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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.

Chapter Text

Piper, unlike nearly every other Aphrodite kid, liked mornings. She enjoyed the early-morning air and stillness. Her morning jog around the campground was her own, personal Zen time before the inevitable drama in her cabin ensued. The Aphrodite cabin was second only to the Apollo cabin in sheer, soap-opera worthy shenanigans. How Will Solace dealt with it, she didn’t know.

Speaking of, he was exiting the mess hall with his first cup of coffee for the day as she returned to camp. He greeted her in his usual friendly manner, and the two of them chatted as they headed to the cabins. It looked like another glorious day; the sky was clear, the birds were singing, nymphs were sunning themselves on the dock, the Demeter cabin was in bloom, Clarisse was shouting the Ares campers through their morning calisthenics –

A bloodcurdling scream split the air. Piper gasped as the ground in front of Cabin 13 boiled, skeletal hands clawing through the dirt.

“Nico!” cried Will. He dropped his coffee and sprinted for the Hades cabin. Piper only took a second to shake off her shock and follow.

Will managed to open the door while dodging skeleton hands, looked in, cussed loudly at what he saw, and disappeared inside. Piper was there only moments after him, nimbly jumping over the bones.

Inside, the cabin felt like a meat locker. Her breath steamed in the cold. Shadows seemed to writhe on the walls, and the floor shook.

All that was secondary to Nico, though. Will had somehow gotten around him and was holding him back, pulling him down to his bunk, using his greater mass to restrain the other teen without hurting him. And Nico . . .

His eyes had gone pure black. His skin was the color of bone. He strained against Will’s restraint, his Stygian iron sword in his hand, his face locked in a snarl of terror and rage.

“Nico, STOP!” Piper ordered in charmspeak. It seemed to stun him, and he stopped struggling momentarily, but his face registered no recognition. Piper shuddered inwardly at his inky eyes; she’d never seen that before and hoped she never would again. She rallied her wits, focused on trying to reach Nico.

“Nico, it’s me, Piper. You’re safe. You’re at camp. Whatever’s happening in your mind isn’t real.” She kept her voice low, soothing, and laced with charmspeak as she approached, eyes on the sword. “Come back to us, Nico. Follow my voice. You’re safe here, you’re among friends. Come back.”

His grip on his sword weakened and the ground stopped shaking, and Piper dared to take the sword from his unresisting hand, speaking to him all the time. “Come on, Nico, you’re almost there. Keep following my voice. It’s all right, you’re all right.”

From behind her, she heard Jason’s voice. “Okay, move on, everybody,” he was saying. “Piper and Will have it under control, they don’t need a peanut gallery.” Footsteps shuffled away. Will nodded to Jason in gratitude; Piper didn’t dare take her eyes off Nico.

Slowly, the blackness drained from his eyes, and he sagged back against Will, clutching at the older boy’s arms. Nico breathed deeply, eyes closed, painful emotions playing across his face. After a few, quiet minutes, he spoke.

“Thank you,” he said, voice hoarse. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” said Piper, though she was still rattled. Her legs were shaking, so she sat on the foot of the bed. “Nightmare?”

Nico nodded. He opened his eyes and reoriented himself. “Uh, Will, are you going to let me go?”

“Depends on if you’re going to let me go,” said Will.

Nico seemed to realize that he was literally holding Will’s arms closed around him. Abruptly, he let them go and pulled away, sitting up. “Sorry,” he repeated.

“Please don’t be,” Will said. “How can we help you?”

“You can’t.” Nico’s voice was barely a whisper. He rubbed his hands over his face. “There’s – there’s nothing anyone can do, Will.”

“Don’t say that.” Will laid a hand on his shoulder. “There’s hope. There has to be.”

“No!” Nico snapped, suddenly angry. “I know you want to fix me, Will, but face it: I’m broken. Do you really think I’ll ever be anything else? After Bianca? After Tartarus?” He shook his head. “You two stopped me from doing any damage. That’s all you can do.”

Will stood up, running his hands through his hair, obviously upset and trying not to be. “Nico, you’re – you’re not the only one here who’s been broken.”

“Really?” Nico sneered. “Tell me one other person who’s-”

Will cut him off. “I can’t. But only because of confidentiality rules. You’ve been through literal hell, I know, but some of the kids here – they’ve been through stuff that’s got to be almost as bad.” He held up his hand before Nico could object. “Some have been kicked out of their homes. They’ve lived on the streets. Some of them have had to do things to survive that I hate to even think about. The things I’ve heard, that I’ve felt from them, the things I’ve had to treat and heal, things I can never heal . . . and we lose people, every year. They don’t come back. Get killed by monsters or kill themselves. They give up.” Will’s eyes filled with tears as more words tumbled out. “Please, Nico, I may not be able to heal you, but please, don’t give up. You have to believe you can get better. If you won’t let me help you, find someone else. I don’t want to . . . I don’t want you to be lost, too.”

Will stopped abruptly, looking like he wished he could take back the last minute or so of his life. “I-I need some air.” He rushed out of the cabin.

Piper turned her eyes to Nico, who was staring after Will with an inscrutable expression on his face. “Nico?” she said. “I’d ask if you’re okay, but that seems a little silly at this point.”

He looked at her, his strange, colorless eyes wide and heartbreakingly empty. “I don’t know if I can believe I’ll get better, Piper.”

She sent up a quick prayer to her mother and picked her words carefully. “Then maybe you need to let other people believe for you. Reyna . . . she told me how much pain she felt from you. But you wouldn’t give up. You nearly killed yourself to get the Athena Parthenos here. That’s . . . amazing. You’re incredibly brave, and a lot stronger than you think.”

The words started to come more easily. “Reyna believes in you. So does Hazel. So do all of us from the Argo II. We’ll do anything we can to help you through this. Just don’t lock yourself away. You don’t have to. Nobody expects you to be Mr. PerkyGoth.” A tiny smile flitted across Nico’s lips at that, and Piper considered it a win. “I’ll let you get ready for breakfast now – and you’d better be there, or I’ll send Percy and Jason to physically carry you to the dining pavilion – but first, I’m going to kiss you.”

She rose and pressed her lips gently to Nico’s cool forehead, projecting all the love she could into the gesture. “We love you. Don’t forget that, Nico.”

With that, she left the cabin. Jason was waiting at a respectful distance.

“So, what happened, Pipes – Pipes?” Jason asked as Piper clutched him and buried her face in his warm, solid chest. Tears were running down her face. Jason wrapped her in his arms. “What is it, baby?”

Quietly, she told him everything that had been said and done in the Hades cabin as Jason held her. “I-I think it’s gonna be a long battle for him,” she concluded, sniffling back the last of her tears.

Jason looked at her, the expression on his face saying he’d found a new cause to fight for. “He’ll have help. He’ll have a lot of help.”

Piper reluctantly stepped out of his embrace and wiped her face with her hands. “I’ve got to get the Aphrodite cabin up. You and I and Percy and Annabeth will be talking later, though.”

“Definitely.” Jason gave her his cute, lazy grin. “Go get ‘em, Beauty Queen.”

Most of the Aphrodite cabin was already stirring by the time Piper got back. “What happened?” asked Mitchell. “Someone said Nico di Angelo had a meltdown.”

Piper cursed inwardly. The last thing Nico needed was for camp gossip to label him a mental case.

“He had a terrible nightmare, probably involving his time in Tartarus, or maybe being held captive in a jar where he was slowly suffocating, or possibly about nearly melting into oblivion trying to save the world,” she said pointedly. “Will Solace and I were able to calm him. I’d really appreciate it if no one from this cabin did any staring and whispering behind Nico’s back; the gods know he’s got enough to deal with already.”

“Will Solace was there?” asked Lacy, eyes wide. “Ooh!”

There was a burst of chatter from her quarter, and someone pulled out The Book. The Book was a journal detailing the current state of romantic relationships around Camp Half-Blood, including couples the Aphrodite cabin was attempting to get together. Piper tried to stay neutral in these matters and generally ignored The Book, but curiosity won out.

The last entry, written in Drew Tanaka’s handwriting, was “Will Solace & Nico di Angelo,” with several notes about their interactions below it.

Piper zeroed in on her second-in-command, who was looking a little defensive and trying to cover it up with a nonchalant air.

“You have to admit, getting Mr. Sunlight and Mr. Shadow together is a challenge worthy of this cabin,” Drew said.

Piper considered it, and what she’d just seen. There were definite possibilities around those two. All her Aphrodite-born instincts said so. She wasn’t sure Nico was ready for a relationship just now, but if anyone’s heart needed healing, it was his, and Will might just be the one to do it.

“All right,” she finally said. “I’ll support it. But try not to be too obnoxious; I don’t want Nico shadow-traveling to Australia in an effort to get away from us.”

Drew wafted her hands, smiling angelically. “Subtlety is my middle name.”

Well, there’s no way this’ll go wrong, thought Piper . . .

***

Nico felt fairly self-conscious as he sat at the Hades table for breakfast. His stomach was upset and he didn’t really want to eat, but he knew someone was bound to put up a fuss if he didn’t, so he got some yogurt and a piece of toast. He was eating it with all the enthusiasm of a hibernating sloth when Jason and Percy plopped themselves down across from him with their fully-loaded breakfast trays. It was truly astonishing how much those two could eat.

“So, after consulting with people smarter than us-” Jason began.

“Our girlfriends,” Percy clarified.

“-we’ve decided we would be pretty awful friends if we let you keep sleeping alone in that mausoleum you call a cabin. Therefore, Percy and I will be trading off bunking with you for the rest of camp.” Jason looked at Nico expectantly. He expected, Nico realized, a fight.

He wasn’t wrong to. Nico stabbed his yogurt with his spoon like he had a grudge against it. “I’m not a child; I can sleep by myself.”

Percy leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Once more, with feeling. Tell me you’re not terrified of accidentally doing damage during a nightmare. I sure as hell am. After the Battle of Manhattan, I blew out the plumbing in my mom’s apartment. Two days ago, I blew it out in my cabin.”

Nico snorted. “And now you want to blow it out in mine?”

Percy shrugged. “Well, y’know, variety. Point is, Nico, as wiser people have put it-”

“Our girlfriends,” clarified Jason.

“-we don’t have to go through this alone. We already talked to Chiron, and he’s given us the okay if you agree.”

“Which we hope you will,” said Jason. “Percy and I can handle it if you have a violent flashback or nightmare. You know that. We can stop you from hurting people.”

“Like, for instance, yourself,” Percy added.

Nico wanted to protest, to tell them to mind their own business and let him be . . . but they had a point, and a good one. As fellow Big Three sons, they were more likely than anyone else to be able to overpower him, if need be. And he really didn’t want to hurt anyone. His memories of the morning were patchy – he couldn’t easily tell where his nightmare/flashback had left off and real life began – but he could so easily have done serious harm to Will or Piper.

At the thought of Will, Nico’s eyes flitted to the Apollo table. Will wasn’t there. Neither was half the cabin.

“Why is the Apollo table so empty?” he asked, as much out of genuine curiosity as a desire to stall.

“The Stoll brothers happened again,” said Percy with an eyeroll. “Travis is headed off to college at the end of summer, so they’re trying to cram in an entire year’s worth of pranks beforehand. Apparently, there’s been an outbreak of tap dancing and opera singing among the Ares campers, which has led to an outbreak of grievous bodily harm among the Hermes campers. The Apollo cabin is dealing with the fallout.”

“Anyway, back to the subject,” said Jason. “Is it okay if my bro Percy and I trade off staying with you, li’l bro?”

Nico heaved a deep sigh, figuring a show of reluctance would at the very least spare his reputation. “Fine. But cut the bro talk.”

Percy grinned hugely. “No problem, bro! See you tonight, bro!”

Nico flipped his spoon, and a blob of yogurt hit Percy squarely between the eyes.

“I’ll go prepare your coffin, then,” said the son of Hades with a malicious smirk.

He actually did go and do just that, changing the linens on Hazel’s bed and making sure his bathroom was up to guest standards. It was mindless work, and he was grateful for it, since his mind kept going back to that morning. Will’s words kept coming back to him. It had never occurred to him to wonder about things that had happened to other campers, ways they might have been wounded.

The look on Will’s face just before he left bothered Nico, too. He’d looked frightened, almost sick. Why?

When lunch rolled around and Will still hadn’t made an appearance in the dining pavilion, Nico made a resolution. Jason was right; he couldn’t hide in shadows forever. Much as he wanted to just push the whole issue away, Nico realized he didn’t want to lose the relationship he’d been building with Will. The other boy wasn’t intimidated by him at all, and there was something . . . really annoying, but also really nice about that.

So Nico took a deep breath and went to inquire about what Will usually ate for lunch.

***

Will Solace, son of the sun god, was not feeling particularly sunny. In fact, he was thinking about curses he could place on the Stoll brothers. Clog dancing was his current favorite, though making them speak in limericks held a certain appeal, too. They’d made him witness Sherman Yang tap dancing; no retaliation could be too extreme for that. Hmm, maybe a persistent urge to disco . . .

Clarisse, for her part, was mainly communicating in f-bombs at the moment in the recovery ward, and Will decided he just didn’t want to deal with her right now. Dan had been annoying him recently; he could take on Mama Ares. Will’s stomach was growling, his brain would not stop replaying the scene from this morning, and Ellis (back in his infirmary! Damn!) was singing:

“Ridi, Pagliaccio,
sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t'avvelena il cor!”

“His accent is surprisingly good,” said a voice from the door.

Will turned around. It was Nico, holding a tray.

Too many thoughts filled Will’s head. They went something like: ohmygodsit’sNicothere’sasandwichit’sNicoisthatcreamsodahe’sactuallyherethatsandwichlooksgoodNicolooksreallygoodhe’sherewithlunchmaybeIdidn’tmessthingsuptoomuchwhyisEllisstillsinging?

Nico’s mouth twitched into a small, shy smile. “I brought you something to eat. Is my face friendly enough?”

Will shook himself out of his stupor. “Is that sandwich grilled Swiss with bacon and tomato?”

Nico nodded. “With a cream soda. I asked what you liked.”

“For that, I’d forgive you if you came here in a luchador mask,” said Will. “I am famished.”

Nico brought in the tray and set it on one of the movable tables that littered the infirmary. Will tore into the sandwich, stopping only to gulp down cream soda. When about half the sandwich was gone, he looked up to see Nico watching him with a curiously detached expression on his face, as if he were encountering a new species.

Why was he here, with what looked like a peace offering? Did he feel bad about what had happened? Will hoped not; it was hardly his fault that he had violent nightmares. No, it was Will who’d said too much, lectured him. And nearly spilled exactly how he was beginning to feel about Nico.

He was on the verge of speaking when Nico started talking instead.

“Will . . . what you did this morning was incredibly brave. And incredibly stupid.” Nico held up a hand as if to ward off Will’s objection. “I could have really hurt you. If anything like that happens again, call Jason or Percy. Or Piper, for that matter. I’m kind of surprised at how easily she talked me down.” He paused, looking down. “But I am grateful . . . that you cared enough to try.”

Will was a little too stunned to say anything to that. Of all the ways he’d imagined their next encounter going, this was not even close to being one of them.

Nico rubbed the back of his neck. “Anyway, I just, um, wanted to say that, so I’ll go now. You’re busy. See you around?”

Will threw off his shock. “No, wait – you don’t have to go, Nico. Things are quieting down.” Another peal of I, Pagliacci came ringing out of the recovery ward, and Will winced. “Except for Ellis.”

That brought another of those slight, shy smiles to Nico’s face that Will was beginning to treasure. “It would be him.”

Will leaned against the examination table and patted the space next to him. “Keep me company while I finish lunch?”

Nico gave him another of those curious looks, but came over to stand beside Will as he ate the rest of his sandwich. Will took the opportunity to gather his thoughts.

“Listen, Nico,” he began when he was done, using a towel to wipe bacon grease and tomato juice from his hands, “I want you to know . . . I don’t ever want to make you feel like what you’ve suffered doesn’t matter to me, or that I’m minimizing it. You’ve been through things no one should ever have to deal with. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to go it alone, or that you’re a hopeless case. There are a lot of good people here, people who can help. I mean, yeah, there are some people here who are complete pricks, I know, but there are more who’d like to get to know you.”

Nico hugged himself. “I don’t know if I can believe that. Face it, I’m creepy. Why would anyone want to be my friend? I’m not a nice person.”

There were many things Will wanted to say, but he knew he wasn’t going to be able to talk Nico out of all his self-hatred today. “You’d be more convincing about not being a nice person if you’d stop saving the world so often,” was what he settled for.

“Well, I live here too,” said Nico, a slight gleam of humor in his eyes. “All my stuff is here. It’d be a pain to move it all to the Underworld.”

Will played along. “That place is dead, anyway.”

“Seriously. Not to mention the piles of Cerberus poop, and the fact that my stepmother is prone to turning me into plants.”

That little shy, half-humorous look on Nico’s face was turning into Will’s favorite expression. Gods, he had no idea how beautiful he was, did he? His features were absolutely angelic, and those long, thick eyelashes . . . But, Will sternly reminded himself, he didn’t need his doctor perving on him. He needed a friend who’d listen without judgment.

“I, um, have something for you,” said Will. He went to the supply closet and pulled out a slim book. “How are you with reading English?”

“My dyslexia isn’t too bad unless I’m really tired,” said Nico. He accepted the book from Will. “What’s PTSD?”

“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Will explained. “They used to call it shell shock. Basically, when people go through traumatic events, like wars, sexual violence, or even natural disasters, it affects them in a lot of different ways. The book explains what it means and gives some advice on dealing with it. We keep copies on hand here because, well . . .” He waved his hand, indicating the universe in general. “Like I said this morning, demigods don’t always lead the easiest of lives. You might find it helpful. Couldn’t hurt, anyway.”

Nico nodded, looking thoughtful. “I’ll read it.”

Will grinned. “Good. I’ll hold you to it. Pop quiz next week.”

Nico’s eyes returned to Will, who felt like they were seeing right through his skin. “You’re really not afraid of me at all, are you?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I could say you remind me of a little black kitten, but I’m pretty sure you’d be obligated to sucker-punch me if I did, so I won’t.” The look on Nico’s face said Will was entirely correct about that. “It’s like I said when we were both imprisoned in the recovery ward. I feel like there’s a lot to you, way more than ‘guy who could disassemble me without even trying.’ You’re sure we’d all reject you, yet you’ve saved this camp’s bacon at least twice. You didn’t think twice about taking on six heavily armed Romans to protect a guy who was annoying the hell out of you.” Nico huffed out a laugh. “And then there was the thing with Octavian.”

Nico’s smile disappeared. “I was sure that would make you hate me.”

Will shook his head. “I’m a healer. I try to save everyone. Chiron has warned me that I could harm myself that way if I don’t learn how to let go. It’s a lesson every healer has to learn.” He sighed, trying to formulate how to say what he wanted to. “I knew Octavian was beyond help. Knew it in my gut. Knew that even if he lived through the night, the Romans would just execute him anyway. But I still felt like it was my responsibility to save him.” Will looked over at Nico. “You knew he was going to die.”

Nico nodded reluctantly. “My father had given me a clue. Said not all deaths could be prevented. When Octavian was at that onager, I knew it was his time, and that I had to let it happen.”

“And you could accept that. I couldn’t.” Will shook his head. “It wasn’t a place for a healer.”

“Is that why you came to get me during the battle?” Nico asked.

“I-I’m not sure, but I think so.” Will thought back to that night, to the instinct that told him to get Nico. “I think I knew you needed to be there, to make the decision I couldn’t. And I’m sorry about that.”

He looked up at Nico, wondering if he’d be angry. It hadn’t seemed possible, but Nico’s gaze had become even more penetrating, making Will feel naked right down to his soul. For the first time, he felt a little apprehension. He had no idea what Nico was thinking.

It seemed to take forever for Nico to speak again. “You’re . . . a good person, Will. Kind. You like to help people. That’s not part of the Underworld. No mercy, just judgment. Reward or punishment, no second chances. It’s so easy for me to fall into that.” A dark look passed over his face, as if he were remembering something awful. “That night, and the days after, I realized I had a choice: Stay here and stay human, or retreat to the Underworld and become part of it forever. Not sure I really know how to be human, but my friends . . .” He stopped, smiled a little. “Friends. Plural. Feels nice to say that.”

Will couldn’t have been more thunderstruck if Jason had just called down lightning. He’d never envisioned Nico opening up to him like this.

“Anyway,” Nico went on, eyes still downcast, that soft smile still on his face, “I guess a part of me wants to be a little more like silly healer boys who don’t know to stay away from battles.”

Will smiled, swallowed against the tightness in his throat. “You can always count on me to do the stupid thing.”

Nico looked at him from under his inky bangs, and the moment hummed with tension.

“I hate to interrupt something this sweet,” came a honeyed voice from the doorway, snapping the tension so hard that Will physically recoiled, “but can I get a little help?”

Will mentally ran through every swear word he knew as Nico flushed and beat a hasty retreat, and Drew Tanaka sidled into the infirmary.

“Drew,” he said, speaking her name with the same inflection he’d give a particularly foul curse. “Have I ever told you that you are the absolute worst?”

She tossed her head, curls bouncing. “You’ve mentioned it once or twice.”

The previous summer, Drew had made a pass at him, in spite of the fact that she knew he was gay. He supposed laughing in her face hadn’t been the most polite response, but what had she expected, really? He suspected that she’d never quite forgiven him for that.

“So, did you just come in here to interrupt my private conversation, or did you actually need something?” he asked. “Because whatever it is, I’ll give it to you just to get you out of here.”

Drew smirked. “Don’t promise what you won’t deliver, Sunny Boy. I actually do need some burn cream. There was an incident with hot wax in the Aphrodite cabin, and since the consensus seems to be – unfairly – that I was at fault, I’ve been dispatched to fetch some.”

Grinding his teeth, Will grabbed a tube from the storage closet and thumped it into her hand. “Here. Now go away.”

“Aww, are you cross because I embarrassed your hope-to-be-boyfriend?” Drew cooed.

“Drew, I’m warning you-”

She tapped his chest with a perfectly-manicured nail. “Face it, I did you a favor. You know one of you would’ve started babbling and ruined the moment. This way, you can blame mean ol’ Drew and make it up to him by, oh, inviting him to your cabin to catch up on eighty years of music. Sounds like something you Apollos would do.”

“That’s-” Will paused and thought it over. “Okay, that’s actually a really good idea. What’s your game?”

“Spreading love and beauty, of course. Don’t worry, Sunny Boy, I’ve got your back.” With that, she sashayed out.

“I’ll be sure to check it for knives!” Will called after her.

Chapter Text

Nico was quite glad for the chance to teach swordsmanship to the Ares cabin again after lunch, since it gave him the opportunity to take out a few of his frustrations. It was Clarisse’s opinion that pain was the best teacher. Nico put the theory to the test, much to Ellis’s chagrin.

Afterward, in his cabin, he kept replaying the conversation with Will. Will was preternaturally easy to talk to, he decided; it was hardly fair. It would be easy, too easy, to fall for him, and Nico absolutely didn’t want to do that. It had been hard enough for him to admit to himself that he was attracted to other guys, and he’d only just gotten over Percy. The last thing he needed was to start crushing on Will. On the other hand, he didn’t want to withdraw and lose a potential friendship with someone who was willing to face him down at his worst.

Not that Will had actually seen him at his worst . . .

Reyna and Coach Hedge had, though, and they still cared for him. And Will’s perspective on The Whole Octavian Thing was food for thought. Maybe . . . maybe there was more to being the son of Hades than he’d ever thought.

His mind kept straying back to Will’s eyes and his smile. It was confusing and a little scary to think he could be developing feelings for the healer, so Nico decided to distract himself with the book Will had given him. It was interesting; there were a lot of stories in it about people who’d suffered terrible things. As painful as his life had been, there were people out there who had spent years in places not much better than Tartarus. Yet they still had hope. Maybe . . .

It was in a reflective state of mind that Nico went to get dinner. Unexpectedly, Annabeth joined him, Jason and Percy at the Hades table.

“Jason told Piper who told me that you’re thinking of redecorating the Hades cabin,” she said without preamble. “I started having ideas.” She laid out a drawing pad. “We could do this with a minimum of remodeling, so you wouldn’t have to find another place to sleep, at least for very long.”

Nico glanced up at Percy and Jason, who were both deeply involved with their meals, then shrugged and turned his attention to Annabeth’s drawings.

He instantly liked them. She’d done away with the brass railings, the red bedding, and the overall theme of the living dead. It still wasn’t big on color; cream and gray replaced a good deal of the black. Even so, it was quietly dignified and beautiful while also being livable.

There was just one thing it needed, something Nico had been mulling over. He tapped a place near the back of the cabin in Annabeth’s drawing. “There needs to be a funeral bier here. Two to three feet tall, at least six feet in length, made of white marble. Any demigod who dies can be laid in state on it. The Hades cabin should be a place where people can grieve, properly, as much as they need to.”

Annabeth nodded slowly. “Yes, I can see that. Maybe make it something you can raise into place when it’s needed.” She scribbled a few notations on the drawing. “I’d better get back to the Athena table before people start yelling, but we’ll talk later, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks, Annabeth.” He summoned a smile for her and got one in return. Funny – she was very likable when he wasn’t resenting her.

Percy was grinning smugly. “That’s my girl. Hey, we need to find someone for you, too. There’s some camp gossip swirling around you and Will-”

Nico sat bolt upright. “What?”

“Uh . . .” Percy seemed to understand that he’d stumbled onto dangerous ground. “I mean, it’s mostly just the Aphrodite campers, but they seem to think . . .” he trailed off, shooting desperate glances at Jason.

Nico’s hands had gone cold. Gossip about him and Will? How could they know . . .

“Look, Nico,” Jason began.

“Did you tell Piper that I’m . . .” Nico couldn’t make himself say it out loud.

“No. Absolutely not.” Jason’s striking blue eyes were honest. “I would never betray your confidence. She just knows, says she’s known ever since she met you. Piper says a lot of Aphrodite kids can tell these things.” He leaned forward. “It doesn’t matter to them. It really doesn’t.”

It mattered to Nico. People had been talking about him, whispering about that. Frost spread under his fingers, and suddenly, he felt like he was in the bronze jar again, unable to breathe.

Laughter broke out at another table. A voice in his head said it was about him, about the creepy Hades kid who crushed on other boys. Percy was speaking again, but Nico couldn’t process what he was saying.

In one motion, he stood up and disentangled himself from the bench so he could flee the pavilion. He ran from it toward the cabins.

Suddenly, Will Solace was there, saying something, his name. Nico brushed by him with a snarl, not wanting to be caught in Will’s presence and give more fuel to the gossips. He ran for his cabin, where he could hold the rest of the world at bay.

***

Jason whacked Percy upside the head.

“Ow! What was that for?” Percy demanded.

“Telling Nico, the most private person we both know, that he’s the subject of camp gossip?” Jason was incredulous. “What were you thinking?”

“Hey, he told both of us! And Annabeth! I thought he was, you know, okay with it.”

“Telling your friends is different than having a whole camp whispering behind your back.” Jason stood. “Go report to Annabeth for an ass-kicking. I’m going to make sure Nico doesn’t do anything he’ll regret.”

The first thing Jason saw outside the pavilion was a very crestfallen Will Solace. “Will!” he called.

Will approached, hooking his thumb toward the cabins. “Do you know what-”

“Nico just found out there’s camp gossip about you two,” said Jason. “He freaked. Was he headed toward his cabin?”

“Yeah.” Will sighed. “I take it he’s not out?”

“He’s only told three people, including me, and that was only because he was forcibly outed by Cupid, the bastard.” Jason shook his head. “I’m going to try talking to him. It probably won’t go well. Wish me luck.”

Will patted him on the shoulder. “Go with the gods, my friend.”

Jason moved on a few steps, then stopped and turned around. “Will?”

The healer turned. “Yeah?”

“Is there anything to the rumors?”

Will smiled a bit wistfully. “I’m his friend, that’s all. Someday, if he wants to be more, I’d be interested, but he’s not there yet.”

That answered a few questions for Jason. He made his way to the Hades cabin, sending up a quick prayer that Nico hadn’t shadow-traveled away, and pushed the door open.

“Go away,” growled a voice in the darkness.

Jason roundly ignored the order and turned on the lights. Not that they did too much good in the vampire lair known as Cabin 13, but it was better than nothing.

Nico was sitting on his bed, head in his hands, looking every bit as defeated as he had after Cupid had bullied a confession out of him. Jason, seeing no better option, sat down beside him. For a few minutes, neither boy spoke.

Nico’s voice, when it came, was soft and broken. “I’m trying, Jason. Every day, I’m trying to be a part of this place. To not hide. But they’re still talking. Laughing at me. I don’t know . . . how to do this. It’s too hard.”

Jason wished Piper were there. She’d know what to say. He just hoped he wouldn’t screw things up further. “Nico, li’l bro, I know it may not seem like it, but this camp gossip? It’s actually a sign that you’re succeeding.” Nico gave him a look that said, clearly and with color illustrations, that Jason had lost his gods-damned mind. “No, really. Everyone likes Will Solace. He’s impossible not to like. And now they think you have a chance with him? Score, man!”

“But they know I’m . . .” Nico still couldn’t say it, and Jason’s heart hurt for him.

“Yeah, and have you noticed any mobs chasing you out of town?” Jason asked. “No, you haven’t, because the only reason people care about that kind of thing is so they know who to pair you up with. There are gay kids in every cabin. Well, except for Zeus and Poseidon, ‘cause, hello. I know you’ve felt alone these past few years, but about this? You’re not. Not even close. It’s not the same way it was when you were growing up.”

“They used to – they used to talk about sinners. Abominations. Sissy-boys. When I realized how I felt about – about Percy, that’s all I could think about.” Nico scrubbed his hands over his face, and Jason wondered if he was wiping away tears. “I thought I must be like . . . that. I loved him, and I hated him. Thought that maybe if I never met him, I’d – I’d be normal.”

Jason felt like something was literally squeezing his heart. “It doesn’t work that way. If I’d never met Annika, I’d still be straight.”

“Annika?”

“My first real crush, Annika Reese.” Jason thought back to a girl whose attention he’d once have given anything for. “I was twelve, and she was my centurion. Blonde, green eyes, tall, beautiful, smart, strong-willed, brave . . . Most of the guys and probably half the girls in my cohort were crazy about her.” Jason looked over at Nico. “It’s just your dumb luck that your first crush was Doofus Jackson.”

A muffled, slightly watery snicker from Nico made Jason smile. “He is a doofus, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is,” Jason agreed, nodding. “I love him like a brother, but never let it be said that he’s not a doofus.” A sudden, brilliant idea occurred to him. “Speaking of, want to give the campers something new to talk about?”

***

“Big Three sparring at the arena! Taking all bets!” announced Travis Stoll.

Okay, so it had gotten a little out of hand. Jason could admit that, at least to himself. He’d expected a few people to turn up, as usually happened when there was sparring among the more skilled campers, maybe a few extra. Instead, the stands were rapidly filling with enthusiastic spectators. Percy looked like he’d swallowed a harpy, and Nico had turned a whiter shade of pale.

“We have an audience,” Jason noted.

Nico turned a baleful glare on him. “Well spotted, Grace.” He grabbed a shield and drew his sword.

Percy eyed him. “I did mention I’m sorry for mentioning the camp gossip, didn’t I?”

“Shut up and get armed, Jackson.” Nico rolled his shoulders as if working out kinks.

Jason drew his gladius, hefting a Roman shield that had somehow ended up in the armory, and Percy uncapped Riptide, grabbing a shield for himself. The crowd hushed in anticipation as Imperial gold, Celestial bronze and Stygian iron faced off.

Percy made the first move, and as the three clashed, the crowd roared. They were just feeling each other out now; Jason and Percy hadn’t really had the time or space to spar during the quest, and neither had faced Nico like this before. They’d all agreed that any powers were off the table; this match was about swordsmanship.

Having seen Percy fight before, Jason wasn’t surprised to find that he’d weaponized unpredictability. His fighting style was far less formal than Legion training, but no less dangerous for it. He had great attack, but kept leaving small openings in his defense. Both Jason and Percy had the advantage of reach and upper-body strength on Nico, but the little bastard was downright slippery. He always managed to not be wherever Jason or Percy’s sword was, and more than once, he nearly got inside Jason’s guard and skewered him.

Jason bashed Percy’s shield with his own, knocking him back –

-and there was Nico, hooking an ankle around Percy’s. The son of Poseidon hit the ground hard, and Nico’s sword swung to within an inch of his neck.

“Hades. Zeus. Uncle!” yelled Percy, gasping for breath. The crowd went nuts.

Connor Stoll stood up and bellowed, “Dammit, Jackson, you just cost me five drachmas!”

Nico stepped back. “Apology accepted.”

Percy stood and bowed to the crowd, to ritual boos, and then stood to the side. The crowd quieted again as Nico and Jason circled each other.

Nico had something to prove, Jason knew. Jason was actually glad Nico had been the one to get the “kill” on Percy. That didn’t mean, though, that Jason was going to go easy on him. The last thing Nico would want would be to have a win handed to him. No, Jason was going to fight this for all he was worth, and whoever was better in this particular fight would win. He set his mind to studying how Nico fought.

It was pointless to search for openings when fighting Nico. He simply refused to give any. While Percy was all attack, Nico concentrated on defense, which was sensible for someone his size. He was fast, too, and incredibly agile. The best way to defeat him would be to wear him down and let fatigue and the uneven ground do the work. Jason set to doing just that, using his superior size and reach to force Nico into retreat.

To his surprise, Nico abruptly discarded his shield. Without it, he moved even faster, ducking and pivoting so that Jason was forced into constant changes in position. Around them, the crowd was cheering, but Jason wasn’t paying them any attention, and he knew Nico wasn’t, either.

In the end, it was a small rock that was Jason’s undoing. His ankle turned and he fell slightly off balance, and Nico seized the opening. A light kick to the back of Jason’s knee brought him to the ground, and Nico’s sword rested on his shoulder, chill rolling off the Stygian blade.

Jason set down his sword and shield and raised his hands. “Yield!”

The crowd was hooting and stamping in the stands, yelling Nico’s name. Jason clambered to his feet and looked at the younger teen, who was actually smiling and raising his sword, accepting the applause. Percy joined the two of them and offered Nico a hand to shake.

“Badass,” Percy said. “I need to step up my sword game.”

“Yeah, you do,” Jason agreed, earning himself a dirty look.

Nico sheathed his sword. “Any time you want to challenge me for the title, feel free. Bro.”

“I’ll take you up on that,” said Percy.

Demigods were coming down from the stands to congratulate and/or razz the combatants, and Jason could feel Nico tense beside him. Nothing could be more perfectly calibrated to trigger Nico’s anxiety than being crowded and back-slapped.

This could be really bad, Jason thought.

Fortunately for him, Percy’s girlfriend was always ten steps ahead of everybody else. She and Piper slipped in and positioned themselves in front of and behind Nico, letting Jason and Percy take his flanks, and created a small-but-formidable bubble of protection around him. Annabeth indicated a direction with a tilt of her head, and the group slowly made their way out of the arena.

Nico breathed a sigh of relief as the crowd dissipated. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Annabeth eyed Jason. “You really didn’t foresee that kind of crowd?”

Jason shrugged. “I really didn’t. Does that qualify me as a doofus?”

“Yes,” said Piper. “A cute doofus, but definitely a doofus. You feeling okay, Nico?”

Nico’s attention was elsewhere. Jason followed his gaze . . . to Will Solace. “Excuse me,” Nico said, and jogged toward the healer.

Jason looked at Piper.

“So much potential,” she said.

“He kind of freaked over the gossip earlier,” Jason pointed out.

“I could have guessed that, not being a doofus,” said Piper. “I’m trying to rein in my campers, but still. So much potential.”

***

Will gave Nico a tentative smile as he approached, and Nico felt a stab of guilt over the way he’d dismissed Will earlier.

“Um, sorry about, you know,” Nico said, realizing he was babbling. And waffling.

“How could I not forgive, after such an eloquent apology?” Will asked, raising an eyebrow.

Nico rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”

Will laughed. “You’re so cutely socially inept. What I was trying to ask you was if you’d like to come to the Apollo cabin to catch up on some of the greatest music of the twentieth century.”

“Cutely socially inept” was not a descriptor Nico was overly fond of. However, it occurred to him that he wouldn’t do anything to change that reputation by flatly refusing Will’s invitation.

Instead, he hedged. “Wouldn’t that bother your siblings?”

Will gave him a look that said he was not finding Nico any less cutely socially inept. “C’mere.” He ushered Nico over to a small knot of Apollo campers. Nico recognized Austin, Eliza, Vitaly and Dan, but there were four others he didn’t know at all.

“Hey, guys. I’m sure you all recognize Nico di Angelo, reigning Big Three swordfighting champion,” said Will.

Nico’s ears heated. He gave the Apollo siblings a self-conscious wave.

One of the new girls lit up. “Yeah, that was amazing. Do you have dance training, Nico? ‘Cause that was some gorgeous fighting. Seriously beautiful to watch.”

“Uhh . . .” Nico was actually inclined to like this girl simply because she looked like Hazel might in a few years. Her skin was the same color, her hair was just as curly, and she was every bit as beautiful as his little sister. On the other hand, Hazel would likely never be caught with a nose ring, or wearing sapphire blue harem pants, an orange crop top and a green hoodie, which this new girl was somehow making work.

“Oh, sorry. I’m Mia Pedroza,” said the girl, holding out her hand.

“Mia attends a school for the arts in New York,” Will explained. “She’s an amazing dancer.”

Nico shook her hand. “I, uh, don’t know if I’ve had dance training.” He realized, belatedly, that that statement begged for an explanation he didn’t want to give.

Will rescued him. “Nico’s missing some chunks of his childhood. Actually, he’s missing a lot more than that, which is what I wanted to talk to you guys about. Nico, you’ve met most of these crazies. The others are Jordan Anderson,” he indicated a tall guy with freckles, messy hair and an expression that was frighteningly reminiscent of Leo when he got a bright idea, “Ken Ishigawa,” who was a sturdy-looking kid with hair that stuck out in every direction, “and Brigitte Gorman,” a girl with some of the darkest skin Nico had ever seen and multi-colored hair.

“Hi,” Nico said, and hoped that would be adequate.

“See,” said Will, “Nico here was born in the 1930s and skipped straight from the early 1940s to a few years ago. That means he is completely unaware of most of the great music of the twentieth century. I propose that we-”

Will never got to finish the sentence, as the Apollo campers broke out in spontaneous cheers.

“Break out the vinyl!” crowed Jordan.

“Swing music!” Eliza squealed.

“The British Invasion!”

“Early rap!”

It descended into excited babble that Nico couldn’t understand ninety percent of. He looked helplessly at Will. Will winked at him and whistled – fortunately, not one of his ultrasonic taxi whistles. Nonetheless, it quieted the others down.

“We’ll begin Nico’s cultural education tomorrow afternoon. Spread the word and start making reasonable – key word – decisions about what we can get in. Okay?” His siblings all nodded eagerly. “Campfire time! I’ll be down there in a minute.”

They all moved off except for Eliza, who grabbed Nico’s arm, bouncing and squealing, before joining her siblings. Nico blinked at Will.

“She’s twelve,” Will explained, shrugging, “and very enthusiastic about the music of the 1940s. And swing dancing. She may make you dance.”

“That’s not possible,” said Nico.

“You would be amazed what that little girl can do.” Will tilted his head toward the campfire. “Come on. Be social.”

Nico felt like it had been an exceptionally exhausting day. He’d begun it with a zombie-summoning nightmare, had a heart-to-heart with Will (which still frankly boggled him), taught swordfighting and dirty tricks to the Ares cabin, learned he was the unwitting subject of camp gossip, freaked out about it, had another heart-to-heart with Jason (and was beginning to hate heart-to-hearts), sparred with Percy and Jason, and just met a bunch of new people with designs on his cultural education. Frankly, he was tired.

“I think I’m going to head back to my cabin,” he said.

“Come on!” urged Will. “Social interaction helps drain psychic crud.”

“Is that a medical term?”

“It is if I say it is.”

Nico took a deep breath. “Uh, Will, you should probably know . . . people are talking. About us. You and me.”

Will looked neither surprised nor bothered. “Well, naturally. We’ve spent more than two minutes in each other’s company, after all.” He shrugged. “Camp gossip happens. They’ll move on soon enough. Don’t let it get to you. Join us at the campfire, at least for a little while.”

Nico looked over toward the amphitheater. He really was tired, but maybe it would do him good to at least practice being around people more.

“Okay,” he said.

Will’s smile made him feel like this all might just be worth it.

Chapter Text

The next afternoon, after a night of interrupted sleep on account of Percy Jackson being a sleep-talker (“That hydra’s blue. I’ll eat it!” followed by hysterical laughter at one point) and a day of dodging back-slappers over the previous evening’s swordfight, Nico hesitantly approached the Apollo cabin. The thought of going in there and having all eyes on him was daunting; there was a reason he liked shadows, even when he couldn’t (wasn’t allowed to, thanks, Dr. Solace) travel via them.

It’s all part of your resolution, di Angelo, he told himself. Time to be human.

He knocked on the door. It opened within seconds to reveal Jordan, who grinned at him and then yelled into the cabin, “Who ordered the Italian?”

Gods above and below . . .

“Jordan, stop terrifying the guests,” came Will’s voice. “Come on in, Nico. Eliza’s about to explode.”

Inside, the cabin had obviously been thoroughly rearranged. The Apollo cabin was one of the fuller cabins in the first place and was about twice the size of the Hades cabin. The campers had pushed the bunk beds to the sides and back to make an open floor in the middle of the cabin. One bunk had even been pushed against the front window; Mia was reclining on top of it with a catlike air.

“You can sit on my bed,” Will offered. He indicated a bunk that had been pushed to the side right next to the front door. Nico nodded at him and brushed by the healer to sit down.

As he did so, Will flinched visibly, and his brow furrowed. “Um, ow?” He held out a hand toward Nico. “Hand. Now.”

Confused, Nico took his hand. Will concentrated for a moment and then dropped Nico’s hand with a mildly disgruntled expression on his face.

“Your right shoulder is a mess. How did you even put a shirt on this morning?” Will asked. “That has to hurt.”

Nico shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does!” Will sat down beside Nico, looking angry. “You’re dissociating from your body. That’s not good. Sooner or later, you will overextend yourself. You have a lot of swelling in your right shoulder, probably from the fight yesterday. Jason and Percy are big, strong guys; you may have beaten them, but they gave you a beating. Vitaly, where’s that stuff?”

“Here,” called the Armenian from near the back. Will held out his hand and caught a small pot without looking, trusting in Vitaly’s perfect aim.

“Off with your shirt.” Will unscrewed the top of the pot before noticing his order had not been followed. “Off with the shirt, Nico. I can’t treat your shoulder through it.”

“Is this necessary?” Nico asked, warily eyeing the pot. It was putting out a sinus-clearing odor.

“Spoiler alert, Nico,” said Mia. “You’re not going to win this argument. Trust me.”

“We’ve all done shifts in the infirmary. You don’t have anything we haven’t seen before,” Will assured him. “Off with the shirt, and somebody cue up the music.”

Grimacing, Nico stripped off his shirt. Okay, so his shoulder was so stiff that he had to do most of the stripping off with this left hand, but honestly . . .

“Your body matters. Live in it,” Will stated firmly, and he started to rub the goop from the pot into Nico’s shoulder.

Jazz music, not unlike the bits and pieces Nico could remember from his childhood, began to play. Eliza pulled one of her brothers, whom Nico hadn’t been introduced to, into the open space, and the two started dancing. Within seconds, Mia and Jordan had joined them.

Live in his body. Nico supposed he really didn’t, in many ways. Even before Tartarus, he had gotten the hang of pushing pain away so it was only a very distant concern for him. He didn’t especially like his body; it had betrayed him, after all.

He looked at Mia. She was beautiful, perfect in face and form. Any normal teenage boy, he thought, would be drooling over her, and he was certain she had her share of admirers at camp and school. Nico could appreciate her beauty and grace, but it was the same appreciation he had for a beautiful work of art. Same with Piper or Reyna, though his feelings for them also involved friendship and, with Reyna especially, a deep, abiding bond not unlike that he shared with Hazel.

The same was not true when he noticed male beauty. Percy and Jason were good friends, and he was basically over his crush on Percy, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still have a visceral reaction to their looks. There was a deep longing, both emotional and physical, that was missing when he looked at girls.

And Will’s warm, strong hands felt so damn good on his shoulder . . .

“What – what is that stuff?” Nico asked, trying to distract his traitorous body and mind.

“A salve we’ve been tinkering with for a while,” said Will. “Eases pain, reduces swelling, all that good stuff.”

“Excellent for ballerina feet,” put in Vitaly.

“Vitaly keeps sneaking it out for his girlfriend,” said Will. He pulled a cookie tin from underneath the bed and set it in Nico’s lap. “Have a bite of ambrosia.” Nico opened his mouth to argue. “I will not hear arguments; you have damaged tendons, and the salve only goes so far.”

Nico grumbled again and ate a small piece of ambrosia from the tin. “You are deeply annoying when you go all Mother Hen, Solace.”

“Honey, you’re singing our song,” said Jordan, spinning Mia.

“What’s that stuff taste like to you?” Will asked, ignoring his disrespectful sibling.

“Gnocchi. Also, that salve. It stinks.” Nico wrinkled his nose.

“Stop complaining and try out that shoulder,” Will told him.

Nico tentatively raised his arm and rotated his shoulder. It was, in fact, much less stiff and sore. He had very nearly his whole range of motion back. “Feels okay,” he admitted, and pulled his shirt back on.

Will rolled his eyes. “No need to thank me. You’re extremely welcome.”

“Time to dance!” declared Eliza. She grabbed Nico’s hands and tried to pull him up.

Nico pulled his hands out of hers. “I-I don’t dance.”

Eliza pouted at him. Damn, she was cute. She reminded him of Hazel whenever anybody told her no.

“Come on, Nico,” she urged. “It’s fun! And I’ve run out of brothers to teach. One dance, please? Please?”

On one hand, dancing in front of the entire Apollo cabin sounded like a torture even he hadn’t experienced yet. On the other hand . . .

Eliza really wanted to dance with him. He’d felt rejected so often at Camp Half-Blood (though he was beginning to consider that perhaps he’d misinterpreted some things), but here was someone who was asking him, specifically, to do something she thought was fun.

Maybe he just had a weakness for girls who reminded him of Hazel.

Plus, he was starting to get the vibe that the Apollo cabin in general would hurt anybody who wasn’t nice to their youngest sister.

“One dance,” he conceded.

Eliza squealed and pulled him to his feet as the cabin cheered. Nico felt his ears turn red and prayed that the next song would be short.

To his surprise, as Eliza started walking him through the steps, they felt strangely familiar. The rhythm came naturally. It was easy and, dare he say, fun.

“Heel lead. Heel lead!” Mia cried triumphantly, pointing at his feet. “He has had dance training. I knew it!”

Eliza laughed as he spun her, and Nico found himself smiling in return. Maybe he had done this before. Perhaps he and Bianca . . .

He stumbled, missing a beat.

“Whoops! You okay?” asked Eliza.

Nico pulled his mind firmly back to the present. “Uh, yeah. Yeah.”

The song came to an end, and everyone applauded.

“Sinatra!” proclaimed Jordan, trading out the record. “I have a total crush on young Sinatra. Ooh, new game! Most embarrassing crush!” He plucked a small, round pillow that looked something like a loaf of bread with a face from Ken’s bed.

“Hey, leggo Anpanman!” said Ken, making a grab for the pillow.

“Too late. Mine’s Bieber. Will!” Jordan tossed the pillow to Will, who caught it.

“Zac Efron,” said Will. “Don’t judge me. Carli!”

He tossed the pillow to a blonde girl across the room. “One Direction, all of them,” said Carli. “Mia!”

Mia caught the pillow. “Tristan McLean. Piper’s so awesome, and I could never tell her I’ve totally had sex dreams about her dad. Ken!”

Ken admitted to wanting to marry a Japanese animated princess Nico had never heard of. Vitaly muttered something about Britney Spears. Kayla copped to crushing on Connor Stoll, to which Jordan admonished her to love herself.

And then, suddenly, the little pillow was in Nico’s lap.

What the hell, he’d already said it to the guy himself . . .

“Percy Jackson,” he sighed. He tossed the pillow to his recent dance partner. “Eliza?”

“Jason Grace,” she said, blushing. “And also Piper. Austin!”

And that was it. Nobody laughed, nobody looked disgusted; in fact, nobody cared.

After the game, Austin launched into a lecture about the music of the ‘40s, augmented (and occasionally hampered) by his siblings. Nico found it interesting; the connection of the music to what was going on in the world at the time, in particular, was downright enlightening to a guy who’d missed most of a century. He decided he really liked Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, but both were quickly overshadowed by Nat King Cole.

“He has a beautiful voice,” Nico murmured as “Unforgettable” played.

“Definitely crush-worthy,” said Carli. The Apollo campers appeared to generally agree on this.

“And that decides our last song of the evening,” said Will. He changed out the record, and Nat King Cole’s voice sang out again.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return"

***

Will walked Nico back to his cabin. “So, did we scare you off, or will you be back for more?” he asked.

“I’ll be back for more,” said Nico. “It takes a lot to scare me.”

“Good.” Will grinned. “They liked you, you know. My siblings. I can tell.”

Nico felt himself blush. He’d liked them, too. Who ever knew that the secret to making friends was doing stuff with people?

As they reached the Hades cabin, Will turned to Nico, brow furrowing a bit. “When you were dancing with Eliza, just before you stumbled . . . what were you thinking about?”

Part of Nico wanted to shut down again, tell Will to stop prying. But an increasing part of him wanted to talk about the things that mattered to him, remembering what he’d told Reyna.

“I was thinking . . . maybe Bianca and I took dance lessons together,” he said softly. “Something about dancing with Eliza felt really familiar. I can’t explain it any other way.”

Will nodded, compassion in his eyes. “I can’t imagine how hard it is for you to be missing so much.”

Nico swallowed the lump in his throat. “I loved Bianca more than anything, and I can’t even remember half of our childhood. It’s like she got taken away from me twice.” He looked up at the stars. “Sometimes, I really hate the gods.”

Will huffed out a humorless laugh. “I think that’s something just about anyone here would agree with you on, and they don’t have half the reason you do.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Um, tomorrow, there’s a big game of Capture the Flag planned, which means I will have to be dealing with injuries all evening, so . . . want to explore the 1950s the day after tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Nico felt a smile encroaching on his face. “I’d like that. Tell your siblings thanks.”

“ ‘Night, Nico.” Will turned to go, and then he turned back. “Just one question: Percy Jackson?”

Nico rolled his eyes. “What?”

“He just . . . doesn’t seem your type. I mean, I know half the camp is crushing on him – well, except those who have moved on to Jason – but seriously. Percy?”

“He was the first demigod I ever saw in action,” said Nico. “He rescued me like some mythological hero, and I . . . kind of fell for him. But you’re right, he’s not really my type.”

That seemed to please Will for some reason. “And what is your type?”

Because the Fates loved a farce, Jason chose that moment to appear, bedroll tucked under his arm. “‘Sup, bunky? Hey, Will!”

“Jason.” Will had gone uncharacteristically stiff. “Are you sleeping here?”

Nico waved Jason into the cabin. “He and Percy are trading off nights so my nightmares don’t get out of hand,” he explained. Jason disappeared inside, whistling, and Nico leaned a bit closer to Will. “They’re going to bro me to death.”

Will laughed, relaxing. “Courage, my friend. ‘Night!”

He turned to leave, but Nico called out to him, “Hey, Will?”

“Yeah?”

“Who’s Zac Efron?”

Will’s laughter trailed him all the way back to the Apollo cabin.

***

The book Will had given Nico advised him to take up a discipline such as yoga or tai chi as an alternative to meditation (no offense to meditation, but having spent some time in a death trance, Nico wasn’t a huge fan of emptying his mind). He knew that a few mornings a week, a group gathered for tai chi on the green. Since it was led by Mia, he figured he’d at least have a friendly face to welcome him, even if he couldn’t do the moves.

It turned out that he took to it immediately (even if he couldn’t figure out what “sink your chi” meant). Mia offered to teach him enough that he could continue doing it on his own after camp was over. He accepted the offer. She was a good teacher, and the slow movements actually did help him to clear his head somewhat.

The book also advised connecting with friends and family. Nico tried this first via joining in the game of Capture the Flag with the Athena, Aphrodite and Apollo team. As Will had predicted, injuries abounded. It turned out that putting the Hermes, Hephaestus and Ares cabins together on one team was an epically bad combination, and the game was called on account of unnecessary roughness. And explosions.

That left him with family. The Hades cabin wasn’t the best place to find rainbows, but using a reading lamp he’d “borrowed” from the Big House and the spray from his shower, Nico managed to create one after the rest of the camp had gone to bed. He flipped a drachma in and called up Reyna.

It was evening at Camp Jupiter, and it was evident Reyna had been relaxing after bathing. Her hair was wet, and she was wearing pajamas and reading a book. Seeing her out of her armor was oddly disconcerting, especially since her pajamas appeared to be pink.

“Nico!” she cried, obviously surprised. She set her book aside. “Nico, is everything all right? You look better than last time I saw you.”

“Sorry if I disturbed you,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong, I just . . . I wanted to talk to you.” His throat tightened. Until this moment, he hadn’t realized just how much he had missed her.

She smiled. “I’m glad you called. I’ve been thinking about you a lot, wondering how you were doing. I’m so glad you decided to stay at Camp Half-Blood. Of course, if you wanted to come back to Camp Jupiter, you’d be welcome. Hazel would love to have you close by.”

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s doing great. She’s so young, but everyone in the Fifth Cohort really looks up to her.” Reyna looked at him, puzzled. “Why didn’t you message her?”

There were a dozen answers he could have given her, but he stuck with the simplest, most truthful one. “I probably will talk to her soon, but . . . I missed you.”

Reyna’s warm, dark eyes grew soft. “I’ve missed you, too, hermanito.”

Nico understood enough Spanish to know what that word meant: “little brother.” His vision blurred briefly. Reyna, for all her queenly reserve, treated him with the same protective tenderness that Bianca always had. She’d felt his pain, shared his burden, given freely of herself in order to complete their mission, and he loved her for it.

He loved her. There was no other way to put it. She was family, just as much as Hazel was.

“I-I wanted to thank you,” he said, voice rough. “For everything. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you, lending me your strength.”

She waved his words away. “It was worth it. The mission, and you. I’m glad I got to know you, Nico. I can’t give my strength to anyone who’s unworthy of it.” She pressed on. “You’re a hero. I want you to believe in yourself.”

“I’m trying. I really am,” he assured her. “I’m actually getting to know people a little better here. Jason and Percy are keeping me company at night in case my nightmares get out of hand – Piper had to charmspeak me out of an especially bad one – Annabeth’s going to help me redesign my cabin, and the Apollo cabin has taken it upon themselves to get me caught up on the last century of pop culture. Oh, and the head medic here has grounded me from shadow-traveling.”

Reyna laughed. “He sounds wise.”

“He’s annoying. He’s also determined to be my friend, for some reason.”

“Good. He’s the one named Will, right? Our healers were very impressed with him. If he’s stubborn enough to get through your walls, he sounds like someone worth knowing.”

Nico flushed, remembering the camp gossip. “He’s definitely stubborn. But he’s kind, too. He’s a good person. I could use some help with that.”

Reyna brushed a hand through her glossy hair. “We all can. As praetor, I have to make the hard decisions. I can’t always afford kindness or mercy. I’ve presided over executions when every instinct I have is screaming at me to stop this. But I have to put the good of the legion first. You and I, Nico . . . we inhabit a tough space, but one that’s needed.”

Nico nodded slowly. “I’m beginning to see that. I think there’s more to being a child of Hades than I ever realized.”

“Keep that thought.”

They chatted a while longer, Reyna’s musical Puerto Rican accent washing over his ears and soothing him on a deep level. Finally, she said, “It’s getting late here. Shouldn’t all good little demigods be in bed on the East Coast?”

“They are,” said Nico. “Percy’s muttering in his sleep even as we speak.”

“You should get some rest, too. But call me whenever you need to, okay?” Reyna smiled at him. “Te amo, hermanito.

Nico’s vision blurred again. “Ti amo, sorellona.

He broke the connection reluctantly and left the bathroom. Percy was, indeed, fast asleep and muttering incoherently. Nico climbed into his own bed, tears running down his face.

He let them fall.

***

Annabeth’s gray eyes could be seriously intimidating, even for a son of Hades. She was staring at him across the lunch table after he’d made another suggestion about the Hades cabin remodel.

“Is it . . . not a good idea?” he ventured.

She snapped back into action. “Nico, go get the stuff you need and move into the Zeus or Poseidon cabin. We need to get this done as quickly as possible.”

He blinked. “I thought we were waiting until after camp was over for the summer.”

Annabeth shook her head. “No. There are a few favors I can call in with the nature spirits, which will speed up the process. You shouldn’t be put out of your cabin for more than a few days. Nico . . . this is important. To everyone.” She smiled at him. “You’re really making your own place at this camp, aren’t you?”

He looked down, feeling shy. “I’ve just been thinking about what it means to be a child of Hades. I resented it for so long, but I-I’m beginning to see where I can help people.”

“That’s wonderful.” Annabeth squeezed his hand, then suddenly pulled back. “Oops. Sorry, I forgot.”

“I don’t mind it so much with you guys.” He reached out and squeezed her hand.

Maybe, he thought later, it was about trust. He still didn’t like the thought of strangers touching him, but hugging Reyna and Jason had been all right. He hadn’t even thought twice about holding Hazel as she wept for Leo. Piper’s kiss after his nightmare had been comforting. Will’s shoulder massage had felt almost too good. They were all, he realized, people he felt safe with. Even Will.

It was in a contemplative mood that Nico approached the Apollo cabin, which was perhaps why he got hit in the face with a large, plush eyeball when he opened the door.

Ot-to!” commented Ken, looking suspiciously like someone who had just thrown something. “Shitsureishimasu, Nico-kun.

Nico looked at the eyeball. It looked back. “I assume there’s a rational explanation for this?”

“That assumption would be in error,” said Mia, reaching down to take the eyeball.

“Nothing is rational in this cabin,” said Will, somewhat proudly. “Welcome back! Have a fish!” He handed Nico a stuffed-animal salmon with the logo “Newport Aquarium” on its side.

“Thanks,” Nico said dubiously. He sat down on Will’s bed. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Well, we had a major five-way fight this morning about how much Elvis to force on you, Carli is feeling emotionally compromised because of a recent picture of little Prince George-”

“He’s so cute!” sobbed Carli.

“-Ken has decided he’s only speaking in Japanese today-”

Nihongo de hanashiteiru!

“-and we think Jordan might be pregnant. That or he’s just being bitchy for no reason.” Will looked up at Jordan’s bunk and got flipped off for his trouble. “In other words, business as usual for the Apollo cabin. Also, watch out for flying pillows and plushies.”

Ken hugged his favorite pillow. “Anpanman totteinai! Ooh, kumabachi!” He snagged a plush bumblebee en route from Kayla to Austin.

Nico looked down at his salmon. “You’re all very weird.”

“Says the guy who spends more time with the dead than with the living. On with the music!”

And so it was, amidst a hail of plush pillows shaped like fruits, animals, animated characters and mythological creatures, that Nico learned about the music of the 1950s. He generally liked rock’n’roll, but preferred rhythm and blues and had an unexpected liking for country legends Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.

“You would like the Man in Black,” snarked Jordan. His siblings were still speculating on which god had knocked him up and how they were going to force whoever it was to make an honest man out of their brother, and he was getting bitchier by the second.

Nico, meanwhile, had something of the opposite problem. He was still tired out from how emotional he’d gotten during his talk with Reyna the previous night (and it didn’t help that Percy had awakened him twice with his sleep-talking), and somewhere around Bobby Darin, he nodded off.

***

He swam back to consciousness hearing Kayla’s voice.

“. . . thought he’d be scary because of the whole Underworld thing, but actually, he’s kind of sweet, isn’t he?”

Uh-oh.

“Take that back right now,” he growled, forcing his eyes open.

The cabin found that uproariously funny, for some reason. Mia batted her eyelashes at him.

“You looked like an angel. A little, dark angel,” she said. Nico leveled his best son-of-the-Underworld glare at her.

“Ooh, death glare! That’ll take two years off your life!” Dan joked, then suddenly looked nervous. “Er, you can’t actually do that, can you, Nico?”

Well, it was something to take advantage of, anyway. Nico eyed Dan’s snack. “Throw me those Cheetos, and you’ll never have to find out.”

“All yours!”

Nico crunched a few of the treats, and Will waved a hand at him. “See, that’s style. All we can do is threaten to make people speak in rhyme. Or disco dance, but that’s the nuclear option.”

“We can also threaten to shove an arrow up their conceited Aphrodite asses,” put in Jordan.

Will rubbed a weary hand over his face. “Oh, gods, is that what this is about? Jordan, you know Piper and I made an agreement that Apollo and Aphrodite campers shouldn’t date, not after the Sebastian debacle of last year.”

“What about it?” asked Nico through a mouthful of Cheetos.

“Sebastian and I . . . we had kind of a fling,” Will admitted. “Drew was still in charge of the Aphrodite cabin, things got messy, and when Piper took over, we both agreed it’s best if the two most inherently dramatic cabins kept some romantic distance.” He gave Jordan a pointed look. “It’s a theory, anyway.”

Jordan grumped and muttered and turned his back to the proceedings. Nico looked up at Mia, who mouthed, “Mitchell!”

The gossip didn’t interest Nico very much. They listened to more music, and Austin favored them all with his rant on how black musicians of the ‘50s got totally ripped off by record companies, and also Pat Boone Is The Actual Worst. Jordan came out of his funk long enough to demonstrate the fine art of Elvis impersonation, and Ken added his own variation. In Japanese.

Eventually, Nico started nodding again, and he said his farewells.

O-tsukare sama deshita!” called Ken.

Buona notte,” said Nico.

Will got up. “I’ll walk you to your cabin.”

“Actually, I’m sleeping with Jason tonight,” Nico said as they left.

Will stumbled over his own feet. “What?”

“My cabin’s getting remodeled, so I’m staying in the Zeus cabin.”

“Oh.” Will seemed to take that in. “You guys are pretty close, huh?”

“Yeah, and unlike Percy, he doesn’t talk in his sleep. Last night, he – Percy – started listing off every sea monster he’d ever fought, and that is one long list.”

“That explains your drifting off.”

“That and I talked to Reyna pretty late last night, too.” Nico breathed deeply, enjoying the cool night air. “She said the healers at Camp Jupiter were pretty impressed by you.”

The little cloud of inexplicable disgruntlement that had settled on Will abruptly lifted. “You talked about me with her?”

“I told her an annoying medic had grounded me from shadow-traveling. She had the nerve to approve.”

Will grinned smugly. “I knew I liked her.”

“She’s an amazing person. I’ve missed her.” They arrived at the Zeus cabin. “So, are we doing the ‘60s tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” Will ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, we definitely can. It’s a great decade for music; you’re going to love it. We might have to take two nights.”

“I wouldn’t mind.” Nico’s ears heated. “I mean, it’s been fun, and your siblings are weird, but I like them.”

“They like you, too. They think you’re sweet. Like a little, dark angel.” Will grinned.

“Ugh!” groaned Nico. “Pretty soon, I won’t be able to scare anybody.”

Will nudged his shoulder. “You work that creepy vibe a little too hard. Give it a rest. Let people get close. Who knows, you might even like them.”

***

Jason and Piper were just coming back from a romantic sunset canoe ride. They were holding hands and talking about everything and nothing, and Jason was feeling like the luckiest bastard who’d ever lived. Then Piper made a querying noise, and he spotted two familiar forms peering at something from the shadows of the Hecate cabin.

“Lacy? Mitchell?” she called.

Lacy whipped around, put a finger to her mouth and beckoned Piper closer. Curious, Piper and Jason approached and looked where Lacy was indicating.

Nico and Will stood in front of the Zeus cabin, talking. Jason couldn’t hear anything they were saying, of course, but their body language was loud and clear, even to a teenage boy who'd been informed he was a bit dense in these matters. Will made a gesture like he was telling a story and leaned in toward Nico, who looked down, smiling a little, and scuffed his shoe on the ground. The son of Hades said something, shrugging a little, hands in his pockets, and glanced up at Will through his bangs. Will grinned, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and leaned in even closer to Nico, who didn’t back away.

“Are they – are they flirting?” Jason whispered.

“Duh!” said Mitchell.

“Isn’t it cute?” squeaked Lacy.

“My gods, it’s adorable. I told you they had potential!” Piper nudged her boyfriend.

“Hmm.” Jason started running through everything he knew about Will Solace. He was a little older than Nico, but less than a year. Everyone said he was a stand-up guy, a healer rather than a warrior, but brave enough to charge into battle to pull a wounded fighter to safety. He was a decent archer – nothing special by Apollo cabin standards, but still better than average – and disliked sword practice. Not terribly musically talented, but hardly tone-deaf. Considered by Chiron to be the most powerful healer of his generation. Enjoyed surfing and skiing. Head of his cabin, well-liked, had apparently had some romantic saga with Sebastian. Hmm, Jason thought he might have to interrogate Sebastian . . .

“Cut that out,” said Piper, nudging him again.

“What?”

“Trying to determine if Will is worthy of your adopted little brother. Will is a kind, decent person, and he’s not the type to pressure anybody into anything. Let this play out.” She eyed Mitchell. “However, speaking of Apollo boys . . . Jordan? Really?”

Mitchell looked ashamed. “Yeah, I know. I had a lapse in judgment. I’ll talk to him, okay?”

Piper opened her mouth to say something, but before she could make a sound, Percy came running into the cabin area, face white and carrying something in one hand.

“ANNABETH! JASON! PIPER! NICO! GET OVER HERE!” he screamed.

The four of them, plus a random assortment of curious campers, gathered around Percy. The thing he was holding appeared to be a scroll.

“This just came flying into camp,” he panted. “It’s – just take a look!”

He opened the scroll . . . and a little hologram of Leo popped up and started talking. The comrades from the Argo II watched in shocked silence. The silence continued after the hologram disappeared.

Annabeth broke it. “That little shit!

***

Translations:

Te amo, hermanito: I love you, little brother. (Spanish)

Ti amo, sorellona: I love you, big sister. (Italian)

Buona notte: Good night (Italian)

Japanese translations:

Ot-to!: Oops!

Shitsureishimasu: apology/acknowledgement of rudeness

-kun: casual/friendly honorific for a young male

Nihongo de hanashiteiru: I’m speaking Japanese

Anpanman totteinai!: Don’t take Anpanman! (Anpanman is a Japanese cartoon character)

Kumabachi: bumblebee (literally “bear-bee”)

O-tsukare sama deshita: set phrase of farewell, especially at the end of the day/an event

Chapter Text

Nico was in a truly terrible mood the next afternoon when he went to the Apollo cabin. He purposely skirted the green, not wanting to leave a trail of dead grass across it.

Jordan opened the door. “Don’t,” Nico warned him preemptively, shouldering past him and flopping down beside Will.

“Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine this afternoon,” Jordan sniffed.

Will gave Nico a bemused look. “You do not seem to be joining in the general good cheer.”

“I’m going to hurt Leo,” growled Nico. “I swear, I will personally organize the queue to kick his sneaky, shifty, annoying ass whenever he gets back to camp.”

“I think it’s great that he’s alive,” said Kayla. “Aren’t you glad you were wrong?”

Nico gave her a baleful look. “I was not wrong.”

Kayla didn’t appear to know when not to press the matter. “But if he’s alive . . .”

“He. Died. One of the wonderful things about being a child of Hades is that you can sense when someone who you have a connection with dies. He helped rescue me from the giants; we worked together aboard the Argo II; he had a multi-generational bond with my sister. We had a connection. I felt him die. He was dead. His life was snuffed out, his thread was cut, he made the trip to the Underworld.”

“'E's not pinin'!” squawked Jordan, and to Nico’s amazement (and somewhat to his terror), several people started to chorus with him:

“'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!’”

They laughed. Nico stared.

“Congratulations, folks,” said Will. “You have managed to freak out the son of Hades. Why are you so bothered, anyway, Nico?”

Nico reluctantly took his eyes off the lunatics. “Because I was the one who had to Iris-message Hazel to tell her. She bawled. That little stronzo made my sister cry. Twice. I’m going to stick my sword up his-”

“Perhaps we should start with the ‘peace and love’ portion of our program today,” said Will. “Ken, put on some music.”

Nico subsided, grumbling, but quickly found that he did indeed like the music of the ‘60s. He became a big fan of the Rolling Stones, preferring them to the Beatles (though he was fond of Sergeant Pepper). He did not like the Beach Boys, which led to a lengthy screed from Dan about how Brian Wilson Was Actually Brilliant And Done Dirty By His Label. On the other hand, Janis Joplin?

“She’s amazing. Play more of her.”

The cabin gleefully acquiesced. Will had moved to the floor at some point and was leaning back against his bed while Nico reclined on it and listened to the music. For some reason, Will’s blond curls began to occupy more and more of Nico’s attention. They looked so soft. To his dismay, Nico found that his hand was moving toward them without his permission. He pulled it back and hoped no one had been watching. He looked up at Mia, who had the perfect view of the two of them from her perch.

She winked.

Merda.

He refocused his mind on Austin’s usual educational lecture. The 1960s, it appeared, had been quite the turbulent time. He wondered if there had been clashes between the demigods during that decade. Perhaps Chiron would know.

He attended the campfire with the Apollo cabin that evening, and later, Will walked him to the Zeus cabin, offering to lend him Janis Joplin’s discography. Jason met them at the door. Nico picked up on some kind of tension between Will and Jason, which struck him as odd, as both of them were generally very friendly. Perhaps he was imagining things.

***

“Nico. Nico! Wake up!”

The acid breath of Tartarus faded as Nico struggled out of his sleep. He gulped down clean, storm-scented air, struggling to focus on Jason’s face as the nightmare cleared.

“Water,” Nico croaked.

Jason disappeared for a few seconds and brought him a glass, which Nico drank greedily.

“I woke up to the floor rumbling and saw frost spreading around your bed. Figured you might need waking,” Jason said. “Want to talk about it?”

Nico sat back, head throbbing. “I don’t understand why this keeps happening. I can normally control my dreams. I didn’t have this kind of trouble on the quest.”

“If I’m any indication, that’s not too unusual. I mean, I had my share of nightmares on the Argo II, but those were usually prophetic. Now, though . . .” Jason sighed. “It’s like my brain has decided that now that it’s over, it’s time to deal with all this crap.”

Nico’s mouth twisted. “I’m not sure there’ll ever be enough time for my brain to deal with this crap.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Nico looked at him. Jason had been abandoned as a toddler, a sacrifice to placate Juno. He’d done well in the Roman legion, risen to the very top, but he would always have that wound – not to mention all the other wounds he’d picked up along the way.

“Thanks for waking me,” said Nico.

“No prob. You gonna be all right?”

“Are any of us?”

***

An argument was raging in the Apollo cabin when Nico dropped in the next afternoon.

“Over my dead body!” Jordan was shouting.

“He’s a freaking ‘70s icon! We can’t leave him out!” Dan protested.

“I go with Jordan. That guy is pain in the ears,” put in Vitaly.

“Hate to say it, but I’ve kinda gotta go with Dan,” said Mia. “Just one song, okay?”

Jordan’s face resembled the back end of a cat, but he finally acquiesced. “Okay, but we get a Donna Summer song in return for the sucky Neil Diamond shlock.”

“If Nico doesn’t start summoning zombies to stop the pain first, okay,” said Will. “Hi, Nico! We’re discussing which parts of the 1970s to inflict on you.”

“Should I be afraid?”

The Apollo cabin generally agreed that he should be. “But there are plenty of non-sucky parts, too,” said Austin. “Some really great R&B, funk, the beginnings of punk, David Bowie in general, Queen . . .”

“All hail Queen!” chorused the cabin.

Nico gave Will a look that clearly said, Your siblings are nuts.

Will gave Nico one that said, Gotta love ‘em.

They started the music. As many had predicted, Nico hated disco. “What was wrong with these people?” he demanded.

“They were taking approximately all the drugs,” said Will. “Switch it out!”

“Switching!” sang out Jordan. “We’ve got Nico’s theme song coming up.”

“My . . . theme song?”

Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” played. Nico rolled his eyes. Will facepalmed.

(Nico would never admit he liked the song.)

‘70s soul and funk were of greater interest to Nico, as were the discographies of David Bowie and Queen, though the son of Hades was weirded out, yet again, by the cabin-wide singalong of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He absolutely loved The Doors, and punk?

“Whoever these guys are, I need to hear more of them,” he said.

Austin whooped. “I knew he’d love the Ramones!”

Will scrabbled around under his bunk. “I know it’s here . . . aha!” He stood, triumphantly brandishing a t-shirt. “My vintage Ramones shirt. It’s too tight now, but there’s no way I’m throwing it out. Wanna try it on, Nico?”

It was a little big, but not ridiculously so. Will insisted Nico keep it.

“I can’t take this from you,” Nico protested.

“No, it looks good on you, and it’s not like I can wear it anymore. I want you to have it.”

Nico gave Will a shy smile, not noticing the looks being traded by the other Apollo campers. “Well . . . thanks.”

The shirt smelled like Will – clean, slightly medicinal, with a whiff of sunny days outside. It was nice.

A sudden, loud knocking at the door startled everyone. Eliza jumped up and opened it. Outside were three Dionysus campers.

“Newt!” said Will. “What can I do for you?”

The Dionysus head counselor swigged his ever-present Mountain Dew. “We’re given to understand that you are planning on introducing Nico here to ‘80s music soon. This is not acceptable.”

Will raised his eyebrows. “Got something against hair bands?”

“No, bro,” said Newt, belching. “Quite on the other hand. ‘80s music is a party waiting to happen. You can’t confine it to this cabin!”

“Okaaaay,” drawled Will. “What do you think we should do?”

“Glad you asked! Bring the ‘80s goodness to the amphitheater tomorrow morning. The Hephaestus cabin will do the rest.” Newt saluted them with his Mountain Dew. “Party on, dudes!”

With that, they were gone.

“Well, that was . . . something,” said Will.

***

As usual, Will walked Nico back to the Zeus cabin that evening. The Hades cabin was covered with thick sheets of plastic and scaffolding.

“Looks like there’s serious work going on,” Will commented.

Nico nodded. “I hope it’s done soon. The Zeus cabin sometimes thunders, and the statue of Zeus is . . . creepy. Jason calls it Hippie Zeus.”

Will laughed. “Creepy? This is coming from you?”

“What, I can’t find things creepy? That’s half the reason I’m having my cabin remodeled.”

“Yeah, okay, you got me there. Everything else going okay?”

Nico shrugged. “Jason woke me up from a nightmare last night. He says he’s having nightmares, too.”

“Hm.”

The noncommittal noise was odd, coming from Will. “Do you . . . not like Jason?”

“What, Jason, the perfect image of a Greco-Roman hero?” Will asked. “Jason, who is what would happen if Captain America and Thor had a love child? Tall, manly, chiseled golden boy Jason? Who could not like that Jason?”

“Uh, Will? I’m sensing some not-liking here.”

Will waved a hand. “Actually, I like Jason just fine. It’s just that he’s so, you know, intimidating.”

Nico narrowed his eyes. “Will, you’re not the type to be intimidated by anyone. Trust me, I work hard at being intimidating, and it doesn’t work on you. What’s going on?”

For a long moment, Will didn’t say anything. He stopped walking and bit his lip as if thinking through something difficult.

“I . . . I’m not a fighter. At all. I didn’t inherit any of my father’s warrior skills. I mean, I can shoot, but not like Kayla or three-quarters of my cabin. I have to practice every day.” He sighed. “I get freaked out by swords and spears. When the battle was approaching, I got headaches every day because of all the tension in camp. I knew that once the fighting started, I’d be somewhere in the back. I mean, while you and the others were risking your lives to save the world, I was delivering a baby!” Will gave a short laugh. “I joined the infiltration team because I felt so useless, y’know? When I came to get you because of Octavian, there you were, half-dead on your feet and still fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Jason. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so unimpressive.”

Nico thought about this a moment, then whapped Will upside the head.

“Ow! What . . .”

“Don’t you dare,” Nico snapped. “Don’t you dare think of yourself that way. You’re not a warrior, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t brave. Stupid brave. Trust me, I hung out on the Argo II with the stupidest brave people in the world. You care, Will. I’ve never met anyone who cares the way you do. You ran yourself ragged trying to keep people in one piece after the battle. Trying to pull me back together, and it’s not like I ever showed you any gratitude!”

Will’s mouth quirked. “That almost sounded like gratitude to me.”

“Shut up. What I’m trying to say is . . . it’s brave to care that much. I try not to care because it hurts.” Nico looked down, a little ashamed of the truth he’d just spoken. “That’s why I’ve pushed people away. But they keep getting under my skin anyway. Hazel, Reyna, Jason . . . you.” He scuffed a shoe against the ground. “If the world were just warriors, we’d all be dead. You’re a healer. You take people’s pain. I think that’s pretty impressive.”

For a long moment, Will was silent, staring at Nico with an inscrutable expression on his face. Finally, he said, “You really think so?”

“Yeah, I do.” Nico smiled a little. “Besides, you stopped a battle with that obnoxious whistle of yours.”

“I try not to abuse my mightiest power.”

They started walking again and reached the Zeus cabin just as Jason was approaching.

“Hey, Jason,” said Will, all tension gone.

Jason looked a little distracted and harassed. “Hey, Will. Say, you wouldn’t know anything about a bunch of your siblings cornering me and demanding a shrine to Freddie Mercury, would you?”

***

Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” rang out from the amphitheater mid-morning, announcing that the ‘80s music had begun. It was the last Saturday of camp before people would start going home, and the Dionysus cabin scarcely needed to encourage a party atmosphere.

“The whole cabin worked on the playlist for half the night,” Will told Nico as they found a good place to sit. “You should have seen the fights, oh, my, oh, my.” Will had nearly had to tranquilize Jordan, who harbored an unexplained animosity toward Phil Collins.

Demigods from every cabin began setting out blankets and snack foods, leaving an open space for dancing. The Hephaestus campers had set up the sound system and rigged a projector for videos. The Aphrodite cabin set up an ‘80s makeover station, heavy on the hairspray and eye makeup.

“Hey, Nico, how’s my favorite little meanie?” Alyssa asked, wandering over. Vitaly was sitting nearby, and she happily reclined across his lap. “This is going to be so much fun.”

“Hey, Alyssa,” Nico greeted in turn. “Did I hear you say this will be your last summer at camp?”

She nodded. “Hopefully. I mean, Vitaly and I are going to be doing the summer program at the School of American Ballet next summer, and we both hope to get into the full program. I might meet my personal goddess, Sara Mearns. She’s one of the principle dancers at the New York City Ballet. Sexy, fierce, awesome.”

“Alyssa is in love,” said Vitaly. “Is fine with me.”

Nico shook his head. “If I hadn’t seen you fight, I would never have guessed you were a child of Ares, Alyssa.”

She laughed. “Yeah, when a new kid named Alyssa Belle Darling showed up at camp talking about how much she loves ballet? Everyone expected me to be an Aphrodite kid, or maybe Apollo. No one could believe I was an Ares kid. Not at first, anyway.”

Vitaly grinned proudly. “They tease her in the cabin. They find out how hard a ballerina can kick.”

“We’re gonna miss both of you here,” said Mia. “Who else will help me teach barre to the klutzes?”

Piper sat down on the other side of Will and Nico. “I’ll volunteer Sebastian. He needs some responsibilities. Or something to keep him from creating havoc with his matchmaking.”

Su gattze!

The Italian obscenity, coming from the vicinity of Chiara Benvenuti, a new camper, caused Nico to sit up straight. Chiara continued ranting in Italian in Nemesis camper Damien White’s general direction.

Will glanced over at Piper, who was rubbing her forehead. “Case in point . . .”

Nico called to Chiara in Italian. The only word Will caught was “Sicilia.” Chiara stopped her ranting, blinked at Nico, and answered, “Si.” She asked him something, to which Nico replied, “Venezia.” They continued chatting in their native language, and Will suddenly discovered he loved the sound of Nico speaking Italian. The syllables rolled so gracefully off his tongue, and his voice sounded far more expressive than it did in English.

Piper reached over and shut his jaw with a click. Will glanced at her, blushing. Jason, on Piper’s other side, was watching him with narrowed eyes.

“Don’t worry; the Aphrodite cabin’s got your back,” Piper murmured.

“Hmm,” commented Jason with a disapproving harmonic.

“No hanky-panky,” Will promised.

Piper elbowed her boyfriend. “Lighten up. Your adopted little bro is in good hands.”

Perfect, Will thought. I step one foot wrong, I get two feet of Imperial Gold shoved somewhere uncomfortable.

As if on cue, “Another One Bites the Dust” started playing.

***

The music of the ‘80s was, Nico thought, loud. So were the fashions.

“What . . .” He gestured at the video screen, where some men (?) were prancing around in neon colors and big hair singing something about “go-go.” “What?”

“Excellent questions, all,” said Will.

“Cocaine,” Austin explained.

“Ah.”

“Footloose” started playing, and demigods flooded the dance floor. Eliza tried to pull Nico out onto it, but he resisted. At least until Will, taking advantage of the moment, gave him a shove. Nico overbalanced, stumbled, pulled away from Eliza, and fell into a chair. Too late, he realized it was at the Aphrodite makeover counter.

Drew Tanaka smiled evilly and reached for the black eyeliner.

Merda.”

Ten minutes later, looking remarkably like Robert Smith of The Cure, Nico trudged back to where Will was sitting. “Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing, I swear.” Will managed to keep a straight face for approximately two seconds before dissolving into giggles.

“Oath breaker!” Nico spat.

“That is true,” said Austin. “Dan, Vitaly, he must be punished. Hey, Drew! Do you do Flock of Seagulls hair?”

Will was dragged away, screaming, by his brothers. Ten minutes later, looking even more ridiculous than Nico, he flopped back down beside his betraying siblings.

“She really is the worst,” he complained.

Nico didn’t even pretend not to laugh.

***

Chiron allowed the campers to take their lunches to the amphitheater, where they had hit the mid-‘80s. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was declared to be the Aphrodite cabin theme song. Drew suggested “Like a Virgin” might be the Hephaestus cabin theme song, at which point Jake Mason dedicated “You Give Love a Bad Name” to her. She then charmspoke him into a makeover. He complained to Piper, who told him it was his fault for taunting Drew while also being attracted to her. She did, however, assure him that he was rocking the Duran Duran hair.

Speaking of which, “Hungry Like a Wolf” was declared to be Jason’s theme song. He liked it.

A minor scuffle broke out over who the greatest female rock vocalist of the ‘80s was. Will settled it by unilaterally declaring Ann Wilson of Heart the winner.

“She’s got the range, she’s got the power, she’s got the emotion, she’s awesome,” he said. “No offense to Pat Benatar or Annie Lennox or any of the others, I will never say a word against them, but Ann Wilson is everything. Period.”

Steve Perry was generally considered the winner of the ‘80s Battle of the White Guys, though Freddie Mercury was still considered King of Everything by the Apollo cabin. It was “Open Arms” that got Perry his crown.

“Listen to that beautiful vocal,” sighed Austin. “That voice is making me reconsider being straight.”

He wasn’t alone. A few of the Aphrodite campers started outright crying.

Later, there was an air guitar contest which Cecil won, but to the cost of needing a little spontaneous chiropractic work from Vitaly.

***

“Hey, what were you and Chiara talking about?” Will asked as the afternoon waned. The original playlist had been thoroughly hijacked, with campers dedicating various songs to various cabins and otherwise making requests. Currently, a singalong of “The Greatest Love of All” was just wrapping up.

“Oh, I guessed she was from Sicily from her dialect. And the swearing. Sicilians are, um, distinct,” said Nico. “We talked about where we came from, and how much she can’t stand Damien.”

“You know what I don’t get?” Percy interjected, gesturing with a bottle of the blue soda he was obsessed with. “Damien. I mean, Nemesis campers in general. Leo and Hazel said she manifests as the person you hate the most, so how does she ever reproduce?”

Piper gawked at him. “You’re serious? Come on, Percy, haven’t you ever heard of hate sex?”

Percy and Jason executed a perfectly synchronized spew.

“I guess they haven’t,” said Will. “Come to think of it, they don’t have anybody to give them The Talk.”

“What ‘Talk’?” Nico asked.

“They’re all in cabins by themselves,” Annabeth pointed out. “We’re talking about the sex talk every senior counselor is required to give their campers every summer.”

Nico’s ears turned red, and he refused to look at any of his friends. Down at ground level, a Michael Jackson dance competition had started. Ellis was surprisingly good at the moonwalk.

“We borrow each other’s notes,” Piper explained. “The Aphrodite cabin is big on consent-”

“-the Apollo cabin is all about being safe,” Will continued. He nudged Percy. “You ever need protection, I can set you up, if you know what I’m talking about.”

Percy spewed again.

“And the Athena cabin focuses on knowing yourself and making smart decisions,” finished Annabeth. “Maturity, and all that.” She shook her head at her boyfriend as if thinking it could be some time before she saw any action.

Without warning, a blob of gunk came sailing out of nowhere and splatted right on Will’s chest. It then started spreading all over his t-shirt.

“Gross!” Will ripped off his shirt and threw it on the ground, where the goo continued to envelop it. “Stolls!”

Travis and Connor laughed and hooted and fired another blob of whatever it was at Sherman Yang. In seconds, they were being chased by half the Ares cabin.

“Those two. ‘Scuse me while I grab another shirt.” Will hopped down from the amphitheater seating, stretched, and started toward his cabin.

Nico’s eyes followed Will’s sleek, muscular form as he walked away, never having expected the sudden storm of hormones the sight brought on. Will was . . . gorgeous.

Piper reached over and shut his jaw with a click.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, winking. “The Aphrodite cabin’s got your back.”

Jason looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Hmm.”

***

Up at the Big House, Mr. D and Chiron sat on the porch, sipping drinks as the sky darkened.

“Ohhh, we’re halfway there, WHOA-OH! LIVING ON A PRAYER!” drifted up from the amphitheater.

“Hmph,” grunted Mr. D.

***

It all ended, as the best ‘80s parties do, with a camp-wide singalong to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” The campers slowly dispersed into the night, laughing and singing bits of songs.

“So, how does it feel?” Will asked Nico as they headed for the Zeus cabin.

Nico was still feeling a little distracted by the thought of Will’s bare chest. “How does what feel?”

“Everybody had a great time today, and it was because of you.” Will tapped Nico’s chest. “This whole thing would not have happened if you hadn’t been willing to play along with the crazy Apollo cabin’s crazy plot to bring you up to date.”

Nico blushed. “I . . . guess I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Well, it’s true. Partymeister.”

“Ugh, don’t.”

“Party animal.”

“Will . . .”

“Party on, dude!”

“Okay, you were warned.”

The ground cracked a little under Will’s feet, throwing him off-balance. He flailed, grabbing for anything solid. That “anything” turned out to be Nico, and he was less solid than Will had hoped. They both went down, Nico falling on top of Will.

Nico was too surprised to move for a moment. Will’s body was warm and solid underneath his, and their faces were so close he could feel Will’s breath on his mouth.

“Careful,” murmured Will, sounding a little breathless. “My hair could put your eye out if you get any closer.” He swallowed. “And by the way, that eyeliner actually looks amazing on you.”

Perplexed, Nico could only stare at him.

Someone cleared his throat from somewhere above them.

“Hoshit!” Will muttered. “Jason.”

Nico scrambled off Will and stood up with indecorous haste, meeting Jason’s disapproving glower. “Um, we fell down.”

“His fault,” said Will, standing and brushing himself off. “He used Underworldy powers.”

“His fault,” Nico insisted. “He was annoying me.”

Jason continued to glower. “Good night, Will. Bedtime, Nico.”

“Right.” Will fairly fled.

Nico and Jason both repaired to the Zeus cabin, and Nico began a mental countdown.

As he hit “one,” Jason spoke. “Listen, er, Nico . . . I think maybe you and I should talk about what’s going on with you and Will.”

It was too much. “Jason, I swear to all the gods, if you try to give me The Talk, I will start summoning zombies. I’m going to wash this gunk off my face and make my hair a little less dangerous, and then I’m going to pass out. I suggest you do the same.”

Nico went into the bathroom, closed the doors, and prayed he would survive the last days of camp.

Chapter Text

Fortunately for Nico’s sanity, the morning after the ‘80s party, he was informed that his cabin was finished.

“I’ll be happy to have my own space again. Not that you’re not a good roommate or anything, Jason, but . . .”

Jason patted him on the shoulder. “No more Hippie Zeus looking down on you.”

“Yeah.”

“Can I have a look at it?” Annabeth asked. “I’m dying – sorry, bad choice of word – to see how it’s turned out.”

It being the last few days of camp, dining pavilion rules had been relaxed. Annabeth and Piper had joined their boyfriends and Nico at the Hades table.

“Of course,” said Nico. “Everyone’s welcome to take a look.”

“Well, whoopee,” said Percy. “First breakfast, then the grand re-opening of the Hades cabin.”

Nico pitched a strawberry at him. “You’re such a doofus, Jackson.”

“It’s true,” Annabeth sighed. “You are a doofus, Percy.”

“Yeah, but I’m your doofus,” Percy told her.

“True, that. And don’t forget it,” said Annabeth.

Piper spoke up. “Hey, speaking of doofus boyfriends, guess what we’re planning?”

Nico watched and listened as his friends discussed plans for the school year, and he started to feel a little hollow inside. Words like “we” and “us” littered the air.

Will I ever have an “us”?

Nico glanced up at the Apollo table, where Will was laughing with his siblings, almost glowing with happiness. He looked at Percy and Annabeth, at their teasing and casual affection, and felt a surge of jealousy. Not for Annabeth alone this time, but for the two of them having each other. He sighed.

“You okay, Nico?” Piper asked, having picked up on his mood.

He shook himself. “Yeah, just . . . thinking about how quiet the camp will be without all of you.”

“Gonna miss your bros, li’l bro?” Jason teased.

Glad that his explanation had passed muster, Nico decided to play along. “I wouldn’t go that far. A little quiet might be nice, for a change. On the other hand, I will miss Annabeth and Piper; they make the place a little prettier, a little smarter, and much better-smelling.” Annabeth and Piper high-fived him.

Percy poked him with his fork. “Speaking of prettier, you know, Will Solace is a year-rounder.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

Nico threw another strawberry at him. “You’re no longer invited to the grand re-opening of the Hades cabin.”

“Aww!”

In spite of the disinvite, Percy accompanied the rest to Cabin 13 after breakfast. Both the obsidian exterior and the interior had been altered. Nico wanted to see the inside first, and the others followed him in.

The bare bones of the room (if the pun could be pardoned) were the same, but all of the decoration had changed. The beds no longer looked like coffins, and lighter-colored crepe draperies had softened the angles and brightened the interior. Toward the back, a white marble altar stood. It was only about three feet long, but when Nico touched it and concentrated, additional slabs to either side rose, making it close to seven feet long. More than big enough for even the tallest camper to lie on.

He let them fall back into the floor, leaving only the altar in place. “People can place offerings for the dead here.”

Piper looked around. “It feels really peaceful in here. Kind of sad, but not in a bad way. Like . . .”

Nico finished her thought. “Like it’s safe to be sad in here. That’s what I wanted.”

They walked back outside. All around the exterior walls of the Hades cabin, stelae had been set in place. Each one was carved with the names of demigods who had died at camp, on a quest or outside the camp in battle, written in both Roman and Greek lettering. They wrapped around the cabin clockwise, starting beside the door, from oldest to newest. Nico knew they could be moved to accommodate new ones when needed.

The last name was Leo Valdez. Percy smiled a little at it.

“Well, the little bastard did technically die,” he said. “I’m just glad he’s alive somewhere. I hope he can find his way back.”

“The Hephaestus cabin is on it,” said Annabeth. She moved to look at the next stela over. “Oh . . .”

Her fingers brushed over Luke Castellan’s name. Percy hugged her from behind.

Other demigods, curious, were coming over. There were a few exclamations as they discovered the stelae and began to find the names of deceased friends.

Clarisse touched the name of Silena Beauregard. Will murmured a prayer over the names of his brothers Lee and Michael. Jordan and Mia, who were nearly as long-term as Will, wrapped their arms around each other and him. Even Connor and Travis fell silent as they looked at Luke’s name.

Nico found Bianca’s name.

Sorrow swirled around him and through him, and he found himself sinking into that quiet space in his mind he’d discovered while doing the funerals. He felt a tug to the front of the cabin.

Miranda Gardiner was there, silent tears streaking her face. Nico’s hand brushed hers.

Suddenly, he felt – he understood – that the names Miranda was looking at were those of both her boyfriend and a Demeter sister who had died in the battle with Gaea. Her grief was also complicated by the fact that her grandmother, who had practically raised her, had died within the past year, leaving her with no close family outside the camp.

Tentatively, Nico slipped his hand into hers, allowing her grief to roll through him. Miranda turned her leaf-green eyes to him, understanding that he was sharing in her sorrow in a way no one else could.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Nico took Annabeth’s hand next, looking into her gray eyes. The complexity of her grief for Luke swept over him. He also felt her frustrated sorrow over the fates of Damasen and Bob.

Annabeth cupped his face with one hand and kissed his cheek.

Perhaps this was one reason why he had always hated being touched. His own sorrow and grief had been so strong that he hadn’t been able to bear what he had felt from others. He understood now, though, that it wasn’t his. He could let it move through him and ground itself, allowing him to help the grieving bear their pain.

And, somehow, it helped him bear his own pain.

He took Jason’s hand. Jason was remembering friends he’d lost at Camp Jupiter and the battle at Mount Othrys. People he’d known and loved, who had counted on him as their centurion and, later, praetor. Nico felt Jason’s regret at stepping away from Camp Jupiter to take on his new role, no matter how much he believed in it.

Jason wrapped an arm around Nico’s shoulders and squeezed.

The space by the Hades cabin was quiet, reverent. Sorrowful, but not hopeless. Nico moved through it the way Percy moved through water, or Jason through the air.

Will Solace’s hand found his. “I knew you were a healer,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

Will Solace exited the Apollo cabin on the last morning of camp, stretching and yawning. It looked like it would be another glorious day. The sun was shining in a clear sky, the birds were singing, the dryads were gossiping in the woods, the Stoll brothers were standing in the quad with big, shit-eating grins on their faces, the Ares cabin was in bloom –

Wait, what?

Flowering vines decorated every inch of the barbed wire surrounding the Ares cabin. It looked downright festive.

Will’s eyes returned to the Stolls. “What did you guys do?” he asked.

“We stole something from or played a prank on every cabin last night,” Travis announced proudly, looking both wired and sleep-deprived. “Well, except the Hermes cabin, of course, and yours.”

Connor chipped in. “We figured we might want to be on the Apollo cabin’s good side today.”

Will sighed. “I’m going to need coffee to deal with this.”

By the time he returned to the cabins with his coffee, Clarisse was in fine, four-letter fettle on the subject of the Stolls, and there was some suspicious noise going on in some of the other cabins. The Aphrodite cabin, for instance, was screaming.

Piper’s voice rose above it all. “CALM DOWN, EVERYBODY! Drew, shut up and start charmspeaking!”

Drew apparently managed to follow the contradictory orders, because she and Piper shortly emerged from the Aphrodite cabin, each carrying . . .

“Badgers?” Piper spat at the Stolls. “Really? Really?”

“They stink,” Drew complained. Her badger started squirming, and she spoke to it again. “Settle down, sweetie, your Auntie Drew is going to do something horrible to the Stolls, yes, she is.”

Piper and Drew, both alternately calming the animals and glaring daggers at the Stoll brothers, carried the badgers off toward the woods.

“How in Hades did you two manage to avoid the harpies last night?” Will asked.

“That has to do with something we stole from the Hecate cabin,” said Travis, and added, “One of the many things we stole from it.”

Clarisse hacked at the Ares cabin’s new floral garland. “I would just like to say that the only reason I am not beating you two to death right now is that I really want to see what di Angelo does to you when he wakes up.”

With great trepidation, Will turned his eyes to the Hades cabin. “Pink,” he noted. The whole cabin had been turned the approximate shade of Pepto-Bismol.

Connor giggled the giggle of someone who was keeping himself awake via Red Bull. “And it’s not just the exterior. Everything that was black in there is now pink. Well, everything not living. Nico won’t have pink hair. We couldn’t figure out how to do that. But all his clothes are pink.”

Will silently cancelled all his plans for the day.

An unholy screech came from the Athena cabin. Annabeth came spilling out the door, spotted the Stolls, and snarled.

“Perhaps we should make our exit now,” Connor suggested to his brother.

Fortunately for them, Percy was awake, and he caught Annabeth before she could commit a felony.

“Plastic. Spiders. All. Over!” she raged.

“It’s not worth killing them over, Wise Girl,” Percy said.

“I won’t kill them. I’m just going to hurt them. A lot!”

Katie Gardner appeared at the door of the Demeter cabin, spotted the Ares cabin, and turned betrayed eyes on her boyfriend. “You stole our instant liana!”

“Sorry, babe,” said Travis, looking unrepentant.

“By the way,” said Percy, still restraining his homicidal girlfriend, “what happened to the plumbing in my cabin?”

Connor smirked. “It got rerouted.”

The question of where to was answered swiftly by a round of loud cursing from the Zeus cabin. The door opened, releasing a gush of water and a very soggy Jason Grace. He squelched over to the green. “Not cute, you two.”

Will’s private opinion was that he didn’t mind a wet and shirtless Jason. He had no romantic designs on the son of Jupiter, but damn, he was fine.

“STOLLS!”

Speaking of people Will did have romantic designs on . . .

The shout seemed to darken the sky. The door of the Hades cabin flew open, and chilly vapor poured out into the warm morning air.

“Okay, this might be the right time to run,” Travis said.

They tried, but skeleton hands burst from the ground and grabbed their ankles, and the Stoll brothers fell face-first onto the ground, where more skeleton hands immobilized them.

Clarisse disappeared briefly into her cabin, then re-emerged with a bag of popcorn.

“Ack!” said Connor.

“Hoshit!” said Travis.

“Contingency plan!”

“It’s in my pocket!”

Connor looked at his brother, unbelieving. “You put the contingency plan in your pocket?”

Nico di Angelo emerged from his cabin wearing only a pair of worn blue jeans. In one hand, he held something pink. In the other was his Stygian sword, which had somehow remained stubbornly black. He stalked toward the Stoll brothers, stones scattering out of the way of his bare feet, grass withering in his path.

Clarisse chuckled and munched popcorn.

Nico was looking good shirtless, Will thought. He was back to a more-or-less healthy weight, all lean, wiry muscle. A few impressive scars did nothing to make him less attractive.

The son of Hades walked around the prone Stoll brothers and then crouched down in front of them, brandishing his sword.

“Believe it or not, I don’t have anything inherently against the color pink,” he said, very quietly. “But this? This is blasphemy!”

He held up the pink thing, which turned out to be the vintage Ramones shirt Will had given him. Will winced. That really was inexcusable.

The ground crumbled a little underneath Travis, who unwisely attempted to be reasonable.

“Now, Nico-”

Nico dropped the tip of his sword to the ground. Frost spread out from it.

“Eep!” squeaked Connor as the ground below him turned white.

“What are you going to do to fix this?” Nico asked in that same, conversational tone.

“Frost on the goolies!” Connor sang out. In soprano.

Clarisse guffawed. “This is gold!” She ate more popcorn.

“It’s only temporary!” gasped Travis. “Everything will be back to black in a few hours! I swear it on the River Styx!”

Nico lifted his sword from the ground. “That’s all I wanted to hear.” He stood and looked around, blinking as if only now realizing things weren’t normal. “Jason, why are you all wet?”

Without waiting to hear the answer, Nico headed back to his cabin. The skeleton hands released Connor and Travis, and they scrambled to their feet.

“Well,” said Clarisse, crumpling up the popcorn bag, “now that that’s out of the way . . .” She grabbed her spear.

Travis pulled something from his pocket, grabbed his brother’s hand, and threw whatever it was down. There was a brief cloud of smoke, and then the Stolls were gone. Clarisse swore in three different languages.

Piper and Drew had returned from the woods in time to see Nico take on the pranksters. As they passed Will on their way back to the Aphrodite cabin, Drew murmured, “Nice boner, Solace.”

“Drew, you remain the worst,” he proclaimed.

Clarisse looked him up and down. “She ain’t wrong, though. Seriously, you gotta hit that, Solace. I bet he’d be dirty and nasty in bed, too.”

Will choked on his coffee.

***

The Hecate cabin repaired some of the worst damage the Stolls had done, including an early de-pinking of the Hades cabin. The Hephaestus cabin, once the children of Hecate had dispersed the storm brewing near their ceiling, straightened out the plumbing situation between the Poseidon and Zeus cabins. No one quite knew what to do with all the snoozing bunnies in the Hypnos cabin, but they weren’t actively causing problems, so it was decided they could wait. Meanwhile, the Ares cabin had put out a bounty on the Stoll brothers’ heads (and Clarisse made it clear she wasn’t interested in anything below their shoulders), but thus far, the pranksters had eluded everyone.

“Freaking stupid, bright orange plastic spiders!” Annabeth growled over lunch. She’d been ranting since before breakfast and showed no sign of stopping anytime soon.

“At least they didn’t look realistic?” offered Percy, obviously uncomfortable in his role as the voice of reason.

“I don’t care. I will get back at those two” she said something in Ancient Greek that insinuated unholy things about the Stolls’ sexual practices “and it will be extremely satisfying.”

“We had to clean up badger poop from the cabin floor,” said Piper from beside Nico. “Let me tell you, that stuff stinks.”

“And I got to dry out, oh, my whole cabin,” put in Jason.

“At least Nico got back at them a little,” Percy pointed out.

Nico downed another fry. “Will got upset at me for using my powers, but it was worth it.”

“Hold still,” a voice from behind Nico ordered him in charmspeak. His body stiffened involuntarily. Someone pressed something firmly between his eyebrows and then ripped it away.

“Ow!” Nico touched his stinging skin, which felt weirdly smooth all of a sudden.

“Drew, what was that about?” Piper demanded.

Drew dropped a wax strip with a tuft of ripped-out hair beside Nico. “Our Italian friend here should have two eyebrows instead of just the one. No need to thank me.” She breezed off, leaving a cloud of perfume behind.

Nico was beginning to agree with Will that she was the worst. Piper looked at him sympathetically.

“If it helps any, I’m pretty sure she has good intentions.” She thought about it for a moment. “Well, not-bad ones. In this case, at least.”

Jason opened his mouth to make a no-doubt-sarcastic comment, only to be interrupted by Lou Ellen’s voice.

“I GOT THEM!” she cried, running into the dining pavilion with a piglet under each arm. “I thought they might come sneaking back to the Hecate cabin for another Mist bomb, and they did, and I hit them with a pig ball!” She lifted the piglets for everyone to see. The smaller of the two squealed.

There was dead silence for a moment, broken by Annabeth saying, “Is that – are those . . ?”

“Connor and Travis! Travis is the one with a little black under his chin, and-”

She didn’t get any further than that before being mobbed by campers and lifted onto their shoulders.

***

Nico had never been at camp for the end-of-the-season ceremony. It felt, to him, a little drawn out and strained. Some campers were emotional, not wanting to say goodbye to their friends and a place where they could simply be themselves. Others were eager to rejoin their families.

And then there were the ones like him, who were staying. He didn’t see why he had to go to the final assembly at the amphitheater; after all, he’d still be at Camp Half-Blood tomorrow.

Chiron made a dignified speech about all the camp had gone through over the summer. Mr. D made a perfunctory speech that made it clear he’d rather be doing literally anything else. The campers who made up the Activities Committee finally took the stage to close things out with the camp awards.

After a few of the boring ones, like Best Couple (Jason and Piper) and Outstanding Creature Feature (Leo Valdez, in absentia, for recreating Festus), Malcolm, Annabeth’s chief lieutenant in the Athena cabin, announced, “Best Prank goes not to anyone in the Hermes cabin for the first time ever this year, but in a landslide vote, Lou Ellen’s piggification of the Stoll brothers wins the laurels. Lou Ellen, take a bow!”

Lou Ellen brought her piglets down with her and accepted a laurel wreath. She then reversed her spell, leaving a stunned Connor and Travis sitting on the ground. The crowd roared, and the brothers got unsteadily to their feet.

“Why’d you do that?” bellowed Clarisse. “We could’ve fattened them up and had fresh bacon!”

Travis blew her a kiss. Clarisse flipped him off.

“We only hope to be an example for the young people!” Travis shouted to the crowd. It went wild.

Malcolm eventually quieted them. “Finally, our Camper of the Year award goes to someone without whom we would not be here. Someone who risked everything, up to and including his own existence, to bring peace between the Greeks and the Romans. Someone who inspired the best party I’ve ever been to. Someone whose bad side you definitely do not want to be on. Someone who thought he wasn’t welcome here. We hope he’ll think differently in the future. Nico di Angelo, come get your award!”

Nico didn’t quite comprehend what was happening. He looked over at Jason, who gave him a little push and said, “Get up there.” Numbly, the son of Hades stepped out and accepted the laurel wreath, the cheering of the crowd a buzz in his ears. His eyes sought out Will Solace, who was on his feet, clapping and beaming a smile at him.

Someone was calling for a speech. Malcolm offered him the microphone.

“Want to say something?” the son of Athena asked.

“Um, no, not really.” The mic picked up his words, making the crowd laugh again. “Just . . . thank you for this. Thank you.”

He went back to his seat, cheeks burning, but not displeased. Percy ruffled his hair, and Nico batted his hand away.

Maybe there really was a place for him here.

***

Campers gathered at the edge of camp to board the buses that would take them back to, as Percy put it, “the real world.” Nico stood with his friends, watching Will Solace say goodbye to some of his siblings nearby. Kayla and Austin, who would also be staying, were also saying goodbye.

“So, you two are headed back to the hellscape known as Southern California tonight?” Percy asked Piper and Jason. “The gods go with you, my friends.”

“We’ll survive,” Piper assured him.

“I’m sure we’ll often envy you the cold, gray days of winter in New York,” said Jason. He turned to Nico. “Do not be a stranger, li’l bro. I’ll report you to Reyna if you don’t keep in touch. She’ll kick your emo ass.”

Nico gave him a lopsided smile. “Hazel would gut me if I didn’t visit her. I could probably swing by the McLean estate when I do.”

Clarisse bulled her way through the crowds. “Di Angelo!” She and Nico grasped forearms. “I expect you to keep Yang and Wakefield from getting sloppy with their sword drills.”

“Of course,” said Nico.

The outgoing Ares head counselor thumped him on the shoulder so hard he nearly fell down. “Good. Yang’s gonna be head counselor now, and I don’t trust him to hurt people enough. I can count on you, right?”

“Of course,” Nico repeated.

“Good. Nail ‘em to the wall. I want to adopt you.” With that, Clarisse left, yelling at her siblings to get in line, assholes.

Jason laughed. “That was cute. Bro hug?” He held out his arms.

“Bro hug.” Nico and Jason shared a back-slapping embrace.

“Hey, is Nico giving bro hugs?” asked a voice. It was Mia. “Cut me in on that action. We kind of adopted him in the Apollo cabin.”

Nico reluctantly, but resolutely, submitted himself to the embraces of Mia, Jordan, Vitaly (who also felt the need to give him cheek kisses), Brigitte, Carli, Dan, and a few others, ending with Eliza, who was sniffling and practically had to be pried off of him.

“Yeah, she has a massive crush on you,” Will murmured as he sent her off with their siblings.

That was hardly likely. “Cut that out, Will,” Nico scoffed.

Will blinked at him. “Uh, Nico? I’m serious. My little sister is nuts about you. She’s been writing your name in hearts.”

Nico did a double-take at the look on Will’s face. He appeared to be telling the truth. “How . . . me? Why?”

Piper set a hand on Nico’s shoulder. “Nico? I hate to have to be the one to break this to you, but among the under-fifteen set at this camp, you are approximately ‘the shiznit.’”

“Huh?”

“A very large percentage of our younger campers are totally in love with you,” she clarified. “And some of the over-fifteens as well.”

“Piper, that doesn’t make any sense,” Nico insisted. “I’m a son of Hades. I’m antisocial and not very nice. Why would anyone have a crush on me?”

Will and Piper traded a look. “See what I’m working with?” asked Will.

Piper took a deep breath. “Well, one, you are not unpleasant to look at, and two? You’re a dangerous, brooding bad boy with sad eyes. My father has literally made a fortune off of cultivating that image, and you have it naturally.” She shook her head. “Face it, you’re a heartthrob.”

Nico turned confused eyes to Will. It still wasn’t making any sense. “I thought Eliza had a crush on Jason and Piper.”

“She got over Jason. You’re her new male crush.” Will sighed. “The game of crushes is merciless, my friend. For two summers, Percy held sway over the hearts of Camp Half-Blood.”

“What? I did?” squawked Percy.

“Sure, you did. Hell, I had a crush on you,” Will told him. “I got over it. You’re not my type.”

“Not your . . . wait!” Percy looked at Annabeth.

“Oh, gods, you’ve set him off again,” she moaned.

“Then, everyone dumped him in favor of Jason of the golden hair and mysterious past,” Will went on. Jason appeared to accept this with equanimity. “And now you step up, being all . . . you, and seriously, you haven’t noticed the giggling?”

“Um, no?”

The bus driver beeped his horn. Piper leaned over and kissed Nico on the cheek. “Will, keep explaining. Nico, you need anything, we’re only an Iris-message away. Remember that.”

Annabeth stepped away from Percy, who was still trying to comprehend how he couldn’t be someone’s type, and hugged Nico. “You need us, we’re here, okay?” She also briefly hugged Will, whispering something in his ear that Nico couldn’t hear. Will smiled and nodded before moving off to say his final goodbyes to his siblings.

Nico watched his friends board the buses, which pulled away from camp, leaving it feeling much quieter and emptier. Already, he was starting to feel lonely. He’d been alone by choice for so long, but this loneliness was different.

“Nico?” Will called. He had his arms around a red-eyed Kayla. “Want to come back to the Apollo cabin with us? I promised Kayla we could watch The Princess Bride again. Ever seen it?”

Nico shook his head. “No. Is it any good?”

“It’s only a modern classic,” said Austin. “Come on! You’ll love it.”

Throwing one last look in the direction the buses had gone, Nico followed his new friends. For once, camp had left him with a strange, warm feeling inside.

He just hoped he could hang onto it.

Chapter Text

Everything went well at first.

A few new campers were found and brought in. Nico helped teach them swordplay and, as he promised Clarisse, also kept Ellis and Sherman on their toes. He had regular movie nights with the Apollo cabin. They were determined to show him all the classics he’d missed.

They also attempted to give him a nickname, which did not go well. He shot down all of their suggestions, including Nic (“No.), Neeks (“No.”), Nicky D (“NO.”), and Sunshine Bear (“. . . seriously, Solace?”).

“My full name is Niccolo Giovanni di Angelo. Nico is as short as it gets. Four letters, two syllables, you can handle it.”

For a time, it was good.

Then the nightmares started to return. This time, there was no Jason or Percy to protect him – and other people – when they struck. He’d end up sitting in his bed alone in his cabin, not daring to go back to sleep for fear of what could happen.

The nightmares got worse. His friends wandered Tartarus. Hazel turned into a ghost at his touch. Percy and Annabeth fell into the abyss, betrayal in their eyes because this was his fault. His fault for being so weak, for being stupid enough to challenge Tartarus, for needing them to rescue him. Nico found himself in front of a panel of judges including Minos, Octavian and Bryce Lawrence. They called for his execution.

Again and again, his friends and loved ones all died because of him. Bianca, Hazel, Reyna, Jason, Hedge, Percy, Annabeth, Piper, Will.

He stopped sleeping. His appetite disappeared, and he skipped meals. He avoided Will, who looked at him with open worry in his face.

And somewhere inside, he knew he deserved it. All the friendships, the welcome, the warmth – they could never last. Not for a son of Hades.

***

There were no year-round campers in the Iris cabin, but it remained open because it was the best place to send an Iris-message, especially if you wanted privacy. Will Solace sat heavily on a chair in front of the rainbow fountain at the center of the cabin, idly playing with a drachma.

“Call us when he needs us,” Annabeth had whispered in his ear when she hugged him goodbye. “You know he won’t.”

As usual, she’d been right. Will had tried his best to get through the barriers Nico was throwing up day after day, and at this point, he knew he had to call in reinforcements before Nico disappeared again.

He flipped the drachma into the fountain and requested Percy Jackson. He and Annabeth were the best choice for this, Will thought, even though Nico was closer friends with Jason, Reyna and Hazel. First, Percy and Annabeth were closer geographically, making it easier for them to come to camp. And second, Will had a suspicion about what was going on with Nico, and he knew Percy and Annabeth might be the only ones who could help him.

Percy and Annabeth appeared in the rainbow, looking like they were studying, with books and papers all around them. They started when they saw Will.

“It’s Nico, right?” said Annabeth without preamble.

Will nodded. “Yeah. I think I’ve come to the end of what I can do.”

Percy set aside the book he’d been flipping through. “What happened? Everything was going so well when we left.”

“He’s . . . regressed.” Will sought for the right words. “He’s withdrawn from social activities, he’s not eating regularly, and he’s not sleeping.”

Percy looked at Annabeth, who turned concerned eyes to Will. “How’s he doing physically?”

“I got close enough to touch him the other day. Physically, there’s nothing wrong with him that food and rest wouldn’t cure. The trouble’s in his mind, and I suspect it has to do with his nightmares.”

“Well, the poor kid’s got enough nightmare fuel for several lifetimes,” said Percy.

Annabeth nodded. “But Will’s calling us specifically for a reason. Am I right?”

Will hesitated briefly. “There’s . . . a type of psychic pain I’ve only felt from three people, ever. You two and Nico. And I think it must have to do with an experience only the three of you have suffered through.”

Percy froze. “Tartarus.”

“Tartarus.” Annabeth closed her eyes briefly, and then she turned to her boyfriend. “I think it’s time we talked about it.” Percy looked like that was approximately the last thing he wanted to do.

“Please, Percy,” said Will. “He didn’t have anybody to help him out then. He needs you two now.”

“Of course we’ll help him.” Percy ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not looking forward to it, and I really hope I don’t accidentally screw things up further, but you’re right. There’s no way I’d have survived without Annabeth. I can’t imagine how he got out of there alive, let alone sane.” He looked at Will, resolution in his face. “We’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll leave the details up to the brains of the outfit.” He smiled at Annabeth.

She squeezed his hand. “We probably can’t get there before early afternoon. Don’t tell Nico we’re coming, but take care of him if you can. Let us know if anything changes, okay? Especially if he bolts.”

Will smiled at them, feeling lighter. “Thanks, both of you. I know this won’t be easy, but . . .”

“We always knew it would have to happen sometime,” said Annabeth. “It won’t be easy – for any of us – but I’m pretty sure we all need it. Thanks for trusting us, Will. I know how much you care about him.”

How can you, when even I don’t?

Aloud, Will said, “You two care about him a lot, too. I’m glad you’re coming. See you tomorrow.”

He broke the connection, and then he waited.

***

Nico lay on his bed, staring into the darkness of his cabin. He hadn’t moved for an entire day. He didn’t have the energy.

The day before, Will had tried to talk to him. Nico hadn’t said a single word back; he’d just walked away. Soon, he felt, Will wouldn’t want to try anymore. It was better this way, he told himself. His emotional pain would only weigh Will down.

I should leave, I should just leave.

But for the first time, the shadows scared him. And Nico di Angelo didn’t know what to do.

Footsteps outside his door. Light blazing in from outside.

“Nico? We’re here,” Percy Jackson announced, and hefted a basket. “With a picnic.” Annabeth stepped into the cabin right behind him.

Nico squinted at them in the sudden light. What in all Hades were they doing here?

Annabeth strode over and yanked Nico’s covers off. “Time to get up, Nico. We’re going for a walk.”

“No,” Nico managed, aware that it wasn’t his best comeback ever.

“Yes.” Annabeth planted herself in front of him. “You’re getting up and coming with us. We’re going to sit in the sun and eat, and we’re going to talk.”

“And if you don’t get up, I have been authorized to throw your skinny ass over my shoulder and carry you,” added Percy.

“Just leave me alone,” Nico said, voice soft and defeated.

Annabeth put a couple of fingers under his chin and lifted his face so he was looking directly into her eyes. “That’s not going to happen, Nico. You can come with us willingly, or we can force you. We don’t want to force you, but you know what we don’t want even more?”

“We don’t want you hurting yourself,” Percy said. “Hiding out in here? Not eating? These are not good lifestyle choices, Nico.”

Will. Nico cursed in Italian. “I don’t know what Will told you, but-”

“He told us the gods-damned truth.” Percy was suddenly deadly serious. “He’s worried about you. We all are. You were doing great at the end of summer, and . . .” He gestured at Nico. “It hurts to see you like this, man. We’re your friends. Let us be your friends, okay?”

The caring in Percy’s voice arrested Nico’s attention. Getting out of bed seemed like an impossible task, but Nico found himself not wanting to disappoint these two. Not to mention the thought of being hauled bodily out of his cabin by Percy Jackson was humiliating beyond belief.

“Okay,” Nico sighed. “Okay. Let me get cleaned up.”

Ten minutes later, feeling a little dizzy and weak, Nico trailed Percy and Annabeth as they headed up Half-Blood Hill. The climb took almost everything out of him, and more than once, his friends had to wait while he caught his breath.

Finally, they reached the summit. Annabeth spread a blanket out in front of the Athena Parthenos, and Percy unpacked the picnic basket.

“We’ve got sandwiches – condiments on the side because Annabeth hates mustard, the heretic – my mom’s famous seven-layer dip with blue corn tortilla chips, natch, coleslaw, and cookies.” Percy proudly opened a container of cookies with blue M&Ms. “And a cooler with sodas. Help yourself.”

Nico still didn’t feel hungry, but he wasn’t going to fight them. He took a chip and scooped up some of the seven-layer dip. It was good. His stomach demanded more, and before he knew it, Nico had eaten a sandwich and a half, a healthy scoop of coleslaw, and was helping Percy and Annabeth finish off the dip.

He looked up at the Athena Parthenos, remembering the warm sensation of home he’d felt when Reyna set her down on the hill. Some of that still lingered.

You’re not alone, she seemed to whisper.

Annabeth handed him a cookie. “I think we’re all going to need some chocolate to get through this next part.”

Dread pooled in his stomach. He had the awful feeling he knew what they wanted to talk with him about. Percy was halfheartedly eating a cookie, looking pensive and far older than his years.

“I used the waters of the River Cocytus to stop our fall,” Percy began, and over the next hour or so, he and Annabeth told Nico the story of their horrifying journey through Tartarus.

Nico listened silently, able to picture everything they spoke of with perfect clarity. The memories hadn’t faded or softened for him; they were as fresh as the memories of the meal he’d just eaten. And he could tell, listening to them, that it was the same for Percy and Annabeth.

“You know what the worst thing was?” Percy eventually asked. “As I was dying from Phineas’s curse, I started . . .” He stopped, drew in a deep breath. Annabeth watched him with concerned eyes. “Nico, I started to see Tartarus for what it really was. Until then, it was like my brain was protecting me, somehow, from the worst. Just a glimpse of it, unfiltered, nearly broke my mind. And I realized . . . you never had that filter at all, did you?”

Nico squeezed his eyes shut. Hearing Percy say that hurt unbelievably because of the memories it stirred, but it was also a strange kind of relief. Percy understood something no one else could.

“No, I didn’t. Being a child of the Underworld kept me sane, but only barely.”

“I-I never realized.” Annabeth took her boyfriend’s hand, and her eyes shone with tears.

“I couldn’t talk about it.” Percy’s voice was a strained whisper. He offered his other hand to Nico, who took it.

For some reason, the contact, and Percy’s confession, caused words to start spilling out of Nico’s mouth. He told them about his entrance to Tartarus and realizing just how badly he’d overestimated his ability to deal with it. He told them about his encounter with Akhlys. He told them about the trap he’d fallen into, and his humiliating, painful, terrifying capture by the giants. He told them about the bronze jar, about knowing he would die if he couldn’t escape and wondering if anyone would come for him. There were things he couldn’t verbalize, and he was aware he was leaking emotions. Grass died underneath him, and the air turned cold. Percy and Annabeth shuddered as they felt his pain, but they never once let him go.

It was that fact that made the first tears roll down his cheeks, and once they got started, they wouldn’t stop. He sobbed helplessly, embarrassed at his lack of control but unable to make himself stop.

Arms wrapped around him. It was Annabeth, the scent and feel of her warm and clean and feminine. Then, from his other side, longer, stronger arms wrapped around them both, bringing with them the scent of sea air.

Nico clung to his friends and let himself go.

***

He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until he woke. His head was pillowed on Annabeth’s thigh, and she and Percy were quietly talking. Judging by the evening colors just beginning to tint the sky, he’d slept for a few hours. He remembered some vague, nonsensical dreams, but no nightmares.

He lifted his head, and Annabeth’s fingers carded through his hair. “Feeling better, Nico?”

He did. “Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for falling apart on you.”

Percy smiled humorlessly. “Nico, two nights ago, I woke up screaming, and I mean screaming. I didn’t think people actually did that outside of movies. I woke up the whole house. It ended with me holding onto my mommy while I cried just as hard as you did.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “And I couldn’t even tell her why. Couldn’t. How do you explain any of these things to anyone who hasn’t been there?”

Annabeth nodded. “I haven’t ever woken up screaming, but I’ve definitely woken up having a panic attack. A few times on the Argo II, I ended up crawling into bed with Piper so she could calm me down.”

“You never told me,” said Percy. “Why?”

“Probably for the same reason you hadn’t told me about your screaming nightmare,” Annabeth pointed out. “And besides . . .” She hesitated, and then continued very quietly. “You scared me down there. In Tartarus.”

There was hurt in Percy’s sea-green eyes, but also understanding. “Because of what I did to Akhlys.”

“And Arachne,” Annabeth said reluctantly. “It wasn’t that you killed her; you just seemed so . . .”

“Angry? Vengeful?”

“Yeah.”

Percy nodded. “I get that. It just seemed like that place, it brought out all of those emotions. I felt like, like anything that threatened me, or especially you, deserved what it got. Or worse.”

“That’s the Underworld for you,” said Nico. “There’s no mercy, only judgment. Those that escape punishment in life . . .” He stopped, looking away from his friends, realizing that he needed to talk about something else that was giving him nightmares. “I-I did something terrible.”

Annabeth took his hand again. “Tell us.”

Nico breathed in deeply, gathering his courage. “While we were bringing the Athena Parthenos here, we stopped in this little town called Buford, of all things. We were resting and . . . Reyna told me her deepest secret. She trusted me with the worst thing that had ever happened in her life. But we weren’t alone. There was this psycho named Bryce Lawrence, someone Octavian had sent to find us. He overheard us talking. Captured us with spartoi under the command of his father, Orcus, and taunted her, saying he’d bring her secret to light so everyone would know. She’d been so kind to me, given me so much of her strength, we’d shared so much, and here was this little creep enjoying the idea of exposing her to judgment . . .”

He swiped a tear away. “And then he cut her face. He wasn’t worthy to stand in his own shoes in front of her, and he cut her face.” Nico remembered the dark rage that had overtaken him. “He was a psychopath who had tortured for fun, even gotten his own centurion killed, but somehow, he escaped punishment. He should’ve been executed for his crimes . . . so I made it happen.”

“You – you killed him?” asked Percy.

“I made him dead.” Nico forced himself to look at his friends. “I carried out his sentence in retrospect. Took his name, his voice, his memories, his identity, and turned him into a ghost I banished to Asphodel. And the whole time, I knew I had the right to do it. No, I knew it was my duty, as part of the Underworld, to cast judgment on him.”

For a long moment, there was silence. Eventually, Percy broke it.

“You’re right, Nico,” he said. “That was a terrible thing to do. But it’s not any more terrible than what I did to – to Bob. I took his memories and abandoned him. You were the one who showed him compassion, not me.”

Nico could hardly breathe, realizing Percy and Annabeth weren’t going to judge him, the way Reyna and Coach Hedge hadn’t. Suddenly, he felt like he was the one who’d escaped punishment.

Percy went on. “And then there’s Calypso. I never checked on her, made sure the gods kept their promise, and now she’s off who-knows-where with that flaming nutcase, Leo. And what about you, for the gods’ sake? If I’d kept up with you a little better, maybe you wouldn’t have run off.”

“That wasn’t your fault, Percy,” Nico told him. “I was running away from – from who I was. Who I am. If anything, you trying to be my buddy would’ve chased me off earlier, with the whole crush situation.”

“Or you’d have realized what an idiot I am and stopped with the crushing.”

“. . . yeah, okay, I can’t argue with that.”

And suddenly, all three were laughing. Tears were still running down their faces, but they were laughing so hard they could barely sit upright.

“Oh, gods, we’re all such wrecks!” Annabeth gasped when she could finally talk again. “What are the gods ever thinking, sending teenagers on these quests?”

Percy wiped the tears from his face, still giggling. “If they had any sense, they’d send retirees.”

That sent Nico into another fit of laughter. “Celestial bronze canes!”

“Imperial gold knitting needles!”

“Satyr nursing assistants!”

“ ‘Darn kids these days don’t even know what a Stymphalian bird is! Shoot ‘im down, Verna!’”

Nico laughed so hard his stomach hurt. He couldn’t remember ever laughing like that since Bianca’s death. “You’re right, Annabeth; we’re all wrecks.” He sat up and grabbed another sandwich, suddenly hungry.

Annabeth ruffled his hair affectionately. “Well, better to figure that out at – how old are you again?”

“Don’t know,” said Nico through a mouthful of roast beef. “I really don’t. I have no idea when my birthday is. I’ve sort of counted by apocalypses, which puts me at, oh, fifteen. I think. I was fourteen when we started the quest, but I think I deserve another year.”

She nodded, grabbing a sandwich for herself. “In that case, the last day of camp will henceforth be your birthday. We’ll be sure to celebrate next year.”

“Ugh, no singing.” Nico stole the last blue soda before Percy could get to it.

“Hey!”

The three of them ate the rest of the food as the sun began to set, chatting about inconsequential things. Percy invited Nico to join the Jackson-Blofis Thanksgiving Extravaganza, even if he was, as Percy put it, “a durn foreigner.” Nico called him some rude names in Italian and accepted the invitation.

Eventually, they packed up the remnants of the picnic. Nico looked at the circle of dead grass he’d left.

“Miranda and Billie are going to be mad at me for that,” he said.

“Eh, they’ll live,” said Percy.

The three walked back to camp, and Nico realized how much better he felt. A weight had been lifted. He felt like he could breathe again.

“I am still a little worried about having another, uh, episode like the one Piper talked me out of, now that Percy and Jason aren’t here,” he confessed to his friends.

“I’ve got ideas on how to mitigate the risk,” said Annabeth. “Don’t worry; we’ll figure it out.”

Percy looked proud. “Of course she’s got ideas.”

As they reached level ground, Nico saw Will Solace walking toward them. He felt bad for the way he’d pushed the son of Apollo away.

“Will, I-”

The words weren’t out of his mouth before Will had him wrapped in a bear hug. It was warm and strong and full of genuine, deep feeling, and Nico couldn’t help but return it.

“Do not worry me like that again,” the healer ordered. “Just don’t.”

When Will released him, Nico looked in his face. “I’m sorry. I should’ve trusted you. But thank you for calling Percy and Annabeth.”

Will shook their hands. “Looks like you two worked a small miracle.”

Percy made a show of measuring Nico’s height. “Very small.” Nico kicked him in the shin. “Ow!”

Annabeth, as usual, was more sensible. “This was something that had to happen sooner or later. It’s been good for all of us.”

Will’s sunny smile seemed to chase back the darkness and chill of the evening. “Come on, let’s hit the campfire. There are s’mores to be made and dumb songs to be sung.”

Together, they headed for the amphitheater.

Chapter Text

Annabeth and Percy spent the night, Annabeth in the Athena cabin and Percy in the Hades cabin with Nico (who did not even want to know why Percy kept repeating “big pile of schist” in his sleep). They both joined Nico at the breakfast table the next morning.

“This is what I miss,” said Nico. “It was nice having someone else sitting and eating at my table, even if it was just idiots like Jason and Percy.”

Percy waved his fork. “So, join another table.”

“I realize you’ve been gone for a month, Percy, but even you have to remember that we’re not allowed to do that.”

“Oh, Chiron can be persuaded,” said Annabeth. “Maybe you could sort of . . . accidentally summon zombies when you’re forced to sit alone. I’m sure Will would give you a doctor’s note. And let you sit at the Apollo table.”

Nico did like the thought of sitting with Will – with the Apollo campers. He – they were very nice people.

What was wrong with his brain? He put it down to his recent malnutrition and lack of sleep.

Percy and Annabeth left after breakfast, promising to keep in touch. Percy gave him a big bro hug, and Annabeth gave him a gentler embrace. Nico said goodbye to them with a bit of reluctance, hoping he was going to be okay without them.

He seemed to be. For the next two nights, he slept without any remarkable dreams.

The third night was a different story.

***

Warm hands caressed his back. He was pressed against a firm chest, skin-to-skin.

Nico wanted . . .

He tipped his face up, and lips met his. He kissed them hungrily, running his hands up into soft hair.

Nico wanted . . .

He pulled himself even closer to his lover, hips pressing forward, body alight with desire. It was good, so good, too good.

Nico needed . . .

One of the warm hands smoothed over his belly, sliding downward . . .

Then the wind swept him away.

***

Nico found himself in a familiar place. He looked around at the ruins, a terrible suspicion growing in him.

There was the beating of great wings, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. Nico felt for his sword, which wasn’t there.

Ave, Nico di Angelo, son of Hades.” The voice echoed around the ruins of Salona. “I thought we should talk.”

“Cupid,” Nico snarled.

Laughter sounded all around him. “Eros, to the Greeks. The Romans had yet another name for me: Amor. It’s a word that has survived into modern Italian, in fact. Would you like to call me by it?”

Amor. Lover. “No, thanks.”

Feathers brushed his face. Nico struck out with his fists, but didn’t connect with anything. “Show yourself, you bully!”

“You don’t find our cat-and-mouse game fun?” The voice came from behind Nico, but there was no one there when the son of Hades turned around. “I suppose you’d enjoy it more if you could figure out which of us is the cat, and which is the mouse.”

“Let me go!” Nico tried desperately to remove himself from this dream, or to wake up.

“I note that you were not so eager to leave your previous dream.”

Nico’s cheeks burned. “That dream . . . was it your doing?”

More laughter. “You’re a fifteen-year-old boy, Nico. You hardly need my help in that area. Though it is a good sign that you’re beginning to be honest with yourself about your desires.”

“Show yourself!”

“As you wish.”

This time, when Nico turned to face the voice, Cupid was standing there, looking very much as he had when they’d met before. The humiliation he’d caused Nico then rose afresh in his mind.

“You bastard,” Nico seethed.

Cupid gave him a brief, knife-edged smile. “Such ingratitude, after the gift I have given you.”

“What gift? I earned the Scepter of Diocletian.”

“Indeed you did, and with great pain. No, I refer to this.” Cupid waved his hand, and the air between two pillars blurred into mist, and then began to take shape.

Nico saw Half-Blood Hill the night of the battle with Gaea. He could barely make out his own figure in the shadows of Thalia’s pine, but he could very clearly see the trio of Will, Lou Ellen and Cecil in their ridiculous face paint creeping up behind him.

He watched as Will spotted the Nico of that night. And an arrow hit the son of Apollo’s heart.

Cupid’s arrow.

Will Solace was in love with him.

Because of Cupid’s arrow.

Just when Nico thought he couldn’t possibly feel worse . . .

All the bits and pieces of the past two months came together. Will’s interest in him, Will’s kindness, his warmth, his friendship, the way he’d welcomed Nico into his life and the lives of his siblings. The way Will had cared for him and about him. The way Will had spoken to and listened to him, helping Nico to open up in ways he never had before.

Because of Cupid’s arrow.

Pain, crushing disappointment, confusion, humiliation, combined into pure rage. The ground cracked and trembled. Pillars fell. Shadows crawled and writhed in the ruins.

“You had no right!” Nico roared. He struck out with his powers, opening a crevasse under Cupid’s feet.

Only Cupid wasn’t there. He was behind Nico, hissing in his ear, “I am the god of love, Nico di Angelo. I had every right to do as I saw fit.”

Nico struck at him again without effect. “Why?” Tears were running down his face, and he didn’t even care. “Why did you do that to him?”

“Still no thanks?” Cupid asked, becoming visible again, leaning against a pillar. He checked the fletching on one of his arrows. “Ah, well, perhaps you don’t yet understand what I’ve done for you. As to why, you can partially thank a little demigod sister of mine.”

Even in his fury, Nico understood whom Cupid was referring to. “Piper.”

“Precisely.”

“What did she do?”

“After our first encounter, she sensed your heartache. Being a tender-hearted person herself, she prayed to our mother to help you. And, as Mother so often does, she delegated the issue to me.” Apparently dissatisfied with the arrow in his hand, Cupid broke it, reducing it to dust, and selected another one from his quiver. “I chose the son of Apollo for you. It’s rather poetic, don’t you think? The warrior and the healer. Shadows and sunlight. Emo Goth and surfer boy.”

“Undo it!” Nico demanded. “He doesn’t deserve . . . this. Will’s kind and caring and a good person. I won’t let you manipulate him like this.”

Cupid’s crimson eyes were amused. “Won’t let me? You can’t stop me. As for undoing what I’ve done, it’s far too late for that. The effects of the arrow are transitory, enough to spark love, but they cannot sustain it. The son of Apollo’s initial infatuation with you has deepened into true love. It seems he actually likes what he has come to know of you.”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“An arrow alone cannot create a relationship.” Cupid smoothed the feathers on the new arrow he’d selected and examined the arrowhead. “Without a foundation, nothing will come of it. Well, perhaps a little sex.” He winked at Nico. “The son of Apollo was already fascinated with you. The arrow coalesced those feelings into love. However unwittingly, you have provided further fuel for the fire. Good job, son of Hades.”

Nico found himself longing for a Tartarus nightmare. At least those were simple, on some level. This? He had no idea how to deal with it.

“Why did you bring me here?” Nico asked, his voice hoarse. “To brag?”

“Because you interest me, son of Hades. You rather impressed me in the matter of the Scepter of Diocletian. You made it possible for the demigods to win the war with Gaea. You have done mighty things, yet I frighten you. It is understandable; after all, one of my brothers is Phobos. I thought I might warn you about what will happen if you reject my gift.”

“What will happen?”

“Nothing.” Cupid appeared satisfied with the arrow and idly twirled it between his fingers. “Nothing at all. In time, the son of Apollo will give up on you and move on, and in years to come, you will be nothing more than a wistful memory of what might have been. You will lose the chance to be loved by him. An arrow, you see, is nothing more than an opportunity.”

Nico shook his head, laughing humorlessly. “What do you gods know about love, anyway? You have your affairs, scatter demigod children across the world, use us to do your dirty work, and then you act like you’ve done us some kind of favor. Do you even know what real love is?”

“I am not the love of romantic daydreams,” said Cupid. “I am the love that consumes, the love that creates, the love that destroys. The love that sacrifices, the love that gives itself over fully to its beloved. The love that makes your heart beat in your beloved’s chest. Do you know why you will never find a demigod sired by either of my aspects, Nico? Because I am the one faithful husband among the Olympians. I am satisfied with my beloved Psyche . . . and believe me when I say I keep her satisfied.”

There was a harmonic of pure sex in Cupid’s voice, and Nico’s dream rushed back to him. The desire, the longing that was far more than physical. He closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing, his body.

Feathers tickled his face. Nico opened his eyes to find Cupid standing in front of him, too close, brushing the fletching of the arrow he’d been examining down Nico’s cheek to his neck. The sensation was far too intense, and Nico stepped away, gasping.

Cupid smiled that knife-like smile again. “So, what is your choice, son of Hades?” He held up the arrow. In its leaf-shaped head, Nico could see not his face reflected, but that of Will Solace.

“I don’t know what to do!” Nico burst out. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what he feared, and he didn’t know so much it was choking him.

For the first time, Cupid’s eyes betrayed a little kindness. “It’s very simple, Nico di Angelo, son of Hades. You can retreat back into the shadows and let love pass you by, or . . .” The god of love let the arrowhead rest, ever so lightly, against Nico’s chest. “You can step forward.”

Nico forced himself to look directly into Cupid’s red, red eyes. There was a challenge there. Accept love, or reject it. It was Nico’s choice.

Gathering his courage, he stepped forward.

***

Nico awoke knowing he was in love with Will Solace.

It wasn’t a romantic daydream. It didn’t solve anything. If anything, knowing his feelings – and Will’s – complicated matters. Nico had absolutely no idea of how to initiate a romantic relationship, and he understood that Will, not wanting to frighten or pressure him, was holding back. Basically, they were at a stalemate.

For the next few days, he tried to be as normal as he could be around Will, accepting invitations to watch movies in the Apollo cabin and sitting with Will, Kayla and Austin at campfires. He enjoyed their company, and they seemed to enjoy his, but Nico was having a hard time not staring at Will. Any inadvertent touch made him jump.

He longed for Will, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

Part of it was the fact that he didn’t understand what it meant to be homosexual. In his childhood, it was something spoken of only in whispers or, in some cases, thundering denunciations. Now, according to all his friends, it was no big deal. They spoke of it as something he simply was. And he’d certainly met others at Camp Half-Blood, including Will himself, Jordan, Nyssa from Hephaestus, Sebastian and Melanie from Aphrodite, and Penny from Ares. Nico had also heard about bisexuals like Mitchell from Aphrodite and a few others, possibly including young Eliza (a few of the Apollo girls who described themselves as straight confessed to crushing on Piper, so Eliza’s crush on her wasn’t really a decisive factor, in Nico’s mind). And someone had said something about boys who were actually girls and girls who were actually boys, but he didn’t understand that at all.

He needed information. Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of anyone he could ask, at least not without potentially dying of awkwardness.

Then his eyes fell on the PTSD book Will had given him, and he realized there might be a solution to his dilemma.

***

The next day, Nico stole an experimental “backpack of holding” from the Hecate cabin, reasoning that if he could return it unscathed, he hopefully wouldn’t get turned into a little black piglet. The backpack was considerably bigger on the inside, which allowed him to stash his sword, some American money, a few snacks and a bottle of unicorn draught in it.

Then he shadow-traveled to New York City. Specifically, he traveled to a public library he’d scouted earlier, appearing in the shadows of the reference section. The trip made him dizzy; he still wasn’t back to full strength. He wondered idly if he’d ever fully recover from transporting the Athena Parthenos. He took a slug of the unicorn draught and found his way out of the stacks.

Once he did, and realized just how big the place was, Nico realized that his brilliant plan might have a few flaws. How was he supposed to find what he was looking for? After thinking about it, he came to one horrible conclusion:

He was going to have to talk to someone.

He nearly turned right back around, but he probably wouldn’t be able to shadow-travel without knocking himself flat for hours. Besides, he’d come all this way. He hated the thought of going away empty-handed.

There were library employees at a number of desks, but he rejected them all. Too many at one desk, too old and conservative-looking, too weird-looking (and this coming from a demigod who spent considerable time in the Underworld) . . .

Finally, he found a likely suspect. She was young, perhaps in her early twenties, had a couple of blue streaks in her brown hair, and, most importantly, was alone. Her nametag read “Noelle.”

Nico took a few deep breaths and walked over to the desk. “Um, excuse me?”

Noelle smiled at him. “How can I help you today?”

“I was wondering . . .” Nico looked around. There wasn’t anybody close by. Still, his heart was thumping in his chest as he asked, very quietly, not looking at her, “Do you have any books about, um . . . about being . . . gay?”

He looked up at Noelle, hoping he wouldn’t see derision or disgust in her face. He didn’t. In fact, if he were any judge, she was restraining herself, with great difficulty, from jumping right over the desk and hugging the stuffing out of him.

“Of course,” she said. “Let me show you.”

She led him through the stacks, eventually stopping in front of a bookcase filled with books for teens, and pulled a couple from the shelf.

“My best friend said these two were really helpful to him when he came out. I think he was probably a little older than you. How old are you?”

“I just turned fifteen,” said Nico. He gave her a small smile. “My friends tease me about being small for my age.”

Noelle smiled back. “Do you have anyone you can talk to about this?”

“Maybe.” Nico shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just sort of . . . figuring this out.”

“Hey, that’s what your teenage years are for,” said Noelle. “Have you come out to your friends at all?”

“Yeah, they know. They’ve been – they’ve been really great about it.” There was a little lump in Nico’s throat.

“That’s so nice to hear. Most people were supportive when my friend Roger came out, but you’ve always got the jerks and assholes.” Noelle touched Nico’s shoulder. “Listen, stay here a minute, okay? I want to print something out for you.” She walked away.

Nico took the opportunity to inspect the books she’d handed him. It looked like they’d answer some of the questions he had. It looked like they’d answer more questions he’d never have thought to ask.

In a few minutes, Noelle returned with a sheet of paper. She handed it to him.

“This is a list of resources in the city for LGBT youth, like support groups and safe places to go if you need them,” she explained. “There are also some good websites.”

She had such a kind, warm smile that Nico wondered if she could be a distant relative of Will Solace. “Thank you,” he said. He offered her a hand. “My name’s Nico.”

“It’s good to meet you, Nico.” Noelle shook his hand. “I hope the books help. Just remember: You’re not alone.”

He looked down at the books and the paper and thought about his friends. “I’m beginning to get that.”

***

After checking out the books and leaving the library, Nico treated himself to McDonald’s. He figured he’d earned it, even if Will would be all (cutely) bothered about it. Afterward, he wandered a little, trying to soak up some sunshine in preparation for traveling back home. The day was bright and sunny, but crisp.

A few days earlier, a package had arrived for him from California. It had contained a black bomber jacket and a birthday card.

“Annabeth and Percy told us about your birthday,” it read. “We found this in a vintage clothing shop and thought it looked like you. Love, Jason (your bro) and Piper.”

He was grateful for the warmth of the jacket as he wandered. If he hadn’t been such a natural cynic, he might have thought it felt like a long-distance hug.

As he passed an abandoned construction site, he heard a frightened cry. His combat instincts had his sword out of his bag and unsheathed as he plunged into the half-finished building. The sunlight vanished almost completely the further in he went, but Nico was used to working in the dark. He could hear running footsteps. They echoed around him. They seemed to be louder in one direction, and he could hear something else, a dry rustling sound. There was also a musty smell . . .

Nico cursed inwardly. Dracanae. Just what he didn’t want for his birthday.

There was a sudden, loud crash off to his left. Nico ditched his bag and moved as quickly and quietly as he could toward the crash.

A little boy came running out of the shadows and collided with Nico. The boy screamed, and Nico shushed him, grabbing his shoulder.

“Stay behind me,” Nico ordered. The kid looked up at him with wide eyes.

Something else crashed, like something big was climbing out from under a pile of rubble. The kid had apparently managed to land a blow on the monster. Good for him.

“What is it?” the kid whispered.

“Not your problem anymore.” Nico brought up his sword and crept forward.

It was, fortunately, only a single dracaena. It looked distinctly unhappy and rather like someone had just dumped a bunch of concrete on its head. Nico didn’t intend to let it recover. Dracanae were too big, quick and brutal to play fair with.

Nico immediately went on the attack. The dracaena managed to avoid his first blow and struck out at him, but Nico dodged and slashed at its snake legs. He landed one blow, and the dracaena screamed. It lashed out at him again, fast but clumsy, and Nico had it. His Stygian blade whipped across the monster’s belly, and he took off its head with the back-slash. It crumbled to dust.

The son of Hades waited and listened for a moment, but he couldn’t sense any other monsters in the shadows. He flicked a bit of dust off his sword and looked around for the kid.

The kid was watching him, face slack with amazement. “That was so awesome! You dusted that thing! That was so . . . I can’t even!”

“What’s your name, kid?” Nico asked.

The kid looked like he still couldn’t even, and it took him a moment to answer. “I’m Ryan. Ryan Eisler. Are you a superhero?”

“Not exactly. Come on.” Nico retraced his footsteps and found the backpack of holding, breathing a silent sigh of relief. No imminent piggification. He fished out the scabbard, sheathed his sword and dropped it back into the bag.

“Whoa,” breathed Ryan. “Are you a wizard? Like Harry Potter?”

“How did you bring down all that stuff on the dracaena?” Nico asked.

“What?”

“The monster.”

“Oh. I dunno, I could just tell it was going to fall if I pushed in one place, so I did. I can tell that stuff sometimes.” Ryan shrugged. “So, what are you?”

“What you are, I think.” Nico offered his hand. “My name’s Nico di Angelo.”

Ryan shook his hand. The kid had a good grip. Nico was willing to bet a few drachma that he was a Hephaestus kid. There was something rather (for lack of a better word) Leo about him. He looked like he was maybe ten or eleven. His hair was messy and overgrown, his clothes were stained and ill-fitting, and he smelled like he could use a shower or three.

“You have anybody taking care of you?” Nico asked.

Ryan’s face clouded over. “My uncle. Supposedly. He’s usually too baked to know where I am or what I’m doing. My mom – my mom died last year.”

Nico nodded. “My mom died, too.” He sighed. “There’s a safe place for people like us, Ryan. I can take you there, if you want.”

“Why doesn’t anybody else see the monsters?” Ryan blurted. “They’re all over, but people think I’m crazy when I point them out. Sometimes, they chase me.”

“That takes a bit of explaining,” Nico said, smiling. “I met my first monster when I was about your age, too. Someone rescued me and took me to the place I live now.” He shouldered his bag. “Want to come?”

“Is it close?”

“No. No, it isn’t. But I can get us there fast.” He held out his hand. “It’s your choice.”

Ryan gave him a very serious look, and then he took Nico’s hand. Nico let himself melt into the shadows.

Instantly, he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy trip, not with Ryan along. He pushed his way through the shadows, ignoring their calls, but he was tired, so tired . . .

Will.

They emerged from the shadows into the infirmary. Someone screamed, and glass shattered.

“That was so cool!” yelled Ryan.

“Nico!” It was Will’s voice.

“Will . . .” Nico’s head swam.

He collapsed into Will’s arms.

Chapter Text

Nico had vague memories of people swearing, being heaved over someone’s shoulder and then plopped on a bed, and unicorn draught being forced down his throat, all to the backdrop of Ryan’s excited chatter. After that, everything went dark.

He woke to the sound of Will and Kayla talking.

“-not going to start fading again, is he?” Kayla asked.

“He shouldn’t, unless he keeps being stupid with his powers.” The last few words sounded rather pointed. “Give it up, Shadow Boy; I know you’re awake.”

Nico opened his eyes. Someone had removed his coat and shoes and tucked him into a bed in the recovery ward. Judging by the lack of light outside the windows, he’d been out for hours.

“Evening, Will,” he said. “How’s the kid?”

“Ryan’s fine. He got claimed by Hephaestus practically the second he got here, and Nyssa’s taken him under her wing. He seems to think you’re the awesomest awesome that ever awesomed, by the way.” Will shook his head. “I, personally, am a bit on the miffed side. Possibly even peeved.”

Nico looked down. He didn’t like the fact that Will was angry with him, but he couldn’t very well explain why he’d done what he did.

“I’ll keep an eye on our patient, Kayla; you can go,” said Will.

“ ‘Kay. See you later, Nico!” The little redhead left.

Will sighed and relaxed a little in his chair. “You’ll be glad to know I returned the backpack of holding to the Hecate cabin, so you don’t have to worry about getting turned into a little Goth piglet.”

That was a relief, but . . . “What about the things inside it?”

“I put ‘em on your bed, don’t worry.”

Nico felt shaky in a way that had nothing to do with overextending himself again. “So, you saw . . .”

Will nodded. “Why do you think I’m not yelling at you right now? Because I am pissed off that you used your powers and scared me like that, but . . . I understand why you did it. It’s okay, Nico.”

“You know I’m . . .” Nico took a deep breath and forced himself to say it aloud, for the first time. “You know I’m gay.”

“Yeah. I’ve known for a while, actually; the Aphrodite kids are generally spot-on about these things, and besides, I had a feeling you might be.” Will smiled at him, one of those gentle, warm smiles that always made Nico feel like he was sitting in a sunbeam. “I’m gay, too, just in case I haven’t made it obvious enough.”

“Yeah, I figured that out.” Nico felt oddly light all of a sudden, as if he’d just shed a heavy burden. “What was it like for you, coming out? I mean, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to . . .”

“I don’t mind. And it was a bit of a mixed bag, honestly. I knew I was gay by the time I came here. I was never worried about how my mom would react; one of the guys in the band, who’s one of her oldest friends, is gay. She was like, ‘Oh, honey, I figured that out when you were five.’ She actually bought me one of the books you checked out. It’s a good one, by the way.” Will brushed a hand through his hair. “My grandparents were shocked, and it took them a little while to completely come to terms with it, but I never doubted they loved me. And here, it was no problem at all. Lee wasn’t about to let any homophobic bullying happen in his cabin.

“Other places, though, not so much. I was already getting bullied by the time I left Austin. I was short and skinny and oversensitive, and kids started calling me a fag by the time I was in second grade. Austin’s a pretty progressive place, especially for Texas, but you never get rid of all the jerks. Seems like every time I go home, I run into one of them. A few have apologized; others still remain depressingly Neanderthal. I don’t let it bother me.”

Spurred by Will’s words, Nico told the healer about the search for the Scepter of Diocletian and the way Cupid forced him into confessing his crush on Percy. “Jason kept trying to tell me it was okay, but . . .”

Will nodded, sympathy in his eyes. “You were born in a place and time when it really wasn’t.”

“I was convinced they’d all hate me if they knew,” said Nico. “I’m still afraid to tell Hazel. She was born in my era; what if she can’t stand to be around me when she finds out?” His eyes stung as he voiced his greatest fear.

“Hazel loves you dearly.” Will took one of Nico’s hands in his. “She’s living at Camp Jupiter, and I know for a fact there are gay people in the Legion. Even if she’s surprised at first, I don’t see any way she’d reject you. Have faith in her. If my Southern Baptist grandparents can come around, she can, too.”

To his dismay, Nico’s throat closed up, and tears filled his eyes.

Will shifted to sit on the edge of his bed. “Nico, I’d never ask this ordinarily, but would you like a hug?”

Nico managed a nod, and Will’s warmth enveloped him. The knot of painful, tangled emotions in his chest loosened, much to his relief, and Nico rested his head on Will’s shoulder.

Will’s big, warm hands smoothed over Nico’s back. “It will be okay. It will. I promise.”

After a few minutes, Nico pulled back. He felt in his heart that Will was right, that Hazel would accept him no matter what, but there was still that fear of rejection in the back of his head. Sooner or later, he’d have to tell her. He’d just have to trust in her gentle, open heart.

“Thank you, Will,” he said, wiping the moisture from his eyes.

“You can always talk to me. Always.” Will squeezed Nico’s hand. “Especially in the next twenty-four hours, because you’re grounded, young man.”

Nico groaned, but without much conviction. He felt wrung out. And, honestly, spending extra time with Will sounded really good. “Okay, but could you bring me the books from my cabin? If I’m going to be confined to this mausoleum, I want to at least put the time to good use.”

“Of course.”

There was a sudden ruckus outside, composed largely of hyperactive footsteps, feminine laughter, and Ryan’s voice demanding to know, “Is he awake?”

“Your number one fan seems to have come to town,” said Will, winking at Nico and standing up. “I can shoo him away if you’re not up to visitors.”

“It’s fine.” Nico pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I’m awake, Ryan!”

Ryan more or less dragged Nyssa into the recovery ward. “Nico! This is my big sister, Nyssa! And I have a little brother named Harley! This place is so incredibly awesome! There’s a lava wall! And a centaur! And goaty guys! Did you know I’m a son of Hephaestus? Their cabin is so cool! Which one’s your cabin? Can you show me how to teleport the way you did?”

It appeared that someone had found better clothes for Ryan, and he’d definitely taken a shower. The hair was still a bit of a haystack, but Nico figured he couldn’t throw stones about that kind of thing.

He took the last question first. “Actually, very few demigods can shadow-travel the way I do. You’ll find your own abilities.”

“And Nico won’t be shadow-traveling again anytime soon,” put in Will. “He nearly turned himself into a shadow a few months ago.”

“Saved your sunshiny ass.”

“And nearly turned your ass into a shadow, I might mention again.”

“Whatever.” Nico turned his attention back to Ryan. “Has Nyssa shown you some of the things your cabin’s doing?”

“Yeah! They’ve got this flamethrower thing, and they make swords, and there’s this robot thing, and-”

“And I told you we’d find out if Nico was awake so you could thank him, not so you could wear him out,” interjected Nyssa. “It’s getting late.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” Ryan somberly held out a hand to Nico. “Thanks for rescuing me from that monster.”

Nico shook his hand. He felt the young boy’s grief for his mother through the contact, and Nico’s heart went out to him. It didn’t seem so long ago that he was in Ryan’s position. “You’re welcome. I’m glad I could save you, and I’m glad you’re here now.”

Ryan bounced a little. “Hey, can you teach me to swordfight? That was so amazingly cool!”

“Yeah, I can do that. It’s one of my jobs here.”

“But not, I repeat, within the next twenty-four hours.” Will looked pointedly at Nico. “Your job now is to rest and recover.”

“Whatever. I’ll see you once Dr. Bossypants lets me go, Ryan.”

“Okay. ‘Bye!” Ryan thundered out again, Nyssa throwing a wave and an apologetic look over her shoulder in his wake.

“You are impossible,” said Will, looking down at Nico, who grinned the grin of the completely unrepentant. “I’ll bring you something to eat and your books, and then you will commence with the resting.”

“You’re not sounding any less bossy.”

“You’re not sounding any less impossible. I’ll be back shortly. Try not to engage in any heroics while I’m gone.”

Will left, and Nico lay back in his bed, feeling downright cheerful.

***

Nico was released the following evening with strict instructions not to strain himself for at least another twenty-four hours. He grumbled at Will, of course, but was secretly relieved to have some extra time to himself. His dyslexia wasn’t bad, but he still wasn’t a fast reader, and he needed the time for concentrated reading.

The books were an introduction to an entirely new world for him. For the first time, he began to see himself not as having something essential wrong with him, but as just being a member of a minority. And it was okay, according to the book. Having feelings for other boys wasn’t something he had chosen, but it was something he could accept.

He could accept his feelings for Will. The warmth he felt inside when he saw Will, or thought about him – it was good. He knew Will liked him that way as well, though only the gods knew why.

There was still the question, though, of how to approach Will about perhaps having a relationship. Every scenario and plan of attack Nico came up with felt like a disaster waiting to happen. What to do . . .

He mulled it over for a few days as he went through his regular camp activities. He taught swordplay to some of the younger campers, which was always very interesting, especially when Ryan joined the group.

“No, Ryan, you can’t have a Stygian iron sword. It’s only for children of Hades. You’re going to start with a blunt steel practice sword – not that one, it’s way too big for you, put that down – and you’ll eventually use a Celestial bronze blade, if you decide the sword will be your weapon. No, hold it like this; it’s not a frying pan. And stop hitting Harley. Harley, cut that out, and I mean now. Do you want me to summon a skeleton to hold you still? Alice, don’t think I didn’t notice you picking pockets. Give Harley back his . . . whatever that is, I don’t want to know. Let’s start with the basic positions; this is low guard. Ryan! See, this is why you start with a practice blade; you’d have taken off your own leg just now!”

It was exhausting, but a good distraction. Nico could always approach the problem of Will with a fresh mind afterward. And, finally, Nico realized what the solution was. He grabbed a drachma and headed for the Iris cabin.

***

Will was headed across the quad toward the Big House, whistling a happy tune, when he spotted Nico exiting the Hades cabin, looking like he had something on his mind.

“Hey, Nico! What’s up?”

Nico jumped a little, but smiled when he saw Will. “Sending an Iris-message to the West Coast. What about you?”

“Going up to the Big House to call my mom. We’ve got a date to talk about Thanksgiving vacation.” Will waved cheerily. “Later!”

Up at the Big House, Will settled into Chiron’s office and put in the call. His mom answered immediately, her face filling the screen. Naomi Solace had given birth to Will at twenty, and now, in her mid-thirties, regularly got mistaken for being his older sister. They looked a lot alike, aside from Naomi’s eyes being hazel instead of blue. Will’s hair was a shade or two lighter than hers (and she admitted to helping hers out a bit), but it was the same wavy texture. What really gave them away, though, was the megawatt smile mother and son shared. Will wondered if it was what had really attracted Apollo, Naomi’s musical gifts notwithstanding.

That smile was in full grandeur on Naomi’s face now. “Will! How’s my baby boy?” Her Texas accent was in full grandeur as well. Will’s had faded since he’d moved to Camp Half-Blood.

“Doing great. How’s my mama?”

“Oh, good, good. We just performed at the Travis County fair, and we’ve got an upcoming gig at a ridiculously expensive wedding. We’re makin’ bank on that one, let me tell you. It’s paying for our vacation this year.”

Will laughed, happy just to hear his mother’s voice and see her face. They talked about their Thanksgiving plans, when Will was to fly out to Austin, and the things he wanted to do when he got there.

“And after that,” said Naomi, “you and me, baby boy, are hittin’ the slopes at Okemo Mountain in Vermont!”

“Woohoo!” Will cheered. “Maybe even ‘yee-haw!’”

“I was thinking five days. Will that be okay for you?” Naomi looked concerned.

Will nodded. “It’s well outside any major cities. Even if the resort is full, it shouldn’t bother me too much. Don’t worry, Mama; we’ll have a great time. I can’t wait.”

Naomi bit her lip nervously. “Um, speaking of you coming home, Will . . . when you do, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Oh?” Will thought he was picking up a subtext. “Is that there’s someone you want me to meet, or someone you want me to meet?”

“Stop that! And, yes, it’s that kind of someone.” She shifted a little. “Her name is Bette, and she’s a pediatric cancer specialist at St. David’s. I, uh, know it’s unexpected, but . . . she’s becoming very special to me.”

Will raised his eyebrows. His mom dated very little, considering how attractive she was, but occasionally, she’d gotten serious enough about a man for Will to meet him. This was a first.

He put his hands around his mouth and intoned, “Come to the gay side! We have cookies! And toasters!”

“Oh, Will,” Naomi laughed. “I admit, I never expected this, but I met her at a charity gig, and I just thought, ‘What an amazing person. I could never do what she does.’ Next thing I know, I’m out on a date with her and feeling like a teenager.”

“Confused, angsty and hormonal?”

“You know what I mean!”

Will laughed, then sobered. “Have you told Grandma and Grampa yet?”

“I did. You know what your Grandma said? She said, ‘I hear lesbians can have children these days.’”

They both laughed at that. “So, I’m not enough for her anymore?”

“She’s baby-crazy. My Aunt Misty just got her third grandchild. I’m Mama’s only kid, and I think she feels like she’s falling behind.” Naomi grinned at him. “I’m happy with my baby boy, though. You got anyone special these days? Please tell me it ain’t that Sebastian.”

“No Aphrodite boys for me anymore,” said Will, holding up his hands. “But . . . yes, there is someone. At least, I’m hoping he’ll be my someone.”

“Ooh! Do tell!”

“He’s another demigod. He’s the son of Hades, but he’s not what you’d think.” Will thought about that statement for a moment and amended, “Okay, he’s pretty much exactly what you’d think, but he’s way more than that. He’s amazing. When I’m around him, I-I can’t help but think . . . that he could be the one, you know?”

Naomi’s eyes turned soft. “I hope he is. Y’all have to grow up so fast.” Her voice caught. “It’s not fair, how fast you had to grow up, baby boy. I’m so proud of you and what you’ve done and what you’ve become, but I want you to have all the good experiences you can. Like falling in love, real love. The kind of love that makes your heart beat in someone else’s chest, like my mama always said.”

“I know, Mama.” Will’s throat grew tight. “You’ve sacrificed a lot, too. If Bette makes you happy, don’t let her get away.”

“Oh, I won’t.”

Will looked at the clock. “We’re almost out of time here. I’ll see you at Thanksgiving. I love you, Mama.”

“I love you, too, baby boy.” Naomi blew him a kiss, and Will blew one back to her.

***

Nico fiddled with the drachma far too long before flipping it through the fountain’s rainbow. He made his request and waited.

After a moment, the rainbow faded into a beach. Piper and Jason sat on a beach blanket, sharing a picnic. Both of them looked up, startled, as Nico appeared.

“Hey, li’l bro!” Jason greeted him after he shook off his shock. “How are things going?”

“Not bad. Thanks for the jacket, you two. It’s a little big, but I’m still hoping I’ll grow, so . . .”

“You could hardly fail not to,” said Jason. Piper elbowed him. “Oof. Hey, just being truthful!”

Piper rolled her eyes. “It’s good to see you, Nico. What’s up?”

“I, uh,” Nico began, and cleared his throat. “Um, Jason, I need to speak to Piper alone for a bit.”

Piper and Jason looked at each other, and four eyebrows raised.

“Well – okay. Either of you need me, just holler.” With one last look at Nico, Jason got up and walked out of view.

A pair of knowing, kaleidoscope eyes looked at Nico. “So, is this, by any chance, about Will?”

Nico nodded. “I need your advice.”

Piper smiled kindly. “That’s what I’m here for.”

“Before anything else, though, you should probably know something.” Nico told Piper about both of his encounters with Cupid. It took some time.

“My gods,” Piper breathed. “Nico, I’m so sorry. I had no idea Mom would do that.”

Nico waved her apology away. “I was mad for about two seconds. You just wanted to help. But that’s part of what I wanted your advice about. I-I really like Will. I’m . . . I’m pretty sure I’m in love with him. But I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve read these books about being – being gay, and I think I’m okay with it now, but what do I do now? Should I tell Will about Cupid’s arrow? What if he doesn’t like me anymore once he finds out?”

Piper was quiet for a moment, probably untangling the bundle of questions he’d just thrown at her. “Okay, last things first: What Cupid told you is true. Arrows can’t create relationships; only people can. You’ve made a relationship with Will. Whatever started it, you two can determine what happens now. If it’ll make you feel better, sure, tell him. I’m guessing it won’t bother him much. He really likes you for who you are, not just what Cupid made him feel.

“As for what to do now . . . just tell him how you feel. Let me tell you a secret about romantic relationships: None of us knows what we’re doing. Not even the children of Aphrodite. Jason and I, sometimes we’re a mess. He gets too intense for me sometimes. I annoy him sometimes. But we love each other, and we make it work. You’ve got a chance at something special with Will. I think you should go for it. I’ve sensed a lot of potential between you two, and I’d hate for you to miss out on exploring that.”

Taking a deep breath, Nico decided to tell her about something else that had been bothering him. “Piper, you know that story about how men and women were originally joined, but the gods split them apart? And now everyone’s looking for their match?” She nodded. “What about . . . what does that mean for me?”

“Oh, Nico.” Piper’s eyes were gentle. “That story lost something in translation. You look at the original language, and gender isn’t a factor. It’s just about people. You will find your match. I don’t know if it’s Will – although I, for one, would be thrilled if it is, because he’s such a terrific guy – but he’s out there somewhere.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Nico couldn’t help but smile, and Piper smiled back at him. “Thanks, Piper.”

“I’m so proud of you, Nico,” she said. “You’ve opened up so much, and I think a lot of that is due to Will. But it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t had the courage to face your fears. Most people just aren’t that brave.”

“Not sure I like this opening-up business. It hurts sometimes.”

“It always does.” Piper gave him a little half-smile. “Just tell Will what you’re feeling, Nico. I don’t think you’ve got anything to fear.”

Nico wasn’t sure he agreed with her about that – Phobos was a child of Aphrodite, after all – but it was a risk he needed to take. “Thanks, Piper.”

“Any time, li’l bro.” Piper grinned when he rolled his eyes. “I’ll do you a favor and tell Jason about you and Will and then talk him down before he decides to go flying to Camp Half-Blood to chaperone you two.”

Nico barked a laugh. “I’ll owe you big for that.”

“Best of luck.” Piper blew Nico a kiss. He blew one back.

***

When Nico emerged from the Iris cabin, Will was slowly wandering back from the Big House. Nico took a deep breath, gathered his courage, and called, “Will!”

Will looked up and spotted him. One of those sunshine smiles spread across his face as Nico jogged over to him. “Nico! How’d your Iris-message go?”

“Really well.” Human interaction, Nico reminded himself. Ask about his call. “How’s your mom?”

“She’s doing great. Apparently, she’s gone over to the gay – or at least bi – side and is now dating a woman. Never expected that, but . . . Mom seemed really happy. She deserves that after raising me.”

At least it gave Nico an opening. “Speaking of love, I just talked to Piper.”

“Yeah? How is she?”

“She and Jason are fine. I . . . needed some advice.”

Will looked at him, a little smile tugging at his mouth. “Did you?”

“Um . . .” Nico looked over toward the canoe lake. “Want to walk?”

“Sure.”

For a time, they walked in silence. Eventually, they came to a quiet, sunny spot beside the lake, and they both sat down.

“Will, I . . .” Nico began. Just tell him, Piper had said. “I’ve fallen for you, Will.”

Will threaded his fingers through Nico’s. “That’s pretty convenient, because I’ve fallen for you, too.”

“Yeah, about that, um, I had a talk with Cupid in my dream the other night.” Nico steeled himself. “The night of the battle? Cupid hit you with an arrow. For me. He showed me.”

“He did?” Will raised his eyebrows. “I guess I’ll have to thank him.”

Nico was floored. “What? But, Will, you didn’t have to fall for me. He made you!”

“He made me want to pursue you. Get to know you better. And you know what, Nico? I’m really glad I did.” Will reached over and gently tucked a lock of Nico’s hair behind his ear. “You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met. It’s been a damned privilege, hanging out with you. I know you don’t see it, but you’re freaking beautiful. Not just your face, but your courage. Your compassion. The way you pretend not to care and then care so much it almost kills you. So, yeah, I’m going to give Cupid – or Eros – a big, fat, thank-you offering. If he led to this moment, he deserves it.”

“Will . . .” Nico had to shut his eyes to keep tears from falling. He pulled himself back together. “You’re the amazing and beautiful one. You’re kind, and you’re brave, and you make me laugh, and when I’m around you I finally feel warm.” He looked up at Will. “Just – you know I’m broody and emotionally wrecked, and I get down for days, and I have zombie-summoning nightmares, and I haven’t really figured out the twenty-first century. I’ll be the worst boyfriend ever!”

Will nodded, absorbing this, and turned sparkling eyes on Nico. “But the question is, will you be my boyfriend?”

Nico relaxed, huffing a laugh. “Not sure how I feel about the word ‘boyfriend,’ but . . . yeah, if you're stupid enough to want me, I'll be yours.”

“We’ve established that I can always be counted on to do the stupid thing, and I’m sure I can come up with some other term that’ll probably make you say, ‘No, let’s go back to 'boyfriend.’”

This was it, then. Nico looked down at their joined hands, and he realized he’d been waiting for this moment for longer than he’d known it was possible.

“So, um, what happens now?” he asked.

Will shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re not anybody else; we’re, you know, us.”

Us.

Nico smiled at his boyfriend. “Us. I like that.” He glanced at Will’s lips and thought they looked soft. “Do, um, do you want to kiss me?”

“I’d like to kiss you very much. Do you want to kiss me?”

“Yeah.” Nico leaned in as Will did, and then abruptly pulled back. “No tongues, though.”

Will laughed, outshining the sun for a moment. “No tongues.”

And then his lips were on Nico’s, and Nico was so glad he was sitting down, because compared to the lightning bolt that had gone down his spine when Will first took his hand on Half-Blood Hill? This was a full-on electrical storm. He heard himself make a helpless sound in the back of his throat, and he clutched at Will’s shoulder to keep himself upright.

The kiss broke, and there was something not right about that. Nico hooked a hand around the back of Will’s neck and pressed their lips together again.

Someone wolf-whistled. Will and Nico broke their kiss and looked out at the lake, where Connor and Cecil were rowing a canoe together and, apparently, watching the show.

“ ‘Bout damn time!” Cecil called.

Will laughed and flipped him off. Nico felt his cheeks heat, but somehow, he just couldn’t be bothered to care. He leaned against his boyfriend, letting the sunshine and Will warm him.