"Michael! Michael, wait up!" Will's voice was caught by the wind, and he buried his face into the woolen scarf around his neck while his numb hands tried to keep warm in his pockets. His shoes were soaked from the deep snow covering the streets. He could barely see ahead of him, but he could hear his brother's laugh ahead. He took care to step in the larger footsteps already pressed into the snow and shook clumps of ice off of his pants.
"Hurry up, Will!" Michael called back to him. "You're too slow!"
Will bit his cheek. It wasn't fair. Michael was always running ahead of him, leaving him in the dust. Far behind. He moved faster, practically hopping along the deep snow accumulating on the streets, but the farther he went, the further Michael became.
A sudden gust of wind brought a curtain of snow up from the ground, blocking Michael's distant figure from Will's sights.
"Michael?" Will called. "Michael!"
Panic pierced through Will's chilled heart and he started to run, slipping and stumbling, but never stopping. He didn't notice as the landscape suddenly began to melt away, dissolving into a familiar hallway full of family portraits and distant memories. All that mattered to him was getting to his brother.
"Mrs. Solace," a stern male voice boomed. Will's feet stopped instantly. A cold bead of sweat rolled down his face as he turned, heart sputtering when he saw a man in uniform hand his mother a folded American flag. "I'm so sorry."
"No," Will whispered and started to walk towards the scene. "Th-that's not…"
The man turned and disappeared, leaving his mother to fall to her knees. Will ran to her side, staring in disbelief at the flag in her hands.
The red stripes began to fall into the white, as if it was bleeding.
Will shouted out and recoiled, stumbled back, tripped over his own feet, falling backwards until a pale hand shot out of the darkness and kept Will suspended. Nico di Angelo crept out of the shadows, still supporting Will, expressionless. "N-Nico?" Will choked out.
"You were too slow," Nico muttered and released him.
And just like that, he was falling, falling—
Will jumped awake with a start. He was covered in a cold sweat, panting, and for a moment he hadn't a clue where he was. Then, the events of the last week caught up with him and he laid back on the bed with a long exhale. He ran his hands down his face, wondering if he would ever not dream of his dead brother.
He remembered the injured pilot, Jason Grace, and pushed back the covers of his bed. He wasn't entirely sure he made it back into his room. He only recalled walking out of the infirmary and then nothing.
He pulled on a sweater over his undershirt and slid on some shoes before heading for the door. He needed to keep an eye on Jason Grace. He had been in terrible shape, and Will had no idea how long he had been unconscious. Jason's health was a priority.
As he opened the door, it met something heavy with a distinctive thunk! A groan emanated from the ground, but it was too dark to see anything. He raised the lantern from his dresser and let out a sigh mixed with amusement and exasperation. "Comfy down there?" he asked cheekily.
Nico di Angelo glared up at him as he climbed to his feet and rubbed his head. "You snore so loudly I thought someone might choke you."
"So you stationed yourself outside my room?" Will raised an eyebrow at Nico's admittedly scrawny frame. "My hero."
"Shut up." Nico huffed. Will could see a blush on his cheeks even with the low light of the lantern. "My father has been making us keep an eye on you. It was my turn."
"Right," Will said in a tone that let Nico know he didn't believe him. "Sure. Or, maybe, you were worried?"
Nico sputtered, crossed his arms, opened his mouth to speak, and only sputtered incoherently some more. He turned on his heels and marched down the hall, coughing out flustered half-finished words in Italian as he went.
Will grinned. It was far too easy, and far too fun, to rile up the Italian. He caught up as he headed for the infirmary. When they passed through the garden, Will spoke. "So… are you still mad at me?"
Nico regarded him for a moment as if searching his thoughts. "I'm mad," he concluded.
"Just leave me alone."
"I swear I didn't even have a choice. They made me do this, and I—"
"You don't get it," Nico muttered. "You just don't. And the fact that they want your help over…" He shook his head. "I said leave me alone." With that, he brushed aside Will and stomped down the hallway. That time, Will heeded the threat in the other man's voice and didn't follow.
Instead, pushing aside the knot settling in his stomach, he went to the infirmary and found Bianca sitting at the pilot's bedside. "You're up," she greeted brightly.
"Yeah. Sorry." He rubbed the back of his neck.
"Don't be." Bianca gave him a comforting smile. "You needed rest."
Will brushed aside the comment and went to the pilot. "How is he?"
She shrugged. "The same."
Will nodded, rolled up his sleeves, and, with a sigh, went to work.
It was past midday when Will had finished checking and clean the pilot's wounds and wrapping them in fresh bandages. The American was fighting a fever and drifted in and out of consciousness all day. Will did his best to keep his body temperature cool but there was little he could do to keep away the pain on such short supplies. Will took a seat at his side. At the very least, he could keep the man some company.
Several times Piper came in to check on him. "He's not awake yet," he would tell her.
"Will he ever be?" she would ask, never tearing her eyes away from the bed.
Will assured her each time that he would.
"We're running low on food," Bianca mentioned later on. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve and sighed. "I'll have to make a run to town."
"Is that safe?" Will asked worriedly. "I mean… with all the noise we made the other day, don't you think we should just lie low for a bit?"
Bianca shrugged. "It isn't the first time we did something like this. We'll be fine if we're careful."
"But we're wan—"
"Everyone here is wanted for something or another," she interrupted. "It'll be fine. I'll have Nico go. I think he needs to get out of this place for a bit."
"So you're just gonna send him alone?"
A smile spread across her face. "Well, you were just complaining about the lack of bandages and alcohol, weren't you?"
Will blanched. He didn't much enjoy the thought of going back into town. The idea had his stomach churning like butter. But, if Nico was going to go alone… "I… guess I was."
Bianca's smile grew. "Great! I'll go tell him."
She left before Will could say another word.
Nico only grudgingly agreed to go. As soon as he saw Will waiting for him, he almost turned around and slammed the door in his face, but Bianca had managed to cool him down again. She whispered something in his ear that made him turn bright red and, a moment later, the two of them were walking in terse silence down the dirt road.
Nico kept his gaze pointed directly ahead, seemingly determined not to say a single word the whole trip. Will racked his brain for something to say, something to make Nico understand. He missed the light conversations they had the first few days Will was there. They would be a great distraction from the lingering effects that nightmare had on him.
"Nice weather we're having," he said and immediately thought he should smack himself. Nico didn't even bat an eye towards him, which threw Will into a fit of nerves. And when Will was nervous, he couldn't stop talking. "I mean, I know they always say the weather in Italy is supposed to be great," he blabbed, "but I guess you don't really know until you're here, you know? Take New York! I've only been to New York once in my life. Everyone there says the weather is either too hot or too cold, but, man, I'll tell ya, I had no idea it could be so cold—"
"If you're going to talk the entire time you could at least say something useful," Nico muttered and kicked a stone as he walked. He plugged his hands into his pockets but didn't risk a single glance at Will.
Will bit his cheek. He had a feeling he knew what Nico wanted to talk about. "Like?"
"What happened yesterday?"
Will was taken aback by his eagerness. He was beginning to understand just how obsessed Nico had become with the Resistance. He rubbed his elbow absently. He knew shouldn't say anything but if he explained perhaps Nico would forgive him and they could go back to being… civil, at the very least. Confusing feelings aside, Will really just wanted to clear the air between them.
He blew out a defeated sigh. "Well, I didn't really do much. I sat back while Leo rigged up these smoke bombs in the back of the truck and Connor, Reyna, and Octavian went in to get the pilot." Nico snapped his head to look at him, surprised that Will was actually giving him answers. "We went to the rendezvous point, but ran into a few German guards on the way." He laughed weakly. "I thought I was gonna be made into wiener schnitzel."
Nico's eyebrows knotted together, unamused.
Will rubbed his elbow again. "But, uh, anyways, we lost them and met up with the others. We carried Jason to the car and drove back. That's it."
"That's it?" Nico parroted. He glanced at Will sharply. "It didn't seem like it was no big deal when you collapsed yesterday."
Will didn't understand why Nico was being so cold towards him, but he still felt the inexplicable need to fix things between them. He found himself wishing he could be like the others – strong, brave, capable – but he was the opposite. He was weak, scared, inexperienced. It was no wonder why Nico disliked him. Nico had been waiting for most of his life to prove himself, to fight back, but instead Will, an oblivious American who hadn't even realized the day to day struggle these people went through, had stolen his chance.
When Will didn't respond, Nico let out a tsk and stepped up his pace.
Will ran a hand through his hair and spoke carefully. "I hate blood," he said. "I fainted because I can't stand the sight of it. He was bleeding so much and his uniform…" He wrung his fingers together. "It brought back some bad memories.
"When I first got here, I was angry. I still haven't completely forgiven you guys for tricking me, but," Will sighed, "when I was out there, when I saw how the Germans treated people, civilians…" He shook his head. "It's not right. And I want to do something about it. You're right. I didn't get it. But I think I'm starting to."
Nico hesitated and then turned to him. Will felt a kick to his chest as their eyes met. Then, the faintest of smiles pulled at the corner of Nico's mouth. "I'm starting to see why only a few people betted against you."
"Betted?" Will repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, yeah. Everyone had a bet going on whether or not you would make it through the mission."
"What?" he squawked. "Are you kidding me? Just when I thought you guys were okay!"
"If it makes you feel any better, I didn't bet against you either."
Will almost missed a step. A warm blush skirted up his face. "I-is that so?"
Nico hummed. "Do you have the list?" he asked suddenly, lightly.
He was a bit put off from Nico's sudden change of mood but he definitely wouldn't complain. "Uh, yeah," he said, patting his pocket. "Got it."
"Good. Bianca always wants the weirdest things, and it's hell carrying it all the way back."
It was surprising how well things went between them after that. As they strolled through the market, Will told several stories of home while Nico laughed or made a snarky comment on Will's intelligence.
"I'm telling you, we used to go to this corner shop every Friday but never buy anything. The owner, he had this real mean dog. Really mean. 'Bite your ankles as you walked out the door' mean. Well, one day, my brother had the bright idea to try to lift a chocolate bar from the store. He stuffed it in the back of his pants and just made for the door. I swear to God, that dog leapt over the counter, jumped up, and bit him right in the ass, tore the chocolate right out of his pocket!"
Nico was choking back laughter as he observed the boxes full of tomatoes. They were pale, not even close to being ripe, and small. Nothing like they had back in the States. Nico picked up six larger ones and tossed the merchant a few coins so Will supposed that it was normal there.
"So stunning intelligence runs in the family, then?" Nico teased, tossing a tomato at Will, who then dropped it into a thick paper bag.
"Ha ha." Will grinned. "I'll have you know I was top of my class in high school."
"Wisdom and intelligence are two different things!" he protested. "What's the next thing on the list?"
"Uh," Will checked it, "potatoes. And, what, like you're Mr. Genius McGee?"
"Genius McGee?" Nico laughed. "Did you make that up?"
"What? It's a perfectly acceptable idiom!"
"For a perfectly acceptable idiot."
Will made a show of rolling his eyes and Nico threw another tomato at him. Will chuckled and dropped it into the bag as they approached the next vendor. "Seriously though! What kind of plan did you say you had earlier? You were gonna hide in one of the boxes on the truck?"
"It would have worked if Reyna hadn't caught me trying to crawl inside!" Nico yelled at him, but there was still a loose smile on his face, which twitched into a frown as Will laughed. "Shut up! At least I don't faint each time someone gets a paper cut!"
"Hey!" Will pointed at him. "In my defense, it was a lot of blood. I can't stand it."
"Says the medic."
"You trying to start a fight or something here, di Angelo?"
"Please! It's not much of a fight if your opponent is crying about pacifism the whole time."
"Hey, I can be tough!" he pointed at himself while Nico shook his head, smiling again. It was just a soft, barely-there smile, but Will's heart started to beat a bit faster. Even though he was a sarcastic, troublesome little brat, Will could feel something growing for the Italian. When Nico smiled like that, at something Will had said, it was pretty hard to even pretend to bicker.
As Nico bent down to pick up some potatoes, Will wondered with a blush whether he had just gotten himself into another, much more delicate, mission.
It was midafternoon when they finally started their journey back to Asphodel. Nico seemed to have forgiven him. At least, he didn't shy away from conversation nor did he bother hiding his curiosity about America or Will himself.
"What's it like?" he asked in a small voice.
"America?" Will hummed. "It's big. Bigger than most people realize, I think. I'm from North Carolina, that's in the eastern part," he clarified at the confused look on Nico's face. "My parents owned a small ranch not far from the beach. You can actually ride your bike right up to the ocean, it's that close! And, man, when that sunset hits the water just right," he sighed, "there's nothing better."
"It sounds beautiful."
Will smiled softly. "Yeah."
"You must miss it."
"Yeah," he said again and hoisted the bags nestled in his arms up for a better grip. "But, Italy is really pretty, too. I guess I got lucky."
Nico's eyebrows knitted together. "Lucky?"
"Yeah. Most medics get sent to the battle lines. Not a lot make it back." An apple almost toppled out of the bag but Will managed to shimmy it back into place. "If you guys hadn't picked me to kidnap then I would have probably been out there too. Instead, I'm still helping people and I have a place to stay and food to eat." He shot a brilliant grin at Nico. "And the company's not so bad."
Nico's gaze immediately jerked to the ground, expression hidden by his long dark hair. "You must be pretty messed up if you think rotten tomatoes and mushy bread is anything to sing about."
Will laughed. "It's not ideal, sure, but life never is, right?"
Nico looked up again and Will pretended not to notice his intense stare. Instead he kept his eyes up at the sky, watching the clouds shift and shape while trying to get his emotions under control. He wanted to tell Nico that it was okay, that the war would be over soon, that everything would work out. He wanted to pull him close and whisper all these things, shielding him from harm. He remembered the bloodstained flag in his dream. He didn't want any more death.
"You know, I could always use a hand," Will suggested. "You're more than welcome to come by the infirmary, you know."
Nico's demeanor changed on a dime. His fingers dug into the bags as his lips pursed and every muscle seemed to tense up. "We should hurry back," he said so lowly Will barely heard him. He hastened to catch up to Nico's sudden increased pace and, once Nico asked another question about American life, they fell back into easy conversation.
Will had just finished changing Jason Grace's bandages again when Piper came in again, rubbing her temples. "Ugh," she groaned.
"Yeah, and its name is Persephone," she muttered with a grimace. "Honestly, each time she radios it's nothing but bla, bla, bla."
"Hades's wife." She rolled her eyes. "Any progress?"
Will shook his head. "I thought he was gonna wake up for a moment but he just started saying his code number again."
Piper approached the bed and rested her hands on the frame. "Do you think he'll recover? I mean… mentally…"
Will shook his head with a shrug. "I can't really say until he wakes."
"He will wake up," he promised. "I have faith in him."
Bianca bustled in with a basket in her arm. "Here are some clean sheets!" She placed it on the floor and tucked a piece of her black hair behind her ear. "Also, thanks for taking Nico out today. He needed it."
"Not a problem." Will bent down to lift the sheets out of the basket. "But I think your brother hates me."
Bianca lifted the basket again with a snort. "Hates you? He hasn't shut up about you since you got here!" She froze. "Don't tell him I said that."
Will pretended to zip up his lips, but warmth pooled in his stomach.
Piper straightened up. "Well, I have to go relay Persephone's message to Hades." She rubbed her forehead. "And then find some peace and quiet." Bianca laughed as Piper left.
Will turned to her. "Your mother seems nice," he jested and, like Nico's had done earlier, Bianca's expression darkened.
"Oh," she said, "Persephone's not our mother. She died."
"Oh." Will bit his tongue. "I'm so sorry."
"It's all right. You couldn't have known." She picked at the corner of a pillow case. "Nico took it particularly hard. He saw it."
Bianca sighed and glanced over her shoulder, checking for ears, then moved closer. "When the war started, and Italy and Germany became allies, Mussolini tried to send a message to nonconformists. No one stands in his way."
A sinking feeling pulled Will's heart right down to his stomach. "You mean she was…?"
Bianca nodded. "Shot. Right in the square. Everyone knew she hated the fascists. She knew war was coming. They targeted her because of our father and his connections, hoping the message would get across."
"But it had the opposite effect."
She smiled wryly. "My father has fought twice as hard against the fascists ever since."
It became all too crystal clear as to why Nico was so desperate to fight. "I'm so sorry for your loss," he said, and meant it.
"And for yours," Bianca responded, reaching into a little pocket of her apron and pulling out a long silver chain. "These were in your hand when you collapsed. I figured since you've hid them so well up until now you didn't want anyone to know so I held onto it." She offered her hand and in it rested a pair of dog tags.
Will immediately patted his pocket, shocked that he hadn't once noticed that they were not there. Wordlessly, he took them back and threw the chain over his neck, tucking the chain and its tags underneath his shirt. "My brother," he answered Bianca's unspoken question. Then he managed a grateful smile. "Thank you."
Bianca nodded again. "You know," she mused, "it might help if you shared your experiences with someone that could understand from time to time." Her eyes twinkled with an understanding charm. "I'm really busy, but I think Nico is just sitting in the garden."
Sure enough, Will found him in the courtyard, sitting along the dead fountain with an old worn book in his hands. His face was pinched in concentration as he turned the page. Will wondered how many horrors the other boy had witnessed in the last few years. It was getting easier to understand Nico di Angelo, but Will decided that he wanted to know more, everything, and to hell with the consequences.
Each step closer to him was a mistake, the smile that pulled at his lips when Nico noticed him was a fatal error, and the smile Nico returned to him was a final condemnation. Still, Will sat down beside him, watching the flower petals dance along the breeze, and resigned himself to whatever it was he was feeling towards the Italian. It didn't yet have a name, but it was there, it existed nonetheless.
"So do you just glare at everything or did that book personally offend you?" Will asked and Nico's face soured.
"I glare at things that are difficult to understand," he reasoned and gestured to his book. "It's written in English."
"I thought you were fluent in English."
Nico shrugged absently and turned the page again. "It's still hard to know every word or what order they go in."
"I guess that's true. Who taught you?"
Nico's eyes flashed at him for a moment before returning to his book. "...My mother."
Will silenced. Strike one. "Well, I can help you read it better. If you want."
He was expecting to be turned down, for a jab at Will's inability to even teach a dog how to bark, but Nico's eyes just stayed trained on him as he said, "Okay."
Will blinked. "Y-yeah?"
"Yeah." Nico sat up. "What does this word mean?"
Will craned his neck to look. "Indignation. I guess it means, like… when you're angry at someone for treating you unfairly."
Nico nodded. "Indignazione," he said, "that's what it is in Italian."
"Not that different, huh?"
Nico scratched his cheek and fidgeted where he sat. "Guess not." A beat of silence then Nico pointed to his book and practically shoved it into Will's face. "What about this word?"
"Wilmington." Will hummed. "That's a city."
"Oh." Nico's cheeks went pink, probably from embarrassment of his own ignorance. Will found it unspeakably cute. "And this one?"
Will leaned in closer to see. As he did so, the chain around his neck slipped out from his shirt and would have smacked Nico right in the face if he hadn't reached up and caught it in time. Will's apology died on his tongue as Nico observed the engraving on the tags. "Who's Michael?"
Will carefully tucked the tags back under his shirt and sat back, reestablishing distance between them. "My brother," he said. "He was an airman in the US army."
Nico's lips parted. "Was. You mean he..."
"His plane was shot down." Will took a deep breath. "All they found of him where these." He patted his chest. "Shortly after, I got sent here."
Nico stared at the spot where Will's dog tags rested for a moment and then leaned back until his back rested against the wall of the fountain. "I lost my mother," he said, and Will listened intently. He could sense that it may be the only time Nico would speak of her. "Almost five years ago… when things started to get really bad." His finger traced the delicate embroidery on the book's spine. "We were in the market and my mother sent Bianca and me to get something. I can't remember what. But she wanted to go get flowers.
"But I went with her instead. I just remember one minute she was holding my hand by the flower vendor and the next there yelling and all these men in uniform. One of them had a gun and then… then she was gone." Nico's nail dug into the book cover and his bangs.
Will was at a loss. "That's horrible."
"She was just buying flowers," was all Nico managed to say. The spine of the book teared ever so slightly and Will reached over thoughtlessly, took Nico's hand, and redirected it to the ground between them.
Nico didn't pull away so neither did Will. They just sat, silent, with Will's hand rested on top of Nico's. Despite the weight Nico's story had put on Will's heart, he felt a vitalizing, almost electric shock hum through his body. Nico's hand was warm, softer than he would imagine, and he didn't want to let go.
"It used to be her room," Nico answered hoarsely.
Will felt a lurch. "That's why you hate going in."
"It's the biggest room in the house. She used it as an indoor garden. Lots of windows, lots of sun, lots of memories." He waved his free hand dismissively. "It's just a room. It's stupid, I know."
"It's not stupid," Will assured him.
Their eyes met and for a moment Will truly thought that Nico was that electric current too when sudden rapid footsteps made them both jump and pull apart. A moment later, Bianca rounded the corner, hassled and out of breath. She blew a piece of her hair out of her face before calling for Will anxiously.
"What is it?" Will asked as he got to his feet.
"The pilot!" Bianca panted, holding her chest. "He's awake!"
A/N: This story isn't dead, don't worry. It's just been busy on my end. Good news is next chapter is nearly finished so another update should be up soon! I will never thank you guys enough for sticking with me on this fic! :3