“You know your positions, people. Fight well, good fortune, and if you lose I will hunt you down.”
The rest of the fighters, singly or in squads, dispersed from the forest clearing where Annabeth had set up her headquarters, and Nico started to follow them when Annabeth called, “Hey, Nico, wait up a minute.”
She had her hair tucked up under her helmet, a knife-edged smile, and the glint of hyperfocus in her gray eyes. It made the hair stand up on the back of Nico’s neck; he didn’t know whether to brace himself for a surprise attack, or pre-battle makeouts, or what.
When this whole thing had started--and it had been Percy’s idea, because no one could have come up with such a crazy, stupidly hopeful idea but Percy--Nico had asked for his tips on dating Annabeth Chase. He figured Percy must have some, since he’d survived more than a year of it, even if you didn’t count periods of divine amnesia and stuff.
Percy’d just shrugged. “I don’t know, man, I guess we’re just lucky she likes us.”
Nico still thought Percy was holding out on him. He always seemed to know what to do when Annabeth got like this, but Nico didn’t.
“About Phase Two of the plan,” said Annabeth.
“Phase Two,” Nico said. “You mean the one where you have me taking down Percy all by myself?”
Annabeth’s smile got sharper. “Not saying you couldn’t, but I did give you the Iris cabin for air support and a couple of Hecate’s kids for illusions. And one more thing.” She took her Yankees cap out from where it was tucked into her sword-belt and tossed it at him. “Take this.”
Nico caught it. It looked like an ordinary baseball cap. It felt like an ordinary baseball cap. His eyes were unaccountably stinging. “Um.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, your dad’s got a much cooler one.”
Nico shook his head. “That’s not what I--yeah, he does, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not like he’d ever let me use it. Are you sure you--I mean--” he had to swallow down a lump in his throat, and couldn’t think of how to finish his sentence. Couldn’t, despite everything, believe she trusted him this much. “It’s yours.”
“So Percy won’t be surprised if I sneak up on him with it,” said Annabeth. “But he won’t be expecting you.”
“No one ever does,” Nico muttered, slipping the baseball cap into his own pocket.
“Hey.” Annabeth closed the distance between them with one stride, and tapped his nose with a finger. “You’re the good kind of surprise. Got it?”
Nico could feel the flush rising on his skin as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed up against him--she mostly felt like armor, honestly, but it was still Annabeth. “Right,” he said breathlessly, and his hands found her hips, and he pushed himself up far enough to reach her mouth. For just a second, she melted into the kiss.
“Good,” she said. “Now go kick our boy’s ass.”
When he got word from Butch that Percy had been located, and separated from the rest of his team, Nico was ready. He put on Annabeth’s cap and stepped into the shadows, then stepped out a moment later right behind Percy, silent and invisible.
Somehow, Percy still knew he was there, and he whirled around, Riptide a blur to fast for Nico’s eye to follow. He blocked and slipped out of the way on pure reflex, just barely giving Lou Ellen time to creep into position close enough to project a mistform of Nico. Percy charged the illusion, knocked it to the ground, got an arm-bar across its neck, and held.
Seeing the unthinking fury of that assault, Nico understood the second part of Annabeth’s plan--because Annabeth rarely did things for just one reason--the part where no one but Nico was near Percy when he was attacked. It was a different kind of trust, colder, even more precious.
The fake Nico’s eyes were wide and staring, and his mouth moved soundlessly; equally soundlessly, the real Nico came up behind Percy and laid his sword across his throat. “Surprise,” he said.
Percy sagged back as he looked from the fading illusion to the spot where he could feel the real thing behind him. “Nico? I thought I’d--”
Carefully, keeping a light but steady pressure with his sword to discourage Percy from trying anything clever, Nico knelt behind him, taking off the cap and then pulling Percy into him with his free hand in a backwards hug. He could feel Percy’s ragged breathing, his wild heartbeat, his panic. “I know,” he said. “But you didn’t.”
“Gods. This was Annabeth’s plan, wasn’t it?”
“And now she’s waiting for you to bring me back to her headquarters in chains, isn’t she?”
Percy settled back against Nico, the last of his tension gone out of him, and Nico sheathed his sword and nuzzled Percy’s neck instead. A smile lit up Percy’s face, the same one Nico had fallen in love with all those years ago. “I’ll be honest with you,” said Percy, “that sounds really great.”