Of Vanilla Tea and Orange Cats

"I'm sorry, what?"

Surprisingly, it's Emilio who voices his bewilderment first – quiet, reserved, obedient Emilio, just shy of fifteen years old and still the withdrawn, agreeable child he had been more than a decade ago. To think, the boy-child is Lusca's cousin – more a brother than a cousin, really – and Lusca's hardly ever caught a glimpse of more than the occasional twitch of his eyebrow or the half-hearted lift of his lips. The boy's outburst isn't entirely unexpected, though – after all, the rest of them are too busy gaping at Adriana to voice their shared sentiments.

"Yes, I know it's a bit of a shock, boys," Adriana nods indulgently, pausing to swallow her spaghetti, "but I'm afraid you're going to have to accept it."

"Accept the fact that your apparent asexuality never existed?" Lusca says slowly, eyeing his aunt with mock-horror. "My life is a lie."

"Accept," Adriana replies firmly, "that I'm getting married, Lusca."

"So who's the unlucky guy?" quips Carmyne.

"Your unending wit never fails to amuse me, tesoro," Adriana retorts dryly, half-serious and half-mocking, "and his name is Daniele."

"When do we get to meet him?"

"Whether you get to meet him at all is up in the air right now, love."

"What – why?" eight-year-old Angela protests, kicking her legs under the dining table in a show of righteous fury and indignation. "I want to meet him! Really, really, really want to–!"

"Calm down, Angie," Lusca placates. It works – Angela's always been more attached to him than the rest, for some reason. Adriana's constantly trying to make her understand that he's not her blood-brother, but Angie won't hear a word of it.

"Seriously, though, you're actually getting married?" Carmyne asks skeptically, propping his chin on the palm of his hand. "Do we even know the guy?"

"Obviously not. I'm not entirely sure I trust you boys not to ruin my matrimonial plans."

"Ow," Lusca responds with a lopsided grin. "Give us some credit, aunt."

"Adriana," she corrects him sternly. "And I'll give you some credit when you quit your damned philandering, boy."

"In my defense, I have yet to get anybody pregnant," he jested, the repartee rising to his tongue instinctively.

"Yet," is all his aunt says, wiping away the spaghetti sauce staining her lip with a napkin. All Lusca can catch sight of before she abruptly stands and turns away is the severe tightening of her lips. She doesn't share much of his jesting mood, apparently.

"Come on, aunty–" he sighs, but the desicive click of the mahogany door cuts off his plea.

Resigned, Lusca reclines against his chair, ignoring the persistent stares of his cousins. He loves Adriana to bits, he truly does – how could he not? The woman had taken him in after his parents had died in an aiplane crash. She'd raised him, given him a roof over his head, shared with him her food on the table. She was his mother, for God's sake, even if they were only six years apart. It only made sense that she would want him to settle down for good, or at least snag a steady girlfriend for himself, he knew that.

It just didn't do for him, though. Not to mention, all the girls he'd been with had known perfectly well the kind of relationship he'd wanted – the kind he would always want, he supposes. Occasionally, a few came along that turned out to be a little more serious about him, in spite of his efforts to dissuade them – well, the most he could say for himself was that he'd never two-timed them. Lusca isn't a two-timer – he just samples the world's goods more often than most.

He sighs. His aunt will understand, eventually.

"What's going on in that head of yours, Lusca?"

Lusca starts, blinking and shifting restlessly on the living-room couch as Adriana approaches him.

"Uh," he answers with uncertainty, shaking his head and shrugging. "Nothing, really. Nothing in particular."

"It wouldn't have anything to do with Daniele and I, would it?"

It takes him a moment to recall the name 'Daniele' – the conversation in the dining-room took place less than an hour ago, but perhaps, relating the prospect of marraige to his aunt is hindering his comprehension abilities a little.

"The – marraige? No, no, that's..." he stammers, feeling the brunt of his aunt's gaze, acute and knowing. Lusca pauses, sighs, and leans back against the couch in resignation. "Or maybe that is it."

"Tell me, bambino."

"It's not – I mean, it's nothing serious. I don't doubt you, or even this Daniele guy, but–" he pauses, searching frantically for the right words, attempting to fish them out from some obscure corner of his mind. "Aunt, you're sure about this? You're not just doing this because the kids – because Emilio, Carmyne, and Angela need a father?"

Adriana's lips slowly lift into a smile. It's a soft, sad thing – one that Lusca hasn't seen on his aunt's face for a very, very long time. Her caustic, occasionally sour disposition rarely allows the vulnerability it showcases, he understands. Lusca carefully avoids her eyes.

"And what about you, bambino?" she asks him. "Don't you need a father?"

"I'm twenty-seven years old, aunt."

She chuckles, shaking her head exasperatedly and patting his shoulder. "If you must know, the children are hardly the only reason for my decision. Daniele will be good for them, no doubt. They'll be happy – but so will I," she tightens her hold on his shoulder in a gentle squeeze of reassurance, "and hopefully, so will you."

Lusca doesn't move, even after Adriana leaves and quietly shuts the door to the living-room behind her. He allows the roaring of the fire to envelop his senses, the warmth of the fireplace to encompass him as he lets loose his train of thought. He knows that Adriana gave birth to little Emilio at the tender age of eighteen. She'd been young, then, but she'd supposedly had the support of her lover – had it for more than seven years, in fact, before he left. Lusca, for the life of him, can't understand why the two of them chose to avoid marraige, because the way he sees it, the lack of any legalized bond probably encouraged him to leave all the more.

Here she is now, thirty-three and the single parent of not only her three children, but also the child of her deceased brother. Lusca has to wonder how this 'Daniele' managed to drag Adriana out of her decade-long celibacy.

"So," Adriana announces, her voice rising over the noisy clatterof the cutlery, "I've decided to introduce Daniele to you boys."

The reaction is instantaneous. Angela is, unsurprisingly, the most vocal about her ecstasy, clapping and cheering and beaming in that way only eight-year-olds can. Emilio and Carmyne are considerably more subdued, the former nodding approvingly and smiling with his eyes more than his mouth, while the latter hoots jovially.

"That's great," Lusca remarks, grinning. "When?"

"Sometime this week, I gather," she answers, and then grimaces. "I'd keep it at least a month from now, but Daniele's a pain when he's impatient, much to my chagrin."

"I like him already," Carmyne comments.

Daniele Romano, Lusca thinks absently, is a rather handsome young man.

Aunty's bagged a good one for herself, is the thought that leaps to the forefront of his mind, as he grips the man's hand in a firm handshake. Of course, not that he expected his aunt to settle for anyone but the absolute best in all aspects. To tug the woman out of celibacy obviously requires a convincing combination of appearance and character.

Daniele falls out of Lusca's expectations a little, though.

"Lusca, was it?" the man greets, his voice pleasantly boyish and carrying the barest hint of a lilting accent. "Piacere."

"That's me," Lusca answers with a nod. "Pleasure's all mine."

Daniele is a hard man to describe, but the first word that had been called to Lusca's mind when he'd sauntered in was 'young'. He doesn't have chubby cheeks or doe-like eyes or a round face, it's just the genuine air of jocundity that's so prominently about him. Hell, he isn't even particularly talkative during the meeting, but Angela, Carmyne, and even Emilio are so obviously taken with him. He speaks quietly, softly, but whatever he says, he says it with meaning. Lusca has learned to discern this.

Each time he turns to Adriana, a merry twinkle would gleam in his ash-grey eyes, and his aunt would laugh at whatever he'd said, the peals of her laughter rich and unrestrained.

He's good for her, Lusca realizes. He's good for her, and it's only when he acknowledges this, that he lets himself relax and answer Daniele's peculiar smile with one of his own.

Not even a month passes before Adriana finally puts her foot down, demanding that Daniele stay with them for the wedding preparations and stop running himself ragged. She's been on his case for at least two weeks, the kids are all in favour, and Lusca has carefully stayed nuetral throughout the argument. Regardless, after much reluctance and objection, Daniele finally moves in. Lusca's not sure if he can get used to the idea of a stranger living in their home, but then, his aunt is happy, and the kids are happy, and it's Daniele, so what does it matter?

"Daniele," Carmyne comments, "is awesome."

Lusca watches him collapse atop the sofa, leaning his head against the arm-rest, a satisfied smile playing on his lips as he flexes his fingers.

"First thirty-year-old I know who kicks so much butt at Mortal Kombat," his cousin continues. "I mean, I was sure the guy was just indulging me, you know?"

"Anybody can kick your butt at Mortal Kombat, Carmyne. You kind of suck."

"I do not," Carmyne protests heatedly, pushing himself up on his elbows and glaring defensively at Lusca. "I don't, okay? I'm just not always in form when you catch me at it."

"'In form,' eh? Wouldn't we all like to see that."

He hears a litany of indignant protests in the background, but Lusca has long-since turned his attention back to the Macbook in his lap. His deft fingers are skimming over the keyboard, but his mind, he fears, is elsewhere – hovering over scattered thoughts of his aunt's fiancee, he supposes.

In truth, he and Daniele scarcely interact. Apart from customary social pleasantries and rushed greetings as they hurry in and out of the house, both of them mostly keep to themselves. Lusca, on some level, appreciates this – he's grateful Daniele isn't attempting to slip into the role of the caring stepfather, coddling and striking up awkward conversations where they don't belong. In all honesty, his cousins seem plenty attached the man already, but Daniele, for his part, isn't inadvertently pushing any of them into a forced parent-child relationship. For this, Lusca is glad.

To be completely honest, he'd thought the months before the wedding would blend into the same, comfortable routine; Lusca coming when Daniele goes, Daniele coming when Lusca goes, both of them passing each other by with abstracted 'hello, hi's and minimal eye-contact.

Bumping into Daniele at 2 a.m. in his PJs was not part of the plan, as Lusca recalls.

"Oh, Lusca," Daniele sounds as startled as Lusca feels, to the latter's slight comfort. "It's just you. You surprised me."

"Um," Lusca stammers, groping for words in the dark of his mind while being uncomfortably conscious of his overgrown bed-head and Spongebob pajamas. "Yeah, sorry. I, uh, I was looking for something to eat, actually. Felt a bit hungry."

"Want tea? I was making some for myself." He lifts up the electric kettle gripped in his hand.

"Ah, vanilla?"

"Lemon, but I could whip up some vanilla, too, if you'd like."

"Oh. Ah, no, no. It's – it's okay, I'll just..." he trails off, catching sight of Daniele's raised eyebrow. A slow, sheepish smile creeps onto the surface of his lips. "Or, yeah, vanilla tea would be nice, thanks."

Daniele nods, and Lusca spies just a glimpse of an exasperated smile as he turns back to the kitchen counter.

Ten minutes into the night, a steaming cup of vanilla tea is set down before Lusca – sweetened with just a dash of sugar and pleasantly hot as it touches his tongue, just the way he likes it. Daniele is sitting across from him, sipping at his lemon tea in silence. He's quiet, relaxed, but even in the dim lighting of the living-room, his eyes are alight with that peculiar, quiet brand of joy like they always are. It's almost impossible to feel uncomfortable in the presence of this man, Lusca admits.

"So, how go the wedding preparations?" he asks idly. Lusca finds it rather ironic that he's the one who ends up breaking the silence.

"Ah, you know how it is. Never a moment where you can relax," Daniele answers in between sips.


"Mm. But I'm happy, you know?" he smiles a little wider. "I think we both are."

Lusca hesitates for a moment, before he replies slowly, "Aunt, she's – she's doing wonderful, you know? Seeing her like this – I mean, laughing and smiling, and – actually, it's not just that. There's just this difference, you know? It's–" he clears his throat, "anyway, just – thank you, I guess. Thanks."

Daniele smiles – wide and true and more affectionate than Lusca thinks he could ever deserve, and it's more of a 'you're welcome' than words could ever convey.

"You can rest easy," he adds, soft and low and gentle. "I'll take care of her."

Lusca nods, slightly unsettled – twenty-seven years old, and still so easily seen through. He's an adult, though; he'll hardly shy away from the admittance that he feels protective of his aunt. Daniele, to his credit, doesn't shy away either. He looks straight at Lusca, letting him know with that unnervingly open gaze of his that he intends to honor his words.

That's all they need, the both of them, just that one second of reassurance. Afterwards, Daniele lowers his gaze to the unfinished cup of tea, and remarks, "Your tea's getting cold."

Lusca clicks his tongue, frowning. Before he can stand up, however, Daniele beats him to it.

"Here, hand me that," he holds out a hand, gesturing to the vanilla tea. "I'll heat it up."

"Oh, thanks."

A couple of minutes later, Lusca finds himself idly browsing through the television channels, listening to the clatter of spoons and knifes and the mechanical beeping of the microwave.

He switches off the television, and calls out, "What are you and aunt doing tomorrow?"

"Taking a look at potential wedding cakes, probably," Daniele answers back from the kitchen – Lusca hears the smile in his voice.

"So, I have a bit of work left over for me to do," Adriana informs, rummaging around in her work-bag and pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. "Dan, you'll just have to look at those cakes with one of the kids – preferably Lusca, for obvious reasons."

"Um, aunt," Lusca interrupts, "shouldn't I get a say in this?"

"You should, but you won't today," she snaps. "And for God's sake, it's Adriana."

"You sound tensed," Daniele says, his voice low and concerned. He steps closer to Adriana and rests a hand on her delicate shoulder. "Relax, love. We'll get through it."

She sighs, massaging her temples. "I – yes, I am tensed, I suppose. Just–" she rests her own slender hand on the one atop her shoulder, "just do this for me, would you?"

In hindsight, Lusca supposes this is how he and Daniele find themselves in essentially the grandest bakery they can find, surrounded by nosy, saccharine-sweet employees whom he supposes are just doing their job, but really, could they be a little more subtle? This is giving people all sorts of wrong impressions, if the two giggling schoolgirls in the corner are any indication.

Lusca scratches his nose, glancing at Daniele from the corner of his eye. The man seems occupied, browsing through a collection of cakes in the showcase.

"Vanilla would be good, do you think?" he murmurs absently.

"Standard choice, right?" Lusca contributes.

"Mm, I suppose," he sighs. "I guess that rules it out, then. Too common."

"Well, how about that one over there? In the corner. It's strawberry."

"They have such bland flavours here," Daniele complains, his shoulders sagging. "Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and variants of each."

"Coffee and pineapple?"


His eyebrows furrow in puzzlement. "How is coffee...?"

"I wish they had something a little more appealing," he continues, "like oatmeal."


"Yes, yes, I know what you're going to say," Daniele nods indulgently, apparently dismissing the fact that he'd brought Lusca damn near to choking on his own spit. "Don't knock it till you've tried it. That's all the advice I can give you."

"You, sir, give some crappy advice," Lusca remarks dryly. "Oatmeal as a flavour should be outlawed."

"Don't be silly, Lusca," Daniele laughs – it's heartfelt and velvety, dark in that way only something richly silken can be.

It's raining on the way back – pouring cats and dogs, actually. Clichèd as it is, they rescue a kitten on their way home. It's an emaciated tabby, huddling into the corner of a damp cardboard box, just like in the movies, with dirty, striped fur and a pathetically-thin tail, although the dull orange of its coat is rather distinct. Lusca has despised any and all kinds of feline creatures ever since Angela's Siamese cat from hell damn near scratched his eyes out. His aunt's not fond of them, either. She would probably throw a fit if they carried the cat with its wet, dripping fur into the house. Daniele keeps looking back at the thing, though, all wistful and laughably torn. So in the end, Lusca sighs under his breath, picks up the tabby and tucks it under his coat, against the crook of his elbow, and very carefully avoids the bright gleam he know is there in Daniele's eyes as they walk away from the park.

This is when Lusca thinks he may be in trouble.

For a while, he dismisses it.

He dismisses the occasional butterfly fluttering about in his belly as a one-time thing, a fluke. He dismisses the luster of Daniele's eyes as a trick of the light, even as it grows brighter and brighter, more and more remarkable with each passing day. It'll pass, he constantly reminds himself, it'll pass.

Except, it doesn't. All it does is grow, grow, grow, with each smile that crosses Daniele's lips, and each flippant mention of Lusca's name in his voice, and each tantalizing glimmer that awakens in his eyes, and each stray strand of hair he absent-mindedly pushes behind his ear, and each gaze of his that Lusca catches, maybe by mistake and maybe not.

These little, insignificant things – they're what he always ends up thinking about, always lingering at the forefront of his mind, never entirely gone. Even now, when he's sprawled across the couch and idly tapping his foot on the marble floor of Maria's lounge. Lusca likes Maria. She's smart, sensible, a no-strings-attached sort of person. She's like him, and that's probably why their on-and-off relationship has lasted for quite a while now.

"Here you go," she says, setting down a hot cup of coffee in front of him.


"So, what? Tired of your latest conquest?" she teases, crossing her long, tanned legs.

Oh, God. He can't even remember her full name. She had green eyes, though, he remembers. A peculiar shade of green, they were, but they were rather nice. They'd look a little bluer each time the light hit them just so. They were nice. Lusca supposes they would have, maybe, been nicer if they'd leaned a little towards grey–

His train of thought crashes to a halt. He raises the cup of coffee to his lips, disregarding the way it burns his tongue a little. "Ah, no – I mean, yes," he blurts out. "Yeah. I sort of did, I guess."

Maria raises an eyebrow at him, but doesn't call him on the lack of eloquence. "The coffee's fine, I hope?" is all she says.

"Yeah. Yeah, it's great. Thanks."

The coffee's nice and bitter, with a dash of cream and no sugar; just the way he likes it. Still, though, he can't help but feel an involuntary urge for vanilla tea–

Lusca closes his eyes and sighs. This is getting out of hand.

"Hey, Maria," he says, emotional exhaustion lacing his every word. "Want to get married?"

She laughs, louder and shriller than her delicate, ladylike mannerisms would usually allow. In between giggles, she replies, "And to think I thought you'd lost your charm, Lusca!"

It isn't as if he'd expected anything. It isn't as if he'd expected anything, but Lusca stays silent anyway. He stays silent, stares straight ahead into the cream-painted wall, and eventually, her giggles die down, leaving behind a strange sense of disquiet in their wake. She's getting it, he thinks to himself, overcome by an odd entanglement of relief and resignation and trepidation.

"Oh, my God," she murmurs. "Oh, God – you're serious. Lusca, what happened to you?"

Daniele Romano happened. My aunt's fucking fiancée happened.

Slowly, the words slip out, a tentative admittance that leaves even himself reeling, "There is something very, very wrong with me, Maria."

She says nothing in reply, only gazes at him with something akin to pity, while wayward thoughts run rampant in his head. It's not love, sure as hell not, but it doesn't have to be. The fact that Lusca even contemplates what Daniele would taste like, what it would feel like to run his fingers up his bare arm, to trace the hollow of his neck with butterfly kisses, the sounds Daniele would make if Lusca caught his ear between his teeth, if he bit into his shoulder hard enough to leave a mark – that he contemplates at all is maddening enough, never mind love.

But Maria won't understand.

She keeps staring at him for a few moments, as if searching for something unspoken within his downcast eyes. Eventually, she leans forward to place a gentle hand on his clenched fist, and says softly, "Go home. We'll talk about this tomorrow, okay?"

Lusca nods. He stands up, walks to the door, and slips out quietly. He doesn't look back, even when Maria shouts out to him, "Call me!"

"So, I think I'm getting hitched."

He knows that Maria is probably going to kill him for it, but Lusca makes the announcement at the dinner table, anyway.

The first verbal reaction is, unsurprisingly, from Carmyne, who voices his bewilderment with his usual eloquence: "What the fuck."

Adriana automatically snaps, "Carmyne, language–" but it's not quite enough to detract from the explosive announcement and banish the atmosphere of disbelief and skepticism that's still surrounding them. Even Angela is quiet, staring at him with rounded eyes as wide as her dinner-plates. Lusca thinks Emilio may be choking, with the way he's gulping down his glass of water.

Clearing her throat to dispel some of the tension, Adriana questions, "You... think you're getting married?"

"Well, I proposed," he explains half-heartedly, "but she didn't give me a definite answer, so I can't say."

"Ah," she replies, still a little awkwardly, "alright, then. Who is she, exactly?"

"Maria," he finds himself answering. "Maria Conti. You've met her once, I think?"

She nods slowly. Their conversation fades into silence, but Adriana doesn't resume eating. Her grip on the handle of the fork keeps loosening and tightening, and Lusca knows, from the way her eyes are flickering, that she's contemplating what to say.

"I have to admit, I didn't expect this," she says softly.

He smiles – a self-deprecating, bitter twist of his lips that whispers of irony, but his aunt doesn't notice. "Neither did I, aunt."

"You're sure about this, Lusca?"

He nods, because he is sure about this – just not for the reasons she thinks and hopes for.

"Well, then. I believe congratulations are in order?"

Just like that, everybody jumps back into the normalcy of things. Suddenly, Lusca is surrounded by a babel of unsure but sincere congratulations. Angela jumps into his lap, even, to plant a chaste kiss on his cheek. He accepts them all like everybody knows he will; smiling easily and pinching cheeks and ruffling hair. Inwardly, he feels uncharacteristically solemn – but they don't have to know that.

He doesn't glance at Daniele once throughout the ordeal. Lusca realizes he should feel proud of himself for this, but he doesn't. All he feels is something he's not willing to name.

He avoids Daniele like the plague after that. Rushes out the door just when Daniele says 'I'm home,' gulps down his food and leaves the dinner-table just when Daniele sits down, switches off the T. retreats back into his room just when Daniele steps into the lounge. It's all a little too obvious, maybe; lacking that bit of finesse that Lusca's so famous for.

Incidentally, the one time confrontation is impossible to avoid is in the middle of night. Lusca finds this amusing and contemptible all at once.

Daniele's in pajamas too, this time. They're a respectable, checkered red-and-white, unlike Lusca's Spongebob print. The untidy hair pointing in all directions and the bags under his eyes scream of sleep-deprivation. Lusca has to wonder what's keeping him up at night.

"Um. Hey," he half-heartedly greets.

"Lusca," Daniele acknowledges, nodding, and then promptly turns back to the coffee machine.

Oh. Alright, then. If they aren't going to strike up any friendly conversation, that's perfectly fine with Lusca. Works out in his favour, really, he wouldn't have it any other way–

"Craving another midnight snack?" Daniele asks him. Never mind that, then. And if Lusca feels just the tiniest bit happier after hearing his young, buoyant voice again and kicks himself for feeling anything, he gives no outward indication of it.

"Couldn't sleep," he answers. "Just thought I'd look for something to stuff myself with while I'm up."

"Mm," is all Daniele says, still with his back to him. Lusca refuses to feel deflated. He isn't a damned puppy wagging his tail after this man, for God's sake.

"Could you–" Daniele turns his head to look at him, and no, God, nonono. Lusca knows he's going to hate himself for this, he's going to feel like slapping himself to kingdom come, but God only knows he can't help it– "Would it be too much trouble if I asked you to, uh, make me some vanilla tea?"

Daniele smiles in response. "Sure," he says briefly. Lusca looks at that smile, and something nags at the back of his mind, telling him that it's a little too brittle, a little less transparent than it should be. Lusca dismisses it.

"Here you go," Daniele says a few minutes later. "All yours."

"Thank you."

Lusca, for some unfathomable reason, tries to catch Daniele's gaze as the latter hands him the cup of vanilla tea. Well, in all honesty, the impulsivity of the action, stupid as it is, is not that unfathomable at all – Lusca wants to see Daniele's eyes. He wants to see the strange, wispy ash-grey of them. He wants to see the luster that's been haunting his dreams for days. He wants to see the faint glimmer that rests so securely in the depths of his irises. Just this once, he promises himself, it's just one more time.

But Daniele gives him nothing. As soon as the handle of the ceramic cup slides into Lusca's fingers, he turns away.

"Well, I'd better be going," he says, ambling away. "It's late. You get to bed soon, too."

"Wait. Daniele–" Lusca clamps his damnable mouth shut just as Daniele pauses. He tilits his head to glance questioningly at Lusca over his shoulder, but – damn it all, he's looking at him in that expectant way of his, but what is Lusca supposed to say–?

"I could – well, I could do with some company?" he finds himself saying. Lusca feels every bit as surprised as Daniele looks.

"Oh, I'd – I'd be happy to," Daniele acquiesces, right after he's shook himself out of the stupor induced by Lusca's request. He sits down next to Lusca on the living-room couch. They'd make quite the picture, Lusca supposes; two grown men in their pajamas with bed-head, seated awkwardly next to each other. They're not looking at each other, but Lusca can feel the heat of Daniele's skin through the thin cotton of his shirt. His fingers twitch. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

"If it's too much trouble," Lusca begins, "I mean, if you have something to do–"

"Oh, no. No, nothing like that," Daniele answers. His voice is the same as always – boyish, lighthearted, sounding with the same ease. Lusca can see his toes clenching and unclenching, though, at the edge of his peripheral vision. "Actually, I–" he sighs, "I'm surprised – that you asked, I mean. It's – well, you've been avoiding me for the past few days, so I thought–"

Lusca freezes, just split-seconds before he conveniently chokes on his vanilla tea.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry–" he hears Daniele apologizing profusely as he thumps his back. "I just assumed – was I wrong? I'm sorry if I misunderstood–"

Lusca lifts up a finger, and Daniele pauses. The poor man is under the impression that it was all a grave misunderstanding. In the end, the coward that he is, Lusca decides to play it off as just that.

"I'm not sure what I did to give you that impression," he says tentatively, ensuring that his voice remains even, praying that the tremors resonating within him don't escape into his words, "but, whatever it is, I'd like for us to put it behind us."

"Yes, I know, I – I'm sorry. I just assumed, and it..." Daniele sighs, "it wasn't right of me to do so. I apologize."

"No harm done," Lusca responds, with benign lightheartedness feigned better than Lusca ever thought he could be credited with. He almost laughs. You bring out the worst in me, don't you? "I'd just hate to have any misunderstandings between us. Not to mention, I'll be getting married in a few months," he forces out an embarrassed chuckle, "it's a busy time for the family. So, you know, keep up the positivity and all that."

"Of course. And, again, congratulations to you for the – engagement?"

"Nah, not yet. We just decided to tie the knot, is all."

Daniele nods. All the while, the smile never leaves his face. Now, perhaps, it's the opacity of Lusca's own fabricated grin that allows him to see the transparency of Daniele's own so clearly – the brittleness lacing the edges of a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"Miss Conti, was it?" he continues. "I'm sure she's a wonderful catch."

The bitterness that swells up within him is completely unexpected. It rises from the ashes of something he'd thought to have been defeated, swallows his rationale and logic and reason, and prompts the words to slip from his tongue unbidden, "Well, you wouldn't know, would you?"

Daniele either doesn't notice their causticity, or ignores it entirely. Either way, Lusca should be grateful, but he feels nothing of the sort. Nothing more than a tight knot in the pit of his stomach, coiling more and more desperately.

"I suppose I wouldn't," the smile is a little more real now, a little more familiar, "but if you love her enough to marry her, I'll just have to trust your judgement, won't I?"

The smile undoes him. This man undoes him. Just a Goddamn flicker of his self in the intimate dark of the room, and Lusca so easily allows the desperation emanating from that knot to swallow him whole.

"Love? You think I–" he laughs, and it's acerbic and real and everything he wishes it wouldn't be. God, he wishes. "You don't know – God, no, you don't know anything. You don't know who I love, you don't even care. You don't give a shit–"

"What's gotten into you? Of course I–"

"No, you don't! You don't, and that's – that's just as well," his voice sinks abruptly from a near-shout to a secretive whisper. He presses his fingertips into his temples. "It's just as well."

Lusca's gaze is fixated on the dim-lit, wooden floorboards of the living-room. Daniele is frozen. Lusca can hear him, his shallow breathing, careful and unsure. He won't look at his face. He can't.

A breathy whisper. "Lusca–"

"Are you happy?" Lusca interrupts. His voice is hoarse. With emotion. With an excess of restraint. "Are you happy for me?"

"Of course, I – everybody is–"

"I didn't ask about everybody, Daniele," Lusca sighs. The edge of his tone is blunt, now. The sharpness retreats into the recesses of his mind, tired. Lusca looks up, then. Daniele doesn't meet his eyes. "You," it's always you, "are you happy?"

"I am."

"Look at me and say that. Look at me." Don't ruin me when you can't even look at me.

Daniele does, then. He repeats, "I am," while looking straight into Lusca's eyes, and Lusca sees. He sees the myriad of conflicting emotions storming underneath the layered grey of Daniele's eyes. He spies acceptance, resignation, regret – regret so much like his own, buried in the furrow of Daniele's brow. Painful uncertainty, etched into the tightened line of his lips. This is when Lusca thinks to himself, I'm fucked.

"You liar," he murmurs, partly for his ears and partly for Daniele's. Daniele flinches.

"Lying doesn't suit you," Lusca continues. "You can't lie for shit. Did anybody ever tell you that?"

"You don't know a thing about me," Daniele defends. He's hit a nerve, it seems. Daniele's eyes narrow ever-so-slightly, his lips tighten just that little bit more, his voice hardens to stone.

Lusca takes the bait and chuckles, anyway. He shakes his head at the sheer irony of it. "You'd wish I didn't, if you knew – if you knew the things I notice, the things I... the things I can't help thinking about, it–" he swallows, in spite of himself, "it's not – I can't–"

Lusca lifts his gaze, then. He wills it to tear apart every pretense between them. He wills it to leave him raw and naked, stripped down to fear and desperation and want. "Daniele–"

Daniele sharply draws in a breath. The storm brewing within the depths of his eyes intensifies. This is all the permission Lusca needs. He reaches out to grip Daniele's shoulders. His fingers are trembling, partly out of anticipation and partly out of fear – fear of what this could lead to. He draws his face close, until they're a hair's breadth apart. Daniele doesn't resist – he's frozen, staring into Lusca with a gaze stripped bare, screaming of vulnerability. Their breaths meld into each other, and as Lusca counts the different shades of grey flickering near Daniele's iris, he whispers, "Will you tell me to stop?"

A moment. Breathlessness. "Do you think I can?"

"Please, please – tell me to stop."

Daniele doesn't.

Lusca lungs forward, crushing his lips to Daniele's. It's a violent, frightening thing. Their pliant bodies curve into each other; fragile, breakable, at each other's mercy. His tongue hungrily maps out the inside of Daniele's mouth, traces the slick insides of his cheeks, the enamel of his teeth. Daniele tastes of bitter coffee and sweet mead. He smells of damp earth and rain, with something curiously unique buried underneath. Daniele, Daniele, Daniele – Daniele's hand resting at the nape of his neck, Daniele's eyelashes tickling his cheek, Daniele's tongue entwining with his, trying to sate a hunger Lusca knows will never be sated.

He breaks the kiss, tracing a path along Daniele's jaw with butterfly kisses. He lays open-mouthed kisses down the side of his neck, until he reaches the juncture between Daniele's neck and shoulder. Lusca catches the sensitive skin between his teeth, tugging gently. He hears Daniele murmur, "Lu–" before the rest of the words are lost to the hitch in his breath.

He doesn't say anything else for a while.

The affair weighs heavily on both their minds. Whenever Adriana is in the room, the spark of Daniele's smile dims with guilt, and the set of Lusca's shoulders stiffens with tension. It's irrefutable – they are, after all, betraying a woman they love. They know this, and the knowledge isn't a light burden.

After that first night, though, staying away is impossible. Every time Lusca sees Daniele, flashes of naked skin and clutching hands and mingling breath rush forward from his memory, and the nail-scratches on his back seem to burst to life with sweet, stinging pain. Daniele feels much the same, Lusca reckons.

There are lazy afternoons, sometimes, when the house is empty and they're free to curl beside each other in the backyard. Daniele easing his fingers into Lusca's mop of hair, and Lusca sighing with contentment under the slow burn of the sun. Sometimes, in the living room, with Lusca bugging Daniele, and Daniele laughing and admitting that yes, he does like his lemon tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey, and he does rub his feet together when he sleeps, and he does always skip to the comics' section of the newspaper. This is when Lusca mentions how awesome Garfield is, and then Daniele laughs and presses a kiss to the top of his head.

Sometimes, their moments together are not so carefree. Sometimes, they're worn down by guilt and desperation and the terrifying weight of a longing they shouldn't feel, and so, when their bodies meet, they forgo gentleness. Lusca's fingers press into Daniele's shoulders, his nails dig into his skin, his hands tug at his hair, pull at his scalp, rough, painful – but Daniele only craves more. When Lusca murmurs into his ear how he wants to crawl inside of him, devour him whole, claim him from the inside out, Daniele only says 'please' against his cheek in that soft, tender way of his and clutches him tighter.

Their days go on like this, blending into each other. That is, until the day Adriana steps into the dining room and casually announces the date of the wedding. It's a Friday in the middle of July, hot and sweltering. Lusca doesn't know why, but he always remembers it like this. It's a Friday in the middle of July.

"A wedding in October would be great, though, wouldn't it?" Carmyne contributes.

"We're not planning an outdoor wedding anyway," Adriana answers. She's in a good mood, he notices vaguely.

"Ah–" Lusca interrupts. His voice is gravelly. He clears his throat before continuing, "I'm just going to–" he gestures in the general direction of the study, "just remembered I'd forgotten something. Don't wait up for me."

"What could you have forgotten at the dinner table?" Adriana questions skeptically.

"Assignment," he calls out, almost at the door. "Left the cat in the study with it."

He barely refrains from smacking his forehead before walking out the door when Adriana says, "Cat?"

Lusca hears the mahogany door of the study quietly click shut. He doesn't look up. F. Scott Fitzgerald, reads the small, cursive print on the novel's spine. The Great Gatsby. He's breezed through that one before, as he recalls. Faded remembrances surge through his mind – magnificent, superficial impressions of grandeur imprinted onto the pages of a book, a multitude of misplaced expectations that stemmed from yearning too much for too long, the inevitability of tragedy buried underneath the dynamic of a clandestine affair, underneath the long, covetous looks shot from under sweeping, gold-painted eyelashes. Lusca closes his eyes, and breathes in.

"Dan," he ackowledges quietly.


This is when he turns around. Lusca is careful to keep his face blank, even when Daniele shoots him a weak smile. It's a phantom of what it used to be, during days that seemed to last an eternity, and they would be little else than reckless, affection-starved children. Lusca would feel as if the wisps of wind between them were laden with whispers of adoration, tucked secretly into the safe depths of the wind's voice. He would shake his head at the idiocy of the notion, and then he would smile at Daniele anyway.

He feels tired, now. Daniele does, too. His smile dims; dims and dims and dims until it slips off his face completely.

Softly, he says, "So we're not going to pretend, then?"

"Should we?"

"That depends," Daniele answers, "on what you're going to ask of me."

The implication is ludicrous enough to evoke a bark of laughter from him.

"Don't. Don't even try that," Lusca replies, his palms pressed to his forehead. "She was my aunt before she was your lover. She was my mother."

"I know," Daniele says. His voice is a near-whisper, and his eyes are a little sad. Lusca doesn't look up, but he knows. "I know, Lusca. She's my fiancee, she's the reason I even - there's a lot she's given me the strength to do. I know."

"Where the hell do I even fit in?" Lusca whispers to himself. "No, of course – I don't. I don't, except as the little orphan kid your wife adopted, or – or as the nephew your wife helped when nobody else did, or whatever," his knuckles press painfully into his temple as he clenches his hand, "what-the-fuck-ever. You know that, you know all of it."

"I do," Daniele's voice might have cracked a little bit. Lusca doesn't notice.

"Where the fuck am I?" he whispers fiercely, more to himself than to Daniele still. "What am I? You two are perfect and – and what am I?"

"Lusca," Daniele whispers. It's a whisper teetering on the edge of something frightening. Lost and pleading. Maybe broken? "Please. Please, I can't – I can't do this."

"Yes, you can," Lusca hisses. "You can, you fucking are. You hypocrite, you–" his voice dies down to a choked whisper, "–you amazing, beautiful hypocrite. You – I – I'm–"


Lusca's head jerks up. Daniele's eyes are a trainwreck, brimming with debris left behind by torturous conflict. Lusca wouldn't be wrong to assume that his eyes must be much the same.

"Don't tell me you don't know what you are, don't do that to me," he pleads. "You're everything. There's nothing but you, you have to know that."

"You don't know what you want, Daniele–"

"Don't tell me what I know and what I don't!" Daniele shouts, thin lips twisting into a furious scowl. "You don't get to tell me that, Lusca! I know what I want, I know what I want – and what I want is you, what I want is – I just want you to–" he inhales deeply, burying his fingers in his hair and pacing restlessly. "Don't – at least don't walk away from me telling me I never loved you."

"What should I do, then? What should I do while you two go off to build a fucking life together?"

"Remember. Remember like I'll remember," Daniele steps towards him, and Lusca is – will always be – too enraptured by the tempest of his eyes to step away. "Remember that I'd loved you, more than anyone else ever will."

"That's not fucking fair, Dan–"

"No, it's not, Lusca. It's not fair, not to you, not to me, not to Adriana," he leans forward, the edge of the table jabbing into his abdomen, "and that's why you can't forget. You can't forget something I'll always remember and call that fair."

In retrospect, Lusca can't remember who leaned in first. All he knows is that they were weak and crumbling at that moment in time, frighteningly exposed to one another and vulnerable to the desire of exposing themselves even more. That doesn't make it okay, but it makes their want understandable, if not justifiable.

Their kisses are deep and slow and languid, a certain intimacy to their slowness that their frenzied desire would seldom allow. Lusca feels hands flitting over the nape of his neck, pressing into his collarbone, skimming over his cheekbones, as if to imprint onto the pages of Daniele's memory the way they feel under his fingertips.

Lusca doesn't need to do anything, though. There's this little, bright box lodged permanently at the back of his mind, and Daniele's every word reverberates within it, his every breath paints onto it a splash of brighter colour, and the feel of his skin is emulated by the texture of its walls. It will never leave Lusca alone.

Initially, he tries to save them some of the inevitable grief. He tries to pretend that the hand clenched into his shirt isn't trembling. He tries to pretend that he closes his eyes because of the kiss and not the burn at the back of his eyes. Of course, it doesn't work. Both of them are out in the open now, more exposed than they've ever had to be. So, he doesn't hold back, in spite of himself. The angry, red mark on Daniele's neck will be as dark as he wants to make it, the bite on his shoulder will hurt as much as he wants it to, and when he covers his chest with a shower of kisses that could mean anything and everything, he will ache as much as Lusca does. Daniele, in turn, doesn't muffle his moans and whimpers and gasps. They become all that Lusca hears.

For once, he doesn't want to care about the presence of others. He wants to take Daniele against the bookshelf at the back of the study and carry him off into their own little world, where he can love him with everything that he is.

Lusca feels wetness leak out from the corner of his eye. Before he can wipe it away, however, Daniele holds his head against his chest, his fingertips fierce and wanting as they dig into the back of his head. He chokes out, "Lu–" just like he had that first time – and his voice is beautiful, beautiful, his voice is home like nothing else will ever be

"Please, please–"

"Whatever you want, Lusca," Daniele murmurs, "whatever you want."

(take, reap, plunder, sow. it's okay, it doesn't matter, it's okay, take it)

–Crying, Lusca does.

Contrary to popular belief, Daniele Romano is not a nice person.

The man himself knows this. He acknowledges it, and the knowledge sinks deeper and deeper into him with every kiss he places upon Lusca's lips, every smile he shoots at Adriana, every claw he feels digging its way into his heart when he thinks of Lusca's tears dampening his neck, because God damn it, he has no right. He has no right to hurt such a wonderful woman, no right at all to lie to her face and destroy whatever there is between them.

So he decides to stop lying.

"Come in," Adriana calls out.

"Just me," Daniele announces, peering into the bedroom. She's untying her haphazard bun when he steps in.

"Well, come on in then. What're you standing out there for?" she reprimands lightly. "The room is practically your own."

A jolt of guilt rips through him. Instead of reluctantly dismissing it as he usually does, however, he chooses to embrace it. Daniele clings to it, and the guilt drives him on. It gives him reason.

"Getting ready for some shut-eye, I'm presuming?" he asks idly, smiling at her. The smile is a weak, sad thing, but it's true – to her and to himself.

She lets out a hum of affirmation. "And you? You've been staying up late for the past couple of days, haven't you?"

Restraining a flinch, he chuckles weakly, "How'd you know?"

"I can see the dark circles, sweetheart," she answers, a sarcastically-honeyed tone accompanying the endearment.

"The kids are wearing off on me, I think."

"You bet they are, and you'd better not let them anymore," she sighs, frowning. "Especially Lusca."

His heart leaps up into his throat, and he can only hope that Adriana doesn't hear its frenzied beating.

"That boy..." she continues, the stern frown deepening and marring the beauty of her aristocratic features, "I'm worried for him."

"What for?"

She clicks her tongue at him, and replies, "Don't be daft, Daniele. You can't not know what for."

"Well, his sexual activity is..." he pauses, swallowing, "a cause for concern, I suppose."

"A cause for concern," she repeats in a sardonic drawl. "Daniele, he's slept with half the city."

"Now, that's an exaggeration if I've ever heard one, Adriana."

"I certainly hope so," she snaps, seemingly at the end of her patience.

"Adriana," Daniele placates, standing behind her and rubbing her stiff shoulders until the tension reluctantly eases out of them, "he's not the 'love 'em and leave 'em' type, at least. You know that. He does have relationships, even if they do hardly last a month–"

"And exist purely on the basis of sex–"

"He's getting married," Daniele defends fiercely. His voice is low, dotted with specks of underlying fragility. Firmly disregarding the bearably dull ache in his chest as it blossoms into pinpricks of pain takes a will of steel, but Daniele ploughs on. "If that won't convince you, what will?"

She's silent, for a while. The grip of her bony fingers on the handle of her hairbrush tightens and loosens, tightens and loosens. Sharp eyes flicker.

"Well, I suppose–" she hesitates. The waver in her voice sounds tentative, hopeful. "I can't deny that. He – he has changed, hasn't he? Seems softer, somehow. Gentler with everything he does. I can only think that Maria has something to do with it."

"You think so?"

"I do. He's still Lusca, of course, but – he's got his head in the clouds nowadays, have you noticed? It's as if he's contantly thinking of someone else, and he – he's quiet, quiet in that contented sort of way – am I making any sense?"

"Go on."

"I just don't know, Daniele. He seems so happy one moment, and so troubled the next. This Maria girl is messing with his mind, I just don't know what to make of it."

He breathes in, pretends that the air in the room, redolent with the scent of crisp cloth and perfume, can cleanse his fears and doubts away from his mind.

"I do," he says. "I do, Adriana."

Even after understanding dawns in the darkening blue of her eyes, hidden underneath a pitifully brittle layer of denial, she refuses to forget restraint. She's a strong woman, Daniele knows. It pains him to see just how close she comes to breaking apart. During the hour through which their conversation stretches, her skin pales and pales and retains its pallor, but Daniele doesn't back down.

Years later, Daniele will look back. He will, perhaps, remember that point, that God-awful moment of clarity, when she stared at the carpeted floor of her room and asked him, with all the bleakness of a graying world in her voice, "If I leave you, will you regret it?"

This, he will remember, was the point when he thought of Lusca and all that he represented. He will think of smelling apple-scented shampoo instead of violet-scented body-lotion. He will think of waking up to the softness of blonde curls instead of the silkiness of brown tresses. He will think of looking into deep sea-green instead of fresh baby-blue. He will want.

And then, he will answer, "No."

Things do not turn out, in any sense of the word, happy.

There is still Adriana. There is still Emilio, and Carmyne, and Angela – little angels who know nothing and ask everything. There is still heartbreak. There is still a house who's walls are breaking, chipping away one at a time.

But there are also builders. Three angelic ones, and two others – one of whom is a little broken, and another who wishes he could be.

He can't, though. This, he knows. Because alongside the breaking house is a little park where a cardboard box lies untouched, and a swing he's never noticed before rusts before his eyes, and its strikingly grey paint chips away.

He can't, because there is still a Daniele, and there is still a Lusca.

He sits on the green swing beside the grey one, and says, "You know, I think I feel a craving for vanilla tea."

There's a smile, and for a moment that lasts an eternity, everything is right in the world.