Nico watches Percy and Annabeth dangling below and a stupid thought enters his head. It won’t leave him be. He knows he has only one shot, and he knows he’s not strong enough right now. So he takes Hazel’s hand in his while she’s yelling for help and it surprises her enough to quiet her for a moment.
He drinks in her golden eyes, her golden hair, her warmth. Nico rests his hand against her cheek. “Hazel,” he says. “It’s okay.”
She is confused, understandably. It has yet to dawn on her, which he can use to his advantage. “I need you to lend me some of your strength,” Nico says softly, anticipating her fright. He needs her to be calm. He needs her to be level. He needs her to let him go.
Hazel purses her lip and finally nods, still scared, but more than willing to help her brother. She gives him her hand. Nico takes a deep breath and draws strength from her, bringing her light into his shadow. His shadow, deepening beneath him. He just needs to hang on for a few more seconds.
He glances over his shoulder at Percy and Annabeth below him. He catches those sea green eyes he’s grown to love and loathe. Nico offers him a small smile.
“Hazel,” he says, still not looking at her. “I'm sorry.”
Her eyes snap open, wide and afraid. “Nico?”
“You’re… you’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time, maybe ever.” His sad eyes linger on Percy. “You make me so proud to be your brother.”
“Nico, whatever you’re doing--” She tries to wrench from his grip but she can’t bring herself to, afraid she’ll lose him forever. “Nico, please, I need you--”
“You can do this.” He presses a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll see you at the Doors.” Then he melts into the shadow beneath him. He has never tried transport like this--he doesn’t even know if it will work. But it’s all he has.
Someone has to go into Tartarus. Someone has to die. Nico is more than up to the task. It won’t be like last time, he soothes his quaking limbs. This is more than you deserve. As he fades through shadow, he catches a glimpse of Percy and Annabeth. Perhaps they think they’re dreaming, already falling into Tartarus. They are confused as he moves past them.
“You don’t deserve this,” he says to them softly. “Neither of you.”
“Nico?” Annabeth asks weakly. The silk that hung from her ankle is severed. He concentrates on that shadow caused by her entanglement with Arachne. Her grip on Percy’s hand tightens and he swallows hard.
“Just... take care of Hazel for me.”
Percy stares at him, stunned and silent. “What are you going to do?” He reaches for him and Nico steps away. “Nico?”
He just gives Percy that same small, sad half-smile. “This isn’t your fault. It’s my choice. Consider this my parting gift.” An oath to keep with final breath.
Percy shakes his head. “No, no, no--Nico, don’t-- Nico!” He reaches for him, but Nico is already gone.
Nico emerges from the shadow Percy and Annabeth left, his hand hanging on to the edge of the cliff. The heat, the gravity of Tartarus, the new silk wrapped around his ankle, weigh him down. Tears brim in his eyes. He is afraid. But he needs to do this. He’s the only one who’s capable (even though he’s weaker now than he’s ever been), the only one who knows how to navigate it (even though he got captured), the only one who deserves to face this atrocity.
Annabeth and Percy are too good, too light. He doesn’t doubt their capabilities; nevertheless, Nico won’t let them go through it. He can do this again. He can do this. He has to keep telling himself that until he believes it, until it drowns out his heart rattling in his chest and the screaming in his ears. Nico bows his head and prays Padre Nostro, invoking his father and mother and any other god--Greek, Roman, even the Catholic one he grew up with--either stupid enough or bored enough to take pity on him.
Nico lets go and falls into Tartarus.
He can hear Hazel crying, Annabeth yelling, Percy screaming. He closes his eyes and braces himself for the fall.
And something catches him.
The wind whistles harshly in his ears and he gasps, eyes shocked open. A pair of arms around his waist choke him and he cranes his neck, trying to get a better look. He recognizes golden hair and blue eyes.
Jason strains against the gravity pulling them down further into the pit. “Get out of here!” Nico exclaims. Gods, no, this can't be happening. Jason can't be here. He can't save him. No one can. He struggles more, but Jason won’t let him go. He’s trying to raise them both out of the clutches of Tartarus. “You can’t--”
The wind dies and they fall. Jason does not release his grip. He tucks Nico’s head against his chest and all Nico can do is grit his teeth and brace himself for the landing.