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Day One: In Which New Nicknames Are Given, and Healing Occurs

The skeletal butterflies refused to settle down as Will led Nico into the infirmary clinic.

“Apologies for the messiness,” Will said. “It’s been nuts. The recovery ward is still full; some of the Romans will have to stay for at least another week before we can send them home, and then we’ve got the drama queens.” He ushered Nico behind a movable curtain shielding an alcove with a bed. “You’d think the Ares kids would have a little more fortitude, but Ellis remains a pain in my exhausted backside. You’ll have to stay in the clinic itself until I can shift him. Have a seat.”

Nico sat on the bed, feeling suddenly wary. “So, um, what happens now?” he asked.

Will pulled over a stool and sat down facing Nico, a little too close for comfort. “Now, we figure out exactly what you’ve done to yourself, Slim Shady.” Nico glared. “Hey, you nixed ‘Death Boy,’ so I’m gonna have to find another obnoxious nickname for you. It’s how I roll.”

“Please, don’t do me any favors,” said Nico.

“It’s no problem. I’m going to have to touch you now. Please try not to summon any zombies.”

With that, Will took Nico’s right hand in his left and pressed the fingers of his right hand against Nico’s forehead. The healer closed his eyes and breathed deeply. After a few moments, he moved his right hand down to the base of Nico’s throat.

And wherever he touched, Nico’s skin tingled. It was . . . disconcerting.

A few minutes later, Will took his hands away and opened his eyes. Nico tried to tell himself that he was glad, because he hated being touched, but for some reason, he couldn’t make himself believe it.

“Gods, Nico,” Will sighed. “How have you messed yourself up? Let me count the ways. You’re severely underweight, you have numerous vitamin deficiencies, you’re sleep-deprived, those scratches on your shoulder are infected, and overall, you have one foot in the Underworld.”

Nico shrugged. “I’m a child of Hades. I always have one foot in the Underworld.”

“Cut that out.” Will stood and left for a few moments, returning with a drink box. He shoved a straw in the top and proffered it to Nico. “Chug this. It’s a protein-and-vitamin drink that supposedly tastes like chocolate milk. It actually tastes like shit, but it’s still good for you.”

Nico accepted the box and sucked some down. “Bleah,” was his verdict.

“I warned you. And you’ll get more of those if you don’t start eating regular meals. Finish it up, and I’ll take care of those scratches.” Will waited while Nico finished the drink, grimacing.

“That stuff’s awful,” Nico said, handing the box back to Will, who tossed it in a trash bin across the room without even looking. His aim was perfect, of course. “Do you torture all your patients with it?”

Will gave him a shiny smile. “Only my favorites. Off with your shirt.”

Hesitantly, Nico peeled off his black tee. Lycaon’s claw marks hurt, but pain didn’t seem to register with Nico anymore. Not after Tartarus.

Will’s warm fingers traced the red, swollen marks. “Your immune system’s compromised, which is why the infection’s taken hold. Your body’s so run down, I think it’ll be easier all around if I just heal these. Lie down.”

“Do I have to?” Nico asked.

“Well, you could stay sitting up until you fall over and give yourself a concussion, but I like to avoid that sort of thing,” said Will.

“I won’t fall over.”

“You’re practically falling over already, and I haven’t even started healing you. Now, lie down, or I’ll call a couple of my brothers in to pin you down. Capisce?” Will met Nico’s unstoppable-force glare with his own immovable-object glower.

“Fine,” Nico finally huffed. He lay down on his side, feeling uncomfortably exposed.

Warm, gentle fingers touched his sore arm, and Will began to sing. Strange – Will didn’t have the musical talents that many of his cabin mates did. His voice lacked the range and power of a typical child of Apollo. And yet . . .

The healing hymn suited Will’s voice like it had been written for him. Something in the quality of Will’s voice sounded like it came from deep in the past, from ancient times and ancient temples. It fit the hymn perfectly and became a thing of heartbreaking beauty.

Tendrils of warmth emanated from Will’s hands, like a candle in a dark room, like the first rays of the sun chasing away the night, like coming home after being out in the bitter cold. Nico struggled to keep breathing as it crept through his body, scattering the shadows. It hurt, it hurt more than the wounds ever had, and part of him wanted to push Will away and run while another part of him wanted to cling to the other teen and never let go.

He was too exhausted to do either, though, and he fell asleep to the sound of Will’s voice and the healing caress of his hands.

***

Day Two: In Which Nico Is Not Disappointed, but Will Is a Hypocrite

He ended up sleeping most of the day, waking long enough to eat dinner, wash, and change into his pajamas, which someone had brought up from his cabin. Will wasn’t in the clinic when he woke, which Nico found disappointing before he reassured himself that no, it wasn’t disappointing, not at all. It was just fine that Eliza, a dark-haired, brown-eyed daughter of Apollo with a big, apple-cheeked smile, gave him his vitamin supplements and a dose of unicorn draught. Nico resolutely did not pout at her or slouch back into bed like a kid who’d been denied dessert.

And he definitely did not experience a moment of pure thrill when he awakened the next morning to the sound of Will’s voice. He absolutely didn’t have to school his features into their usual glower when Will pulled back the curtain to check on him.

“And how’s my favorite son of Hades this beautiful morning?” asked Will, radiating his own, personal sunshine.

“Have I mentioned I can’t stand morning people?” Nico growled.

Will spread his hands. “Son of Apollo. Being up with the sun is in my blood, just like The Cure is in yours.”

Nico’s forehead wrinkled. “What cure?”

“The Cure. The band,” said Will. At Nico’s continued look of confusion, he continued, “You know, from one of the decades you missed. We need to work on your pop-culture knowledge.”

He plopped down on the side of Nico’s bed and grabbed the younger teen’s arm. Nico instinctively yanked it away, retreating as far as he could into the alcove. Then it occurred to him that Will just wanted to check on his healing job.

“Sorry,” Nico muttered, not looking at Will’s face.

Will flushed and shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I totally forgot your thing about being touched. Can I check your arm?”

Nico dared a look at the healer. The expression on his face wasn’t put out or exasperated, but compassionate. Nico tore his eyes away and nodded once. Will pushed up the sleeve on Nico’s pajama shirt and stroked his fingers over the skin there. Nico shivered.

“That hurt?” Will asked.

“No, it’s just . . . sensitive,” Nico managed. He hoped that explanation would pass muster, anyway.

It seemed to. “Your skin’s probably still just a little swollen. There’s some redness, but other than that, you’re healing up nicely.”

The infirmary doors opened, letting in a few dryads. “Breakfast!” one announced. Before Nico knew what had happened, he was sitting up in bed with a tray across his lap holding a nice omelet, a croissant, a bowl of mixed fruit, and a cup of coffee with cream.

“Eat up,” Will ordered. “I’m going to check on my other patients and see if we can finally be rid of Ellis. I may have to load him into an onager and fire him all the way to New York if he doesn’t stop whining about his nonexistent broken bones.”

Nico glared at him again, just for form, but his stomach growled loudly at the smell of food. The omelet turned out to be excellent, and the coffee was Italian. By the time he finished his breakfast and washed up, Will was ushering Ellis out of the infirmary.

“But what if I get an infection?” Ellis protested. “My ankle’s still swollen, you know.”

“Complain to Clarisse. I’m sure she’ll send you back here,” said Will, perfectly deadpan.

Nico snickered. Ellis looked vaguely confused and angry, but he trudged out of the infirmary (conspicuously limping) nonetheless.

Will shook his head. “I just cannot with him. What’s his deal, anyway?”

“Probably has a crush on you,” said Nico before he could stop himself. He instantly regretted it. Fortunately, Will seemed to take it in stride.

“That would be reasonable, and totally understandable,” he said. “I am pretty crush-worthy.”

Nico snorted. “Take some ambrosia before your head explodes, Solace.”

“I’ll come up with a cutting reply to that in, oh, twenty minutes or so. In the meantime, we’ve got a new bed for you as soon as someone changes the linens.” He peeked into the recovery ward. “Thanks, Kayla.”

“No prob,” called the girl from the next room. “Nobody likes Ares-kid sweat. Gina from Hermes and Mickey from Demeter left last night, too, so we’ve got three beds open.”

“Woohoo!” cheered Will. “Pretty soon, it’ll be back to lazing around for the camp medic.”

It was too tempting for the Fates. The infirmary doors banged open, and Butch, carrying his sister Callie, rushed in, frantic words spilling out of his mouth. “Something’s wrong! She was complaining of a stomachache this morning and screamed and fainted when she tried to sit up!”

“Exam table, now,” Will snapped. “Kayla! Get in here!”

Nico backed away as medics rushed into the room. He ended up sitting on the bed he’d been occupying for the past day, watching Will and his siblings work. What he didn’t say was that Callie was in real danger; death wasn’t far away.

“Butch, tell me everything,” said Will. Gone was the laid-back healer Nico had just been bantering with. Suddenly, in his place was the Will Solace Nico had met on Half-Blood Hill.

Butch was visibly shaking as he laid his sister on the table. “I-I don’t know, exactly. After the battle, she said she’d gotten hit in the belly by something and was acting like she was sore, but she said it wasn’t serious.”

Will pulled up her nightshirt, exposing her belly. It was mottled with purple-and-black bruises. Will cursed. “Internal bleeding. Not good. We’re going to have to do a healing; it’s gone too far for ambrosia.”

The other Apollo medics gathered around while Butch anxiously watched. Will laid his hands on Callie’s belly and began the hymn. Again, Nico was taken by the beauty of the hymn in Will’s mouth. The other medics took it up, echoing it back to Will. Nico watched, fascinated, as Will’s hands actually began to glow. The shadow of death receded.

When Will removed his hands, the bruises on Callie’s torso had faded, and she appeared to be resting peacefully. And Nico, watching from behind Will, instinctively jumped to his feet –

- and barely caught Will before he hit the floor.

Another of the Apollo campers, a sandy-haired guy named David or Daniel, cursed in Ancient Greek and sprang to the unconscious Will’s side.

“Will, you idiot! Nico, help me get him to a bed. The stupid twit has barely slept since the battle; he should’ve known another healing would take him down for the count.” David/Daniel wrapped Will’s left arm around his shoulders, and Nico took the right. Together, they moved him to the recovery ward and deposited him in Ellis’s recently-vacated bed.

“We all should have known,” said Kayla, who’d followed them. She matter-of-factly removed Will’s shoes and lab coat before tucking him in and pouring a little nectar into his mouth. “Will works too hard. He makes us rest but won’t take his own advice. Nico, you take the bed next to his, and if he even tries to get up, yell for us. Better yet, pin him down.”

David/Daniel huffed out a laugh. “Nah, he might like that a little too much.” Kayla elbowed him in the stomach before Nico could even begin to process the exchange.

The medics left, and Nico settled in to keep an eye on the unconscious (and hypocritical) Will Solace.

***

Also Day Two: In Which Dr. Hypocrite Awakens, and Romans Express Opinions

Will woke about an hour later, and, true to form, immediately tried to get up.

“Kayla!” Nico called.

The little redhead came storming into the room. “Oh, no, you don’t, Will Solace! You’re out of the game for at least a day, do not even think of arguing. You’ve worked yourself down to the bone so badly that pretty soon, we’ll need Nico here to pull you out of the ground!”

“But – “ Will tried to protest

Kayla cut him off. “Twenty-four hours of rest, not a second less. We all agreed on this, didn’t we, Dan?”

“Yup!” came Daniel’s voice from the clinic.

“Austin, Eliza and Vitaly all know, too, so don’t try pulling anything with them on the night shift.” Kayla glared down at her older brother. She was a tiny thing, just thirteen and small for her age, but Nico wouldn’t have argued with her. “Thanks for calling me, Nico. If he tries any more nonsense, you know what to do.”

She stormed back out, and Will gave Nico a hurt look. Nico smirked.

“I guess it’s just you and me, Mr. Sunshine,” said Nico.

***

Lunch brought Nico a BLT, potato chips, a large glass of milk, and a brownie. His appetite had come roaring back, and he dug into the food with gusto. His mood only improved at the sight of Will’s scowl the next bed over.

“Can’t believe they did this. My own siblings!” Will grumbled, picking at his burrito.

“Yes, it’s a terrible thing to be forced to rest in an infirmary when you could be doing other things,” said Nico. “Imagine doing that to a person for even a day, let alone three.”

“It was for your own good, Donnie Darko.”

“Wasn’t that the line Kayla used on you, Dr. Hypocrite?”

“Argh!” The Roman across from them threw her blankets back and gave them a Clarisse-level glare. “Would you two keep the old-married-couple bickering to a low roar over there? Some of us are trying to sleep!”

Nico nearly swallowed his tongue. Will smiled ingratiatingly.

“Sorry, Cynthia, we’ll keep it quieter over here. Time for lunch, anyway.”

A dryad served Cynthia a big Cobb salad, and she settled for muttering a few uncomplimentary things in Latin before digging in. Nico and Will finished their lunches in silence.

Nico settled back down after lunch, ready for more hours of boredom. Will, however, had received a small package from home, and it had restored his far-too-sunny disposition.

He laughed at something in the letter that had come with the package, which contained a new CD. “Gods, my mom. I sometimes forget what a nutcase she can be.” He held out the CD. “Look at this.”

Nico took it. It was titled “Solace: 6th Street Live.” On the front was the picture of a country band standing in a street, two women and three men. The woman at the front, holding a guitar with a huge sun painted on it, was obviously Will’s mother. She had his wavy blond hair and smile, though she barely looked old enough to have a fifteen-year-old son.

“They took that picture in the middle of 6th Street in Austin, Texas,” Will explained. “Went early enough in the morning that there wasn’t too much traffic, but they still had to scramble to get the picture taken before they got pasted. Mom says they got cussed out in at least four languages before they were done.” He shook his head, chuckling. “Crazy woman. I miss her so much.”

“You’re a year-rounder, aren’t you?” asked Nico. Will nodded. “Why don’t you go home?”

Will took the CD back, sighing. “Mom’s whole career is based in Austin. She has her band and is part-owner of a country bar. Unfortunately, I can’t live in a city.”

Nico shifted so he faced Will more directly. “Why not? Monsters?”

“No. Truth be told, they never noticed me much back home. It’s my powers.” Off Nico’s confused look, he said, “I’m an empath. When I touch someone, I can pinpoint their injuries or illnesses, but I don’t need touch to sense emotions, especially pain. Chiron’s taught me a lot about protecting my mind, creating mental barriers, but around huge masses of people, like in Austin? It only works for so long. If I’m home for more than maybe a week, I start . . . it gets into me, under my skin, like a constant noise you can’t block out. I can’t sort out my emotions from those around me. First, I get headaches, then I start getting irrational. I was in a pretty bad state when I first came to the camp. Mom knows I’m a demigod – long story – and she realized it was time for me to leave home when I was ten.”

Will looked at the CD. “It was really hard on her, on both of us. She talked to Chiron about maybe moving to a smaller town, but he said I’ll never be able to attend a school again, and even in a little town with a few thousand people, I’ll still eventually have trouble. She’s visited here, and I go home for short visits, but . . .” He shrugged. “Even here, in summer, when the camp gets full, I get headaches, but I’m able to heal people, and it’s like it purges all those emotions. I heal injuries, I get rid of a bunch of psychic crud. Outside of Camp Half-Blood, though, I have no way of stopping what will eventually happen to my mind. Chiron says that’s how it works for the most powerful healers. You get power, you pay a price. That’s the way it always goes. I’ll be a lifetimer here. I’m okay with it, actually.”

Nico absorbed this and asked the question that was at the forefront of his mind. “So, if people’s psychic pain bothers you so much, why would you want to be my friend? Why would you want me anywhere near you?”

A gentle, almost glowing, smile creased Will’s face. “Because there’s a lot more to you than just pain, Nico di Angelo. You and I, we’re like sides of the same coin. What healing can’t fix, death ends.” His voice had grown quiet, dreamy. “You’re a healer in your own way.”

“Me?” Nico scoffed. “I’m kind of the opposite of a healer.”

“No, you are,” Will insisted. “The night of the funeral pyres, didn’t you feel it? All the pain and grief from the campers, you gave it focus. Grounded it. You drew it out, like poison from a wound.” Will yawned hugely.

And Nico was thunderstruck, because what Will was saying was exactly what he had felt. Nico just hadn’t identified it. Those emotions – he’d felt them swirling around him along with the smoke from the fires. Some innate instinct had taken over, and he’d known exactly what to do. People had thanked him afterward, tears still running down their faces. Doing the funerals had felt so right, so very right, that it was a big part of what had persuaded him to stay.

Will continued, his voice growing fainter. “I felt it happening, and I thought to myself, ‘this guy . . . he’s something special.’ And you are.” His eyes closed, and he slept.

Nico just stared at him, a new world of thoughts and emotions swirling around inside his chest.

“Hey, dude!” The urgent whisper came from behind Nico. He looked over at the lanky, East Asian-looking guy with frosted hair lying two beds over. “Dude, you gotta go for it. He’s totally into you, dude! Son of Venus, you can trust me.” The Roman gave Nico the thumbs-up.

Nonplused, Nico looked across the room at Cynthia.

“Daughter of Mars,” she said. “I don’t care.”

***

Day Three: In Which We Meet a Hot Armenian, and a Deal Is Struck

The rest of the day was uneventful, and Nico slept well that night. He was, however, awakened early in the morning by a thickly-accented voice chiding someone.

“You go back to bed, Will. You are still resting until noon, Kayla says,” said the voice.

Nico opened his eyes to see Vitaly Sarkesian, an Armenian-born son of Apollo, firmly ushering Will toward his bed.

“I just wanted to check on Callie,” Will explained.

Vitaly, who was several inches taller than Will, wasn’t buying it. “Callie is fine. I check her myself. You are resting. Come on, bed now.” He tucked a grumbling Will back into his bed.

Then he was hailed from across the room. “Vitaly? Could you check my leg?” Cynthia sounded incongruously sweet. “I was hoping I’d be able to do some walking around today.”

Will and Nico locked eyes. “Check out Miss Sunshine,” Will murmured.

Her change in disposition was hardly a mystery. Vitaly, with his olive skin, thick black hair and huge brown eyes, was gorgeous. Nico knew he was a serious ballet dancer as well, and it showed in his build and graceful movements. Cynthia hungrily ate him up with her eyes as he examined her leg, which had gotten badly mangled during the battle.

“I think you can probably get up today,” Vitaly told Cynthia. “Leg is healing nicely.”

“Thank you, Vitaly,” she said, and her eyes conspicuously followed his toned backside out of the room.

“You’re never that nice for me,” said Will.

“One, you’re not as hot as Vitaly,” said Cynthia. “Cute, but hardly that hot. Two, I’m not into blonds. And three, unlike you, he’s straight, which means I have a chance.”

Wait – had she just said what Nico thought she said? Will, not straight?

“Sorry to burst your bubble, sweetie-pie, but he’s dating Alyssa from the Ares cabin,” Will said.

Cynthia settled back into her pillow. “I can take her.”

Will plumped his pillow and lay back down, facing Nico. “Sorry to wake you with all that, man. I just can’t stand to stay away when it’s my healing job that’s on the line.”

Nico shoved aside the revelation that Will might be not-straight for later examination. “So, what you’re saying is that you’re a control freak.”

“Damn skippy.” Will yawned. “Go back to sleep, Nico. It’s still hours until breakfast.”

“I dunno,” Nico mused. “I might keep you awake just out of spite for having me locked up in this disinfectant-smelling dungeon for three days.”

Will cracked an eye open. “All right, let’s make a deal: I get a few more hours of sleep, and you can leave when my siblings finally let me get up, okay?”

That was more than Nico had hoped. “Deal.”

***

He and Will were both released right after lunch. Nico hated to admit it, but he actually did feel much better than he had a few days ago. He blinked in the sunlight as he exited the infirmary, Will mother-henning him all the way.

“I still don’t want you doing any shadow travelling,” said Will. “You’re not completely out of the woods. If I catch you doing Underworld-y stuff, you’re back in here, understand? Also, you need at least an hour in the sun every day, don’t skip meals, keep taking your supplements, don’t strain yourself – “

“Di Angelo!”

The bellow had come from Clarisse, who was striding toward them looking like she had something serious on her mind.

“Don’t think I didn’t see you during the battle, di Angelo,” she said. “You are the dirtiest, nastiest, meanest little fighter I have ever seen, and you’re going to help me train those fragile flowers in my cabin. Arena, twenty minutes. Be there!” Message delivered, she headed toward the Ares cabin, presumably to roust out her fragile flowers.

Nico looked at Will. “Are you going to inform her that I shouldn’t strain myself?” Will’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Nico took pity on him. “Tell you what, I’ll give Ellis a few extra bruises for you. Later, Solace!”

In fact, helping Clarisse school the Ares campers that a small, skinny kid who fought dirty could take down people twice his size was downright fun. He discovered that yes, Ellis really was a whiny shit; Sherman Yang was smarter than he looked (not a difficult achievement); most of the Ares campers totally respected anyone who could hurt them, which meant he had a captive audience after a few initial scuffles; and that Cynthia the Roman probably shouldn’t go up against Alyssa Belle Darling, the tall, regal ballerina who was dating Vitaly. She was a lot tougher than she looked and moved like a striking snake.

It was a good day. Nico was grateful to climb into his bunk in the Hades cabin as it ended, confident he’d sleep well.

He was wrong.