Their Stands were weak.
On top of having next to no durability, Squalo’s Clash couldn’t teleport more than 2 or 3 meters away from its position at any given moment, and Tiziano’s Talking Head had no combative ability whatsoever.
But it was exactly because of the weak nature of their stands, Tiziano knew, that they’d been chosen by the Boss to be part of his elite guard squad.
Tiziano was sure that the Boss must have an incredibly powerful Stand, and it was not power that he needed from his personal guard; what the Boss prized above all else was his anonymity, and it was his identity that he needed his guard squad to protect, not him himself. Because of that, he would also only have to fear other Stand users and his personal guards would therefore be those with abilities especially equipped to do so.
After all, anyone with an ability could kill a normal human without any powers, since they couldn’t see the Stands. To kill another person with a Stand, though, was a far more complicated matter, and his and Squalo’s Stands were so perfect for it that it was clear the powers of their Stands would have been truly wasted against normal humans. It only made sense to use them against other Stand users. Since only members of Passione had such abilities, it therefore only made sense to use them to take out traitors and internal dangers within the gang.
Aside from his partner Squalo, Tiziano had no idea who the other members of the Boss’s guard squad were. They were unknown even to each other. Tiziano was sure, however, that all the other members of the elite guard squad had Stands like he and Squalo; weak Stands that would be looked over by any other members of the gang who were acquainted with them, would never suspect them of being part of the elite squadron of the Boss himself; long-range Stands that were ideal for cloak-and-dagger operations, deadly ambushes and lethal manipulations that could be carried out without the victim ever catching sight of the Stand, much less the Stand’s user.
Squalo’s Clash, with its ability to teleport and attack from any open body of liquid, and Tiziano’s own Talking Head, with its ability to control its victims words and actions, were the ultimate weapons of precise and clandestine death, especially when used in combination with each other. With Squalo’s Clash serving to plant Tiziano’s Talking Head on a victim’s tongue, and then manipulating them and any other targeted individuals around them into positions where Squalo’s Clash could ambush them and tear out their throats before they had even an inkling of what was going on.
Their Stands were weak, but it was that very weakness that made them so incredibly deadly.
So incredibly deadly—but only when hidden in the shadows and shrouded in disorienting, horrifying mystery.
Their Stands were not meant for direct confrontation.
Squalo’s Clash had next to no durability and couldn’t teleport more than 2 or 3 meters away from its position at any given moment, and Tiziano’s Talking Head had no combative ability whatsoever. They were no match for a powerful battle-oriented Stand like Narancia’s Aerosmith.
As soon as Narancia’s eyes locked on them and the boy cried, “You, over there!” with the severed tongue Talking Head was attached to hanging pierced from his knife, Tiziano knew that they were screwed.
They were part of the Boss’s elite guard squad, but their Stands were undeniably, unmistakably weak.
They were lovers. They were killers. They were artists.
They had never been fighters.
18 hours before the Italian Swimming Olympic Trials swim meet to be held in Rome, Isacco Rosolino, known as “Squalo” by his teammates due to the shark-like fluidity and ferocity of his swimming, bought a one-way train ticket to Venice without informing his coach or any of his teammates.
Water and swimming were his life, but he couldn’t do the competitions anymore. The pressure, the expectations, the struggle, the stomachaches, the media attention. It was no longer possible within him to stand it.
And so he fled, to where somewhere where he could be always by the water, not just when at pools. A city where the people drove boats instead of cars.
He got off the train, crossed through the station and headed straight for the ferries, buying himself a three-day public transportation pass and getting on the first water-bus that arrived at the dock, he didn’t care which direction or where it went. He just wanted to ride a boat, be out on the water.
He got on the water-bus and the first thing that he noticed was the vibration of the motor—he felt it all the way through his bones, his chest, his sternum, his head. A soul-deep purring.
The water-bus left the dock, and the waves lapped along the sides, the seagulls overhead cried. He stood in the center of the boat where the loading gates were and there were no windows with glass, leaned out over the edge to look at the lapping water, which was gray-green. The smell of the water was neither salty nor fresh but warm.
It was June and the city and ferries were overflowing with tourists. Around him he heard Italian but also English and especially German. A little bit of some Slavic language or another.
The water-bus docked frequently, jarring and bumping against the dock. Each stop it seemed to switch from the left to the right side of the canal and back, such that in order to keep standing in the center of the boat he had to keep moving from one side to another away from the opening boarding doors. He watched in interest as the men working on the water-bus tied and then untied the boats at the dock. While the boat was tied the ropes squeaked as the boat was moved by the tide and the waves of the other boats driving by. The wind buffeted his hair, a comforting caress.
The water-bus moved out from the canals into more open water, something more like a bay. They were outside of the main tourist area and there were factories or shipyards along most of its perimeter, the smell of fuel from boats overpowering the smell of the water.
Around him he heard more German than Italian. It seemed Venice received its largest degree of tourists from Germany. Beneath all the talk though was the purring sound of the water-bus’s motor, and he preferred to listen to that. It made him feel calm and brought a smile to his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled like this or felt so calm and free. The boat rocked over the choppy waves of the open bay, but he could still keep his balance and stand without holding onto the railing.
He stayed on the water-bus until the last stop, when all the passengers were kicked off. He thought about getting straight back onto a water-bus traveling in the opposite direction, but he was back in a tourist area and he thought it would be interesting to look around.
There were a lot of tourists, a lot of dark pigeons, a lot of vendors. Many of the vendors were selling scarves, hats, and fancy masks that he couldn’t help but wonder when anyone had any occasion to wear. He’d never in his life seen anyone wearing such masks. Maybe they were just wall decorations and not actually supposed to be worn. There were gelato shops on seemingly every corner and sometimes once or even twice in-between.
Along the main canal there were also artists with booths, selling their original paintings, drawings, and etchings, in watercolor, pastel and charcoal. They were all images of Venice and they were all beautiful., but he didn’t venture too close lest the artists try to talk to him and sell him something. He wouldn’t know what to say.
The pigeons were literally everywhere, and it almost made him laugh a little bit. They weren’t scared of people at all, being often fed by them.
Everywhere he wandered through the narrow alleys, along the water-edges and in the small land-locked areas in-between, there were shops. Lots of expensive clothes, lots of expensive jewelry. Things he had neither the money for nor any interest in. Lots of restaurants, lots of pasta, lots of pizza, but he wasn’t yet hungry. There were purse stores that smelled of leather when he passed them, stores that smelled of expensive perfumes and of flowers. The smell of the water, a little bit like the smell of the ocean but without the salt.
There were bridges over the narrow canals between the buildings, and he sometimes paused on them for several minutes at a time to watch the gondolas go by. When the people steering the gondolas—they were all wearing black-and-white striped shirts—got too close to the walls of the buildings they simply kicked off them with their feet or pushed off them with their hands. They all had one oar, only one side of the boat. He would have loved to ride a gondola, but they were expensive; 80 euros for half an hour, 100 euros for 45 minutes. He needed to save his money for someplace to stay, as the hotels were no doubt even more expensive, and he didn’t know how many nights he’d be here. At least three. He was hoping maybe more. He was hoping never to leave.
As he walked he noticed more and more details. Details he hadn’t noticed before. The dark pigeons, for example, had orange eyes. He stopped at a bar to drink a glass of Prosecco frizzante—brought to him with a complementary bowl of potato chips, which he picked at without enthusiasm, too used to avoiding them as part of the diet plan of a professional athlete—and one of the pigeons flew up onto the table while he was drinking and he had to shoo it away. Either its wings of the the flapping stirring the air hit his hand.
All the bars and restaurants were playing old pop songs, often in English rather than Italian.
At 5 PM a clock chimed, but he couldn’t remember if he’d heard any clocks chiming at other times or not.
Sometimes as he walked along the alleyways—randomly, without goal or direction—he dragged his fingers along the rough brick and concrete walls of the buildings. His fingertips came away coated finely with white powder.
It was a couple hours past the end of the Olympic Trials swim meet, which he’d completely missed. He’d never be able to compete in the upcoming Summer Olympics.
He suddenly felt exhausted and went to look for a hotel in which to sleep.
Tiziano Valentino felt himself an artist to the very marrow of his bones.
And there was no better place, in his opinion, for an artist to live, than Venice.
Venice was a city that was meant to be painted.
It was the buildings, the water, and the constant meeting and interaction between the two that Tiziano found so artistically fascinating. The buildings, grand in architecture but worn by time, crowded together and rising up from the earth as if they’d grown there like clusters of ancient trees, simultaneously rising and crumbling, and the water flowing like the city’s veins and lifeblood. The canals with its boats and gondolas were the pumping of the city’s heart.
It was so astounding one often forgot the existence of the sky. The buildings blotted it out and the water ate it up, either reflecting it in a far more vivid, vibrant hue that scintillated with dancing sparks of sunlight, or else reflecting the buildings in its stead.
And then there were the people, who formed the living veins of the city almost like the water. There were tourists from all over the world. Especially from Germany, England and America—Tiziano had picked up some German and English without even really trying: “Danke schön” and “Thank you” and “Guten Tag noch” and “Have a nice day.”
And then there were the Venetians, who made their livelihoods on the tourists in what Tiziano considered to be a mutually-beneficial parasitic relationship, but also had their own lives that the tourists didn’t know about, carried out in deep labyrinthine alleys tourists never visited or in the hours of night once most of the tourists were gone.
And yet he’d found himself getting bored.
Business was business, and paintings were paintings. He’d painted so many typical images of Venice by that point that he felt he was simply painting the same paintings over and over again. Same subject matter, same colors, same style. He felt stagnated as an artist. But what sold, sold. He had to make his living somehow, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else but painting.
Both his parents had also been artists, and because of their love for art they’d named him after the famous Italian artist Tiziano Vecelli, who’d been the most important Italian painter of the Venetian school during the Renaissance. Vecelli had been known by his contemporaries as “The Sun Amidst All Stars”, (recalling the famous line from Dante’s Paradiso) due to being one of the most versatile Italian painters: he’d been equally adept at portraits and landscapes, as well as both mythological and religious subjects, and his painting methods—especially his use of color—had had a profound lasting influence on future generations of Western art. In the history of Western painting, his paintings were without precedent.
Growing up in a highly artistic household and being named after such a famous Italian painter, it was hardly a surprise that he’d become an artist. He’d begun painting in earnest as soon as he’d developed enough coordination to hold a brush.
He could use many mediums, but he preferred oil paint because of the vibrancy and intensity of the colors, which were opaque and could be used to paint over areas that had already been painted in order to correct or alter a painting, as well as the viscosity of the paint which allowed for thicker brushstrokes and more texture. Oil paint also had a slower drying time, which allowed more time to blend colors and manipulate the paint, and compared with other media it held up better against light and could last longer. Tiziano couldn’t imagine a more fitting medium for capturing the vibrant, colorful, long-lasting city of Venice.
He made good money from being an artist, too. The tourists loved the idea that the images of Venice they were buying were original and one-of-a-kind—not famous copies but true, honest renditions of the city from native artists. His paintings, and those of other Venetian artists like him, were a novelty for tourists.
He wished they were a novelty for him, too.
Having grown up there, Venice was all he’d ever really known, and although he loved the city he also sometimes felt sick of it and wished he could see it with new eyes and paint it in a new way. He felt he was lacking in inspiration.
To ease his boredom, he’d begun messing with the tourists. He liked, for example, getting them to buy his paintings when they didn’t really want to, or else getting them to buy more than one by getting them to admit everything they loved about the city and suggesting paintings to represent those feelings. He especially enjoyed getting them to lie and end up buying a painting that was contrary to their feelings by confusing them to the point that they couldn’t help but lie, feeling incapable of doing otherwise due to the expectations and constraints of the social interaction and the way he twisted their words and meaning around.
Tiziano always got them to buy his paintings. Though he was completely certain, of course, that even if they hadn’t particularly wanted them at first, they would never regret their purchases. He knew his paintings were beautiful. If he was actually painting almost the same images over and over again, no tourist would ever know.
It bored him. More than painting, his hobby had become just messing with people.
He missed the delight that painting had once brought him.
Squalo slept for almost 13 hours that night. He hadn’t realized he’d been so exhausted. He didn’t know how much of that exhaustion was from wandering around Venice and how much was from the months of upon months—years, really—he’d spent focusing on swimming and swimming tournaments.
A medal won in every event he’d ever competed in: a lot of the time Gold, the majority of the time Silver, a fair amount of the time Bronze. He did okay in the long-course freestyle—the 800 m and 1500 m—but his strength was the short-course freestyle: 500 m, 100 m, 200 m. Long-course he won bronze, short-course he won silvers and golds.
All the expectations of his parents, coach and swimming team had been on him. Sometimes, it felt, the expectations of all of Italy.
“Squalo,” they called him, because he swam as naturally as a shark. He loved the swimming and the nickname felt right, felt more like him than his own name. ‘Isacco Rosolino.’ He had no idea who that was.
His second day in Venice he started by purposefully wandering farther away from the touristy areas. He found a small bar-cafe where he heard only Italian, no German and no English. An espresso cost 1 euro standing at the bar, 3 euro sitting at a table. He ordered an espresso and stood at the bar.
The music was better than in the main touristy areas. The bar-cafe was dim, the back wall lined with wine glasses, wine bottles, both reds and whites. The servers went about their business, constantly cleaning. He drank his espresso first and then paid afterwards.
He wandered through narrow alleyways and often came across people standing in the alleys, talking up to someone leaning out an upper story window. Strung high along the buildings were clotheslines strung with clothes.
He came across an open-air market, greeted by the smell of raw fish. He wandered along the tables, looking at all the different fish, shrimp, octopus. It made him feel hungry but he wasn’t about to buy any raw fish he couldn’t prepare.
He found himself back in the main tourist areas, where tourists were walking with their wheeled suitcases, workers with their wheeled carts, hard wheels rattling across cobblestone. He’d only brought a small backpack with a single spare set of clothes, his wallet and a water-bottle.
A siren wailed, an ambulance boat with the word “Ambulanza” painted along the side. Across the water he saw a banner that read “NO MAFIA VENEZIA E’ SACRA”.
‘No mafia, Venice is sacred.’
He got back on a random water-bus traveling in a random direction. The motor purred, the waves lapped, the boats squeaked around the metal posts at the docks.
The water-bus came to an island he hadn’t been to and he got off because there was a park (trees, benches, grass, a basketball court) and the sound of some kind of insect chirping up high in the trees, but it was really more screeching, it was so incredibly loud. It almost made him feel the need to cover his ears, felt like someone dragging a metal rake through his mind.
It would have been a relaxing park without the noise, which was quite possibly the least relaxing thing he had ever heard—but at least it made it hard to think too much so he couldn’t be distracted by his thoughts, by the fact that he’d spent his entire life focusing on swimming with the plan of becoming an athlete, only to ditch the Olympic Trials at the last minute and now he had no idea what he was doing, no idea what he was supposed to do with his life now.
He wandered along the paths of the park and finally sat down on a bench, feeling a little bit sick and nauseous, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of the screeching of the insects or his irrepressible nerves. But even if it was his nerves, the insects certainly weren’t helping, but he still didn’t leave, though he himself was unsure of the reason why.
There weren’t too many people at the park. There were benches to sit. He couldn’t think of too much, not with the noise. The sound was making him feel inexplicably anxious without any definite reason.
Still he stayed. He got up and walked around some more. He passed the basketball court, walked until he reached a military zone where access from civilians was not allowed. He turned back around and wandered the other way. There were a lot of dogs, a lot of parents with their kids, babies and toddlers in strollers.
There was also a small area with exercise equipment, and a man working out. Squalo watched him as he did lunges, push-ups, pull-ups on the bar, push-ups on top of the bar (first he did a pull-up, then he lifted his upper body over the bar and did push-ups on top of it with his lower body hanging, legs together and abs tight). The equipment included a bench, horizontal bars, and pegs. The man did more exercises: jumping and jogging in place, burpees. He rubbed his hands in the grass and dirt to improve his grip before doing reverse-push-ups on one of the lower bars.
Squalo realized that he’d gotten used to the screeching insects by now. They no longer bothered him so much or made him feel ill.
There was a young boy shooting baskets on the basketball court, and his mother was participating with him, shooting baskets as well.
The man on the exercise equipment was doing kickboxing, throwing kicks and punches in the air.
There were old ladies strolling along the paths, grandparents with their grandchildren, either walking with them or pushing them in strollers.
Squalo saw a few insects fly higher into one of the trees, but not well enough to see what they were.
He wandered further along the paths in the opposite direction, to an area he hadn’t yet seen. There was a small shop in a building advertising the presence of an ATM, and there was also a playground with a slide, swings, and a small climbing wall, a small field between the trees with two soccer nets, and not far was a restaurant with outside seating where people were eating. It looked like the people there were locals rather than tourists.
He made his way back to the docks and got on the next water-bus, which was smaller than the ones he’d been on previously and there was more rocking and the sound the of the motor was a higher-pitched, less-pleasant sound, but there was also louder wave-lapping, which somewhat made up for it.
He got off at another random stop, where there were more art booths, including paintings with oil on canvas. The pigeons made soft humming noises as they flew by and they cooed while eating, people throwing out bread crumbs for them. Along with having orange eyes they also had orange feet. Around him he heard mostly German. A little bit of some kind of Slavic language. There was the sound of the insects again, but not quite as loud.
He got back on a random water-bus. Inside the cabin it was painted the same gray-blue-green as the water, and there was a black silhouette of a lion with wings and the words “Regione Veneta” painted with a stencil on the inside of the boat, black on gray, below a painted metal plaque and the number “25”.
“Attenzione,” the men working on the boat said whenever the boat docked. Squalo kept switching between standing on the right and left sides, moving away from whichever boarding doors were being opened. From the boat he kept seeing the Venice flag, which was red with a gold-yellow lion with wings and had fringed ends.
The waves lapped against the side of the boat and after seeing the city’s flag so many times, he started to wonder if the lion had a man’s face. It was hard to tell.
He didn’t get off the water-bus until it reached its last stop and he was kicked off. He started wandering. Sometimes there were beggars—in the crowded tourist areas they were old Indian women sitting with paper cups, in the less-crowded areas and side alleys they were African men standing at corners and holding out hats.
It was late afternoon and things were quieting down, the tourists dwindling and tourist shops beginning to close. It felt like the entire city was settling in for a nap, but Squalo had checked out of his hotel that morning, it had been so expensive, he’d been hoping to find a cheaper one, he wouldn’t have been able to afford staying there for many more nights, he’d simply been exhausted the previous day and it had been the first even reasonably affordable place he’d found—and he had no place to sleep, so he couldn’t take a nap no matter how much he wanted to.
Instead he found an area in the shade along one of the canals and sat down on the edge with his legs dangling over the water. The waves from the passing boats lapped along the paved wall of the canal. The breeze blew his orange hair into his face. He tried to calm down, feeling inexplicably anxious. Motorboats drove by stirring the water. Seagulls flapped overhead, crying like his heart—except the seagulls received cry in answer, and his heart didn’t.
Taxi boats purred by, splashing through the water. The seagulls were mostly white, only a few bits of black feathering, yellow beaks, though there were a few of them that were speckled gray with black tails, pale pink legs and black beaks. Reflected light from the water danced on the brick underside of a nearby footbridge. Along the edges of the canal were dark green and maroon algae that waved with the waves of the water.
He was hungry, but dinner didn’t really start till around 8 PM. For breakfast that morning he’d only drunk an espresso, for lunch he’d had an octopus salad that consisted of sliced octopus tentacles, tomato, sellerie, basil, olive oil and lemon, and for dessert he’d had some kind of ice-cream pudding with sour berry sauce and sugar granulates. He’d been hungry and wandered over to inspect the menu and one of the waiters had pulled him in and sat him down and he hadn’t been sure that was where he really wanted to eat but he hadn’t been able to say no. He hadn’t wanted dessert, but he’d ordered only one dish instead of a full three-dish meal because he wasn’t that hungry, too nervous to eat much, and he ended up ordering dessert to try to not seem rude.
He’d eaten far too much gelato the previous day, since it was cheaper than buying a real meal and easier than sitting down and ordering something alone in a restaurant. But he’d become sick and tired of dessert, which as an athlete he wasn’t even really supposed to be eating too much of anyway. The only real meal he’d had the previous day was a plate of marinara spaghetti, too sick and too scared to try eating anything more complex. His second day, after he’d officially and irreversibly missed the Olympic Swimming Trials, he was feeling a little braver.
In all honesty, he’d wanted to try to the Venice risotto al nero—risotto made with squid ink—because he’d heard it was a specialty, but none of the restaurants served the dish for a single person. The dish had to be made for at least two people, and it was just Squalo.
He sat on the edge of the canal and looked at the water, wishing he could swim in it. But the water didn’t look particularly clean and it was probably not allowed and someone would probably call a police boat on him, which was the last thing he wanted, since then they’d find out where he was—his parents and coach and everyone else, and he never wanted to see any of them again, too scared they’d try to bring him back to that place, that existence he could no longer stand.
And yet even though he’d essentially fled and thrown away the Olympic dream—which had never really been his, only the one pressed onto him due to his “talent”—he still couldn’t stop thinking of himself as a swimmer, as an athlete. It had been all he had ever known, since accidentally learning to swim at four years old when the headboard he’d been given to swim with had drowned, having had a hole in it, and by the time he got out of the deep-end into the shallow-end he could swim. He’d had his first real swimming lessons at six years old, and after that, lesson by lesson, he got to pre-competition level, and then competition-level, and everyone called him a prodigy.
The water was his element; he reveled in the feel of it as he sliced through it, flew as if with wings—a shark, the eagle of the oceans, a tangible reflection of the skies—but he hated having to prove himself and compete, it was too much pressure and it robbed him of the peace that the water brought him, like fisherman catching sharks in their nets and dragging them out of the sea, sticking them in aquariums where they became showcases, and he couldn’t shake the fear that if he hadn’t been able to satisfy they eventually would have cut off his fins. And then he’d sink and never resurface again. It made him scared, and it made him angry, because they didn’t have the right.
But now that was over with and he was free, if lost, like he’d just jumped over the tank edge into the middle of the sea. But sharks were meant for the sea. Though there were many types of sharks and they weren’t all apex predators.
He sat on the edge of the canal and looked at the water, dreaming he could swim in it as the shark he’d been nicknamed for, until finally he couldn’t stand the rumbling of his stomach any longer and stood. It was shortly after 7 PM, a little early—only foreigners would be eating at this time—but he was too hungry to care anymore.
He started looking for a place to eat, but most of the restaurants were far too expensive. He didn’t find a place with affordable prices until after 8 PM. Which worked out for his self-identification as a proper Italian, but meant that he was starving.
He ordered a dinner of mushroom risotto and a white wine. He tried to enjoy the food and drink slowly, but he was angry, and there was nothing else to do and nothing to distract him when he was eating alone. No one to talk to.
He finished the risotto and wine, paid and left, continuing his aimless wandering. All the tourist booths had been put away, and it was basically just food and music that was left. The lighting was nicer with the sun gone, softer and not as lonely and devastating. Most of the tourists were gone and the streets were much quieter, more peaceful. He started to feel that he was maybe actually okay.
He followed a group of other Italians to a dock, where they sat down with drinks to enjoy the evening and each other’s company, and Squalo sat a ways away from them and looked out over the water in the darkening twilight. The lights from the lamps reflect long, scintillating orange paths along the teal-blue surface. They looked almost tangible enough to dance across.
A boat went by and a wave splashed up against the low side of the canal wall and got him wet; his shoe soles had only been an inch or two above the water, and it hadn’t taken much. There were more boats coming and he wondered if he should move. Ultimately, though, he didn’t mind the water. He wanted to swim in it.
Deep down, what Tiziano desired most was a new perspective, a new way of seeing and painting the world. Something inspiring.
He thought maybe he’d finally found it.
The red-haired man had caught his attention due to the vibrancy of his hair, which stuck up from his head like licks of flame and glowed like embers when the sunlight shone through it (Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Orange Deep). His outfit was composed of a dark sports-tank-top and sports-pants (Black Spinel, thin lines of Titanium White along the outside edges of the pants) as if he was planning on going jogging and contrasted like charcoal with his fiery locks.
He’d held Tiziano’s attention though because of the way that he moved. He moved alone through the crowds of tourists with a powerfully athletic grace and a wary uncertainty of a hunter treading among prey, as if he was afraid he’d either scare them all away like songbirds or they’d all gang up and mob him like crows.
It had delighted Tiziano when the red-haired man had walked over to his booth, even if he’d remained hovering a couple meters away. His gaze was intense and water-blue (Cerulean Blue), making him a delightful combination of the opposing elements of fire’s ferocity and water’s depth, and he looked at Tiziano and his paintings like he was torn about which was more desirable. It was fascinating for Tiziano to watch the way the man’s gaze flicked back and forth between him and his paintings, becoming bright with a childish and barely-restrained delight when he looked at the pictures and becoming dark with carefully-contained desire when he looked at Tiziano, gaze lingering with a hunter’s intensity on the musculature of his arms and the exposed skin of his upper chest, traveling over his body before flicking back to the paintings again, at which point his lips would curve slightly like they wanted to be a smile. Then his eyes would flit back to Tiziano again, then back to the paintings.
The man looked simultaneously frightened and hungry and Tiziano had the shockingly strong urge to paint him. It had been forever since he’d wanted to paint anything as much as he wanted to paint the heady red-orange of his hair against darkening water (Prussian Blue and Cobalt Green), the hungry vicious-blue of his eyes against the nervous pale-pink pursing of his lips, the dark sports-clothing of his outfit against the pale marble of the church behind him (Warm White) and in contrast with the light t-shirts and shorts, colorfully-patterned button-up shirts and summer dresses of the other tourists. So many colors, and Tiziano wanted to use them all, this red-haired man in pure color-saturation while the rest of the painting was in tints (color + white), tones (color + gray) and shades (color + black). The rest of the world muted and darkened, while this man glowed.
Maybe even more than he wanted to paint this man against the Venetian backdrop, though, he wanted to paint the city with this man as his eyes. Because what would Venice look like, too a hunter that felt hunted? Suddenly all the scene that to Tiziano had been so trite, dull and boring would become exciting, dangerous, filled with lust, paranoia and awe. Desire and fear inexplicably intertwined. Colors depressingly dark, delightfully vivid and blindingly bright, all at once.
So many new, exciting paintings were sprouting to life in Tiziano’s mind, just from having seen this man. He found himself feeling hungry and delighted, thinking how many more this man could potentially inspire.
He hoped to catch this man like a fish on a hook, reel him in. “Do you want a painting? You look like you see something you like.” He’d winked, hoping to let the other man know that he knew what he wanted, and that he wanted the same thing. “I’ll offer you a special deal.”
But he’d pushed too far, it seemed, because the man—like a wild animal—had fled.
Already, just from looking once at this man, Tiziano had so many new paintings he wanted to bring into existence—he was bitterly disappointed when the man left and he hoped desperately to see him again, because he felt that the inspiration from such a man could keep him interested for a lifetime—
He had the irresistible urge to paint, and the near-debilitating desire to see this red-haired man again, again and again and—
He wanted this man in his life forever.
“Ah, there you are. I thought I recognized that head of wild orange hair.”
Squalo jolted and turned, heart pounding as he wondered if someone he knew had somehow found him—but no, it was just one of the artists he’d seen earlier in the day, painting along the main canal. The man had dark skin but light hair, which was long and straight, and he wore loose, light-colored overalls as well a dark headband to keep his long hair out of his face, and matching dark gloves, which Squalo assumed were to keep any paint off his hands.
The man had painted with oil paint, Squalo recalled—he remembered the man because his oil paintings had been so vivid, even from a distance, the water in them so sparkling and alive, and because instead of simply sitting at his booth doing nothing while waiting for customers he’d been painting the scene in front of him. Squalo had wanted to watch him and had lingered a little too long, gotten a little too close, close enough to see the man’s brushstrokes and defined musculature of his chest and arms, close enough to notice the elegant structure of his face and the calmness of his expression as he painted, a calmness that looked like that which Squalo only felt while swimming, surrounded by water, supported and buoyed by it, moving with it and through it like a shark, flying.
He’d gotten too close, and the man had noticed him, looking up and smiling at him, warm like sunlight on water, like sun-warmed, sun-illuminated sand. His golden eyes glowed. “You look like you see something you like. You want a painting?” The man had winked at him, his voice slow, melodic, like gently crashing waves. “I’ll offer a special deal, just for you.”
Squalo had quickly shook his had and hurried away. The man’s paintings had been beautiful—and the man himself, too, almost as much—but Squalo needed to conserve his money. And he didn’t know what he would do with a painting when he had nowhere to hang it, not having an apartment of his own, since back in Rome he’d still lived with his parents and he didn’t plan on going back.
And now that same man was standing there with his light hair glowing in the dimness of evening, like the white froth on dark ocean waves, and Squalo swallowed, not knowing what to say. He was sure the man should have forgotten about him already, what with all the tourists he no doubt saw each day, interacted with and sold his paintings to. Squalo couldn’t think of a single reason for the man to remember him unless he was angry that Squalo hadn’t bought a painting from him, and that conclusion made him nervous, his heart starting to pound. This man didn’t have the right, and Squalo didn’t want a painting of Venice or the water—he wanted the real thing.
The man smiled languidly and raised his hands with their black gloves flecked with bits of paint: marble-white, sunlit-stone-brown, water-green, statue-bronze, pigeon-gray. “There’s no need to look so alarmed.” His voice was linden-flower-honey, languid and deep luminous-gold as if lit by sun. “I’m not a shark, I won’t bite.”
Indeed, Squalo was the shark, and the realization filled him with sudden courage and vivacity. He was a shark, and he was free from the glass aquarium. He could swim as he pleased, now, buoyed by the water all around him that was no longer stale and still and suffocating but fresh, moving, invigorating.
He looked at the man, took in his long, softly-glowing hair, memory-of-the-sun-brown skin and light, mirthful eyes, the way his lips moved around the Italian as he spoke. “I saw you and thought you made such a depressing picture, sitting here all by yourself, so I thought I’d paint you a better one by joining you. Everything looks brighter when you have company, am I not correct?” His lips were smiling and his eyes were warm and soft as they traced Squalo’s face, took in his gaze and drifted languidly down to linger on his mouth like dust filtering through shafts of sunlight.
Everything, everything sunlight about this man, even though it was dark and the water in the canal had turned black as ink.
When the man had called him out he’d felt hunted, but now Squalo felt like a shark with fish-flesh between its rows of sharp, backwards-pointed teeth.
He was free in the water and this man had purposefully dropped in a few drops of blood. The red unfurled in thin, dancing tendrils, salty and sweet.
Squalo asked if that was the special offer the man had mentioned earlier—a painting just for him—and the man smiled. “A man like you deserves a painting just as magnificent.”
“I’m surprised you remembered me.”
“I couldn’t forget a face like yours. As an artist, it’s my job to take notice of beautiful things.” Everything, everything sunlight with this man—and blood in the water.
Squalo felt a grin forming on his face, felt a thrill as he saw that his grin lit a spark in the other man’s eyes, eyes that—in the dimness of the night that was lit only here and there by a few streetlamps that scintillated their light-shadows in paths across the rippling water—weren’t quite the color of sunlight but the color of the promise of it, like the first shades of sky-warming that was the harbinger to dawn.
“But I’m afraid I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Tiziano Valentino.” Even the man’s name was a formation of rays of sun, a tessellation of light and warmth, sticky and heady like honey.
Squalo’s teeth in his grin felt sharp in a tantalizing way. “You can call me Squalo.” Isacco Rosolino didn’t matter anymore, left behind in the swimming pools like glass tanks.
“Squalo.” The way Tiziano rolled the syllables off his tongue sent delighted shivers down Squalo’s back and the artist’s lips smiled around his words: “How do you feel about accompanying me for a drink, Squalo?”
Squalo would like that, very much.
They traveled down dark, quiet alleys of closed stores, open restaurants scattered here and there with soft light streaming from inside, families and couples eating dinner or drinking wine at the tables outside and near the windows, enjoying the warm summer night. It made Squalo smile and feel buoyed, light, like swimming in water.
A couple older ladies passed them walking the other direction, speaking French. They seemed tipsy. Squalo wanted to laugh a little but carefully held it back until the old ladies were gone.
He and Tiziano continued walking until they came to an open-air court, the rectangular stones smooth and flat, where music was playing and couples were dancing. People were casually dressed-up, women in colorful summer dresses or blouses with skirts, wearing high-heels, men with buttoned shirts, either long- or short-sleeved, and jeans, wearing either sneakers or dress shoes. The lighting in the court was low, romantic, only a few lamps alongside the buildings, the mood was relaxed. There were benches along the sides of the court where people were watching, sitting or standing, men and women with fans fanning themselves for relief from the hot summer air. The couples all seemed to be doing their own dances—different dance steps, different rhythms. Squalo couldn’t tell if they were doing waltz, night-club two-step, or something else. Certainly not cha-cha, and it didn’t look like swing or tango. He didn’t know. It didn’t matter to him really—it was fun to watch, whatever dance or dances they were doing. He felt comfortable, at home, in some way he couldn’t explain. Everyone was so relaxed, just enjoying themselves.
There was a square of trees and plants next to the dance court, and just on the other side was a restaurant where people were eating dinner, candles on the tables casting a soft, warm light, in a romantic kind of way. He and Tiziano sat down at an empty table, a waiter came and they ordered drinks. While waiting they watched the dancers. They didn’t talk; the night was comfortable, and there didn’t seem to be the need to. Everything was either comfortably dark or glowing.
Their drinks arrived—an aperol spritz for Tiziano, orange and sweet as the kisses of sunset-sunlight in his voice and manner and eyes; a campari spritz for Squalo, red and bitter in an enticing, satisfying way, like the onset of night, like flying through water. Both drinks came with orange slices and olives on skewers, which were used to stir the drinks and eaten last. The candles on the table danced and the dancers on the court flickered.
It was past 10 PM, but people around them were still eating dinner. There didn’t seem to be any tourists—maybe there were in the main areas, near the train station, but there didn’t seem to be any where they were, the people around them all speaking Italian, seeming comfortable, as if they were all locals. Squalo didn’t know whether to consider himself a tourist or not, as he didn’t have any interest in the churches or museums and was hoping to stay and just live. For once in his life. Surrounded by water that wasn’t like a tank. There was so much water here and the light danced on it. Squalo wanted to dance on it, too. Fly through it. Be forever carried and buoyed by it.
It was 10:30 PM and people were still dancing, still eating, still drinking. He and Tiziano finished their drinks and left the dance court behind, moved back to one of the main canals, where water-bus and gondola rides were still taking place over the black water, stirring it in dark ripples, small waves. The lamplight reflected orange and white-gold scintillating paths, like a boat wouldn’t even be needed. Squalo wanted to take Tiziano’s in his arms and dance across them.
“At your booth you had so many paintings of Venice during the day. Do you have any of the city at night?”
“I do, but those ones aren’t for sale.”
“Can I see them?”
“Of course. If you want to come back to my apartment.”
“Do you have a spare bed, and can I sleep there?”
“You can sleep there, but there’s only one bed.”
Squalo smiled, feeling shark-like. “I’m okay with that.”
Tiziano was all heady sunset-sunlight, smile and eyes, warm and languid. “I’m glad.” His hand moved warm like sunlight along Squalo’s shoulders, his breath warm and humid on Squalo’s neck, his lips soft: “How would you like your very own night painting?”
Squalo would like that, very much.
It was almost midnight, but there were still people about. They walked back to Tiziano’s apartment, and Squalo let the other man lead him. It was night, it was beautiful, he was a little tipsy on campari spritz. It all took his breath away, made him smile, his heart in his chest alive.
Venice was beautiful, the beauty of the new and foreign, beautiful in a wide-eyed, heart-pounding, nerve-wracking way—he hoped that eventually the city’s beauty would become that of the familiar, comfortable, calming, because he wanted to stay.
Tiziano was delighted when he stumbled upon the red-haired man again. And it had been entirely by accident.
It must have been fate. He was meant to have this man in his life. He’d felt it from the first glance, like the recognition of the perfect painting for a blank space of wall. The painting that would make any apartment one owned feel like home.
But this man was so much more than one painting. He was hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of paintings worth. As many paintings as Tiziano could paint in his life and more. He had the feeling he could never live long enough to be able to paint everything this man inspired in him. Feelings of lust, desire, wonder, curiosity, surprise, delight, joy, happiness, contentment, warmth, love.
So much love. Tiziano’s world was suddenly filled with it. No longer was he bored or lacking in inspiration.
This man was so breath-catchingly delightful.
And after their first night together, when they’d woken up intertwined in a warm tangle of limbs and Tiziano had watched the sun move over the man’s sleeping face and light up his Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Orange Deep hair until the man had finally opened his Cerulean Blue eyes and Tiziano had said that he wanted him to stay, the man had grinned like a shark and said that he never wanted to leave.
And so he never did, and Tiziano’s world—and his art—was so much more vivid for it.
Tiziano was like a dream but so much brighter, so much warmer and more real—Tiziano was to a dream what the sun was to the moon.
Everything, everything sun and sunlight about this man—his smile, his eyes, his voice, his movements, his body, the feeling as Squalo moved within him, like flying in water, in sunlight.
Squalo had woken up that morning with the artist in his arms, smiling at him and backlit by sunlight, but his eyes were almost brighter. His hand had brushed the red hair from Squalo’s eyes, warm and soft, almost more than the sunlight shining on Squalo’s face that had woken him up. “How would you feel about staying with me, Squalo?”
“For how long do you mean?”
Squalo would like that, very much.
And so he stayed. He moved in with Tiziano, made Tiziano and Venice his home, seemed to have now all the water and sunlight in the world, utterly free, even more free with a home to return to than he’d been in that brief period of limbo in between his fleeing and Tiziano finding him, felt that he’d successfully fled from Hell, survived Purgatory and made it to Heaven, because his Tiziano became and was his everything, his light and his warmth and his calming ocean waves, his home and his freedom, and in Venice they lived and walked together and took boats over the water and Tiziano painted and Squalo watched him and sometimes Squalo swam and Tiziano watched him and Squalo felt himself so comfortable, so loved and so in love, so happy and so freed, and he started to forget Olympic-sized pools, timers and medals and throwing up in the bathroom from nerves before races, feeling as if he might die.
Now he felt alive, and he had a job with a fisher and he helped carry and roll carts of freshly-caught fish from the ships through Venice to the markets because he was strong, helped sell the fish to Venetians and tourists because now he could interact with people without fear, because he had a home where he was valued for something more than medals and these people wanted nothing from him and had no expectations from him except that he would sell them fish, and they never pitted him against anyone else or had timers to see how fast he could do it, and it was relaxing and he was happy and content like he never would have believed.
That happiness was never so clear to him as when Tiziano painted portraits of him, or painted him into Venetian scenes like he belonged there—because now he did, or at least he felt like he did, and people treated him as if he did, and he felt so much more a part of the place and people than he did in Rome—because in Tiziano’s paintings he could see his own happiness glowing in his face, in the light in his eyes and the brightness of his smile, and he thought Tiziano must be a genius to to paint something so beautiful and real, and it made him smile wider because Tiziano was his.
Tiziano and Venice were his, now, and the Venice Tiziano painted, the Venice Tiziano called home and painted him into, now Squalo’s own home, all the narrow alleys and all the water-ways and the water and the pigeons and the crowded tourist areas and the quiet practically-tourist-secret residential areas with their clotheslines and people stopping in the path to converse with people leaning out upper-story windows with their potted plants and the coffee shops playing Italian radio news channels and the fish market and the boats and the paintings Tiziano made of it all.
Squalo felt himself so happy and in love that sometimes he had to bury his face in Tiziano’s warm chest while hugging him tightly and fighting back tears, and Tiziano wrapped his strong warm arms around him and massaged his back, and when they finally pulled away Tiziano would kiss away the tears that, despite Squalo’s best efforts, had fallen.
But he’d wasn’t ashamed—was never ashamed—and after Tiziano kissed the tearstains on his cheeks he’d kiss Squalo’s smiling lips.
The man never gave his name. He said to simply call him ‘Shark.’ Tiziano found the nomenclature utterly fitting. It embodied all the simultaneous nervous, skittish fear and vicious, desirous hunger with which the man did everything.
It turned Tiziano on. One moment his Squalo would look ready to flee, the next he’d be diving in with a ravenous grin. It was a dynamic at the heart of all their flirting and sex, and it became a dynamic that Tiziano tried to capture in all his paintings: instinctual fear warring with inextricable desire.
And then he saw his Squalo swimming, and he understood another reason for the name.
His Squalo cutting through the water like a shark was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The graceful fluidity and violent power to Squalo’s strokes and the way he moved in the water like he belonged there made it hard for Tiziano to breath and drove his heart to beat, beat, beat.
He tried to bring that into his art, as well: fine, graceful brushstrokes combined with bold, overpowering colors, and a feeling that everything within his paintings belonged there. He wanted to become one of the greats, as innovative as his namesake.
He sold less of his paintings, but when people did buy them they were so entranced and delighted he was able to sell the paintings for a price that was much higher than anything he’d previously charged. He still liked messing with people and twisting their words around, but not as much.
It made him unbelievably happy to know that he could capture the breath-catching wonder his Squalo brought to his world in his art and share it with others. Because it was so incredibly beautiful and it made the world such a beautiful place to exist in.
The man had insulted Tiziano, jeered at him and effeminated him, and Squalo’s vision had gone red like blood.
How dare he.
He didn’t have the right.
Tiziano was Squalo’s everything.
Squalo didn’t come to himself until the man was unconscious on the ground beneath him and his hands were more red than his vision and the sound of sirens was deafening him. Ah, the police boats. He liked watching them speed across the water. But their sirens really were loud, and he had to cover his ears.
Now he had blood in his ears and hair, but his hair was already red, anyway, and he wasn’t being completely deafened anymore. Had he killed the man on the ground beneath him? He didn’t know, but he hoped that he hadn’t, only because that would mean more years in prison and more years away from Tiziano.
It occurred to him that by defending Tiziano, he’d just lost years of time with him, and that made him laugh, because he didn’t know if that was worth it but he hadn’t been able to control himself and now there was nothing he could do about it.
When the police handcuffed him, he was crying from laughing. Or maybe he was just sobbing.
Tiziano watched him go with pain like crystallized honey in his golden gaze and Squalo smiled at him hoping to cheer him up and let him know that it was okay, and his teeth felt sharp in his grin.
He’d defended his loved one—his everything—and at least, instead of having to ride in a car, over cement, he got to ride away from the crime scene in a boat, over the water, which was infinitely better.
Tiziano could no longer exist in a world without Squalo. Everything would become boring and dull and he’d lose his inspiration and reason for existence.
Squalo and Tiziano’s art: the two had become inextricable and Tiziano couldn’t survive without either.
So when Squalo was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for severely injuring a man, Tiziano had to do something about it. Squalo wouldn’t survive in prison, and he himself wouldn’t survive without Squalo. Therefore he’d do anything.
So he followed all the rumors until he finally made contact with the criminal organization that was supposed to be the most powerful and influential in Italy: Passione.
Then he made a deal: he would become a member of the gang and serve its orders until his death, and in return they would get Squalo out of prison.
He had to pass a test in order to enter the gang, but that had made sense to him. It wasn’t until afterwards when he was stabbed by an arrow and received a new power that he realized there had been more to the test than he’d thought, but that didn’t bother him. He now had the ability to twist people’s words around even more than he’d ever been able to previously, and that delighted him. He wished he’d had he ability earlier and had been able to play with it for all these years. It felt like a completion of his soul.
Better late than never.
The first order he received from the Passione was to get Squalo out of prison. And so, using his new power, he did. By using his new ability Talking Head, which controlled their tongues and to a certain extent their limbs, he was able to make them say the exact opposite of what they wanted to say and do the exact opposite of what they wanted to do. Which meant that, because none of the police or government officials wanted to let Squalo go, they did. Because it was the exact opposite of what they wanted to do, and therefore he could make them do it.
Then Squalo was free, and Tiziano was a member of Passione and had to carry out whatever orders were given to him. That didn’t bother him, but if Squalo wasn’t a member of Passione, they wouldn’t have been able to be together due to the necessary secrecy of Tiziano’s new job.
If Squalo had left him, Tiziano would have taken his own life, because there would have been nothing more to live for. With his love and inspiration gone, his art would have been gone as well and he wouldn’t have been able to live. His art, and therefore his love and inspiration, were everything to him.
It didn’t surprise him, though, that Squalo, instead of leaving him, joined Passione as well.
Then they were both members of Passione. But they were together, so everything was right with the world. The world was made beautiful through Squalo’s presence in his life and Tiziano painted it.
Prison was unbearable—it was cold and it was concrete and there was no Tiziano and there wasn’t enough water.
In his cell Squalo left the water in the sink running until the guards threatened him and forced him to stop, because when the water was running it had been almost like a fountain, and Squalo could watch it and hold his hand in its stream and imagine swimming in it and almost feel okay.
Without the water running things were almost intolerable, but still somehow it didn’t feel like as much like an enclosed tank as the Olympic-swimming pools of his youth had been, because here at least he wasn’t an exhibit and he didn’t have to compete for medals, he wasn’t in magazines, the hope of the entire country wasn’t riding on him. In prison he was nothing, a nobody.
There wasn’t enough water, and there was no Tiziano, but it was tolerable. He told himself he only had to survive six years here, and then he’d see Tiziano again, and everything would be okay. He’d been in Purgatory before, but he’d also experienced Heaven, and he knew that the Heaven was worth any Purgatory he’d have to endure. Even if there wasn’t enough water, and he couldn’t swim, couldn’t fly, couldn’t feel Tiziano’s sunlight on his skin. Six years of dry darkness would be worth feeling that again.
He laughed sometimes thinking about how he’d still rather be here than in the Olympics, when for probably anyone else in the world it would have been the opposite. But then he cried, because he missed the water and Tiziano and he couldn’t fly, not here. Sometimes the walls of his cell seemed to press closer and closer until he couldn’t breathe and sunken kickboards were bobbing up to the surface behind his eyes.
He told himself that it was only six years, which was only a third of what he’d suffered before, and therefore if he could survive eighteen years of Hell without any promise of getting out of it, he could certainly last six years with the promise of Heaven at the end.
He tried to hold onto that, but sometimes it got so dark, so dry, the walls so close, and it was so hard to breath and so hard to remember what sunlight and the water felt like.
But then one day they opened the door and let him out, ordering that his clothes and belongings be given back to him, saying that there had been a reassessment of his case and he was free, he could go now and there was someone outside waiting for him.
He didn’t understand how, but he knew it had to be Tiziano, because there was no one else it could be, and when he saw the artist standing there smiling at him, languid rays of summer-sunlight, all warmth, all gold, he couldn’t hold himself back and he ran to great him with laughter in his lungs and tears streaming from his cheeks in the breeze. “Tiz!”
Tiziano was smiling, glowing. “Ciao, Squalo.”
Squalo sprinted and practically jumped into his lover’s arms and Tiziano laughed and spun him around, set him down and brushed the tears from his cheeks with soft touches of gloved fingers and when later in their bed Squalo pulled those gloves from Tiziano’s hands with his teeth the fingers still tasted like salt.
They were lying together in the afterglow, in each other’s arms, warm and glowing, breathing each other in and then exhaling content humid air against each other’s skin, when Tiziano said in his languid, linden-flower-honey way, “I have something to tell you, Squalo.”
“What is it, Tiz?”
“I’m part of the mafia now.” Tiziano’s voice, as always, was glutinous, luminous gold.
“Is that how you got me out of prison?”
“Yes.” Tiziano’s gentle fingers brushed locks of hair out of Squalo’s face. “But since you’re not part of the mafia, our relationship could now become problematic.”
Squalo nuzzled his head against Tiziano’s chest and wrapped him tighter in his arms, his embrace. “Then I’ll join the mafia, too.”
“You have to pass a test in order to become a member.”
“Then I’ll pass it.”
Tiziano’s hand rubbed circles over Squalo’s back. “It’s not easy.”
“Most things aren’t. I’ll pass it anyway.” He’d already been through Hell, through Purgatory and survived, and this would be better because the mafia would be Heaven for him since that was where Tiziano was, and wherever Tiziano was, that was Squalo’s Paradise.
Tiziano’s hand ceased its ministrations, lay carefully still. “As a member of the mafia you’re going to have to kill people, Squalo. Are you okay with that?”
“Tiz,” Squalo laughed, “I’m a shark.”
Tiziano hummed, smiling, began rubbing Squalo’s back again. “So you are.”
“And I’m your shark,” Squalo said, breathing the words against his lover’s still-sweat-tasting skin, steamy.
Tiziano wrapped him in his arms and pressed a kiss into Squalo’s hair, whispered: “My Squalo,” and delighted shivers raced down Squalo’s back, chasing each other in waves down his spine like sharks hunting schools of fish.
The gang life suited them far better than Tiziano would have expected.
But maybe he should have. Because his entire life was art and Squalo, and Squalo’s world was swimming and him. They didn’t care about anyone, or anything, else. Therefore they had no qualms about killing or other organized criminal activities, because it didn’t matter to them as long as they could do it together.
And they were the perfect team. The special abilities they’d gained when they’d passed Passione’s test complimented each other perfectly. Tiziano with his Talking Head could manipulate and direct people’s attention in the most advantageous ways and then Squalo’s Clash would ambush them from where they’d never see it coming.
It didn’t surprise him that Squalo passed the test and gained an ability as well, nor had Tiziano been worried he wouldn’t. He’d known from the moment he set eyes on the red-haired man that he had fierce predator’s instinct.
Nor did Squalo’s ability surprise him, when he saw what it was. He laughed in delight when he saw it, because it was so familiarly, absolutely the manifestation of his Squalo’s soul: the small, fierce mechanical shark that jumped from body of water to body of water, no matter how small, just like Squalo’s gaze always had, finding all the liquid around them with a look like he wanted nothing more than to be swimming in it.
And Tiziano wanted nothing more than to be there with him, watching him and painting his beauty with oil paints onto canvas. Because Squalo was perfection and he deserved to be immortalized.
It was even better now that they were part of Passione and being sent on missions together, because Tiziano got to see more of his Squalo’s breath-catching fierceness than he’d ever seen before, an intense focus and determination in his gaze as he used Clash and a shark-sharp, shark-smug smile when he successfully took someone out. It brought out a new dimension to him and imbued him with more confidence.
For Tiziano the change in his lover was delightful and inspiring. He tried to artistically organize their murders to enhance and emphasize it, to make even their missions into art. And he tried to bring the essence of it into his painting with fiercer, more energetic brushstrokes and by using color to tactically direct the viewer’s attention along specific paths in his paintings by desaturating the color in certain areas and then saturating it to ever-greater vibrancy in others. Paintings that embodied the beauty of their teamwork.
It didn’t surprise him, either, when the Boss recruited them as part of his personal guard. He and his Squalo were good at what they did, and they deserved that recognition from someone as powerful and influential as the Boss of Passione.
It made him unbelievably happy to know that the Boss of the most powerful and influential gang in Italy saw and recognized the value of his art, his lover and the perfection of their relationship.
The lights were playing on the water and blood was seeping over the ground, inky black in the night. Squalo was grinning, his teeth feeling sharp, his breath feeling hot.
Tiziano’s arms snaking warm around him, his voice behind him, warm next to his ear, like wildflower-honey in the dark. “The Boss will be pleased with our performance.”
Squalo didn’t really care about that. What he loved was jumping from liquid to liquid, swimming with his soul while his lover was right next to him, arms around him, words humid in his ear, eyelashes tickling his cheek while his Clash bit off salty flesh or dragged bodies into drowning. Or else his arms wrapped around his lover’s middle, holding him and burying his head in Tiziano’s shoulder to stifle his giggles from the things Talking Head made their victims do and say.
“I love you, Tiz.” So much so his heart felt like bursting, scintillating like fireworks, burning in a thousand sparks that lit up the night and danced paths over the water.
A kiss to his jaw, soft and warm and honeyed. “I love you too, Squalo.”
The way his lover said his name gave him shivers, every time.
Their targets were dead and Squalo leaned back into his lover’s arms and grinned like he was flying through water, through air, through life.
Tiziano was nothing without his art and nothing without Squalo. He was, after all, at his core an artist.
Without inspiration he couldn’t live. But Squalo was a hunter, had an instinct for survival and ultimately needed nothing more than swimming, which required nothing more than water.
And it was such a beautiful death to die for the one he loved. Tiziano’s one regret was that he wouldn’t live to paint it.
The bullets from Narancia’s Aerosmith pierced his body, a pain unlike anything he’d ever experienced, but Tiziano smiled because his Squalo was still alive and his Squalo would win now that he had Tiziano’s blood as a liquid from which to jump and ambush. His only other regret was that he wouldn’t be able to see it or turn it into a painting.
It would have been nice to live forever with Squalo at his side.
Since that of course wasn’t possible, he was glad to be the first one that died.
Squalo could live on without him, but he himself was dependent on the beautiful, fierce, inspiring red-haired man and could never have lived without him.
The pain in his Squalo’s face as his dying body in his arms was beautiful and Tiziano died wishing he could turn it into art and paint it, because his Squalo was beautiful beyond words and only oil paints could capture his vividness.
They were killers. They were artists. They were lovers.
They had never been fighters.
“A love like ours will never die,” Tiziano had told him once, a smile on his lips and his paintbrush to a canvas.
And yet he’d died in Squalo’s arms, riddled with bullet-holes and yet telling him smilingly, “Now you have liquid and can use your Clash,” and for a moment Squalo hated him, because he had his art and his oil painting and could easily have survived without Squalo, but Squalo couldn’t live without him, his voice and his manner and his eyes all warm like sunlight, welcoming.
Squalo loved him, and when Tiziano died something within himself died, too. He’d never again be free. His world had become once again a cage, a glass tank, and he was nothing more than an exhibit. And there was blood in the water.
He hated this Narancia. He hated everyone who had done this to Tiziano and to him. They didn’t have the right.
He thought to Tiziano’s memory: Watch me.
He swore: “I won't leave even a scrap of him behind, and I'll kill every last member of his team. I'll rip them to pieces and make them pay for what they've done!”
He’d never hated anyone so much as he did then.
And yet in the end, he wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t good enough, couldn’t win. He died by the bullets of Narancia’s Aerosmith just as his lover had.
In his last moments his life flashed before his eyes and he almost laughed.
He could have been an Olympic medalist for swimming freestyle.
Instead he was dying, a member of the mafia, having never accomplished anything more than being found by a beautiful man he ended up getting killed.
And now he was dying just like his lover had.
And he almost laughed, because in the end he didn’t regret anything.
Having been found by Tiziano, his life had been so much better than it would ever have been otherwise, so amazing it could have been a dream, too good to be true.
And at least he got to drown in his own blood, swimming, flying, chasing his lover’s ghost like a shark hunted fish.
He thought: Forgive me, Tiz.
As he died all he saw, all he tasted, was golden linden-flower-honey sunlight, inexplicably warm and glutinous and languid, like jumping into his lover’s arms, laughing, crying, smiling.