The Lamp Beside the Golden Door
The first thing America noticed when he entered his house was the thin trail of smoke that led to his favorite armchair. He turned on the lights to find a dark-haired youth sitting there, legs crossed, his slick black suit unbuttoned and his red tie loose.
America squinted at him. "Italy?"
Romano raised his eyebrows and spoke before taking a slow drag from his cigarette, "Sort of."
Comprehension dawned on America as he shook his finger and snapped at Romano. "South Italy!" he declared.
"Ciao," Romano replied, tapping the cigarette against the ashtray.
"Yeah, South Italy!" America's grin fell rather quickly. "How did you get in here?"
Romano rolled his eyes, gesturing at himself as if it should be obvious. "Sicilian."
"Oh, right." America reached into his pocket to wrap his hand around his wallet. "So uh, what brings you over to my neck of the woods?"
Romano looked up at the ceiling instead of at America when he finally replied, "Things are pretty fucking annoying back home. So I figure I'll just stay here while that idiot gets his act together."
America scrunched up his shoulders, smirking. "Well, that's what happens when you become a fascist, y'know."
But Romano was busy glancing around the room, letting the now tiny cigarette dangle between his lips. "I couldn't find your liquor cabinet. Where the hell do you keep your drinks?"
America's eyebrows shot up. "You won't find any booze in this house, buddy!"
As Romano sucked in the last drag of his cigarette he burst into a coughing fit. "Oh hell, I forgot," he muttered in a raspy voice, grinding the cigarette butt into the ashtray. "No wonder everyone's so pissy."
Sunday was America's day to sleep in, so it was a bit of a shock to him when he was awoken at the crack of dawn by a clamor in the kitchen. He rolled out of bed and staggered out of his room to find Romano holding at arm's length a bag containing half a loaf of moldy bread. When he saw America leaning against the doorframe, he held the bag in front of America's heavy-lidded eyes.
"What the hell is this?" he demanded.
America blinked at the loaf – it was moldier than it had been last week. He yawned, then smacked his lips a few times as he tried to wake his mouth up. "Bread," he replied in a thick voice.
Romano glared at him for a moment before flinging the bread towards the trashcan – he landed the shot without even looking. America raised his eyebrows, impressed – a whistle would've been appropriate, had he been feeling a bit perkier.
"Fine," Romano grumbled, "I'll just grab something on the way – who makes the best cappuccino around here?"
America paused from rubbing his eyes. "Cappuwhat?"
Romano sucked in a deep breath, his eyes going wide. He spoke very slowly. "Cappuccino. Breakfast drink. Espresso."
"Oh, right." He readjusted his glasses from where he'd shoved them further up his face. "Well, they get your coffee out pretty fast at the drugstore down the road."
Romano shook his head and walked past America, muttering, "Bunch of philistines."
America shuffled after him as he went down the hall and into the bathroom – that was when he finally noticed Romano was wearing a black suit and a tie draped over his shoulders that he now set about adjusting. "Goin' somewhere?" he asked.
Romano glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes, scowling. "Morning mass," he said, then returned his gaze to the mirror to focus on his tie. "And I'm not gonna make you come with me. If you're anything like the guy who raised you, you'd probably burst into flames as soon as you walked through the doors."
America frowned. "Hey. I'm much better than him, thanks."
He just barely heard Romano mumble, "And yet you're still a Protestant."
Romano slept in the next day, perhaps to make up for the ungodly hour at which he had awoken on Sunday. So America left to get some work done without even seeing him.
When he returned home he was greeted by the smell of… something. He didn't know what exactly, except that it was delicious.
His nose led him into the kitchen, where Romano stood at the table, elbow-deep in a giant bowl of salad. A covered pot and a large saucepan were simmering on the stove, and various spices and vegetable scraps were scattered along the countertop.
"Whoa," America said. This was the most action his kitchen had seen since the very experimental birthday cake he'd made for Canada several years ago.
Romano flicked some romaine lettuce off of his fingers before turning to the sauce on the stove. "Good timing. It's almost done."
"Wow, Romano, this all looks amazing!" Much as the myriad of scents was sending him to a very pleasant place, America couldn't help but ask, "Where'd you get the money to buy all this stuff?"
Romano lifted a wooden spoon from the saucepan, blowing lightly on it. "In that safe under your bed."
America frowned. "That safe was lock—mmph!"
Romano kept the spoon lodged between America's lips. "What do you think? Needs more salt?"
America shook his head emphatically.
"Great." He pulled the spoon out. "Now, mangia!"
It was perhaps the only time America had ever known true fear.
Romano leaned his head entirely out the window to shout at the passing car, "Vaffanculo!"
"Get back in the car!" America – well, he would never admit to shrieking, but that's exactly what he did as he grabbed Romano's sleeve and yanked him back inside. The car swerved up onto the curb as Romano flopped back down in front of the wheel.
"Figlio di puttana!" he spat, making a gesture at the air.
America clutched his head, staring wide-eyed at the gauntlet of cars they still had to pass through on the busy New York City street. "Oh god," he muttered, "why would you do that. What if a cop pulls you over?
"Then he will see I have an American friend," Romano explained as he jerked the car around a slow-moving truck. "And he'll see it's okay."
"Cyclist, cyclist!" America yelled and pointed.
Romano swung the car around the bicycle, bringing them close enough to see the whites of the rider's panicked eyes. "Get offa the road, stupido!"
"That was a crosswalk!"
"He knows the risks!"
"Geez, how many times a week do you have to go to church, anyway?"
Romano jerked his tie harder than he'd intended. "I'm not going to mass!" He didn't add the "grease-spotted plebian" part, but he was definitely thinking it. "I'm going to a wedding."
"Really?" America's face lit up like a rather giant child in a candy store. "Oh, I know, I heard there was gonna be a big family event at that nice restaurant – it's the one run by some of your people!"
"Yeah." Romano stretched the word out as he loosened his tie a bit. If America was so excited about it, he probably didn't know exactly what sort of family owned that particular restaurant. He looked back at America, who was still wearing his giant, unabashed grin, and sighed. The guy really didn't get out all that much, not with other people. Besides, it couldn't hurt to remind the families that he had some nice connections in high places. "Well, listen, the invitation is for me and one guest, y'know. If you're not doing anything."
America's face somehow went even brighter. "Wow! Hey, thanks, Romano! Big weddings are the best, all that food and company—"
"Yeah, just make sure you don't' embarrass me. And I'll pick out your suit!"
America did in fact behave himself throughout the ceremony, even when he got misty-eyed during the vows (and Romano didn't really have the right to judge him on that). He actually fit in with the crowd rather well, aside from the obvious matter of a golden head towering above a sea of darker ones. But his boisterous laugh was not out of place, nor was his ravenous appetite (he delighted the aunts with his eagerness to accept multiple servings).
Romano left him with a group of doting older ladies (the eldest of whom seemed far too happy to discuss how fit and healthy he looked) to approach the groom, who had gotten separated from his young bride. He was a short, handsome youth with a head of dark curls, and he had only the most distant connection with this family.
After exchanging the requisite formalities, Romano put his arm around the groom, guiding the young man's shoulders so that they were facing where America stood several feet away. "You see that man? He is a friend of my family. That means he is a friend of your wife's family."
"He seems like a nice guy," the groom ventured.
"He is a very nice guy. He has a heart of solid gold." He placed a hand on the groom's chest and lowered his voice. "You see that big, beautiful smile he's got on? I have seen him wear that same smile when he puts his fist through a brick wall." The groom slowly turned his head to gaze wide-eyed at Romano's earnest face. "If you ever hurt, shame, or otherwise upset that lovely girl, my friend over there is going to break you in half."
They both turned back to look at America who, spotting their gazes, gave them a jaunty wave.
Romano pulled the groom's head down so that he could kiss his brow, and then patted him on the cheek. "Welcome to the family."
When America peeked into the guest room, he saw Romano sitting cross-legged on the bed with one of his suit jackets in his lap and his box of sewing equipment beside him. America knew now that Romano only had two suits that he frequently had to repair, as he was doing now. He appeared to be sewing up yet another torn seam, this time on the shoulder. He didn't acknowledge America there, even as the other man drummed his fingers against the doorframe.
"Why don't you just buy another suit?" America asked when he'd had enough of being ignored.
Romano's eyes rolled up to glance at him, but he soon returned his gaze to his work as he replied, "Yeah? You gonna loan me the money?"
America laughed a little, his eyebrows raised. "Hey, you're not that bad off. Are you?" When Romano only glared at him beneath his dark brows, America let out another short, incredulous laugh. "Come on, man, you're in the land of opportunity here! Prosperity's waiting for you, you just gotta get out there and find it!"
Romano tugged the thread rather hard through the fabric. "That what you been telling my people to drag them over here?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, America cocked his head and gave a little smile. "They wouldn't be staying here if they didn't think it was a good place to be."
Romano's lip curled, and he pointed the tip of his needle at America. "Better. I'll give you that much. But better doesn't always equal good."
America blew out a long breath before approaching and sprawling himself out onto the bed beside Romano. "Look, I get that it's tough moving to a new place. But trust me – I'm taking care of your people. It's what I do!" When Romano continued to glare deliberately at his sewing, America poked him in the shoulder and gave him a winning grin. "'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…'"
It was at the word "poor" that Romano shoved the needle through the fabric so forcefully that it punctured his finger on the other side. Of the subsequent string of words he spat out, America could only recognize "merda," which he had heard often enough these past few weeks. Growling, Romano wiped his bloody finger on America's pant leg. "Right, so you can stick them into their little pre-made ghettos!"
Groaning, America dropped his head onto the bed. "I don't want them in their own neighborhoods like that, they do that to themselves!"
"No," Romano snapped, finally casting his angry glare onto America. "Your people do that to them! 'Cause what do you think your neighbors here would say if Guido moved in next door?"
America propped his head up onto his hand, frowning. Others might have been embarrassed, but he was just defensive, and… more than a little sad. He looked Romano in the eye, but his voice was barely a mumble: "I don't use that name."
Romano swept the needle across America's shoulder to remove the little speck of blood on the tip. "Why not? It's a good name. At least it was, until it came over here."
America craned his neck to look at the tiny spot of blood on his shoulder, then at the slightly bigger spot that had soaked into his pants. "If you hate it so much, why don't you take them all back home with you?"
"Because I can't, asshole. We're your 'poor, huddled masses,' remember?" His voice lowered to a sullen grumble as he tied a knot in the thread. "That's why they're coming here. Better to work for rich guys who haven't been rich for very long."
America lifted himself up to sit cross-legged beside Romano, staring at him expectantly with his brows furrowed. When Romano noticed his gaze, he sighed and continued, "Maybe it seems like a long time to you, but it's not. The guys running things back in my home have been doing it since before you even had a name. And if people want to get away from that, I can't exactly blame them."
He picked up a small pair of scissors and cut the thread, muttering, "At least they're learning how to read something. Even if it is only English."
America had fallen asleep on the couch, and he might've stayed there 'til morning if Romano hadn't subbed his toe on his way inside.
America jerked awake at the loud profanities and sat up while Romano, hunched over, used his rear to shove the front door shut.
It only took an instant of groggy blinking for America to remember why he'd been on the couch in the first place. "Hey! Where've you been all night?"
Romano, still doubled over, one foot pulled up to his knee, hissed in response before muttering something about "fucking boots" and the "fucking door."
America squinted at him – in the shadows, he could see that Romano was bent over nearly in half with his face turned to the floor. "Hey, uh, are you sick or something?"
Romano didn't even look at him as he shuffled towards the bathroom.
When America followed him into the room, his feet tread on something soft and damp. He switched on the light and found Romano on his knees, huddled over the toilet. Next he looked to the mystery at his feet, which turned out to be towels. Red ones. Splotchy red with white underneath. Wait.
America's hand flew up to clutch his hair. "Jesus Christ!"
Romano's thick voice echoed in the toilet bowl. "You leave him out of this."
"What the hell did you do?" America didn't wait for a reply before stepping over the bloody towels to hover right above Romano's shoulder. He tugged at Romano's shirt, parted his hair, poked at his skin before Romano finally swatted his hands away.
"Knock it off!" Romano's face emerged from the toilet, an ashen shade stretched over his olive complexion. "It's not my blood."
"Well, what happened?" America sat on the edge of the bathtub, squinting at the pile of towels. "Are those my towels?"
Romano sat back on his heels, bringing the back of his hand up to his mouth. His eyes looked like they were about to cross. "I had to do some cleanup."
America ran his fingers through his hair, groaning. "Look, I don't care if it's one of your 'family things,' you know how I feel about that stuff!"
"Yeah?" Romano pressed his fingers to his thumb and shook his hand at America. "And how do you think I feel about it? Jesus, America, I fucking hate blood! I mean it's—it's messy, and it's got that smell, and it gets all over my clothes…"
America pursed his lips, his brows furrowed in confusion. "But… you grew up with Spain."
"Don't remind me." Romano's shoulders trembled as he made a noise of disgust. "Ugh, the sixteenth century."
"So…" America set his hands in his chin and watched Romano for a moment; he opened his mouth to speak when Romano beat him to it:
"There's this kid. Giovanni. I mean really a kid, just turned sixteen. Way too young for… the kind of stuff his dad does. But his dad's been sick, and he hasn't been able to help the family with anything, so Giovanni thought it would be a good idea to try to take his place tonight."
When he didn't continue, America asked in a low, hesitant tone, "Did anyone… y'know…"
Romano shook his head. "People got hurt. But I made it there before it got too ugly." He gave America a humorless smirk. "Maybe no one else listens to me, but I can still make my own families pay attention."
"But what happened to Giovanni?"
"I told him to go home and finish school and study law like he always wanted to, otherwise I'd tell every woman in his family what he'd been up to that night."
America raised his eyebrows. "Sounds scary."
"You have no idea."
He slumped against the wall and closed his eyes, but his face was still scrunched as if in pain. America watched him a moment longer before standing, hopping over the towels and out of the bathroom. Romano opened his eyes, frowning after him until he returned a minute later with an unmarked bottle and two small glasses.
He set the glasses on the sink and poured a rich red liquid into both of them. Then he set the bottle down and handed Romano a glass, taking the other one for himself.
His cheeks flashed red when Romano took the glass with a cocked eyebrow. "Don't tell my boss," he mumbled, taking a sip.
Romano observed the wine, the corner of his lips twitching up into a tired smile. "Thanks."
America poked at the red-stained towels with his foot. "So when are you gonna teach me how to get blood out of clothes like you do?"
Lowering the glass from his lips, Romano heaved a sigh. "I'll do laundry tomorrow. I'll show you then."
"Also—" America scratched his cheek, his brow scrunched in an awkward expression. "Think you could talk to your guys about the whole gangster thing?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll see what I can do."
"They always listen to you. It's like you're their dad or something."
Romano waved his hand, closing his eyes and tilting his head to the side. "You wouldn't understand. You're still too young, most of your people aren't really yours yet. You're like their business partner. Or a friggin' landlord."
America shook his head vehemently. "Not true! Some of them just haven't gotten used to how I do things! Sure, I'm young, but so are my people." Romano raised a skeptical eyebrow, and America nodded. "Yep, even the ones that came from your home. As soon as they got here they started learning new things, getting new opportunities, making things better—it's exciting for them, like it is for me! And everyone who comes here gets a few years younger. There's a place for everyone, and it's a place they make for themselves."
Romano stared at him for a long moment, his lips pursed, his brows dark over his narrowed eyes. "Christ, I wish I had your energy."
"Stick around for a while, maybe it'll rub off on you!"
"Nah. I should probably go back soon." He downed the rest of the wine, wincing even as he let out a breath of satisfaction. "Make sure my goddamned brother hasn't blown himself up with a grenade or something."
"Oh—well, before you go—"
"Right, the families." Romano tapped himself on the chest. "Leave it to me."
The only footnote necessary for this fic is for the benefit of people who have not seen Mambo Italiano:
Nino: Ma! How'd you get in here, the door was locked, the alarm system was on--
Mrs. Paventi: Nino. I'm Sicilian.