In this, as in everything, Nico is alone.
Nico wanders. The slate beneath his feet shifts and slides, and he stumbles to his knees. It doesn’t hurt, it never does; he gets up and moves on. Everything is gray around him. Even me, Nico thinks, and he flexes his smoky, transparent fingers.
It isn’t too bad here, all things considered. Nico doesn’t remember anything but his name. He isn’t at peace, but he is numb. That’s the best he thinks he can ask for.
(Nico lies. He remembers more than his name. He remembers a pair of glass-green eyes)
“Will Percy Jackson be granted Elysium?” Nico asks, quiet, stern. Hades shakes his head slowly.
“No, child. He has defied the gods one time too many.”
Nico is quiet. The eyes of the Judges bore into him and snatch the breath from his lungs. He speaks anyway.
“What if an exchange was made?” he says, addressing only his father. The oil slick eyes flicker.
“Taking his place in the Asphodel Fields after your death would not be enough, I’m afraid.” the sympathy in his voice might be real. Nico digs his nails into his sweaty palms hard enough to leave half-moon imprints.
“No, father- I’m offering to take his place now.” He stares up at his father, begging him silently to understand what Nico is offering, and to accept it.
“Your life,” says Hades in wonder, “and the place in my kingdom guaranteed you as my son, so that the Jackson whelp may be returned to the living?”
“I forbid it.” Hades growls. There is no room for argument in his voice, so Nico turns to the three Judges.
“Rhadamanthys, Aiakos, Minos, please. It’s a fair trade! More than fair. What say you?” Nico is desperate now, and it shows, but he doesn’t have the room left to care. He has to do this, for Percy- he can’t stand Annabeth’s eyes, Hazel doesn’t smile anymore, Sally will never forgive him if doesn’t do this-
“We accept this equal trade.” Minos sneers, Rhadamanthys and Aiakos nodding solemnly behind him. Hades roars, but too late. The world fades into a great emptiness. Nico is no more.
Annabeth is weeping silently, tears sliding down her grimy cheeks. Hazel’s face is buried in Frank’s chest, Jason’s face is unreadable, Leo’s horrified. Piper is hiccuping from her place by Reyna’s side. Nico knows none of this. He knows the body, bigger than his own, that he is cradling in his arms. He knows the death cold, and the buzzing in his veins like flies around a corpse; the same tingling feeling he gets whenever a soul passes to the Underworld close by him. He knows that Percy Jackson’s eyes are shut. He knows that they will not open again, not this time.
“I’m sorry.” he whispers. No one can hear him, but he whispers again because a great dam has broken open inside him and he can’t stop.
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so so sorry I’m sorry-”
(his mama never told him love would hurt like this)
“Have we met?” says Percy Jackson, tilting his dark head to the side and regarding Nico with sharp green eyes that have always seen too much, and too little. A thousand memories crowd into Nico’s brain all at once, the Battle for Olympus, the quest to the River Styx where Nico had inadvertently betrayed his only friend, the moment in the labyrinth where Nico stumbled and Percy took his arm to help him up and his hand was so big and warm-
“No.” Nico replies.
“Would you like another piece of cake, honey?” Sally Jackson asks, smiling kindly down at him. Nico blushes and stammers and chokes and can’t manage to answer, so Percy does it for him.
“Heck yes he would like another piece of cake,” he laughs, lifting one of Nico’s arms and wrapping his fingers around the bicep. “Look at this. This is not the arm of a boy who needs just one piece of cake.”
Sally gives Nico a good once-over, just the way his mama used to, cataloguing the prominent collarbones and sharp cheeks.
“I see what you mean.” she agrees, and bustles off to the kitchen to fetch more of the delicious (if startlingly blue) birthday cake.
“You’d think you’ve never had birthday cake before, the way you inhaled that piece.” Paul laughs, giving Nico a good-natured grin.
“I haven’t,” Nico replies in confusion. Paul chokes, and Percy makes a funny little sound beside him. Very deliberately, and always looking straight ahead, he reaches out a hand and gently ruffles Nico’s hair.
“You have now.” he mutters, almost under his breath.
Nico's heart tries to beat its way up out of his chest through his throat.
Nico is only ten years old, when he first meets the boy with a mouth full of stars and eyes like heroes of old.
Nico is fourteen when he dies for him.