The significance of various dates will be explained at the end of the piece. Some baselines: I'm assuming that Nico and Bianca were four and six, respectively, when their mother was killed and they were placed in the Lotus Casino. This means that yes, they would age in the casino, but slowly. They have a two year difference, at least in my mind. I left my books at home, so I have no reference points. Urgh. Anyway. Here's the story.

Also, spoilers for the fifth PJO book. Just a warning.

bittersweet symphony

(made of bitter dreams and sweet regrets)

21: dead

She was never afraid of the dead.

Dying – dying scared her, the actual moment of passing. Her grandmamma used to tell her stories about people who didn't pass as they should have, who lingered, trapped for eternity, doomed to appear only as spirits, unable to move on. She hated stagnation, being still; she would go insane if she were trapped like that. She was afraid of dying badly, in a fire or by drowning, or going as her great-uncle had – by hanging. Dying was unpleasant; dying was gruesome.

But those who had died – they were neither unpleasant nor gruesome. They were peaceful; they were serene. It didn't matter if they died in battle or in health, in flames or on their bed at ninety two. They still went on, their souls finding their everlasting rest, and it was good. She knew that; her father had reassured her of this after her mother and her baby brother had taken the road to Heaven. She had been less than ten at the time, and now she was over twenty, but she could still hear her papa, with his voice raspy from too many of his cigars and his moustache unshaven in his mourning: "They are safe now, in the embrace of God and his angels. They are happier than anyone could be in this great and terrible world of ours."

And so the dead did not frighten her, not when she saw them lying in the streets of Rome or Milan after the riots, not when she saw them resting peacefully in their caskets, not when they rose in the mist of their graveyards – not even when she saw the dead man pinned to her father's office door. She wasn't meant to see, but the screams of the main had woken her. She had crept past the staff, the guards, and the police and their semicircle around her papa's door, and she had seen the man – a messenger for her papa – pinned to the door with a sword.

They left for America the next hour, with her papa explaining to her that things in Italy were changing, that it was unsafe for them there. She knew that; she was thirteen, and not stupid. She read the papers, heard the newsboys crying out their headlines: "Mussolini loses election," becoming, "Mussolini declares coup," and finally, "Benito Mussolini inducted as new Prime Minister." Every day, with every new headline, she watched the lines on her father's face deepen. Not safe in Italy, indeed.

And so they arrived in America and were taken to a grand white house, where the leader of the country apparently presided. A president by the name of Harding welcomed them as ambassadors from Italy, but behind his eyes she could see the words: "refugees." And they were. They remained in the United States, received automatic visas, but nevertheless, they were refugees, fled from their home and separated from their people. The year was 1922, and she was thirteen years old.

She spent the Depression in the United States, not as badly off as the people she saw in the streets. On days when the guilt became a titanic weight upon her back, she would wrap her scarf around her head, put on her gloves and street shoes, and go out to help. She would move the dead, often helping mothers recite prayers over the bodies of their starved children. She would hand out what food she had to those who needed it most, and offer a few cents if she could spare them. As much as the dead did not scare her, she had no wish to create more of them if she could prevent it. Still, slowly, as a new president took his oath and began his changes, things began to take a brighter shine.

Even with more money and more jobs to go around, dark clouds still gathered on the horizon. Headlines were once again the bearer of ominous news; "Socialist party begun in Germany," became, "Adolf Hitler stages failed coup," which ultimately turned into, "Hitler elected as leader of Germany." The Nazis came into power, and while those in America believed that they were immune to the threat, those from Italy knew: it would come for them, as sure as the ever-encroaching tide.

The year was 1933, and she was twenty-four years old. She was also in love.

Well, the descriptor was a bit extreme, to be sure. She had never spoken to the man; she had seen him once or twice, in querulous conversation with a Senator or a Representative in the Capitol, and again out in the streets. She thought that he might have been a lawyer; when accidents occurred with fatal consequences, he was there. Silent, watchful, and present. He was handsome in an Old World way; he was tall and pale and large, though not corpulent. He was dark, enough so that a friend called him "gloomy" and "oppressive," but she could not see him that way.

And one day, he noticed her.

The wooing was swift, her already blooming love of him certainly helping its progression. He brought her strange and delightful flowers that she could not find in any book, and he told her tales of horror and joy, of love and loss, of life and death. He knew many of death. In return, she spoke of the homeland, of the beauty she saw there, of the starry nights, of the riots and the killing. He never gave his name, and she never offered hers, but she had her suspicions. They were unfounded and foolish, but she had them still.

They were sitting together in a lounge in her home in New York one day when a maid dropped the tea tray. Cutlery and china flew together with a crash, with glass exploding and smashing against the table and floor. Calming the near-hysterical maid with a quiet smile and a gentle dismissal, she bent to clean it, and he knelt to help her. Together they reached for a particularly sharp shard, and she reached it first. Her finger pressed down and the glass jutted up, impaling itself into his flesh.

He squeezed it out and wrapped his finger in a handkerchief, but not before she saw his blood. His golden blood. She stared at the shard of white china on the floor, one end stained with gold. She stared at it even as a bright light flashed, throbbed, and vanished. When she looked up, he was gone.

She did not see him again for almost a year, but she thought of him every day. As the war began to brew in Europe, she drew sketch after sketch of him, envisioning their meeting – for they would meet again, she knew it – and planning what she would say to him when she saw his face before her again. In the end, all of her planning was for naught, for when she did see him again, in the winter of 1934, she simply touched his cheek and said, "My name is Maria."

The next year brought more quiet joy into her life, despite less frequent visits from him. He was open with her, speaking of confrontations with his brothers and sisters, and his visits with his son, Adolf, as he attempted to sway him from the path he was on. "I know it is useless, Maria, for I know what he will do," he told her as he held her close to him. "But I cannot help but hope that something that I say will change the Fates' will, if not his."

Still, even with their closeness, it was not until she was thirty that they breached the final wall of their relationship. Even in what her dying father called her "middle ages," she retained some of the beauty of her youth – enough to turn his head, still. She awakened at three to find him pacing frantically in her bedroom, ranting in various volumes about his son, his foolish, foolish son. "It has begun!" he yelled, gesturing wildly, as was his wont. "The fool, I warned him, I warned him, I begged him not to! I, a god, begged my own mortal son! But no, nothing, I accomplished nothing, he will destroy them, what have I done? Maria, I don't know what to do!"

And so she went to him and drew him to her mouth, and she let him take control of at least something, because he needed it. He needed to at least know that not everything was taken from him, that not everything was beyond his formidable reach and power. She could give him that, at least. And so he took her in the dawn on the morning of September 1, 1939.

In June, her daughter was born.

Her father named her Bianca, and kissed her before he died, passing on his blessing to his granddaughter. "May you have," he rasped, "the longevity that I possess. And may you, my daughter, live love as well." He had fallen still. She gently closed his eyes and kissed his forehead as her newly born and named daughter cooed at her breast.

Her father was enchanted with her. He would hold her for hours as he talked to her mother, and she was equally adoring of him. She never cried in her father's arms, or even all that often in her mother's. She was a sweet darling, well behaved and good tempered. She was quick to learn everything – to speak, to walk, to read. She was toddling around on tiny two year old feet, getting into everything, but no one could find it in their hearts to be angry for more than a moment.

Still, her father was in torment. His son still advanced, still murdered, still ruled as a crazed tyrant, and he still had no control. Maria knew that his siblings blamed him for his son's faults, and saw his son as an embodiment of his father, but she knew that they were wrong; he was a good man. A kind man. A man who had a heart larger than the world, but had been hurt too much to show more than a sliver at a time. Still, she could be content; she knew he loved her. And so he came to her again and again and again.

On a cold winter morning, she awoke once again to find him pacing her room, though this time in silence. She sat up in her bed, and when he looked at her, she opened her arms. She enveloped him gently, letting him love her once again, because he did love her. And she loved him. The date was December 7, 1941.

It was September when Bianca could finally cuddle up beside her mother and touch her baby brother's face. She cooed delightedly over him, rubbing his nose with her and fluttering her eyelashes against his cheeks. "I give him but-ter-fly kisses, Mama!" she told Maria proudly. Her mother laughed, and baby Nico wiggled his nose. His father was happy with his son, but not as he had been with Bianca. Maria confronted him on the subject.

"Why are you not pleased with your son?" she asked him one afternoon as Bianca napped and Nico fed at her breast. "He is whole and healthy, he is as sweet as Bianca was as a little one. What is wrong with him, that you do not love him as much?"

He watched him eat for a long time before responding. "It's not Nico that I'm displeased with, Maria."

"It is that he is a son," she said quietly, brushing a strand of black hair. "Not all children are alike, my love."

"I know that, Maria." Still, there was a shred of chilliness in his eyes that was absent when he looked upon his daughter. But he held his son and showed him more affection than he had before, so she marked it as a small victory. The world moved on, and so did she.

At least, to an extent.

The war was over, but still he worried. He often told her of increasingly angry arguments between his brothers and himself, mostly about children. He mentioned a prophecy made by the Oracle of Delphi, and told her that when a child of the either him or his brothers reaches the age of sixteen, they may be able to destroy the gods. Another sliver of coldness entered his gaze whenever he saw his son, and once again, Maria reprimanded him.

"Bianca is your child also," she reminded him as she held both of her sleeping children close. "She is the elder. What is to say that she is not the prophesied child? Adolf is not the ultimate model for your sons. Or for any of your children. Please, stop this judgment."

"I will try," was all he said.

It became another small victory. Very small, in the grand scheme of things.

He came to her again the next day, a rare occurrence. She was in the lobby of the Grand Hotel where she was staying while her house was renovated, and he pleaded with her. He asked her to come to the Underworld; he told her of the palace he would build her, twice as grand as the old family estates in Italy. Still, she refuses. She will not have her children raised in darkness. But this desert place, this pocket where time is slow, that she will do. If only for her children.

"Let me get my purse," she told him, rising. She stole a kiss and sent a fond smile to her children as they dashed around the columns in some endless game of their own invention. She made her way up the stairs, aware of his eyes on her aging body. He would not love her as he did now for much longer, for she grew old even as he stayed the same. Soon she would be only his confidante, and then nothing more than an old friend. But she accepted this, as she has accepted all other things, because she loved him.

Oh, how she loved him. She loved their children. She loved her life, and she was sure that she would grow to love the place in the desert. This too she would overcome, and she would prevail, as she did at everything that came before.

"And may you, my daughter," her father rasped out in her head, "live long as well."

"I will, Papa," she said quietly, closing her eyes. She was surrounded by the feeling of love and peace. "I will."

Lightning struck.

She was never afraid of the dead.


Okay, timeline stuff:

Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascist party in Italy, lost the popular election and staged a coup, overthrowing the Italian government and declaring himself Prime Minister of Italy (also known as Il Duce) in the year 1922.

The Great Depression occurred worldwide with a focus in the U.S. from the years 1929 to 1941. (It was actually ended due to increased production of goods and jobs because of the United States entry into the war, not because of Roosevelt's New Deal, which took until 1943 to fully trickle down into the economy.)

Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and began the New Deal in the year 1933.

Hitler and the Nazi party were elected into power in the year 1933, after a failed coup d'état landed him in jail in 1923.

September 1, 1939, is the widely accepted date of the beginning of World War II, due to Hitler's invasion of Poland.

December 7, 1941, is the date of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of the naval fleet by Japan. It was the act that led to the U.S. joining the war.

The war ended on August 15, 1945.

I ended up making Maria a lot older than I wanted to in this one, because I began by expelling her family from Italy after Mussolini came into power, forgetting that Zeus killed her after the war. Oy. The end takes place a year after the war ended, which means that my timeline (which is not referenced against official Riordan material, by the way) puts Nico and Bianca at the ages of four and six (respectively) in 1946. Just…clearing that up.

Also, this is seriously long. I don't like it, but it was the best story that I had. I was brainstorming a lot of different ideas and this was the only one that came out sort of decently. Bleh. Sorry. Just had to get it out. The next chapter of It Takes Two is being edited right now, because I still hate it. So. More on that later.