“It’s sad, isn’t it? His whole troop was killed in that attack, but he still asks about the same person every day.”
The nurse turned her sympathetic eyes back to Lovino, who gave a small sigh.
“The shit these bastards deal with is incredible. I’m just glad I joined the infirmary instead of enlisting as a soldier,” he sighed. “I never would have survived that, even if I didn’t get fucking shot.”
A lot of their patients were suffering from the effects of chemical warfare- a crime even in these lawless times. The infirmary in the Italian base was full of sick, wounded, and mentally disturbed people. It was more than Lovino thought he could handle sometimes, though he still couldn’t deny it was better than being out in the midst of the fighting himself. He didn’t want to end up like any of the patients he helped care for.
“What these people need is some love,” his colleague told him. She was used to Lovino’s foul mouth and was completely unfazed by it. “When the heart despairs, the body can lose its will to live, but I’ve seen people pull out of otherwise hopeless situations because they had someone who cared about them closeby…or they decided for themselves that they weren’t going to stop fighting.”
Lovino snorted. “Well, I’ll be sure to tell each one they’re beautiful and shouldn’t fucking die…Do I have this group for the next shift?”
“Yes, they’re all yours.”
“Alright, then. See you in the morning.”
Antonio Fernandez Carriedo was an unusual patient. As a Spanish immigrant, his origin made him different from most of the men in the infirmary, but so did his attitude. Antonio was cheerful and friendly despite the fact that the war had left his body so terribly broken. His leg was in a cast and his arm and side were badly burnt. The rumor was that he had been trying to pull a comrade out of a tank before the armored vehicle had been destroyed, wounding Antonio and killing the man that he had been trying to save. The gas attack that had followed had robbed the fallen soldier of his sight for the time being, his eyes too sensitive to the light. If it bothered Antonio, however, he didn’t show it. He just sat there in his blindfold and smiled when Lovino announced his presence, lifting his arm helpfully to allow the Italian to change his bandages as if it was the highlight of his day. If Lovino had to be honest, he found it a little unnerving.
“How are you feeling today?” Lovino asked out of formality.
“Can’t complain,” Antonio chirped. “Better and better, just slowly…Could I ask you a favor, señor? Would you mind checking on Romano for me? He was in my troop, so I’m sure he’s here somewhere. I’d like to know how he’s doing.”
Lovino winced. This was exactly what he had been warned about.
“There is no Romano here,” he answered curtly. “Ah- look, I’m sorry. I’m sure they tell you this every day, but-”
“Romano is here,” Antonio insisted. “I know he is. But it’s okay. Maybe you just haven’t seen him yet. You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’ve been shown all the patients here. No one by that name’s been admitted, I can guarantee it.”
“I’ll just keep waiting, then,” Antonio decided with a careful nod. “He’s bound to show up soon.”
“Don’t count on it,” Lovino grumbled under his breath, but he carried on changing Antonio’s bandages and tending to his wounds without another word about it.
The next day, Antonio asked for Romano again. Lovino gave him the same answer and carried on with his duties as usual. His patient seemed disappointed, but he was not deterred, for the next day, the cycle repeated once more. Nursing the Spanish man became more of an annoyance for Lovino, and after a while, he stopped responding to Antonio’s questions out of fear that he would say something harsh that would get him in trouble with his superiors. His patient didn’t take the silent treatment well at all. The way his smile faltered sent a wave of guilt over his caretaker, though Lovino still refused to participate in the redundant conversation. Eventually, Antonio just stopped talking. The whole staff noticed the change, though no one blamed Lovino for it; instead, they took it as a sign that Antonio was finally coming to terms with reality. None of the other patients smiled as much as he had, after all.
Though Lovino thought he should be glad for the end of the pointless and frankly heartbreaking conversation, the sulleness that overcame his patient afterwards was almost worse. The fallen soldier barely ate now, and his morale suffered to the point where Antonio’s body was beginning to show the effects. Looking at his face, Lovino thought he looked almost ten years older. Though he shaved and groomed Antonio often, the man looked worn and lifeless; his skin paled, and his body was weaker- not healing fast enough for Lovino’s liking and growing increasingly thinner. He urged Antonio to eat, telling him with increasing aggression that the man needed to listen to him if he was going to recover. Antonio was unresponsive. The Spanish man’s condition didn’t improve, and if he heard anything Lovino was saying to him, he pretended that he didn’t.
Weeks passed. Lovino began to wonder if Antonio would do better under a different nurse, someone with more experience and a better bedside manner. The poor man looked like he would die if he didn’t regain his spirits soon. Sighing, the Italian sat down next to his patient’s bed, preparing to say goodbye to the soldier as he cared for him one last time.
“Antonio…” he started quietly, using a gentler tone than usual. With how still the man was lying, it was hard to tell whether or not he was asleep. At the sound of his name, however, the patient jolted slightly and turned his head towards the sound of his voice.
“R-romano?” he gasped.
Lovino sighed. He didn’t have the heart to correct him, not after how Antonio had taken the silent treatment during those first few days. Instead, the nurse reached out and placed his hand over the soldier’s sympathetically.
“I’m sorry…I know you’ve been through a lot of shit,” he told him. “But someone else is going to look after you now. Promise you’ll listen to them, alright? You have to eat so you can get better and go home. I…don’t want to see you die in a place like this, dammit.”
The man really did look terrible. His long brown locks were plastered to the side of his face in sweat. Lovino moved one of them away from Antonio’s eye bandages without even thinking much about it. Suddenly, his hand was seized by the blindfolded man and squeezed tightly between Antonio’s desperate fingers. Lovino tried to tug them away, but he was stopped by the pleading tone in his patient’s voice.
“Please don’t leave me, Romano,” he begged. “Stay here. I’ll do whatever you want, just don’t disappear again….please?”
Lovino opened his mouth to protest, but bit his tongue. His body shifted uncomfortably as a thought crossed his mind, a plan to help his patient get better. But was it really the right thing to do? The nurse hesitated a moment longer before answering.
“Alright,” he told Antonio, who smiled gratefully at him in a way that broke Lovino’s heart. “But you have to do exactly what I say, understand? No more skipping meals or moping about. I- I want to see you get better, alright? ‘Toni’?”
The familiarity of the attempted nickname only made Antonio grin wider. He used his hold on Lovino’s hand to reel the other man in closer to him, and soon the startled nurse found himself in a tight embrace. Lovino’s face flushed red, and he took a panicked glance around the infirmary, glad that no one else was on duty in his section and that the other patients seemed to be asleep.
“Thank you, Romano,” Antonio sniffed, his voice heavy with emotion. “I’m sorry, I just thought- thought I’d never see you again. I’m…so happy you’re here.”
He sniffled over Lovino’s shoulder, and the Italian groaned inwardly. This was a mistake, he knew it. It wasn’t fair to give his patient this much false hope, but if it brought back his will to live, then…wasn’t it for the best, anyway? Lovino rubbed Antonio’s back and hoped that he was making the right decision.
The act wasn’t an easy one to keep up. Lovino knew little of Antonio’s history with this “Romano,” and he wasn’t sure how he should act in order to keep his impersonation convincing. Antonio didn’t seem to mind what he said or did, however, as long as the nurse stayed close and talked with him. It was amazing how much the Italian was able to learn about his patient’s life from these little conversations. Antonio had been a farmer before moving to Italy, and he had continued growing tomatoes in his new home near Naples. He had been against the war from the start, thinking about moving back to Spain once the fighting had begun to intensify, but things had not been much better back there, and Antonio had wanted to stay. It was from the stories that came later that Lovino learned more about the comrade that his patient missed so much. Romano had been drafted, not a volunteer like Antonio. Despite his feelings about the war, the Spaniard had chosen to fight after learning the fate of other immigrants who had failed to prove their loyalty. A disease had destroyed his crop and without any other means of income, Antonio had felt he had no choice. Looking back, Antonio quietly admitted that he’d regretted his decision, thinking the price he had paid out on the battlefield hadn’t been worth anything else that could have happened to him in his own home.
“But if I hadn’t joined, then I wouldn’t have met you, Roma,” the man hummed with a small smile. “We saved each other’s hide more that once, hm?”
“Y-yeah,” Lovino answered back, feeling saddened by the other’s story. “I guess we did…”
“I know you didn’t want to fight,” Antonio told him. “But you were really brave. Calling people names and acting like you were in control, even when they had us surrounded. You gave me strength I don’t think I would have had otherwise.”
“You’re a tough bastard,” Lovino grunted, wishing his patient wouldn’t make him feel so choked up when he still had a day of work to get through. “I only got you to do what you already had in you. Now eat your fucking soup. It’s getting cold.”
Antonio ate everything that Lovino fed to him and began to put on weight. The color returned to his face, and the Spaniard smiled more- it was a relief for Lovino to see. Still, he knew the time would come when he would eventually have to tell Antonio the truth. He only hoped that by then, the man would be strong enough to take it…and never fall back to such a dangerous level of bad health again.
One night, when Lovino went to check on his patient, he was shocked to find the other man out of bed. Still blindfolded, Antonio had pulled himself up using the bed post and was now leaning by the window on his good foot, facing in the direction of the moonlit sky as if he could actually see something.
“A-antonio? What the hell are you doing?” Lovino snapped, rushing towards him.
Antonio jumped in surprise and nearly fell, but the nurse caught him just in time and grunted under his weight, doing his best to support him as he eased his patient back down towards the bed.
“I…I’m sorry,” the Spaniard stammered. “I just- couldn’t sleep.”
“You need to take care of yourself, dammit,” Lovino scolded, frowning at the cast on Antonio’s leg and the bandages that still covered much of his body. “You’re not ready to be walking around yet!”
“I know. I know, you’re right.” He still hadn’t let go of the Italian. Antonio clung to him like a lost child. Lovino sighed and rubbed the uninjured part of Antonio’s back gently. His patient rested his head on the nurse’s shoulder and sniffled quietly. “I thought- maybe things could go back to normal, but…I still can’t walk. When I dream, there’s always so much fighting. Have you ever woken up thinking something good happened, but then you’re depressed because you find out it didn’t really? Or when you wish something was real so hard that you almost believe it…I don’t want to live in my dreams anymore.”
“I…don’t get what you’re saying, dammit,” Lovino grumbled. “You’re awake now. You’re here. And nothing bad’s going to happen, alright? I’ll stay with you as long as you want, but don’t go climbing out of bed until you’re recovered. I don’t want to be scraping you off the floor because you tripped over your own fucking cast.” He didn’t expect Antonio to sit up and start laughing. “What the hell is so funny?”
“N-nothing, I just-” Antonio chuckled. “Thank you for worrying about me. You’re a good friend.”
“Alright, alright, just get some rest,” Lovino told him quickly, feeling embarrassed and a bit flustered. It took him another moment to pull his eyes away from the gentle smile on Antonio’s lips. He was glad to see the other looking more cheerful, but he wondered if it would only make things worse later. It was getting harder to imagine disappointing his patient. The man really deserved better than to be lied to. Still, another part of the Italian dreaded seeing the other’s crestfallen face when he learned there really was no Romano. He wouldn’t be surprised if his patient hated him after this was all over.
After that night, Lovino was even more attentive towards Antonio. He fed him, read to him, and talked as long as he was able to before he had to go look after another soldier. Even when the Italian was away, he was still thinking of him. He wasn’t really sure what it was about the Spaniard that absorbed so much of his attention, but Lovino wanted to make him happy, and Antonio always seemed happiest when the nurse was around.
Time passed, however, and other patients started to come and go. There was talk that Antonio would be discharged to complete his recovery at home once his eyesight returned to normal. Lovino couldn’t help but feel depressed at the idea of his patient leaving, alone and still unable to walk, pushing himself around in a wheelchair while he mourned for his lost comrade. The way Antonio cared for him almost made the nurse a little jealous of the real Romano- no one else had ever shown Lovino such devotion, and it felt like all the attention his patient was giving him was rather undeserved. Still, Lovino did his best to continue comforting the Spaniard, part of him wishing he could bring back the real Romano just to give Antonio a bit of hope that his future would be better. It was already bad enough the man had to carry the physical and emotional scars of war.
Then, one day, Antonio asked Lovino to take him outside for some fresh air. He had been stuck in his bed and the infirmary floor since he had arrived and wanted so badly to be outdoors again, away from the stale atmosphere of the sick room. Lovino got permission from his superior and complied, pushing Antonio out in a wheelchair with a blanket around his legs to keep warm. The Spaniard sighed happily and lifted his head to feel the wind against his face.
“It feels so good to be out here again. Thank you…”
“You don’t have to thank me, Toni. It’s about time you got out of that damn building…How are you feeling?”
“Better now. I think…I think I’m ready.”
“‘Ready’?” Lovino repeated, frowning at his patient and raising an eyebrow. “For what?”
Antonio didn’t answer; instead, he reached up and began peeling the bandages away from his eyes. Lovino felt his heart stop for a moment, and he fidgeted nervously, not feeling prepared for this at all. He hadn’t expected his patient to have his first look at him right now, in this place. Lovino hadn’t even had time to explain anything to him.
The Spaniard stopped for a moment and turned his head towards the sound of Lovino’s voice, the bandages loosened but not quite off his eyes yet.
“Hmm? What is it?”
“You can’t- I mean…” Lovino swallowed thickly and knelt next to Antonio, touching where the bandages covered on the side of his head gently. “Listen…I don’t want to disappoint you, but- I’m not-” He sighed deeply. “-I’m not who you think I am.”
Antonio’s mouth remained a tight line. He didn’t respond right away, and even without seeing his eyes, Lovino felt as if the other man was staring right through him. It was unsettling and made the Italian feel even more guilty than he already did. When it seemed Antonio had had a moment to process his words, Lovino continued, dropping his hand down to his patient’s lap and squeezing the man’s hand in reassurance.
“When you were brought into the infirmary, you were the only one from your troop that was rescued. The others didn’t make it out of their tanks. Do you remember?”
Antonio gave a slow, hesitant nod. Lovino could tell that he was doing his best to take in everything he was saying to him, though with the way Antonio’s lips fell into a frown, it was evident that the Spaniard wasn’t liking what he heard. “I wish…I could forget it,” Antonio replied quietly, giving Lovino’s fingers a squeeze. His nurse averted his eyes and held his patient’s hand tightly.
“When you came here, you always looked so damn happy. I thought it was because you believed that guy, Romano, was coming back. So when you called me that, I thought maybe- I’d let you believe what you wanted. Just because it might help you to get better faster. I…I didn’t want to see you get any worse,” Lovino confessed. “I’m sorry, Toni. He’s not coming back.”
He expected the man to be sad or angry- maybe yell at him or even start crying, asking him why he had gone to the trouble of impersonating someone he cared so much about. As it was however, Antonio didn’t show any sign of distress or disappointment at all. Instead, he used his hold on Lovino to pull the other closer, and then, the Spaniard wrapped his arms around him.
“I know…I knew from the start, actually,” Antonio admitted. “The way he died…no one could have come back from that. I just- didn’t want to believe that he was really gone.” The soldier sniffled over Lovino’s shoulder, and the nurse returned his embrace, patting the man on the back very gently. “I thought maybe if I kept asking about him, maybe somehow it would be less real,” he continued. “You were the first one who really tried to make me feel better about it, and…I appreciated that so much. Thanks, nurse. I know you’re not Romano, but I still felt like you were- my friend.”
Lovino was glad Antonio’s eyes were still covered so he couldn’t see the effect his words had on him. When the other man pulled away, the Italian rubbed at his eyes hastily and straightened himself back up onto his feet before reaching for the bandages that covered Antonio’s eyes.
“If we’re friends, you better stop calling me ‘nurse,’ dammit,” he told him, peeling the bandage away. “My name’s Lovino.”
He sucked in a breath when he finally saw Antonio’s eyes. The rest of the soldier looked as broken and worn as a man who had been blinded and bedridden for weeks should, but those irises were still so vibrant and full of life. They looked up at the Italian with kindness and curiosity, then curved with the rest of his face as the Spaniard smiled at him.
“Lovino…My imagination wasn’t kind enough to you.”
“What I mean is- you’re more handsome than I pictured.”
Lovino blushed and shoved him back gently, rolling Antonio away from him, but careful not to actually hurt his patient.
“Stop before I put this back on you,” he told the other, laying the bandage on Antonio’s lap. “Just because I’m the first thing you see…”
“At least I know my eyes are working well again,” Antonio answered, still smiling up at him. Lovino couldn’t help but feel relieved that the man looked so cheerful. He hadn’t expected this to go nearly so well. It was hard to get rid of the warmth on his cheeks, however, or to look away from the green-eyed Spaniard, and Lovino found himself stepping closer to his patient subconsciously.
“Yeah, well…There’s more for you to look at than just me,” Lovino murmured embarrassedly. “Come on, I’ll take you around the gardens.”
As he pushed his patient along, Antonio continued to talk to him, and at once, Lovino felt that they had fallen back into their usual rhythm of conversation. The only difference was that Antonio would occasionally look back at him or comment on something they passed by. A satisfied warmth bubbled in Lovino’s chest at being able to see his patient like this- active, alert…happy. At the same time, he felt a little depressed. The return of Antonio’s sight meant one other thing: soon the Spaniard would be leaving the infirmary.
They were almost back inside the building when Antonio turned his head and looked up at him with that same glowing smile. Lovino stopped pushing him for a moment, reluctant to go back into the infirmary and end the little time they had alone together.
“Thank you again, Lovino,” the Spaniard told him. “For everything. I…was in such a bad place. I was lucky to have someone like you looking out for me.”
“I didn’t do much,” the Italian answered, averting his eyes. “You got better mostly on your own, once you wanted to.”
“True,” Antonio admitted, “but you’re the one who made me want to.”
There was silence between them for a moment before Antonio reached back to give the hand pushing his wheelchair a squeeze.
“When I’m fully recovered, I hope I can come back…and help you take care of others like you took care of me. I want to work next to you. I want to get to know you better.”
Lovino almost didn’t feel as if this was real. He knew he liked Antonio a lot- more than he probably should, given their positions- but he had never imagined the soldier liking him back. Now Antonio sounded as if he really wanted to stay by him. It was his own choice, something he had decided even though he had no obligation. If it worked out, Lovino would still be able to see him as much as he liked.
“You might change your mind,” the Italian answered. “You’ll have your freedom soon. I’m sure you don’t want to be stuck here again once you can walk. Not that…it’d be bad to see you again. I mean-! If you wanted to come back…”
Antonio nodded, his lips pulling up further into a grin. “I do,” he insisted. “After all- it was love at first sight.”
“You idiot,” Lovino huffed as he pushed Antonio back into the infirmary, but even as he walked, he couldn’t help but notice the fluttering in his stomach that hadn’t quite left him since the first time Antonio had really looked at him. He could get used to being seen like this.