Of Grief and Joy Sublime

Paragons on earth are we
Both of grief and joy sublime,
And a second sentence – "Be!"
Parts us not a second time.

-"The Reunion," Goethe

It was a source of overwhelming pride for Italy that Germany had given him a set of keys to his house in the country. "For emergency purposes only!" Germany had told him; but he'd never specified what exactly constituted an "emergency," and Italy liked to think that it included days like today, when he really really wanted to give Germany a hug! Such a powerful urge could only be called an emergency, and well worth the impromptu plane flight from Venice to Berlin. From there it was just a quick visit to his usual car rental place (which had those nice electric cars that made Germany beam with pride), and one hour and one winding country road later, Italy was using the key to fix this emergency!

But when he walked inside, only the dogs were there to greet him, and for the first time that day Italy wondered if he maybe should've checked to make sure Germany was going to be home for this visit.

He knelt down so that the doberman's face was level with his, while the schnauzer ran in delighted circles around him. Frowning, Italy scratched Brunhilde behind her ears, which were left uncropped and gave her a more relaxed look than others of her breed. "But where's Siegfried?" The German shepherd, oldest of the three dogs, was as conspicuously absent as their master.

Italy stood, planting his hands on his hips. "Where's Daddy?" The doberman's ears perked up, and Italy only had to repeat it once before she hurried off to the back of the house, pausing at the end of the foyer to see if he was following her.

Brunhilde led him to the back door, which was opened just enough for her to slip her lean body through, and Italy opened it wider to let himself out. The early autumn air was cool and mild, with an occasional breeze carrying hints of the frost that would be arriving any day now. Italy's body let loose a shudder, and he wrapped his arms tightly around himself; but this was just the sort of weather that Germany thrived in, and his gaze followed Brunhilde up to where her master was sitting in a wooden chair, Siegfried laying on the grass beside him, at the peak of the rolling hills behind the house. Germany was facing away from the house, looking out at the expanse of dull green broken by trees of sunset shades. As Italy walked closer he realized that Germany had an easel and canvas sitting in front of him, and a small table with paints at his side.

Siegfried looked up at his approach, but Germany made no acknowledgment even as the dry grass crunched against Italy's shoes. Italy stopped a few feet away and squinted at the image on the canvas – it was an autumn scene, but not the one in front of them now. There was only a few trees, stripped nearly bare, a ruined wall lining the horizon, and a narrow path, eaten up by weeds and brittle grass, that hugged the wall across most of the canvas. The grey sky with its roiling clouds dominated the picture, but the focus of the painting – though it was towards the bottom and off to the side – was a lone figure in a dark cloak, holding aloft a lantern with a feeble light.

Italy had leaned closer to Germany in his inspection of the painting, and when he breathed his first comment the words found their way right into Germany's ear: "How Romantic!"

Luckily Germany did not have his brush anywhere near the canvas, or it might've done some real damage when he jumped in shock and whirled around. "Italy!"

Italy leaned down and smiled. "Hi!" he trilled, pressing a quick kiss to Germany's cheek before he continued, "But I don't mean just romantic, I mean it's Romantic," and he tried to make the capitalization apparent. "Because he's alone and nature is so powerful and—" He lowered his voice and softened his smile, still staring at the canvas and blushing now as the intimacy of what he was seeing hit him and his chest clenched and— "I didn't know you painted."

Germany let out a heavy breath, squirming in his seat. His ears were red as he mumbled, "It is only a… a casual hobby. I am not a master, like you."

Italy beamed at him, even though Germany refused to meet his gaze. He rested his arms on Germany's shoulders. "But there's lots of ways to be good at painting! Look, you're really good at showing emotion through the paint! You can look at it and feel all the turmoil and the loneliness and – oh but you've got the shadows wrong here!" He patted Germany's back. "Scoot up, let me show you."

He finally looked up at Italy, his face burning pink and his eyes wide. But he did scoot up further on the chair, and Italy swung his leg over and squeezed in behind him. He wrapped his arm around Germany's waist and held him tight – it was cold, and Germany was warm! – and with his right hand he snatched the brush away and began mixing a dab of black with the rusty brown that Germany already had for the leaves. After giving Germany a few quick kisses on the neck (because it was hard not to kiss his neck when it was sitting there so close to his mouth!), Italy placed the brush in Germany's hand and guided it towards the leaves.

"See, you have to remember how the leaves are shaped and all their little folds and how there are some in front of each other…" After Italy's first few guiding strokes, he released Germany's hand and watched him follow the example on the remaining leaves. It was a small detail, maybe insignificant to the overall composition, but Germany liked miniscule details and getting things as right as possible. Though his proportions were a little awkward in places, everything was precise, rendered with meticulous care – but as he continued to paint, Italy noticed that some of the unfinished parts were staying unfinished, scattered across the canvas in hazy blotches, like a photograph that had been sprinkled with water. It was most noticeable over the cloaked figure, who had no distinct details on him at all, except for his black hat and stooped stance.

Italy tilted his head in thought, until it came to rest against Germany's. "So it's… a fading memory?"

Germany hesitated, the brush halting in front of the cloudy sky. He cleared his throat a little before he answered, "Actually, it's a memory that is returning."

"Oh," Italy said in a soft exhale. He tightened his grip on Germany's waist. "Oh, that's much nicer."

Germany glanced back at him. "And I did not know you studied Romanticism. I would have thought you more interested in Classicism."

"I like Goethe!" Only he pronounced it all wrong, and Germany had a faint little smile when he corrected him, gently, making it sound like the name had an R in it, which didn't seem quite right but Italy had never been very good at Germany's language. "I mean, it was weird when people didn't want to write or paint about all the classic stuff, but everything was changing back then anyway, and all the art was very pretty, and—Germany, when did you first start painting?"

Germany almost dropped the paintbrush. "Well it—I have always had an interest in—" He let out a heavy breath and murmured, "I do not quite remember."

He picked up the smallest brush and used it to enhance the metal sheen of the man's lantern. The lantern fell on the cusp of that main gap in the painting's memory, the hunched figure struggling through the cloudiest part of the storm. Some of the lamp, like the corners that faced the man, was indistinct; but the rest of it was so sharp and clear that Italy thought he could reach out and burn his fingers on the tiny flame within.

The sky was ablaze in an echo of the autumn leaves when Germany finally set the brush down. The air had grown colder with the oncoming night; the dogs had retreated into the house, and Italy held Germany's waist with both arms, trying his best to mold their bodies together. "There. This is all I can do with it for now."

"Then it's finished!"

"It's… not perfect."

"It's beautiful. But… it makes me sad." He stared at the figure, all swathed in black, head bowed against the oncoming tempest, his cloak flying behind him in what must have been a vicious wind. The light in his hand was feeble, but he held it high aloft like a shield against the storm. "That man—no, he's just a boy, isn't he? He's so lonely. But at least he has his lantern." Italy buried half of his face in Germany's hair and continued in a whisper, "I hope he keeps it."

The muscles worked in Germany's head as he clenched his teeth and swallowed, answering in a voice almost as soft, "I hope the light does not leave him."

Italy could not keep the tears from his voice, anymore than he could keep them from his eyes. "It stayed with him this long."

Germany turned to look at him, twisting his upper body as well as he could. His eyebrows knitted together, and he murmured Italy's name in a voice so gentle and worried that it almost broke Italy's heart.

He brought a hand to Germany's face and smiled. "Don't be sad, Germany! You made something beautiful, so don't be sad!"

"Italy, I—"

Before he could say anything else, before Italy could be undone with any more words, he seized Germany's lips in a fierce kiss. He sucked in a breath, as if he could breathe in all of Germany, hold him forever on his lips. Germany pulled back first, and Italy tried to reach him again with a sad moan; but he was shifting in the chair, to find a place for his long legs. Mindful of the canvas and the table of paints, Italy grabbed the inside of Germany's thigh and pulled it over his own leg, so that they could face each other easier, and Germany found his lips again.

Italy clenched his fist into the front of Germany's shirt, while his other hand slid up Germany's spine to squeeze the back of his shoulder. "Germany," he said, trailing his lips along his jaw, "Germany, what was your first kiss like?"

Germany traced his fingers down Italy's cheek, and Italy felt the streaks of paint cold against his skin. "I don't think I remember it."

He frowned then, and tried to rub the paint off of Italy's face; Italy interrupted this by kissing him again (he was probably only smearing the paint even worse anyway), on his jaw, his cheek, the corner of his mouth, murmuring all the while, "That's sad, that's so sad, I'm so sorry." When Germany looked like he wanted to speak, Italy took his face in both hands, and he also had paint on his fingers, and now it was on Germany's face too. "Hey, hey, promise me – promise me you won't forget our kisses!"

Germany rested his forehead against Italy's, his voice rumbling low and earnest. "You are, in every way, unforgettable."

Italy let out a long sigh and kissed him again with smiling lips, and mindfulness and gentleness were chased away by the all-consuming ache in his heart. He pulled Germany's other leg in, then pushed against the ground and sent the chair tipping back. In rolling to the side they managed to knock the table over, and when Germany lifted his head to protest Italy grabbed him by the neck and pulled him back down. The palette and tubes of paint were scattered about them on the ground, and it made for a brilliant mess when Italy rolled Germany onto his back, straddling his waist.

"These stains will not come out," he said before leaning up to nip at Italy's collar.

"I know," Italy replied, sending lines of gold down Germany's neck with a single caress. "I'll make us new shirts. And I'll get you new paints!"

He sat up to pull his shirt over his head and toss it aside, the evening chill piercing his skin until he pressed himself down against Germany's warm chest, against the throbbing of his heart – but not close enough, there was still another shirt in his way, and he flicked at the buttons with lightning speed and ran his fingers down the pale skin beneath.

"My first kiss was sad," he said, reaching aside for a tube of paint that had burst open, wetting his fingers with red, then white, then a dab of yellow, until his fingers were covered in a shade that almost perfectly matched Germany's skin. He massaged it onto Germany's chest, right over his heart, making a tiny sphere and topping it with a pale yellow. "I was crying," he continued, dipping his fingers in black, "so it tasted like salt. It was sad, but it wasn't supposed to be the last time." The little head now had a hat, and somber clothes, and he wished he could've painted a face to match; but he saw the face too clearly, and he could not have done it justice like this.

Germany sat up, putting an arm around Italy's waist, frowning at the little image on his own chest, the thoughtful face he made when he was writing and there was a word on his tongue that he could not quite reach. Slowly, he rested his head beneath Italy's chin and muttered, "Some things I do not… remember so clearly. Only… blurry images, but…"

Italy closed his eyes, snaking his hands into Germany's hair – he had not gelled it, it hung soft and natural, and Italy stroked and twirled it and focused on that and not the clenching pain in his chest. Then there was a fresh, pointed chill on his skin, the press of paint above his heart. His eyes flew open, and he watched Germany's face, etched in solemn concentration, as he carefully drew his fingers over Italy's skin.

He lowered his hand with a deep breath, cocking his head, blinking, squinting, blinking again at the image he'd just made, like it caught him by surprise. Italy followed his gaze down to his own chest, and his breath caught in his throat, as he looked down at—himself. What used to be himself. A blurry, imperfect picture, but he could see the dress and the apron and the kerchief in his hair and the one wayward curl and he could only tear his gaze away when Germany took his chin and guided it up and by then Italy had forgotten how to breathe.

"Since—" Germany wasn't quite frowning; he just looked a little lost, like he was fumbling in the dark, like he hoped Italy knew the way. "Since the 900s?"

Italy opened his mouth to laugh, but a sob came out with it, and no words, no possible words, and all he could do was seize Germany's face with both hands and kiss him, like they'd never kissed before, a kiss hello for the first time in a lifetime.

Much of the paint had refused to come off with a single wash, especially the paints on their chests, which had become distorted and mixed together (the black dominated, of course, but Germany did have streaks of white and the pale green from Italy's dress). So finally Germany had relented and let Italy out of the bath and into a warm blanket by the fireplace. Italy sat on the rug, warmed by the crackling flames, and smiled serenely at the painting that had been moved indoors.

A steaming mug of cocoa appeared before him; he took it and beamed up at Germany, patting the rug beside him. When he sat down, Italy flung half of the blanket over his bare shoulders before crawling into his lap. Germany wrapped him up in his arms and the blanket, and Italy could feel his heart beating against his back as they both regarded the painting.

"It is still unfinished," Germany said.

"I can help you finish it!" Italy turned to look at him. The sharp features of his thoughtful face were alight with sunset colors from the fire's glow.

Germany smiled – no, not a sunset, not an ending. "I would like that."