When they were young and still living in the casino, like insects in temporal amber, they were never far from each other.
There was a rhythm to their existence that they were one beat late on, a half-aware feeling that they were being stretched too thin, and the only thing that was present, consistent, was each other, but that was enough. Other people came and left and barely brushed their edges, but two prickly children remained for years twisted like tree roots, while Maria di Angelo rolled over in her grave.
You see, when children of Hades die, it’s not quite as 100% as anyone else. Think of it as a sort of early retirement.
Nico tried the whole soul-for-a-soul resurrection thing before, and unfortunately the real world is more complicated than the New Testament, and rising Lazarus is hard when the world is on the brink of divine civil war.
He was younger then, too, a puppet for nearly every faction, never quite managing to be what his father or Minos or even Percy wanted him to become, because he was a child and very lost and very very afraid.
(But even with the memories of his foolishness, and how easily he was manipulated, he remembers taking Percy to the Styx and the Battle of Manhattan and I am the King of Ghosts and thinks he has nothing to be ashamed of.)
Their story is some sort of horrible parody of Persephone’s.
For a few days a year -usually three- Bianca comes back up top. It usually falls about the same time each year, that time in October where these things are supposed to happen – it’s the wrong pantheon, but Nico’s not going to argue the point.
She shows up on his doorstep the same way each time; in the morning, when the air is still misty and could pass for the Asphodel fields, if you squinted.
The first time, when he's unprepared, he thinks she's some kind of monster, some fresh horror to be sent back to Tartarus.
His battle reflexes fail him, though, so he grabs the fire extinguisher rather than the sword.
“Nico! Nico- gods, you stupid boy-” and she laughs, and he laughs, and though he’s been trained too well, though he isn't quite ready to let himself believe that it’s true right yet, he wants to.
They stay inside that time, inside his little apartment for three whole days.
Currently, he's living in Chicago. On the first day, they drink tea out of a plastic kettle and listen to the wind make pleasant howls as it passes through the neighbour’s eaves.
On the last day, he takes her out to the park, and they sit and watch the children play and women jog and bankers smoke on their lunch break. Their hands are intertwined, he doesn’t know if he’s let it go since she stepped through the door, and anyone who looks at them must know what they are; they are mirror images slightly cracked, the same sallow skin and dark hair, but she is corrupted, just a bit. There are flaws there: her index finger is slightly longer than her middle. She is wobbly on two legs, like a sailor who's just come ashore.
But no matter who looks, what they may think, Nico holds onto her hand, and doesn't let it go.
After walking home, they stand at the median of the road at midnight, wind whipping through their hair, and she spreads her arms and twirls around in place, like a little child. She won't look him in the eyes, and he pretends that he doesn't see the tear-tracks on her cheeks.
(After that, Bianca presses a kiss to his cheek, perfect and chaste. She says that she’s leaving soon, but it’ll be while he’s asleep. She says she’ll be back; and he’s glad that he'll be sleeping when she leaves, because if he was awake, she'd never be able to pry his fingers off her arm.)
Bianca looks mostly the same every time; a little older, perhaps, but he thinks that’s just for his benefit. He looks at her features, but not too hard, because he knows if he tries he can see what’s underneath, the skeleton and spirit, being held to this mirage by her force of will.
But that doesn’t keep him from looking. He can’t stand to have his eyes off of her, scared that if he blinks, she’ll be gone again, back into the pit. He wants to drink her in, every motion, noise and the absence of breath.
They sleep in the same bed whenever she visits, but now they are too long for it, stretched out on top of the mattress, curled inwards on each other, trying not to look like they’re soaking up every inch of skin pressed against skin. There's a tangible ache in his chest when they do, a monster trying to claw its way out, but he ignores it. There are plenty of monsters in their history, and this is only one of them.
Maybe the reason they do it is because these visits are so much like the casino trips; they are hazy when looked back on. The rest of his time is jarring in comparison, harsher. It's only when they're together that life resumes normalcy.
(He tries not to think about what that means.)
The second time, he's expecting her.
Exactly a week previously, he received in the mail a Halloween greeting card. It was postmarked from the DOA Studios address, and had nothing personal written in it. On the front was a cheery skeleton waving at him; inside, only the delightfully tacky sentiment “I love you down to the bones!”
He smiled, and stuck it to the fridge door.
Sometimes he sits up on any of the 362 nights when she isn’t there and wonders how she won this privilege, because Nico knows better than anyone that the universe is an eternal push-pull, give-and-take, and there are no freebies in the underworld.
(But, then again, you could argue that the two of them were born to cheat the system.)
Bianca rings the doorbell of the Seattle apartment on a rainier dawn than before, and when he buzzes her in, she's soaked. Her shoes leave puddles on the hallway carpet, and small pools of water collect in the space between her neck and collarbone. It leaves her looking deflated somehow, like a paper doll that the colors ran out of.
They sit in again that night, calling for Domino’s pizza with breadsticks and chicken wings. It’s greasy and disgusting, but it’s not until he sees the light in her eyes that he realizes (guiltily, as usual) that it’s the first time she’s ever eaten anything delivered to their door.
After that, they order something takeout every night.
He's still flesh and bone and a beating heart, at least, but there's always been something dark inside that’s beyond that. Her corners and shadows are darker than his, though, unfathomable and he knows, he knows she’s a specter, a projection. Her real body is rotting in the ground. How she got here, what she had to do, what she had to give, to be here with him he doesn’t want to know.
But he is also not a child any more, and he realizes that this isn't about him, not really, that she wanted to stay dead and buried when he tried resurrection, and that if she's changed her mind it's because she's broken herself out, for her own reasons.
So he shuts his eyes tight and grits his teeth and doesn’t think about it.
It rains for the rest of the days in Seattle, but she insists they see the sights. They go to Pike Place Market, visit the original Starbucks, and drink their lattes together standing on a pier, overlooking the sea.
It’s odd for him to be leading her around like this. He’s spent his whole life following in her wake, the younger brother she had to look after. He knew she resented it then. He wonders if she still does.
But her time here is so short that Nico thinks that if not wanting to ask her about it makes him selfish, so be it.
He comes back to Camp Half-Blood every so often, mostly so Percy won’t go looking for him again (because really, the time in Milwaukee made a great story, but he doesn’t want a repeat performance.)
Nico’s never had many qualms about crimes of any kind, and he does work sometimes, but only when he has to, so he makes due on credit card fraud and fencing things he steals from the houses of dead old ladies. He can feel when people in the area die, like a small heart palpitation; combined with his various unique talents, he makes quite a good thief. He always finds a way to make ends meet, more or less.
He moves cities often, because even with Kronos gone the world is not easy for demigods and monsters are always around the corner. Even though it would probably be safer, he can’t stand the countryside; he lives in six-month leases in various shitty apartments near college campuses, and no one is the wiser. Against his better judgement, Nico loves the bustle of cities, their safety in numbers, the thousands of hiding places just waiting to be found.
However, he doesn't visit New York City, even when he goes back to camp. There are too many familiar skeletons under the surface of those streets.
They spend a few hours on a rocky shore outside of Seattle beachcombing. The sea makes Nico uncomfortable for the same reason he can’t fly: it’s the domain of Poseidon. But even though he doesn’t dare set foot in it, he supposes he can see why Percy loves it. The air is fresher, and every breath you take stings a little, reminding you that you can still do it.
Bianca can’t, of course, but she’s enjoying herself, letting herself live more than she ever got to when she was alive. She even buys ice cream from a vendor in the parking lot, and she gets it on her nose and doesn't notice.
Eventually he can't go any longer without laughing; her eyes narrow and she punches him in the arm. There's a nearly foreign leaping feeling in his upper chest, and he presses his lips to hers right there, on the shore, before he knows he wants to.
(She doesn't kiss back, but she doesn't pull away, and afterwards she smiles a little softer, and presses it into his shoulder. He's not one for romances, but he thinks maybe he can understand, now, the desire to take someone's heart and wrap it in your own.)
Nico can never be quite sure how old he really is, but he puts himself physically about sixteen. Of course, technically, he is 75, give or take a few years, but he tries not to think about that.
Other people his age have high school report cards, college applications, bright hopes and dreams. Girlfriends and boyfriends, parents, friends. He has a legal date of death in the 1940’s, and his most meaningful relationship is with a dead girl.
(Maybe he should start seeing a therapist.)
When she comes up top, she’s always dressed in the same loose-fitting grey work outfit that's standard issue down below. He lets her borrow some of his clothes to wear around town, but they always look a bit silly. One day, a few years after Seattle, he takes her out thrifting.
She never got to do anything like this while she was breathing, and he hasn’t been shopping since that time Percy and Annabeth dragged him out years ago, while he was still in New York. They go to every Sally-Ann and Goodwill in bussing distance, and she ends up with a few outfits made up of pretty floral dresses and little heels and long coats. She looks like the photos of women in World War Two he sees in books sometimes, like the vague flashes of memory he sometimes gets of their mother.
Even after she disappears back down that time, he keeps them folded in a shoebox under their bed, waiting for the next time.
They’re in Pittsburgh when the monsters catch up to them.
The chance Nico took willingly when he left camp was that he could be attacked at any moment. He’s always on guard, normally, but it’s that time of year again and the two of them are sitting underneath a bridge, throwing stones into the murky industrial water, when he hears a growl.
Something he first mistook for a car is looming way too close for comfort, but it’s not until it comes closer that realizes exactly what it is.
Bianca jumps to her feet immediately. “You have got to be kidding me.”
It’s a manticore. Nico’s not quite sure if it’s the erstwhile Dr. Thorn, from the military academy all those years ago, but he knows he’s never going to let it make it out of here alive.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have his sword, making the crackling of his nerves an empty threat. Scanning the surroundings, Nico is about to say that they should turn tail and run, but he hears distant voices and movement from farther down the riverbank, and he pauses.
“Take the left- ”
Bianca realizes what’s happening just as soon as he does. She throws one of the stones in her hand, hitting it square in the forehead from thirty feet away. Residual Hunter accuracy, no doubt.
It snarls, and steps back, but the other demigods are close enough they could almost get it, they could almost see them, see her-
“Nico, we need to leave.” He nods numbly, and lets his sister take him by the hand and let him trail behind, just like old times.
She doesn’t turn on him until they’re back in the apartment.
“Nico, you idiot, you need to be more careful. You need to be bringing the sword with you everywhere!" Her eyes are black and furious, and Nico feels like a child again, if he ever was one. "If that monster had got me – no more trips up here, let me tell you, just passport duty for me down below for the rest of eternity – and if the other half-bloods saw me –” her breath catches, and her anger deflates as quickly as it came. She is just a skinny girl in a wispy dress again, fists balled so tightly her knuckles glow ghostly white.
“I know.” Long sallow fingers wrap around his wrist, and she pulls him into her arms. It's more familiar than the feeling of splitting the earth under his hands, or the smoke of a burnt offering; those are choices, and the feel of her skin is something he never decided upon. It's more akin to a language: the place they've clawed out together comes together easily, as casually as words.
Her spindly arms bind around his neck, and Nico rests his hands on her shoulder blades. They stand like that in his shabby alcove for gods know how long, swaying to the feeling of his heart beating for both of them.
They make it into the kitchen at some point - he meant to put the tea kettle on, but it's hard when he can't extract himself from her touch. It's always hard, but tonight it's different; he's not the only one grasping. Her eyes reflect the same fear his always have, that if she lets go, he'll evaporate.
But somewhere along the way, between scalding his hand on the tap water and brushing her sweaty bangs out of her eyes, their mouths met - not for the second time, but there's more to it, now. She kisses him like she's hungry. Her tongue brushes his once, twice, and it’s rough and impossibly soft and very cold.
(He’s kissed one other girl before, a daughter of Hecate at camp ages ago. She was pliant and enthusiastic and warm and everything a first kiss should be, but Nico wouldn’t take a hundred of those against this moment here, with the faint scent of mildew and decay and the beginnings of post-adrenaline limpness setting in, because this is his sister but she’s also his best friend and the only person on this whole damn planet who makes his breath catch like this. And the world could be burning, Kronos rising again from the pit and the gods summoning him to certain death and he wouldn’t look up, because this is the only thing that matters.)
Bianca's propped up on his shitty vinyl countertop, with her dress pushed up past her bony hips. She’s wearing the underwear they bought from Walmart together, white with a tiny pink bow at the top and made by some sweatshop labourer in Puerto Rico.
He stands between her pale thighs, still fully clothed. Her mouth is red and glistening and she gasps (how does that work, he thinks, if she doesn't breathe) as his teeth catch against her collarbone.
(The part of his mind that never shuts off thinks that this is probably the first time she’s done this, too.)
Her hands are reaching under his t-shirt, nails scrabbling for purchase across his ribcage. She pulls it over his head, and runs her fingers down his back, softly, and wraps her legs around his hips.
When she moves quickly like this, he can see the blur around her edges, like a heat haze. For a second, he glimpses the bleached whiteness of sundried bones, and a smiling skeleton face, but he just presses closer.
His fingers reach up under her cheap cotton panties, and her head falls back against the cabinet.
They fall asleep that night on the kitchen floor, too tired to move. Their legs are tangled, skulls are cradled in crannies of near-identical bodies, and black, black hair is shocking against the white linoleum.
He thinks of Percy and Annabeth, and what they look like after, but he stops going down that road immediately. Comparing himself to Percy never worked out very well in his favour.
There is a part of him that wishes he was an only child, that he never knew what it was to have another half. That he never had the emotional equivalent of a phantom limb, something that you took for granted until it suddenly, without warning, was gone.
But he crosses off another day on the calendar, and thinks that there aren't a great deal of things that makes him feel alive, but that this is one of them.
That whatever the price is, it cannot possibly be too high.