A/N: Title is from the song "This Bitter Earth" by Dinah Washington mixed with Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" Listen to it for full effect. :3
Warnings: There will be violence, mentions of war/torture, canonical character deaths, and overall angst, but I promise you right here and now that there will be a happy ending. As happy as these sorts of things can be, at least. If needed, I will bump the rating, but for now we should be okay!
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
28 June 1943
When Will Solace told his parents he was going to Rome, he did not get the reaction he'd hoped for. Half of him wanted them to support his decision and comment on his bravery. The other half wanted them to shout and scream and forbid it. However, he got neither. His mother gaped at him, tears already building in her eyes. His father stared blankly at him, as if he was already dead. Their reactions had stirred up his nerves a bit but had done little to dispel him from his ending goal.
The facts were simple: Rome needed help and Will was a trained Red Cross medic. He could help.
It was either that or going to the frontlines, which he neglected to mention to his mother. He didn't want to put even more nightmares in her head. They'd already lost one person to the war, and Will could barely look at the room across his hall without feeling sick.
He wasn't a fighter by any means. He was the kid in gym class that was careful not to throw the ball too hard not because he was weak but because he was nervous about being too strong. The only thing that was worse than being in pain was inflicting it. But, he could take it away. He could ease the suffering, patch up the wounds, and lift broken hopes onto crutches.
If his military had handed him a gun he would have been living in the rugged mountains of Canada by now. But, thankfully, he'd played it smart and established himself as a medical man early on, before the draft managed to claim him. He was protected by the Red Cross insignia emblazoned on his sleeve.
He thought he had understood the risks, had understood what being in a German-occupied city meant for an American freedom-fighter, and had been prepared to accept those risks. He probably would have, too, if it hadn't been for one unexpected thing.
The 'thing' had all begun on Will's very first day in Rome, when he'd accidentally offended a fruit merchant with his poor Italian. He was flipping furiously through his little pocket dictionary as the man bellowed at him in angry Italian, hands making violent gestures that were starting to scare him.
"Uh… Mi dispiace! Mi dispiace!" (I'm sorry! I'm sorry!) Will cried. "Non parlo italiano!" (I don't speak Italian!)
"Stronzo… americani!" (Son of a bitch... Americans!) The man snorted with a shake of his head.
Will wasn't sure what he'd just been called, but he had a few guesses. He clapped his hands together and bowed down in a show of apology. "Sorry!"
"Andarsene!" (Buzz off!)
Will decided to make his hasty escape, backing right into another passerby. The woman snapped at him with what was probably a curse word or four. He apologized again and nearly smacked into the first guy's fruit cart, toppling over a few oranges. Will was pretty sure the man was going to gut him. He just ran before the man could find his words.
"Dammit," he panted once he'd established a fair distance. "Where the hell am I?"
He'd been in Italy for less than a day and he was already pathetically lost. He knew the Red Cross had stationed themselves somewhere around the San Lorenzo district but he didn't even know where that was. It seemed as though his parents were going to be right after all. Will was going to die in Italy, but not the way everyone had thought.
Maps would've been a great idea, only he couldn't seem to find his. He was pretty sure he had put it into his rucksack but things have been periodically been mysteriously disappearing. He was certain he put a canteen of water in there, too, but when he reached for it, it was gone. Talking to locals was a big mistake. Will could barely find the correct words let alone pronounce them.
He looked up at the sky and sighed. "What am I doing here?"
A hand suddenly reached out, grabbed his collar, and dragged him onto the sidewalk. A moment later, an automobile clankered past, letting out an irritable stream of honks and disturbing a mucky puddle on the side of the road. Mud splattered all over Will's trousers, but he was too busy reeling from his close-call to care.
"Idiota, sposta!" (Idiot, move!)
Will turned in the direction of the angry voice, feeling off balance. He was met with a pair of narrowed, stormy eyes, partially hidden underneath a mop of windblown, messy black hair. Will's first instinct was to back up, which made him stumble into the street again. The man yanked him back, scowling. "Sei sordo?" (Are you deaf?) he shouted in a sharp, demanding tone. He was young, around Will's age, but nearly a head shorter. He was wearing canvas-color trousers with suspenders and a black, collared shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing more of that olive-tone skin. A matching black Irish-style cap sat on his head.
Will cleared his throat. It felt like something was squeezing his vocal chords shut. "I, uh… don't speak Italian. Sorry."
The young man's dark eyes widened in slight surprise before they narrowed once again. "Then what are you doing in Italy, you moron?"
Will let out a huge sigh of relief. "Oh my God! English! Thank you, thank you so much!" In his excitement, he clapped the Italian on the shoulder and shook him. "You have no idea what I've been through."
The man shoved him off. "It's your own fault! Let go of me already!"
Will was oblivious to the Italian's bad attitude. He was too busy digging in his pockets for the address he was supposed to be looking for. When he finally located it, he looked back up, smile on his face, but the man was gone. Erupting into panic, Will scanned the area. "Hey!" he called out as he caught the sight of the man's retreating form through the crowd. "Hey, wait up!" He took off after him like a drowning man for land. "Wait!"
The man turned around and gave Will the deepest look of loathing he'd ever seen. But he stopped. Will almost knocked into him in his haste, doubling over to catch his breath. "Man, you're fast." The man just crossed his arms. "Look, can you just tell me where this address is?" He held up the piece of paper. "Or else I might seriously die out here."
The man snorted condescendingly and snatched the paper out of Will's hands. He glanced at the scribbled address and his eyebrows knotted together. "Oh, this is just great," he muttered.
Will's shoulders slumped. "What? I'm in the completely wrong place, aren't I? This is Rome, right?"
"Of course it's Rome!" the man snapped. He shook his head. "You're staying at the Asphodel." He turned back around and took a few steps before barking over his shoulder, "Follow me!"
"Seriously?" Will grinned. "Thank you! You've saved me twice."
"Yeah, well, don't be surprised if I don't do it a third time."
Will just chuckled. He had heard that Italians were pretty relaxed and easy-going, but so far he'd only encountered crabby, grumpy, and loud. This Italian seemed a bit different, however. Will could sense there was something else fueling that sharp-tongue. Instead of pushing it, Will just followed the man around the impossibly crowded city. He stayed close enough that he could latch onto him in case they were separated, feeling a bit like a lost child looking for his mother.
"Are we almost there?" he asked after several minutes of dead silence.
"Just keep walking."
"'Kay…" Will muttered, a smidgen of suspicion curling through him. He didn't know the man, didn't know where he was being led. He didn't exactly trust the man, but he wasn't about to left stranded in the middle of Rome.
Eventually, they approached a large building on the outskirts of the city that looked as old as the cobblestone roads Will saw leading into the city, which the train guide explained that they were Roman, dating nearly two thousand years old. Will wondered how old the building in front of him was. It was exactly what he pictured a Romanesque villa to be, only a bit larger. It was an aged-tan color with red tiled, sloped roofs. An elaborate garden sat outside, too green and nice for the city. "It's beautiful," Will breathed out.
The young man didn't wait. He just trudged across the scenery and disappeared behind a pair of heavy wooden doors. Will blinked, but followed after him. He checked the address on his note and the one on a sign just outside the door. They matched.
He let out a huge sigh of relief and walked in, unsure of what he would find inside. He almost dropped his suitcase. Tall ceilings, adorned with glossy frescoes, floors with intricate mosaics leading into a large atrium with a double staircase parted on either side. Overall, it was rather dark and reclusive, but Will could see light coming from the halls on either side. He spotted the young man's back disappear around a corner, shouting something in Italian. Will decided to keep following, unsure of what else to do. He heard voices as he stepped down a small flight of steps and received another shock. "Wow," he muttered.
Along one side of the peristyle was a long set of columns leading out into a square courtyard, which was a tranquil and beautiful garden with a dead fountain in the center. On the other side of the columns were several different doors. Above him was another painted ceiling. Will found himself thinking that he had somehow travelled back in time and really was standing in the middle of a Roman noble's home. It was gorgeous, yet somehow sad, as if it had been even more glorious a long time ago and Father Time had left it to rot.
He spotted the man again. He was in the courtyard, speaking hurriedly to a young woman. She looked so similar to him that Will had to assume it was his sister. "Uh," he called out uneasily, "hello?"
The pair stopped bickering and stared back at him. The woman blinked, stared at the man beside her, and then smiled warmly. "Hello," she greeted and came to meet him as she held up her hand. "Welcome to the Asphodel. I'm Bianca, and this is my very rude little brother, Nico."
"Nico" gave her a sour look before crossing his arms and turning to face the fountain. Will smiled wryly and shook her hand. "We met. Sort of."
"Yes, Nico told me about it." Bianca shrugged apologetically. "Sorry about him. He can be… a handful."
"He was the one standing in the middle of the street!" Nico huffed over his shoulder. "He would have been as flat as a panini if I hadn't come along."
Will found his lips twitching upwards at the younger man's sass. Bianca seemed to be desensitized to it. "Anyways," he cleared his throat, "my name is Will Solace. I'm from the Red Cross?"
Bianca's eyes widened. "Oh."
"You're the medic?" Nico spun around, unfolding his arms. He glanced up and down Will's figure with a critical eye. "You?"
"Nico," Bianca chided. "Go tell father he's here."
Nico threw Will a suspicious look before slinking back to the shadowy pathway. Will watched him enter one of the doors and slam it close.
"Sorry," Bianca sighed again, "he's just… frustrated. It's not you."
"No worries," Will said, remembering the lines of German soldiers stationed at every entrance to the city. He had been one of the very few medics allowed into the city that weren't German or Italian. Even Will wasn't sure exactly how he managed to get so lucky. Will's eyes flashed back to the door Nico had gone behind. "I can't even begin to imagine how it's been."
Bianca offered him an empathetic smile. "Americans have seen their share of war, too."
"It's not exactly the same, is it?"
She shrugged and then gestured around her. "My father owns this place. It's been in the family for longer than anyone can remember."
"Asphodel." Will nodded. "Like the Greek myth?"
"Anyone's guess." Bianca clapped her hands together. "Anyways, we're very happy you're here! How about I show you to your room?"
Will agreed eagerly and followed Bianca back into the main part of the villa. As he passed through tall corridors and large rooms, the place felt more oppressive and frail, as if the walls were decaying and its inhabitants were falling with it. The whole feel was depressing and eerie, but – for some reason – Will thought that added to the appeal. He ran a hand along a prickly fresco painted on the wall. There was history there, stories to be told, and Will found it absolutely beautiful.
"Here you go," Bianca said, opening an oak door. "This is your room. You can put your things in there."
"Thank you," Will said with a grateful little bow.
Bianca nodded politely but her mind seemed to be someplace else. "You remember how to get to front from here, right?" Will hummed in affirmation, already observing the melancholy décor. It was like he was staying in a gothic church more than an Italian villa. "I'll call for you when my father is ready to welcome you," she said as Will toyed with the thick curtains. "Until then feel free to rest or walk around."
"All right. Thank you again."
"Of course," she said and then, as if unsure if she should say anything at all, added, "we're really happy you're here."
Before Will could say anything else, she left hurriedly, her long white dress trailing after her. Will tried to set aside the ominous feeling in his gut. He felt the same as when Michael dared him to pet their terrible neighbor's questionably rabid dog as kids. And, shit, he shouldn't have thought about that. The name still left a scorching hole in his chest. Quickly, he jarred aside the curtains, a puff of dust billowing up, and let the light shine inside the dark room. As he glanced over the bed and the thick layer of dust on the dresser, he assumed that the room hadn't been used in a long time.
He decided to put away his belongings – not that there was much of it. He opened the drawers only to find them filled with cobwebs. He closed them again. There wasn't anything wrong with living out of his suitcase until he could find time to clean everything up.
His mind drifted back to the courtyard again and the exotic-looking garden. If anything, it would take his mind off of the growing pain in his chest. He had some trouble finding it again, got turned around several times and was distracted by the countless paintings and busts that decorated the halls. It was like a mansion, something torn right out of Hollywood, and Will was still reeling from the fact that he was actually in Italy. He'd never left the States before and, surrounded by all of this, he felt strangely small.
When he finally found the courtyard again, it was empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, he approached the fountain. It was a perfect circle with a statue of a tall woman leaning against a broken column and tilting a jar. Her face was solemn and worn from years of weathering. Will could just barely make out the blue and green mosaic along the bottom underneath a foot of brown water with dead leaves floating on the top. He noticed his reflection and grimaced. He looked like he spent the last twenty-four hours on a crowded steamship and sneaking into an enemy-occupied city. Oh, wait.
Suddenly, the door that Nico had disappeared behind burst open and two angry voices floated out. Will flinched and glanced up in time to see a tall, intimidating man with black hair and a twisted beard with beady eyes and a long, broad nose. Behind him was Nico, who was gesturing wildly in defiance to something the man had just said. Will caught only the end of it. "—eighteen! I'm not a child!"
"We are not having this discussion again, Nico," the man said in a tone that sent Will's nerves scrambling. It was cool, calm, but laced with dangerous authority. "You will stay here and that's final." Nico jerked his gaze away angrily only for it to rest on Will, who tried to hide behind the statue nervously. The man noticed him and his demeanor changed. "Ah, you must be the medic!"
Will peered out from behind the statue and smiled. It came out more like a grimace. "Uh, y-yes, sir. Sorry, I wasn't trying to—"
"You're early!" the man cut across him, striding across the green to clasp Will's hand with a crushing grip. "We weren't expecting you until the morning." There was a suspicious glint in his eyes and Will inexplicably felt the need to explain himself.
"Uh, right. The conductor said something about the station being too crowded at night so he wanted to depart earlier than scheduled." Will shrugged cautiously. "I had the whole cart to myself. It was pretty neat actually."
Nico, who was lurking behind the man, gave a condescending scoff. Will glanced at him and noticed the way his stance mirrored the man in front of him perfectly. The man took great interest in Will's words, head nodding as if he had just received grave news. "I see. Anyways, we are just glad you made it here safe and sound. You can call me Hades. Welcome to Asphodel."
"Thank you," Will said with another polite half-bow, "for letting me stay here. I know it must be a big burden to house anyone these days."
'Hades' held up a hand. "It's nothing. You're safe in these walls."
Nico gave another haughty "Hah!" at that and Hades frowned at him. "I'm told you've already met my son," he said the word as if he needed to remind himself that, "Nico."
"Yeah." Will smiled brightly at the younger boy. "He saved me from becoming a panini."
Nico rolled his eyes. "Father, can't we just—"
"Zitto, Nico. Why don't you show, uh…?" Hades turned to Will with raised eyebrows.
Will jumped. "Oh, uh. Will. Will Solace."
"Why don't you show Mr. Solace around? Show him the infirmary."
"Infirmary?" Will echoed. "It's here?"
Hades blinked at him. "Of course. Where else would it be?"
Nico's eyebrows shot up like Will had just slapped his father across the face. Only, he seemed more impressed than offended. Nico cast a slightly-amused at his father, who frowned. "All the hospitals here are German-filled," he said in a tone that meant Will wasn't getting a better explanation than that.
Nico, looking slightly less irritable than before, shrugged. "Come on, then, I guess. I'll show you around the shitty place."
"Language!" Hades barked at him.
Nico made a face and Will had to suppress the smile. He followed Nico out of the courtyard after saying a quick goodbye to Hades, who gave a curt nod back. Will made a mental note to never piss him off.
It was obvious that Nico didn't want to be there, that there were other things on his mind, but Will didn't mind the short commentary – "The kitchen. Food and whatever. The bathrooms are over there. Use all the hot water and I'll kill you." In fact, he found it rather funny.
"What's that?" Will asked, pointing at a pair of double doors with two pillars on either side.
"That's…" Nico looked back and his fists balled tightly at his sides. "Don't worry about it."
Well, if that wasn't foreboding then Will didn't know what was. Still, he didn't want to tread on any toes on his first day. "Okay… lead on then."
Nico was already continuing down the hall so Will followed. "This is where we set up the infirmary," he muttered and pushed open a door at the very end. He stepped to the side, apparently having no intention of going in there himself, but Will went forward. It was much smaller than he'd been expecting; a mere bedroom with four twin beds. There was a cabinet that looked to be filled with medical supplies as well as a long table.
"Are you really a doctor?"
Will tore his attention away from the shelves stuffed with antiseptics and bandages. Nico was leaning against the frame, not even letting the tips of his toes pass the threshold, and watched Will with a frown. "I'm a medic," Will said.
"Is there a difference?"
"A little. Less training, I guess."
Nico glared. "How old are you?"
Nico's eyes widened a bit before narrowed right back.
Will hastened to address his worries. "Look, I'm not very experienced but I come from a family of doctors. I passed all the tests with perfect scores." Will glanced back around the room. "But can I ask you something?" Nico didn't answer so Will decided to take that as a yes. "Why is there even an infirmary set up here?"
Nico snorted. "He didn't even tell you, did he?"
"Tell me? Tell me what?"
"Forget it." Nico straightened up. "Less you know the better."
"What's that even supposed to mean?" Will asked even as the Italian began to walk away. "Hey!" He growled in frustration and followed after him. "Wait!"
"Drop it, idiota," Nico called over his shoulder. "You've got your job. That's all you need to worry about."
Will huffed. He was really starting to question the legitimacy of his 'contract'. He had signed up to work in a hospital, dammit! Not a cleared out bedroom! Why was there even one in a place such as this? He quickened his pace to catch up, barely noticing where they were going until sunlight blinded him.
"We're back here?" Will wondered aloud, blinking at the courtyard.
"The plan is one big rectangle," Nico said. His tone was terse, grudging. "If you get lost again, which seems pretty likely, just go the middle. If you can't find that then you deserve to be lost."
Will rolled his eyes. He understood the hardships everyone in the city had probably faced, but Nico's attitude was starting to wear at his patience. "Look, I don't—" he started, but immediately cut off when Nico spun around to face him, his face catching the light just so. It was like a little crest of light was resting at the top of his head. "Look…" he tried again, but there came that strange strangled feeling again. Instead of telling off the younger boy like he desperately wanted, he just stared into those magnetizing brown eyes. He already could feel himself slipping, falling, inch by inch, into that gaze.
"What?" Nico scowled. "Why are you staring at me like that?"
Will snapped back to himself. "Huh?"
Nico threw up his hands in frustration. "Americans," he muttered before stomping off. "Finish the tour yourself and try to remember where you're going, okay?"
"Where are you going?" Will asked as Nico left. He didn't get an answer. "Jeez," he breathed and looked around. He wasn't sure what to do with himself. He felt out of place, strange, almost like he was in a dream.
He had spent twenty-one years hiding that side of him. He couldn't afford to be identified for what he was. There was too much at risk, especially these days. He had to control himself fast or else… He didn't want to think about it.
In the end, he just explored. He met a few other people living within the villa and they were all much friendlier. There was even another American. She found him while he was studying one of the frescoes on the wall. "Pretty, isn't it?"
Will straightened up to see a young woman – about his age — beside him. He cleared his throat. "Er, yeah. Yeah, it is."
The woman nodded. "You're the medic everyone is talking about, right?"
Will cocked an eyebrow. "People are talking about me?" Then he made a show of looking around them. "There are other people here?"
She laughed and nodded. "There are probably a dozen other people that live here. Myself included. I'm Lou Ellen, by the way."
They shook hands before Lou Ellen continued, "Anyways, everyone is busy with other things, though." There was weight to her words and once again Will felt like he was missing something. "They'll be back soon and you'll get properly welcomed." She waved her hands around. "Everyone just gets so tense when they're out for so long. It's dangerous these days, you know."
Well, Will supposed that helped to explain why Nico and his sister had been acting so oddly. "I guess."
"Uh-oh. I know that look. You've met Nico, haven't you?"
Will smirked. "Actually, I have. Is he…?"
"Always a major asshole?" She snorted. "Pretty much. To which degree varies from day to day. If he was rude, don't let it bug you. He's had it rough. His whole family has. The Asphodel is pretty much their whole world."
Will frowned. "What exactly is this place, anyways? I've never seen anything like it."
"It belongs to the di Angelos," she said. "No one knows exactly for how long. But, I suppose it's a refuge. Some of Rome's most wanted people live here."
Will choked on a gasp. "Criminals?"
Lou Ellen shrugged. "Liberators," she said, glancing at him to gauge his reaction.
"You don't mean," Will glanced over his shoulder and dropped his voice, "resistance members?" Will had heard of the Italian Resistance before but he hadn't even considered it to be possible in a city such as this. There were German soldiers lining every street, listening to every spoken word, ready to leap at someone who had one hair out of line.
Lou Ellen raised an eyebrow. "They really didn't tell you a thing, did they? Well," she hummed, "maybe that's for the best."
"Why does everyone keep telling me that?"
"You're not the first medic we've had," she said quietly. "Just keep that in mind."
Will didn't even have the chance to question her further. The front doors suddenly flew open and two men ran in, supporting an unconscious man between them. Will's stomach twisted uneasily when he saw blood staining their shirts. "We could use some help, here!"
A/N: Updates will be unbearably slow, and I've never attempted something like this before, but I hope you guys stick through this one with me! See you soon!
Also: This story is also on AO3, where I'll be putting a lot of links of extra tidbits, research, pictures, etc. Because I'm a history nerd like that. Check it out if you'd like! :3