"Bianca?" The girl gratefully looked up from her textbook, sweeping back her long black curls, and her frustration-lined face sprang gratefully into a smile at the sight of the tiny black-haired boy in her doorway.
"Nico!" She tossed aside the textbook, leaping off her bed and running to the doorway to embrace her brother. He leaned into her, hooking his arms around her neck as though he was about to lose her, and she could feel the tears trembling white-hot on his cheek as he pressed it against hers.
"Nico, what's wrong?" He didn't answer, and she pulled out of the hug, studying him with worried eyes. The way he fidgeted with the edge of his jacket, his chocolate-brown eyes flitting around the room as if he was afraid to look at her. No, not afraid…ashamed.
A tentative, fearful knowledge blossomed in Bianca's chest, something she almost wanted to deny, knowing how much pain Nico was in if she was right-but she said nothing, merely stood up and swept her little brother into her arms, holding him as she hadn't since they'd come to the school and he'd started protesting that he was a big boy-ten! That was big enough to walk on his own!-and that he didn't need Bianca to hold him all the time. This time, though, he didn't protest, just clung tighter, and Bianca swallowed down her worry, carrying him back to her bed and leaning back against the wall to settle him on her lap.
"Do you want to tell me?" she murmured, tilting her head to meet his eyes. He shook his head vigorously, refusing, and burrowed into Bianca's chest, curling into a tiny ball. Bianca wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, reminding him that she was there, she was always going to be there for him…
The memory of a lilting voice, singing in Italian, drifted through her mind, and she recognized an old lullaby her mother used to sing to them, holding Bianca and Nico on her lap just like this. The words came as easily as the tune, once she started, the Italian coming as readily to her lips as English, reminding Nico that he was her soldier, that she was watching over him. She could feel him shaking, feel the tears burning through her T-shirt, but she kept singing, pressing her lips against Nico's silky hair and almost murmuring the words.
"Bianca?" His tiny voice trembled, and she could hear the agony in every word, as though he wasn't sure he could trust her. "I need-I need to ask you something." She nodded, knowing he could feel the motion, not wanting to interrupt when it was clearly taking all his courage to say this at all. "Is it-is it okay if…" He trailed off, shuddering, and clutched Bianca's shirt neck, crumpling it between his fingers as though it was the only thing keeping him from flying away. "It is," she promised, not even caring what he was going to ask. She closed her fingers gently around his, and after a few juddering breaths that set Bianca's throat burning, sharing her brother's pain, Nico went on.
"I-I was talking to some other boys today…And they were talking about-about liking girls-" His voice broke on the word, and he gasped almost involuntarily. "And…and I don't…I didn't tell them, but…but it's not…the girls aren't the ones…"
The idea solidified into knowledge, and the fear vanished, replaced with sympathy, and gratitude that Nico had decided to share with her. "Caro," she whispered, cupping Nico's chin in her hand and guiding his eyes up to hers. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
Nico blinked through his tears, wrinkling in confusion. Bianca smiled softly and clarified. "For telling me. I can't imagine how scary that was for you…How brave you are to be able to do that."
He gaped at her, childishly surprised. "You don't-you don't-care?" The last word was barely a squeak.
Bianca exhaled gently, a wistful half-laugh, and shook her head. "Why would I?" she whispered, reaching up with her free hand and stroking his cheek. "You're my brother-I will love you forever, no matter what. And that doesn't even matter!" Her smile was less wistful then.
More words fluttered at the brink of her lips, and caught there for the briefest instant-but then she realized what her little brother had just done, how brave and trusting he had been, and let them go. "I can take care of liking the girls for you-if you'll like the boys for me."
For a moment, Nico's face was a crumpled mask of confusion and sorrow. Then he understood-and his face lit up, radiantly happy, and seeing him like that set her heart soaring. That was how he should be.
"You too," he laughed, and it wasn't a question, just one of those simple, trusting statements that only little kids can make whole-heartedly.
"Me too," Bianca whispered back, and she pressed her lips against Nico's forehead, her heart almost breaking with how much she loved him.