Kingdom of Heaven
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"I'm going to Sicily," he said to his brother, throwing a duffle bag over his shoulder.
"You're going to win it back for us?" Veneziano beamed. "I didn't know you were strong enough! But be careful, America can be scary."
Romano frowned at him, wondered if he had looked at himself in a mirror lately. But then, Romano probably looked worse. He moved past Veneziano and out of the room, saying over his shoulder, "That's not why I'm going."
Veneziano followed him towards the door. "Why, then?"
Romano stopped just in front of the door. He set his jaw. "I'm ending this." When Veneziano didn't reply right away, he continued, "Whatever I have to do, I'm ending it. If I have to get on my knees and kiss America's fat feet, then fine."
He opened the door, but it was immediately slammed shut when Veneziano shoved both his hands against it. His eyes were wide, but he was still smiling, he even laughed a little.
"You can't do that, Romano. We can't give up. Just think how Germany would feel if we…" He turned to smile at Romano. "Don't worry! He's going to fix everything, just wait—"
Throwing the duffle bag to the floor, Romano grabbed his brother's shoulder and shoved him against the wall. "You don't get it! He's the reason we're in this mess! Him and his crazy boss, and your glorious Il Duce— you think Germany gives a shit about us? But you're so busy being his fucking lapdog that you just don't see anything else. You don't see those bombs hitting Naples, you weren't there when they took Sicily from me, they're bombing Grandpa's city and we're both skin and fucking bones and you just don't see it!"
Veneziano's gaze had been fixed on something past Romano's shoulder, but now he shook his head and smiled again at him, his eyes shining. "But when it's over. When it's over we're going to be just like Papa."
Romano cupped Veneziano's face, bringing him close, digging his fingers in as if he could force his reasoning into his brother's skull. "But don't you remember what happened to Papa?"
Veneziano was still smiling, but his lips twitched, his dark brows furrowed upwards in a mournful expression. "We can't surrender. Germany will be so upset."
Snorting, Romano shoved him away from the door. "Then you can go comfort him. I'm gonna go save both our asses."
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land.
Sicilia, spring 1943
America was leaning back in his chair with his muddy boots propped up on the conference table. England sat beside him, back straight and nostrils flared, his hands clasped over the documents in front of him. For all his poise, England didn't look much better than Romano felt – with the burn marks on his neck and the skin around one eye swollen with yellow and faded blue.
"Mornin', Italy!" America gave him a jaunty wave, then muttered to England, who did not take his bruised eyes off of Romano, "Wait, they both look the same, which one is he?"
"Right, South Italy, mind if I just call you 'Italy'? Take a seat!"
Romano wrinkled his nose. He was used to fast talkers, but not ones whose words were so clipped, who had so little care for which vowels in his name should be emphasized. But he sat down across from them, planting his feet far apart and crossing his arms across his chest. He wasn't sure which nation to focus on, so he just glanced between England and America.
"So what do you want me to do?"
England's scarred lips twisted into a little smirk. "There may be nothing you can do. We're still debating your worth to us as an ally, as opposed to a conquered land."
"Aw, c'mon, England." America tilted his head to the side, grinning at England. "You don't have to scare the guy."
England didn't pay that much heed. "Rest assured, this is not fear mongering, Romano." His accent completely butchered the pronunciation, and he seemed very pleased with the fact. "The fact of the matter is, we have very little to gain from an armistice with you."
Romano's knee bounced as he shoved his fists deeper into his arms. "How d'you figure that."
England brought his hands up to rest his chin upon them. "Because, dear boy, we're going to beat you regardless."
There was certainly no arguing that point. Romano unfolded his arms and draped them on the armrests, tapping his thumb while his knee continued to bounce. "Yeah, and how many more of your soldiers have to die just to beat us?"
England's smirking lips twitched and curled. "What's this? You're concerned about my soldiers now? That's quite the turnaround."
Romano let out a long breath through his clenched teeth. "Look, I didn't give you that black eye, all right?"
The smirk had fully transformed into a snarl now. "Well, you certainly helped! Do you think I didn't notice your planes over London? Or that damnable little fleet of yours?"
Romano could contain his hands no longer, tossed them into the air as he rolled his eyes and exclaimed, "So, what, you're gonna drag this out even longer just because you're pissed at me?" He threw his head back and gave a sharp wave, as if backhanding the air. "And Christ, I wasn't the one who sent those bombers after you – my idiot brother did, and only 'cause the bastard in charge told him to, and that was only 'cause they both wanted to look good in front of Germany."
His head rolled forward again so he could glare at England. "So if you wanna be pissed, be pissed at them."
England's shoulders rose as he took a slow breath, opening his mouth for a rebuttal; but America spoke first. "Doesn't really work that way, y'know? Can't be at war with just half of you." His nose wrinkled, but only briefly. "Unless you're splitting from him or something."
"Hell no! Do you know what a pain in the ass our unification was?"
America grinned, raising his eyebrows. "I'll bet!"
England gave a snort and leaned back in his chair. "So you're pinning the blame on your brother, are you? Shall we just invade him, then, and let you go on your merry way?"
Romano barked out a laugh, putting his elbows on the table and pushing his hair back. "You don't get it, do you? You think I'm trying for an easy out? Yeah, right. Getting invaded by you guys would be the easy way out." He sat back again, gripping the armrests. "At least this way I can throw a few punches at that son of a bitch."
America locked his hands behind his head, giving England a sidelong glance, and shrugged. Then he looked back at Romano. "What about your boss? Doesn't seem like he'd enjoy this idea too much."
Romano's lip curled just slightly. "I'll take care of that."
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Roma, 9 September 1943
There was a quiet sort of chaos in Rome that day. The king and his administers had fled, leaving no orders behind, and the soldiers were all too stunned to do much of anything besides hold their guns aloft to be taken by the Germans. The only sounds were the ones brought by Germany, in his planes that roared overhead, in his coarse language shouting orders at whoever had not hidden themselves indoors.
Even Veneziano was silent when Romano found him, standing beside a truck, his face turned upwards to watch the planes soaring above their grandfather's buildings, smooth metal racing past uneven stone.
"What a funny background," he said in a breathless whisper as Romano hurried towards him. He tilted his head. "Or, maybe he's the subject, and we're only the background, and you just can't tell from this angle."
"Yeah, right," Romano snorted. "Germany probably knows shit about composition." He grabbed his brother by the arm. "Come on, let's get outta here."
Veneziano's gaze traveled back down to earth, and he smiled at Romano. His expression was soft, subdued. "He's so sad right now."
Romano furrowed his brows, leaning in closer to peer at him. Then he shook his head and scowled. "Whatever, look, we have to go before Germany—"
Veneziano laughed, a meek noise that was little more than a quiet giggle, and he raised his hands so that Romano could see the shackles that were clamped upon his wrists. A thick chain fell from them and led up to the truck behind him. He shrugged, still smiling. Romano seized him by the shoulders even as his stomach churned.
"The hell's the matter with you? You're just gonna let him do this?"
Veneziano's eyes traveled everywhere but towards Romano's face. "You should have seen him, he was so upset…so I thought maybe—"
"No." Romano poked him hard in the forehead. "You didn't think, you never fucking think—" Except maybe when he's painting, sometimes he looks like he's thinking then, but he hasn't painted anything in years. "You just do, and you never worry about what's gonna come after!"
Veneziano met his gaze then, blinked at him, and then his smile widened. "Oh, Romano…" He brought his shackled hands up to Romano's face, pressing his fingertips into his cheekbones. "Don't worry! Everything's going to be fine! We've been through worse, haven't we?"
Romano's voice was low. "You don't know that."
Tugging the chain to drag it out a bit more, Veneziano raised his hands over Romano's head and draped his arms around his brother's shoulders. He rested his chin upon Romano's shoulder, going limp against him as he'd always done when they were little. "We were apart for so long, remember? But it turned out okay in the end. Everyone always laughs at us, don't they? They think we're weak. But we're just different." His head popped back up, and he grinned. "And we must be worth something! Everyone always wanted us to come stay with them!"
Romano allowed himself a tiny smile. "Only 'cause you were such a nice little maid growing up. I wish you'd kept our place as clean as you did at Austria's."
It was then that they heard shouting a few blocks over – harsh shouts in a harsh language. They both looked in the direction of those voices, even though they couldn't see anyone through the buildings.
"I'm not gonna let him take me." Romano returned his gaze to his brother. "I'm gonna make this annoying as hell for him."
Veneziano's smile softened, little wrinkles appearing on his brow. "You never did like Germany. I wish you could've gotten along."
Romano pressed his lips together into a thin line. There was no point in responding to that – his brother had his own kind of stubbornness. He saw things in a very particular way: Germany would protect him, he always said, and Romano knew he felt the same even now. When Veneziano felt something, he felt it with all his being, and nothing short of the hand of God could hope to change it. And Veneziano felt that he owed Germany some great debt of loyalty, a debt as deep and unmoving as his love for the other nation.
But Romano was stubborn too, and although Veneziano could ramble off a novel's worth of reasons why he loved Germany, Romano could never quite articulate the truths of his hate for that same man, truths that went far deeper than soggy potatoes or even church schisms. It was about the tall, fair-haired warrior from the north who had turned his back on their grandfather. It was about how Germany seemed to believe they would become the Roman Empire reborn, even though he had never seen Rome at the end, even though it was his ancestors who had dealt the final blow. It was about their slow, painful unification, and how they'd had to defy even the Pope in order to really be whole. It was about all they had lost in order to gain all that they were about to lose again.
Romano reached behind himself and took Veneziano's hands, pulling them over his head and pushing his brother away. "Just. Try not to do anything too stupid. I'll be coming for you soon. And try to say your prayers every night, too. Just because you've been hanging out with a Protestant doesn't mean you need to be a damned heathen, too."
Veneziano nodded and smiled, tears flowing freely down his round cheeks. But then his eyes widened. "Oh…oh, Romano, I don't have my rosary, it's at home and I didn't get to take it before he came and—"
"What's the matter with you?" Romano gave him a light smack on the forehead. "You should have it on you all the time!" He reached into his pocket for the familiar glass beads, and he shoved them into Veneziano's shirt. He then seized Veneziano's face with both his hands and pressed a firm kiss to his brother's brow.
"Don't let him take those from you. Whatever else he wants to steal from us, don't let him take this."
Veneziano touched his chest where the beads were now hidden beneath his shirt. "But… this is your rosary, how are you supposed to pray without it?"
"I'll find another one. Next time I'm in church." Romano pulled him into a tight embrace, let out a weak laugh. "I actually go to Mass."
Veneziano clung to the front of Romano's shirt. "But I'll pray, every day, and I'll pray for you, and I'll pray for the Allies and I'll pray for Germany and Japan, but mostly I'll pray for you. Will you pray for me?"
Romano kissed him again, on the top of his head. "Stupid little brother. I always do."
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.
Napoli, 26 September 1943
Naples was in pain.
It was hard for Romano to tell which part of him ached the most: there was the cut on his brow that he had to keep constantly bandaged because it reopened if he scowled too hard; the throbbing in his leg had gone down, but he still had a slight limp; and the bombs hitting Rome stung like a hot iron into his chest. But being in Naples – seeing Germany's soldiers marching through the streets, leering at the women and beating the men and stealing from both, even seeing the rubble left by the Allies bombs – made the pain of that wound all the more potent.
Just walking through the streets made every muscle of his body scream in protest. The balm America and England had promised was slow in coming, and he might've thought it all a lie, if he hadn't felt the trampling of a thousand foreign footsteps marching across him.
Marching, always marching; marching and screaming, that was all he heard these days. When there was no marching or screaming, there was only a silence that hung heavy in the air like a noxious fog, permeating every street and home and church. That was what Germany left in his wake: marching, then screaming, and then the silence.
There was marching now in front of Romano, some soldier marching into a little bakery on this quiet street. This particular bakery had been there for many years, and Romano could remember seeing the baker's little girl dancing and singing in the streets. But the girl was older now, and she could not dance or sing these days, could only huddle in the corner of the bakery with a tattered cowl over her head.
Romano waited a few minutes before he followed the Nazi inside.
The soldier apparently had not learned the basics of Italian verbs, because he was currently telling the baker, "I give me the girl! I give me the money!" The baker's daughter clung to her father's arm, whispering into his ear; there was sweat on his face and tears on hers. But then she stopped whispering – she was the only one who had seen Romano enter. When he met her wide, desperate gaze, he simply nodded, and reached towards his belt.
Romano twirled the dagger once, twice, as he stepped towards the soldier. The Nazi had given up on speaking in his bastardization of their language and was yelling at the storeowner in German. Romano relished the sudden exhalation that cut short the soldier's ranting as the blade sank into his back.
The streetlamps were just turning on when Romano dragged the dead Nazi out of the store by his boot, then dropped the leg and left the soldier in the center of the road. He stared at the cobblestones of Naples, tainted by the Germans' litter, because this was not their city and they did not care to keep it beautiful, only to keep it obedient.
The Napoletani in the streets were muttering to each other, glancing from Romano to the soldier and around them to where they expected more soldiers to appear.
"What?" Romano said to them. "You scared? Me too."
He was still holding the dagger. Blood dripped from the blade and down his arm. It was slick between his fingers as he gripped the handle tighter.
"Sono pronto alla morte," he muttered.
Baring his teeth in a snarl, he dropped down, stabbing the dagger into the Nazi's back and leaving it there. He planted his foot on the dead soldier's head, and this time his voice was loud. "L'Italia chiamò!"
At first it was just a few voices that answered. But they were all seeing the bandage wrapped around their country's brow, the windows of Naples boarded up or broken in, the German blood that dripped from Romano's clenched fist. And soon the entire street, then the entire city roared along with him: "Siam pronti alla morte! L'Italia chiamò!"
Four days later the Germans left. The few stragglers were chased away by Naples' citizens, Romano at their head. But before the last soldier could leave the city, Romano tripped him, fell to the ground beside him, seizing the back of his collar and leaning in close. He grinned.
"Tell Il Duce that I'm coming for him. And tell Germany—" His grin contorted into a sneer. "—I'm taking my brother back."
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Provincia di Roma, June 1944
Germany was retreating. A strange thing to think about, but Romano didn't have much time for thinking these days. He crouched low in the shrubbery of the mountainside, watching each group of German soldiers stumble up the path. He gripped his pistol and waited.
When the last of the soldiers passed him, they paused and turned, shouting down the mountain, "Herr Deutschland!"
Craning his neck as well as he could without revealing himself, Romano could see the familiar blond figure further down the path. Germany shouted a response and waved them on. He wasn't even holding his gun, but had it strapped to his back. The soldiers hesitated for a moment before taking off again up and around the mountainside.
Romano waited until Germany was nearly upon him before he leapt up and bashed the pistol against Germany's face hard enough to send him rolling down the path.
He advanced slowly to where Germany had come to a halt; he didn't stumble as Germany had, he knew these mountains too well. The pistol was unsteady, but always pointing towards Germany's chest.
Romano didn't know what to say. He knew what he wanted to say, but there was so much of it raging uncensored through his head that if he let it all out there was no way Germany would be able to understand it all. And he wanted Germany to understand.
"They surrendered to you," was the first thing that burst from his mouth.
Germany didn't look at him, only wiped his lips with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of deep red shining across the black leather of his glove. "You'll have to be more specific. Your people have a knack for surrendering."
Romano kicked him in the stomach.
"Cefalonia!" he spat, thrusting the gun forward. "My men surrendered, and you still mowed them down like fucking animals."
Germany didn't say anything, didn't look at him, didn't even try to stand up, just laid there propped up on one elbow and staring out across the mountainside.
Romano took a long breath and steadied his aim, his voice. "Where is my brother?"
This time, Romano kicked him in the chest.
"What, you didn't wanna send him to one of your camps? Make him do some labor for you?" Another kick, and Romano was shouting now. "Nothing's sacred to you, is it? What's next, you gonna bomb the Vatican? Shoot the Pope in the head?" He knelt down and seized a handful of Germany's perfectly kempt hair, forcing him to look at Romano's face. He jammed the barrel of the gun into Germany's sharp cheekbone, hissing, "I wish you'd just acknowledge what a sick fuck you are."
Germany held his gaze, but made no reply. His blue eyes may as well have been torn from a doll's head for all the life they contained.
Romano moved the end of the pistol into Germany's brow and used it to shove his head back into the dirt, pressing down and making a circle of red appear around the tip of the gun, the only sign that Germany's pallid skin wasn't made of wax.
"Maybe I should just end this now," he muttered. "What do you think, Germania?"
Germany's voice was low and even and without threat, only a mechanical statement of fact. "You won't be the one to end this."
Romano tried to smile, but the muscles of his face were so contorted with rage that all he could manage was a grimace. "That's okay. I want this to last a long time for you."
He twirled the gun so that he was gripping it by the barrel, and then whipped it across Germany's face. He smashed it against Germany's head a few more times before tossing it aside so that he could use his fists instead. Bones cracked in Germany's nose and soon Romano's knuckles split and his own blood splattered across that pale skin.
And Germany let him. He could have fought back, Romano knew, and he would have won, but he just lay there prone with only the occasional grunt of pain as Romano straddled him, one hand grasping his neck and the other pounding into his face.
Panting, Romano seized hold of Germany's shirt with both his hands. "Why won't you fight back? Or do you only like beating up my brother?"
Germany squeezed his eyes shut. That was the closest to a reaction Romano would get from him. He was saved from figuring out what to do next by faint voices down the mountain – English-speaking voices.
Romano felt Germany tense beneath him; he didn't have much time now. He brought his face close to the other man's. "I'm going north," he whispered. "And they're gonna be right behind me. And when I get there, so help me God, my brother better be in one piece."
The voices were advancing fast, and loudest among them rang a victorious laugh that could only belong to America.
Germany seemed to have snapped out of whatever stupor he'd fallen into, and he shoved Romano away with ease, running up the mountain after his army. Romano watched him go, his hands shaking, his knuckles throbbing.
He turned to find America bounding up the path, his regiment close behind. He was grinning. "Hey, don't go running off like that! Not without some backup, at least!" When he reached Romano, America clapped him hard on the shoulder, and Romano couldn't help but wince. Now that the adrenaline was draining from his system, he remembered how sore he was.
"Great news," America said, the blinding glare of the sun reflecting off his glasses. "They've left Rome open. Time to go get your capital back!"
When Romano's only responses were wide eyes and voiceless mouthing, America's grin softened. "You all right, buddy?"
Romano closed his mouth and clenched his teeth, moving past America and towards his city. "I will be."
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
Ravenna, September 476
He went north to find his grandfather, but Rome wasn't there. It was a little boy who greeted him instead – a little boy with Romano's own face who burst into tears at the sight of him. Sobbing, but smiling, wobbling towards Romano as fast as those short, stubby legs could carry him.
"Is it you? Is it you? Papa said we'd meet someday! I'm so happy, finally I've met you, I'm so happy!" And he threw his arms around Romano.
Romano stiffened at the embrace; the other boy's arms were weak, but warm, and not entirely unfamiliar. "I know you," he muttered, "how do I know you?"
"I'm your brother!" The boy beamed up at him. He was a head shorter than Romano; strange, that he could speak so well. "I'm the North!"
He is where Papa went away to.
Romano scowled. "Where's Papa?"
The other boy's face was buried against Romano's chest, tears dampening the front of his shirt. Tiny fingers dug into the fabric as the boy – what to call him? Brother? North? Brat Who Stole His Grandfather? – said in a muffled voice, "No one told you?"
Romano pried the boy's fingers off of his shirt, then held them up and at arm's length so they couldn't grab him again. "Told me what?"
The boy's head hung limp, his face hidden by a curtain of rich auburn hair. "No one was there when it happened. Just me. Some people still don't believe me. It was so quiet. They just came and told the little boy he wasn't the emperor anymore. Then Papa said he was tired and he went to bed and he never got up afterwards."
His voice cracked at the end as he broke into renewed sobs.
Romano shoved him to the ground.
Saló, April 1945
Romano raced through each room, his chest heaving with the exertion, his gaze darting all around so that he wouldn't miss any clue. Germany's men were gone, and so were Il Duce's, leaving behind them only the furniture and some meager belongings and burnt documents. This had been their headquarters, but they had covered their tracks well, and there was no way to tell if they would have even kept prisoners here.
But this was where Germany would have spent most of his time when he was in Italy, and so it would have been easiest to keep Veneziano here, so that Germany could lord over him, dominate him, until there would be no spirit left to crush.
Romano kicked a chair into the wall, and hurried on to the next room.
In the basement he found the only locked door. He angled his gun and shot open the lock, then kicked the door inward.
The walls and floor were cement, the air stagnant with a moldy scent. There was a thin mattress in one corner, a sink and toilet in the other. Veneziano was crumpled on the floor in the middle of the room.
Romano dropped to his knees beside Veneziano, rolled him over so that his head was in Romano's lap, his bruised and ashen face upwards. Purple half-moons were set beneath his unblinking eyes. Romano patted his sunken cheeks, thinking perhaps he could force the color back into them. "Hey, hey, Veneziano!"
Veneziano stared up at the ceiling with heavy lids, his gaze unfocused, and he didn't seem to hear his brother. He was covered in grime, and when Romano brought his face close a metallic scent filled his nostrils. He grabbed hold of Veneziano's hand, and he barely felt skin beneath the roughness of what was either dirt or dried blood.
"Hey, say something. Veneziano! Fratello! Nord! Hey, answer me, you chubby little brat!"
Veneziano eyes were ever upwards, towards the ceiling or beyond it. He never acknowledged his brother. That was when Romano noticed the faint movement of Veneziano's lips; he was muttering something, and it was only when Romano bent down so that his brother's breath brushed against his ear that he could make it out:
"…plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu…"
Romano's breath caught in his throat. He pressed his forehead against Veneziano's as he recited the prayer with him. But Veneziano became stuck on one part, whispered it over and over in a small, empty voice, "--ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae, in hora mortis nostrae, in hora mortis nostrae…" – pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, at the hour of our death, at the hour of our death.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
29 April 1945
"Hail purest Mary—"
"—Conceived without sin," Romano recited, as easily as he breathed, as sure as the cross he made over his chest. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
The rosary he clutched now was the third one he had owned – the first he'd left in Spain; the second he'd shoved into his brother's hands just before Germany had come. This one the Pope had given to him when he had returned to Rome a few months prior. He ran his fingers over the smooth beads as he counted the days in his head. "It's been one year, six months, two weeks since my last confession."
"What sins have you committed, my son?"
"I killed a man, Father." He swallowed. "I killed a lot of men, actually. And- and a woman, even."
He heard a slow sigh from the other side of the booth. "Why did you kill them, my son?"
"Because- because they had to die." He stared down at his hands, resting upon his bent legs, the rosary winding through the bends of his thumbs. "I- we- it was for the sake of peace!"
"So you killed them in the name of justice?"
"Yes! Yes, but…" The deaths, it was true, had been in the name of justice, of peace – but how to explain stringing up the bodies in the middle of town, mutilating them, humiliating them? That had not been Romano's sense of justice at work; it had been his wounded pride and his wounded flesh, his anger and resentment. "When it happened, I felt… I felt vindicated, I—"
He closed his eyes. "I enjoyed it."
"But do you regret it now?"
"No. I should, but I can't. Because I know the world's better off without him- without any of them. It was a good thing, Father!" Romano bit his lip, his cheeks hot with shame. Since when did he argue with a clergyman? "I mean… it's just… God wants peace, doesn't he? So what do I do with the people who disrupt that peace?"
The priest's voice was gentle. "These people you speak of, they will get their judgment, with or without your help. The Lord wants you to uphold His will, but not to lose your soul along the way. You must keep love always in your heart, even towards those who have wronged you."
A fire sprung up in Romano's stomach then. "Sometimes I don't think I can do that. There's this- this man, Father."
"You hate him?"
"Loathe," Romano growled. "At first it was just little things, but then he …" He clenched his teeth, his fist tightening around the rosary beads. "He hurt my family. All of them, he's hurt all of my family – and I have a- a pretty big family, Father. He starved them, he robbed them, he killed a whole lot of them. Even the children, Father!" His voice was picking up speed, while his hands waved and gestured at nothing. "Well, okay, he didn't do any of it directly, but he was in charge of the people who did, and he definitely didn't try to stop them! He knew what he was doing and he did it anyway, and he killed my children, Father—"
"And he will get his just punishment," the priest interrupted is his warm, even voice, stemming the flow of Romano's vitriol, "by the hand of God Himself. Your urges are natural – in these dark times, even the holiest of men may yearn for vengeance. But you must pity this man who has sinned against you, because unless he repents, his punishment will be eternal, and he will not know the kingdom of heaven."
If only, Romano thought, pressing the rosary to his brow. If only it were that easy. What was heaven to Germany? To any of them? Heaven to his people was one of two inevitabilities, the end of a road they walked all their short lives. For Romano, it was the place towards which he cast his prayers. For Germany, God's kingdom was but one more to conquer.
The priest must have taken his silence as a cue. "You must choose your own path, my son. And… well, child, your words make you sound much older than your voice would suggest. Trust that the Lord will help you carry these burdens. Even the greatest sins can be forgiven, if you ask it of God."
Romano's forehead ached where the rosary dug into his skin. "That's not the worst of it."
"You have another sin to confess?"
"I almost killed my brother."
The shadows through the lattice shifted as the priest moved, perhaps bringing a hand to his chest, or laying his chin in his hands. "Tell me your story, my son."
Romano rested his elbows on his knees, bending forward as he laid his palm flat against his forehead, the rosary pressed between, creating several perfect half-sphere indentions into his skin. "I guess I didn't hurt him myself, but, well, I watched it all and I knew something bad was going to happen and I let it happen, I didn't do anything about it until it was too late. And now he's—he's a wreck. I can't even get him to eat."
"Did you lay a hand on your brother?"
"Well, no, but—"
"And do you love your brother?"
Romano tilted his head back to stare at the shadows above. "I was always so jealous of him. See, growing up… I was just an ungrateful brat that no one really wanted to bother with. But my brother, everyone adored him. He had all the good paintings and the writings and he was just everything we all wanted to be. I resented him so much."
"But you did not kill him."
"I watched him kill himself." Watched him destroy everything he is, just because he thought some guy would love him more if he did.
"But do you love him?"
"He doesn't know how much." Romano's voice faltered, cracking as he brought the rosary down, the beads clinking in his shaking hands. "I never told him."
"Perhaps you can show him."
He clenched his hands, and looked up at the lattice separating him from the priest. He knew what this man looked like without having to see his face, knew how old he was, that he had been born in Ancona, that he had wanted to protest the Fascists but feared for his brother's family, that his nephew was in love with a Jew.
"Father," he asked, "what do you think of this country?"
The priest started to speak, then stopped, and was silent for a moment; through the shadows Romano saw him shrug. "It's a nation of sinners," he said, "like every other nation in the world."
Romano gave a weak smile. "Right."
"My son, do you repent your sins?"
"I do, father."
"Then pray a decade of the rosary for each life you have taken. And as for your brother – care for him as best you can. The rest is up to him and the Lord."
"Now, recite the Act of Contrition."
Romano clasped his hands together, the rosary pressed between his palms as he brought his knuckles to his praying lips.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
They sat together on the foundations of what had once been a church on the outskirts of a small town. Romano's feet dangled off the remains of the wall while he looked out at the mountains; Veneziano sat beside him, but he faced inwards, staring down at the broken pews, the crumbling altar, the shattered stained glass that created a chaotic mosaic upon the blackened floor.
And still he was silent.
He wasn't eating, either. Romano had tried everything – not that they had much to offer, but he'd done what he could with what they had – but his brother would not eat. Or speak, or even cry. He just stared as he did now at the ruins of the church, with heavy-lidded eyes and brows slightly furrowed.
"I guess it could've been worse," Romano commented, his heels bumping against the wall. "We could've ended up with Russia."
Veneziano's expression remained the same, which was in itself wrong. He was supposed to be fluid, his hands always in motion, the quirk of his lips shifting with every new idea that raced through his head. He never stayed on a single thought for very long – it was only just enough time to decide which tomato was the ripest, or what shirt to wear, or which shade of green should go on that part of the leaf which was that part of the branch which was that part of the painting which was the thing he could look at the longest. Because when dark things are always lurking in the back of the mind, one doesn't want to linger on a single thought for fear of where it may lead.
The night after they had reclaimed Rome, when they finally had a capital and could truly call themselves Italy – that night, Veneziano had crawled into bed with him, clung to him throughout the night and wept. "I'll never be alone again," he'd said, "we'll be our own bosses, and we won't get hurt, and we can protect each other, and isn't Papa so proud to see us now!" No more wars in our home, Veneziano had thought; no more outsiders barging in uninvited, Romano had agreed. What a quixotic dream that had been.
"It's like it's never over, is it?" Romano muttered. "There's always gonna be something. It was the same for Grandpa – he never got to rest, not even at the end." At the end when he left me to be with you, because you were always the favorite and I was always the lost cause. "He didn't want this for us, remember?" But maybe Veneziano didn't remember – or he remembered now, at least, after seeing what happens to someone when they try to become the Roman Empire.
If he did remember, he made no acknowledgement.
Romano looked away with a sigh. "Before he left – Grandpa, I mean, before he went to Ravenna—" to be with you "—I asked him if I could have a sword. I wanted to learn how to defend myself, y'know? But he said he didn't want us to have swords. Remember what he said? He said we should be painters instead – we should paint things, sculpt, write, sing, all that. Said we'd stay young that way, we'd live longer and we'd be rich in better ways. Didn't make any sense to me at the time, but that's what he told us, he said 'I don't want you to destroy, I want you to—'"
Romano's head snapped up. Veneziano's lips were trembling, his eyes staring wide at the shattered glass on the church floor. He raised his shaking hands to gaze at them in horror. His voice was little more than a pathetic squeak.
"Veneziano, you—" Romano took him by the shoulders, trying to meet his gaze. But the next moment Veneziano lunged at him, burying his face in his brother's chest. From the depths of his throat there came a horrible sob that reverberated against Romano's chest, growing louder and louder until it ended in a scream. Romano was frozen, could only stare at the top of his brother's head.
"I thought," Veneziano choked out, "I thought we could make the Roman Empire together." His entire body shook and his words tumbled out like a quaking avalanche. "That's what he told me and he told me the same thing and this time I wanted it to be true but it wasn't and it wasn't and now I've let Papa down and I've let you down and—"
Romano laughed. It was a strange laugh – gentle, breathless. When Veneziano looked up at him, his eyes red and his brows furrowed, Romano cupped his cheeks and grinned.
"You're back to normal! Thank God, you were really freaking me out."
Veneziano tried to smile at him, but it was disrupted when another sob broke from his lips. So instead he threw himself against Romano, pressing a clumsy, wet kiss on his cheek, then weeping into his neck.
"Look, you just…" Romano placed a hand on Veneziano's head. "Grandpa knew what he was talking about. You just gotta remember everything he taught us, yeah?" Because he taught it all to you, and you were the one I learned it from.
"I'm sorry, Romano," he whispered between hiccups, "I'm sorry for everything."
Romano rolled his eyes skyward. "I'll forgive you, if you friggin' eat something."
-The italicized text consists of the Eight Beatitudes, the blessings from Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
-The Latin words Veneziano recites are from the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
-The Italian public's dissatisfaction with the war culminated in the overthrow of Benito Mussolini and an armistice with the Allied Powers, which was signed on September 3. Italy had little choice but to agree to the Allies' conditions, which included minimal support for the eventual backlash by Germany. The day the armistice was announced, German forces quickly took over, disarming the Italian soldiers and seizing control of most the country.
A few days later, German paratroopers rescued Mussolini and took him north, to Saló, where the Italian Social Republic was established as a puppet government.
-The Four Days of Naples (Quattro Giornate di Napoli): German forces were ousted from the city of Naples by a civilian uprising.
-"Cefalonia" refers to the Greek island where, shortly following the armistice, 5,000 Italian soldiers were executed after having surrendered to the German army. This was but one of the war crimes committed by Nazi soldiers against the Italians.
-By 1945, with the Allies advancing north and the Italian resistance gaining strength, Mussolini, his mistress, and several ministers tried to escape to Switzerland, but were caught by partisans of the Garibaldi Brigade. They were all executed, and later their bodies were hung from meathooks to be stoned and mocked.
-There is no set date for the fall of the Roman Empire, but many would point to the deposition of the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustus, to mark its end. This occurred after the capital had been moved from Rome to the northern city of Ravenna.
-Sono pronto alla morte means I am ready to die; it's a variation of a line from Il Canto degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem:
Stringiamci a coorte,
siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
Let us unite,
we are ready to die
we are ready to die,
Italy has called!