The Best of All Possible Worlds, Part I
"Optimism!" said Cacambo, "what is that?"
"Alas!" replied Candide, "it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst."
France's visits to Austria's house were rare these days, and Veneziano never liked to be around when any such visit occurred. He hated the way the air seemed so heavy, the way Hungary's face became so cold and guarded, the way France's eyes moved about the room and over all of them as though taking stock of a treasury – it all made Veneziano want to flee the scene.
Which is exactly what he had done that day. He had taken his broom outside to sweep the leaves from the stone paths – only it took him some time to actually clear the paths, after he had gathered the debris into a pile and guided the broom through them, brushing them carelessly into all kinds of patterns.
He was in the middle of shaping a pile of dirt and grass into a wolf when he heard a deep, smooth voice behind him.
"Ah, there you are, Italie!"
Veneziano jumped and whirled around, dropping his broom in the process. France glided towards him, the plume of his hat swaying in the gentle breeze. His coat was lined with silver that glinted in the fading sunlight. He bowed down to pick up the broom, tutting softly.
"Autriche still has you sweeping his floors like a common maid?" He laughed – a lilting sound, deliberate in its condescension – and patted Veneziano on the cheek, his golden rings cold against the younger man's skin. "Ah, if your Papa could see you now! How very tragic you are!"
Veneziano gave a little smile. "It's not so bad. I still get to paint, and Austria even lets me sing sometimes. I still get to make nice things!"
"You make beautiful things, Italie." France knelt down so that his heavy-lidded eyes were level with Veneziano's. "That is why we all want our own piece of you, non?" He straightened again, smirking. "And you could never stop us, even were we all to tear you to little pieces! Being so weak as you are." He lightly tapped the broom handle against the top of Veneziano's head. "Only barely younger than I, and yet look how small you still are!"
Veneziano rubbed his head; standing straight, he still barely came up to France's chest. "My brother was always taller."
France laughed again, bringing a hand to his brow and closing his eyes. He planted the broom to the ground and rested his long, thin hand upon it like a scepter. His hair glowed golden in the light of the setting sun. Veneziano wanted to freeze him there, a portrait of haughty splendor. "But your brother, last I saw him, did not even reach my shoulders! What a sorry state you both are in, not even a single flag to your name."
Veneziano's eyes widened. "Oh, no, we have flags! We have lots of flags! Toscana has one, and Firenze, and in Veneto we have a wonderful flag, there's a lion and—"
France sighed, dropping the broom so that he could place his hands on either side of Veneziano's head. He gave a pitying smile. "How can the brain that birthed Machiavelli be so very simple?"
Veneziano let out a weak little laugh. "People always tell me that thinking's not my strength. Even my brother used to say so."
"Ah yes, your dear brother. You do not see him so much these days, do you?"
Staring down at the cobblestone path, Veneziano shook his head. It had been many years since he had even heard from his brother. "No. But I think Spain takes good care of him. I'm sure he's happy now."
France gave a twisted smirk. "I only hope Spain treats his slaves better than your master does."
Veneziano picked up his broom again, gathering the dirt and leaves together. The wolf he'd started had become distorted by the breeze, so he set about defining the outline once more. "It's not so bad. Austria says I can't take care of my people by myself, so… it's better this way, really."
"Perhaps he is right." France walked behind Veneziano and placed his hand over the boy's, helping him sweep the dirt into a long, curved tail. "Or perhaps," he murmured, the breath of his words hot against Veneziano's ear, "you simply need better guidance, someone who could teach you the things your current master does not wish you to know."
Veneziano was frozen in place, staring down at the dirt-and-leaves wolf. A gust of wind came through, tearing the wolf's legs away. Behind him, France made a noise of disgust.
"To think!" he exclaimed, throwing a hand into the air. "The birthplace of our culture, the warden of all our greatest art, has been reduced to a servant boy making shapes in the dirt!" He seized Veneziano by the shoulders, whirling him around, his fiery gaze boring into Veneziano's ashen face. "Do you not tremble at the injustice? What would your grandfather say if he could see you now?"
Veneziano tried to look away, but France took hold of his chin, tilting it up as he lowered his voice. "Does your heart not yearn to be with your brother?"
Veneziano's body quaked as he tried to summon to his mind's eye his last vision of Romano – but he would be older now, wouldn't he? Taller, no doubt, perhaps more slender as well, no more of the pudgy arms and stomach they'd both had as children. But he would still have the warm, sun-kissed skin, and the dark, curled hair, framing in wisps his round face. Veneziano pictured him in the city of his name – but no, Rome did not belong to either of them anymore.
"Francia…" he whispered, choking on his sobs.
France ran his fingers through Veneziano's wayward hair. "Have hope, dear little brother. I can help you. But first—" He touched the broom that Veneziano still clutched. "Austria gave you this, did he not? To show that you are his slave. Hold it aloft for me."
Veneziano did so, a hand at either end of the handle; the broom shook in his unsteady hands. France reached towards his belt, and the thin blade of his rapier was struck by the gold of the setting sun.
The blade sliced neatly through the wood, and Veneziano dropped the pieces immediately so that he could cover his mouth in horror.
France smiled, sheathing his sword, and he patted Veneziano gently on the head. "It will not be so easy as that, I am afraid – but it will be far more glorious."
He winked, but Veneziano didn't see. He looked from the pieces of his broom, then to the scattered remains of his wolf upon the cobblestones, and his hands began to shake anew.
His salvation came in the form of Hungary's voice, calling to him from the house. "Italy! Come inside!"
Smiling still, France took Veneziano's shaking hand in his and led him back to Austria's house. When they reached the door, Hungary's eyes were narrowed, fixed upon France.
"What were you doing with him, France?" she asked immediately.
France released Veneziano's hand and gave a loud sigh. "So suspicious! We were simply chatting. I so love to hear Italie's sweet language – it is almost as beautiful as my own, non?"
Hungary placed her hands on Veneziano's shoulders, but her gaze never left France. "Come on, Italy, it's time for dinner."
Veneziano turned away as France spoke again, "Yes, Italie, feast upon your slave rations!"
He was reaching for the doorknob when the door swung open on its own, revealing Austria. Veneziano jumped back; but Austria, too, was only looking at France.
"Inside," he said to Veneziano.
When Veneziano was safe on the other side of the door, he slumped against it, letting out a slow breath. He could still hear the voices outside.
"I'll ask you not to put any silly ideas into my ward's head."
"Ah, I see! Servants of the great Austrian Empire are not allowed to have ideas of their own!"
"Italy's own ideas are perfectly welcome. It is yours that concern me."
"You may find someday that his heart's desires are not so different from my own. He simply needs the courage to act upon them."
"Courage is not something he has ever known; that is not likely to change."
"Think that now, if it brings you comfort. I hope, for your sake, that my harmful ideas have not broken through to his head." Veneziano had to strain his ears to hear France's murmur: "Après moi, le déluge."
The next time he saw France, it was in the dead of night, when Veneziano was roused from his slumber by the fingers that gently stroked his hair. He opened his eyes to find France sitting beside him on the bed, smiling, humming, his hair partially tied back by a blue ribbon. There was a golden glow on his face, from the light that peeked through the window. Maybe it was not night after all, maybe the sun was rising.
Or maybe it hadn't been France who had awoken him, but the creeping smell of smoke.
Veneziano sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What's going on?" he asked, his eyelids still heavy with sleep.
France leaned in close; his voice was low and quick, as though sharing a great secret. "I am going on a trip – a pilgrimage of sorts! It is very exciting, don't you think?"
"A pilgrimage?" Veneziano tilted his head. "Are you going to Jerusalem?"
France laughed. "Oh, I am sure I will get even there, eventually. But let us start with little steps. For now I am going south, and I think you should come with me." He tapped Veneziano's nose and winked. "Perhaps we will meet someone dear to you."
Veneziano's eyes widened. Outside he could hear faint screams and gunfire, but that was merely the backdrop for the true subject, the whirlwind going through Veneziano's head.
France held out his hand. Veneziano gave him a little smile, took his hand, and allowed himself to be led out of the room, out of Austria's burning house.
He was living in France's house now – "So that I may better protect you!" He would much rather have been in Venice, of course, but it was not so bad. Paris was beautiful, and its people full of life – different from the unhurried, unashamed liveliness of his own people; these were men and women who were conquering the map, who looked to the future with proud eyes.
And France himself treated Veneziano well – he had a lavish room, paint and canvas, and access to any book in all the libraries of Paris, and all he had to do was whatever France told him to.
He was curled up in a plush chair in the parlor, just off the main foyer, reading a book as he waited for France to return from his campaign into Romano's lands. Veneziano was almost too anxious to follow the words; but the story was engrossing, full of twists and turns, and deciphering the occasional unfamiliar French term kept him distracted from other things, like the promise France had made before he'd left: Your brother will be joining us soon.
When he heard the door open, Veneziano snapped the book shut and scrambled towards the foyer. France swept into the hall, removing his hat, his uniform looking almost as neat as when he'd left. He did not close the door behind him, but instead gestured for someone waiting beyond – "Come, come, this way!"
Veneziano ventured further into the foyer, pressing his back against the wall, his eyes fixed upon the open doorway as he clutched the book to his chest.
Three soldiers entered the house then, carrying a giant painting framed in gold. Other soldiers followed, bearing aloft more paintings and a few sculptures.
France directed them towards the parlor. "The portrait will go on this wall, I think – and that bust, put it on the table for now. I have a space in the hallway for that painting, I think—"
The last soldier to enter closed the door behind him.
As France was ordering the soldiers to different areas of the house, Veneziano came slowly into the room, skirting the edge of the wall to stay out of the soldiers' way. He looked up at the portrait that was now being hung on the wall; he recognized it – he had been there the day it was given to the Vatican.
France had his back to him now; Veneziano touched his shoulder. "Francia?"
France whirled around, smiling. "Ah, Italie! I hope you did not feel my absence too fiercely, my darling."
Veneziano gave him a little smile, his eyes wide and hopeful. "Romano's going to be here soon, right?"
But France was focused on the book Veneziano still held; he took Veneziano's wrist, lifting it so that he could see the book's cover. "Ah, Voltaire! What a smart and surprising choice for you to make!" His brows furrowed upward as his smiling lips stuck out in a pout, and he patted Veneziano's cheek. "But do not think too hard about it. The world is not so tragic a place as that." His forehead relaxed as he gave a light shrug. "Especially now that I am about to rule it, no?"
France turned to leave then, to follow the soldiers into the rest of the house, when Veneziano called out to him, "But Francia, my brother—you said—"
"Ah, yes!" France turned back to him. This time, his sad expression was not quite sad enough to wrinkle his brows. "Politics, my dear, it is such an ugly thing. Your brother is out of my reach for now, but it will not always be so." He placed a hand on Veneziano's back, guiding him out of the room. "But come, you must see all the lovely art the Pope has given me!"
Austria did not come for him in the night, as France had done; he came early in the morning, with a curt rapping on the door.
He looked no different than Veneziano remembered – it had only been two years, after all – and his face betrayed nothing of what he might have been thinking. A tall, fair-haired man stood behind him, looking out at the gardens of France's estate.
Veneziano clung to the door, his eyes wide; but Austria spared him only the briefest of glances. "Hello, Italy. We've come to speak with France."
Veneziano turned back to the empty hallway. It was still early – perhaps France was not even awake yet. He led them through the house, glancing into each room for any signs of France. They found nothing, until they reached the dining room, and Veneziano spotted a folded piece of paper set upright on the table. He picked it up, unfolded it, and was met with France's large, elegant script:
I have gone to Africa with my little general – he is so ambitious! It is quite charming. My heart shall ache without your pretty face, but I hope you will not despair to be apart from me. I shall return when I have conquered Egypt. Always remember, your brother will be joining us soon.
Affectionately yours, France.
Austria, reading over Veneziano's shoulder, gave a delicate sniff of disdain. "So careless with his stolen property, isn't he. No matter – let's go home, Italy." Turning to leave, he added, "Russia, if you would."
The tall stranger smiled at Veneziano, waggled his fingers at him in a cheery little wave before wrapping one burly arm around his waist and tossing him – rather gently – over his shoulder.
Russia caught up with Austria and asked, in a voice that was not so deep or serious as Veneziano had expected, "Where to now, Austria?"
Austria opened the front door and walked out. "We return north," he replied, "and rendezvous with England. There is still more of France's chaos to undo, and we must prepare for when that irritating general of his returns."
As Russia turned to close the door behind them, Veneziano was now facing Austria. He braced his hands against the thick coat of Russia's back so that he could lift himself up. "What about me?"
Austria looked at him with his brows slightly raised, as if he'd forgotten the boy was there. "You'll be returning home, of course," he said. "Back to Vienna. I see no reason to punish you for France's transgression."
Veneziano smiled. "That's nice of you, Austria!"
Austria's nose wrinkled briefly. "Unless somehow you've developed a loyalty to France. It is not uncommon for hostages, or so I'm told."
Russia remained with his back to Austria so that Veneziano could still face him; so Veneziano propped his elbows up on Russia's shoulder while he rested his chin in his hands, frowning in thought. "France said," he replied slowly, "that he would bring my brother to live with us."
"Naturally. He had his eyes on the entire peninsula. I'm sure he would have all of us living under his thumb, if he could manage it. But that does not answer my query."
Veneziano stared at the ground as he pondered the idea. Was he loyal to France? He did rather like France, he knew that much at least. He was a wonderful cook, and a very good artist, and he had so many interesting novels in his library and exciting new ideas to share. And he'd doted on Veneziano whenever he'd had the chance to – always stroking his hair and saying kind things about him, or at least saying things in a kindly way.
Before he could formulate that into an answer, though, Austria sighed and shook his head. "Ah, forgive me, it is a silly thing to ask you. One who is not really a country would have a difficult time understanding the concept of allegiance. Russia, you may set him down."
Veneziano slid down Russia's front as Russia set him on his feet and patted him on the shoulder. They both followed Austria to the carriage that waited to take Veneziano back to Vienna.
He would only stay there for a year before France returned for him.
"—and your bad sauces, and your wine sucks, and—"
France pressed a finger to Romano's lips, silencing his tirade, though his cheeks were still puffed out and burning red. "Quiet now, little Rome. Let's not wake him just yet." And then he opened the door.
It was dark inside the room, but the light from the hallway cast a dim glow across the figure sleeping in the bed. Romano glimpsed a round face and wavy auburn hair, long lashes resting on cheeks just slightly paler than his own.
Romano had approached the bed without realizing it, and when he glanced back at France he found him leaning against the doorframe with a satisfied smile. "Still so small, is he not?"
"Are you kidding?" Romano returned his gaze to Veneziano, lowering his voice just slightly. "He's gotten bigger."
"Has he? I find it difficult to tell!"
Romano stuck his nose in the air and waved towards France. "That's because you're not family." Not that he and Veneziano were much of a family. This was the first time in a few decades that Romano had even seen his brother, though Veneziano wrote to him often enough (usually with a little drawing attached, sometimes even a sonnet). Romano was not so good at writing back, though.
"This will be your first time at my home, no?" France murmured. "Perhaps you are uneasy – shall I stay here and cuddle you both while you sleep?"
Romano tramped over to shut the door in France's face.
He turned back, blinking as he tried to adjust to the darkness, groping about until he found the edge of the bed. He sat down and pulled his shoes off, but he kept his clothes on as he lay back on the bed (certainly couldn't trust France not to come back, after all!).
The half moon shining through the room's only window gave just enough light to faintly illuminate Veneziano from behind, so that Romano could see the errant curl sticking up from his brother's thick, soft hair. He could discern enough of Veneziano's face to know that he was sleeping soundly, one cheek squished against the pillow. Looking just at the outline of his hair, his shadowed face, Romano could almost imagine that this was the same little boy he'd met in Ravenna after their Papa died, the boy who'd had no other name to him than "North."
"Buona notte, Nord," he whispered into the darkness.
In the morning they had a grand breakfast, and the brothers sat at either side of France, who rested his chin upon one hand as he smiled at Romano. "Isn't this so much nicer?" he purred.
Romano was slouched so far down in his chair that Veneziano couldn't see his neck anymore. He kept his head forward, but glared at France out of the corner of his eye. "Just make sure you stay the hell out of the Papal States, is all I gotta say."
France let out a high, cheery laugh. "Oh, my dear, why would I possibly want to upset the Pope like that?"
He lifted his finger and gave Romano's nose a playful tweak. Romano continued to glare at him through narrowed eyes, his lips pursed in consternation.
"That's right, Romano!" Veneziano interjected, his mouth full of eggs. He swallowed and spoke again in a clearer voice, "France has been really nice to me all this time, and he'll do nice things for you too, and he's Catholic too, you know, so of course he's going to be nice to the Pope!"
France shook his head and chuckled, tousling Veneziano's hair. "Such a sweet little boy! Now, I have things I must attend to, but I shall be back soon."
Romano waited until he heard the front door close before he sat up straight in his seat, throwing his hands into the air. "Nice? You call that bastard nice?"
Veneziano's cheeks were stuffed with sausage, so he simply nodded and smiled in response.
Snorting, Romano slumped back in the chair. "And Catholic, too. Sure. He's about as Catholic as Martin Luther."
Veneziano swallowed his food and said, "But France united us! We get to be together now, and that's a good thing, right?"
Romano set his chin in one hand, while the other tapped against the chair's armrest. "It'd be nice if they'd let us be on our own for once."
"Oh, we couldn't possibly be on our own."
Romano scowled at him. "Says who?"
Veneziano shrugged. "France. And Austria. Even Hungary says it's probably true."
Romano blew his bangs up and away from his eyes. "Yeah, Spain says the same thing. Still!" He squinted at Veneziano, who was watching him with a little smile. "What?"
Veneziano folded his arms on the table, resting his cheek on his forearm as he gazed up at his brother. "You're bigger now, but you haven't changed very much! I'm glad."
Romano raised his brows for a moment, then rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and you're finally filling out. I guess France is feeding you better than Austria did."
And then he smiled, just a little, and Veneziano burst into a grin.
Veneziano was showing France his latest watercolor painting when they heard the stomping of feet and Romano's shrieking voice, "Francia!"
France didn't look up from the painting. "Yes, little Rome?"
Romano was trembling, and Veneziano knew that if he started yelling again his voice would be cracking the entire time; but he took a long breath and spoke in a low voice instead, "Who the hell do you think you are?" When France smiled at him, he held up his finger. "No, don't answer that. I know who you think you are. You think you're king of the fucking world."
France shrugged. "Perhaps not yet. But soon enough!"
"That doesn't give you the right to fuck around with the Holy See." He held up his hands, his fingers and thumbs pressed together as he gestured wildly. "What did I tell you about staying out of the Papal States?"
Shaking his head, his smile never fading, France leaned back and draped an arm around Veneziano, who was glancing between him and Romano with wide eyes. "I'm afraid the Pope has made things very difficult for my dear emperor lately. We are only doing what is necessary."
"What's necessary? Sending your armies into Rome and stealing the Pope's lands?"
France didn't seem to have heard him. "Besides! How wonderful now that your entire peninsula is under a single rule!"
"You'll be excommunicated for this," Romano said, clenching his fists at his sides. "You and your little tyrant and anyone else who wants to help him!"
A slow, soft laugh rumbled deep in France's throat. He stood and approached Romano, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You and the Pope are living in the past. You are going to have to face reality sooner or later, and then you will realize—" He leaned in close, his lips nearly brushing Romano's ear as he murmured, "God does not rule the world anymore. I do."
He walked out of the room, leaving Romano sputtering wordlessly. A full minute must have passed before Romano raised his fists and cursed in Italian. "Bastardo!"
Veneziano stood and approached him slowly, wringing his hands, bowing his head and hunching his shoulders as if to shrink away from his brother's rage. "Romano…"
"I can't take this anymore, I can't take him anymore! Patting our heads like we're his good little servants, that condescending son of a bitch—acting like he's doing us a favor with all this! Like things are so much better!" He turned away from Veneziano, waving his hands in frustration. "Nothing's changed, it's just the same old shit of other people telling us what to do. It's like we're stuck in the goddamned feudal era while everyone else gets to do whatever the hell they want!"
Veneziano ran forward and threw himself against Romano then, wrapping his arms around his waist and burying his face into the back of his neck. Romano made a strangled noise at the back of his throat; but he relaxed quickly.
"This has changed," Veneziano muttered against Romano's shirt. "We got to know each other again."
Romano let out a sigh, resting his hand on Veneziano's. "Yeah, well. We could've done that on our own. We didn't need France's help."
Veneziano lifted his head and set his chin on Romano's shoulder, smiling. "But it's all right! France is still going to take care of us, and he know what's best!"
Romano craned his neck to stare at him with furrowed brows and a curled lip. "How the hell can you smile at all this? He's been manipulating you this whole time! He doesn't care about either of us, he just wants to control us!"
"Well, yes, but it's okay! He's letting us stay together!" When Romano continued to stare at him in bemusement, Veneziano just held him tighter. "Everything will be fine from now on. You'll see. From now on we'll be together, no matter what."
Two chairs had been set out for them while they waited in the hall, but Romano hadn't sat still for more than a minute. He now paced the hallway outside the conference room, snapping his fingers at his sides, muttering to himself, and making various noises of displeasure. So Veneziano used the other chair as a makeshift drawing table, for the paper and charcoal Spain had given him with an apologetic smile ("You wouldn't want to sit in on these meetings anyway, really, I'll bet you'd be bored to death!").
Veneziano had one leg tucked underneath himself, and he kept wanting to swing the other leg but was surprised to find it actually reached the floor. So he settled for bouncing it in place while he hunched over the paper.
"And why the hell can't we go inside?" Romano asked for the fourth or fifth time, Veneziano had lost count by then.
Veneziano shrugged as he sketched the rough outline of a tree. "Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with us."
"Bullshit." Romano stopped in his tracks so that he could rock back and forth on his heels, his arms crossed over his chest. "They just don't want us to be there while they're screwing us over."
"It's all right, though." Veneziano tilted his head, then held the paper up and away from himself, blinking over and over as he tried to see the drawing with fresh eyes. "They all know what they're doing!"
Romano let out a huff of indignation. "Doesn't it bother you, though?"
"Hey, hey, what do you think, brother?" Veneziano held the drawing up for Romano to see.
His cheeks puffing, Romano's narrowed gaze darted back and forth from his brother to the paper. At last he pointed towards the side of the page. "The windows on the house look like shit. They're all out of proportion."
Romano resumed his pacing as Veneziano squinted at the paper. Then his eyebrows raised and his lips rounded in a comprehending, "Ooh," and he set the paper down again, charcoal in hand. "And you know – maybe France will put in a good word for us."
Romano barked out a laugh. "Are you kidding? Hasn't he screwed us over enough already?" He scuffed his tattered shoes against the tile, as if trying to rub off all the years of dirt onto Austria's shining floor. "Besides," he muttered, "we wouldn't want France on our side anyway right now."
Veneziano smudged some of the shading in his garden scene. "I guess he's made everyone really mad now, hasn't he?"
"Sure," Romano replied with a snort. "He stole all the lands they'd stolen before."
The door opened then, and Veneziano stood as a flood of nations and their diplomats entered the hallway. France was in the lead, his head held high even as blood trickled from his bruised nose. England exited soon after him, storming off in the opposite direction.
France passed by the brothers without so much as a glance. Veneziano gave a tiny smile and a wave at his back.
A throat was cleared nearby, and Veneziano turned away from France to find Spain standing there; Romano was pointedly ignoring him. Veneziano approached them both.
"What happened to France's nose?" he asked.
Spain laughed, shrugging as he scratched the back of his head. "Well, you know how it is when France and England have to stay in the same room together for a long time…" His eyes darted back and forth between the brothers as he patted his sides, shifting his weight, his smile shaky. "Well," he said at last to Veneziano, tousling the boy's hair, "it was good seeing you. Take care, all right?"
Veneziano grinned at him and nodded. "Right! You take care, too!" Romano watched his brother out of the corner of his eyes, his lips pursed; he still wouldn't look at Spain.
"Well, Romano?" Spain said.
Romano let out a long breath through his nose. "So that's how it's gonna be, huh?"
Veneziano's brows furrowed. "What do you mean?"
But he got his answer right away, when Austria entered the hallway, followed by two guards. He swept past all of them without a word, but to snap his fingers at point at Veneziano.
The guards came up on either side of him, picking him up by the arms and dragging him after Austria. Veneziano could do little more than yelp, his hand outstretched toward his brother – but Romano could only stare, his mouth agape, his eyes wide.
It was Spain who saved him then, his sudden shout making Austria halt. He slowly turned, and after letting out a sigh, inclined his head to the guards, who set Veneziano down and continued down the hall.
"Be brief," Austria said to him.
Veneziano ran back, slamming into his brother and clutching his shirt as he buried his face in Romano's chest. Romano very nearly had the wind knocked out of him.
"Oof!" he gasped. He held his hands up as he stared down at his brother's trembling shoulders. "D-dammit, Veneziano!" When Veneziano let out a muffled sob, Romano rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, it's not like we're never gonna see each other again."
Veneziano shook his head, rubbing tears and snot all across Romano's shirt. "But it's different now."
"How is it different?" Romano grumbled as he stroked his brother's hair. "It's always been like this, remember?"
Veneziano's voice was little more than a whisper. "But now we know what it's like – to be together."
Romano set his chin on Veneziano's head as he draped his arms over his shoulders. "Yeah, but— that wasn't real, you know? It was all France being a manipulative jerk. We were just— just his trophies."
But it was enough, Veneziano thought. It was enough to have someone there who could recognize his own language; it was enough to share a house with someone who did not scorn a good-morning kiss; it was enough to have someone who wanted to sing the hymns in their grandfather's tongue; it was enough to have Romano as a brother again, and not as a stranger from a foreign land.
Because now he knew what it was like: and it would have been so much easier if Veneziano had never known.
Romano gave a jerk when Spain touched his shoulder. "I think Austria's getting antsy," he muttered in Romano's ear.
Romano pushed Veneziano away, but kept his hands on his shoulders as he searched his brother's eyes. "Gotta go now," he said in a gruff voice, "but— listen, we'll see each other again. So stop crying." And he pressed a quick kiss to Veneziano's brow before whirling around and walking away.
Veneziano watched them go, watched as Spain tried to place his hand on Romano's shoulder before it was slapped away.
And then they were gone.
Austria cleared his throat, and Veneziano turned to face him. "This upsets you. I understand."
Veneziano stared down at his feet and whispered, "I don't want to go."
"I know. But I will not punish you for it. You have been living under a terrible influence, after all."
"But what if—" Veneziano clutched his trembling hands to his chest. "What if I liked things better when I was with France?"
"You are an impressionable boy. It's to be expected that he would influence you so easily. Try to put his ideas from your mind."
"But they're not France's ideas!" Veneziano looked up, his entire body shaking now against the weight of his words, at Austria's cold gaze. "They're my ideas, and they're what I want!"
Austria came forward, his hand raised, and Veneziano tensed as he flinched away – not that Austria was known for striking his wards, but Veneziano had come to expect it anyway now, because his life seemed to have become a string of bad surprises. But Austria did not strike him – instead his hand came down to rest on Veneziano's shoulder, his slender fingers twitching as though the touch burned his skin, and when Veneziano looked up he saw Austria's face contorted just slightly.
"Believe me when I tell you, Italy," he said in a slow, stilted voice, "that I have only your best interests at heart. I am sparing you a great torment. You have no idea what it is like to be your own nation: wars, revolutions, territory disputes, royal rivalries, political maneuvering, betrayed alliances that would crush someone so weak-hearted as you. I assure you, your life as it is now is the best it could possibly be. Continue to do what you do best: cultivate your arts. And you will be happiest."
Veneziano could not look at him then, and he wasn't quite sure why. He was such a tactile person, and a single comforting touch could mean the world to him at times, and now Austria was showing him the most genuine affection that he had ever seen from him. And still, Veneziano could not look at him. Because his world had changed now: after holding his brother, all other touches were different now.
"But I will still miss Romano," he whispered to the floor.
Austria removed his hand from Veneziano's shoulder and used it to push his glasses further up his pointed nose. "Well. No one can have everything they desire. But your brother will get along fine without you, and your people will get along fine without his. This is how it must be – for the good of everyone."
Veneziano gazed up at his stern face, the portrait of all that he would be returning to – servitude, a home that was not his own, a place where good-morning kisses were verboten. And he broke into a grin.
"You're right, Austria! You know what's best!"
Austria nodded. "Good boy. Gather your things, and let's go home."
Veneziano returned to the chair where his charcoal drawing lay, and he picked up the piece of paper to look at his scene again. The shading was too intense. Dark clouds blocked the sky over the tiny house and its tiny garden. It was a very unhappy picture.
He folded the paper, and again, and again, until it was entirely creased, and he placed it back on the chair and followed Austria home.
to be continued
-Voltaire's Candide is the story of irrepressible optimism in the face of the world's harsh reality. The main protagonist encounters one hardship after another, and maintains up until the very end that "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."
-Napoleon began his conquest of Italy when he was commander of the French army: he quickly seized most of northern Italy, including Venice and much of the Piedmont. He began moving south towards Rome, but was persuaded to turn back by Pius VI, who relinquished several territories as well as many works of art from the Vatican.
Only a few years later, however, Napoleon was called away to Africa, leaving the Italian territories to be swiftly retaken by Austrian and Russian armies of the Second Coalition. But Napoleon returned the following year and led an even more decisive conquest of Italy. By 1809 France controlled the entire peninsula, after having annexed the Papal States and stripping Pope Pius VII of his governing power. Furious, the Pope excommunicated Napoleon; the emperor responded by arresting the Pope and holding him prisoner in Paris.
-In the midst of Napoleon's final downfall, the Congress of Vienna convened to undo all the political and territorial upheaval that France had spread throughout Europe. For Italy, this meant a complete return to the prior status quo: the Spanish Bourbon leaders of the south were reinstated, the Papal States were restored to the Pope, and northern Italy was once again under control of the Austrian Empire.