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Harlem Saints

Chapter Text

It was a hot day in New York City and Nico di Angelo was trying his absolute best to sit still as he waited for the waiter to come back with his Coca Cola. His mother was absorbed in her little black notebook, making notes about things Nico was not allowed to see. His sister, Bianca, was sitting in the third chair around their café table, her hands folded in her lap, looking for all the world like a little saint. Nico tried to sit properly too, back straight, hands folded on his lap, his short legs hovering above the pavement. The city of New York bustled about him. Cars honked at each other on the wide boulevards and buildings scraped the skies. When they first arrived in the city, his mother had pointed out the Empire State Building and said it was the tallest building in the world.

“Can we go visit?” He had asked, gazing up at the needle that pierced the sun. He had never seen anything so tall in all his life.

“No, darling,” she replied. “It wouldn’t be safe.”

His heart had sagged, pulling his small shoulders down with it.  Nothing seemed safe anymore.

Bianca had put an arm around him. “Who knows? Maybe one day…”

Now, sitting at the café, Nico was staring up at it again. How he longed to go up there, stand at the very top, and look out over the city. You could probably see the whole world from a building that tall, maybe even all the way back to Italy.

His eyes dropped back to the table. Not that anything was wrong with America, he liked their hotel, all the new sights and smells, the exotic language they spoke here, but he missed Italy. He missed the open fields of his great grandfather’s villa. He missed the river ways and the churches whose bells tolled every hour. The di Angelo family had been in America for only a month, but Nico still felt homesick. Every night before bed, he asked his mother if they would be going back home tomorrow. Every night she told him the same thing, “No, Nico. We’re not going back home. It isn’t safe”

Nico started swinging his legs back and forth, his attempts to look mature cast aside. Maybe when he was tall enough to touch the pavement. The waiter came back. He was tall, taller than Nico’s mother. Blonde hair and green eyes. He looked very American.

He said a few things in English before handing over drinks. Nico glanced at his coke briefly before turning back to the waiter. “Thank you,” he tried. His English was pretty terrible. He had been practicing all month, but he still sounded very Italian. Bianca, who sounded like she was born and raised in New York, was starting to tease him about it.

The waiter smiled and bid them good day before heading back inside and out of the heat. Part of Nico wanted to go inside with him, but then he wouldn’t be able to see the skyscrapers as easily.

“How long are we going to stay in New York?” he asked, stirring the straw around in his coke. Ice clinked against the glass. “I miss my friends. Why can’t we go home?”

Bianca joined in. “I miss my friends too. I miss school and people speaking Italian.”

Nico nodded and their mother frowned.

“I’m sorry, dears, but home is not a safe place right now. There’s a war coming, you know. I want us to be as far away from it as possible.”

“You mean we aren’t going back at all!?” Both siblings jumped up. Nico stumbled, his short legs not quite as coordinated as his sister’s. She caught him before he hit the ground.

Maria di Angelo looked heartbroken. “I’m sorry, I truly am. But your father and I think it would be best for the two of you to stay out of Europe for awhile. America is a big country, there is a lot to do here. There’s even a few Italians here in New York. Your father’s been looking for a place we can stay near them.”

Nico and Bianca exchanged looks and sat down. “Father’s here?” Bianca asked, carefully.

They had never met their father before, though Maria talked about him often. He was very busy, she would say. He would come visit when they were older.

“Yes. In fact, he’s going to come visit our hotel this evening.”  

“Will he stay awhile?” Bianca asked, abandoning her mature posture to lean forward eagerly on the table.

Maria hesitated, then answered, “I’m not sure, darling, but we’ll see.”

Bianca’s shoulders sank but Nico refused to be disappointed. Just to see his father would be enough.

-

It was nearly nine in the evening. Nico had never been allowed to stay up this late before. Usually he went to bed as soon as the sun fell from the sky, but today he was allowed to stay awake until his father came. Though his eyelids fought to close, he refused to give in. Bianca sat in one of the comfy chairs in the corner pretending to read a book to impress their father when he showed up, but Nico knew she was just staring at the pages. They both had the same problem with the letters on the page moving places they should not. They never told Maria about their problem, so when she said, “Nico, why don’t you pick up a book?” she didn’t realize how silly her request was.

He shrugged and reached for one of the comic books sitting on the night stand on his side of the bed. Comic books had been his favorite part of life in America so far. Awesome heroes saving the day. His favorite right now was Superman. The first issue had just been released when they had arrived in America. He couldn’t read any of it because it was in English, but the pictures were nice. And Nico liked the idea of heroes running around, saving the city. When they left Italy, things had been grim and people were unhappy. But in the world of Superman, everything was colorful and hopeful.

“Mama,” he spoke up. “Someday I want to be a superhero, like Superman!”

Maria looked up from Bianca’s shirt she was ironing for church tomorrow.

“You can’t even read that comic,” Bianca scoffed. “How do you know you want to be like Superman?”

Maria didn’t say anything, she just waited for Nico to explain. “I want to help people, mama. I want to make the world bright and safe again.”

Maria smiled, but it was a sad smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Nico hated those smiles.

“There’s a lot of people who think they’re saving the world right now, darling. I hope that you can do better than they are.”

Their father never came that night. Instead, a bellhop in a red uniform with shiny tassels delivered a note. It took Maria all of a few seconds to read before she instructed the bellhop something quickly in English. Then the freshly ironed shirt was tossed carelessly into a suitcase and they were rushing into the lobby. Bianca looked as scared and confused as Nico felt. He grabbed for her hand and she clung to his, forcing a brave smile.

From the backseat of a taxi, three blocks from the hotel, they watched lightning strike the hotel and the the whole place went up in flames. Maria pulled her son close and he heard her whisper, “The world sure needs a lot of saving now.”

Chapter Text

Nico di Angelo was completely unlike any of the other Italian boys on the block. There were a number of reasons, but the one that set him aside that afternoon as he sat on the stoop in front of the apartment building his mother owned with Bianca and her friend Marcella, was that he was no ordinary fifteen year old at all, Italian or not.

“That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Marcella muttered in Italian. Here in East Harlem, everyone spoke Italian.

“I think the one last week was worse,” Bianca replied. She and Marcella were still in their school uniforms from the Catholic girls’ school down the street. Like Nico, they were nothing like the other girls on the street.

“Harpies all look the same,” Nico muttered, looking away from the bird woman coming out of the butcher’s shop down the street. There was a paint stain on the bottom hem of his own school shirt. Probably from painting in art class, possibly from the paint thrown at him by the Tagliocozza boys in art class. Most of it missed him, but he wasn’t always so lucky. Maria would be furious. There would definitely be a lecture about not wasting resources. It was un-American, said the posters that decorated the classrooms in his school. And as Italian immigrants, they needed to be extra American.

“They totally don’t,” Marcella replied. “There’s always some small difference or another. The redheaded one from Monday was almost human looking!”

Nico rolled his eyes. 

“Nico, that’s rude and you know it,” Bianca shoved his shoulder.

Before he could reply, the harpy looked right at them, her eyes burning. Halfbloods. He didn’t need to hear her say it to know that was the word hissing out of her open mouth. The three of them scrambled to their feet and dashed towards Our Lady of Mount Carmel two streets away. The most famous church in all of Italian Harlem was a safe haven when usually there weren’t any. Bianca had discovered it by accident once while being chased by a manticore.

Nico dabbed his fingers in holy water and quickly made the sign of the cross before going in. He didn’t look back. He knew the stories his mother told well enough by now to know what he should and shouldn’t do.

“That was close!” Marcella giggled as they slid into a pew towards the middle of the church. Bianca shushed her.

Nico and Bianca dutifully knelt and lifted their hands. Marcella had abandoned Catholicism when she discovered she was a daughter of the old god of war. Her mother was usually a little too busy with work on 116th to notice that her daughter stopped going to services and swore like no god-fearing, seventeen-year-old Catholic girl should. 

The di Angelo children were not so passionate in their abandonment of their mother’s faith. It could have been that their mother actually took them to church on Sundays and made sure they went through the proper rituals when they reached the proper age, but it was also likely that not knowing who their father was made them less committed to paganism than Marcella. There were reasons, Maria insisted. Knowing made life more dangerous, attracted more monsters. The longer the stayed in the incense and ritual of Catholicism and away from their demigod lives, the safer they could be. The God of Maria’s family protected them.

After a few minutes of fidgeting, Marcella stood. “If you two are just gonna sit here and pray, I’ll be outside checking if the coast is clear.” Marcella slid out and left, stalking past the confession booth just as the door opened and Giovanni Gatti, the butcher, stepped out. The door stood open, beckoning. It had been a week since Nico’s last confession, where he had proceeded to apologize for a number of things, including lifting a Captain America comic book from the shop down the street and pulling the braids out of Bianca’s hair before church that morning. He had been given ten Hail Marys and prayed each and every one of them.

Since then Nico had done nothing he felt worth confessing. He swore at the Tagliocozza twins, sure, but that didn’t count. It wasn’t a sin if they started it. But there was something, a thing that he conveniently left out of thought and mind. If he didn’t dwell on it, it wasn’t a sin and he didn’t have to confess. Sitting in the church in silence, however, always made it come closer, too close, to the front of brain, to the point where he was almost thinking, almost dwelling on it.

Turning his head back to the alter, he thought over what Maria always told them. “Words have power in this world, darlings. Think over your words carefully before you say them, because once they’re said, you can never take them back.”

The words he wanted to say could never be taken back. And once he said them, he knew they would become real, a physical thing that couldn’t be prayed away. And he wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.

He made the sign of the cross again and stood. Bianca finished her prayer quickly and rose to follow him. Her eye caught the open confessional and she hesitated, then walked quickly past. Nico wondered if it had to do with Joey Ferrero bringing her flowers last week. Bianca hadn’t seemed interested at all at the time, but the older his sister got, the less he felt he could read her.

“She’s gone,” Marcella informed them as they stepped outside. They had been inside less than thirty minutes, but it was already getting dark. Time to get home. Marcella and her mother lived a block away from the church, so the three of them parted ways, the di Angelos heading back to their mother’s building. They were silent awhile, only the sound of their footsteps echoing off the pavement passed between them. Just when Nico thought he couldn’t take it anymore, Bianca spoke up.

“Nico, you go to confession every Sunday, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Yeah, don’t you?” He looked over at her, night was falling quickly and her face was partially obscured by the sun ducking behind the buildings. He walked faster. Nico hated being out at night.

“No. I used to go at school, but I haven’t gone in a year,” she confessed.

Nico’s foot caught on the uneven pavement and he stumbled. “Are you a pagan now, like Marcella?”

She shook her head quickly. “No, no. It’s just, every time I go in, I feel like I’m hiding what I really want to confess, you know? I want to talk about these monsters. I want to talk about that time we killed the manticore. I want to talk about monsters and gods, but I can’t say that. I know confession is supposed to be anonymous, but all the priests here know us, know Mama, so how can we just tell them things?”

He nodded gravely. “I know what you mean. Last week my confession was that I pulled your braids out.”

She laughed. “I bet you did that just so you had something to confess.” She wasn’t wrong, so he didn’t reply.

“Bianca, can I,” he paused, still unsure about going down this path, “Can I tell you something?”

She looked over at him. They were finally the same height again after years of her being taller. She smiled at him. “You can always tell me anything, Nico.”

Nico nodded. Words usually passed between them with ease, but the older they got, the more he realized they kept secrets from each other. And he wasn’t sure he was ready to tell this secret.

“Nevermind,” he murmured, turning back towards the side street that would take them home. Bianca hesitated before following suit. She didn’t say anything, but his silence its own meaning.              

They made it back to the apartment before the last faded blue light was out of the sky and Maria had made something that smelled delicious and like home. Before Nico went to sleep, he said his evening prayers. He prayed that his family could accept that he was absolutely nothing like the other Italian boys on the block in an infinite number of ways.

Chapter Text

There were around three hundred boys in attendance at St. Francis, the Catholic boys’ school on the edge of East Harlem, and only one was black. His name was Hernando Joaquin Vasquez. His father was a poet in Black Harlem as well as a jazz musician who played at the nightclubs where only wealthy white people went. He was pretty famous, even in Little Italy. Joaquin’s mother was Athena, goddess of war and creativity. This little fact was known only to his father, the di Angelos, and Marcella.

Joaquin was not the first Black Harlem kid to attend the mostly Italian school, but he was the only one there now. They had wanted him to play basketball and offered him free tuition. The joke was, Joaquin didn’t play basketball, he wrote novels in and played saxophone in his spare time. He was also Nico’s best and only friend but their relationship was usually confined to the school grounds because neither felt particularly safe in the other’s part of the city.

Fate was a funny thing - something Nico believed in without much effort and something Joaquin said was full of shit. But Nico thought there was no way that of all the schools that could have offered Joaquin a spot, it was the one with another demigod. How could it not be fate when they ended up in the same class every year?

“Coincidence, my friend,” was Joaquin’s reply any time Nico brought it up. “If you start calling every miracle fate, then you give those blind old ladies too much power over you.”

It was the last day of school before summer vacation, the classroom was sweltering and the Tagliocozza brothers were up to their usual antics. Joaquin was reading a magazine while Nico skimmed the recent issue of Captain America. Three years in and it was still his favorite comic. He never missed an issue. Their art teacher was no where to be seen, as usual.

“di Angelo,” Tony Tagliocozza called from the front of the room where he and his brother wrote crude things on the blackboard.

Tony’s stupider clone, Benny, had just finished drawing poor representations of male geneaelia on the board. Nico secretly hoped the teacher would come back now and catch them in the act.

“di Angelo,” Tony repeated, walking down the row of desks towards him. Heads turned to watch his progress. Everyone knew that what would happen: The Tagliocozza’s would make a horrible joke about Maria di Angelo, the unmarried owner of a nice apartment complex having two children with her name, then Nico would punch them. The odds would be uneven, though Nico would hold his own, until Joaquin set down his magazine and stood up to join his friend. At some point a teacher would come in, the boys would laugh and pretend they were playing, and the fighting would halt until another day when the Tagliocozza boys were bored.

“I saw your mother down by Giretti’s last night,” Tony sneered. Giretti’s was the bar near Marcella’s house. It wasn’t necessarily a prostitution den, but that wasn’t to say that morally upstanding women went there. Nico knew for a fact Maria di Angelo had never set foot in such a place.

“You saw wrong, then,” Nico replied. Joaquin was still reading and Benny was still drawing on the board. Nico did not like being in fights because Maria did not like him being in them. Every time he came home with another black eye, he would find her crying later, when she thought no one was watching. It ate at him in a way nothing else could.

“She was with Marco Giretti,” the son of Antonio Giretti, a mobster, and an infamous playboy who was too young to interest the likes of Maria di Angelo anyways.

Nico stuck to Captain America taking on the Nazis. He longed to be a hero from his comics, fighting bad guys and saving people. Nico wanted to be like Steve Rodgers. After all, what was the purpose of being a demigod if all it meant was going to Catholic school and hiding from harpies? Instead of defending the world from fascism, he was stuck in art class, trying not to fight with Tony. It wasn’t the fighting or the glory and fame that he was drawn to, but the whole idea of making the world safe. When Steve Rodgers agreed to undergo an experimental procedure to become a super human, he hadn’t been thinking of what he could do for himself, but what he could do for others.

“Wanna know what she was doing with Marco Giretti, huh di Angelo?” Tony did not like being ignored. Nico was about to tell him to shove off when something outside the classroom window caught his eye. A flash of green and grey feathers - the harpy from yesterday.

“di Angelo, are you hearing me? I said-“

“Not now, Tagliocozza,” he stood up so suddenly, Tony, who had been leaning in right next to him, stumbled back. Joaquin was looking up now, a question in his eyes. Nico jerked his head towards the window and started walking out of the classroom.

“Hey! di Angelo! Where the hell do you think you’re going? Class isn’t changing yet!” Tony called after him. “What? Not you too, Vasquez!”

There had been one time, and only one time, when the harpies had found the school and it had been chaos. Reported as gang violence in the news, the whole auditorium had been wrecked during an assembly. Joaquin and Nico had only barely missed the claws that sought them.

“What is it?” Joaquin asked as he jogged to catch up with his friend.

“Harpy,” Nico replied. He had no clue where he was going, he just knew they needed to get away from other people.

“You’re walking like you have a plan, but you don’t, do you,” Joaquin commented as they reached the stairs at the end of the hall. They were on the third floor.

“Getting to the first floor where we can’t be dragged out a window is step one,” Nico made that decision on the spot.

“Then?”

“You’re the son of Athena, plans are your thing!” Nico was taking the steps two at a time. Despite what he said, he was still thinking over some possible plan. School was too far from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, they could never get there in time. The incense of regular churches was usually enough to keep them from being tracked or sniffed out, but once they had been found, it was useless.

“I feel like being around people is our best bet right now,” Joaquin was in step with him. “Otherwise we’re easy targets.”

Nico shook his head. “Then other people could get hurt.”

“Just trying to come up with a plan, here.” Joaquin sounded irritated. He was brilliant and didn’t like being told he wasn’t.

“I know, keep trying,” he tried to sound encouraging, but fear was starting to build up in his chest. Was it just him, or were monsters becoming more and more common lately? It was like the war in Europe had gotten them all stirred up and ready for trouble on this side of the pond as well.

“Statue of Gabriel in the chapel,” Joaquin almost shouted as they reached the first floor and he pivoted left down the hall to the chapel.

“What about it?” Nico tried not to slip on the recently mopped floor as he followed after him.

“He’s holding a sword.” When realization did not dawn on Nico’s face, Joaquin added, “It’s detachable. Was built separately. We can pull it out and use it.” They were running at this point, or at least as close to it as they could get without arousing the suspicion of the nuns. Even though he couldn’t see one and there were no classrooms in this hallway, the sisters always seemed to know the moment someone switched from a fast walk to a run and the last thing the boys needed was an angry nun.

“Wait. Are you saying… You want to use the sword of Gabriel to kill a harpy?”

“Why is that so hard for you to understand, comic nerd? Obviously I want to use the sword on the harpy!” Joaquin barely kept himself from throwing open the doors to the small chapel adjoining the school. He and Nico peeked inside, then scuttled towards the alcove in the back where the statue of Gabriel was, looking for all the world like an avenging angel, his hallowed face illuminated with chipped paint that had probably applied to the statue long after it was made. In his hand, a sword of black iron stabbed into the devil crouched below him. The devil screamed in silent agony. Nico had never paid the writhing form of the devil near as much attention as the handsome face of Gabriel, but now he noticed how much its red and brown form looked like the Minotaur in the book Maria kept stashed away until story nights.

“Well,” Nico muttered, looking at the fierce-looking sword in the statue. It wasn’t so much a sword as an extra-long knife. The more he looked at it, the less he liked Joaquin’s plan. “Are you going to grab it?”

Joaquin hesitated. “I… something doesn’t seem right.”

There was something off about it, something about the naked black blade in the hands of the angel felt wrong. This was a relic from the Vatican, they knew, but the sword looked the exact opposite of holy. The shadows around them twitched and quivered, like they were being drawn to the sword. What sculptor in their right mind would put such a horrifying thing in the hands of Gabriel?

“Yeah,” Nico agreed. “Something about it… it’s not even a proper sword! There’s no handle or anything.” The blade was naked, no hilt to save the wielders’ hands from the raw power of the metal. But he wanted to grab it anyways. It called to him. He tried to fight against it. Dark magic swords were the sort of bad news he didn’t need in his life right now. He wanted to be Captain America, not a supervillain.

“It makes me feel cold,” Joaquin said, taking a step back. “Maybe this was a bad idea. I remembered it being bigger.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth then the door burst open behind them and the harpy hobbled in, her bird feet clacking on the stone floors. The stench of death rolled off her, filling the church with her foulness. The musty smell of incense was slowly being overpowered by the rank smell of harpy.

Her beady eyes found them, locking first on Joaquin, then Nico, then the statue. It could have been a trick of the dim church light, but Nico swore she looked straight at the sword.

“Hello, little halfbloods,” she cooed. “Why don’t you come over here and make this quick?”

“How about you come over here, and we’ll make it quicker,” Joaquin taunted. Nico shot him a look that clearly asked why are you inviting her over here?

The harpy cackled. “I’m not stupid, son of Athena. Stygian iron isn’t something you play with, boys.”

They glanced at each other. Stygian iron?

“Only those of the Underworld can touch it,” her eyes bored into Nico. He shivered. “So unless one of you is a son of Hades, I wouldn’t get much closer if I were you.”

She smiled revealing sharp, jagged teeth beneath her blood red lips. Nico had seen that color on the models in Bianca’s magazines, but he had a feeling the harpy wasn’t wearing Max Factor.

Nico wished Bianca was here now. It wasn’t that she was fearless – Nico knew her better than that – it was that she handled the pressure of her fear much better than he did. When she was scared, she used it to fuel her actions. Nico’s fear usually fueled him to turn and run. But Joaquin wasn’t backing down, so he couldn’t either. Besides, they had backed themselves into a corner. The only way out was through a harpy.

“I’m getting impatient, boys. I have a quota to fill. Zeus doesn’t want a bunch of you running around and causing havoc in the New World.” She snapped her teeth together a few times, like a bird snapping its beak, but when she did it, it sounded less like clack clack and more like it’s time for lunch.

She took a few steps forward. Joaquin tensed. Nico could see in his eyes he was searching for a way out of this.

She took another cautious step, her eyes fixed on the sword. She really didn’t like that thing, which made Nico like it all the more.

“When she charges, dive right,” Joaquin hissed. Nico barely had time to understand what he said when the harpy lifted her wings and flew straight towards them, not really flying as much as gliding towards them. Joaquin dove left, ducking under a pew. Nico, however, had already made up his mind. Faster than he knew possible, he turned and ripped the sword from Gabriel’s hands. He felt all the warmth drain from his body. The blood coursing through his veins felt slower, colder, turning to ice.

The harpy barely had time to scream, her feet clacking on the stones as she tried to slow herself down. One of her claws raked across his chest as she tried to stop herself, to back away from the sword.  Too late, she crashed into Nico, the sword coming down on one of her wings. She screeched. Her cries of agony bounced off the walls of the church. And she was gone. It wasn’t like when Bianca killed the weird dog things last month. That had dissolved into dust. This was more like the sword absorbed the harpy – like it ate her. Nico staggered back, blood seeping over his uniform. Maria would not approve.

“What the hell man,” Joaquin was shaken, coming around the pew, his wide eyes fixed on Nico.

Nico had no response. He tried to take a step, but the world seemed disconnected. It spun one way and he spun another. The sword clattered from his hands as he pitched forward. Joaquin caught him before he smacked his head against the unforgiving floor of the chapel.

“Nico, Nico can you hear me?” He tried to nod, but just keeping his eyes open was a struggle. He had never felt this tired before. He was so tired he felt sick. And cold. It didn’t feel like May, it felt like the dead of January when fuel for the heaters ran out. It was like all the energy had drained out of him. Moving his eyelids up and down took so much effort, it gave him vertigo.

“Nico!” Joaquin’s voice sounded terrified.

“Nico!” Another voice screamed. He knew that voice, but it was so hard to place it right now. He forced his eyes open again, but they wouldn’t focus.

“Bianca! There was a harpy. He grabbed the sword from Gabriel and it – I don’t know, the harpy just disappeared or something, and now, and now,” Joaquin was crying. Nico thought it was weird, but then he realized, I’m dying.

Dying might be a nice change. No more Tagliocozza brothers. No one cursing Italians under their breath whenever he, Maria, and Bianca left East Harlem. No more of this war and no more rationing. No more going to bed hungry, dreaming of being full again. No more lying in confession. No more hiding from monsters and mobsters. No more afraid. 

No, he thought. Don’t think that way. You don’t want to die. Because dying meant no more of Maria’s comforting hugs. No more running with Bianca through the streets. No more playing marbles with Joaquin during recess. And no more Captain America. He could never grow up and join the army like Steve Rodgers. He could never help people.

I will not die.

“Here, give him some of this.” This voice was completely unfamiliar.

Something warm was pressed into his mouth. It tasted like the grapes fresh from the vines of his grandfather’s vineyard back in Italy. He hadn’t thought about them in years, but all the comfort of warm summer days, lounging under the grapevines with Bianca came back to him then. He felt strength return to his limbs. His fingers and toes tingled as the feeling he never realized he had lost returned. The pain in his chest dulled, thankfully, but he could still feel the skin there knitting back together.  

“Not too much! Too much might start to kill him all over again!” The voice from earlier shouted, the accent sounded weird to him.

He opened his eyes. The light burned so he closed them again.

“Bianca?” He croaked.

“Nico! Nico are you alright? Can you hear me?”

He tried to nod, but it made the nausea come back so he gave up. “I hear you.” Was he speaking English or Italian? He needed to speak English for Joaquin. For the person with the weird accent. He tried to open his eyes again. And again. Until finally it didn’t feel like the light was trying to gauge the balls from their sockets.

Bianca was crouched next to him, holding onto something that looked like a mix between baklava and cake. Joaquin was still supporting his head. Little rivers ran down both their faces. He tried to sit up. Both of them moved to help him.

“Not too fast!” The strange voice from earlier commanded. Now that his senses were returning to him, he could process it more. The voice definitely belonged to a girl, probably closer to his age than Bianca’s. And definitely foreign. Not foreign like an Italian from Harlem, but foreign like the fresh off the boat folks fleeing Europe.

He looked and finally found her, standing behind Bianca so that Nico had to peer around his sister’s shoulder to catch a glimpse of her. She had dark hair in a thick braid down her back and a silver hairband that definitely looked like something girls at Bianca’s school were not allowed to wear, but she did have on a uniform. Her skin was tan. Maybe she was fleeing the campaign in North Africa or the Middle East.

“Who’s she?” he croaked. He no longer felt nauseous.

“This is Zoe Nightshade,” Bianca introduced him. “She’s a follower of Artemis, a Hunter, who transferred to St. Agatha’s last week.” She had never mentioned it before.

Nico tried to keep the hurt from his face, but he could tell Bianca already felt guilty. She hadn’t mentioned another halfblood other than Marcella at school. He had told her the same day he met Joaquin that someone like them had shown up.

“Nice to meet you,” Nico forced out. His throat ached. His mouth ached. Everything ached. But whatever the thing still clutched in Bianca’s hand was, it had helped immensely. His senses were all back. He was awake enough to process some of what had just happened. “Thanks for saving me.”

“Pleasure,” Zoe replied without a drop of sincerity. “We really should be getting back now, Bianca, now that thou know he’s going to be okay. I can’t imagine the matrons being happy to discover us here.”

Bianca hesitated. Her dark brown eyes met Nico’s. “Do you think you’ll be okay? I’ll come get you as soon as school is out.”

Nico nodded as Joaquin helped him to his feet. “I’ll be fine. How did you know to come, anyways?”

Bianca shrugged. “Sibling sense? How did you know when the dog-thing was attacking me?”

He shrugged back as Zoe answered, “Telkhine. It’s called a telkhine.”

Bianca brushed the comment off and asked Nico one more time, “Are you sure you’re okay?” He nodded and Zoe practically dragged her back towards St. Agatha.

As soon as they left, Joaquin spoke up, “I don’t like her.”

“Huh? Bianca?” Nico realized this was the first time the two of them had a chance to meet each other, and what an occasion.

He shook his head. “Zoe Nightshade. Something about her spells trouble.”

Nico looked towards the door his sister had just followed her out of. He still felt a little wobbly. Was his near-death encounter affecting his ability to sense regular danger?

He turned to Joaquin to reply, but the other boy was turned away, looking at the black sword still on the ground, half under one of the pews. Nico couldn’t be sure if the blade itself was writhing or the shadows around it.

“I think that sword tried to kill you, too,” Joaquin said after they had stared at it long enough. So maybe that ruled Hades of the list of possible fathers.

“But it didn’t,” he responded. It made him think of the superheroes in comic books. Weird swords found in a church were definitely up there on the list of things that turned one onto the path of heroism. Or the path of evil. “Should I keep it?”

“Are you crazy?” Joaquin snapped. “It was definitely sucking at you the same way it did the harpy! And even if it wasn’t obviously evil, isn’t stealing from a church a sin or something? Father Ricardo would kick your ass!”

Nico nodded. “We should at least put it back.” But when they turned towards the statue of Gabriel, he already held a sword, this one looking much more like it belonged in his holy hands.

“I think it’s a sign,” Nico confirmed.

“You’re crazy,” Joaquin muttered. “My best friend is crazy.”

Nico di Angelo was not like most boys in East Harlem for a number of reasons. Most boys didn’t get attacked by harpies on the regular. Most boys did not see the triumphant face of the angel Gabriel and feel their heart race. Most boys were not demigods who came back from the dead.

Chapter Text

That day after school, Nico and Joaquin did something they never did. They went out for sodas.

 Not only did Bianca meet them at the gate, but she dragged Marcella and Zoe along as well and the five of them struck out in search of a place that would accept three Italians, a black boy, and Zoe. It was tough, but they managed to find a place run by a Jewish family who catered to all.

Nico didn’t mind Marcella, though it was no secret that she and Joaquin hated each other, but he was starting to see why Joaquin didn’t like Zoe. For starters, she refused to talk to either of the boys, and as Nico and Joaquin came back from the counter of the diner with napkins, he heard her complain to Marcella, “I just don’t see how thou can stand to spend time with these boys.” She said boys like people said Italians or Blacks.

“Can’t please everyone,” Joaquin murmured to him as they slid into the booth next to Bianca. Nico nodded and tried not to look back at the waiter who was filling their drinking behind the counter. He looked like the statue of Gabriel, with blond curls and dark blue eyes.

“I call a meeting to order,” Bianca proclaimed after the waiter boy dropped two shakes and a phosphate on the table. Pooling their money together hadn’t been enough for one each, but some was better than none. Times were hard.

“Meeting?” Joaquin raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, a meeting.” Bianca smiled devilishly. “We all know that there was a huge increase in monster sightings upon the start of the Second Great War. I mean, we used to only run into monsters occasionally, and now? Every day. It’s getting worse and worse.” Her voice sounded off, and it took Nico until the end of her small speech to realize it was because she was speaking English. He wasn’t sure he had ever heard his sister speak more English than it took to order a phosphate in front of him.

“Yes, great observation,” Joaquin nodded. He was trying to keep the sarcasm from his voice, but Marcella had been flicking some salt she poured out onto the table at him and he was probably wondering why he was here in the first place. “But I don’t think there’s anything we can do to change it.”

His voice was confident as ever, but his eyes darted toward the counter – away from Nico and Nico’s rucksack where the blade poked through the opening, wrapped haphazardly in Nico’s school sweater. They had decided to not tell anyone about the Stygian iron for now. It made both of them feel anxious.

“Nothing,” Zoe replied coolly. “The gods’ seat of power is moving here, to New York. The monsters will only continue to get worse, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“The gods’ what?” three of the four halfbloods present chorused. Marcella was too interested in destroying napkins. She wasn’t very good at austerity.

“Seat of power. Olympus. It used to be in England, but times are changing. It’s been moving to New York over the past few years. The monsters will keep increasing until it’s as unsafe here as Europe. Have thou not noticed that thee three are the oldest demigods in the area? And so many of thee so close together. There is a lot more attention over here than there used to be.”

“Mount Olympus? England? Last I checked it was still in Greece,” Joaquin pointed out.

Zoe rolled her eyes. “The actual Mount Olympus, the original, yes. But the gods’ seat of power moves around, following the greatest power in the West.”

“Why?” Nico asked.

“It’s not important,” she brushed him off. Nico frowned. “What is important is that while the gods are caught up in the war in Europe, they are delegating their responsibility of their New World children over to less… sympathetic creatures.”

“The harpies?” Joaquin asked. “Zeus doesn’t want us demigods mucking around in the New World or something, so he’s sending harpies to come and eliminate us? How does that help solve anything?”

“Children of the Big Three – you know Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades – are largely at fault for the War,” Bianca jumped in. “Maybe they are worried that demigods here will get too involved. Zoe was telling me that there is talk of a treaty to ban the Big Three from siring any more children.”

Zoe nodded. “Thou are correct. There are also rumors circulating Olympus that the gods are hiding all the remaining children they have in America to prepare should there be a tip in the balance of power. After all, the mortals who lose this war will undoubtedly die. Zeus has mixed feeling about Europe right now and wants to make sure his transition to the Americas ends largely in his favor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is sending harpies to hunt down other halfbloods.”

“What, like hunting down children of Hades? Cause we know every demigod in Harlem and none of them are kids of the Underworld,” Joaquin defended. The di Angelos were quiet. They still had no clue who their godly father was, but surely if he was someone as strong as Hades, they would have started developing some type of power by now or at least have been claimed like their friends. Marcella was able to control the battle lust of those around her, something she used this both to avoid fights and to start them. Joaquin didn’t seem to have powers, he was just naturally smart, but one day a glowing mark had appeared over his head. Athena had claimed him her son and given him her passion for justice. The di Angelos had only the word of their mother and every monster they’d ever met that they were indeed demigods.

“Well, Hades’ children, naturally. But Athena is out of favor in Olympus right now too, so I would watch out, boy,” she said boy again, but Joaquin ignored it.

“What, they think we’re a bunch of fascists? Like Hitler and Mussolini?” Nico asked. The only son of Hades any of them knew was the leader of the Third Reich himself. No one wanted to be accused of following that path. It was un-American.

“I didn’t say that,” Zoe clarified. “It’s just precautionary. Artemis is neutral in all of this, so I am neutral as well. All I’m saying is that demigods all over could be in serious danger. Zeus doesn’t play around.”

“What are they fighting over, anyways?” Nico asked, reaching for a sip of the milkshake he and Bianca were sharing.

“Excuse me?”

“In Europe. I mean, I know why Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito are fighting us, but why are the gods fighting too?”

Zoe paused for a moment, seriously considering it. Next to him, Bianca and Joaquin waited for an answer. Marcella was staring out the window. She might not be listening, but Nico knew she wasn’t just spacing off. She was keeping an eye out for harpies and whatever else my stalk the streets of New York City. A lot of people, teachers, parents, complained about Marcella’s inability to focus on anything, but that attention to everything and nothing had saved them enough times that he saw it as more of a blessing than a curse. Nico and Marcella generally spent a lot of time bickering, but Nico was always grateful to have her around.

“Power, I suppose, when it comes to it,” Zoe finally replied. “The gods fight all the time. When their kids kick up trouble, they follow suit. It usually starts out with one or two gods backing a demigod against another, sort of like horse betting. Then the longer it goes on, the more its spirals out of control until they start killing each other’s children or make a pact. The gods are very competitive. And power hungry. It’s so annoying.”

“And you’re different how?” Marcella asked, her dark eyes shifting from outside to stare Zoe down. So she had been listening.

“I told you. Artemis is neutral. She keeps out of these squabbles.” Zoe didn’t seem to get as annoyed with Marcella being rude as she did with Joaquin and Nico.

“Yeah, but you said the other day that you Hunters are mortals, usually, who chose to follow Artemis in exchange for the power of immortality,” Marcella said, her trademark smirk plastered on her face. Zoe frowned. “So, what I’m asking is, how are you different from those power hungry gods?

 “Immortality is not as perfect as it seems,” Zoe snapped. Marcella smirked.

“Never thought Marcella would take our side in anything,” Joaquin whispered in Nico’s ear. Zoe didn’t turn to look at them, but the deepening frown lines on her face indicated that she heard. Marcella had definitely hit the nail on the head. Zoe traded her mortal life for the power of being an immortal servant of a goddess and all the benefits that came with it. Nico nudged Joaquin under the table for a high five. Marcella was on their team tonight, and despite all grudges, it was always good to have a kid of Ares on your team.

“Getting back on track,” Bianca finally spoke up, pulling the conversation back to her. “What can we do to keep ourselves and other demigods safe?”

“Well, I already gave thou one option,” Zoe said quietly. Marcella laughed the way she did when she was getting ready to storm out of a room. But now she was stuck next to the window with Bianca and Zoe between her and escape. Nico looked between the three of them, then to Joaquin who looked equally clueless. The boys had obviously missed something.

“That doesn’t help anyone else,” Bianca said tactfully. Maria always said she had inherited their grandfather’s diplomacy. “What are the chances we can petition the gods to cut us some slack? No one here wants to start a war, surely not even the Children of Hades, after all this rationing and fear.”

“Tell that to the guys on 116th,” Marcella said it quietly. She was back to staring out the window, her eyes jumping from person to person as they passed by. 116th was where the Italian mob was based.

“The gods wouldn’t be interested anyways. There’s too many of you to keep an eye on,” Zoe replied, flippant, like it wasn’t even worth her consideration.

“Then maybe we should do something about it ourselves,” Nico piped up. He wasn’t sure what made him think this was a good idea, but the cold metal in his bag and the fierce look in Marcella’s eyes made him think of Captain America, determined to defend.

“Huh?” Four pairs of eyes turned to him.

“Zoe, you said Hunters right? As in there is more than one of you? What if you helped train us to fight?”

“We aren’t sticking around to help thou.”

Joaquin groaned, the way Zoe said thou while she looked at him and Nico had finally gotten to him. “Are you trying to pretend to be a Quaker or something? Because I’ve never met a Quaker this rude before. Or do all these ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ make you feel more self-righteous?” Joaquin snapped.

Nico nodded, glaring back at Zoe with as much force as she gave. “Well, we don’t need you to stick around that long,” he said, indicating the four Harlem kids at the table. He wouldn’t let Zoe keep separating them. “Just long enough to show us some basics. We demigods are natural fighters, right? So we should pick it up quick. We’re already used to scuffles with the other kids around the city, just show us how to make that work for fighting monsters. Then we can pass it on.”

Zoe seemed to think it over. “Sounds a lot like raising an army to me,” was her reply. “I don’t see why you would want to draw more attention to yourselves.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re not from Harlem,” Joaquin stepped in. “Here, we demigods watch each other’s backs. No matter who your parents are.”

Another under the table high five was exchanged.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Bianca agreed. Zoe looked defeated.

“Good. All in favor, say aye!” Marcella interjected and raised her right hand. “AYE!”

“Aye!” Everyone but Zoe chorused after her.

Seeing she had lost this round, Zoe agreed, “Fine, I shall talk to my Lady about this, but don’t get thine hopes up. Bianca, please consider my other offer. See thee around.” She left without touching the phosphate she ordered. Marcella shrugged and grabbed it. “Good riddance.”

              Their shouting had attracted the eyes of a few of the diners’ inhabitants. Some glared, some were just curious. The waiter boy was watching them intently. When Nico met his eyes, the boy blushed and turned away. Had he been listening this whole time? Was he a demigod too? Did he know what they were talking about?

              Nico tried not to stare back at him, but now he was curious. It was tough enough being an immigrant in America, but to be a demigod as well? Like Joaquin had said, they watched each other’s backs here.

              The four hung around awhile longer, talking about school, about the possibility of sneaking into a club where Joaquin’s dad played when he wasn’t playing for the New York elite, and about the upcoming summer holiday. The whole time, Nico’s eyes kept drifting to where the waiter boy was. Their eyes met enough times for Nico to be sure he was watching them, too.

When they finished their drinks and began to file out, Nico hung back, pretending to tie his shoe. Sure enough, the boy came over. He was all long eyelashes and long limbs. He wasn’t that tall compared to Marcella and Joaquin, but still almost a head taller than Nico. Nico’s heart beat a little quicker. Stop, he commanded it. He was always nervous around new people, but this felt different.

              “You can see them then?” The boy asked quietly. His accent was a lot stronger than it had sounded when he was asking for their orders. From the kitchen window, Nico could see the man he assumed was the boys father watching intently.

              “Monsters?” Nico clarified. The boy nodded. “Yeah. Are you a demigod too?”

              The boy shook his head. “We just see through the Mist,” he gestured to his father in the kitchen.

              “Oh.” Like Maria.

              “If you every need anything, our family will help you,” he continued. He smiled a little. Nico tried to ignore his beating heart. “I had friends like you back home. We tried to help them when we could.”

              “Umm… Thank you.” Nico wasn’t really sure what else to say. He wasn’t sure what this family could do to help, but it was something to keep in mind. It seemed like a sign, that on today of all days he would meet a boy who looked like an angel. Maybe that was why he held out a hand and said, “I’m Nico di Angelo.”

              The boy smiled genuinely now an and it made Nico a little dizzy. “Jiri Breznicky. Nice to meet you.”

              “What was that all about?” Joaquin asked when Nico came out of the diner, the door closing behind him.

              “The family that runs this place can see through the Mist.”

              “You’re kidding! Small world,” Joaquin laughed. Marcella and Bianca were trudging ahead of them, discussing something animatedly. Both looked upset, so Nico and Joaquin decided to hang back.

              “You know, this is the first time we’ve ever hung out outside of school,” Nico pointed out.

              Joaquin thought that over a moment, trying to find just one time that this hadn’t been true. “Shit, you’re right! We’ve been friends for two years and this is the first time we’ve gotten a phosphate together.”

              “I’m thinking this should be made a regular thing,” Nico laughed. “We could always come back here.”

              “Yeah? How about every Friday?” They spit and shook on it.

Chapter Text

It was one of those sticky summer days where the sunshine felt like it was personally trying to kill you while storm clouds built on the horizon. On days like this, Nico wondered if he had silently died in the night and woken up in his own personal hell.

His mother was trying to get cookies baked for a sale at the church in the afternoon. She hated baking for people outside of the family and was irritable as could be. Nico studiously avoided the kitchen. Bianca was upset about something she refused to share with him, so he spent that long morning, waiting for either the rain to break and relieve the city of this heat, or for one of the women in his family to.

All Nico had to do was make it until after ten, when he and Joaquin had made plans to meet in the park and go over some of the new defensive moves they had learned from the Hunters.

Zoe had made good on her promise at the diner that day, though she was still less easy to deal with. She and three other Hunters had met the four of them in Central Park every day after school before it ended, and then continued meeting them on the weekends during the summer. The girls taught swordplay, hand-to-hand combat, and, of course, archery. Much to Zoe’s pleasure Bianca proved to be a natural at archery.

Marcella made her father proud, learning to wrestle against the largest and strongest of the Hunters. When she moved, there was grace behind the power, not just brute force. Joaquin, being the scrawniest in the group, was also the least able to maneuver weapons around. When they were sparring, the Hunters never gave him a moment to think, striping him of his greatest strength. Every day he stomped home, muttering curses and praying to his mother for help.

Nico was not particularly skilled either – though he had a greater muscle mass than Joaquin, he also had the disadvantage of being quite a bit shorter. It didn’t help that his trainer had about as much tolerance for boys as Zoe did and was convinced he must be the son of some "useless male god like Dionysus". Nico had never really paid much thought to Dionysus, but now, out of the sheer need to be vindicated, he wished he could turn her into grapes or something.

On that particularly miserable summer day, after he and Joaquin had finished their own special training, they were slowly trudging around, discussing the upcoming release of a new Captain America issue, both avoiding returning to cranky family and sweltering apartments. A flash of color caught their eye. Purple plumage trailed around the corner of a factory building towards the park. Nico stopped mid-sentence, then turned to Joaquin. They didn’t need words to confirm that it was not a pigeon and dashed after it, each pulling a short sword from their rucksacks. Finally, a chance to prove themselves.

 When they caught up with the purple, however, Nico and Joaquin realized their mistake. It wasn’t just one lone harpy, like they were used to, it was five – a rainbow of feathers, talons, and malice. At the center of it, was a terrified looking girl with dark hair and a look of horror plastered on her face. The harpies alternated between flying around her head and dropping to the ground, shuffling forward, herding her back towards the park. A few onlookers turned to look, but no one stopped to help. Nico and Joaquin couldn’t be sure what they saw through the mist, but that hardly mattered.

“Got a plan?” Nico asked Joaquin with a frightened glance. Joaquin shook his head, shrugged, and charged forward. Nico rolled his eyes but lunged after him, ripping out the celestial bronze practice sword, curtesy of Zoe and the Hunters.

“Hey harpies!” Joaquin shouted as he took a swing with his own sword at a green plumaged bird-woman. She turned away from the girl to face her new assailant.

“Son of Athena,” she squawked. Before she could say anything else, Nico stabbed her all the way through. With a whoosh of air and dust, she disintegrated into nothing. Back to the pits of Tartarus, Zoe had said.

The remaining four harpies stopped flocking around the girl and turned to look at the interlopers. Nico swallowed hard. They were hopelessly outnumbered, and out of the corner of his eye he could see a man on a street phone probably calling the police.

“How dare you kill our sister,” the remaining harpies screeched in unison.

“You will pay for your crimes,” another cried. She was yellow as a canary with a face like angry bronze.

“No,” Nico shouted back. “You will. Leave this girl alone!”

“Yeah!” Joaquin added, standing behind Nico so they were back to back. “This is our city."

A blue harpy sneered down at them as she took flight, rising above them, preparing to dive. If only Bianca was there, she could have shot the bird down no problem.

 The blue harpy plummeted towards them. Nico raised his sword, but before the harpy could make contact, a spear flew from behind him and turned her to dust. Nico and Joaquin coughed and narrowly avoided being hit on the head as the spear came crashing down in a storm of iridescent feathers and ash.

Nico and Joaquin spun around as the rest of the harpies hissed. Behind them, silhouetted by the sun, was a boy. He was their age, maybe a bit older, muscular, with dark brown hair and bright green eyes. He wore confidence like a king wore a crown. In one hand he held a shield, the other was pulling a sword out from around his belt. Steve Rodgers looked nothing like this boy, but Nico knew he was a hero all the same.

“Hey there, Harpies!” the boy shouted in clear, unaccented English. “Why don’t you pick on a real fighter!”

He charged into the flock destroying the last three harpies without hesitation, slashing and cutting like a hero in the pictures. Within seconds, all that was left were a few colorful feathers and dust. Nico stared in awe.

“Uh, thanks,” Joaquin said after the silence had gone on too long.

“It’s not a problem,” the boy smiled back. He tossed out a hand as casually as he wielded a sword and introduced himself. “I’m Charlie Hendricks, senior counselor of Poseidon Cabin at Camp Halfblood.”

Joaquin’s smile turned to a frown almost immediately. “Camp Halfblood?”

He knew that place all too well. Marcella and Joaquin had both been offered positions at the camp – a safe place from monsters where children of the gods were trained to fight. Both had gone for a summer and decided never to go back. Marcella never said a word about it, but Joaquin was very open about his reasons: he didn’t want to leave his dad and he didn’t want to be a soldier.

Charlie was oblivious to Joaquin’s discomfort and turned to the girl. “Are you alright, miss?” Just like Captain America.

“I’m fine,” she muttered pushing away his offered hand. She looked scared and lost, her eyes darting between the three of them, before settling, finally, on Joaquin. “They said you’re a son of Athena?” She had the clear, rhythmic accent of someone from out West.

Joaquin nodded. “Yeah. I’m Hernando Joaquin Vasquez. But you can call me Joaquin.”

“Betty Sugiyama. Daughter of Hephaestus. Our parents are allies.”

Charlie frowned and asked, “Joaquin Vasquez? You came by camp a few summers ago, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you come back? It’s dangerous out here by yourself.”

Joaquin looked uncomfortable. "It wasn't really my thing."

"But at Camp we can protect you," Charlie said, pushing he subject. He looked at Betty Sugiyama. "Camp Halfblood is a safe place for all demigod children. Monsters and mortals can't come in. We train you how to fight. You can meet your siblings. I can't imagine not wanting to live outside instead."

“Is it so great spending your whole life training to be a soldier in somebody else's war? At least out here I have a life," Joaquin snapped.  

Charlie frowned. “There's a war going on. Everyone is doing their part."

Joaquin scoffed and gave Nico a look that clearly asked, can you believe this guy?

"Just because there's a war doesn't make violence okay," Nico said, repeating what Maria told him every time he came home with bruises from fighting the Tagliocozza brothers. It didn't sound as full of innate truth like it did when his mother spoke it. The English translation felt clumsy comparatively. "We don't want to train to be soldiers. We don't want to go on quests. That doesn't help anyone but the gods who abandoned us. Fighting off some immortal harpies in self defense is one thing, but we aren't soldiers. All we want to have a chance to live in peace with our families."

Charlie raised his eyebrows in surprise. It was surprising, maybe. Not all demigods had mothers and fathers as loving as Maria and Mr. Vasquez. Not everyone wanted to spend their life going to school and getting a normal job in Harlem. But for all of its problems – the gangsters, the harpies, the Tagliocozza brothers – Harlem was home. New York was home. None of them wanted to leave it.

"They're right, you know," Betty spoke up. Her dark eyes lit up "I appreciate you saving us. But I don't want to go to a camp. I don't want to learn to fight. I just want to find my grandmother."

"I… I can't fathom not wanting to be at Camp, but it's your right to stay here, I suppose," Charlie conceded. "Can I at least offer to help you find your grandmother?"

Betty looked at him, skeptical. "I feel like these two might know the city better," she said, jacking a thumb in the direction of Nico and Joaquin. "No offense."

Charlie looked a little relieved. "That's probably true." He fished in his pocket for a moment before pulling out three golden coins, handing one to each of them. "If you change your mind, toss one of these in the nearest fountain and say Chiron. The goddess Iris will connect you with our camp director. Camp isn't all about fighting, but I won't pretend that that isn't a large part of it. I can promise you, though, it's a safe place in these times. For all demigods."

And then he turned and left.

"We should maybe skedaddle before the cops show up," Joaquin advised. There were still some people looking at them wish suspicion.

"Shakes?" Nico suggested.

Joaquin nodded. "Come on, Betty. We know where to get the best sodas in town."

For the first time, a ghost of a smile passed over Betty's face. "Sounds decent."

 


 

Jiri came to their booth before they had even sat down.

"Hey!" he greeted, full of his usual cheer. His curly hair was fluffier in the humidity, like soft golden clouds. "I'm off in five if you don't mind some company."

Nico smiled back. He couldn't help it. Jiri was infectious like that. "Not at all. You might be able to help us out, actually."

If anyone thought the term "smiling ear to ear" was an exaggeration, they had just never met Jiri Breznicky.

"Excellent!" he proclaimed. "The usual? And for you, miss?"

Nico and Joaquin nodded and turned to Betty.

"You don't happen to have any strawberry left, do you? For a phosphate?"

Jiri grinned and winked. "It's your lucky day. Seasons just started up again and Mom finished making the new syrup this morning!"

Betty relaxed a little more as he ran off to fill their orders.

"So, I guess you come here a lot then?" she joked.

Joaquin laughed. "You bet. The Breznicky's are mortals, but they see through the Mist. They also don't mind people like us in their establishment."

He motioned between the three of them and his meaning was clear.

"It used to be like that back home, too," Betty said with a sigh.

"Where's home?" Nico asked, trying to be polite.

"California."

The boys let out a low whistle.

"Why'd you come all the way over here for?" Joaquin asked, just as Jiri materialized with four sodas. A bright reddish-pink for Betty, a chocolate for Nico, blueberry for Joaquin, and a special one Jiri always made for himself but refused to let them try.

"'Cause they made us move," Betty sighed. Her tone was firm. This story broke her heart, but she was too tired to cry over it anymore. "Soldiers came into our neighborhood and started telling anyone of Japanese descent that we had to move to a military camp because someone had said there were spies or something."

Jiri reached an arm over the table, laying it gently over her hands. "I know how scary that is. I'm so sorry. My family moved here from Czechoslovakia only a few years ago. We're Jewish, you know. And they were rounding all of us up and making us move to this town near the capital, next to this prison. Papa had already bought our tickets to move here, though, so we just left. I haven't heard from anyone back home."

"That's horrifying," Joaquin murmured. Nico and Betty nodded.

They sipped their drinks in silence then. Outside, the sky was turning dark with the oncoming storm, finally ready to unleash its wrath on the city. Nico swiped a finger through the condensation on his glass.

"You know," he said, softly at first. "After we find your grandmother, you can still hang out with us, Betty. Usually my sister, Bianca, and our other friend Marcella hang out with us as well."

Betty smiled. "I'd like that."

 


 

It had been a long day, and it was going to be a long night. After sodas, the four of them had disappeared into the city to track down Keiko Aikawa. Mrs. Aikawa lived in a nice building in Brooklyn with a yappy dog and a friend named Josephine. The look of relief on her face when she saw Betty reminded Nico that his own mother, no matter how angry her baking had made her, would also begin to worry about where he was.   

The boys said by to Betty with promises to meet again at the Breznicky's diner later that week. Jiri broke off in Queens, giving them both a brief hug. Nico wasn't sure if it was in his head or not, but he felt like maybe he and Jiri held on a bit longer.

The rain broke the moment he and Joaquin crossed over into Harlem. They shouted their goodbyes as they both dashed for their respective homes.

"You are a drowned rat, Nico di Angelo," Maria greeted him at the door. He tried to smile, but it only made him look more pathetic. Maria sighed and wrapped him in a towel before pushing him towards the bath. "Quick, quick. Nothing is worse than a summer cold. There are warm cookies in the kitchen when you're done."

Bianca was sitting out on the covered terrace, watching the rain fall on the city, munching on a warm cookie with some bitted tea steaming from a chipped mug. Nico settled next to her while Maria banged around in the kitchen some more, presumably making something more savory for dinner.

“The other day, at the diner," Nico began after he washed down his first cookie with some tea. The comfort of his mother's baking gave him the courage to go on. "What did Zoe mean when she said she had given you another offer?” He had a feeling in his gut that he didn’t like, and he knew the answer to this question was the cause.

Bianca sighed, like turning away from the rain was painful. “She wants me to join the Hunters of Artemis.”

 “Which would make you immortal,” Nico filled in. “And you would have to leave home, wouldn’t you?”

“Leave home or watch you and Mama grow old and die, yeah.”

“You’d be outed as a witch by that time,” Nico tried to make a joke, but his heart wasn’t in it. He couldn't imagine life without his sister. “Could I join with you?”

Bianca shook her head. “Girls only. That’s the worst part. I mean, it’s not like dating boys is a huge part of my life, but I have you and friends like Joaquin or Joey Ferrero. I don’t think I could just stop being friends with people just because they’re boys. I don’t think I could leave you behind, either.”

Nico smiled at that. “We make one hell of a team.”

Bianca smiled back. “That we do.”

“But you’re still thinking it over?” He asked, the feeling in his stomach grew worse, almost physically painful, like the tea inside was boiling up and into his lungs, choking off his breathing.

 She sighed again. “Yeah. The plus sides are eternal friendship and adventure. You read comic books, I’m sure that appeals to you too.”

“But leaving your family? Why can’t you have those things and stay here?” Nico didn’t want his sister to leave, but it was more than that. "Why can't we try and make that here?"

“I haven’t said yes, Nico.” She was getting defensive.

“But you’re thinking of saying yes?” Nico knew he should stop, let it drop, but he also had to know. How would his big sister make such a life changing decision? One option could estrange her from her family, her people. The other, grant her freedom. A decision with similar weight fought inside Nico, so he kept asking, hoping her answer could give him one too.

“But I haven’t. It’s my choice anyways!” She was upset now, turning away from him to stare back out at the city. Nico looked down at the swirling liquid in his cup, then shoved another cookie in his mouth. It was her choice. She was right. If she left, the pain would never leave him, but if she stayed, maybe the pain would be worse for her.

"Bianca," he whispered. "Can I tell you something?"

Bianca looked back at him, lips still pursed, ready to defend herself at a moments notice. Then, all of it softened. "Yeah. Nico, what's wrong?"

"I think I like boys," he whispered.

She stared at him for a moment. "Like, Oscar Wilde?"

Nico wouldn't have compared himself to Oscar Wilde, but he supposed it made enough sense, so he nodded.

Bianca started nodding along with him. "Alright then. I wish Italians were more… accepting. But, you know, Greeks are notoriously into that sort of thing, right? There's that whole thing about Apollo and-"

"Hyacinthus, yeah." He had read it.

"And that guy who fought in the Trojan War."

"And died. Achilles."

"They kinda all die in these stories. I feel like this is a bad example," she muttered. "But I guess everyone dies in Greek myths, don't they? Happily Ever After hadn't been invented yet."

Nico laughed. "Yeah."

Bianca took another sip of her tea. Nico felt the coil of anxiety in his stomach lessen a bit. He took a deep breath, letting his lungs fill with the cool relief of the smell of rain. From the neighboring terrace, his neighbors' parakeets chirped. His hope felt safe again. His again.

"So, who is it then?" She asked, breaking the silence.

"Hm?" Nico mumbled through a mouthful of cookie.

"Obviously something has made you feel the need to talk about this now," Bianca pointed out, eyebrows wagging conspiratorially. "Is it Joaquin?"

Nico choked. "No," he gasped. "That would be… no. He's my best friend!"

Bianca held up her hands in a gesture of peace. Then looked thoughtful. "Oh."

"Jiri."

"Yeah."

Nico buried his face in his hands to hide his blush. Bianca reached over to ruffle his hair.

"I think," she said, carefully measuring her words. "I think I kind of figured. I was worried that maybe it was Joaquin."

Something in the way she said it made it feel more like a confession than a statement. Nico shrugged off her hand and looked up.

"Yeah?"

Now it was her turn to look him in the eye and say, "Yeah. I know he's your friend but he's also-"

"-Madly in love with you," Nico blurt out. Bianca's face lit up like a firework. Nico could see where this was going. The idea of his best friend and sister going steady had crossed him mind some time before. At first, it was mortifying, but the more he thought about it, the better it was. Nothing would drive them apart. They could all be friends forever.

Bianca sighed. "I didn't want to put you out."

"No, really, it's fine," Nico said with a lopsided grin. "I've already written a best man's speech."

Now it was Bianca's turn to sputter in her tea. "No."

"You should ask him out."

"You just want me to not be a Hunter," she accused, but there was no real fire in it.

Nico shrugged. "Guilty. But also, I think it would be nice."

Bianca stared at him a long moment, searching for an answer to a question Nico didn't know. Whatever it was, she seemed to find it and smiled. "I think you and Jiri would be nice too."