Masks and moonlit conversation.
The first few months, when he and Victor had visited once or twice a week, hadn't been so bad. But lately, "going home" had taken on new meaning for Victor. He and Ida hadn't married yet--Scipio suspected they never would, preferring to cling to their ideals of perfect independence, if only in name--but it didn't make much difference.
After a solid month of waking alone in their tiny flat, Scipio had abandoned the sofa and started sleeping in Victor's bed. It was a better fit for his legs, and since Victor only found him out because Scipio actually made the bed in the morning, he couldn't grumble too much about it. Whenever he did, Scipio would chaff him about his incremental domestication until a grudging truce settled between them.
With a wry chuckle, he tugged his hat down over his eyes, shrugged himself further into his winter coat, and turned away from the Casa Spavento.
The voice was barely more than a whisper, but it carried through the empty alley like a shout, rebounding off the crumbling brick so many times that Scipio had a hard time locating the source. He instinctively glanced up at Prosper's bedroom window, but it was dark as the rest of the house.
"I'm up here."
Prosper sat perched on the railing of the /altana/, the open wooden terrace that jutted out from the roof. He smiled down.
"Come on up," he said. "I left the front door unlocked."
A hundred questions sprang to mind, but Scipio preferred not to have their conversation caroming through the alleyways. Fortunately Lucia's dogs didn't bark when he crept into the slumbering house. Instead they swarmed around his ankles, jumping up against his legs to press their cold noses into his hands. By the time Scipio climbed up to the /altana/, his black coat was covered in white and red hairs.
He brushed at them irritably but only succeeded in moving them around. Resigning himself, he glanced up at Prosper and raised his eyebrows at the rucksack at his feet.
"What are you doing up here anyway?" he asked. "Running away from home?"
Prosper bent over and opened the sack. "Looking for a friend of mine, actually," he said, pulling out a mask. A black mask with a long, slender nose. "People call him the 'Thief Lord.' Heard of him?"
Scipio chuckled. "I was wondering where that had gotten to. You've kept it all this time?"
"I was thinking you could wear it during Carnival, as /Il Medico della Peste/." The Plague Doctor, and the words slid from his tongue and through his lips as smoothly as from a native Venetian.
"I guess so. But how did you know I'd even be here tonight?"
"You always come here, Scip." Prosper balanced the mask on his thigh and reached back into the rucksack. "I got one for myself too, from that shop just past the Ponte dei Pugni."
He pulled a second mask from the bag, a civetta this time, in cream and blue and with silver braiding insinuating itself around the edges. The civetta is a half-mask, leaving its wearer's mouth free for food, drink, conversation . . . Prosper slipped the mask over his eyes, and Scipio had a sudden vision of him wearing nothing else.
Shaking himself, Scipio stepped forward to retrieve his own mask. He calculated the movement so there would be no risk of brushing against the leg that supported it. As he reached, though, Prosper grabbed the mask and held it beyond his grasp. His free hand came up to trace along Scipio's jaw.
"I didn't like it at first," he murmured. "Your face, I mean. Not that it isn't nice, of course, just . . . it scared me. It felt like I had lost my friend."
Scipio swallowed. "And now?"
"It's not so bad." Prosper turned his hand and brushed his knuckles over Scipio's cheek. "Especially now that you've finally figured out how to shave."
"It's not that easy, Prop," Scipio said, grinning wryly as he knocked Prosper's hand away. Keeping a firm hold on his shoulder, Scipio reached over his head and plucked the mask from his hand. "Not that you'd know."
Prosper cuffed his shoulder in response.
"Oh? You wouldn't happen to be challenging the Thief Lord to a fight now, would you?"
"I don't see any Thief Lord here," Prosper said, pulling off the civetta and dropping it into the rucksack. "Only an apprentice detective who looks a lot like Dottor Massimo."
Scipio tousled his hair. "Brat," he said with a sharp-edged smile.
Prosper's answer was to jump down from the railing and shove Scipio in the chest. Surprised, Scipio let the mask slip from his hand, and they fell back against a post amid a swirling cloud of barely restrained laughter.
Scipio flipped them around and backed Prosper into a corner, so Prosper braced his foot against the sturdy wood, leveraging the strength of his legs against Scipio's shoulder and shoving hard. Prosper wasn't bad in a scrape--all rangy muscle stretched over a sturdy frame--but it did him little good against a full-grown man, especially one Scipio's size. Taking advantage of his longer limbs, Scipio hooked his foot around Prosper's leg, throwing him off-balance and using the momentum to bring them both down to the deck. Without giving Prosper a chance to recover, Scipio seized his hands, pinning them on either side of his head. He grinned, waiting for Prosper to struggle and knowing it would be futile.
Only Prosper never did. He just lay there while their breaths spun like sugar between them, watching Scipio, his expression impassive as a bas-relief saint. Scipio felt very young under that steady gaze.
"Either do something or get off me, Scip," Prosper said. "I'm freezing here."
Scipio jumped up and away, his back colliding with the rail. Recovering, he set his head at a haughty cant and said, "I'm getting too old for this kind of thing anyway."
Prosper snorted as he picked himself up. "You could be Victor's age, and you still wouldn't be too old." The thought seemed to sober him. "Do you--" He hesitated, but Scipio could read the question on his face. Then it vanished, and Prosper's expression resolved itself into placidity once more. "Do you think the Conte and Contessa ever got the merry-go-round working again?"
Scipio shrugged. "It's nothing to me whether they did or not."
"I'd still like to go back, though. To the Isola Segreta. I'm sure Ida would lend us her boat."
Scipio turned and leaned over the rail, gazing out over the frosted rooftops. Prosper joined him, and they stood in silence for a while, immersed in the maze of winding alleys, the moonlit gleam of Istrian stone, the lights of the canal, twinkling like stars trapped in glass.
"I'm sorry I didn't come with you," Prosper said at last. "I was . . . I couldn't leave Bo behind."
"I never meant to leave anyone."
"I know. We never meant to push you away either, but . . . it's complicated now."
"More complicated than botched break-ins and midnight visits to forbidden islands?"
Scipio searched for a smart answer and came up empty-handed. So he searched instead for something that would make things right between them, that would bridge the distance, but the result was the same. So he searched Prosper's profile, remote and still, and thought, /he's grown up too, more than I have/, but even that was how it had always been.
"Why tonight?" he asked, almost without realizing it. Prosper had been watching from his window, watching Scipio come and go all these nights. What made tonight any different?
"I got tired of waiting."
Prosper exhaled, a drift of warmth against the frozen sky. Then he hooked a finger around Scipio's belt and tugged him closer.