Nico remembers the exact moment he decides on the ending he wants.
He's on the bus, covertly trailing a twelve-year-old girl who may or may not be his little sister -- he won't know until something comes along and tries to eat her, and she'll more or less clumsily discovers she has power over dead people in a way that would make M Night Shamalan wish he'd taken Sixth Sense in an entirely different direction, and Nico will have to go in and save her life, but until then he gets to just hang back and stalk -- when he looks down at his iPod, skipping to the next song after only twenty seconds of the previous one, and suddenly, it seems like the easiest decision he's ever made.
Right, then, he thinks, flipping the switch over to "hold" and tucking it back into the pocket of his winter coat, blinking out the window. That's what I'm going to do.
The iPod isn't his, and neither is the coat. The iPod's a hand-me-down from Pearl, Jake Mason's second-in-command from the Hephaestus cabin; she got it for Christmas, took it apart, and then made a better one, so Nico got the original. The coat belonged to Percy, who didn't take saving the world as an excuse to stop growing, and everything he owned got too small for him in a little under a year. It's a nice coat, black and wool and it probably screams "Manhattan!" from a mile off, and Nico more "borrowed" it, really, but as Percy hasn't asked for it back, he pretty much figures it belongs to him now.
He casts a quick glance towards the back of the bus, where the half-blood girl is pulling a book out of her backpack -- they've got seven stops to go before hers, and he's just checking to make sure she's not deviating off her usual course -- and then settles back into his seat, propping his elbow up against the window.
He's smiling, but he doesn't notice until several minutes later, when it begins to hurt his face.
The girl's name is Liisa -- "with two i's, yes, like a Wii," because anyone who takes up with Hades long enough to get pregnant is bound to be a little weird anyway, and Nico says that with the full appreciation of the irony -- and she causes an earthquake in the middle of a pep rally which attracts three Laestrygonians and a chimera, so life gets kind of exciting for awhile.
When he wakes up, someone's been kind enough to situate him in a chair at her bedside; the last thing he remembers was grabbing Liisa under the arms like a toddler and shadow-teleporting them both all the way to the New York countryside, and Peleus giving the alarm just as he went pitching over into the grass.
"I'm really sorry about that," Liisa goes, and he startles a little bit, sitting up and trying to ineffectually wipe the drool from his chest. She's awake, black-eyed and blinking at him, propped up on pillows. "I wasn't even really thinking about it. I just didn't want to sit in that pep rally a moment longer."
"No, it happens," Nico goes, trying for reassuring, because he figures, don't worry about it, I'm glad you did, your bus route was getting a little boring, wouldn't go over too well. Usually they have satyrs for that kind of thing, but apparently the existence of another child of Hades was enough to send him off personally. That and he hadn't had a proper Quest in years. Or, you know, ever. He's even kind of suspicious that Rachel faked that vision.
He gets it, though. He's been, "that one kid from the Hades cabin, did you hear what happened to him? Bad shit, man, bad shit," since the moment he woke up able to summon bone warriors from the ground. It's why he gets Pearl's cast-offs and Percy doesn't protest the loss of his probably-expensive coat and Chiron and Rachel would get together to fake a Quest for him, because they think that a younger sibling is the best thing that could happen to him.
What they don't understand, though, is that time isn't going to be what heals Nico's grief. The howling's always going to be there; inside, where they can't see or hear it, where it's not immediately obvious because he isn't wearing it on his sleeve, but Nico knows it's there. It'd drown everything else out of he let it -- it's still so strong that when he brushes against it, he rips away deliberately, I'm not going to think about it, I'm not. He puts a block in his head and it's the only thing that's keeping him sane.
Because if he thinks too hard about what it would be like to live the rest of his life without his sister -- without anyone he loves, and let's face it, he can count all of those on one hand, and most of them are dead -- and it's like standing at the edge of a chasm, nothing but blackness and no way to cross.
So this is it. Exactly what he's afraid of: the rest of his life of his life without Bianca, and he's right in the middle of it. The days pass if he doesn't think about it, and he keeps busy do anything else he can get his hands on (when was the last time a half-blood got straight As in school, anyway?) because the shrieking, screaming space is right there in his head, waiting for him to turn and look at it.
Liisa isn't going to shut it up, Nico can tell you that right now.
"I'm sorry," the little girl goes, speaker softer, infallibly polite. She's from a mid-sized town in Montana and never had to be scared of anything before the monsters came out from under the bed. "I never caught your name."
A shiver runs through her, making her teeth click together, and Nico twists in his seat to pull his arms out of his coat. "You cold?" he goes, without really waiting for an answer, and slides Percy's coat around her shoulders. He sees her fingers dart out to touch the fabric, the peacoat-big black buttons, sees her smile hesitantly. "Keep it," he says on a whim. "I don't need it anymore. My name's Nico, by the way. Welcome to Camp Half-Blood."
He only stops briefly to give the overview of the mission to Chiron, who eyes him warily and wordlessly the entire time, like he knows in some omniscient centaur way what Nico's planning.
"Aren't you going to stay, at least, to see your sister settled in?" he goes when Nico stands, wearing just his long sleeves as protection against an upstate New York November.
Nico casts him a guileless look. "Pearl's here year-round, isn't she? She loves feathering nests for newcomers. She'll be much better at helping Liisa fit in, promise."
"Hmmm," says Chiron in the back of his throat, the noise people make when they plainly disagree with what you're saying but haven't yet found a suitable argument to refute you with. Nico decides now's a good time to make his escape, and flashes Chiron a smile and a, "happy holidays, sir," as he brushes out the door.
Gautier, Mississippi sits back a little ways from the gulf, long stretches of sour-smelling marshes the only thing protecting it from the beach. The town itself was flattened by a hurricane in 2004, around the time Nico was picking his nose with a bunch of fourth-graders in an elementary school in Maine, and even a decade later, he can still see the damages, long scars ripped into long-standing houses and moss beginning to creep over violently felled trees. Most of the housing looks new, fresh coats of paint only just settling into their color.
Nico has a long time to notice all this, leaning up against the side of a gas station convenience store, trying to catch his breath. He took shadow-teleporting down here in stages, so as not to knock himself out, but he still feels like he needs to sleep for a week. When his knees tentatively inform him that they can hold his weight, he pushes himself through the door, bells clanging in announcement.
"Hi," he says, cheerful-like, to the woman behind the register, who's surprised enough to smile back. Nico takes a moment to love Sally Jackson a little bit more for sitting him down and forcibly teaching him twenty-first century manners. "I'm looking for someone, I'm hoping you could help me."
She's an old bayou witch who lives in a house behind a restaurant, right outside of Pascagoula on Highway 63. The place is called Seaman's Cove, and it serves up the best crab this side of the gulf. Nico knows he's found the right place by the golden drachma nailed to the front door, and the imagery painted on the weathered wood inside -- not the kind of detailed artwork mortal imaginations could come up with, but hippocampis riding waves and Poseidon's palace etched onto the tops of the menus.
"Hi!" goes the hostess, who has pirate skull earrings and a matey-striped shirt on. "Table for ...?" she trails off, glancing at the door like she's expecting more people to be banging in after Nico.
"No table," he says, shaking his head and giving her a Sally-smile. "I'm here to talk to Tia Dalma, do you know if she's in today?"
Her eyes narrow a little bit, and he wonders if he pronounced it right, or if maybe there's a secret handshake or some kind of code. He wonders if he's about to get shot.
Before he can say anything, a woman emerges from the kitchen and calls, "Trinity, darling, let the boy in. I know his father."
She's tall, tall in the way that makes Nico's brain tick in warning -- pay attention, kid, this person might be a god in disguise -- and she's in regular old jeans and a sort of fluttery peasant top, the front of which is bowed under the weight of a hundred thick, dangling charms looped around her neck. She's black, grey-tinged underneath the eyes, and her hair is a mess of dreadlocks tied back with what might have been a bandana in another life. Like everybody here, she's in flip-flops, and they scuffle as she crosses over to him. Up close, she's got eyes the color of the sea without sunlight.
"I am Tia Dalma," she drawls, slow and serious, a quirk to her mouth that keeps on catching Nico's attention. "But who is it that looks for her?"
"I thought you said you know who I am."
If anything, her mouth spreads wider, but he doesn't get the impression that she's really smiling. "Oh, of course I do, Nico. By all means, come on back."
She leads him through the kitchen, past cooks in stained aprons with hairnets just barely hanging on, standing over steaming pots of seafood. They don't really look up when Tia Dalma goes on by, except to eyeball her hair, like they were afraid one of the dreads was going to fall into the soup if she moved too suddenly. Tia Dalma walks with an impossible kind of hip-sway, like she's subject to some kind of different anatomy. They bang out the back door, down the steps, and along the gravel walk towards the matchstick trees of the bayou.
"Nico di Angelo," the witch says, lowering herself into an armchair, crossing her legs at the knee. She studies him, fingering her bottom lip. "Have you seriously thought about what you want to ask me?"
"I haven't thought about anything else," Nico answers. There's no use in lying to a goddess.
"No, I suppose you haven't." She traces his face with her eyes, and seems to reach a decision. She rolls her shoulders. "Do you know who I am?"
Nico shifts his weight from foot to foot. He has a guess, but ... "Tia Dalma's the name you give mortals, those who can't see beyond the Mist. To those that can, you sometimes give the name Calypso."
She narrows her eyes fractionally. "I hear a 'but' in that sentence, child."
"But you can't be the real Calypso, because she's locked up in a world that the gods made for her, directly underneath the surface of this one. She's a prisoner, and you aren't."
"Oh, we're all prisoners of something. But you're right, Calypso snivels away in her gilded cage, waiting for a man to come and keep her company. Or a woman, I guess we should be more politically correct these days." She bares her teeth at him again, a slash of bone-white in her dark face. Her house is smoky lit; lines of Christmas lights wrapped around the windows and a reading lamp on above the desk, and it catches in her eyes. "But she is not here to protest as I use her name. Who am I then, half-god?"
Nico lifts his chin. "My aunt. Amphitrite, goddess of the seas. You dally in the mortal world as your husband does, but unlike him, you make sure your children are protected from monsters. There's never been a need for you to have your own cabin at Camp, because you're too smart for that. You're more powerful than anyone gives you credit for."
Flattery is laying it on thick, Sally always warned him, but thing is, Nico isn't being flattering. He genuinely thinks that the wives of the Big Three are far more fearsome than the brothers (when they put their minds to it, of course; Persephone turning him into a geranium in a fit of temper isn't exactly the best example.)
Tia Dalma has a look on her face like the cat that ate the canary and sold its feathers on eBay. "This is true," she says, idle-like, and then swings her legs down, bracing her elbows on her knees and steepling her fingers at him. "You would have me split your soul in half to bring your sister back from the dead, to soul-bind you so that nothing could come between you again. It would be the two of you, riding on your life ticket, Nico di Angelo."
"Yes." There's a breathlessness to his voice that gives him away, but he couldn't care less right then, not when everything's been laid at his feet like that. There's the howling in his mind, nipping right at his heels; he swears he can actually hear it, swirling around outside the door.
"It will cut the duration of all your days in half," she warns him. "You will have 21 years to live and not a day more."
Nico quickly does the math. He won't make it to 40.
He opens his mouth, but she cuts him off with a sharp motion. "Do not jump so heedlessly into this. Remember, if I take your soul, it'll halve your sister's life as well. She might already be at peace, have you considered that? You would willingly drag her back into this messy mortal world, tether her to you, only to condemn her to die young, again?"
The pain strikes low at the base of his ribs, like a stitch from running, and he shuts his eyes tight. Inside, there's nothing but the knowledge that he is this close. This close. Everything is yammering; his heart, his brain, the powerful mix of the two, and if reason's in there somewhere, he can't hear it.
"Please," he whispers.
Tia Dalma, Amphitrite, does that thing with her mouth where it spreads open without smiling, her eyes alit with golden god-light. She reaches out and touches a single finger to his forehead, and everything goes blessedly, blessedly silent.
When he wakes up, there's a jar of disembodied eyeballs on the bedside table, all of them twisted around to watch him. Eyeballs are a lot bigger detached than they appear to be when they're in someone's eye socket, he notes, mildly fascinated.
And then, all at once, he feels it; inside, where he toes at the end of the chasm, there's silence. A colorful silence, of lights flickering back and forth, vague impressions of people. A dream, Nico realizes. He's dreaming, and yet, he's perfectly awake.
"You might experience a little dizziness and your balance will probably be off," comes Tia Dalma's voice, and his eyes flick over; she's in a rocking chair by the door, one dread wrapped around the end of her finger. She has a magazine open on her lap, and there's too much glare coming in from the window for him to tell what it's about. He's not sure if there's a magazine for eyeball-collectors. "That generally comes with having your soul split into two. I wouldn't suggest you operate heavy machinery anytime soon."
"What --" Nico starts, tongue thick, and then the arm wrapped around his waist makes itself known by tightening, pulling him in a little.
Nico goes completely still for all of a heartbeat before he flips over in a scramble, and --
It's her. It's her, right down to the mole underneath the lobe of her right ear, and the charm bracelet she won from a claw machine at the Lotus Casino, and the shape of her eyelashes and the fall of her hair and he can feel her, her dreams moving underneath his skin. She fists her hand in the fabric of his shirt and scoots closer, nosing along her pillow until her forehead is nearly touching his chin.
"Oh, I feel it should be mentioned," says Tia Dalma from somewhere where Nico doesn't care about her. "Your battery has been sucked dry. I used your powers to break into the Underworld, as it's not entirely my domain, so I'm not sure when you'll get them back."
"Okay," whispers Nico, who heard something like blah blah blah also blah. He touches his nose to his sister's hairline.
When things settle a little more, Nico can feel the place where his powers were; it's a little dry and a little itchy, like the top layer of earth in winter, but their absence is only a footnote to what it's like to see Bianca alive.
For days, the rest of the world is monochrome; she's the only thing in color. He stares at her so much that his eyes sting with the need to blink, which would bother him more if she wasn't doing the same thing. They sleep curled around each other like they did as children, sleeping on the chaisse in the front room while their mother smoked and played cards in the back, and they listen to their heartbeats, synchronized like the ticking hand of a clock. When they wake up, they sit with their legs a tangled mess in the sheets, trying to have a conversation without audio.
It doesn't really work; he can see the latticework of her thoughts, which isn't strictly all words and neatly formed sentences, and when they try to communicate like that, they keep on jumping ahead of each other, trying to answer one thing when they're already been asked another, and tripping each other up, until they fall apart, giggling, and revert back to spoken words, fumbling with them like newborn colts.
Underneath it, underneath her life-flushed skin and her beating heart and her bright-quick thoughts, Nico can feel how much his sister loves him, and it's like a spring with no source, like looking at a plant and seeing everything; stem and leaves and roots going everywhere, and it leaves him airless, because it's always been there, and he's never been able to see it as clearly as he does now.
He doesn't keep it a secret. Can't, not really, so she knows the instant she wakes up what Nico did, how they're both running on borrowed time. He feels her absorb this -- the sting that came with compromise, with a leash of 21 years, already sitting on top of years and years of loneliness, in a world outside of his home, his time, with no one to turn to, and he feels her touch up against the memory of the chasm of grief and the howling, always the howling, and her face drains of color -- and, if anything, she just pushes love at him harder.
"Bianca," Nico says, and it feels like the first word any mortal ever spoke with meaning, awe and wonder and recognition that goes soul deep.
He keeps on expecting to wake up.
It makes him cling to every small thing, every detail he knew he couldn't make up in a dream, like the way Bianca sneezes into her elbow and the way she yawns and the way she looks, tugging his boots on over her feet and tying up the laces.
When she catches him staring, her amusement tickles up inside of him like the brush of spider legs, and he swats at her in annoyance, making her blink from across the room and laugh, and it strikes him all over again, that this is his sister, his sister, Bianca, the same one that buckled his shoes when Mother asked her to and sang him to sleep the first couple nights in the casino, when they couldn't remember anything but the smell of fire and rubble, and she snuck out of the girl's dorm in Maine to sit next to him and tell him about her day; he remembered it'd been so strange, the idea that something could happen in Bianca's day and he wouldn't have been there as witness. This is the same sister that died when she was fourteen; Percy told him they never found a body, which Nico always took to mean she wasn't really dead.
And now here she is. He got her back.
"It's different now," she tells him, suddenly right there in front of him, lifting her fingers to touch his cheekbone. "Instead of a day, I've missed years of your life."
"21 years is a long time," is all he can think to answer. "I can fill you in."
Tia Dalma kicks them out eventually.
"Soul-bonding is a messy business," she tells them, lifting a string of abalone shells from around her neck and looping it around Bianca's wrist, snug up against the charm bracelet. "I would suggest you stay away from other half-bloods for awhile -- the Mist will cover it from mortals, but Nico, you are walking with two shadows, and Bianca has none at all. Your half-blood friends will see it instantly."
"Don't we owe you --" Bianca starts.
Tia Dalma tchs in the back of her throat. "Please. For the excuse to vex my pansy brother-in-law, I would have done a lot more." She eyeballs them. "Try to take care of yourselves, please. You're tied to each other: when you get injured, you'll split the pain. When one of your exhausts your powers, the other will be handicapped as well. That you'll die together goes without saying, but I suppose that's a plus for you. Off you go, then."
They don't go far, on account of being unable to shadow-travel, so they wind up circling around Gautier; it's a four-church, one-McDonalds town, and they're too busy thinking at each other to really care that they're basically homeless. He fills Bianca in on the end of the world and how they stopped it, and all the things that came after; Pearl and the iPod, Percy out-growing his clothes, even the Quest to bring Liisa in safely.
"I'd like to meet her someday," Bianca murmurs, all lit up on the inside where Nico could feel it. "A little sister!"
"There's so much you never got a chance to see," he says, mind tripping along so fast he sees her close her eyes against the vertigo of it. "Like grocery stores! You've never been in a grocery store! Come on, let's go try one!"
He's not exaggerating, either; all their meals had been prepared for them for as long as she's been alive, in the casino, at the military school, at Camp, and it's like her novelty is his all over again, only he never had anybody to share it with, the staggering surprise of walking into a Wal*Mart and seeing everything under the sun on sale.
She wanders around the corner, out of sight, but the panic he expects at the thought of it never strikes; he can still feel her, right on the other end of his heartbeat the same way his hand is on the other end of his arm. She's muttering to herself, low-volume -- "sugar-free? who ever thought sugar-free was a good idea, what is this nonsense" -- and chewing on a hangnail on her thumb.
Nico wonders if it's like this for other people, this simple, low-struck, all-consuming joy of being with family, with a best friend, with a soulmate, and how could they stand that kind of happiness, every day? How is it that anyone complained, or felt poorly, or argued, when it was possible to feel like this?
He feels rather than sees Bianca look in his direction, and smile (the same private smile she'd given Artemis before accepting her offer of immortality) just before his own joy came back at him tenfold, a thump in his ribs, the trip and hammer of their shared heartbeat.
Months slide away in great big chunks, like ice on a glass surface, as time tends to do while your back is turned.
They celebrate a birthday -- it doesn't matter whose, as they share one now -- and move into the basement of some guy they met at the laundromat. The floor is cold and there are water stains high up on the ceiling; the first time Bianca sees them, her brain flashes over to Percy, thinks, we should ask him about this, make sure there's no mold growing here that would kill us, and it ricochets inside Nico's skull, making him grit his teeth.
They still wake up every morning with arms and legs tangled around each other, chests pressed together like they're trying to fit their hearts back into one piece. Nico wakes up with his sister's hair in his mouth, and each time, he's fairly certain it's the happiest he's ever been.
"Come on," Bianca says to him one sunlight-washed Mississippi day, walking towards him in the parking lot just as he's getting off work, and it doesn't matter if she's talking inside his head or out loud. It's never going to matter. "Pinkie says the Chinese place by Blockbuster does dim sum, but you gotta ask for the menu special. Remember the curried squid and spring rolls we used to get at the casino? I would part with a minor internal organ for one of those dishes again."
Nico laughs at her, but of course, her hunger is now his, and he can only think about Chinese food. She falls in beside him, grinning when he musters up some annoyance about it. Her hair's loose today, sweat gathering at the nape of her neck, but the sunlight catches on the hints of colored strands amidst all the black.
"Yours does it too," she informs him. "Don't get all poetic on me."
In response, he deliberately fills his head Backstreet Boys for the whole walk, and by the time they get to Gold Mountain, he's got her humming along unconsciously. They're shown to a table that seats four, but they both take the same side as they always do, pressed together thigh-to-shoulder, and every time he leans in to look at her menu despite having the exact same thing in front of him, he feels her lungs expand with a breath.
They don't have the squid -- "fine, it probably would have been rubbery anyway, squid is notoriously hard to cook" -- but they have, like, four different kinds of spring rolls. Bianca makes the waitress laugh with her enthusiasm, and later, after they've cleared their plates, she brings them extra fortune cookies. They're the good kind, too, the ones that smell like vanilla before you even break open the packaging.
Munching on hers, Bianca tilts her fortune in his direction.
He plucks it out of her fingers and makes a noise. "That's no fair," he says, once he gets the letters to behave so he can read them. "That's, like, a legit fortune. I would feel bad tacking 'in the bedroom' on to the end of it to make it funny."
There's a half-pause, in which Bianca fishes out the meaning behind the 'in the bedroom' trick from Nico's memories, and then she throws her head back and laughs.
He watches the movement of her throat, warm all over from her laughter, and it occurs to him that he doesn't want this from anybody else, ever. It's always been him and Bianca, and that's how he always wants it to be.
The second biggest decision Nico ever makes in his entire life is done inside the Gold Mountain, between one broken-open fortune cookie and another. The decision itself isn't hard -- these things never are -- and he nods, thinks, okay, then. The rest of my life.
It's a promise, every bit of it, and he knows she can hear it, feel it, knows the ground they're standing on shifts with it. His sister looks up, meets his eyes immediately because she always knows where they are and where they're looking, and when he leans in to kiss her, her hand's already coming up to cradle his face, to catch him.
The rest of our life, she thinks back, with a finite, good-feeling slam like a storybook coming closed.
In a little restaurant just outside Pascagoula, on Highway 63, Percy Jackson shouts down a bayou witch.
"You'll never find him." Amphitrite smiles. "What is it that vexes all men, Percy Jackson? He fell in love."