'Long time, no see. You still a stupid son of a bitch?'
The first words Lovino had uttered to him the very first time they had seen each other since then.
'I guess so, since you're still a loud jackass.'
Lovino hadn't smiled then, not like he would have before, and merely tucked hands in his pockets and said, quickly, 'I'm goin' for lunch. You can tag along if you want.'
That was as much as an invitation as Lovino would ever give, anyway.
So, they had gone for lunch at a tiny little restaurant, and even though Lovino hadn't said but two or three words to him over the course of hours, it hadn't much mattered; his heart had been soaring the entire time.
Even Lovino's refusal to meet his eyes had not been enough to wipe the smile from his face.
Being with someone he knew after so long alone...
What a rush.
Afterwards, as they had walked silently down the breezy streets, glancing at each other on occasion but not speaking, they came to the crossroads where they would part ways, and Ludwig remembered clearly the strange look on Lovino's face as he had said, lowly, 'I was right, you're still a dumb son of a bitch.'
Ludwig had only smiled, and said, 'I missed you, too.'
Lovino sent him a foul look, and stalked off.
But the next night, the phone had rang all the same.
And when he had met Lovino in front of that old bar, that shoddy little place so full of good times, it had been all but impossible to come down off the cloud he was on.
They drank, just like they had before, and they argued, just like they had before. It was a little harder without that third presence that should have been there, and sometimes Ludwig caught himself looking over his shoulder whenever a drunken patron burst into laughter in the corner.
Just in case.
Whatever he had expected to see was never there, and he quickly turned straight ahead when Lovino looked over.
It wasn't like before, but it was still a great feeling to sit next to Lovino and not feel so fuckin' miserable.
Every night that Lovino called him, his mood improved a bit.
And so did Lovino's.
He could see it, in a slight lifting of his brow and a lessening of the constant frown, and even though Lovino never laughed and never reached out to place a warm, friendly hand on his back like Feliciano had, it was alright.
It was like the first wonderful whirlwind all over again.
Maybe Lovino was a little harsher to stomach on his own than Feliciano had been, and maybe this Lovino was different than the one he'd known before, but it didn't really matter. Ludwig still called him friend.
And the memories attached were hard to let go of.
To see Lovino was to see Feliciano.
However vaguely and no matter how hard Lovino tried to set himself apart.
He accepted Lovino's cruel tongue and mood swings because he could understand them, and as long as Lovino hung around him, for either loneliness or a desperate attempt to cling to whatever memories of Feliciano lingered, it didn't matter.
Ludwig was glad to call him 'friend', even if Lovino would keel over before he said it.
There was absolutely no talk of Feliciano; not even a swift mention of his name.
And not just because Lovino refused to talk about it. In all honesty, he didn't much feel like talking about it, either, and without actually being inside the house, it was very easy to repress it all and just pretend that Feliciano was sitting at home.
For once, he was grateful for Lovino's moody silence. He wasn't ready to address any of that. Not that. Not yet.
Easier to pretend it had never happened.
Another year passed since Lovino had first called him, in nights of drunken bar crawls and love/hate spats, before Lovino finally told him, in not so many words, that it would be 'alright' if he wanted to come and stay in the house again.
If he felt like it.
Ludwig took it more as, 'I don't want to live alone'.
And he didn't want to be alone anymore, either.
So, he went.
Even though it was harder than anything else to step through that threshold again, and he pitied Lovino, spending every day in this house alone with only photos and paintings from a man long-since gone.
Not forgotten though, and the first step he had taken through the door was like a punch in the gut. An inconvenience to his delusions, because it had been painfully obvious that he could no longer pretend that Feliciano was just sitting at home painting; no one was here.
A dry throat and feeling of moroseness had accompanied him inside the first day.
That old couch.
Canvas in the corner.
Lovino didn't need to know that he had spent the first few nights crying himself to sleep.
Maybe Lovino did that too.
It was a little strange, and a little sad, to sit in the kitchen with Lovino in the mornings and sip coffee like nothing weird had ever happened. Lovino sat his chair as close to Ludwig's as possible without actually risking physical contact, and it had been then that Ludwig had realized that he was only being used as a surrogate for Feliciano.
He was alright with that. If that was what Lovino needed, then so be it. He'd fill the void as best he could.
They'd done more for him.
The first few weeks were the worst, rounding every corner and just expecting to see Feliciano there like he always had been before. Knowing that he'd walk into the foyer and there he'd be.
He never was.
Ludwig was quick to focus his mind on something else, refusing to dwell on it and make himself sick.
To keep his mind from Feliciano, he devoted all of his time to Lovino, who may or may not have appreciated it. Sometimes, it was hard to tell. Lovino's tongue was just as harsh when he was happy (maybe that was a strong word) as when he was cranky.
But, they carried on as best they could.
Life regained some kind of normalcy, and the first Christmas back in the house had been as brightly lit as all the others ones.
Not so many presents, though.
Lovino was quick to tell him, the very next day, to 'get all of that shit down'. Ludwig did, reluctantly and a bit disheartened. The decorations had always lasted until mid-January before.
But, he couldn't ever stay angry at Lovino. Not Lovino, who was really alone now, trying to carry on a lineage and a name that was on the brink of extinction, and who couldn't ever admit when he needed help or when he was lonely.
He could handle Lovino's attitude. He'd done it before, and he could do it again.
New Year's was a little dreary.
Torrential rain, and too much grappa.
Most days seemed to be like that, now.
Ludwig sat back on the couch most of the time, swirling a glass in his hand and watching Lovino with an observant eye, taking mind of his every move. He sometimes found himself making mental calculations of how much he ate, how much he drank, how long he slept, etc. Maybe he hung over Lovino a little too much. He didn't mean to, but...
He had ignored Feliciano's symptoms so easily at the beginning.
And there was always that voice in the back of his head that wondered, maybe, if he'd made Feliciano go to the doctor after a few days instead of a few weeks, if he'd taken it more seriously at the beginning, if he'd helped out a little more, if he had come to terms with it sooner, then maybe...
Maybe something would have gone differently. He should have watched Feliciano a little better. And so he watched Lovino now, just in case.
He would never say the words, not ever, and he wouldn't even think it.
Hereditary genetic condition.
He just watched, because Lovino was depressed, and depression could cause his health to decline.
That was why he watched.
In watching, he noticed little things that Lovino did now that he had never done before.
Instead of the old fifties music that he had loved so much (mafia music, he had teased before), Ludwig noticed that every so often, he would put on one of Feliciano's old opera records, but (of course) only after he had thought that Ludwig was asleep or out of earshot.
Sometimes, he would take a sketchbook into his lap and scribble away with a pencil, brow furrowed and lips pursed, and Ludwig realized in those moments that he had the same look of concentration on his face that had been so easy to like on Feliciano. In the end, Lovino only crumpled the paper up and threw it away with a grumbled curse. Ludwig fished them out when he was gone, and tucked them away in his room. They weren't bad; attempted recreations of Feliciano's paintings.
Lovino berated himself more than he ever had Feliciano.
Every day was a little easier.
Once, Lovino had almost smiled.
Ludwig was, for once, optimistic. Lovino was a pretty good reason to get out of bed in the morning. Feliciano was just away, so he kept the canvas and the stand dutifully dusted and the paintings in the same place that Feliciano had left them.
Thinking like that made life go on a little more simply. Even though he knew he was fooling himself.
There was never any mention between them of ever visiting a cemetery, and he was glad for it; he wouldn't have gone. There was nothing there, anyway. Why open wounds that were finally starting to heal? He wasn't going to buy pretty flowers to leave atop a patch of grass, and he wasn't about to put himself in a position where he would possibly dissolve into pitiful tears in front of strangers, or, worse, Lovino.
He wouldn't go there.
Life went on.
Months passed. Everything was smooth, all things considered, expect for one hitch in the road that caught him off guard.
In the spring, he had a terrible moment of heart-stopping anxiety.
One morning, he woke up, and Lovino was already in the kitchen.
It was amazing, how such a simple thing had made him fall against the wall and reach up to clench his collar as air suddenly stopped, and he had been on the very verge of a panic attack when he had managed to ask, weakly, 'Say, why are you up so early?'
Lovino had sent him a look of agitation, and merely snipped, 'I woke up early. So what?'
He couldn't breathe, and spent the entire day hovering over Lovino far more than he needed to, even as Lovino reached out to swat him away like an annoying fly.
But as the sun fell, Lovino fell asleep on the couch in the middle of a light argument, and before long, was snoring away.
Ludwig waited, heart racing.
But minutes passed and then an hour, and Lovino's eyes began to twitch behind his eyes as he started to dream, and Ludwig had heaved a great sigh, and buried his face in his hands.
False alarm. He was overreacting.
The next day, Lovino was still conked out on the couch when he woke up. The best thing he could have ever hoped to see.
He spent that entire day laughing and smiling and Lovino, seeing his uncharacteristically good mood, had only sent him looks of irritation. Ludwig had responded by taking him out to the theatre, arm slung firmly around Lovino's shoulders despite his bitching and shoving.
Oh, what a relief!
Another year passed.
School had ended long ago, but he hung around.
He and Lovino had formed a sort of symbiotic relationship, for all its ups and downs and for all of Lovino's abrasiveness, and he couldn't really ever bring himself to leave. Lovino needed him. Even if he would go to his grave denying it.
By now, he considered everything 'safe', and started to worry a little less.
Things were good.
On the day that would have been Feliciano's twenty-eighth birthday and was Lovino's thirtieth, Ludwig tried to keep the mood a bit light by teasing Lovino for rolling over the hill. Lovino, foul and moody, hadn't really appreciated the joke.
That night, after healthy amounts of wine, they sat together on the couch, and for a dreamy moment, it almost felt like it always had. Warm and friendly and homey.
Lovino must have felt the same; after that, they sat together on the couch every night, just like before.
Maybe a little too much like before.
On the nights when he'd had a little too much to drink, sometimes he heard things.
Sometimes he looked up, sitting alone on the couch in dim light at midnight, and saw him. Feliciano, pacing back and forth in the kitchen. Back and forth.
Over and over and over and over again.
It took a minute for his mind to accept the awful truth, and when he squinted his eyes, it was never Feliciano pacing. It was just Lovino, searching for more alcohol or slumping over the stove, stirring a pot half-heartedly.
Feliciano was gone. Lovino remained.
And yet sometimes when he and Lovino sat together on the couch, when they'd both had a few too many, Ludwig would cast bleary eyes to the side, and some part of his heart absolutely and devotedly expected Feliciano to be sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them, bottle in hand and smiling, joining in their conversation and always laughing.
A second of blurry searching.
No one was there.
It still hurt too much to remember, even after years, so, when he was further down the road of intoxication, he would lift his chin bravely, and convince himself, like he always did, that Feliciano was just 'out'. He would come back.
Maybe it was silly, and maybe it did more harm than good, but it was easier to pretend.
For now, he would wait.
He wasn't alone. Sometimes when he glanced over, it was to see Lovino twisted at the waist, clenching a glass in one hand and propping his head up on the top of the couch with the other, staring off listlessly into the kitchen. His eyes moved back and forth. Back and forth.
Ludwig glanced. Nothing there.
But he knew what Lovino saw.
He saw it, too, sometimes.
When rain fell and night overtook the sun, it was easy to look over at the empty canvas and remember the look of concentration upon Feliciano's face as he had painted away. Peering above to look at Ludwig, a smile on his face.
Can I paint you today?
...shoulda let him.
He couldn't imagine what kind of regrets Lovino had.
But, despite the longing and the passing of phantoms and the feeling of something missing, they carried on.
Sometimes Lovino, inebriated, would roam up and down the halls in a mimic of his brother.
Footsteps creaking on the floorboards.
Ludwig watched him, and didn't say a word. He didn't need to. He understood Lovino. They'd be fine, in time.
He had thought everything would be alright from then on.
He could go on like this. Just him and Lovino. Two was enough.
It was alright.
It should have stayed like that.
It shouldn't have changed.
It shouldn't have.
Good things never lasted for him.
He should have known. Only fools let their guard down.
It came first as an unpleasant squirm in his stomach, the faintest of suspicions, startled from sleep one night by the creak of his door. But it was only Lovino, standing there in the frame, eyes heavy and looking pale.
He would rather have seen an intruder standing there.
Not at this hour.
"I can't sleep," he muttered, lowly. "Can I—"
"Sure," Ludwig interrupted, sparing Lovino's pride, and he rolled over onto his side as Lovino crawled in beside of him and pulled up the blanket, as the fan whooshed comfortingly above.
Ludwig tried to sleep.
But he couldn't; Lovino tossed and turned all night.
In the morning, he asked, even though he was afraid to, "Did you sleep last night?"
Lovino only shook his head, stirring his coffee with sloppy movements.
But that was a lie; Lovino hadn't slept at all. No sleep, no dreams.
Ludwig didn't call him out on it, and convinced himself that it was just a bad night. Those happened. Sometimes people just couldn't sleep. A normal thing. Not a death sentence.
Oh, oh God, not a death sentence.
It would pass. Lovino had just had a bad night.
He was overreacting. Panicking over nothing. Paranoid, again. Just another false alarm. That was all.
Lovino avoided him for the rest of the day, unable to stand his hovering and constant questions, and retreated into his bedroom, locking the door. Ludwig left him alone, and spent the day in the kitchen, forcing his hands to keep still as he made dinner, even though they threatened to shake.
Lovino came down to eat, and quickly fled again.
The next morning, Ludwig opened his door with another uncomfortable squirm in his stomach.
An initial relief of no Lovino in the kitchen was shattered; he was outside on the porch, tossing breadcrumbs out to noisy pigeons.
Ludwig didn't join him, because the ashy color of his face might have only made Lovino hostile.
Lovino knew what he was thinking. He denied it loudly and firmly.
The third morning, Ludwig refused to let Lovino have any coffee, just in case it was the caffeine that was disturbing Lovino's sleeping pattern.
He waited, anxiously and feeling ill.
And when the fourth day came, bringing with it a pale Lovino sitting on the couch and watching the television with fixed eyes before the sun even rose, the squirm turned into despair, and he allowed himself, for the first time, to consider the similarities and admit to himself that maybe this genetic mutation had been there in the both of them all along.
Years of pretending and denial shattered.
He didn't want it to be true.
Losing one had been crushing.
Losing both would be absolute devastation.
Lovino wouldn't admit it.
"I'm fine," he spat, quite irritably, whenever Ludwig prodded him, "I've just got a little insomnia. I'll get some sleeping pills."
Ludwig watched with hammering heart as nothing happened.
They didn't work.
Lovino, tired and cranky and looking white as a sheet, jerked back from his hand when he offered it in solace.
"I'm fine," was the constant response. "It'll pass. I just need stronger pills."
He got some.
The pills didn't work.
Ludwig struggled with the urge to vomit at even considering it.
Oh, it couldn't happen again. Feliciano. Hadn't Feliciano been enough?
Lovino mixed a pill with alcohol, despite Ludwig's fearful cries not to.
But, despite labored breathing and a heartbeat so slow that it tottered on none at all, no sleep came. He just laid there on the bed, staring dazedly at the ceiling and murmuring to himself as though in a trance, and Ludwig hung above, sometimes pressing his head against Lovino's chest to feel his heart just to make sure that he was alive. He was. Weak and slurred and lethargic, but very much conscious.
He didn't sleep.
Ludwig, flushed with adrenaline and more frustrated than he had ever been in his life, wound up putting a hole through the wall with his foot in a rage, when stubborn, stupid Lovino still wouldn't admit it.
He wouldn't say it.
Why wouldn't he say it? Why wouldn't he admit it? Why wouldn't he start working at it, when he had been given an advantage over Feliciano by knowing so early what it was? Stubborn, thick-headed, immovable, unbending bastard. If he admitted it and tried, then maybe it wouldn't turn out like it had before. Maybe it could be delayed.
The eighth day, Lovino sat at the kitchen table, hunched over and holding handfuls of his hair, and God, it was like looking at Feliciano all over again.
It was Feliciano sitting there.
That same old feeling of helplessness.
It took every ounce of strength he had not to collapse on the floor in tears.
Too many days. Too many coincidences. Too many similarities.
Lovino was going, too.
He could feel it.
He composed himself long enough to sit down at the table, and after a moment of silence, he asked, "Are you ready to go to the doctor?"
Lovino only muttered, "What's the goddamn doctor gonna do? Check my pupils and tell me to start doin' yoga? Ha."
Ludwig's face crumpled.
"Won't you even think about it?"
"I won't go to the doctor. I won't."
Ludwig opened his mouth, and he was about to say, 'well then, you're the stupid son of a bitch!', but Lovino beat him to the punch.
Looking up through bleary eyes, the dark circles hanging like veils, Lovino smiled.
For the first time in years.
Ludwig could barely hear his voice for how rough and weak it was.
"I won't go to the doctor. I'll fight it my own damn self. I won't go out easy." A defiant headshake. "Not like him."
Shifting his weight and successfully denying himself the desire to burst into tears, Ludwig fell back into his seat, his anger fading as fast as it had come, replaced by despair, and he blinked the moisture from his eyes as he said, "No. I didn't think you would."
Not again, not again, not again.
He couldn't do it again.
A silence hung above them, and then, in a slow, deliberate, and meaningful movement, Lovino reached out, and snatched his hand.
A strange feeling.
The awful look of fear in his eyes was just too much, and when he said, beseechingly, "You stayed with him! Stay with me. Please don't leave me alone," the battle was quickly lost.
Bowing his head and squinting his eyes in a failed effort to regain composure, he dissolved into tears.
He tried to fall back into that role of denying himself the slipping of his composure, trying to be strong for Lovino now as he had been for Feliciano. He failed more now than he had before. Because he knew, now, what was going to happen.
And there wasn't really any hope to look forward to.
Just a matter of how long stubborn Lovino could fight off the inevitable.
He tried to hide himself in corners and shadows and rooms when the tears came, too proud to show them openly, but sometimes Lovino caught him.
Lovino didn't cry.
Strange that, for once, it was Lovino who was the strong one, and when the tenth day without sleep rolled around, he looked up at Ludwig with weary eyes above breakfast, and sent him a stern look.
"Hey," came the grunt, and Ludwig could only try to meet his gaze past the blur of tears, "What're ya cryin' about? It'll take more than a week to get rid of me."
Ludwig managed to croak a laugh.
Because it would.
Damn jerk would draw it out as long as he could.
Knowing that Lovino was so aggressive about it made it a little bit easier. And when it finally happened, in weeks or months or maybe years if Lovino stayed so stubborn, then he would be there.
No matter how much it hurt.
He could work past it.
Even though he'd be alone afterwards.
Feliciano had given him a short burst of life, even as he had deteriorated and lost his own. For all the pain involved, it had been worth it.
He would stay by Lovino's side now, and weather the storm.
Even if he had never in his worst nightmare imagined lightning would strike twice.
The few minutes of sleep that Lovino did get, the rasping shreds of a lifeline, Ludwig laid there with him, propped up on pillows and staring off into space and wringing his hands in his lap as he counted down the days.
Lovino woke up after only a handful of useless minutes, like he always did, and resumed disjointed, confused conversation as though he had never nodded off at all.
But Ludwig was used to that.
Feliciano had done the same thing, picking up exactly where he had left off.
Lovino kept his wits about him, and in clearer moments learned all he could about the disease, and came up with various techniques to knock himself out, some of which Ludwig did not necessarily condone.
Lovino had gone out one day, and came back with a pocket-full of pills.
'What's that?' he'd asked, a bit warily, and Lovino had only waved a dismissive hand in the air.
Ludwig had only furrowed a concerned brow as Lovino put two of them back quickly, and even though he didn't like the idea of using strong narcotics to stay in a constantly lethargic state, he didn't open his mouth.
If it helped, then, well...
He couldn't very well deny him a little bit of peace.
Lovino didn't go out anymore.
He was too disoriented, and a short walk into town had resulted in complete confusion, and Ludwig, setting out to look for him when he hadn't come home, had found him sitting in the street, knees pulled up to his chest and face buried in his arms.
It was better for him to stay home, where he would be in a familiar environment.
He wouldn't go to the doctor, and Ludwig didn't even bother to force him. What had doctors done for Feliciano? Not a goddamn thing.
The days passed quietly, Lovino not quite as loud from exhaustion and fatigue, and Ludwig made most of the conversation now, trying to keep Lovino engaged and active.
But Lovino surprised him sometimes.
Some days, Lovino acted strange and almost amicable.
"Hey," Lovino said one night, reaching out to grab a handful of Ludwig's shirt as they sat on the porch and watched the city.
Ludwig cast him a look and only murmured, "Hm?"
Lovino smiled, wanly.
"I've been—since I'm up, I've been studyin' German a little bit."
"Oh?" was the only coherent answer he managed, because if he had said anything else, he would have started sniveling.
Lovino just nodded his head.
"Yeah. Y'know, maybe it's not as ugly as I always told you it was."
Ludwig turned his head away in an effort to save face.
It was hard to stay strong in the face of inevitable heartbreak.
Watching the deterioration of a once sharp mind was worse than anything else he could think of.
Once had been bad enough.
Feliciano, smart and chatty. Lovino, witty and sharp-tongued.
Losing that was worse than any physical deterioration.
Finally, Ludwig gave a laugh that was more of a sob, and asked, thickly, "So, what do you know so far?"
And when Lovino began to prattle off a long train of curses in accented German, Ludwig kept his head turned firmly away so that Lovino wouldn't see how damp his face had become.
Oh, that jerk.
Lovino summed up with a faint, "Neunmalklug. That's my favorite, I think. I like saying that. Not as mean as the other ones, but that made me think of you. That's what I'm gonna call ya from now on, since you're such a smartass all the time."
He tried to laugh.
Lovino reached out and shoved gently at his shoulder, quick to chide.
"Hey, knock it off, won't ya? You act like you're the one who's gonna kick the bucket!"
He felt like he was.
His heart ached all the time. Constant nausea. This waiting.
Finally, he only muttered, dismally, "I kinda wish I was."
Lovino had stayed strangely silent.
Time dragged on.
He felt tested, and sometimes he felt defeated. Sometimes, he wished that the whole thing was over with.
Now when he sat on the couch and drank and heard footsteps, it wasn't a hallucination.
It was Lovino.
Upstairs, pacing around his room. His fingers twitched a lot, tapping everything they could, much like Feliciano had tapped his foot.
Since Lovino refused to go see a doctor, Ludwig felt it was his duty to try and emulate the actions he had witnessed when he had accompanied Feliciano. He took a light to Lovino's pupils, always constricted, and tested reflexes and took temperature and monitored heart-rate.
He didn't know why.
What good would it do?
He needed something to do with his hands or else he'd go crazy, and it was reassuring to be able to touch Lovino and know for a fact that he was still there. He couldn't reach out and feel Feliciano anymore, and by God, he'd make the best of whatever time he had left with Lovino.
He didn't want to go through that same old cycle of regrets and 'what if's.
Lovino didn't mind his prodding and poking anymore, and maybe he needed it as much as Ludwig did, if only to know that he wasn't alone.
Lovino said strange things, sometimes.
"You know," Lovino said to him one day, as they sat together on the porch and as Ludwig rubbed strong fingers over Lovino's temples in an effort to calm, "you'd make a really good doctor."
Peering up a bit, his own eyes feeling as weary as Lovino's looked, Ludwig snorted and, for a minute, he smiled.
Without looking at him, Lovino gave a quick, "Yeah."
A short silence.
"You're really patient...you know? Gentle hands."
And even though he knew that it was just the exhaustion and strange thoughts that were making Lovino say such things, he couldn't help but feel a little bit of adoration as he asked, teasingly, "Are you complimenting me?"
He expected a quick, sharp, 'No!', but it didn't come.
Instead, Lovino finally looked to meet his gaze, and the flush on his pale cheeks was visible.
Finally, a grumbled, "Yeah. I guess I am."
Ludwig was too stunned to speak, smiling breathlessly, and Lovino just turned away to stare off back into space.
"I know why Feliciano liked you so much. I'm glad... I'm glad we met each other. I'm glad you stayed. I'm glad you're still here."
"I'll always be here. As long as it takes."
Lovino's brow came down, thoughtfully, as Ludwig moved hands from his temples down to one of the frequent, compulsive checking of the pulse in Lovino's wrist that he found himself doing every few hours or so.
Just in case.
Lovino stared down at his fingers, and nearly smiled then, a calm look upon his face.
"You should really be a doctor. That's what I think. Any schmuck can piece a rocket together. Not everyone can be patient with people like me."
Ludwig didn't look up at him, and didn't speak.
Concentrating on Lovino's racing pulse was really the only way of keeping the water out of his eyes.
Days of misery.
Lovino's moods were unpredictable.
And sometimes, when he looked at Lovino, there was only Feliciano.
Gentle-eyed, shoulders low and brow high, unguarded and approachable, and was in those moments that Ludwig realized that, behind the loud mouth and the abrasive attitude and the false bravado and the mental instability, that Lovino really did have the soul of his brother.
He just hid it well.
Lovino just hurt all the time, so he tried to make others hurt, too.
Ludwig would always remember the way Lovino looked when he smiled in moments of vulnerability.
As easy to love as Feliciano's face of concentration.
But, just like with Feliciano, those moments had faded far too quickly.
Things went downhill too quickly.
Where Feliciano had spoken of his grandfather, Lovino, in confusion, sometimes asked about his brother.
Where was Feliciano? Why wasn't he here?
Ludwig had no answer, and tried to divert conversation in different directions.
The worst part of him was almost glad when the dementia came, because he knew that it meant the beginning of the end, and he was tired, and so was Lovino, and Christ, it was awful to say but he was ready for Lovino to just go to sleep.
Seeing Lovino like this was too much.
Little things went first.
Lovino couldn't remember which cabinet held the glasses.
Sometimes he put something down, and promptly failed to relocate it, even when he was standing right in front of it.
And when Lovino looked over at him one morning above coffee and couldn't remember his name, his heart broke all over again.
He was used to being forgotten by others.
But being forgotten by the two brothers was unbearable.
The two who had loved him.
And now, instead of being introduced by others as, 'and that's just Ludwig,' it was he who had to reach out and say, 'I'm Ludwig'.
It was hard.
But Lovino never admitted defeat, never willing to resign himself so quietly as Feliciano had, never able to go gently and without a fight. The strong never fell. Lovino's pride kept him alive long after his body had given up.
Ludwig lied awake at night, staring at the ceiling.
Lovino pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, clenching his hair in his hands and dry sobbing as he muttered to himself incoherently, and always pacing. Pacing. Always pacing.
Ludwig just stared up and waited.
Lovino lasted far longer than Feliciano had. Nearly two years.
Two years of footsteps from above.
'Hey. Tell Feliciano I don't really blame him for mom and dad. He'll listen to you. He likes you so much.'
'I'll tell him. Promise.'
'I'm glad. ...say, you look so familiar. Do we know each other?'
'...yeah. We're best friends. I'm Ludwig.'
'Ludwig? ...I wish I had a pretty name like that.'
The last coherent words Lovino ever uttered.
After, the rest was all incomprehensible muttering.
And when Lovino was gone and Ludwig, thinner and exhausted and pushing on again through the dark, left Italy behind after over eight years, it didn't matter.
Even when he was back home in Germany, even when his brother snored so loudly from the room across the hall, he could still hear it.
Every night, up in the attic.
He stared at the ceiling, arms crossed behind his head, and stayed awake as long as he could.
Gilbert asked him, sometimes, what he had done out there in Italy, and why he had stayed out there so fuckin' long.
He only shrugged a shoulder.
What could he say? He would never speak of such things aloud. Feliciano and Lovino were only for him to shoulder; Gilbert didn't need to know about any of it.
Not speaking about it was just another form of denial, because if he didn't speak about it, then some part of him could pretend that the two brothers were alive and well in Italy, chatting amongst themselves and going out in town like they always had, and were still laughing. Still fighting. Still together.
The house was probably already on the market, its furnishings and paintings being auctioned to the winds.
He took only one painting home with him, and hung it in the living room.
Gilbert tilted his head, and asked, 'What's that?'
Hands on hips, he'd responded, thoughtfully, 'Nero's Rome on fire.'
'Oh. Pretty cool!'
It didn't matter if the house was sold and its paintings spread across Italy.
In his memory, it still looked the same.
Lovino's cast-aside drawings were safe in a folder, and Feliciano's painting hung up on high.
All he needed.
Gilbert asked him one morning over coffee, voice proud and adoring, 'So, how long before you're workin' for ESA? So I can go ahead and buy a nice townhouse in Paris.'
Ludwig, chin in palm and staring off into the distance, only said, dreamily, 'ESA? ...nah. I think I'm over space. I think I'm going to be a doctor now. Neurologist.'
Gilbert, nearly dropping his coffee in shock, managed to sputter, 'B-but you spent all that time! You're kiddin', right? Wha—what made you change your mind? All you ever talked about was rockets!'
Neatly deflecting, Ludwig only sent him a stern look and said, 'You change your mind all the time! Why can't I?'
'But, oh man... I don't get you, I really don't.'
Airily, he waved his hand and said, with a smile, 'Hey, any schmuck can weld together a rocket. Not everyone can be patient with people like you.'
Gilbert, bewildered and looking a little disappointed, pursed his lips and stayed silent.
Maybe Gilbert's dreams of space and glory had been tied into his own, but Gilbert would get over it in time.
He didn't need to know why.
No one needed to know.
Pretending was easier.
Gilbert didn't hear noises in the attic at night.
He stayed silent, and carried on.
Life went on.
New days, new places. He'd go new places.
But he would never return to Italy.
He didn't need to.
At night, Italy came back to him, if only in the memories of a weary mind.