australia too. Although, maybe not, because they have all these creepy, deadly things. Let’s go to New Zealand instead.”

Ludwig couldn’t help but smile as Feliciano rambled on about all the places he wanted to go. “And I suppose we go to Italy then, too. Meet all your relatives, tour Rome, eat pasta on the beach and watch the sun set over the Alps.”

Feliciano gasped, excitedly bouncing in his chair. “Oh, yes! And then we go to Germany and we’ll go to the forests, get lost in creepy castles, tour Berlin and watch the jellyfish in the ocean! And then we take the next flight to Japan and we can go to the shrines, tour Kyoto and Tokyo, take the ferry to Okinawa and swim in the blue waters there!”

“That’s a lot to do in just one summer,” Kiku said, smiling slightly. “We should plan well.”

Feliciano’s eyes positively sparkled. Ludwig could almost see the stars. “Between the three of us, I’m sure we could manage.”

“You mean, between me and Kiku, and then you will derail the entire schedule within the first three days, because you saw an interesting sign.”

“That was only one time, Ludwig!”

“I remember it took us three hours to find that… obscure landmark. I don’t even remember what it was supposed to be.” Kiku chuckled. “I suppose we should be glad it was just us three. Imagine if Lovino or Gilbert had been around.”

Gott , we would have been walking home after thirty minutes.” Ludwig sighed, running a tired hand through his hair at the mere thought.

“With Gilbert it would probably be voluntarily too,” Feliciano said. “He sings awfully.”

“Didn’t Lovino almost throw us out last time because of your singing?” Kiku asked.

“No. That was because of… uh,” Feliciano trailed off, his eyes darting quickly to Ludwig before turning red. “That was because of something completely unrelated.”

Kiku sent Feliciano a look, caught somewhere between exasperation and downright pity. Ludwig, confused as he was, let it slide. He hadn’t understood it then and he doubted he would now.

They ate in silence for a bit, but Feliciano soon filled the air with chatter again. Even if Ludwig and Kiku gave minimal replies, the thought that they listened were good enough for him.

When lunch was over and they once again had to split up for classes, Feliciano grabbed Ludwig’s sleeve, pulled him down to his level and whispered in his ear. Ludwig had to suppress the chills it sent down his spine.

“Let’s make it Saturday at eleven, okay? Lovino and I’ll come pick you up.” He leant back a bit to watch Ludwig nod dumbly, then broke into a blinding smile. “It’s a date then,” he said softly and dashed off.

Ludwig had to lean against the wall for support, his hand clutching his chest. He knew that one of these days Feliciano would cause him an aneurysm, but he hadn’t expected it to be in this fashion.

If his brother ever got wind of this, by God, Ludwig would have to change his name and move countries.

***

The week blurred by. Ludwig really took to his word and threw himself into his schoolwork. If he slowed down and allowed room for thinking, he was certain he would explode.

A date. Feliciano had called it a date. If he had meant it in the date date manner, Ludwig didn’t dare hope.

Oh, but how he hoped .

He wanted it to be a date date so badly. It was ridiculous. He shouldn’t want it that badly. He should be fine with them being friends. He was fine with them being friends. It was just that it would be great if they could be more, too.

Ludwig sighed and leant back in his chair. He had taken refuge in the library in an attempt to block out the thoughts. It might also be an escape from Feliciano, because Ludwig honestly didn’t think he could spend more than three minutes in the Italian’s company without the feeling his head might explode and his heart might burst. It wasn’t his proudest moment, but he really was starting to believe this crush thing was detrimental to his health.

He was even dreading lunch breaks, something he had been unable to weasel his way out of. He had tried once, but the look in Feliciano’s eyes had stopped him and he now spent most of lunch staring intently at his sandwich as he let Feliciano and Kiku do the talking. Feliciano tried to involve him in the conversation, but all Ludwig could manage at most were one-word replies.

He felt bad about it, but he really didn’t know how to handle his emotion at the moment. He never knew. “It is the curse of the Beilschmidts,” Gilbert had once joked, but Ludwig had heard the pain and truth laced in his brother’s voice. Their parents had never known how to handle them, not when married, not now they were divorced. Gilbert pretended he didn’t need or have emotions, bottling everything up until one night he broke and had a fight with their mother. She had disowned him; Gilbert pretended she didn’t exist.

Ludwig had asked him once if he regretted it. Gilbert had looked at him blankly.

“Not the argument,” he had said. “No, I still believe what I said was the right thing. But sometimes I wish I hadn’t used the words I used. She didn’t deserve the words I used.”

“Will you ever talk to her again?” Ludwig had asked, almost foolishly.

Gilbert had looked at him, then stared wistfully out of the window and spoken softly, “I don’t think she’d let me, Ludwig.”

Ludwig hadn’t asked any more after that. He didn’t mention it to his mother either, who he still had to visit every once in a while, as unpleasant as it was to make small talk with whatever man she was going out with at the moment. Ludwig always felt as if he were an annoyance to them, cutting in their time with his mother. He knew she thought so too sometimes. She had never been a very good mother. It was the reason why she hadn’t fought their father’s claim on sole custody.

And while perhaps their father was the better parent, he lacked as severely as his sons in the emotions department. He also liked to keep everything to himself, but unlike with Gilbert they stayed inside until probably the day he died. In a way Ludwig could relate. In a way he really didn’t want to.

As the lunch bell rang, Ludwig reluctantly left his refuge. At least it was already Friday. It also meant it was almost Saturday. Ludwig quickly erased that from his mind lest he start hoping again.

Kiku caught him by the arm just before he stepped into the cantina and pulled him aside.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Ludwig frowned. Strange question. “Yes? Why wouldn’t I be? Are you okay?”

Kiku stared at him a little longer. “Yes, I am okay. You are not. You’ve been avoiding Feliciano.”

Ludwig bit the inside of his cheek and glanced away. He didn’t bother to deny it. It was no use. Kiku wasn’t stupid.

“I just don’t know what to do, Kiku,” Ludwig sighed. “I don’t know how to deal with…” He gestured vaguely. He figured Kiku would understand.

“With what?”

Apparently not.

“Well, you know… Emotions. Feelings,” Ludwig mumbled.

“Feelings,” Kiku echoed, looking for a clear explanation. When Ludwig didn’t clarify, he went on. “Feelings… for Feliciano?”

Ludwig nodded. What was the use of denying it? Kiku would know either way.

Kiku was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice held some sort of weight and Ludwig had the tiny suspicion that Kiku had anticipated this. “Are you going to tell Feli?”

Ludwig suppressed the urge to scoff. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

“Why not?”

Yeah, why not, Ludwig?

He ignored the thought, which sounded suspiciously like Gilbert, and tried to explain. “We’re friends, Kiku. I don’t want to ruin our friendship over something as silly as my stupid feelings. Our friendship is one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I don’t want to lose it.”

“Do you really think something as silly as that would make Feli reconsider your friendship?” Kiku asked, sounding far too wise and reasonable.

“I don’t really want to find out.”

Kiku observed him for a moment, eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Ludwig clasped his hands to stop himself from fidgeting under the scrutiny.

“You know, he could like you back also,” Kiku said then and Ludwig almost felt sugar punched by the simple idea.

“He likes girls,” Ludwig dismissed and his gut clenched uncomfortably.

“He likes to flirt with girls. He’s never actually had a girlfriend before,” Kiku said. “Besides, there’s more than two options in the sexuality department, Ludwig.”

Ludwig groaned. He was very much aware of that, thanks to one of Francis’s many, not-so-wonderful “lessons” he liked to toss into Ludwig’s general direction every now and again, including all sorts of innuendos and sex tips that Ludwig could just not deal with.

With this is mind, he really, really didn’t want to have this talk again with Kiku of all people. (Although, honestly, of all people, Ludwig would prefer to talk this over with Kiku. Just not under the current circumstances and while standing right outside of the cantina doors with approximately a third of the high school population inside).

“Look, it’s just not going to happen, Kiku. Can we please drop this and have lunch? You know how Feliciano gets when we leave him alone for too long.” He opted for instead, hoping that Kiku would go along with the blatant guilt trip.

Kiku gave him an inscrutable look and for a second Ludwig thought he would refuse, but then Kiku nodded slowly and gestured for them to go. Ludwig had never been happier to set foot in the loud cantina. They made their way over to Feliciano, who was seated at their usual table and was chatting amicably with Alfred. When he noticed them coming over, his face lit up with an even brighter smile.

“Ludwig, Kiku!” he said excitedly. “What took you so long?”

“We were caught up in talking,” Kiku said, nodding politely at Alfred. “I recently read an interesting novel and I had to talk to Ludwig about it.”

Ludwig sent him a grateful look. Sometimes Kiku could be too decent for anyone’s sake.

Feliciano nodded slowly and glanced at Ludwig. All Ludwig could manage was a nervous smile that probably came out more like a grimace by the looks of the small frown that crinkled Feliciano’s forehead. That was wrong. Feliciano wasn’t supposed to frown.

“Anyway,” Ludwig said, slightly too loud. “What are you doing here, Alfred?”

Alfred had seemed somewhat confused by the strange tension going on between the trio and blinked stupidly for a moment or two as he processed he was being addressed. “Oh,” he said. “Well, I figured I’d keep Feli some company since he was alone. I also had to ask him something.”

“Ask him what?” Kiku prompted. He missed the panicked look Feliciano shot Alfred’s way.

“Uh, well, something about…” Alfred trailed off and shared some more looks with Feliciano before finishing somewhat uncertainly, “About Arthur.”

“Arthur?” Ludwig prompted, staring from Feliciano to Alfred.

“Yeah. You know, Arthur. Arthur Kirkland. British, bushy eyebrows, complains a lot, hates public displays of affection, super cute—”

“I know who Arthur is, Alfred,” Ludwig said, exasperated. He heard Feliciano chuckle softly.

“Then why’d you ask?”

Ludwig sighed. He didn’t know why he bothered sometimes. “Just… forget it, Alfred.”

“Right.” Alfred shot him a confused look, but continued, “Anyway. I, uh, needed some advice. On Arthur. He’s, uh… He’s been… distant.” The way Alfred said it made it sound more like a question.

“Distant?”

“Yeah. Um.” Alfred laughed somewhat nervously and glanced past Ludwig’s shoulder. “Oh! Hey, would you look at that. I’m being called over by, uh, David. Yes, David! So, um, I’m gonna go now and, er, thanks, Feli, for your advice. Bye now!”

Alfred got up quickly and headed into the cantina mass. Ludwig watched him settle at the football table, a mile away from David. When he turned back around, he found Feliciano staring at the table. Kiku just looked exasperated. Ludwig wasn’t sure why.

“So, uh…” Ludwig started, glancing between his friends. Sometimes he really wished he was more socially capable.

“Actually,” Kiku said suddenly and stood up. “I just realised I had to do something for the Student Council. I’ll catch you in English, Feli. See you later, Ludwig.”

Before he left, he shot both Feliciano and Ludwig pointed looks. Feliciano looked back wide-eyed; Ludwig had to stop from groaning.

The silence Kiku left was insanely awkward. Ludwig really didn’t know what to do. Feliciano was normally the one to fill the air with chatter. It was strange he wasn’t.

“Are you okay, Feliciano?” Ludwig forced out. Anything to just break the awful silence.

Feliciano looked up slowly. He looked so small and insecure with the way his hair fell across his eyes. Ludwig had to keep from reaching out and brushing it aside. He wanted to do it so badly.

“Are you mad at me, Ludwig?”

The question startled him. “M-mad?”

Feliciano breathed out, watching Ludwig almost warily, almost as if he was scared, and it made Ludwig’s heart clench uncomfortably. Feliciano shouldn’t be scared, especially not of him. Slowly, Feliciano said, “Well, you’ve been kinda… distant?”

Distant again. Ludwig had a tiny suspicion.

“Like Arthur, distant?”

Feliciano’s eyes darted to Alfred’s table. “No.”

“Feliciano…”

“Okay, so maybe I talked to Alfred about it,” Feliciano said quickly, desperately. “Kiku wouldn’t hear it anymore and I didn’t know how to talk to you about it, because, I mean, you’re the one being distant, so I was left with Alfred.”

Ludwig touched his forehead briefly. “All right. Okay. I’m sorry I’ve been so… distant.”

“So you were being distant?”

Ludwig sighed and glanced around the loud cantina quickly. “I mean, I guess? Not on purpose.”

“Does it have to do with Saturday?” Feliciano asked in a tiny voice.

“Sort of,” Ludwig mumbled. He picked at his vest, not quite daring to look at Feliciano. “I was a bit nervous, so I wasn’t sure how to act.”

“You were nervous?” Feliciano frowned. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Ludwig lied. He knew perfectly damn well why he was nervous.

Feliciano was studying him, eyes softening and a smile playing at his lips. “Sometimes you’re the silly one, Ludwig.”

“Oh?” Ludwig could feel his own lips curling upwards. Only Feliciano could make him smile so easily.

They stared at each other, silent and content. Ludwig was certain he could look at Feliciano all day like this. The way his long lashes fluttered as he blinked, how his eyes would glimmer between a shade of brown and gold, how his pink lips pulled away from white teeth in a bright smile. Ludwig wanted to touch him so badly, to stroke those cheeks and brush the hair from his eyes. He wanted to kiss him.

A bag was heavily swung unto the table, once more breaking the moment that had been building. Ludwig didn’t want to hope as to where it had built towards. Instead, he tore his eyes away from Feliciano’s and glanced up at the intruder. Lovino scowled back.

“Feli,” he said, turning his scowl towards his brother. “A word?”

Fratello ,” Feliciano whined.

Lovino ignored him. “Now, Feliciano.” He turned around and strode away without another backward glance.

Feliciano got up reluctantly. He hesitated for a moment, glancing at Ludwig. “Tomorrow is still okay, right?”

“Yes.”

Feliciano grinned broadly, unfazed by Lovino shouting his name from the other side of the cantina with the message to “hurry the fuck up!”

Ludwig nodded towards the voice. “You should probably go. Before we lose our ride.”

“Probably, yes.” Feliciano laughed.

He still didn’t move however, so Ludwig quirked an eyebrow. Feliciano then raised a somewhat shaky hand and reached towards Ludwig’s hair, hesitating only briefly before he smoothed down a flyaway quickly. He breathed a chuckle before spinning around and practically sprinting across the cantina to catch up with his older brother.

Ludwig sat frozen, unable to comprehend what had just occurred. He had to have imagined that. There was no way that had just happened on this plane of existence. Right?

Right?

***

Ludwig got up at 6.30 am that Saturday. He had tossed and turned all night, his stomach twisted in uncomfortable knots, and eventually gave up all together. He had stared at the ceiling until his alarm blared, contemplating whatever part of evolution had thought it a good idea to bring emotions and conscious thought into play.

Now that he was up, however, and standing in front of his closet, he was faced with a dilemma. A dilemma he had never thought he would ever have in his life.

What in the world should he wear to his and Feliciano’s “date”?

Questionable connotations aside, he really didn’t want to look like an old grandpa. He wanted to impress Feliciano, no matter how unlikely that was as his closet consisted mostly of off brand sweater vests while Feliciano's consisted of Gucci shirts that had no business being as expensive as they were.

Eventually he settled on a nice woolen sweater that he pulled on over a dress shirt, smoothing out the collar and tucking the ends in his nicest pants. He combed his hair back, took a while to decide whether he would wear contacts or glasses (contacts, because the glasses would fog over in the warm garden), clasped on his watch, and picked his slightly scuffed dress shoes.

“Hey, West, have you seen my…” Gilbert trailed off as he barged into his room and gave Ludwig a one-over, eyes darting to the digital clock on the nightstand. “Dude, don’t tell me you just woke up? Is it… is it finally the day you slept in?” He faked a sniff and pinked away a nonexistent tear. “I am so proud of you, Brüder .”

Ludwig rolled his eyes. “No, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’ve been up for…” He stared at the numbers on the clock, not quite believing his eyes. “Two and a half hours…”

Gilbert picked up on his confusion and took a quick look around the room to deduce why his brother had broken his rigorous wake-up regime. “Doing what?”

“Getting dressed.” Ludwig was reluctant to admit.

Gilbert paused. “You took three hours getting dressed?”

“Two and a half. And yes.”

Gilbert actually looked impressed, leaning in the doorframe to prevent Ludwig from escaping. “Oh? Going on a date?”

Ludwig could feel the heat creeping up his neck and colouring his ears. Before he could even figure out how to respond to that Gilbert already barrelled on.

“Oh my God, you are. Finally found the balls to ask Feli out then?”

Ludwig grumbled something about assumptions, but Gilbert prompted him further with a “Well?”

“Not exactly,” Ludwig said slowly, sighing. “I don’t even think it’s really a date.”

Gilbert gestured for him to continue and he did so reluctantly.

“He kind of asked me to go to these botanical gardens and I guess it is with just the two of us, but really I have no expectations even if Feliciano was the one to call it ‘a date’ and—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Gilbert said quickly, stepping into the room and grasping Ludwig’s shoulders. “Hold it right there. Feli asked you out and called it a date and you’re still doing this whole denial thing?”

“This is Feliciano we’re talking about, Gilbert. He kisses everyone.”

“Ludwig, I’m gonna be straight with you here. I mean, ya know, as straight as either of us can call ourselves anyway.” Ludwig rolled his eyes, but Gilbert pressed on. “Feli likes you, Ludwig. Like,  like like.”

Ludwig stared dumbly at him. Gilbert dropped his hands and shook his head. “Sometimes, Ludwig,” he said exasperated. “Just, for the love of all that’s holy, you ask him to be your boo this afternoon, you hear?”

Gilbert clapped him on the shoulder, gave him a stern look that was completely diminished by the grin that spread on his face moments later, and backed out of the door while making finger gun motions.

Ludwig sometimes really wondered how they were related.

***

Breakfast was just Ludwig. Gilbert had sprinted out the door moments before as Francis and Antonio had stood honking in the driveway, preventing the chance of another noise complaint from the neighbours, and their father had left even earlier for work. Ludwig didn’t mind. The less interrogations, the better.

He sat quietly at the kitchen table, finding his appetite near nonexistent, but forced down bites anyway. All he could think about were Gilbert’s words.

Like, like like.

Could that possibly be true? How could Gilbert know anyway? Via Antonio, via Lovino from Feliciano? Was that even valid sourcing? That was, what, a tertiary source? Untrustworthy. Could have been tampered with along the way.

Ludwig glanced at the clock hanging next to the window. The thin pointers informed him that it was 10.44. That left him with sixteen minutes to wonder whether it was easier to just move to Chile and become an Alpaca herder. Probably thirty minutes more considering this was a combination of both Vargas brothers. Feliciano was generally more punctual nowadays, but Ludwig knew for a fact that Lovino would take five hours getting ready before he would even set a foot outside the bathroom.

It’s a date then.

Ludwig slammed his hand on the table, his other nearly strangling the sandwich he was holding.

A date. Ludwig wasn’t even sure he considered this a date. While he had spent an embarrassing amount of time on getting dressed, and he did feel insanely queasy, it all depended on Feliciano as to whether it actually was something along those lines.

And even if Feliciano considered this a date, if Kiku’s pointed looks held the meaning he didn’t want to believe, if Gilbert’s via-via words were actually true, then what would happen today? What did a date entail? Oh God, Ludwig hadn’t done any prepatorial reading. He should have done some research.

The doorbell rang and Ludwig almost knocked over the table in his haste to get up and away from his own thoughts. Then he froze, because who else could be at the door but Feliciano. Finally, he straight out panicked, because really, he wasn’t ready to face whatever this maybe-date was.

The bell rang again and Ludwig forced himself to pocket his phone and move to the front door. He opened it stiffly.

Feliciano smiled as brightly as ever, excitedly bouncing on his heels. He was bundled up in his woolen coat, a red scarf tied meticulously around his neck. His hair was brushed into its usual style with the ends curling up slightly.

“Hey,” he chirped, his voice bright. It soothed Ludwig’s nerves a little.

Ludwig had to clear his throat before he managed a weak reply. “H-hey.”

They stood there, motionless, for a while, Ludwig staring dumbly while Feliciano was looking him up and down. Eventually their eyes met again. Feliciano let out a breathy laugh and spoke softly, a light blush dusting his cheeks.

“You look ha—”

A car honked obnoxiously and once again Ludwig had to tear his gaze away from Feliciano to find Lovino scowling at him from the car parked in the driveway. He honked once more to drive his point home.

Feliciano pulled a face, twisting back around to Ludwig. “Sorry. He’s… in a bad mood.”

Ludwig refrained from commenting on that, because really, when wasn’t Lovino, and found the strength to turn around and grab his coat, tugging it on as Feliciano led him to the car.

“Good morning, Lovino,” Ludwig said, as he fell into the back seat and squeezed his legs in the small space available behind Lovino’s chair.

Lovino narrowed his eyes, reflected in the rear-view mirror. “Yeah, well, you’re damn lucky, you know. If it weren’t for Feli’s stupid cr—” Lovino stopped his angry muttering when Feliciano opened the passenger door and smiled at them as he fell into his seat.

“Okay. Ground rules,” Lovino continued louder and slapped Feliciano’s hand away from the radio. “One. Don’t touch the fucking radio if you want to get to your garden in one piece, all right? My car, my choice of radio station. Two. Not a word. Not a single word. Not about mundane stuff, not about school, and definitely not about my driving. Nothing, nada, zilch. Comprende ?”

Ludwig and Feliciano nodded dutifully, so Lovino turned on the ignition and reversed out of the driveway.

At first Lovino drove slowly as he searched for the right way to go, and Ludwig almost held hope for Lovino’s driving skills, but as soon as they made their way onto the highway Lovino was quick to dismiss the speed limit as a suggestion and Ludwig’s hopes were once more brutally shot down. Ludwig honestly couldn’t entirely bring himself to care, nor did he feel like testing the waters on rule number two. He did, however, reach for the little handle above the door and started squeezing the life out of it as Lovino swerved to the left to overtake a slower car.

He was also well aware of Feliciano occasionally glancing backwards, but all he had managed was his mouth twitching slightly in return to Feliciano’s wonderful smiles. One time he had caught Feliciano opening his mouth to say something, but Lovino shot him one look and it snapped shut again, leaving Feliciano to stare ruefully at his hands.

It took them forty minutes of slowly suffocating silence before Lovino took the exit off the highway. There was a bright banner advertising the botanical garden that lead them unto a quaint path lined with autumn-coloured trees. Soon enough the large stone building came into view, sunlight reflecting off of the many windows.

The gravel crunched underneath the tires as Lovino parked, leaving the motor on.

Ludwig couldn’t scramble out of the car faster, feet slipping slightly on the loose stones. Feliciano had already walked around the car and stood in front of Lovino’s rolled down window.

“So,” Lovino said, reaching for his pocket and pulling out his wallet. He plucked out a couple of bills and shoved them towards Feliciano. “Grandpa gave me these to give to you, so you can call a taxi for when you go home.”

“Aren’t you going home?” Feliciano asked as he took the bills from Lovino, fingering the paper gently.

Lovino blushed, then coughed to cover it up. “I, uh, won’t, no. I’m going to Antonio after, so… You know.” He coughed again and scratched his cheek.

“Ah, really?” Feliciano smiled almost slyly, leaning forward. “Are you going to paint him again?”

Lovino narrowed his eyes, glaring at Feliciano for a moment. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said lowly, aggressively putting the car into drive.

Ludwig tugged Feliciano aside as gravel spit out from under the wheels and Lovino drove off without another word. They watched the car until it turned a corner and Feliciano started chuckling softly.

It was then that Ludwig realised that it was only the two of them now. No older brothers, no Kiku or Alfred, just Feliciano and him. All his nerves came flooding back and he reached up to fiddle with his scarf. Feliciano seemed to notice a change in demeanour and glanced up.

“Ludwig?”

Oh God, Ludwig had no clue what to do. Was he supposed to ask for clarification right now? Was he supposed to act like he always acted? Did he even know how he normally acted?

A gentle tug on the sleeve of his coat brought him back down to Earth and he glanced up at Feliciano standing so, so very close. He should probably step back, but he wasn’t sure if he could. Instead, he cleared his throat and gestured vaguely towards the building behind them. “We should probably go inside then, right?” He didn’t like the way his voice seemed to have raised an octave.

Feliciano glanced fleetingly at the building and grasped Ludwig’s sleeve a little tighter lest he would try to escape. “Yes, we should, but…” he hesitated and glanced down at where he held onto Ludwig. He seemed to consider something. “Well, I was wondering…” he laughed nervously, then let go of Ludwig’s sleeve. He swung his hands behind his back and smiled, although even Ludwig could see it was a little forced. “A-actually, never mind that. We should go inside.”

“Feliciano,” Ludwig started, but Feliciano brushed past him already, skipping a few paces ahead before glancing back.

“Come, come, Ludwig,” he said. “Lots of things to see, no?”

Ludwig stared at him for a moment before sighing and following after Feliciano, who regained a bounciness in his step. They stepped inside through huge glass doors and were immediately hailed to the ticket counter by a friendly-looking woman, who smiled kindly at them.

Ludwig grabbed Feliciano’s elbow almost unthinkingly, forcing him to slow down so Ludwig could step in front. “I’ll pay,” he said softly and walked briskly up to the counter as Feliciano meandered behind. He didn’t want to check the Italian’s reaction.

The lady smiled almost knowingly as he meekly asked for two tickets. His hands shook lightly as he handed her the money, but she was nothing but pleasant and gestured for them to continue on. They did and it wasn’t until just before the little gates that Ludwig turned around to hand Feliciano his ticket.

He swallowed thickly as their fingers brushed and it was just so stupid, because it was nothing more than a simple touch. It shouldn’t have this effect on him. He shouldn’t be blushing this fiercely.

Feliciano, for his part, seemed almost distracted, his fingers lingering on Ludwig’s a moment too long for it not to be strange. Ludwig looked at him, but Feliciano very deliberately didn’t look back, sliding his ticket from Ludwig’s fingers and walking through the gates, over to the entrance of the garden.

Ludwig followed mutely. Something was bothering Feliciano, that much was obvious. It must have something to do with what he had wanted to ask  earlier. He probably should…

Three large step and he caught up with Feliciano at the door, but the words caught in his throat as he saw the view before him. He heard Feliciano’s sharp intake of air and the two stood dumbly in the door opening for a bit.

The sight overtook his senses first. A nice stone path led them into what could only be described as a jungle. Bushes, plants, flowers, trees trailed the path, hugging the sides of a low railing. So much green interchanged with brown and orange and yellow and white; it was stunning.

And then there was the smell . There were so many mashed together: sweet, spicy, sultry, soapy, downright earthly; they mixed and swelled, settling like a heavy blanket around him.

Ludwig took a deep breath, closing his eyes a moment and letting his mind calm down. Anxiety, queasiness, rushed thoughts, it all settled down in that moment he took to compose himself. When he opened his eyes again, his breathing came easier and he wondered why he had been so nervous to begin with. Date or no date, this was a day out with Feliciano. It was supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful.

He glanced towards Feliciano and found him already looking at him, eyes bright and wonderful yet so serious. Taking a deep breath, Ludwig decided to take a chance and slipped his hand around Feliciano’s.

Feliciano gasped, eyes darting to their linked hands immediately. Hesitantly, he glanced back. “Ludwig?”

Ludwig didn’t think he could explain himself even if he tried, so he just tugged gently and led Feliciano into the jungle.

It was even more overwhelming after they lost sight of the door. Green was all encompassing and the smells made Ludwig a little woozy, but perhaps that was also because Feliciano was allowing him to hold his hand.

They ambled along the path, Feliciano sometimes pulling them to a stop as he silently admired the flowers. The quiet was somewhat unnerving, but for once Feliciano looked as if he had nothing to say.

At some point Feliciano’s hand slipped from Ludwig’s as he excitedly ran up the path to what could only be described as an assault of colour. Flowers in all the colours Ludwig could name and even more he could not spread out in front of them. Ludwig stopped and stared, trying to take it all in, but there was just too much.

“Look, Ludwig,” Feliciano said, pointing to… something within the cluster of flowers. “So pretty, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Ludwig breathed, but he wasn’t exactly looking at the flowers.

Feliciano didn’t seem to notice Ludwig’s sudden lack of oxygen, instead his hands closed around the banister, leaning forward as he took in the scenery. And as Ludwig observed Feliciano from behind, he couldn’t help but think that the Italian belonged there, surrounded by flowers and colour. It suited him.

Then Feliciano glanced back, and his brown eyes glinted gold in the filtered light. He held out his hand and Ludwig walked almost automatically, grasping it with quivering fingers. Feliciano laughed as he intertwined their fingers, squeezing lightly as if to check whether Ludwig’s were really there.

Ludwig squeezed back and there was nothing that could stop the smile on his face. Feliciano reached out with his free hand and traced his jaw softly, gently guiding Ludwig’s head down. He couldn’t think; he could hardly breathe.

When Feliciano pressed his lips to his, soft, sweet and chaste, the world could have probably ended right then and there and Ludwig wouldn’t have noticed.

He was fairly sure his brain was experiencing a critical error. How was one supposed to breathe again?

But Feliciano’s hand was still on his cheek, grounding him to this plane of existence. This was real and true and, oh, Ludwig was so very lost in his eyes. He was falling and his mind was wrapped in fuzzy disbelief and he still couldn’t quite wrap his mind aorund it.

“I like you, Ludwig,” Feliciano said, his voice strong and sincere and beautiful.

Ludwig stammered and was acutely aware of the blush that set his face, ears, neck, on fire. Feliciano just smiled, his own cheeks dusted by the prettiest pink.

Feliciano’s fingers were still moving along his jaw, moving up towards his ear, tracing the shell, before he so carefully thread them through Ludwig’s hair, and it was just too much. Ludwig let his head dip down and kissed Feliciano. Hungrily, perhaps a little forceful, but God, Ludwig had craved this. He needed this.

Their teeth knocked together when Feliciano opened his mouth, startling both. Ludwig hastily pulled back, concerned he was going to lose a tooth.

“Sorry,” Ludwig muttered, but Feliciano just laughed.

“That’s okay, Ludwig,” he said, swinging their hands together happily. Then he cheekily added, “I guess we just need practice.”

Ludwig wasn’t sure whether his face could stand the amount of blood collected in his cheeks.

“Practice,” he stammered.

Feliciano’s eyes were bright, a teasing glint in them. He hummed as he guided Ludwig’s head down once more and pecked him on the lips. “Something like that.”

Ludwig breathed deeply and he realised he needed a little bit of space or he might just actually combust. He took a step back, squeezing Feliciano’s hand to make sure he wouldn’t take it the wrong way, and looked out towards the flowers.

They stood like that for a while until Ludwig felt a calm settle over his heart. He was still blushing; he doubted he could make it stop for as long as he was near Feliciano, but at least he could breathe normally again.

“So,” Ludwig started, but choked on the words. “Er, well, I…” He made the mistake of glancing at Feliciano, who was staring at him as if he were the most interesting thing in the world. He felt his face heat up again.

“Yes, Ludwig?” Feliciano prompted softly.

Oh God, he just had to do it then, right? Just blurt it out. Feliciano had already said it, so he might as well…

Ludwig cleared his throat and turned to look at Feliciano. That might have been a mistake, because the words died somewhere in his throat as he gazed into Feliciano’s beautiful eyes, light brown and twinkling. A chuckle escaped Feliciano’s lips and reached with his free hand to cover it up. That wouldn’t do, so Ludwig grabbed it and pulled it back down, holding tightly onto it.

“I like you… too,” he managed.

Feliciano gasped softly, leaning in closer. He was smiling so brightly now and Ludwig couldn’t resist bending down a little and giving him a soft kiss. Feliciano smiled possibly even more after he pulled back.

“Do you, um,” Ludwig barrelled on, squeezing Feliciano’s hands more for some sort of courage. “Would you like to—” He had no idea how to ask. “To… to be my, um—” He panicked slightly and all his brain could provide were his brother’s words. “…Boo,” he finished lamely and let go of Feliciano’s hands to bury his head in shame.

Meanwhile, Feliciano laughed, but it was cheerful and friendly. He reached up gently to pull Ludwig’s hands away from his face, eyes darting around quickly to take in Ludwig miserably embarrassed face and smiling at Ludwig’s obvious mortification.

“Yes, I’d love to be,” he said softly.

Ludwig stared at him for a moment, then breathed out and felt a smile tug at his lips. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Feliciano breathed and kissed Ludwig again, slower and more deliberate.

Ludwig let himself be swept away, holding Feliciano, kissing back. He honestly couldn’t believe he had managed to go so long without having Feliciano in his arms. And he certainly wasn’t inclined to let go any time soon.