The Last Judgment. (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel fresco, 1541)
Christmas afternoon was bright and brittle. It had snowed earlier in the week, but luckily all their house guests (Feli and Ludwig, Roderich and Vash) had been able to make it to town before the bad weather had started. Feli and Ludwig were staying in the small faux-gatekeeper's lodge, which Arthur had designed in a very organic style, in shades of green and brown with carved leaf vines and forest murals everywhere. Lovino had complained that he felt like a fucking elf when he was in there, to which the irritated Arthur had responded, "Well, don't come in here, then, git!"
In charge of the arrangements, Arthur had chosen to house Feli and Ludwig there for two reasons: one, he knew Lovino would be more comfortable not sharing his home with the "potato bastard," and two, he had selfishly wanted Roderich to stay in the big house, in the hopes that he'd play some beautiful music on their new grand piano. And he had! Every night this week, he or Lovino had played some nice pieces for the six of them, or eight, on the nights when Gilbert and Mathias had joined them.
Those two had taken Caesar off their hands for Christmas day so that Arthur and Lovino could relax and finish their preparations for the formal, catered party this evening, which would be held on the winery premises. They'd invited all the friends they could think of: even Alfred, because they both (grudgingly) admitted they wouldn't be together now if it hadn't been for him. The Williamses and Feliks were coming, too. Apparently Feliks had a new partner and was extremely happy. Arthur and Lovino were a little curious to meet him. Or her. They didn't even know which it was! And of course, with Feliks, you could never tell.
The one blot on the landscape was the fear that Alfred would bring Natalia as his date, but Lovino was willing to risk it, and Arthur didn't give a damn. So it wasn't a very big deal.
After a comfortable day spent lounging with their out-of-town friends, everyone split up to get dressed for the formal party. Arthur had already gotten the caterers set up in the customer areas of the winery building, where they were now preparing things. Lovino was – he had to admit – pretty excited about this party.
"Funny, I wouldn't have expected Roderich and the potato bastard to bond so easily," he now laughed, as he dressed in his tuxedo.
"Maybe they talk about German history or something." Arthur, a towel around his waist, was humming as he tried to force his hair into the Italian style. Lovino stood back and watched this process.
After four minutes he couldn't take it anymore. "Give me the fucking comb, bastard."
Arthur shrugged and handed him the comb with a little laugh. "I know, I know."
But Lovino did get it into the proper style. "It's a good thing you kept up with the trims. I kind of figured you'd let it go back to shaggy, once we got back home, but you've been pretty attentive about it."
"Don't want to look like a git next to you," Arthur muttered, and with that, Lovino threw the comb aside and kissed him.
"Look how you want to look. Put your fucking earring in, if you want. You know I love to look at you, no matter how you dress or style your hair."
"Mm, I know." They kissed some more. "Hey, don't get too grabby; I'm still a bit damp, and your tux will get wet."
"Well, get dressed, idiot! I'm going to go downstairs, see if Vash and Roderich are ready to head to the other building. Come over when you're dressed, all right?"
"Of course I will! Did you think I'd put on a tux and sit around the bedroom all night?" Arthur poked him.
"Oh, shut the hell up and get dressed," Lovino grumbled, leaving the room.
The party was in full swing. They'd hired a string quartet, and both of them were a little nervous that Roderich might be upset with the quality of the music, but he seemed intrigued and had dragged Vash to talk to them on one of their little breaks. The musicians sat and played unobtrusively in the corner while guests milled around. Everyone had arrived – including Feliks and his – his date. Feliks was dressed as Felicia, in a lavish turquoise ball gown, and his date was a slim young man in a matching turquoise tux.
Lovino was convinced this was a woman in a tux. No man – not even Roderich – would wear a tux that color. "Feliks might," Arthur had whispered, but Lovino'd flapped his hand to shut him up.
Feliks had introduced the mystery guest as Liam, but Lovino had caught a repressed smirk at that, and suspected it was a fake name. He and Arthur had sneaked off to argue about it for ten minutes after their arrival, before they'd laughed, shrugged, and realized it didn't matter.
But all the guests seemed to be having fun. Alfred was now chatting with Vash. Lovino looked around for Natalia, who was indeed Alfred's date. Ah. She was apparently haranguing her sister Katia about something; the sexy Mrs. Williams looked flustered, and Williams was nowhere in sight. Time for the host to step in.
"Katia – Natalia," he said politely, interrupting Natalia's tirade. "Thank you for coming to the party."
"It's so fun to do formal things once in a while. The property is beautiful. I hope the winery prospers," Katia smiled. "I will confess it's making Matthew think about buying a winery, too."
Natalia snorted in a very unladylike way. "Everything Lovino touches turns to gold. It's unfair."
"What about your damn lawsuit?" he blurted, before realizing that might be an unwise topic.
But to his surprise Katia laughed merrily. "She's just angry because she has all that money and Alfred still won't marry her."
"Shut up, you stupid bitch. It's none of his business."
"Amusing, though, you have to admit," Lovino grinned, raising his glass in a toast to Natalia. "You and Alfred were made for each other," he said, managing not to laugh.
"I know!" Natalia wailed. "But he doesn't seem to see that."
At that, Lovino did laugh, and so did Katia. Ah, here came Williams. Good. "Thanks for inviting us. This is a remarkable property," the quiet blond said.
"We were just talking about that," Katia beamed. He took her hand and squeezed it, and she squeezed back, and that made Lovino feel a little sappy. These two were really cute together. He hoped they'd have a great life.
Natalia slunk away, but Lovino stayed with his guests. "Katia suggests you may invest in a winery as well?"
"Maybe not. I may just buy us a nice country property. We spent some time driving around the area before the party, since we were a little early, and it's lovely out here. Beautiful maple trees."
"There are some nice places, for those who can afford them."
Gilbert sneaked up behind them and shook Williams' hand, then Katia's. "Great to see you here. I have to say I was stunned to find out Alfred had a twin brother. I mean, I never even knew he had family!"
"Alfred is a bit dumb that way," his twin pointed out with a wry grin, surprising Lovino, who joined in the general laughter. "But I understand you recently moved out here? I was just telling Lovino that we like this area. I'm already thinking of looking for a new home out here. My work can be done anywhere."
"But you bought the awesome gallery, right? Don't you need to be there?"
"Ah, no. I have a gallery manager. My work is all done from a little office."
"Well, if you did move out here, you'd probably love it. I've lived all my adult life in the District and I've been happier out here than I ever was there. It's so peaceful!" Gilbert went on to talk about Fritz, and the renovations he and Mathias were making to their home (they were planning to put in a shower pod just like Lovino's, which always made him laugh). The brunet knew all this, so he slipped away while the albino was blabbing.
"Lovi, Lovi!" Feli ran up and hugged him. "This party is so wonderful. You have so many fun friends. Ludwig and I are really having a good time." He squeezed the blushing Lovino's hand. "And your rings are so pretty, too, ve. When you told me about it I was very happy for you, and I still am." He lifted Lovino's hand and smiled at the ring, something he'd been doing all week, though without all the fucking commentary.
Lovino used one arm to briefly hug his friend. This was a public scene, after all. "Glad you're having fun, idiot. Steer clear of the bitch with the long blond hair."
"Oh, Lovi. Calm down. She's not so bad! Ludwig and I already spent some time talking to her."
"Well, just beware, that's all I have to say."
"Ve, whatever you say. Do you mind if Ludi and I dance a little?"
Lovino looked over at the cleared area they'd marked off as a dance floor; it was smallish, and nobody was dancing. "I don't mind a bit, but won't you feel stupid dancing when nobody else is?"
Feliciano tilted his head and gave Lovino a very sweet smile. "I never feel stupid when I'm with Ludwig, ve. Why would I be with him if I did?"
When the blushing Lovino failed to respond to this, Feli hugged him again and said, "See you later! We're going to dance!" and ran off to find the potato bastard.
Lovino turned in place, checking to see if any other guests needed attention. Hm, Mathias was talking to Natalia, now. Good luck with that, he thought, grinning to himself.
Aha. Feliks' date was standing alone. Maybe the cross-dressing bastard had gone to get her a drink. Lovino went to speak with the guest he was certain was a girl. "Are you enjoying the party?" he asked politely. "Liam" blushed and looked down. Lovino decided to pour on the ladykiller behavior and see what happened. "I'm very pleased that you were able to join Feliks," he continued in his most seductive tone, deepening his voice a little, exaggerating his accent.
"I – I was very glad to be invited. This is a much more formal party than I'm used to." The blond twirled a finger nervously through short locks. Of course this was a girl, dammit.
Arthur joined them. "That's an unusual tuxedo," he told the guest after exchanging greetings.
Lovino agreed. "All our friends seem to like weird tuxes," he laughed, gesturing towards the purple-clad Roderich. Whoops. Maybe that comment was kind of bizarre to make to someone he barely knew. But the mystery guest didn't seem insulted; just laughed a little.
"I admit I thought of getting a new one for tonight," Arthur confessed. "But I couldn't decide between plum and white."
"Not white, bastard! It'd wash you out too much, like you said about Vash."
Before Arthur could answer, their guest stuttered, "'B-bastard'?"
Arthur laughed. "Don't worry about it, mate. He calls me that all the time."
"Wow. You must love each other very much." Liam blushed, and so did Lovino. Dammit. Maybe he'd have to stop calling Arthur "bastard," if it was going to invite this kind of commentary from people.
"We do," Arthur said simply, and that basic comment put the brunet right back at his ease. He smiled at Liam just as Feliks arrived with two glasses of wine.
"Totally a great party, Lovino!" He blew air kisses to him and Arthur. "I love dressing up like this!"
"We know," the hosts said in unison, and they all laughed together. "You must have a really big closet," Arthur added.
"Oh, now that Li-Liam and I are living together, we, like, totally share a spare bedroom for a closet. It's, you know, it's awesome!"
"Did someone say 'awesome'?" Gilbert asked, sliding up behind them with Mathias. "Hello, Felicia, you beautiful thing." He introduced Mathias to Feliks and Liam. Lovino wondered whether there might be some awkwardness there, but apparently Feliks had no particular problems with the imposing Dane, and vice versa. That was good to see.
"Gilbert." Feliks fluttered his false eyelashes at the albino. "Nice to see you prospering."
"Kesesese! You've no idea. And we owe it all to lovely little Lovino, don't we?" He patted the now-scowling Lovino on the head. "Thanks." Before the Italian knew what was happening, Gilbert had leaned down and pecked a kiss on his cheek.
"Oh, stop complaining," Arthur chided him. "You know he loves you."
"Bastards, all of you," Lovino muttered, making the others chuckle. "I'm going for a drink. Want anything?" he asked Arthur.
"Eh, no, I'm good."
Lovino hurried away from the kissy albino and headed to the bar, where one of the catering staff poured him a glass of wine. This party – well – it wasn't as bad as he'd feared, but he still missed the quiet Christmas tradition of spending the day lounging around alone with Arthur.
Of course, most of the time they lounged around alone anyway. So he could deal with a little change, once a year.
"Lovino! This is such an intricate establishment you have. I'm quite pleased that you invited Vash and me to join you."
"I agree," he said, turning from the bar to face Roderich and Vash. "People need to keep in touch with their – their friends." He felt himself blushing a little and drank to conceal it.
"We're thinking of moving to a new home as well. A real house, somewhere more private than our condominium. Vash has been doing very well in his government job, and we're making a little more money with the ensemble, too."
"Isn't Swiss real estate rather expensive? We did do a little research on it."
"There are some things within our reach," Vash stated bluntly.
Whoops. Maybe Lovino had sounded too condescending? Ah, no, that was just the way Vash was.
But no. "You're still a bastard, Lovino," the Swiss man muttered. Roderich, shocked, pinched his hand discreetly, but Lovino found himself laughing.
"Yeah, I know it. But I'm sorry." He laughed some more at the relieved expression on Roderich's face.
Ludwig and Feli approached. "The musicians are quite good, Lovi, ve. How did you find them?"
"Stroke of luck. They were playing at a restaurant that Arthur and I like to frequent. You know I'm no music expert, but they sounded good to me."
"They're fine," Roderich repeated, resting his hand briefly on Lovino's shoulder.
Vash drew the potato bastard off to the side and began talking to him. Roderich turned to Feli. "I saw you dancing. You like to dance?"
"Ludwig and I love to dance together, ve. We go almost every weekend."
"Isn't it difficult to find a place in Rome, a place that doesn't frown on two men dancing together? I thought Rome was very strict that way."
As Feli began to explain this to the Austrian, Lovino turned to check on the guests again. The musicians were taking a short break; Alfred was talking to them about something. Well, dammit, he needed to speak to all of his guests, so he might as well get that over with.
"Bastard. Having a good time?"
"Dude, this is an awesome party. I never get to go to these classy things."
Lovino bit back the obvious response. Instead he asked, "How are things with Natalia?"
Alfred took his arm and drew him into a corner, where the blond could keep an eye on the room. "I still don't know what to do, man. She proposed to me."
The brunet began laughing. "And you said no? And you're still alive? Dammit."
Arthur popped up at his side. "Are you giving Lovino a hard time, Alfred?" he asked hotly.
"Bastard, Natalia proposed to him!"
"Bloody hell. And you said no? You like living on the edge, don't you?"
This just made Alfred scowl more, and Lovino laugh louder. Alfred punched him in the arm to make him stop, and Lovino was so astonished by this that he immediately stopped laughing and backed away. "Oops," Alfred said, reaching to protect his nose.
"Don't be stupid. I'm not going to beat you up in the middle of my party."
"Sorry," the American muttered.
"Anyway," Lovino said, determined to get past that, "you should marry her. Even if it doesn't work out, with a good pre-nup you could take her for half her fortune."
"That is so like you," Alfred sneered, "and so totally unheroic. I would never do that."
"Alfred, you're a wanker. Just make up your damn mind. Stop stringing the girl along."
"Exactly what I told him, kesesese!" Gilbert appeared and put an arm around Alfred's shoulders. "I don't know the lady well, but I bet the two of you really are suited to each other. Stop being a hero and just be Alfred."
"Yeah, yeah." Alfred punched Gilbert in the shoulder this time; Lovino took this as a cue to move on.
Mathias was still talking to Natalia, but he was looking a bit hassled. "Hey, bastard," he whispered to Arthur, gesturing with his chin. "I'm going to go rescue him."
"Once more into the breach, dear friends," Arthur quipped, and Lovino left the three friends behind.
"With a credit rating like this I should be able to easily finance – oh, hello," Natalia said dismissively. Mathias, by contrast, got a great look of relief on his face.
"Pestering my friends? Don't."
"Why did you even invite me to this party, Lovino, if you're going to keep badgering me all night?" Natalia was snappish, and then she slowly turned predator again. "Unless you're bored with your punk faggot, and this is your way of getting my attention?" She trailed a fingernail along his jaw; he smacked her hand away.
"Dammit, Natalia –"
Arthur, sneaking up behind him, slid his arms around Lovino's waist and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "Lady giving you grief?" He let go immediately, though, which was good.
"I didn't invite you," Lovino snapped to Natalia, thankful for Arthur's intervention, but nervous about the semi-public hug and kiss. "We invited Alfred. It was his decision to invite you, so go pester him."
"Where is my Alfred, anyway?" she asked, scanning the room. "Oh. Right. Well, yes, he's much better company than you are." She sneered and headed towards the American.
"Damn," Mathias said. "Not much rancor there, is there?" He and Arthur both chuckled.
"It's all water under the bridge. Natalia's just that kind of bitchy woman; she's probably like that with Alfred, when they're alone."
"Bollocks. Don't make me think about that; just don't."
"Well, Caesar had a great day," the Dane told them. "He and Fritz have free run of the house tonight."
"Bet they're having fun with that." The two dogs were already best of friends, and barked like crazy whenever they saw each other. By contrast, Fritz was scared of Lovino's kittens, whom he'd eventually named Scuro and Luce.
"We gave them some steak to celebrate the holiday. I hope you don't mind."
"It should be all right," Arthur told him. "As long as you didn't overdo it. Thank you."
"No problem. And, Lovino?"
"Thank you again for giving Gilbert and me the chance to be together. You won't regret it, I promise." Mathias stuck his hand out and Lovino shook it with a grin.
"Make sure I don't," he laughed, then shrugged. "Ah, I trust you two. Don't know why, but I do."
Arthur had turned to scope the room. "Looks like Natalia's badgering Feli, instead of Alfred. Let me go take care of that."
He watched Arthur hurry away, and when he turned back, the potato bastard had joined him and Mathias. "Lovino, I must thank you for the wonderful week's holiday you've given me and Feliciano. We are enjoying ourselves immensely, and your home – your winery – it seems as though it will be a big success. We plan to support you as much as we can, once your wines become available in Rome."
"Thank you. I – I'm glad that you and Feli are so happy together, and that you were able to join us for the season." Lovino took a deep breath. "F-friends should spend important days together."
"I agree!" Ludwig smiled and extended his hand; Lovino shook it. Yeah, the bastard was a fucking macho potato, but…he wasn't that bad. He noticed Mathias grinning at him and turned away hurriedly, just as Feli hurried up to grab Ludwig's arm, as if for protection.
"Ve, Lovi, now I see what you mean about that lady. She's very harsh!"
Everyone turned to look at Natalia, who was frowning and saying something to Arthur, but he was smiling pleasantly at her, seemingly unruffled. He raised an arm and flagged down Alfred, who was chatting up Feliks' date.
Ludwig and Feli moved off to the dance floor again, and Mathias wandered off, probably to find the albino bastard, but Lovino stayed in place and watched as Alfred joined Arthur and Natalia and then gently led the woman away. Arthur grinned at his ex-boyfriend's retreating back and then walked over to the bar for a refill of his drink.
Huh. Lovino hadn't noticed that some decorating fiend had hung mistletoe over the bar. Heh heh. He made his way to Arthur's side – thankfully this side of the bar was somewhat in shadow, leading as it did to the winery offices – and tapped him on the shoulder. "You're under the mistletoe, bastard," he grinned.
"What? Well, are you actually going to kiss me, in front of all these people? I know you're making progress, but I have a hard time believing you'd have the – " Arthur's voice was cut off as Lovino grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him close to kiss.
Dammit, he didn't even care if people were watching. He loved Arthur, and he loved kissing Arthur, and there was the mistletoe, and –
As if that were a signal, the room was suddenly flooded with the sound of applause and catcalls. Lovino drew back immediately and turned, red-faced, to frown at all his frivolous party guests, but Arthur was sheepishly laughing. "Merry Christmas," he said to the brunet.
"Dammit. Come on, let's get out of here." Lovino grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him down the dark hallway towards the building's back door.
He unlocked the door and shoved Arthur outside. "Come on, let's walk. I need to get out of there."
Arthur was still laughing a little, but followed him down the glass path in the chill December air. When they got to their favorite bench, Lovino stopped and turned to him. "Sorry, bastard. Don't know what came over me."
"Eh, it's all right. By now I think they all know that we kiss once in a while. Though it was a bit bizarre to listen to all the clapping and whistling!"
Arthur kissed him again, and this time Lovino allowed himself to enjoy it. "Fuck tradition," he said, when they'd broken apart. "Next Christmas I'm taking you on a Caribbean cruise. Alone."
"Fine by me, boss," Arthur smiled, pulling him into another embrace.
This is the end of the story. I want to heartily thank everyone who read the story, whether you reviewed or not; I hope that everyone has enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun to write, and to develop the story based on your comments.
There is now a sequel, "Love and Art: Book II," which I started after this, and it's sort of a blend of "Love and Art" and "Life Sketches." I got a little bored with it, so it's only a few chapters long, but you may enjoy learning how the Alfred-Natalia situation turned out!