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Six months earlier

     The air was thick with the smell of blood and sweat. Nico clutched his arm, blood seeping between his fingers, as he looked around at the fallen men at his feet. His heart beat so hard it felt like it was trying to escape his chest. 

Only one thought pervaded his mind: I don't want to die. 

But he would. He would die, just like all the men lying on the ground before him. 

Just like his father. 

Just like his mother.

Just like... 

HIs heart ached as he thought of it. 

How did this happen? He thought. It wasn't supposed to be like this... It was never supposed to be–

His thoughts were interrupted by shouts and the sound of heavy boots hitting the pavement. 

They were coming. 


10 years earlier

     Nine-year-old Nico sat on his bed by the window, mesmerized by the falling snow that was slowly blanketing the Manhattan street in white. It was beautiful. The flakes seemed perfect, and each in its own way. They fell so softly, so peacefully. For a few moments, lost in the wonder of it all, it seemed that nothing could be wrong in the world. 

But the shouts and screams filtering through his bedroom door quickly brought him back to reality. 

A tear slipped down his cheek. Suddenly the snowflakes weren't so lovely to him. They were just another cruel reminder of a peace and happiness he longed for, but couldn't have.

Nico looked over to his older brother who was lying on the bed next to his own, his back to him. "Louis," he whispered, "are you awake?"

"How could I not be," Louis mumbled, rolling over to face his brother. 

Both boys flinched as they heard something shatter in the other room. 

"I'm scared," Nico whispered, another tear tracing down his face. "Is he going to hurt mamma?"  

Louis sighed and sat up, pulling his covers back. He scooted over and patted the spot next to him. Nico got into the bed and curled up next to his brother as Louis pulled the blankets back over them both. 

"Listen to me, Nicolas." Louis said quietly. He only called his brother by his full name when what he was saying was very serious. "No matter what happens, I promise to always take care of you. I have a feeling that very soon we are going to have to look out for each other. I don't know why or how, but I just have a feeling."

Nico nodded slowly. He didn't want anything to happen to mamma, or to them, for that matter. But as young as he was, he had already discovered that life didn't take pity on the young and the weak. In fact, it almost seemed to purposefully find the youngest and the weakest in order to knock them down and laugh at them when they tried to stand, only to push them back to the ground again. 

Louis and Nico were really only half-brothers. Louis's mother, Sophia Martelli, had conceived him when she was just sixteen. His real father denied that he was responsible and left Sophia to care for him alone. When Louis was two years old, his mother met Anthony Romano and within six months they were married. Nicolas was born a year later. 

Things seemed to be going all right for a while. Anthony had a good job with a reasonable income. They were able to purchase a little house right in the heart of Lower Manhattan. Sophia was able to care for the boys and learn how to be a good housewife. Anthony doted on her, buying her anything she wanted for herself or for the boys. And for a little while, they were happy. 

But all good things must come to an end, and so it was here. 

Anthony had been caught stealing money from the cashbox where he worked, and was immediately fired. Apparently it wasn't as easy to make ends meet as everyone thought. His boss told him he was lucky he didn't put him in jail, but he knew he had a wife and family and would let him off the hook. Nevertheless, Anthony was enraged. Instead of returning him, he went to the bar and drank away any money he'd previously earned. Stone drunk, he returned home much later than usual to a worried wife, who he beat nearly senseless when she asked where he'd been. 

That was only the beginning. 

From then on, Anthony continued to drink more and more. No one knew where he was getting the money for the alcohol since he didn't have a job, and refused to look for one. But it was an unspoken fact that he was acquiring it through dishonest means. The police were almost regular visitors at the house. 

A house they could no longer pay for and lost before the year was out.

They moved into a tiny, two-room apartment in the slums. This didn't help Anthony's state in the least. He made 'friends' who were all too eager to encourage him in his abusive treatment of his family. 

By this time, Louis was nine years-old. Anthony forced him to "run errands" for him, as he called it. Sophia cried every time he left the house. Sometimes Louis wouldn't return for days at a time and she would weep and wail night and day, convinced he had been killed. But he always made it home, sometimes bloodied and bruised, but alive, at least. 

And of course, Sophia was not allowed to ask what kind of "errands" Anthony was sending her son on. She tried once, and he nearly killed her. So most of the time, she kept her mouth shut. 

Most nights, Anthony was out drinking. If he wasn't, he was at home fighting with Sophia. There was hardly a time when shouting wasn't heard somewhere in the small apartment. 

He hardly regarded Nico at all, unless it was to occasionally slap him just because "he felt like it". 

To keep at least a little food on the table, Sophia was forced to find work. Although Louis could mostly fend for himself, Nico could not. It was nearly impossible for her to work and take care of her seven year-old son at the same time. She could hardly keep a job for more than a month. Any money that passed through the door went straight to Anthony to use for alcohol. Sophia had to hide money from him most of the time so she could simply feed herself and her children.

It seemed that things couldn't get any worse. 

But that's when they always do.

And so it went, for two more years.  

"What will happen to us?" Nico asked, his voice trembling. He scooted closer to his brother, snuggling beneath the warmth of the blanket.   

Louis shifted, tucking his arm underneath Nico's small body, and hugged him close. "I don't know." He hated not knowing things. The feeling of insecurity that accompanied uncertainty was really what he hated the most. But this time, he really didn't know. He flinched as he suddenly heard a door slam. Anthony had left the house, probably to go get drunk again. 

All was quiet now, except for Sophia's muffled sobbing. 

Nico was breathing deeply, indicating that he'd fallen asleep. Louis held him tighter and swore on his life that he'd never let anyone hurt him, even if he had to be hurt in the process. Finally, he closed his eyes, letting himself drift off into a dreamless sleep. 

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